Wednesday, 18 February 2009


An instructive, warm, open and humourous discussion between Russell T. Davies, screenwriter and producer, Head of the Doctor Who franchise, and journalist Benjamin Cook - regular contributor to Radio Times and Doctor Who Magazine. This conversation, through e-mails, takes place between February 2007 and March 2008, at a most decisive period for the hit television series and its spin-offs.


« Renewed? Have I? That's it, I've been renewed. It's part of the TARDIS. Without it I couldn't survive. » (The Second Doctor, Power of the Daleks, 1966)

In 1963 Sydney Newman, Head of Drama at the BBC, decides to launch an educational sf tv series for kids about a mysterious grumpy old man of alien origins called The Doctor, who travels with human companions in space and time in a police blue box - bigger in the inside than the outside. Newman asks a brilliant young woman named Verity Lambert to produce the series. After the first serial, she believes it's crucial to go on with a more spectacular story, and choses in spite of the reluctance of Donald Wilson, BBC Head of Drama serials, a script by Terry Nation where The Doctor and his companions face evil pepper pot looking robots: The Daleks.

This smart move makes the show very popular, but it's a simple idea which will confer to Doctor Who an extraordinary longevity: in 1966 William Hartnell, the actor playing the Doctor, must leave the series. The producers and the story editor decide to "regenerate" their grumpy old character into a kind of chaplinesque hobo played by Patrick Troughton. Five more actors will follows his steps (with different costumes, personalities and companions), until the cancellation in 1989 of what became through the years a true British institution.

Doctor Who is briefly resurrected for the US Network Fox in 1996, with a made-for-TV movie produced by the BBC and Universal Television. Then a feature film project is considered but in 2003 the Corporation believes it's about time for a real return of the Doctor on television. Welsh producer Julie Gardner, BBC Wales Head of Drama, is called by Jane Tranter, BBC Drama controller, who offers her to helm a new version of Doctor Who. Gardner calls Swansea-born scriptwriter and producer Russell T. Davies - creator of classics like Queer as Folk, Bob & Rose or The Second coming - whom she worked with on Casanova (with David Tennant as young Giacomo Casanova).


« Did you ever, ever think that Doctor Who would be this important to the BBC? That's the maddest thing of all, and the best thing of all. » (Russell T. Davies to Benjamin Cook)

The new Doctor Who is launched in March 2005. Four seasons, two spin-off shows (Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures), two stars - Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant - and a special later, nu-Who lives up to the cult status of the classic series as the flagship of the quality of British television all over the world. The show has become the main profit magnet of BBC Worldwide, the Beeb's commercial branch, and sparks every day gazillion of words in rumours, news, comments and analysis on internet websites and forums, and in the press.

Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale, is build around an e-mail correspondence between Russell T. Davies, showrunner and lead scriptwriter of Doctor Who, and journalist Benjamin Cook, and starts in February 2007 when Cook projects a magazine article about the writing process of one or two Doctor Who episodes by Davies, and beyond that, about the exploration of the « painstaking creation process ». The scribe gracefully accepts but « there's little physical evidence of the script process to show you. No notes. I think, and think and think...» The thought process is precisely what interests Cook and they begin what Davies nicknames The Great Correspondence (« ...we might even get a book of it »).

According to Benjamin Cook, the weight of expectation seems to be what compels Russell T. Davies to write. And expectations are higher than ever in this beginning of 2007, after the summits reached by series three (the best season to date) and before the mandatory Über-huge scaled Christmas special (aptly pitched as « Titanic in Space crossed with The Poseidon Adventure! ») - highlight of the Christmas holiday break for both Who fans and UK viewers in general.


« There will be no Doctor Who this year. Russell was too busy e-mailing Ben. » (Benjamin Cook)

Illustrated by script pages, magnificent photos never seen before, notes, text messages, beautiful artwork and Davies' own cartoons (1), Doctor Who: The Writer's tale is the All Access pass to nu-Who backstage, a Doctor Who Confidential (the companion series to Who) with feelings. The exploration of what drives one of the most prominent screenwriters of this century when he creates for one of the most popular contemporary television franchise. Writing is the core of the production of a tv series in United Kingdom (, which at this level could suffice to make The Writer's tale a document of the greatest interest.

« It all exists in this great big stew in my head because any story can go in any direction. It's not what you write, it's what you choose - and I'm good at choices ». Turn left? Cook embarks pour a privileged journey into the daily choices of the Master mind on every aspect of the preparation and the shooting of Doctor Who's fourth series: the introduction of the Doctor's new companion (Penny?) but « Can we bring back Donna [Noble, played of course by Catherine Tate] for a few episodes » - asks Jane Tranter, the guest stars for the special (David Jason or the Dennis Hopper? Kylie Minogue... « Yes. Kylie Minogue! Ha ha ha ha »), a World War II script by Mark Gatiss, late scripts for The Sarah Jane Adventures, the annual return of a nemesis of the team from Torchwood, a "too Primeval" Alien race, etc... When arrives the subject of Russell T. Davies turning down the offer of a fifth series (« It's not about the money, and Jane and Julie [Gardner] both know that »), the book becomes gradually the day-to-day chronicle of the Year of living dangerously for the hottest British television program.


