Andrew Cartmel Interview
By David Bishop
Andrew Cartmel is probably one of the most elusive people in the history of Doctor Who. While others have been happy to hit the convention circuit and be interviewed dozens of times, regurgitating the same anecdotes over and over again, Cartmel has actively avoided being interviewed, rarely attends Who-related events and has become something of an enigma as a result.
He has attended a few conventions, but almost never goes on stage to talk about his three years on the show as the script editor. He has been interviewed about his first New Adventures novel, Warhead, but has never talked extensively about his time on the show - until now.
The following interview took place at Cartmel's South London home, split over two sessions three weeks apart. He talks candidly about the stories, the writers, the production problems, the highlights and the embarrassments. He reveals startling new information about the future of Doctor Who had it gone into a fourth McCoy season, including a possible identity for Ace's replacement as companion!
I'm not quite sure why he agreed to be interviewed by me, having spurned the advances of others. Persistence helps. As Paul can testify, I had been hoping for just such an opportunity for months. TSV helped sway him. I showed him copies of the recent, very high quality issues and that was a contributing factor. Plus, this interview is fairly exhaustive. While I didn't ask every question possible (even Cartmel's patience will stretch only so far), we got through a lot of ground.
When Andrew finally agreed to be interviewed, he made a pleasant, helpful and thoroughly enjoyable subject. I hope you enjoy the results.
David Bishop, August 1st, 1994.
How did you get the job as script editor of Doctor Who?
I was working in Cambridge at a computer company. I'd never previously really had a proper job, I'd always been writing, waiting to be successful as a writer. After my Dad died, I thought, 'Time's moving on, I can't just sit around writing; I've got to get a civilised, decent job.' So in the course of about three phone calls I organised a post graduate thing in computer science which led to me getting a job a year later in Cambridge.
I was very happy in Cambridge. It was a very groovy company full of ex-hippy vegetarians, designing incredible software of a kind I'd never seen. CAD stuff - Computer Aided Design.
So I was beavering away there when I got a phone call from my agent. One thing I had achieved while I was starving as a writer in my garret was being invited to - the BBC used to have a thing called the Script Unit, which would read unsolicited scripts and encourage writers - well, I used to be called in to their writer's workshops, with a bunch of other hopeful writers. A lot of whom, I have to say, have gone on to be very successful, often after being commissioned by me! There was Ian Briggs, Malcolm Kohll, Robin Mukherjee. Although Robin never wrote for Who, if I'd done another season, he certainly would have. I gave him his first commission on Casualty, he's gone on to write the Russian cop series Grushko, and he's basically turning into one of the best British screenwriters. Anyway, there was this cluster of writers.
I was working in Cambridge, and through having these contacts at the BBC, knowing writers, I discovered that you can get an agent. Now according to the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, the font of all wisdom, you can't get an agent until you sell a script. Malcolm hadn't sold anything at the time, but he told me that was bullshit. Instead of sending scripts into a broadcaster, you send them in to an agent. So I referred to the Yearbook again. And I noticed that Derek Marlowe and Tom Stoppard [highly respected British writers] were both with a particular agency, so I sent some scripts to Richard Wakely there and the agent took me on.
Well, my agent knew John Nathan-Turner and when they were looking for a new script editor, I got this phone call while I was in Cambridge saying, 'Come for an interview'. I went and saw John at Threshold House, sat down with him and we chatted and hit it off. And they offered me the job, which threw my whole life into a spin.
My whole life had to change but at least my girlfriend lived in London. I prevaricated, this was over Christmas, 1986, and I had to decide by the New Year. The worst part was handing in my notice at my old job. I was dreading it. I remember walking across the common in Cambridge, it was like walking to the OK Corral. I'd lost jobs before, but I'd never resigned from one. So I quit, I came to London, and I started working on the show.
When you arrived, you weren't over-burdened with script-editing experience...
The reason John gave me the job was that we got along, and I didn't impress him as being an idiot. He'd read a script of mine, and obviously saw qualities in there that I knew what a good TV script should be.
When you got the job, you were how old?
Christ, well, I'm 36 now, so late twenties then, I guess.
TIME AND THE RANI
So, when you arrived, what scripts were already on the shelf? How far had they got with the first McCoy season?
Oh God, it wasn't even the McCoy season! Well, the BBC would never decide whether they would do a season of Who again until the very last minute. It was either a low priority for them or they couldn't wrap their heads round it. So we always got the go-ahead at the last minute. And we also always got the same budget as the previous year, which meant our resources were actually shrinking, due to inflation.
So John had had this 11th-hour go-ahead for whatever season it was [Season 24]. With some money left over from the last season, he'd covered himself by commissioning Pip and Jane [Baker] to do a four-parter. So what we had was Pip and Jane under commission and in the course of writing a script. And that was all there was. They were recasting the Doctor, but we didn't know who it was going to be, so it was wide open.
The first thing I did, when the job was just a glimmer, I started getting in touch with people I knew from the writer's workshop, people I knew to be good, because we each had to present our work there. So, there were people from the workshop who did get approached at this stage. [Ian] Briggs, I remember, came in quite early.
Time and the Rani was originally called Strange Matter and Pip and Jane have said there was a little argy-bargy between them and you...
There was enormous conflict between me and Pip and Jane. I was totally fresh to it; I didn't know anything about the politics of handling a situation like that. Now, I'd be more gregarious and laid back about it.
The thing about Pip and Jane is structurally their stuff is very sound and they touch all the bases and write well-carpentered stories. But the things I was looking for were much wackier, much more off beat; much darker, much sharper, much harder. They came from a background of writing a lot of children's stuff, a lot of Gerry Anderson. So my style wasn't their style. The other problem was I think they perceived me as this new kid on the block, they didn't know if I knew anything.
In a situation like that now, I'd get the people on my side; win them over so we could work together. Once you make friends with people, anything is possible. I didn't make that effort because I was young, I was green, I didn't know. I just wanted the scripts exactly the way I wanted them.
Pip and Jane, they divide the responsibilities. Jane's like the business manager and Jane and I were just totally in conflict. So it wasn't a very happy situation, although we were terribly nice to each other, ostensibly. I had inherited the scripts. They wanted to do a standard, old fashioned story and I wanted to do a funky new thing.
At the time I was reading a lot of Alan Moore [innovative British comics writer], a lot of Swamp Thing, and you can imagine the collision of cultures between what I was wanting to do and what they were wanting to do.
What I should have done with Time and the Rani was say to myself, 'Well, John's very happy with Pip and Jane, Pip and Jane do a certain thing.' I should have just stood back, let them get on with what they wanted to do, because down the line I was infiltrating it with all my writers. I should have just looked on Time and the Rani as a learning curve. It would have been much happier. I didn't get what I wanted in the end on that story anyway.
In that story, it's obvious nobody has any idea what the Doctor is like...
Including Sylvester, because he was new to the role. I didn't like the story because it was formulaic, people get sent from one place to another and get split up and they're running around.
Not to mention the giant brain...
The giant brain was John's idea, I think, and a good one. John had an instinct for, if you think in terms of painting, of like a big block of colour, a powerful moment for the end of episode three. And it was this big, gothic thing.
I remember going on location for that story, it's a collage of memories. I remember staying in the hotel and the sound of the person in the next room who was apparently screwing half the night and then throwing up the other half of it! That's the BBC on location, I thought.
The design on Time and the Rani was interesting, even if part of the story is set in a quarry. But we get inside from the quarry quite quickly. I liked Kate O'Mara a lot, although I didn't think the Rani was a fantastically deep character.
When we were back in the studio for the other portions of the story, there's a cliffhanger where the Doctor's surrounded in a nest of Tetraps and he's reacting to it. We did the take and at the end of it Sylvester said: 'That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever done!' And up in the control room John turned to me and said 'You ain't seen nothing yet.'
But the first person who sought me out, I'm trying to recall how he came to me, was Stephen Wyatt. He knew he wanted to do a Who and he knew I existed so he sent a script along. That was Claws, it was about back-stabbing and treachery amongst cat breeders, and it was dark, quite funny. So I said sure, come in. Let's chat.
Stephen came in and I was sitting at my desk in Union House. Union House was empty, the BBC was still away for Christmas, and it had like a big, glowing wintry light, the whole place like an empty school that time of year. And Stephen, he said 'J. G. Ballard', and started to talk about High Rise, which is one of Ballard's books [which I still haven't read]. We went to the pub and the idea grew. Then he met John and so we got Paradise Towers underway, that was what inspired that. That was the first script I commissioned.
