Monday, July 14, 2014
Script Doctor: The Inside Story of Doctor Who 1986-1989 by Andrew Cartmel
Andrew Cartmel's book Script Doctor: The Inside Story of Doctor Who 1986-1989 is a niftily written account of his time as Script Editor of Doctor Who as the series came stuttering to the end of what is now pointlessly called 'Classic Who'. It wasn't the best time to be working on the series as those in charge of the BBC had gradually come to find the whole existence of Doctor Who something of a tedious embarrassment. Having tried and failed to kill it off once during the Colin Baker era they wisely decided that instead of going through the hassle that resulted from that debacle they'd kill off Doctor Who by a thousand cuts: moving it to go head-to-head with Coronation Street for example.
However that didn't stop the production team from doing their best to turn things around. This is Andrew Cartmel's account of those events and his - and other writer's attempts - to freshen up Doctor Who with new writing blood and a restoration of mystery. In some ways the template they laid in Season 25 and 26, which carried on through to the Virgin New Adventures, is the template for New Doctor Who. After all, as I've said elsewhere in this blog, who is Rose but Ace without explosives and Survival could very easily have slid into New Who with hardly a word changed.
There's a set of people who claim that the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who is rubbish. That Sylvester isn't properly Doctor Who-ish. I think these people are wrong. Now I'll admit Season 24 isn't the series finest hour - and Andrew Cartmel looks far more fondly upon Delta and the Bannermen than I do for example - but Seasons 25 and 26 contain some of the series all time great stories: Remembrance of the Daleks, The Happiness Patrol, Curse of Fenric and Ghost Light.
It's good to get an insight into some of the ups and downs of that period. To hear about how each story was nursed through production to the screen. It's definitely a book about writing and writer's. Naturally. But Cartmel comes across as much more hands on as a Script Editor than usual: visiting sets, organising meetings between actors and writer's, looking for new writing blood etc.
This book is also, mainly, a positive look at the period. It's certainly a nice contrast to the much more depressing JNT : The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner* by Richard Marson. Indeed it makes an interesting companion piece to that book (or vica versa) as John Nathan-Turner is a key figure in Cartmel's book too. Obviously. There are battles fought here between JNT and Cartmel but the book handles them without bitterness, which I like. Even Cartmel's dislike of Pip and Jane Baker's Time and the Rani script (and their attempts to undermine Cartmel) isn't reflected in anything over-acerbic. It's rather refreshing.
It also makes an interesting companion to RTD and Benjamin Cook's The Writer's Tale. The Classic Who v New Who story. Although personal this doesn't feel as personal as RTD's book. That's probably for a couple of reasons: partly because RTD is showrunner, which gives him broader responsibilities and stresses than Cartmel and partly because RTD's book is written in the heat of battle whereas there is some distance between the events in Cartmel's book and the present. The interesting thing is the amount of common problems the two books highlight. Even with its increased budgets some of the problems with producing Doctor Who never seem to change.
The book covers each story of the Seventh Doctor's era and has insights into the whole production process: from casting through to broadcast but with a clear focus on the writing side. I was also mildly amused by Cartmel's wistful fondness for attractive ladies, which occasionally pops up.
I also like the fact that whilst this is Cartmel's story he doesn't get too egotistical. Indeed one of the other heroes of this book might be Ben Aaronovitch whose two stories Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield meet interestingly different fates. This is definitely a story of how what the writer wants to do and what eventually gets delivered is often a very different thing. Battlefield is the classic example of a potentially great story let down massively by its production values - especially sound design.
This was first published - I think - in 2005 but is out in a new edition now via Miwk Publishing**. My copy comes with autograph and some rather natty freebies : including a Silas P Business Card (which I adore).
If you like Doctor Who this is a great introduction to the series final three seasons. It's surprisingly positive, well-written and a fine insight into the process of turning ideas into scripts into programmes.
*Miwk also published the JNT book, which I also recommend but which can be a horribly depressing slog at times. Not because the writing is bad but because there is behaviour and events in there that can only be described as a bit sad and pathetic. A lot of people don't come out of the story well. If you don't want your illusions shattered I'd stay away but