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September 28, 2008

Moody Blues

The Writer's Tale
Russell T Davies & Benjamin Cook

(BBC Books ISBN 9781846075711 Published 24th September 2008)

Rtd1 This is a very big book, at 511 pages, and it's bloody heavy. I think I've got RSI just from holding the ruddy thing. It will come in useful as a blunt instrument. 

During an eye straining four day marathon to read this, I've been nodding in recognition at various insightful pieces, raising the odd eyebrow, and occasionally tutting over the vast email and text conversation between Russell and Benjamin Cook. An electronic stream of consciousness that's now in print, in a book beautifully designed by Clayton Hickman, chock full of colour photographs, original Russell T Davies cartoons and the like. Yes, it says Doctor Who on the cover but it's actually more about what's going on in the peculiar brain of one Russell T Davies. A writer's point of view, most definitely. And Benjamin, his email correspondent, asks some bloody hard questions but not necessarily the ones that feverish fan-boys want answering. So, tough.

Anyway, one of the first things that chimed with me is this little ode to the art of displacement activity:

"I don't know why I do this. I even set myself little targets. At 10am, I think, I'll start at noon. At noon, I think, I'll make it 4pm. At 4pm, I think, too late now, I'll wait for tonight and I'll work late. And then I'll use TV programmes as crutches - ooh, must watch this, must watch that - and then it's 10pm and I think, well, start at midnight, that's a good time. A good time?! A nice round number! At midnight, I despair and reckon it's too late, and stay up despairing. I'll stay that way till 2 or 3am, and then go to bed in a tight knot of frustration. The next day, the same thing. Weeks can pass like that."

Russell, I think I've been doing that for the last 25 years and I still haven't written that novel or that script. It strikes me that this is actually describing a universal experience. What Russell is saying there can be applied to most of us, especially writers, and that the process of writing is not formulaic and both Russell and Ben spend much of the first three chapters looking at how Russell processes his ideas with the stress on this is how he puts together ideas and writes a script. What's revealing is that he misses deadlines all the time, leaves pretty much all the writing to the very, very last minute.

Helen, poor love, had decided to naively lower the visor on her Fan Shield and actually brave the forum to see what 'they' thought about her two Dalek episodes after they'd gone out. Big mistake.

Rtd2 Whilst he's also contemplating his navel, which is either a brave or reckless thing to do in a 511 page book - lots of navel, he'd probably admit, he's gossiping about all sorts of things: Kylie, Dennis Hopper, Russell Tovey, Freddie Ljungberg, Skins and about his wild past off his head in bars, on all sorts of substances, probably. What emerges is a kind of Russell T 'Valeyard'...a darker distillation of that jolly Welsh poof that you see on the telly, grinning at press calls and awards ceremonies. It's fascinating because you do get a glimpse of a driven man who does have pause for many moments of self-doubt, is often quite ruthless too and doesn't suffer fools gladly. And is very, very funny with it.

Since the book was released from captivity, cruising through the 'Outpost Gallifrey Doctor Who Forum' recently, I was double-taking at threads like "Which Doctor Had The Nicest Hair", it was inevitable the chatter wold be all about Helen Raynor. According to Russell in The Writer's Tale, Helen, poor love, had decided to naively lower the visor on her Fan Shield and actually brave the forum to see what 'they' thought about her two Dalek episodes after they'd gone out. Big mistake.

"More and more, with every writer. It’s those internet message boards. The forums. They destroy writers. The job is full of doubt already, but now there is a whole new level of fear, shouting at us. It is now a writer’s job, like it or not, to put up with it. It’s like when Helen Raynor went on Outpost Gallifrey last month and read the reviews of her two Dalek episodes. She said that she was, literally, shaking afterwards. Like she’d been physically assaulted. I’m not exaggerating. She said it was like being in a pub when a fight breaks out next to you. I had to spend two hours on the phone to her, talking her out of it, convincing her that of course she can write, that we do need her and want her. That bastard internet voice gets into writers’ heads and destabilizes them massively."

Whilst I have to admit that I haven't enjoyed much of Helen Raynor's contributions to the show, I haven't descended to mud-slinging. The trouble is that most forums are prone to minorities delivering inarticulate bile with no redeeming or constructive features to their credit. Many are full of monosyballic grunting and, frighteningly, many hormonally challenged male fans who still haven't got over the fact that a person called Verity actually produced one of the greatest television shows on Earth. After all, Verity was a woman, for heaven's sake! Helen dared to write about Daleks and Pig Men. She's a girl and what do girls know about Doctor Who!? Well, the ones I've met know plenty.

He clearly doesn't do touchy feely 'domestic', does our Russell.