What you have to understand is the way it was structured. One of the things that John was great at was budgeting. He'd come up from a budgeting background, he'd been a production associate. The BBC always got more than they deserved out of him, because they never gave us enough money to do a series. So John was constantly - whatever the expression is - putting half pints into pint pots, making money and resources stretch so we could do as many stories as we did.
The way that worked was we would do two four-parters and two three-parters, but the two three-parters, one was all location, one was all studio. Due to the Byzantine structure of BBC finances you could get the most out of the money this way. So we planned it that Dragonfire was the three-parter in the studio and Delta was the three-parter on location at Barry Island.
In a lot of Doctor Who stories, the format seems to determine the number of episodes for a story, rather than the story dictating how many episodes it deserves. For example, Paradise Towers...
You're saying it should have been a three-parter, not a four-parter?
That's probably being generous.
I can sense you didn't like it. Well, the three-episode story is a natural structure, while four-parters are strange beasts. You can do four-parters, but it's quite understandable if there are problems with it. So what are your particular areas of loathing in Paradise Towers?
Like a lot of New Zealanders, I read a lot of the later story novelisations before I saw the show. In the book of Paradise Towers, the character of Pex is a hulking, huge brute. Always boasting and bragging, but on the show...
That's interesting because that's exactly what Stephen wanted. Stephen's gag - which I wholeheartedly endorse - was the idea that this guy was a total muscle man who fucks things up because he's incredibly stupid. He ends up being a victim. But when they cast it, they got Howard Cooke, who was cast by Nick Mallet. Nick didn't have the same vision for Pex, he was just concerned with getting a good actor who could do the business. So Stephen was disappointed with that. It was a joke that was screwed up by the casting, but at least we ended up with a good actor.
Then you've got the Kangs, the gangs of girls who speak in a sub-Anthony Burgess Clockwork Orange slang, which annoys me, but that's a personal thing...
When we sat down to hammer out the story for Paradise Towers, working with a writer is always a collaborative thing - I should say in Stephen's defence that it was me who said 'Let's have a gang of teenage girls involved in this.' That probably says more about my subconscious than it does about Stephen's.
The different colours, the different factions reflect a future clash of youth cultures, and it kind of anticipated the colours gang thing in LA. Stephen put a bit of real thought into the sociology of the world and its slang, which is more than a lot of writers do.
The story isn't helped by featuring a killer robot that's really a box on wheels armed with a corkscrew and some pincers!
It's time for me to make another speech here. We started with certain elements. It's set in a high rise that became a decaying urban maze. There's the hierarchy of the people who manage the building, and the fascistic girl gang (just to please me). But we needed a monster. And we went to see John and said, What about tentacles? They could come out through the ventilation grilles. And he said 'Tentacles are difficult', spoken with the knowing manner of a man who's tried tentacles before.
John knew the constraints of the BBC budget, and he knew what you could do with the BBC effects department. What you're really talking about is working on a limited budget and in a limited time span. The script said killer robot drags girl off and what you get is what you've just described. If it had been shot like a James Cameron film, you'd be reminiscing about how incredibly scary those things were. Would that we'd had those sort of budgets, or the sort of gifted design you get in Terminator which was a relatively low budget movie.
This is going to be a running theme throughout this interview. On Who we had special effects teams made up of a lot of people, some of whom would never have seen a film like The Terminator, in fact they'd probably go out of their way not to see a film like that. If we'd had hungry young guys who knew what was possible, even with the budgets, they could have done fantastic things.
We did have people like that at the BBC, Mike Tucker and Lindsay McGowan are a couple of examples, but they were part of a team and they weren't the heads of those teams. So their contribution was diluted and filtered by the time you saw it on screen. Actually, I think I first met Mike on Rani, in a quarry. We were both painting rocks blue or something.
A lot of the problem with Who is people will say they don't like a story, the writing is crap, but what they actually mean is the studio lighting is bad. Frequently the reasons stories didn't work was because of the costumes or the lighting, but fans don't analyse it that way. If you work in TV or movies, you can begin to identify what irritates you about a show. It's like being a doctor, you can identify the symptom of the illness.
Again, on the low budget problem, in Paradise Towers you have a monster that was two neon rings in a dark room...
[Laughs] We were lucky to have the neon rings! Thank god it was a dark room!
That story had some great actors. The guy who played the head caretaker's flunky [Clive Merrison], he was terrific. Stephen was saying at the time he's only got six lines. If I'd known we'd get this geezer, I'd have written a lot more for him. But it was fantastically well cast. I've got a lot of time for Nick Mallet as a director, especially as an actor's director. There's all kind of good stuff in that.
He was labelled as a crap director in the fan press after The Mysterious Planet and Paradise Towers. When it was announced he would direct The Curse of Fenric, the reaction was mostly horror from some fans...
But the thing about Fenric, was the lighting was better, the costumes were better. It had the tang of veracity, which is very important; it had a World War II setting. We'll come back to that later, real world settings are very important. I think the fans didn't like the other shows not because of Nick Mallet, but because of other elements of the production process. Fans shouldn't be quite so cut and dried about things.
Then there's the pantomime actors criticism...
This pantomime thing has to be addressed immediately. Whenever you work with someone, especially in a high-pressure situation like TV, there are conflicts. So there were times when I was totally in conflict with John. I don't want this to be like everybody totally loves each other, some luvvie thing. But John has real virtues which nobody appreciates. One was he could do things with budgets. Budgeting is a very creative thing. You've got all this money and you can take money from certain areas and use it in others. And John was a past master at getting incredible value for money, the BBC gave us incredibly low budgets. There would have been no Who at all without John to juggle the budget.
The other thing about John is that he's fantastic at editing. What I didn't know is that probably half the battle on TV is getting the script and shooting it. Almost all the other half is you've got the raw material, these nuggets you've mined, and you work with them. Editing is a whole other creative thing. John was fantastic at it. He'd say cut all that, reverse the next two scenes, put that there and it'd work. Michael Wearing is like a god at the BBC and he's renowned for that. John has the same skill. I learned so much from watching John edit.
So when people say things like pantomime, I say nobody ever gives John credit for the things he does strongly. As for the pantomime aspect of Who, let's put it like this. If you could have just brought the lighting right down, and got really imaginative, moody lighting in all of those shows, instead of what I think of as like snooker lighting, I think the whole pantomime thing would have evaporated. That bright artificial lighting gives a brashness and a lack of depth. That's what made it look like a panto. Shooting on video really doesn't help.
When Richard Briers was hired, he was perceived as purely a comedy actor, although he's rehabilitated his career with a lot of straight acting since then...
When John hired him, he didn't think, 'Richard Briers is a comedy actor, I'll get him'. He hired him because he was a very good actor. Richard Briers was doing Shakespeare on stage at the same time we were doing Paradise Towers. He is a serious actor.
I was in control room during Paradise Towers during his climatic speech. Richard is a terrific actor, but during this speech I was thinking you could put a parrot on this guy's shoulder and it wouldn't look out of place. I don't know how or why things end up as they do. We might have wanted a darker, more complex performance but we didn't get it. I don't know if that's to do with the actor, the director or what. Again, it comes down to having very little time.
DELTA AND THE BANNERMEN
How did the story come about?
Malcolm [Kohll]'s basically a thriller writer. After he did Who, he wrote this thing called The Fourth Reich, a political thriller thing for American TV with an African setting.
Anyway, we had Malcolm writing a science fiction action story and we had Don Henderson as Gavrok, and Don was fantastic, he lends real authority to that performance. Also we worked on that nostalgia thing. You might say it was pantomime, going for the 50s look. But what we were going for was rooting the story in reality, in recognisable history. They were the good things about Delta. There were a lot of Hitchhikers kind of jokes and I think they can co-exist with a dark and scary story. Like in music, you've got to alternate moods.
The thing I remember about Malcolm and Delta is that occasionally, you get to make somebody's dream come true. Malcolm, as well as being a good writer, is a motorcycle freak. I don't now anything about them, but apparently Vincent motorcycles are like an incredible collector's item. So he included this god-like Rolls Royce of a motorcycle in the script and, bless them, the BBC got the motorcycle. So Malcolm got to sit on it and even ride it, so that was fun.
Around this time, Bonnie Langford decided to go...
Yeah, that was interesting. There was a lot of fan hatred for Bonnie Langford and Colin Baker, and some of the shows they were in were quite light and comic, which I think is one reason why they got this hate projected towards them. Having worked on the show, I have this terrible quandary because I met Bonnie Langford. I didn't really know her, that she came from this 'I'll scweam and scweam and scweam' background, but my impression of her was her life was totally dedicated to the professional thing. She'd been in show business since she was tiny. Much as I'd like to join in the simplicity of hatred, she was just a nice person, as was Colin Baker.
