The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Lady Writer

Today the Guardian printed – or uploaded – an article on Why Doctor Who Needs More Female Writers by Mathilda Gregory. An article seemingly inspired by a blog post by Stella Duffy. Of course, the question is rhetorical, because the article doesn’t actually say why more female writers instead of male writers would be a good thing. Because, I’m afraid, the premise of the article is codswallop.

You see, if the new series has failings in the quality of its writing – and I am so not going there, don’t even ask, but if you do ask, it’s all marvellous – then simply changing the gender of the writers isn’t going to fix that. The writers will still, after all, be writing to the same briefs, working with the same script editors, working within the same limitations, and trying to capture the same house style. And any female writers would, presumably, be selected on the same criteria as the current male writers i.e. people with a proven track record in television drama, preferably very recently and successfully, preferably with the BBC.

Which is where the CultBox article listing five potential female writers falls down. These champions of feminism can’t even think of five female writers currently working in television (!); in order to come up with suggestions they have to resort to women with no track record. But if male writers with no proven track record can’t get on the show, why on Earth should female writers? Either writers are being selected on merit (and on their track record) or they aren’t. If the best writers aren’t being chosen, then it’s not because of a bias in gender, it’s because the people who choose the writers have a different idea of what constitutes a good writer. Their criteria may be flawed, they may be loopy, they may be back-to-front, but they have nothing to do with gender.

Of course, there are dozens of great female writers out there who could and should write for Doctor Who not listed by CultBox, I could list them, and top of the list would be godlike genius Sally Wainwright, who is almost certainly too busy writing her own two hit series to write for anyone else’s. I can also think of dozens of great male writers too. Their gender, though, doesn’t come into it. Good writers are just good writers.

That’s one of the many great things about being a writer. It doesn’t matter who you are, what social class you are, whether you are black or white, old or young, abled or disabled, short or tall, male or female, straight or gay or undecided. It doesn’t matter what you look like at all. You just bung your scripts or manuscripts in the post or down the fibreoptic cable and they ping out the other end and the only thing upon which you are judged is the quality of your work (and its punctuality and adherence to the brief, of course). You write from behind a glorious veil of ignorance. All the producer has to know you by is your name, which may give them a few pointers if they’ve never heard of you before but to be honest they’re not going to pay it much attention, it’s so unimportant in the grand scheme of things. We writers are all Robin Blands, enigmatic, anonymous and androgynous.

Which is why, a few years ago, a comedy executive – I can’t remember who it was – greatly annoyed me by saying that the BBC didn’t get enough submissions from ethnic minorities. This executive – let’s say it was a ‘he’, I honestly can’t remember, their gender is immaterial – had even gone to the trouble of working out a percentage! But the thing is, they had no way of knowing how many of the submissions they received were from non-white writers. When you submit a script, you don’t fill in a form with your ethnic details, or your age or anything like that. No, they just assumed that any writer who didn’t have an obviously ethnic-sounding name was white (and, indeed, that any writer with an ethnic-sounding name was from an ethnic minority). Which means that a script from a writer called, say, Eddie Pryor would go in the ‘white writer’ pile. And script from a writer called Richard Murphy would go in the same pile. Now switch their surnames.

My point, if I may navigate a tortuous route back to it, is that writing  - unlike so much of life – is as near to a level playing field as you can get. When I first got commissioned to write a Doctor Who book, the people who commissioned me had no idea who I was, how old I was, my ethnicity, my sexuality, my lack of hair. They’d never met me. They may have guessed I was male, because of my forename, but I doubt that was what swung it for me. No, every bit of writing work I’ve ever been paid for, every single opportunity I’ve been given, has been because of the standard of my writing (and punctuality, and cheapness). That’s how it works if you’re a writer.

(I mean, have you seen a group of writers get together? With a few honourable exceptions, it’s a meeting of the short, tubby, speccy, ugly, antisocial society. With yours truly as president.)

The only argument in favour of deliberately trying to favour female writers is to get a wider breadth of authorial voices, and I agree with that to an extent. I’d say the same applies with getting more writers from ethnic minorities, lower social classes, writers with disabilities, and so on. But with the huge stonking great caveat that the whole point of being a writer is that you can not only Write What You Know but you can empathise with people from other walks of life and write them well. So if the problem is, say, that the female characters aren’t well written, the solution isn’t to get more female writers, it’s to get better writers, writers that can write female characters, irrespective of whether the writers themselves are male or female. There are plenty of men out there who can write women; there are women out there who can't write women. As far as my own writing is concerned I don’t treat male or female characters any differently (I write them equally atrociously) because IMHO writing is about looking out through a characters’ eyes, not looking at a character from outside (and when you’re looking out, you’re not seeing skin colour, or sexuality, or anything else that would be normal as far as the character is concerned – a black, gay character doesn’t wake up in the morning and think ‘Ooh, I’m so black and gay today’, they think ‘bloomin hell why did I forget to put the milk back in the fridge’). People aren’t defined by their gender, their race, their shoe size, their waistline, their class. Writers know that because a writer’s job is to transcend their own personal experience and imagine themselves walking in other people’s shoes, and they know it because their own careers are not based on their looks, gender or anything else, but on, more or less, how good they are at what they do (insofar that merit is recognised and rewarded, which, as mentioned above, might not always be the case).