What this then leads to in Russell's book is his view, and I don't necessarily agree with it, that critics, particularly women-hating old farts on Doctor Who fora, aren't important. It's their own importance that they're interested in, essentially they're just typing at each other and the artists they are ranting about shouldn't give a fuck about what they say. Quite right if said critics can't string more than two words together. Well, three words and they usually comprise of 'RTD Must Go'. Any young writer stumbling into those bear-pits would be reduced to tears. It's a shame because Helen, Russell and any number of other production personnel might walk away from such fora assuming much of fandom feels it is absolutely fine to froth at the mouth with what is, at the end of the day, personal abuse rather than genuine critique. Russell essentially says that young writers will have to go through this baptism of fire in order to toughen up (true) and that fan critics in particular are just absent fathers at the birth of any piece of art or culture who can only carp on after the baby has taken its first steps into the world. Helen, contact the CSA and make 'em pay. Go on the attack, as Russell suggests. Ironically, there's now a "Helen Raynor Apology Thread" on the OG forum. Bloody sycophants. "Oh we're sorry, Ms Raynor for being absolute c**ts...".

When Ben asks Russell if he thinks he's a bit of a bastard too, Russell reveals a side of himself that may change your perception of him or just confirm what a contrary git he is. He often comes across as callous. It's not deliberate, being more a survival response, and he does proffer a number of examples where he has worked with other professionals in the industry who he now has, for all intents and purposes, disowned. There's a moment where Julie Gardner has to remind him that he may upset writer Mark Gatiss, who has been beavering away on a script for a year, when he drops the story entirely. He didn't give it a moment's thought how Gatiss might have felt. It didn't occur to him that Gatiss might have felt aggrieved. Is this something that comes out of that toughening up process, d'you think? He clearly doesn't do touchy feely 'domestic', does our Russell.

Rtd3 The angst over writing the scripts gives way to rapid successions of script pages. It makes for fascinating reading as he goes back to the start every time and revises before adding anything new. He's also got pressures on him from the art department and The Mill who basically are telling him he's gone way over budget and has to cut, cut, cut. What emerges is a writer with a surgeon-like laser precision, even if you dislike what he writes, in reducing pages and extraneous scenes both for narrative sense and budgetary restrictions.

When he's discussing the way 'big pictures' form the core of the Doctor Who universe there's an interesting comment on homophobia. 

"The simple image thing is right at the root of homophobia too. The fundamental image of life, of family, of childhood, of survival, is man and woman. Every story, every myth, every image reinforces that. Even the images of the real world reinforce that, because, statistically, heterosexuality is the norm. It's the default. It's the icon. Man/man or woman/woman disrupts a fundamental childhood image. Homophobia does seem to come from some gut instinct that's beyond the religious or the physical act or whatever. It's primal, and I think that's from the pictures. It's from what we see and what we're shown. That's why, in this gay lark, I stress visibility. Change the law, have education classes, do whatever you want, just be seen."

As a fully paid up member of the 'gay community' for me this is no earthshattering observation. I've been banging on about the heterosexual hegemony in cultural production for years. But it does bring us back to fora again. If I had a pound for every forum post or thread that whinged about Russell turning the series 'gay', or inappropriate gay humour or imagery, or some kind of fifth column 'gay agenda' running the show...well then, I wouldn't be on here talking to you lot. I'd be a very, very rich man. There is homophobia on those fora and I do wonder if it is simply because Doctor Who really has dared to put a dent in that hegemony in front of a family audience? Long may it keep doing so, I say.

Does it upset the other writers if they see their original script turned inside out and end up bearing little resemblance to the first draft?

Beneath the wise-cracks, Russell is, it seems, reluctantly trapped on a voyage (...of the damned, ha, ha!) where reality is an out of focus landscape and all he can cope with (or can't) is how the hell he's going to write the scripts in time for the filming blocks. There are signs he's had enough of being the driver behind the wheel of the whole Who machine. Fortunately he does have time to discuss re-writes. All the scripts are re-written by him except for the Moffat, Chris Chibnall, Stephen Greenhorn and Matt Graham ones. It must be galling when that Moffat fella goes and grabs all the snazzy awards for his own episodes. Russell can at least take some comfort in the fact that he has the Dennis Potter BAFTA. So who, in the end, is the real author? Does it upset the other writers if they see their original script turned inside out and end up bearing little resemblance to the first draft? Is this why some writers haven't come back to the show?

"Rewriting? I write the final draft of almost all scripts...and that draft becomes the Shooting Script. I might change at least 30%, often 60% and sometimes almost 100%. I go over every line of dialogue, either adding new stuff or refining what's there, sometimes that means enhancing a line that the original writer hasn't realised is good. I'll bring out themes, punch up moments, add signature dialogue, clarify stage directions and make cuts. To every single scene, if need be. Usually the basic shape remains intact but sometimes I'll invent brand new characters and subplots...while at the same time remaining faithful to the original writer. I'll even impersonate them.