But in terms of the show, we were stuck with Mel as created by the previous team. I was much more moving in the direction of darker, dirtier, funkier, nastier, and that certainly isn't Bonnie's thing at all. So they were looking for a new companion. And we had Sara Griffiths, who was Ray in that story and she was great, I liked her. Logistically, John kept his options open when choosing the new companion.
We wrote two stories, each with a potential companion in mind, so John could get them on, shoot their shows and decide from there. If he'd chosen Sara Griffiths, we could have done great stuff with her too. I'm terribly fond of Sophie [Aldred], so I'm glad we chose her, but the qualities she had in common with Sara Griffiths were being spunkier than Mel.
I don't know if you read Love and Rockets [highly praised US independent comic series], but we were going for that sort of sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves kind of thing, which was not Bonnie. We wanted a post-Alien teenage girl - again, that probably says something about my psyche. That was something Stephen Wyatt said - the hallmark of Season 24 is tough young bitches. [Laughs]
Two other things worth putting on record about Delta. I remember we turned up - in a quarry - to do those opening sequences of Delta fleeing her planet and she had the natives of the planet with her. And the people who were responsible for making the aliens look alien, what they'd done was stuck some cotton wool on their faces and dyed it green. We are all working to the limits of our professionalism. Then me and John and the director turn up and you've got the aliens running around with cotton wool stuck to their faces.
And none of this is planned, nobody wants this to happen. I remember when we were doing the press screening at BAFTA and I was sitting next to this woman journalist and she saw this guy's face and she snorted with derisive laughter. When we turned up for that day on location and saw those aliens, we were so enraged. Everyone had tried so hard, to the best of their abilities but somebody else had thought well, we can just get away with something. And then that journalist's response, people just can't take it seriously after seeing that. Someone just didn't try.
Certainly Don Henderson's performance was great and the costumes, the Bannermen were dressed like Spanish Civil War fascists and the costumes were as good as the visual make-up effects on those aliens were bad. It's not one of my favourite stories, but that's because I think various elements were pitted against it.
Delta's got a lot going for it, the alien biology; the huge back-story of these two alien cultures at war; that was quite complex and interesting. It's worth not dismissing it out of hand.
There's not a real sense of threat, despite Don Henderson's presence...
Yeah, that was something we were aware of when we were working on the script, there was a tendency for it to go into light sitcom territory. I don't know why that was. Like everything else Malcolm's ever written, it was a hard-edged thriller. [Laughs]
Yet Dragonfire just seems to hang together better?
Everything for this season was done in a real hurry and I remember there was a major rewrite on Delta, like scrap all of episode two and write a new one. I remember going to Malcolm's flat in Hampstead and we blocked out this story. I reeled out of Malcolm's flat and I got on the tube back into London and I looked up and there, three seats down, is Briggs, who's in the middle of rewriting Dragonfire! I still kind of regret that I didn't go over, tap him on the shoulder and go 'Where's the next draft?'; make him think I'd been relentlessly following him all over London. But I wasn't sure his heart could stand it so I approached him carefully and explained it was just a coincidence, but it still threw him.
Dragonfire has the benefit of a great performance by Edward Peel as Kane, the villain of the story...
Yes, he was very icy - sorry, no pun intended. He was obsessed with his lost love, which gave him some depth. I remember the statue; it was supposed to be this object of heart-breaking beauty. We came on the set and it looks like a fucking melted lolly! What could we do about stuff like that?
Ignoring criticisms of other elements, it's gotta' be said that Briggs is a really skilled writer, good on construction. I did have to keep hammering away about the thriller thing, because he came from a background of writing non-thriller material. But he'd a really good writer because he gets passionately committed to things and he writes about people's emotions. When he invents a character, they've got something going for them emotionally.
A problem was he hadn't written science fiction before, as a lot of the writers hadn't and I had to keep hammering that too. It's a thriller, a suspense story; it's got to have these punches at certain stages.
I remember Dragonfire has got one of my favourite bits of Briggs' writing, where Briggs has the Doctor trying to go into Glitz's spaceship and discusses philosophy with the guard.
And the great joke after it where Belazs says she is going to killed the Doctor and he says she's an existentialist.
Did you laugh when you saw that?
Well, that was the reaction we were after. The BBC used to have this procedure where you'd go to the Head of Drama, or Head of Series in the case of Who, and show them the episodes. And these guys, their minds were obviously elsewhere, they had big time jobs. We showed him this episode and he went and made a cup of tea or something. I expected him to roar with laughter at that scene, instead he wasn't even in the room. I'm very glad somebody got the joke, because I loved that.
The character of Ace is established well in just a few lines of dialogue...
Well, that's Briggs' background, writing very realistic real world characters. I can't say he created Ace because John and I did a draft of the character, because of the BBC notion that otherwise Briggs might own Ace and get royalties. The edict was this shouldn't happen, so effectively John and I developed a new companion, but Briggs breathed life into her. We probably had a terribly two-dimensional stereotype, but he brought her fantastically to life, so in that sense, he's responsible for Ace. And Sophie [Aldred] was perfect for the role too.
I remember in Dragonfire, there's a scene where she's goes back to her room and throws herself on her bed, putting her hands behind her head. And there was this appalled comment from the floor manager: 'We can't use this - she hasn't shaved under her arms.' I was sitting there thinking it was quite sexy but I was out-voted. The unshaven armpits of a female companion could bring down the nation.
One of the things we wanted to do in Dragonfire was something like the cantina scene in Star Wars. But without a decent budget... Excuse me, but I'm about to slip into broken record mode here. The set for Iceworld was a very imaginative set. It wasn't designed to look strictly real; there were things that were just painted. But the designer, John Asbridge, was a very skilled guy. He took a sort of expressionist approach with things so that when correctly lit they would look very dramatic, very real. And, of course, this is where snooker lighting came into effect. The set for the cantina scene was lit so it looked just like a set, as did all the others. Everything would have benefited from sympathetic lighting.
Something which stands out in Dragonfire is the music, by Dominic Glynn, quite an under-rated talent...
Dominic and I became friends during that period because I was always a bit of a soundtrack fan and I recognised the quality of his work. Dominic was far and away the best composer we worked with. There's two tricks to making soundtracks that work. One is to do good music, the other is to stick it only where it's necessary. He's now writing rave music - and doing quite well.
There's a gaping plot hole or two in Dragonfire, like why has Kane waited three thousand years to send anybody down in the depths to find the dragon...
I can't remember the story. I could look it up and solve that plothole for you, or it could just be a fuck-up! I doubt it, though. We were quite careful about things like that. For fans, the stories are constantly alive in their minds, but for people who worked on those stories, well, they've moved on.
The thing I liked about Dragonfire was there were a couple of nice revelations, like there's this monster but it's a synthetic monster and inside the monster is this jewel, which is the McGuffin they're looking for. Then that turns out to be the ignition key for the city, which turns out to be a whole spaceship.
A lot of McCoy stories suffer from some really lame cliffhangers...
The worst one is at the end of Dragonfire Part One. In Briggs' script, the Doctor climbs as far as he possibly can along this path in an ice cliff, then he is forced to climb down the face of the cliff itself. This all makes perfect sense in the script - he's on his way somewhere, the path runs out, he has no alternative, he has to start climbing downwards.
But the way it's shot! He's walking along, then, for apparently no reason, suddenly he dangles himself over the edge. Someone rang me up and said why does he do this? The problem is when you've got the script and you know what's supposed to be happening, when it's expressed on the screen like that, you don't question it. But if you're just a viewer watching this, there's no apparent reason for his actions.
One of the things the director has to bear in mind is the viewers don't know the script. Something to do with the essential film grammar of that scene was missing.
Also, when you're editing, sometimes you'll find your cliffhanger has fallen three minutes before the end of the show. So you did get some weak cliffhangers, because they were never intended as cliffhangers. But if you tried to re-edit to compensate, the knock-on effect through the rest of the story would make matters even worse.
THE DARK DOCTOR
When Season 25 began, something had changed. Suddenly we had a Doctor who was manipulating events, doing things, this mythical dark Doctor. The dark Doctor is ascribed to you, Ben Aaronovitch and Marc Platt...
Do we have to include Ben and Marc? [Laughs] The thing about the Doctor's character... You always learn by doing, so I'd done one season. Also we had a new companion. When you've got Bonnie on screen, you've got a certain expectation of comedy or lightness or something. Now the whole ball game had changed.
