Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies
The Writer's Tale: The Final Chapter
Russell T Davies & Benjamin Cook
(Published 14th January 2010 - Publisher BBC Books/Ebury/Random House - ISBN-13: 9781846078613)
Just over a year after Benjamin Cook and Russell T Davies unleashed The Writer's Tale, their original book of email and text conversations on an unsuspecting public, we now have a follow up volume. A hefty tome, The Final Chapter contains the back and forth banter between the journalist and the former Doctor Who producer (that sounds odd, referring to Russell as the former producer) as the remaining David Tennant 2009 Specials commenced pre-production and through to Russell's departure to a new job in LA. The first volume, reproduced in its entirety in this paperback addition, concluding at the end of Journey's End, is supplemented with another 300 odd pages of nattering between the two of them.
Book Two opens with Russell tearing himself apart over his workload (he's simultaneously prepping the Specials, Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood: Children Of Earth) and what struck me reading the opening chapters was that it was rather obvious he had reached a tipping point trying to oversee it all. He's struggling to generate story ideas and is grabbing at some rather dubious notions for the forthcoming Specials - a Doctor Who/Star Trek crossover smacks of fanwank desperation to me - and the stress is, as he admits to himself, affecting his relationships with the other writers.
As he contemplates the scripts for the forthcoming specials, Steven Moffat is publicly announced as his successor. David Tennant has a momentary wobble when Moffat has a meeting with him and outlines the plans for Series 5/Series 1/Series Thirty One (take your pick). David is actually tempted to stay on.
We also discover that many of the criticisms that will be leveled at The End Of Time two parter were already nipping at his heels just as he was storylining them. It's The Writer's Tale co-author Ben Cook who drops the bombshell to Russell that what he thinks is a genius idea of having millions of Masters populating the Earth was already something the Wachowski brothers had done with Agent Smith in The Matrix Reloaded. Even Russell himself admits that it also bears a visual resemblance to Being John Malkovich. As Philip Pullman notes about RTD in his Foreword, "he steals from the best, which proves that he is both discriminating and unscrupulous" so are fans perhaps crying wolf a little too much when they accuse him of blatantly nicking ideas. Whether right or wrong, that's what he does and he's the first to admit that he's going with it partly because of a lack of other ideas and it didn't even occur to him he was borrowing from The Matrix.
You will also discover that the original plan for Torchwood: Children Of Earth was to include Mickey and Martha in some of the episodes and therefore the suggestion at the conclusion of Journey's End that they would be involved didn't just come out of nowhere. Freema was offered 13 episodes of Law And Order: UK and Noel got a Michael Winterbottom film just as the scripts were nearing completion thus preventng their involvement. There's an interesting discussion between Ben and Russell about how actors are booked and the precarious nature of television production deadlines, dealing with agents and booking artistes. Writing the five episodes of Torchwood turns into a huge crisis of confidence for RTD because he's running late, other writers are submitting their episodes and he hasn't got a clue how to end Day Five of the five episode arc. Ben and Russell discuss whether he writes with a definite ending already in mind or whether it's simply done by the skin of his teeth. Russell gives an example of how an ending informs the structure of a script with the death of Cassandra in New Earth. He takes up the story on 28th July 2008:
"But the gaping void of Episode 5 is staring at me and we're seriously running out of time. When I said to you the other day that it's all my fault I'm only just beginning to realise what has happened in this new 5 episode process. A long time back we stared, all of us together, at the emptiness of Episode 5. We had no solution. Nothing. We had bits of plot, but no story, no essence, no real reason for the show to exist."
The script remains unwritten, he does a bunk to a cinema for an entire day, literally hiding from the deadline. But nobody even notices he's gone! He admits that a number of other ideas that he'd had for other dramas had to be ransacked, including a family story set within a military coup, and there's a tone of regret that he's given them up for "the ending of a sci-fi spin off thriller". He admits, "I feel like I've cannibalised my own work".
It is only until he has dinner with Jane Tranter, where he is asked to go with her and Julie Gardner to LA after his work on Doctor Who is finished, that the crisis breaks. Simultaneously, the story ideas for Planet Of The Dead, The Waters Of Mars and The End Of Time all snap into shape and he writes a blizzard of pages for the final Torchwood scripts. It's clear that writing is still not an easy thing for him to master. He seems to spend endless days and hours prevaricating before even a word hits the page. All this whilst reminiscing about The Christmas Invasion and David Tennant mooning the paparazzi on Barry Island during the shooting of the sword fight.