    ...I'm sure some of them think of it as vandalism. Equally, to be fair, others are very grateful. But my job is to get the Best Possible Script on screen, even if that means stampeding over someone."

By the middle of the book, Steven Moffat meets Jane Tranter and Jana Bennett and says 'yes!' to the Big Chair. Well, as long as Russell runs a damp cloth over it. Meanwhile, Ben asks Russell the more important question of how Russell demarks between his roles as producer and writer:

"I do find it easy to divorce my two roles. With my producer's hat on (it's lemon), if a scene becomes impossible or expensive or is simply dropped on the day because they ran out of time, then I can score a great big line through it. Even if I loved it. I won't moan or bleat or feel any substantial regret. It's something that writers in this country need to be trained in, like in the US. We still cling to the notion of the writer-eccentric, which is a bloody nightmare on set. That sort of writer kicks up a fuss if a character is wearing a white shirt instead of a blue one. That sort of writer shouldn't be allowed near filming. Mind you, that writer-eccentric does allow you to get away with murder. Writers are allowed, professionally to be stroppy and weird and angry and demanding and petulant and oversexed and drunk. As long as your writing is good, that behaviour is sort of revered. Even expected. We're allowed to misbehave, because it's seen as creative, like it's part of the job. Rubbish!"

Rtd4 Me thinks the lady doth protest too much. One of the things fans have observed, and it's something Russell has admitted to, is his capacity for telling lies. OK, so it's not as outrageous as sniffing coke on set, but it's part and parcel of the outwardly facing Davies personna - the big, gay, eccentric Welsh bloke who says 'Marvellous' and 'Hurray' at the drop of hat with that cheeky grin and glint in his eye - and it does make you wonder how much of the above he actually gets away with. Note the 'we're allowed to misbehave' so he's obviously including himself there. At that point I realised that the book I was eagerly devouring might well be a tissue of lies, a masterful manipulation of the said correspondence between him and Ben. It's unedited status is, at best then, questionable.

In the end, no matter how hard he's tried to fix that scene it still cheapens the drama of the original separation in Doomsday.

If there's one piece of scripting that's been contentious in the finale, it has to be the scene back at Bad Wolf bay where Rose is left in the parallel universe. For me, personally, that scene still does not work. It postulates that Rose will settle for the duplicate Doctor even though we know she actually wants to go off with the original version in the TARDIS. In Time For Heroes, the final chapter, Russell himself admits that the scene really doesn't work. And he tries and tries to fix it. The compromise is the last draft where he tweaks the script so that the choice falls to Rose to go with the duplicate Doctor simply by asking which of them can openly acknowledge their love for her. The duplicate Doctor can, as he's half human, whereas the original can't or won't. The filmed version still doesn't work for me - it still feels that it happens too quickly, too easily. If the idea of Rose loving the duplicate Doctor had been gracefully introduced into the narrative then just maybe that scene would work. As Russell himself confesses:

"It's too complicated. Emotionally, I mean. It has no echo, no response, it's empty sci-fi. When the Doctor and Rose were separated into parallel universes in Doomsday, that felt like every love you've ever lost. But when you've been separated into different universes, but now have a double of the man that you loved, who's not quite the same, but who's better because he's mortal, but worse because he's not the original...well, you're going beyond human experience. There's no parallel with real life. No equation. Therefore, no feeling."

I still think that despite some slight improvements that it's also down to the team's editorial choices after filming too. Russell is convinced that Billie is channeling some lust for the double of the Doctor earlier in the filmed finale to try and get the concept over but I don't see it myself. It's really not that obvious and perhaps some real emphasis on Rose falling for the double of the Doctor would have helped. In the end, no matter how hard he's tried to fix that scene it still cheapens the drama of the original separation in Doomsday.

Russell hears from Steven later that he's already started writing the first episode of Series 5. If the writing isn't on the wall then it most definitely is on Moffat's hard drive. The end is near...final curtain...party's over. I started reading The Writer's Tale thinking I might know a little bit about what makes Russell T Davies tick but I was in for a surprise. He's a moody, complex old bugger, often ruthless and bloody-minded and the grinning, camp version is just simply a media construction, a way to deal with the circus. I really do wonder how much of the longer email discussions were actually emails because I do think a lot of the considered, thought provoking stuff is more than off the cuff, wee small hours of the morning banter. It doesn't matter. We know he's adept at this sort of subterfuge and yet I don't get the feeling it's malicious. It's just how he operates. It's more an instinct for survival because it's very telling that he's worn out, tired and ready to call it a day by the end of the book. And he's still lovable Uncle Rusty, isn't he?

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