I was learning as I went along. And I remember getting a letter from a fan during my earliest season. This guy said whatever you do watch The Seeds of Doom and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. You have to remember I came into this thing on the fly and when you walked into John's office, you had an entire wall of videos. What do you pick first?
We were doing a certain kind of monster, so he said watch The Caves of Androzani. It soon became obvious to me that Robert Holmes was a special writer. Anyway, this guy's letter said, watch these two stories. So I watched Seeds and thought this is good. It's got a lot of Day of the Triffids and The Things from Outer Space in it, but it's quite good.
But Talons of Weng-Chiang blew me away. That showed me how good Holmes was and really gives you a grasp of what the Doctor's capable of. I probably would have seen that story eventually, but it's was better to see it sooner rather than later. So thank you to that letter writer. Having seen that, I began to formulate the Doctor in a better way, or in a more interesting way.
Also, when you have a super powered character, you really want them to appear as little as possible, because if they're there too much, they can solve all the problems in the story too easily.
If you have the Doctor wandering around, manipulating everything, being responsible, in a shadowy kind of fashion, it's a great plot device. Why is the Doctor interfering? Because he's playing this chess game, and it makes the Doctor an interesting character, quite potent and dark and powerful.
I remember having this chat with Sylvester, probably during Season 25, where we said the Doctor is like a distant mountain range, mistily seen, an imposing power from a distance. A damn sight easier to plot, too.
This version of the Doctor, I have a lot more respect for him. I always hated it when he was zapped on the head or knocked unconscious and tied up. I always thought that was demeaning to him. If he does get tied up, it should be that it was h is plan all along.
In one sense it's the cheapest, crassest plot device possible; in another it's a stroke of characterisation that gives you chills down the spine. He should be this enigma. It all goes back to Doctor Who? The mysterious, scary, powerful Doctor.
So why the dark Doctor?
It struck me this was the most interesting way to do the show. You could crack on and do some really exciting television.
REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS
So how did you choose the writers for Season 25?
One of the first things I did, on my first couple of days at the BBC was talk to this great script editor called Caroline Oulton, who had edited a series called Inside Out. Caroline's now an executive producer at the BBC, she's one of the head honchos in drama. One day she wandered into my office and said here's this script by this guy I think you might be interested in. And it was a Ben Aaronovitch script. I remember reading it on the train home and I was enjoying it so much I just had to put it down and look out the window so I could savour it. I didn't want it to end.
Ben had written this Doctor Who pilot. It wouldn't work for Who but it was full of great dialogue, an obvious grasp of science fiction. All these wonderful qualities shone through - just fucking brilliant! I got on the phone to him almost immediately and invited him into the office.
I think John suggested we've got to get some grand old monsters back, let's do a Dalek story. I think I should name my first ulcer after Terry Nation's agent!
Another of John's qualities was having faith in people. No matter if they had no track record, if he believed in them he'd give the go-ahead. If I really believed in a writer, I could convey it to John and he'd go with it. These people came out of nowhere - Ben had no track record, Ian had no track record, Malcolm had no track record. Having worked with other producers now, I realise how lucky I was then. John deserves credit for that but he doesn't get it from fans, perhaps because he d id too much. You can only do so much Who before you start drawing all the flak.
So John said yes, Ben could do a Dalek story. Ben was crazy about the notion. I was never a Doctor Who fan, but I remember, when I was growing up in Canada, seeing the show, and this weird black and white story with Thals wandering around - the first Dalek story. And the Daleks themselves were terrifying. I remember where they disable one and this evil mound of great big jello comes slithering out and I never forgot that.
So in my head, Doctor Who was this terrifying kind of thing and the Daleks were a great icon to me too. Ben was delighted to do the story. What happened was the scripts were already virtually written, John went on holiday and I sent the scripts to Roger Hancock. And he basically played games to get more money for Terry, like any other agent would do. Those games consisted of saying things like ooh, not sure about these scripts mate. And that was a terrifying thing to hear at that stage. Everything turned out fine in the end but it was a bit of a nightmare early on.
Ben was not a total Doctor Who fan before he got work on the show, but once he was commissioned, he checked out all the tapes and assimilated it all. He knew more about the Daleks in 30 seconds than I ever would. He knew to start the story title with an 'R', he knew all about the history of the Daleks, he had the galactic map!
Remembrance has a very similar basic plot to Silver Nemesis...
Thank you for pointing that out to me. The script convergence. When you've got a bunch of different writers, it's like a wheel, the writers are the spokes and you, the script editor, are the hub of the wheel. Even without meaning to, it's quite easy for stuff like that to happen. Obviously nobody sits down and goes 'Right! Let's have four stories this season and make two of them the same.'
It's not even like you suggest plot elements to a writer. They come in and you might suggest emphasising some elements - to use a musical analogy, you might say let's have more sax solo. And lo and behold, you've done the same thing twice. I guess that's just down to my unconscious thought processes. Abject apology - sorry folks! Two good stories, so you can't complain too much.
Remembrance has some wonderfully subsidiary characters, like Group Captain Gilmore and Rachel...
I liked the love affair between Ace and the treacherous Mike. That was really good.
Ace always falls for men in uniform who promptly turn out to be the enemy, as in Curse of Fenric...
It's Jagged Edge, isn't it? At least we put that one in a different season! I wonder what we're revealing about my subconscious processes now...
Remembrance has the classic cliffhanger of the Dalek going up the stairs. Who suggested that?
Probably Ben. I think he said he was sick of this thing about the Daleks and stairs, let's explode everybody's preconceptions and have the Dalek go up the stairs; scare them silly in the process. A brilliant flourish. That's pure Ben.
A flash of memory: I went with the director, Andrew Morgan, to the street where we were shooting the school and he looked up and said 'Oh my God, it's Macbeth Street!' He came from a theatrical background and Macbeth is a jinx in the theatre. But it went without a hitch. I remember it snowed while we were shooting it which lent it a nice aspect. It felt like a grim, 60s London, social realism. It proved four-parters can be done...
It's got lovely lines like 'Unlimited rice pudding!'
Ben would just come up with this stuff, just hilarious. The whole way the character of the Doctor was handled, the humour, coupled with this vast, dark alien aspect, he just got it spot on.
In one story the Doctor is transformed from a bumbling, spoons-playing slapstick fool into this dark manipulator.
It was certainly very powerful and strong. I think Sylvester was finding his footing. He was as happy as anyone to have this powerful character to play instead of this clownish character.
Makes a change from stuffing ferrets down your trousers...
I'm sure he did that very well too! But if you think about it, that background of the Ken Campbell Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool was perfect for the role. When I started, they hadn't even cast the role and John had no need to do this, but he let me sit in the corner while people came in to audition for the part.
Ken Campbell was one of the people who came in to read for the role, and so did Sylvester, who was his protégé. The thing about Ken's audition, if you think dark and scary, he was like this bull. The kind of Doctor he would have been would be much more violent, and powerful and unstoppable and much more unsympathetic. That would have been interesting too.
[Colin Baker's Doctor] was gentrified by comparison to this, positively cuddly. Ken's audition was dangerous. Sylvester could be dangerous, but you also felt you could trust him.
I mentioned before this BBC ritual where you have to show them every episode. At that time the Head of Series and Serials was Mark Shivas. This episode had my favourite sequence where Ace is living in the boarding house. She's about to go out and sees this sign in the window. She turns it over and it says 'No Coloureds'. I thought this was fantastic because we have these sympathetic people who turn out to be racist, because of the time they were living in.
Shivas was on the phone during this bit - they were always on the phone - so I made him rewind and watch it, because I was so proud. He was a bit pissed off but the thing he said, and he was right, was we should have had Ace tear the sign up, because then her disapproval would have been totally concrete. As it was, there was a chance it could be misinterpreted. That's one regret about Remembrance.
THE HAPPINESS PATROL
Next was The Happiness Patrol, a story apparently packed with subtext...
If memory serves, there were three phases to that. I remember saying to Graeme [Curry], yeah, yeah, making it an attack on Thatcherism, totally. Then, of course, we'd soft pedal, saying no, no, of course it's not like that. Then Sheila Hancock, without anybody saying anything to her, totally latched on to it and just played it like Thatcher. So Graeme and Sheila would go to conventions together and someone would ask if Happiness Patrol was an attack on Thatcherism and Graeme would feel obliged to waffle for a bit, knowing he might get me into hot water if he said yes, then Sheila would say 'Of course it was!' [Laughs]
So, of course it was. But nobody intended it to be that and nothing more. We didn't want to produce something that could only function in its period.
