Sunday, August 23, 2009

Two new Who

It’s a long, cold year for people who dig Doctor Who. Even though it’s nothing when compared to the great gap of the 90s, it’s still missed. After four years of fantastic television, a couple of specials spaced months apart is a brilliant way to build anticipation and keep the series fresh, but I do genuinely miss it.

We’re all a bit spoiled, really. That break between The Seventh Doctor and Ace wandering off in search of a cup of tea and the Ninth grabbing Rose’s hand and telling her to run for her life was a tough one. It feature some occasionally spectacular novels and one TV film that tried its best, but the idea that Doctor Who could come back felt more and more remote every year.

And then it came back and it was so good and suddenly Doctor Who wasn’t old vid-fired DVDs and great novels with terrible covers any more, it was a massively successful television series that didn’t have to compromise to fit with mainstream tastes.

The decision to take it off for a year is a sound one. It’s an excellent one to differentiate between the Davies/Tennant era and the Moffat/Smith one. It means we don’t get sick of it, it means we appreciate it all a bit more when it does come back.

But I still miss it.

There are still the new novels and audio adventures, even if they feel a little unnecessary now. There are also plenty of books and magazines that remind me of everything I like about the television, while still showing me something new.

This week, I’ve been indulging in a couple of new Doctor Who publications. One is a dense and in-depth look at the inside of a writer’s head, while the other gives a broad overview of the appeal of the show, by drilling down into the details.

Doctor Who: The Writers Tale
By Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook

Davies has taken a fair bit of an online kicking from dickheads who don’t know what they are talking about, accusing him of storytelling laziness and sneering at him for being populist while vaguely hinted at some ill-defined and ill-mannered gay agenda.

I’m only a quarter of the way through this book, but if there is one thing I’ve figured out, it’s that Davies is about as far from lazy as you can get, unashamedly populist and massively gay, although I still really don’t understand why this is supposed to be such a bad thing.

The Writers Tale is 500 pages of correspondence between Davies and Cook, essentially a year long interview with Davies explaining the writing process while he’s doing it, chugging through the fourth season of the show with copious amounts of raw script. Davies is also amazingly open about the whole process, his part in it and the 3am terrors, when he convinces himself that everything he writes is shit.

And it’s absolutely fascinating stuff. There have been several thousand behind the scenes books on the series over the years, but none of them have crawled into the head of the main creative voice on the programme and taken a look around like this book has.

With the hindsight that comes with the familiarity of the episodes he’s working on, it’s a wonderful opportunity to see a story take shape, even if Davies’ first drafts are surprisingly resilient, with many familiar lines and moments that survive every aspect of the rewriting process.

It’s also interesting to see Davies explain why he does the things he does, forced to always think about the budget he has to work with, while always trying to push the limits of British television capability.

It really is a fascinating book. It’s not just the best book I’ve ever read about writing Doctor Who, it might be the best book I’ve ever read about writing television altogether. Davies is intellectually naked here, always aware of the pressure that surrounds his position, while relishing the opportunity to craft a definitive chapter in his favourite television series.

I really hope he doesn’t take all the online criticism to heart. Some people are only too eager to rip one of his stories to pieces because it upsets their precious sensibilities. But if they could understand the actual storytelling process and all the limitations and liberations that come with it, they might actually have something interesting to say.

(Davies is a nice little sketch artist too, so if this Doctor Who thing never really works out, he could always find a home on the Beano.)

Doctor Who: 200 Golden Moments
Edited by Tom Spilsbury

The UK-based Panini Magazines, which also publishes the regular Doctor Who Magazine, (along with several American comic reprints), has put out plenty of special editions covering the history of Doctor Who since the new series started five years ago.

In fact, this is the twenty-second. But while the previous 21 have been packed with fascinating trivia and amazingly fresh anecdotes, this is the first one I’ve actually bought.

Because while the others are full of behind the scenes trivia and broad overviews of distinctive periods in the show’s history, this one focuses on the little moments, picking 200 tiny little slices of Doctor Who, summing up everything that is great and wonderful about the Doctor and his adventures in time and space.

Every story is covered, from Hartnell hiding in a junkyard, to Tennant striding the silky sands of San Helios. Some of the top moments are unexpected, some are obvious. Some are full of grandeur and operative vigor, others are tiny little character moments or good scares.

There are the Cybermen walking in the shadow of St Paul’s and the Doctor wondering if he has the right to wipe out the Daleks at their genesis, but there is also Jamie’s anger at being used by the Doctor to prove a point, or the Doctor telling Martha about the silver leaves of Gallifrey.

As somebody who has loved Doctor Who his entire life, I don’t mind admitting that it can be a terrible show sometimes, with ridiculously bad production standards only eclipsed by some horrendous acting. But even the most unloved of stories have their moments of charm, every story has one bit that makes it all worthwhile.

And the army of writers who volunteered for the special do a remarkable job of catching that charm in their short pieces. Familiar names like Paul Cornell, Kate Orman and Gary Russell snapping up the opportunity to talk up their own little favourite moments of their favourite show.

It's still a good few months before The waters of Mars and the final two stories of the Davies/Tennant run, but there is plenty of good reading to fill in the time.


Andrew Hickey said...

Just saying I hope you don't count me as one of those 'dickheads'. I have *HUGE* problems with Davies' writing, but none of that is down to being populist (Doctor Who *should* be populist) or gay (have his critics ever *seen* the original series?)

Bob Temuka said...

Oh no, Andrew. You've always provided thoughtful and measured explanations for your dislike of nu-Who, ones I can understand, even if I don't share them.

I was thinking more about the terrible experiences I've had in places like the Outpost Gallifrey message board, where the tone never really rose above bitchy fanboy entitlement and sheer homophobia.

I'm always up for negative reviews of things I like, as they can often make me re-evaluate my own opinions. But something like Doctor Who attracts all sorts of dickheads, who mistake sneering for maturity.

And even if you don't really like Davies, I would still recommend giving his book a look if you see it in your local library. There is some fascinating insights to be found, even if you don't agree with the final result...

Jesse Farrell said...

I read and loved Davies' book (and his drawings, which were actually the deciding factor in forking over money for the pricey hardcover). It really is an amazingly honest look at the writer's process, and I was heartened to find that a highly talented and successful adult in a high-profile creative job like Davies can still wait until the absolutely last minute to get anything done. Made me feel less alone, there.

For what it's worth, I'd always been aware of Doctor Who, but was never a fan until Davies and the modern series. I do have reservations about his work, such as his tendency toward deus ex machina season finales, but his love of Who is evident and infectious. While a fan first, he's not slavishly beholden to the show's long history. I hope Moffat's show is as different as Davies' was from the seasons before.