Shiny Shelf

The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter

By Jonn Elledge on 14 January 2010

“I hope you’re not expecting modesty. This is too important.” – Russell T. Davies.

‘Doctor Who’ fans like wasting time on the internet. There they’ll sit, in front of a glowing rectangle, speculating about upcoming plotlines, having circular arguments about the merits of old ones, and endlessly dissecting all the other thoughts that occupy their minds but that polite society, quite sensibly, doesn’t allow them to express.

The new paperback edition of ‘The Writer’s Tale’ is 700 pages of just that. It just happens to be written by the guy who wrote the show. So when, on p509, Russell T Davies starts saying how brilliant it would be if Gallifrey came back, you know that it’ll end in 12 million viewers watching Timothy Dalton declaiming in a silly headdress; and not, as is more usual, a big row about season 23 and someone going off in a strop.

The book, for those who’ve missed the stories about Russell Tovey’s eleventh Doctor and Abba’s ‘Torchwood’ musical, contains two years’ worth of emails between RTD and ace reporter Ben Cook. In what may be the longest interview ever conducted, journalist prods writer into analysing everything: how he differentiates his characters, what drives him to write, how he has dealt with his unexpected celebrity…

The email format denies Davies the chance to self-censor (at least, any more than any of us ever do), forcing him to let comments stand however personal or vain they may sound. At the start of material that’s new to this second edition, for example, he has a brief panic attack about the idea of his face leering out from a stack of books in Waterstones (“Don’t mistake this for modesty. Genuinely I wonder how much a photo of my face would actually help sell a book”). A few days later, though, armed with a more flattering picture, these objections have been mysteriously forgotten.

Davies thus comes across as both more flawed and more loveable than the persona he projects on TV. He is wracked with doubts during production, at one point spending months worrying about the destruction of a coffee table. Yet once the shows are broadcast, he has utter self belief. “I’m amazed that we worried,” he says, after re-watching his first episode. “How can you not watch ‘Doctor Who’ when it’s that good?”

‘The Writer’s Tale’ is thus unlikely to change any long-standing views on the man or his work. In fact, many of the most commonly heard criticisms of his scripts turn out, slightly disarmingly, to be entirely true. Davies thinks in terms of television rather than drama, building his stories around trailers and scheduling. He makes stuff up on the run, leaves threads hanging, and throws things in because they’ll make a good headline. And for all his self-doubt he’s entirely unapologetic. “I’m going to win this argument,” he says at one point, as he debates merits of one script with the critics in his head. The viewing figures, AI and critical acclaim suggest he’s probably right.

The book has already had an impact: the hardback edition was published in autumn 2008 to rave reviews, and reportedly inspired Charlie Brooker to dedicate an entire edition of ‘Screenwipe’ to asking Davies and other writers how they write.

The new ‘Final Chapter’ edition updates the book, in so far as it includes another 300 pages of emails covering his last year on the show. But for all that it doesn’t really add a huge amount. It has some interesting tidbits for those of a certain menky persuasion (sample: Helen Mirren was first choice for the companion role in ‘Waters of Mars’). And it’s an interesting case of pop eating itself, as Cook slightly vexingly transforms from interviewer to major creative influence on the last year of the show. But still, it’s not the groundbreaking work its predecessor was. It’s just longer.

‘The Writer’s Tale’ will be a fascinating work to both ‘Who’ fans and to those interested in the TV production process. But there’s very little reason to own it twice. Buy it – but don’t buy it again.

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By Jonn Elledge

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