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01 September 2009 @ 07:21 pm
A Writer's Tale  
A Writer's Tale by Benjamin Cook and Russell T. Davies is a (just about) year long email interview come conversation between Benjamin Cook (a Doctor Who Magazine writer) and Russell T. Davies about the writing process. It encompasses the writing of the 2007 Christmas Special (the one with Kylie in) and then Season 4. And it's a pretty fascinating read.

Reading other reviews had lead me to form the impression that most of Davies' scripts were created in a cigarette-fueled haze at midnight the night before the first read-through. While there's an aspect of this in the book, it seems a simplistic account of what is going on. For instance Davies complains bitterly, when writing the Season 4 finale that he's jettisoning dialogue and scenes that he's had planned for a long time. Another characterisation of Davies' writing drawn from the book has been that he thinks up "the trailer" to the work and then simply strings the set-pieces together in said cigarette-fueled haze. That also seems simplistic. Davies primarily discusses the set-pieces in the emails but it's also clear that, although he sends script drafts backwards and forwards, he doesn't really discuss the ideas stage in as much depth. He mentions the set-pieces but it seemed clear to me that he had a lot more of the story mapped out in his head than just the set-pieces.

One fascinating aspect of the book, though, is how aware Russell is of many of the flaws other people point out in his work. But when you are writing in a cigarette-fueled haze at midnight the night before the tone meeting, and you've already started filming on Turn Left and you've booked a dozen returning actors to star in your season finale, your options for actually fixing the problems you run into are fairly limited. The final chapter of the book documents Davies' attempts to get Rose's final departure right and he's dogged by an awareness of her apparent lack of choice, why is she letting this happen? how can he establish her rapport with blue-suit Doctor when they only met a few minutes previously? how can he make this ending up-beat to counter-balance Donna's tragedy that is about to come? All within the constraints that filming has started, other scenes can not be drastically changed, this scene can not take up more time, more FX can not be budgeted...

That said, it remains startling some of the problems he continues to be completely oblivious to. For a man who is obviously skilled at working within the BBC, he never seems to consider for a moment the unrealistic ways in which organisations often function within his work.

The flip side to all this, of course, is the problems he highlights which were not widely noticed by my small corner of fandom. As well as Rose's departure, he grapples equally futilely with the fate of the two guards in Partners in Crime. He needs the guards to give the baddie some muscle as back up, but later on he needs them gone so they can't just arrest or gun down the Doctor. So he has them stunned by an electric shock as they walk through a door - but he worries about how convenient it was that the doorways just happened to be set up so the Doctor could conveniently shock guards walking through them. Then, in filming, there isn't a doorway so they're just walking under an arched bit of corridor... The book is also full of considerations about where the audience focus should be and how to prevent it getting distracted. I commented when I reviewed it, that I thought The Doctor's Daughter would have been more interesting if Jenny had been the Doctor's actual daughter but Davies has this ruled out from the start because, in that situation, he thinks the story of how the Doctor met her mother is almost certainly going to seem more interesting to the audience than the actual story of the Doctor's daughter.

As an aside, I was interested to discover that Davies entirely rewrote The Fires of Pompeii, credited to James Moran, from the ground up so that it was a completely different story. I know there are those on my flist who are no fans of the episode but I actually think it's one of the better NuWho stories and this helps to explain my sense of disappointment at James Moran's Primeval episode which seemed very flat and unimaginative compared to his work on Who.

I'd recommend A Writer's Tale to anyone at all interested in the process of writing and producing a television program. I was left with the frustrating feeling that NuWho could be so much better if only Davies would start writing scripts a few weeks earlier, but also with the strong impression that he wouldn't be the writer he is if he did.
reggietatereggietate on September 1st, 2009 07:13 pm (UTC)
If it's the book I'm thinking of, I may well buy it once it hits paperback. It's easy to knock RTD (I do have issues with some of his stuff myself) but few of us could do what he's done with Who, even half as well as he has. He isn't perfect, but nor is he the rubbish writer some suggest he is.

I certainly didn't know about the rewrite of The Fires of Pompeii; that's interesting.
louisedennis: primevallouisedennis on September 1st, 2009 07:30 pm (UTC)
I was very interested in the Fires of Pompeii. I was so excited when I heard James Moran was writing a Primeval episode because I liked that Who episode so much and then we got the rather lacklustre haunted house story. Obviously I had other disappointments with S4 but that episode was a big blow because I'd been looking forward to it so much.

The book is well worth getting though.
parrot_knight: DavidIconparrot_knight on September 1st, 2009 07:14 pm (UTC)
I'm fascinated by the gaps - there is little discussion of Helen Raynor's Sontaran two-parter, for example, beyond hints that it needed as much, if not more, rewriting as Moran's script. Perhaps we will learn more in the extended paperback edition. It's heavily reworked from the source materials, no doubt, to preserve confidentiality, and there is a clue in an early e-mail where there is a reference to Donna's mother at a time when they should still have been discussing Penny, suggesting material which has been moved.
louisedennislouisedennis on September 1st, 2009 07:26 pm (UTC)
It's obviously been edited. There's a startling lack of swearing, which seems unlikely given the nature of the personalities involved.