« The idea behind this book, then, was to find out exactly what it's like to live, and write, under such a weight of expectation » (Benjamin Cook)

Weight is the perfect word to summarize how much the charge of the destiny of such an iconic character as The Doctor, with almost half a century of History, can be a burden. First the weight of fandom, of those Davies once called rather unfortunately "ming-mongs". « I've been browsing Outpost Gallifrey to read how crap I am »... Russell T. Davies seems to have an issue with Outpost Gallifrey (, as he describes how browsing this forum has been a quasi-traumatic experience for both writer Helen Raynor and composer Murray Gold. In this respect, writing a provocative « Creating something is not a democracy. The people have no say » will certainly not help (nor the « relentless and merciless idiocy of internet 'criticism' » of renowned author Philip Pullman in his foreword for the book).

Second, the weight of economics, from the responsible preoccupation to not waste the BBC money (« Of course, I'm terrified about the budget. I've spent about £500 million, so it'll have to calm down. Or I might ask them to axe BBC Three ») to the realities of a lucrative tv franchise (« I'm hooting at those frubes. They're the only licensed product that Julie and I were ever unsure about, but that sort of thing can be worth a fortune for BBC Worldwide »). Third and final, the weight of personal decisions on the fourth series. « We decided that we'd have a fourth series (David [Tennant]'s third) with a big ending after which we'd take the show off air, just for a short while, apart from the odd special, so that we could have a breather, and a new production team could settle in, find its feet, and prepare for Series Five »...

At this stage the tabloid press jumps on Davies' plans and the impression is that the Doctor Who Team desperately needs Jenny Lewis of Primeval. It's not the first time, as he remembers the leak about Christopher Eccleston leaving the show. « We've planned this for ages »... but plans do not always come together: « ... when David finishes Series Four, he's off to the Royal Shakespeare Company to play Hamlet» and the production realizes he won't be in Series Five because of schedules. « ... that I was worried that David personally was taking a lot of flak for the 'gap year', like we'd done it in order for him to do Hamlet » What would Francis Urquhart say?

Peter Fincham, controller of the BBC at the time, worries too (« Why are we doing this?! Why?! »): «I had to go into Peter Fincham's extremely posh office, today and explain why I will not be doing a Series Five. Ooh, he's not happy. It was very awkward ». Problems fly and Russell T. Davies also cares about regular crew of the show, in Cardiff, after the announcement that Doctor Who will not return until 2010. And a fire destroys part of the Cinnecittà Studios in Rome, where the production team was shooting the Pompeii episode - « Phil [Collinson, producer] didn't nip outside for a smoke did he, and drop his cigarette? » candidly asks Benjamin Cook.


« Steven, I've changed my mind! Steven? What d'you mean 'Russell who'?»

Unconscious diary of Series Four, Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale is a choice instrument for a better comprehension of these manipulatively teaser moments typical of the flamboyant reign of Russell T. Davies on Who: The Doctor's Daughter (« Go on, Russell, leak The Doctor's Daughter and watch the internet explode! »), the terrible botched "send in the clone" regeneration, the great David Morrissey as The Next Doctor in a missed opportunity... What is not comprehensible is this anti-teaser moment in the conversation between "Invisible Ben" and Davies that leads - « What? What? Whaaaat??? » - to the abandon of the Cybermen cliffhanger of the series for a trailer after the end credits.

The Writer's Tale is a tale about creation and creativity, a corporate drama, an adventure novel, an invitation to witness the end of an era for the best show in the History of Television (with a new Doctor and a new production team for Series Five), a tour de force for journalist Benjamin Cook. It's also an exercise of transparency for Davies, author turned de facto entrepreneur in an environment where piloting an institution like Doctor Who often stirs controversy (« We needed a desert, simple as that » (2) ) - on the way paved by the late John Nathan-Turner, the first modern "showrunner" of the franchise. These 512 pages make sense but the book is also sensibility, when David Tennant's mother is evoked but above all with the most moving part of Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale: when Howard Attfield, who plays Donna Noble's dad must be replaced by Bernard Cribbins (as Donna's grandpa) because of his illness.

Russell T. Davies will leave the keys of the Tardis to Steven Moffat, another representant of this brilliant generation of writers which make British television fiction so unique. Queer as Folk qualified Davies as a bold, innovative author, and he brought back Doctor Who to anchor the show in the realities of its time. « That, now is the definition of Doctor Who. It's the show that comes back ». Davies the author will be back after his tenure of Doctor Who and let's bet the weight of our expectation will match his own challenging expectations.

(1) Now, what about a book of Doctor Who production related cartoons? Like Sir Alan Parker's Will write and direct for food (

Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale (BBC Books/£30 -

The Writer's Tale Official website: (with six downloadable full scripts in PDF)

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