Happiness Patrol doesn't suffer so much from snooker lighting...
Although that does turn up, in places like the Kandyman's kitchen. But you're right, it is darker in places and the director was gunning for that. You could make the lighting guy bring the lights down but it went against his nature. Even then, I felt it should have been darker.
Upon first watching, I didn't realise it was meant to be set mostly outside on the streets at night. I thought the whole city was set inside some huge, monolithic dome...
The dome's a nice idea, we should have thought of that. But that's always a problem with studio-bound stories; they always look like they're indoors, no matter how hard you try.
Was it a problem, with the Kandyman looking too much like a heavily copyrighted character symbolising a certain brand of liquorice allsorts?
The Kandyman was meant to look like a stick of candy rock or something, but the designer did a fantastic job, creating this liquorice allsorts man instead. There was a certain amount of trepidation that this might invite all sorts of litigation, but thankfully it didn't. It was a wonderful idea but I could understand higher-ups being worried.
The problem with suits like the Kandyman had, it completely masks their features. If you give them very witty lines, like the Kandyman did have, they kind of get lost. The characterisation gets lost. Graeme did a nice, subtle job on the Kandyman. He was a very black, comic character.
The Happiness Patrol had this sinister aspect of taking all these childish things and made them dangerous, the sort of thing that gets used mentioned unfavourably in Parliament.
A comics writer I've always admired is Alan Moore and when I first got on the show, I tried to get him on board. I actually spoke to him on the phone but he was too caught up in other stuff. But one thing he said about Doctor Who was that it was scariest when it poked into dark nursery corners. That was harking back to the Hartnell years, but The Happiness Patrol tried to probe those corners too. The Kandyman was a figure of fun yet he was totally homicidal, and he had sweets that can kill you. That sort of thing.
It came about because I'd read a radio play by Graeme called Over the Moon, which was about football, of all things. But I could tell from it that the guy could write. So I got him in and asked for story ideas. It was painful at first, he'd keep coming up with stories but we couldn't get one to click. He'd just about given up hope of ever doing one. We went all through the same thing with Robin Mukherjee.
Finally Graeme came in one day, slumped in a chair in the office, and said: 'What about a planet where everybody has to be happy, and if they're not, they're executed.' Bingo! He'd done it! There were torments and rewrites to come, but the story was on.
All the while we were working on it we just called it The Happiness Patrol to have something to call it. Eventually we had to come up with a proper title, so Graeme called it The Crooked Smile but John said. 'For God's sake, call it The Happiness Patrol.'
Fans always wanted the show to be dark and punchy, and as soon as they heard about a story was called The Happiness Patrol, they formed preconceptions about it. Another problem was a lot of the costumes and the elements were this kitsch holiday camp thing, presented as sinister, but I think some fans lacked the irony to see beyond the surface, to see it was this horrible concentration camp.
I loved the bit with the Waiting Zone...
Sort of Kafka meets the Marx Brothers - that's Graeme all over.
By this time I'd started to think of Who in classic television terms, with shows like Quatermass and The Avengers in the mix. But a show I've always loved was The Prisoner, and The Happiness Patrol reflects that.
Next was the silver anniversary story, Silver Nemesis, a story that's mythic for the amount of material that had to be cut out of the final broadcast version...
Something people don't realise about the timing of scripts is it's really hard. You can have two scripts, both 63 pages long - which by convention means they should run for 63 minutes - but they can end up being wildly different time lengths. In years of dealing with directors, producers and writers, I come to realise no one can precisely time a script. There might be somebody out there with this magical ability but I think they're one in a million.
For me, a story is first the script, then the rushes. I might watch it on broadcast, but the material that's missing is still in my head, so I don't notice. Silver Nemesis does have a lot of plot elements - the modern-day Nazis, the 16th Century pair, the Cybermen, the Doctor and Ace, but it's a fairly straightforward story, isn't it? Maybe one too many elements.
You're right, it was something of a reprise of Remembrance, but the thinking had evolved about the Doctor, about him being in charge of things. And in Silver Nemesis you've even got the metaphor of the chessboard on screen. Perhaps I felt there was something touched upon in Remembrance that could be taken even further...
Elements of Silver Nemesis work very well, like the Robert Holmes-ian pairing of Lady Peinforte and Richard...
Kevin [Clarke] didn't have any Who background at all, so that was totally original; he just wrote those characters very well.
But the Nazis are just cannon fodder...
Well, you do need cannon fodder in some stories. Actually, we were at pains to always refer to them as paramilitaries, to avoid any kind of affront - but of course, they were Nazis.
Silver Nemesis isn't a patch on Remembrance...
Well, I think Kevin's script was brilliant, and without naming names, if that didn't come across on screen, that's due to other factors in the production process rather than the script itself.
There was a story circulating that Silver Nemesis would reveal who the Doctor really is, but it proved to be a giant tease...
Oh yeah, yeah. Well, of course, there's no way you could really say who the Doctor truly is, that's he is So and So. We had begun to push towards this notion that the Doctor had god-like powers and was this vastly powerful, almost supernatural being. And John didn't like it at all, he felt this was verging on religion, the last thing he wanted to do.
Kevin was all for going the distance on that. I suppose there was a collision there and it was cut back but I could see John's point of view. It was a kids' show, you didn't want all that controversy. Having built up this great revelation about the Doctor's secret, we had painted ourselves into a corner a bit.
Just as we managed to get the motorcycle for Malcolm in Delta, we managed to make a dream come true for Kevin on Silver Nemesis. Kevin had this thing, let's get Courtney Pine to do the music, Britain's best jazz musician, and I said Kevin! He'll never do it! But John said try him and he agreed. So there was this fantastic day one weekend where Kevin and I went into the studio to watch Courtney record the music for the show. It was a great moment and he seemed a decent guy too, it was fantastic.
THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY
The season ends with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy [also by Stephen Wyatt]...
Which is the only one I've watched recently, so on your guard!
That was four episodes, but could have been three...
Yeah, possibly. Too much running around.
There's a great performance by Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown.
Yeah, there's a lovable kind of madness and menace to him which the performance brings across. Again, Greatest Show has that Prisoner element to it. The menace is things that should be happy, like the circus, where you're supposed to enjoy yourself. The hearse and the top hats at the start.
There were two lighting directors on Greatest Show and eventually the director got more sympathetic lighting, but you can still see sequences that are quite flatly lit. Others are much more moody...
There's nice elements like the billowing white tent walls, which are like something out of a Doctor Phibes movie by Robert Fuest. The colours and the costumes for the clowns were great, the costume designer did some of the finest work I've ever seen on Doctor Who. The make-up was very good too.
But it also featured the half-buried robot, which I didn't like very much. Scenes like that, you hope it will be realised effectively but that particular one wasn't. Money and personnel again...
There's lots of nice cameos in Greatest Show...
We did the rather cruel thing of destroying a fanboy. There was a lot of laughter on the set when we finally executed that fucker, I can tell you! Well justified. I remember sitting around on the set with T. P. McKenna, him talking about working with Sam Peckinpah on Straw Dogs, we had people of real calibre.
One of things we didn't do in Greatest Show, which I still regret, was give the character of Mags, the punk female werewolf, a thick Glaswegian accent. Fans always accuse the show and John of being too lightweight comedy but it was John who fought against that kind of thing, it was John who said we can't have that, it's going too far. Having watched it again, I still regret not doing that. Jessica Martin was a very good mimic and - call me frivolous, call me insane - I think a Glaswegian accent would have added a whole new element it otherwise lacked. But John felt it wasn't serious enough.
The story really puts the boot into hippies...
[Laughs] Puts the boot into corrupt, failed hippies. Hippies who sell out.
THE FINAL SEASON
Why was all of Season 26 Earth-based?
John favoured the more exotic settings but I put my shoulder behind Earth-based stuff, because I felt it worked better. The other thing I always vied for, which there was resistance to, was monsters that looked like human beings. I knew that if we had a monster that was just a person with long fingernails and fangs and contact lenses, it could be done beautifully. Whereas as soon as you get into anything more elaborate, you get into a gap where make-up or effects or costumes may leave you with a monster that's just funny or cuddly. That's a big danger, cuddly monsters. For example, the Cheetah people in Survival. Or The Caves of Androzani, a very good story, the dragon in that doesn't look alive, it looks like a Chinese New Year's parade dragon. I was glad we had all Earth-based in Season 26, although I suspect a lot of fans weren't happy about that.
There's a near-total absence of the TARDIS...