But oh, that article. What codswallop. Note how the writer picks on The Sarah Jane Adventures to make her point, but doesn’t mention Wolfblood, a CBBC show with a predominantly female writing list. Note how she doesn’t mention Torchwood, because it also doesn’t fit her argument. Or that the majority of producers working on Doctor Who since it came back have been female (for all the difference their gender makes). Her argument is just that Doctor Who should have more female writers because it’s one the BBC’s flagship programmes; not because it would make the show better, but just because it would speciously ‘improve the balance’. And, bear in mind, anything which doesn't make a television show better invariably makes it worse.

Oh, and as well as incorrectly assuming it is within Steven Moffat’s gift to hire writers with no television track record, she’s also labouring under the misapprehension that shows like Doctor Who  have ‘writers rooms’ and ‘writing teams’. If only they did!

Friday, 1 March 2013


Later this month will see the publication of Doctor Who – The Missing Episodes – The First Doctor, a Doctor Who Magazine special, which compiles (by popular request) the 'telesnaps' for the episodes which have been lost. I’ve written quite a bit of it, and one of the things I’ve done has been to provide new ‘commentaries’ for the ‘telesnaps’ for the stories The Savages and The Tenth Planet (part four only). The ‘telesnaps’ are a series of photographs taken of the television screen by a chap called John Cura who would then sell those photographs to the production office, to directors and actors as a souvenir of their work (in the days before videos). As such, there are telesnaps (I’ll stop using quotation marks now) for many of the episodes which sadly do not reside in the BBC Archive and/or the J Morris DVD collection.

Writing these commentaries has been a fascinating and head-scratching process, because I was determined to be as accurate as possible. For each telesnap, I would first have to identify where that photo was taken in terms of the camera script. The camera script includes descriptions of the various camera shots (i.e. close ups, long shots), camera moves and notes which characters should be in which shot, even which characters are favoured, which are in the background. But even with all that information, it sometimes wasn’t clear where the shot came precisely, so rather than be wrong, I would make sure that my commentary for that picture covered the section of the script during which that shot had occurred; to be a little imprecise but deliberate and accurate in my imprecision.

The problem is that although 60-odd photographs exist for each 25-minute episode, they weren’t taken at regular intervals. Instead, John Cura was trying to favour shots that showed actors in close-up or showed sets and costumes to best effect, or shots that were particularly impressive, whilst trying to avoid repeating similar shots, which is all very marvellous, but he was also doing so on the hoof, as he watched the episode for the first time, with no recourse to the script. So sometimes he missed stuff, like brief establishing shots or short cutaway scenes. Or even quite long, significant scenes, like Dodo threatening to smash the lab equipment in part two of The Savages, or Ben and the scientists pretending to be dead to lure a Cyberman into the Radiation Room in The Tenth Planet. My theory is that around the mid-point of each episode John Cura would be changing the film in his camera, which is why his photographs tend to be most frequent at the start and end of episodes (because at the beginning he has plenty of film and at the end he knows how much he has left to use up) and tend to be less frequent in the middle as he is waiting for a suitable lull, with a brief spurt half-way through as he used up the first batch of film followed by a one or two minute gap. But that’s just my theory.

The other thing that made the process interesting and difficult is that occasionally – maybe once or twice per episode – there would be a telesnap that didn’t correspond to the camera script, because the camera script only describes the plan of action for a recording, and not what was actually shot, and so inevitably the plan would change during the camera rehearsals as the director found that he needed a different shot to tell the story, or had to use a different camera for one shot because the camera he’d planned to use couldn’t move from another set soon enough or would get its cables tangled up or whatever. So whilst the camera scripts are generally very accurate, they’re not the whole story; if you compare an existing episode to its camera script you’ll notice numerous small differences between the plan and the realisation, usually in terms of the timing of cuts. There's also the fact that the camera script only covers what was shot in studio, and so only gives a guide to what happens in the sequences shot on film and not to which shots were used when.

Having identified the line of dialogue to which each telesnap corresponded, I would then write up a commentary based around that line, but also mindful to put it in context and to tell the story. I’d also then check the dialogue against an audio recording of the episode because, more often than not, what the actors actually said didn’t match up to the script. Particularly where William Hartnell was concerned.

Like I said, I was determined to be accurate, even if it made life difficult. Certainly I’ve taken more care over it than was done when the telesnaps were put on the BBC site, where not only are some of the captions entirely wrong, but they also occasionally changed the order of the telesnaps  to make them ‘fit’ the commentary better. That’s why I didn’t use the BBC site as a guide; I also didn’t use any of the fan reconstructions because, by necessity, they also sometimes have telesnaps in the wrong order, or repeat images in order to tell the story better. But with the commentaries for this magazine, I can be as sure as it is possible to be that each caption describes the actual line being spoken for each shot, making my commentary fit the pictures when it would’ve been much, much easier to make the pictures fit my commentary.

The other thing I should add is that for both those stories there are some clips in existence, and in preparing the commentaries and checking against the clips, I found that not only were some of the clips from The Savages on the Lost In Time DVD from a different episode to that given, they were also in slightly the wrong order, as Dodo rushes over to Steven after he says ‘Very well, I will stay’ and not before. Which kind of makes more sense, doesn't it?

So anyway, lots of painstaking pains were taken, and in the process, having spent goodness knows how long poring over the telesnaps, the camera scripts and listening to the audio recordings, I gained a new appreciation and insight into these missing episodes and feel almost as though I’ve actually watched them. Almost. Because I’m sure that if they were found they would contain all sorts of surprises and prove me wrong in something or other.

Plus I found this amazing telesnap from The Savages. Amazing what they could get away with in the 60s, eh?