I find it interesting as an "Old Who" fan, long grown accustomed to knowing all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans in as much detail as I can stomach, how frustrating I find the wall of solidarity maintained by the current production team, even when I understand and respect the fact. Some of the gaps are beginning to show, especially in recent discussion of the first season. I think the book was a lot more candid, even with the obvious editing, than I might have expected.
(Deleted comment)
parrot_knightparrot_knight on September 2nd, 2009 10:34 am (UTC)
The S3 two-parter was the victim of a last-minute budget recalculation which led to the excision of a very expensive climax and lots of material being reshuffled to cover for it, according to articles in DWM.
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(no subject) - louisedennis on September 2nd, 2009 10:55 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - louisedennis on September 2nd, 2009 10:52 am (UTC) (Expand)
fredbassettfredbassett on September 1st, 2009 07:24 pm (UTC)
Fascinating. I think this has just explained for me why I've got so bloody sick of RTD's writing. I've got no respect at all for anyone who leaves the writing so bloody late that they haven't got time to fix obvious problems. That's just sloppy and unprofessional in my view.

I used to like RTD a lot, but then when I've seen more of his stuff on NuWho, and Torchwood, I've been getting less and less impressed.

I think I'll need to get this book now.
louisedennis: doctor wholouisedennis on September 1st, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC)
One thing that isn't entirely clear in the book is how habitual Davies' late starts actually are. It's clear he's always been something of a last minute writer but the book gives the impression its particularly bad with this run of the stories and that in some ways its the result of a kind of backlog of things gradually building up, while being a little vague on what those other things are.

Right from the start Davies is talking about the need to take a break and how he doesn't think he can physically manage a fifth season. A Writer's Tale makes Davies' writing habits look last minute to the point of extreme unprofessionalism but its hard to believe he would have risen so far if he hadn't been more disciplined in the past and its difficult to gauge just how many other distractions he was facing as showrunner of the Who juggernaut.

There's an amazing passage where he rants in a kind of extreme self-disgust about the evening spent at the launch of the 2007 Christmas Special and how he loathes the performance he has to put on at such events, how it feels false and artificial and dishonest and it gives a kind of sense of all the additional stuff that has to be done as well as the writing - but such moments are quite few and far between in the book.
(no subject) - fredbassett on September 1st, 2009 07:48 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - louisedennis on September 1st, 2009 07:53 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - fredbassett on September 1st, 2009 08:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - gervase_fen on September 1st, 2009 09:45 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - louisedennis on September 2nd, 2009 08:29 am (UTC) (Expand)
bigtitchbigtitch on September 2nd, 2009 09:20 am (UTC)
I think I'll need to get this book now.
You can borrow mine if you want. It is interesting as to the process.
(no subject) - fredbassett on September 2nd, 2009 03:57 pm (UTC) (Expand)
telperion_15: Gallifreyantelperion_15 on September 1st, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC)
This sounds like it might be a fascinating and frustrating read all in one!

I do get a tad annoyed with all the RTD backlash sometimes (I'm not accusing you of this, you understand!). Yes, his writing's not perfect, yes it can be a bit OTT, but at the end of the day we wouldn't have NuWho without him, and despite the flaws in his eps I still enjoy them massively, and feel that sometimes people can be a bit harsh.

But I shall definitely have to look out for this book...
louisedennis: doctor wholouisedennis on September 1st, 2009 07:40 pm (UTC)
I find NuWho and RTD extremely frustrating. Many of my favourite Dr Who episodes are NuWho ones, and some of those are written by RTD - both Midnight and, it would seem, The Fires of Pompeii to name but two. But in some ways it's like getting a tantalising glimpse of something that could be so much better...

Of course on other days I'm just cross that it wasn't Firefly which I know is plain stupid of me, but everyone has their moments of rationality fail.
fredbassettfredbassett on September 1st, 2009 07:52 pm (UTC)
I think you've just summed up pretty much what I feel about RTD as well. It's good in places, but it irritates the hell out of me because it could have been so much better. And some of his comments over the Torchwood ending left me with the inescapable feeling that he's an arrogant twat. Telling fans they should go read poetry or watch SPN if they didn't like it was pretty much beyond the pail for me. (And I am speaking as a slash fan who was left completely cold by Jack/Ianto, so I certainly don't have a personal axe to grind in that argument.)
(no subject) - louisedennis on September 1st, 2009 07:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - fredbassett on September 1st, 2009 08:02 pm (UTC) (Expand)
lukadreaming: Splottlukadreaming on September 1st, 2009 08:00 pm (UTC)
I bought the book with some Christmas money and enjoyed the glimpse at the writing process. I did roll my eyes at RTD leaving everything to the last minute, but then reminded myself how hypocritical I was being, as that's how I've written for a living for the last 25 years. But then again I'm not a BBC scriptwriter *g*.
fredbassettfredbassett on September 1st, 2009 08:05 pm (UTC)
*smiles winningly*

Can I borrow it? I'd love to read it, but don't fancy shelling out for the hardback.
(no subject) - lukadreaming on September 1st, 2009 08:08 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - fredbassett on September 1st, 2009 08:20 pm (UTC) (Expand)
louisedennis: doctor wholouisedennis on September 2nd, 2009 08:33 am (UTC)
It's difficult isn't it? I tend to be too nervous to really go up to a deadline too often, but I have done so on occasion. On the other hand the sort of projects I tend to be involved in require less up-front set up. If I notice a major flaw in a paper three hours before its due in I always have the option simply not to submit it. There isn't a million pound juggernaut already in motion requiring the input.
(no subject) - malicehaughton on September 2nd, 2009 09:43 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - louisedennis on September 2nd, 2009 09:47 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - malicehaughton on September 2nd, 2009 09:48 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - louisedennis on September 2nd, 2009 09:52 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - malicehaughton on September 2nd, 2009 09:53 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - reggietate on September 2nd, 2009 02:28 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - louisedennis on September 2nd, 2009 02:32 pm (UTC) (Expand)