I did have an agenda, more Earth-based stories, more humanoid monsters, less of the TARDIS. The TARDIS is great, but the less you see of it the better. I particularly disliked people having arguments in their bedrooms in the TARDIS, it was like Neighbours with roundels on the wall. The TARDIS is this spooky machine that transports you through time and space and it's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. But beyond that, it's just a plot device.
Sure it's a cheap set to shoot, but it's terribly brightly lit and looks like a plastic control room. Also you'd get shots of the TARDIS flying through space - why? It's a time machine! I have a kind of revisionist view of the TARDIS.
What influence did Sylvester and Sophie have over their characters?
All stars wield more influence the longer they're with a show. Sylvester and Sophie never got difficult, but they certainly became more comfortable with their characters.
How did you choose the writers for Season 26?
Some of the writers I had used had moved on. Kevin was now writing for Minder, I had been lucky to get him in between commissions, but now he was making far too much money elsewhere to do Who again. Stephen had done two on the trot; Malcolm had gone on to write his American mini-series.
Ben, of all the writers, he was the ultimate Doctor Who writer because he had a real feeling for Who. With other writers, I felt I was the custodian of Who. It wasn't about whether other writers were fans, because often fans have no objectivity, lots of knowledge but no objectivity. Although Ben in isolation could not create the perfect script, he was - at that time and place - the perfect Doctor Who writer. So wheel on Ben.
And he wrote Battlefield, which apparently re-jigged elements from a previous idea he'd submitted.
I can't remember the exact circumstances, but I did name the story Battlefield. The site of the story was an ancient battlefield and it suggested the whole story was a battlefield, a metaphor for greater forces. But that story was also a less on in objectivity for me.
For some reason Ben couldn't write a speech for the final episode of Battlefield so I ended up writing it. So I wrote this speech and it went on for pages. Ben looked at it and said this goes on for too long. I said no! Don't be ridiculous - every words stays! When it hit the screen, people were falling asleep in droves so we edited it right down. It was a very valuable lesson for me. I could always edit other people's material but I have trouble editing my own. It was the CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] speech at the end of episode four.
Battlefield has a lot of returning elements from Who continuity, from the past - UNIT, the Brigadier...
Ben loved all that stuff. He knows all about ranks and how many units in a battalion. And he loves doing research about UNIT and things like that.
In an interview he said the story was originally three parts and it was padded out to four...
I can't remember the exact thought processes at the time, but it made sense for the two established writers - Ben and Ian - to write the four-parters while the new writers did the three-parters.
After a big hit, people want to see someone screw up. And after the Dalek story, there seemed to be a surge of hatred from the fans towards Ben. Briggs seemed to avoid that, maybe because he had one season off. He'd had a year away and maybe expectation wasn't so high for him - Dragonfire wasn't the classic that Remembrance was. Although, of course, Fenric reached that level.
Ben is very articulate and isn't afraid of talking to the fan press. One of the reasons I've avoided giving interviews myself is you're asking for trouble. Say nothing and they've got to fight your Sphinx-like silence.
A lot of the shows, there are aspects of them I cringe to think about, the lighting or sometimes the costumes or make-up or a particular visual effect. But Battlefield I think was well mounted, well directed. Perhaps it didn't reach some of the peaks of Remembrance but as a plateau, I felt it was almost that good all the way through. The Dalek story has more ups and downs within it, but I know that is not perceived fan wisdom. In ten years time, people might look back and think this was a great story.
There was a rumour that the Brigadier would die in Battlefield, a rumour that's usually attributed to JNT.
That wasn't just a JNT rumour, all the way along we definitely toyed with the idea, but the problem was ultimately we liked the guy too much. The Brigadier does arrive very late in the story, but it starts and you think you're going to get the Brigadier but you get Bambera instead and then you get the Brigadier anyway. That kind of riff really appeals to me. It's a tease. There are elements of Battlefield I thought were genuinely spooky, like where Ace and the other girl are in the chalk circle.
The Destroyer is a great looking monster, but it's almost thrown away...
The BBC is capable of producing a great monster like that, but you couldn't predict when they'd do it. We were very conscious of alluding to The Devil Rides Out, witchcraft stories and pentagrams.
One of the things I liked about Battlefield is there's this casual line by one of the characters about having to phone from the pub, the phone in my car isn't working. Nowadays nobody would think twice about that, but at the time nobody had really foreseen car phones. Ben was very good at that, he could absorb the Doctor and writing for television but he also had that science fiction turn of mind. With some of the other writers, you had to try and get them into that way of thinking or just do it yourself when editing the scripts.
A lot of would-be scripts I'd get at the Who office, were just self-contradictory. They'd give you a future world that was inconsistent and implausible.
Costumes are a similar problem. For years in movies and TV if it was the future, everyone was either wearing Roman togas or white zipsuits. Blade Runner was a real turning point for that, because it recognised that fashion was cyclic and people in the future would wear fashions from the past, as people already do now.
One thing I was happy about we did on Paradise Towers. They were looking at a video recording at the start, and I inserted in the script that they should use a CD. Of course, in the future, it won't be a CD, it'll be something else, but at least it wasn't an old videotape.
But the phone in the car or two drinks costing five pounds in the pub, or the living currency the Doctor pulls out of his pocket. Those are the little touches that Ben was exemplary at.
Next was Ghost Light, a story that's semi-legendary for its complexities...
Actually, I thought Ghost Light was quite straight-forward! [Laughs]
At a convention I went to, Marc Platt was on a quiz show during the cabaret and his first question was, 'explain the plot of Ghost Light in 10 words or less'. He struggled a bit...
Okay, let me try. Bunch of aliens end up in Victorian house! If Marc can't explain it, I certainly can't. But it's a good, moody ghost story - superficially a ghost story which is actually about aliens in a Victorian house. I think the whole evolutionary theme is that survivors succeed. It is a very ornate story...
Ghost Light makes a virtue out of necessity, being studio-bound it's set all in one house, with a lovely, sparkling BBC set...
Well, at least, it glows like old mahogany. Marc was a fan who actually did a Doctor Who and is no doubt hated and envied in fandom for that. We got endless scripts. I can't tell you how many scripts we got from fans. The great thing about Marc was he sent in his work cold. He was working at the BBC at the time but there was no clue to that in his script. I liked the material and got in touch with him and then I discover he was working just up the road. Anybody else who was a fan and worked at the BBC would have put that at the very beginning of their letter. So I was impressed by that.
He'd sent me this great story which was utterly unfilmable. It wasn't Time's Crucible, which is all about the TARDIS with the TARDIS as a character - I always feel you're on thin ice with that. In the TARDIS anything can happen. I always like to have a fairly nailed down environment. In the TARDIS anything goes...
Lungbarrow was the precursor to Ghost Light, we almost got it on. It was all about the Doctor's family. John didn't go for Lungbarrow, so I regrouped my forces in my head and said why don't we do a Victorian story, with a lot of the elements of Lungbarrow, like the creepy household. So I said to John how about it? He went for it so I rang Marc and said you're doing this Victorian Earth-based story.
What can you tell me about Lungbarrow?
Reading back through the stuff we've already done, it sounded as though Lungbarrow was the first thing Marc had sent in. It wasn't. Lungbarrow was the first thing by Marc that was groomed as a potential script. Marc had sent in other stuff that was quite a way off. Lungbarrow was the first thing that I groomed to show to John. The Doctor goes home and faces his family. It was very Gormenghast, full of Mervyn Peake intricacies, dark and gothic.
Lungbarrow was the name of the Doctor's home and it was actually a sentient being. Marc had worked out all this stuff about the history of the Time Lords. In contrast to most of the stories we see set on Gallifrey, people in spangly togas and a brightly-lit place, this would have been enormously, sort of The Addams Family on acid. There were a lot of great things about it, mostly the mood.
When John was presented with it, he felt it was too way out for a lot of reasons. In retrospect I have to say I'm kind of glad, because we then came up with another Earth-based story. And I'm very glad of recognisable settings. Lungbarrow was the antithesis of that - the Doctor doing weird things in an extremely weird setting, even by the standards of Who.
The Victorian cobwebbiness of Lungbarrow was one of the best things about it, so we stole that mood, that feel, and a few other elements and came up with Ghost Light.
There's a link from Lungbarrow, being the Doctor's family's home, to the Doctor's house, which appeared in your DWM strip Fellow Travellers, in your New Adventure novel Warhead and was also in Ben Aaronovitch's New Adventure, Transit.
Yes, Ben picked up on that, bless him. Kind of validated it.