In Best Laid Plans (Chapter Seventeen) Ben asks him if he regrets being known just for Queer As Folk and Russell again responds unapologetically to all those who label him a 'gay writer'. Ever since Russell took the show on he's been haunted by this particular bug-bear and he briefly addressed this weird homophobia, if indeed that is what it is, in the first book. As a counter to claims of his episodes containing 'in your face homosexuality' that supposedly aggravate certain sections of Doctor Who fandom, he draws a line in the sand here in an email on 5th October 2008:
"...it doesn't bother me at all, the gay thing. A lot of writers would die for a label! I'm proud of it, I really am, which is lucky because I reckon it's going to stick...I suspect I'll be left with the epitaph of Queer As Folk. The thing is, I think I am a Gay Writer, when I write anything.
Most crucially, I don't think it's ever affected my commissions. I'm not aware of anyone ever having said, 'He can't write that, because he's gay'. Well, it might have been thought, subtly and insidiously. When people write off my scripts as 'lightweight' I think that's bound up with their perception of my sexuality, even if they aren't conscious of that. But there's always someone who's going to say they don't like my writing because of this, that or the other. Equally they might say, 'Gay or straight, I think you're rubbish'. Fair enough. I think they're rubbish, too!"
As plans for David's leaving announcement at the NTAs come to fruition ('Operation Cobra'!) Ben suggests a suitable scheduling for the final three specials over Christmas and New Year. This is yet another instance where Ben prompts Russell and the team around him and one gets the feeling that without Ben as a sounding board Russell would tend to sink lower into his self-obsessiveness and not see the wood for the trees, as it were.
In a way, as the Doctor really does need a human companion to tell him when to stop, it seems Russell needs a friendly voice at the end of an email to tell him when his ideas stink, give him a stone cold objective view of what he's writing and, frankly, someone who can at least point out 'the bleeding obvious' to him as his brain implodes from all the work he has to do. Ben's communication, for better or worse, has gradually filtered into the way scripts are shaped, schedules are decided and provided ways for Russell to recognise when he's just wallowing a little too much in self-pity.
After someone gives Russell fleas at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, Mark Cossey, of Doctor Who Confidential, contacts him to say that former ABBA members Bjorn and Benny are such fans of Torchwood that they'd like to write a musical version with him! What was that I was saying about the 'gay agenda' earlier...?
You have to get beyond seeing this extended version of the original book as either a bouncy conversation between a talented young journalist and a grumpy, depressed writer or as just another Doctor Who cash-in. And the really fantastic bits of this book have absolutely nothing to do with Doctor Who in the end. Yes, there's all that screaming about late scripts, decisions about money, actors, special effects, edits and such. To witness how utterly barmy the life Russell has within the world of Doctor Who I'd urge you to get the book just to read the email about his panic attack trapped in front of 300 fans at the Cardiff Doctor Who Exhibition - it's disturbing and you worry for the poor man - or the complete laugh out loud description of how 'Operation Cobra' was finally realised at the NTAs. Brilliant piece of writing, in an email, there on the page. Writing as truth.
However, the book really comes alive in Smokey The Space Penguin (Chapter Twenty) when Ben asks Russell some very straight forward questions. I dare anyone who doesn't believe Russell is a good writer to read the emails about his Swansea upbringing with the huge extended family that gravitated around the Davies household, or the one about his mum and her years of silence about the blood cancer she died from, or the one about when he realised he was gay and how he came out, and not come away knowing full well that this man can move people with words. They are precious pieces of writing. Worth their weight in gold because they get past all of Davies' showman bluster and he briefly lets you into his truly private and self contained life. It's probably the closest he'll get to actually writing an autobiography because he is very private about what goes on in his life and the big Welsh poof who says 'how marvellous' on the telly is just a version of RTD that comes with the job. There's a very different, quite complex man beneath that outer skin.
And gosh, we were lucky to get The Waters Of Mars. There were plans to cut it because the budget was short £300,000. Julie Gardner is up in arms about attending the BAFTA Children's Doctor Who Day because they won't let her in without an accompanying child. "Where am I going to get a child from? Do they think I've got one in my cellar?" A footman 'fanboys' Russell at the Palace as he goes to collect his OBE but he's more concerned that his own fanboy has been left to run riot for The End Of Time with a scene showing the Time Lords convening a meeting to stop the Master's plan (that eventually stays in the script). Ben pleads with him to include it in the script knowing full well that the resulting fangasm will be seen from space. But on the 10th December Russell emails Ben with much more important news...they've cast the Eleventh Doctor!
