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Book Review

Book Cover

Doctor Who
The Writer's Tale (Hardback)


Authors: Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook
BBC Books
RRP: £30.00, US $44.95
ISBN: 978 1 846 07571 1
Available 25 September 2008

A unique look into the BBC's most popular family drama, Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale is a year in the life of the hit television series, as told by the show's Head Writer and Executive Producer. A candid and in-depth correspondence between Russell T Davies and journalist Benjamin Cook, the book explores in detail Russell's work on Series Four, revealing how he plans the series and works with the show's writers; where he gets his ideas for plot, character and scene; how actors are cast and other creative decisions are made; and how he juggles the demands of Doctor Who with the increasingly successful Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures spin-offs. Russell's scripts are discussed as they develop, and Russell and Ben's wide-ranging discussions bring in experiences from previous series of Doctor Who as well as other shows Russell has written and created, including Queer As Folk, Bob and Rose, and The Second Coming...

Ever since Doctor Who triumphantly returned to our screens in 2005, the book market has been swamped with official guides, unofficial reference works, encyclopedias, pocket books, and even the occasional Almanac. But there’s one title that has yet to surface, and it’s one that would send fandom (and perhaps even little chunks of the outside world) into a positive frenzy should it ever be released.

That book would be The Russell T Davies Memoirs, a full, unexpurgated account of the real story behind the resurrection of a broadcasting legend, complete with shocking confessions, ruthless character assassinations, and startling revelations about the secret habits of Billie Piper. What a book that’s going to be.

Before you get too excited, let me quickly tell you that this is not that book. With Davies still very much involved in the production of new Who, it is of course far too early for such a title to hit the shelves. However, The Writer’s Tale is still a giant leap forward in this direction, and is the most insightful book you’ll read on Doctor Who for years to come.

The tagline “The Untold Story of the BBC Series” is perhaps slightly misleading, conjuring up hopes of a warts-and-all overview of the last four years of new Doctor Who. It’s not.

Instead, The Writer’s Tale focuses primarily on Series Four and, in particular, the creative process behind the scriptwriting itself. It’s essentially a 512-page answer to the often asked question “So, where do you get your ideas from, then?”

The book chronicles 13 months of e-mail correspondence between Russell T Davies and trusted journalist and friend Benjamin Cook, from February 2007 to March 2008. Cook gently pokes and prods Davies with a refreshingly perceptive line of questioning, as he tries to unravel the inspiration and the creative force behind the scriptwriting.

Davies responds at length with levels of enthusiasm and honesty that Cook could never have expected in his wildest dreams. What originally started out as a fairly low-key idea from Cook for a possible article for Doctor Who Magazine eventually evolves into this huge, sprawling book which fearlessly probes deeper and deeper inside the mind of Davies, exposing his fears, his anxieties, his self-doubt, but more than anything else, his all-consuming passion for writing Doctor Who.

Reading this candid correspondence between writer and journalist is very much like eavesdropping on a private conversation between two very good friends. The e-mail format makes the book instantly accessible and very easy to dip into, and yet I’m confident that many readers will feel compelled to plough through the entire book in perhaps a couple of very long sessions, as there’s such a powerfully addictive quality at work within these pages.

Tantalising glimpses of things that never came to be are peppered throughout the book, and will no doubt provoke endless discussion and speculation in fandom for many years to come. We are introduced to companions that never made it to the screen, and see Davies agonizing over scripts for both Torchwood and The Sarah-Jane Adventures that are ultimately abandoned.

Fascinating first drafts for Voyage of the Damned, Partners in Crime, The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End are re-produced here in their entirety, although some may be disappointed that the other two Davies scripts from Series Four, Midnight and Turn Left, have been omitted due to lack of space. This was most definitely the right decision though - the book is already so huge that it is likely to break even the most robust of shelving, and I think it’s better that The Writer’s Tale avoids becoming too script-heavy. It’s at its most compelling when we see the story behind the words, rather than just the words themselves.

The book is stunningly designed throughout with previously unseen photographic material, and is liberally sprinkled with brilliant doodles from Davies himself - perhaps the most poignant of which is a drawing of Penny, the ‘lost’ companion, walking straight past the TARDIS and into obscurity.

All in all, this could be one of the most important Doctor Who books you’re ever likely to read, even if it’s not always about Doctor Who. Sometimes it’s just about the passion of writing, it’s about the forming of ideas, it’s about stress, it’s about panic, it’s about responsibility, it’s about having to eat cold lasagne for supper because there just wasn’t enough time to stick it in the microwave for two minutes.

It’s an occasionally frightening but always exhilarating ride inside the head of the man who brought back Doctor Who.


Daniel Salter

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