The Doctor's house is loosely based on the house where I grew up in Kent, because I'm familiar with it. I'm very fond of that English haunted house in a flourishing green garden image. I think I called the house Smithwood Manor in a comic strip, but giving it a name killed it, so now it's just The House on Allen Road. The local kids keep renaming it Alien Road, as if they're aware of something strange going on there. It a romanticised version of my family's house.
But it's great because you've got these weird outbuildings and strange artefacts lying around. Whereas the TARDIS is a weird environment and I think keeping a weird character like the Doctor in a weird environment for too long is like putting a painting in too ornate a frame. I like having this place where the Doctor can keep returning too. In fact, there's quite a lot of it in the new novel, I was just writing a section set there today.
Being a period story, the BBC could cope well with its needs for costumes, props...
That was something we'd noticed on Delta. You get these people who didn't necessarily want to work on Doctor Who, that were being rotated through the BBC system and weren't enthusiastic about working for you. Some of them respond to the challenge of science fiction by trying to do something really interesting, others just don't have any reference point. They don't like SF, they think it's silly, they don't give it their best shot.
But as soon as you say 1958 or Victorian England they go crazy with enthusiasm, they love it. And you want that, you want people's enthusiasm, you want the team on your side.
Ghost Light suffers in the sound mixing, the music's too loud in a lot of places and you miss vital chunks of the dialogue.
Perhaps there's a flaw in the script, because missing one line shouldn't make the whole story incomprehensible. One thing I learned was never have important dialogue and action at the same time. Of course in Ghost Light, you do get Ace cross-dressing!
There's a lovely moment where the bells chime, panels slide back and maids almost float out from inside.
That was Alan Wareing, and oddly enough, his reference point for that was The Blues Brothers. In that a nun at the beginning comes rolling out on a trolley. Alan was great, he'd watch other stuff for ideas, like The Blues Brothers or an ad where they'd made people's eyes glow and he'd say let's do it like that. Other directors wouldn't give you that input. Leaping ahead, when we were doing Survival, he actually went to the zoo and looked at cheetahs, which is more than Rona or I ever did. I don't know how much good it did him, but at least he did the research.
Ghost Light has a lot of reference points to Alice in Wonderland, and some very cruel soup jokes - 'The cream of Scotland Yard.' When Marc was writing that, he didn't have a word processor, so we'd get these hand-typed pages with pieces of paper stuck on top. All the writers ended up with word processors pretty quick, after draft 97.
Season 25 was the 'Dark Doctor' season, but nearly all the stories - except Battlefield - focus on Ace and her character, her background.
I think John picked up on that in Season 25 and felt it was going too far. With Ace, it's perhaps because she's from Perivale, she had a real world environment. So if you've got a writer who wants to deepen the characterisation, they couldn't do a lot with the Doctor, so they've got a choice of Ace or one of the other characters.
All the stories were Earth-based, but Battlefield was the only future Earth story and that's the one where Ace gets shortest shrift. That's a tendency with historical settings, she sort of plugs into it. I don't think she's that strong in Ghost Light...
Oh, yes. We discover she's an amateur teenage arsonist, and the house is the house in Perivale she'll torch in 100 years time...
Oh yeah. There was some cross-pollination between Ben and Marc, which is all to the good.
There's the line about unrequited love and burnt toast.
Yeah, burnt toast - that was another great speech from Marc. I mentioned Alan Moore and dark nursery corners - that was what this was all about, we had the weird rocking horse.
THE CURSE OF FENRIC
The Curse of Fenric is probably the most popular Who story for fans from your era...
I remember sitting round with [Ian] Briggs, working on the plot, the dark Viking curse and the World War II thing. There was a constant attempt to make things more interesting - instead of having Germans, we had Russians, the British were virtually the bad guys. It was a cold war story, very sophisticated. It might end up as the best one we did during my tenure, although I also have other favourites. It scores so strongly in some many ways. I don't go a bundle on the Haemovores...
The scene where they come out of the water is very dramatic, if a straight rip-off from The Sea Devils...
I doubt Briggs or I had seen Sea Devils at the time, but we were probably aware of it. John was conscious of not being too scary for children, so we didn't call them vampires; we had to call them haemovores instead.
You mentioned all the different title changes of Fenric. A lot of people had trouble, perhaps it was a fault of the stories; they were too complex. We were trying to decide what to call it, it had been The Wolves of Fenric and finally I said why not call it The Curse of Fenric, because that explains the whole thing, about the curse coming down through the ages. That title solved millions of problems, because people could get a handle on what was going on.
A lot of Fenric evolved from Briggs talking to me and ideas bouncing back and forth. I liked the fact the characters all had their own agendas, such as the different Russian soldiers, without making it too complicated.
When we were plotting it, we were stuck on some plot point. And Briggs said, 'Ah! The way to solve this is to think about the history of the characters. One of the characters is responsible for the scientist being in the wheelchair, because of a sporting injury when they were schoolboys.' I always thought in terms of plot and more plot, another piece of plot. But Briggs worked with plot springing from the characters themselves. That opened my eyes - Briggs was teaching me what he knew.
Another things Briggs did which I subsequently used in my own writing is he doesn't write in sequence. If he wants to write a scene at the end, then a scene from the middle, he will. He writes in a sort of patchwork fashion and its very liberating when you realise you can do that, because you don't get blocked writing something dull when you're rather be doing another scene further ahead that you're excited about. Or when you reach a scene you're not ready to write yet, you can skip ahead and do something else.
What came first in that story, what was the first idea?
It's very difficult to re-evoke this in exact detail. But one thing was Alan Moore had done this story about aquatic vampires for Swamp Thing, so when I was knocking about looking for serviceable monsters for Who, that went into the mix. Briggs is very knowledgeable about Vikings and runes. World War II setting? Great, that's one of the best things about Fenric. That was probably an early plank of it.
There's an element of retro-active continuity, references back to Silver Nemesis and the first Ace story, which Briggs also wrote.
I remember there were things Briggs wanted to achieve, that he felt Dragonfire hadn't done. So he had an agenda. I remember we sat around for ages talking ideas, I think London during the Blitz might have been one. And there's references to the code-breaker Alan Turing, early data processing, all of this went in. Briggs is an egghead. He's a very good writer and poet but he's also an egghead, he knows a lot of stuff.
Survival is the final story broadcast - to date. It's got some wonderful material but it's also got that animatronic cat...
The aggravation we got from that animatronic cat! I won't slag off the people involved in this case, because I know the guys involved were very dedicated, they were totally behind it. They'd worked and they'd worked but the thing wasn't quite ready. It got to a point where we had to say we'll shoot some more stuff the next day, and they worked night and day again to get it ready. So you might be disparaging of what you saw on the show, but the animatronic cat on screen is a lot better than the one there on the first day! The problem is you can't train cats like you can a dog. The director said that the first time he read the scripts we knew it was a potential problem. But yeah, the cat doesn't look real and it blows it.
What inspired Survival?
The BBC liked to encourage new writers. I went along to a new writers bash and got loads of scripts from people and Rona's was the standout script. It didn't have anything to do with Who [it was about baby-minders] but Rona chimed because she was a good writer and because she liked fantasy.
So I encouraged her, said we were looking for a story that was only partly Earth-based, because that was as much as I could get away with. We started talking about animal experimentation. She was also into feminist/occult symbology, things that have been associated with women, wise women down through the years, like the cat symbol, reflections of the moon in water, all this witchcraft kind of stuff. She was happy to weave that in. She also brought absolute authority to this feral aspect, Ace getting drawn into this more feral world. I thought Rona evoked that beautifully.
Here was a writer, writing from her own obsessions and inspirations, on a path that was parallel with Who, that was what you wanted. You wanted to get the best out of someone and get something that was Who. The Master was, I think, John's suggestion but Rona weaved him in, made good use of him. He's a Machiavellian manipulator, who's corrupting and infiltrating yet being corrupted himself at the same time.
The whole survival of the fittest Darwinian thing, tooth and claw, that all came out of Rona's head. I actually thought Survival was the perfect title for it - I was into terse titles at the time. I'm not sure she liked it.
Wasn't it called Catflap at one point?
Oh yeah...Rona was into science fiction and dimensional travel, like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Catflap was a great title but far too tongue in cheek. It would have suffered the same fate as The Happiness Patrol, fans reviling it because of its name. And I doubt even the man in the street would have had the depth of irony to enjoy it. It's probably just as well we didn't call it that. I had to say, sorry Rona, but Survival it is. Rona had a catflap and I remember her saying to me you never know what you're going to get through it. Next door's cat or a dog or anything. It's a feral thing, get in through the catflap. And that was what was happening in the story too, all these things shifting and getting in to other dimensions. Catflap would have been a wonderfully poetic title, but Survival it had to be.