The scripts for The End Of Time are completed on time, the writing of them refreshingly unaccompanied by days and hours of self-doubt and lack of ideas. There is a moment where Daleks are also considered for the story, in an alliance with the Time Lords, but it doesn't have legs as an idea and Ben advises Russell not to go there. Timothy Dalton flirts with Julie Gardner, Russell pirouettes awkwardly to avoid meeting Matt Smith and a woman walking her dog on the Brandon Estate, as they film the dying Doctor with Rose, tells the BBC crew, 'Bollocks to the lot of yer!' Quite right too.
Russell is also trying to read through 12 Sarah Jane scripts and has some interesting views on one of the young writers, Joe Lidster, working on the series (he wrote Mark Of The Berserker and Madwoman In The Attic). After a meeting with him Russell is concerned about the fate of developing talent caught up in the machinery of production.
"If he doesn't start believing in himself he could get torn apart in this career...Writers have to be strong if only because there are so many forces battering them. If you're Production Company A dealing with New Writer B and you're faced with his vagueness and uncertainty...well, then Joe will become that writer complaining in the pub. What do you do, though? What do you say to make a person strong?"
He's clearly affected by the meeting, believing he's been too harsh with Joe, but is adamant he recognises Joe's talent and potential for the future as a showrunner. This belief in yourself as a writer is further emphasised right at the end of the book with two very interesting emails about re-watching his own work, in these instances The Sound Of Drums and Rose. Here he is on The Sound Of Drums:
"...I can get this disconcerting draught of...well...how it must look to other people sometimes. How all unplanned it all seems. Like I'm making it up as I go along. I'm refusing on screen to do all those normal things that would make an episode more coherent, with a beginning-middle-and end wholeness."
He goes on to mention various plot elements that he recklessly deposits into the script, including concepts like the Archangel Network, the Valiant and UNIT protecting the world, that are treated as disposable or throwaway gags.
"I can see how annoying that looks. I can see how maddening that must be, for some people. Especially if you're imposing really classical script structures, and templates, and expectations on that episode, even unconsciously. I must look like a vandal, a kid or an amateur. No wonder people hate what I write....
They're not lazy, clumsy or desperate. They're chosen. I can see more traditional ways of telling those stories but I'm not interested. I've got this tumbling, freewheeling style that sort of somersaults along, with everything happening now - not later, not before - but now, now, now. I've made a Doctor Who that exists in the present tense. And I think that's exactly like the experience of watching Doctor Who. It's happening now, right in front of your eyes! If you don't like it...if you don't join in with it, then, blimey those episodes must be nonsensical."
And talking about Rose:
"It hit me watching Rose that this show is exactly what I wanted it to be and it is, in its first 45 minutes, exactly what it is now. It has never fundamentally changed. There has been no mission creep since 2005, no timidity, no reversals. There has been development and exploration but no wandering. I'm proud of that. "
In the end, Book Two does shine a little more light on the Russell T Davies we rarely see, the private man who does have a life with a partner and an extended family. But, as he himself admits, the PR version of Russell T Davies is built on a web of 'lies', a front if you like, that must be constructed as a shield to deal with everything that's thrown at him as an executive producer. Out there in the wilds of fandom some are sad to see him go and some are clearly desirous of change. Whatever they think, by reading The Writer's Tale you get some idea of the immense pressures he and the team in Cardiff have had to deal with over the last five years. I haven't enjoyed all of Russell's scripts but I'm so glad he brought the series back and now leaves it, in very robust condition, at the heart of the BBC's schedules. Doctor Who fans should be grateful for that, at least.
At the end of the book, as he moves to LA, more happy than sad that his Doctor Who days are over (he refers to himself as a 'glacier' when people continually ask him if he's sad and why he isn't sad and it sums up the distance he places between himself and the production in some ways, his defence mechanism), there's a sense of renewal; of the Doctor, of the series, of the production team and potentially of Russell himself. What irony then, that as I close the book with satisfaction, Fox announce a US version of Torchwood with a pilot episode to be written by Russell T Davies. The more things change... as they say.