The Master standing around, stroking the kitling, was incredibly reminiscent of Blofeld in the James Bond movies...
Yes Donald Pleasence in a volcano has always been an enduring image for me... [Laughs]
Survival was the final story broadcast and it ends with the Doctor and Ace walking back to the TARDIS, with a dubbed over a final monologue from Sylvester that concludes the show - 'people made of smoke, somewhere the tea's getting cold...'
Yeah, that obscure Marc Platt style burnt toast bit - I think I might be responsible for that. I think that's why I ended up writing that speech, because we weren't sure the show was ever coming back. And there was this great responsibility to leave the series open for continuation or to put some final words that would echo honestly. That was quite a sad moment, what a shame...
So Survival was wrapping up, Season 26 was coming to an end - how did the end come?
We were told to wait and see about another season, but there was definitely a flavour of you'll have to wait a very long time. I was head-hunted for a job on Casualty. John and I could have gone on planning Who but there's no fun working if you don't know anything's going to come out at the end of the day.
You mentioned trying to get Alan Moore to write for the show...
Alan actually said yeah. He'd go round to conventions, comic conventions, saying he had this other iron in the fire that he was writing for TV - meaning Doctor Who. But he was too busy. He's also a very nice, generous man, and probably made a few too many commitments than he could actually keep. If I'd got him a few months earlier, before Watchmen took off, he might have done it.
Then again, I don't regret it. I so admired Alan Moore and his writing, and I'm sure it would have been a rough ride. All the writers had a rough ride; it was this B-movie process working under fire. This guy was a hero of mine - could I be objective about his work? I could have been, but I probably would have had some bad feelings about it.
Even just talking to Alan Moore on the phone was quite stimulating. He said he'd like to take the Time Lords and turn them into a bunch of bad guys. He'd had a lot of fun doing that with the old Charlton superheroes in Watchmen. He was quite happy just to sit and talk. There was a ritual for new potential writers who weren't familiar with science fiction to give them the Halo Jones books [collected albums of Alan Moore's Halo Jones strip from 2000AD].
Any other examples of stories that got a long way like Lungbarrow, but never made it to the screen?
It was rare for things to go too far with being broadcast, because that would involve somebody parting with some money. Money was so tight that if you paid a writer, you sort of had to go ahead with the story. There were several writers who came in, had discussions but it didn't go much further, or never got followed up, like the guy who writes Taggart, Glenn Chandler, or Chris Russell, who later became the backbone of The Bill.
There was a professional writer who kept trying but just kept getting further and further from the mark. And I got to a point where I couldn't really encourage him anymore. Some people just couldn't get the mind-set. One thing I learned was never have a meeting with someone before you read their stuff.
There was one writer called Charles Vincent who was very good, had the right sort of sensibility. And I've often thought if I'd stayed on with Who, he probably would have gotten work. I hope he did all right. I always felt a terrible responsibility for the writers, especially those who had talent, but there just wasn't enough stories or time...
Virtually all your predecessors as script editors wrote for the show, either out of necessity -
- or avarice!
Or avarice. Did you ever consider writing a story yourself?
If we'd done another series, I think I probably would've taken a crack at it. It's one of my lingering regrets that I didn't. The thing is, you're there, you have the opportunity to do so. Basically I was too honourable to do it. I know that sounds crazy, but I really thought I should give writers a chance. I wasn't hurting for money. There've been times since when I've thought I wish I'd had that x-thousand pounds if I'd written it, and the residuals, and - above all - the screen credit and the experience.
But in all honesty, I always felt that if I commissioned myself, it would be an incestuous thing to do. The only way I could have gotten away with it would have been if I'd written a great one. I remember trying to plot out a story for Season 27 if it happened. I was on holiday in Turkey. I'd never had any kind of trouble or imaginative block suggesting things to writers. But when I tried to do it myself, I thought, shit! I can't think of anything! It's probably a good thing that I didn't, because I'd much rather not have done one than done a bad one, or failed to do one.
SEASON 27: WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
TSV has just run an article about what Season 27 would have been like, if it had gone ahead. It suggests that it was 'common knowledge in fandom' [laughter] that you always said you would only do three seasons as script editor on Who...
I was ready for a change. But if I'd had to do another season, I would've been resourceful, used a blend of new and old writers. I think it would've been great. We would have had a new companion, but Sylvester would've probably stayed on. Like that example with Ben, we were already thinking of ways to introduce the new companion.
The article suggests Sylvester would have stayed for a full season but Sophie was only willing to sign up for another eight episodes...
I think that would have been John's strategy, to bridge the way to a new companion, halfway through the series.
The article suggests Aaronovitch and Platt as the most likely candidates to script stories for 27...
It's quite likely they would've done. Certainly Ben, I always felt he was the Doctor Who writer at that time for the show. He could have been another Robert Holmes for Who...
On the list of regrets, if we had done another season, Ben and I had this great sequence that we'd cobbled together for introducing the new companion. There's a big mansion house, a big party going on, contemporary times, Britain. Full of debs, debutantes, a costume ball, a big upper class kind of party, people dripping with diamonds.
And there's this girl, this beautiful girl in a dress, she goes up this sweeping staircase. She goes down a long corridor and then into this room. She takes off her gloves and sweeps back the black curtains on one wall to reveal a huge safe. She kneels by the safe - she's a safe-cracker! - and spins the dial and cracks the safe. She opens the door and there's Sylvester jammed inside the safe and he says: 'What kept you?!' Bang and straight into the opening sequence. And the safecracker would have been our new companion.
I'm always sorry that we didn't get to use that. Sylvester being such a little guy, we could have done it.
That's almost like a typical Avengers 'Mrs Peel, we're needed' sequence.
I used to love all that stuff.
We wanted [a companion] who was street level like Ace, but more of an Emma Peel, an 'aristo' character, she could be quite intriguing. I think we would have gone for a girl companion; that always seemed the best option. I love the idea of her being a safecracker. Although there's a rough edge, she's always kind of a goodie. A darker companion would've been nice...
When were you happiest as script editor of Who?
I was happiest when things were going right! When I had a new writer coming on to work for the show. After the first season I had learnt a lot, so I think I was probably at my peak at the start of the third season. I knew a lot, but was still relatively fresh. Towards the end of season 25, start of season 26.
I have to say I thought the final season avoided the glaring errors we'd had earlier. We had Survival, Ghost Light, Battlefield and Fenric. There's not a real dud in them, not even one I felt had any big flaws. I felt that was a very high standard, some very mature, very adult stuff. I'm glad I did that third tour of duty, because in many ways that was a good as it was going to get.
From your 12 stories, any particular favourites that stand out?
There's a heady rush for the Dalek story. The scripts were more perfect than the final, finished product. Ben had these hilariously funny lines. The scripts were funny, scary, and the Doctor had come together as this dark figure. Remembrance of the Daleks was a great moment.
And Fenric. Fenric looked like this fantastic war movie.
Anything you particularly regret?
If I was to watch my first season again... I felt they were all flawed because I had a lot to learn, Sylvester was settling into the role, and we had the switch from Bonnie to Sophie. Watching stuff from that season would be the most cringe-worthy. Things got steadily darker and better as they went along.
You asked about any great moments. Great moments were things like Courtney Pine playing live as this beautiful country pub one summer's day. I remember getting a ride back with Sophie and Kevin Clarke and listening to Tracy Chapman's Fast Car, which was a big hit at the time - that was a great moment. Being in Macbeth Road as it snowed on the Dalek story.
Standing on North Acton tube station with Ben, waiting for a train, talking about what we would do if we get him writing for the show; that stands out...
Which do you prefer - script editing or writing?
Oh writing. You do a good day's writing and you feel sane and drained, you feel like you've got a place in the universe and you're doing what you always wanted to do.
Script editing is a craft, you're helping other writers, but it doesn't touch anything deep rooted within yourself like writing does...
Editor's Note: After this interview was published an edited version was printed in Doctor Who Magazine, with acknowledgement to TSV. The interview appeared in three instalments, covering Season 24: 'Dark Thoughts' (DWM 224, 12 April 1994, pages 4-8); Season 25: 'Dark Times' (DWM 225, 10 May 1995, pages 44-47); and Season 26: 'Dark Deeds' (DWM 226, 7 June 1995, pages 40-43).
This item appeared in TSV 40 (July 1994).