The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Do You Want To Know A Secret

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine, out today, features another article by me, this time a Fact of Fiction on the 1988 story Remembrance of the Daleks. It was an enjoyable piece to do, largely because the story itself is pretty bloody marvellous, and because – thanks to the kindness of others – I had access to some earlier drafts of the script in order to give me something to write about beyond working out the dates of newspapers and throwaway references (which can be quite an undertaking, but as a matter of pride, no barrel is left unscraped). But mainly because the story is marvellous. Even the music isn't too bad.

What was particularly illuminating about doing this one – and this is something I should have mentioned in the article – was the insight it gave me into the script editing process at the time, and Andrew Cartmel. Now, I’d previously been rather grumpy about some of the scripts he worked on, because of them having superfluous characters, shoe-horned in Messages-For-The-Kids and a lack of Nerdy Plot Rigour, but I’d been wrong, because reading the drafts of Remembrance of the Daleks I realise that he was completely on the money. Every change made to the drafts is for the better, for the sake of the story, for clarity, for simplicity, for character, building up the good ideas, gently discarding the bad or impractical ones. So god only knows what Silver Nemesis was like before it was edited.

Of course, with Remembrance it helps that it also had a bloody good writer in Ben Aaronovitch, who had a strong sense of narrative, of exciting set-pieces, who could write action sequences (at a time when most Doctor Who scripts read like sitcom scripts, Remembrance reads like a movie) and who wrote concise, witty, naturalistic dialogue. Naturalistic being the great innovation, as at the time – and for much of the previous eight years – dialogue in Doctor Who had been a weirdly baroque affair, a combination of Shakespearean construction and grandiloquent prolixity. Suddenly the Doctor and his companion talked like real people, and met characters who didn’t talk as though they were puffing their chests out with their hands on their hips all the time.

But the point of this blog is that Andrew Cartmel did a damn good job on Remembrance. Having researched others of these articles, and spent many evenings moaning with other writers, there are plenty of script editors out there who waste writers’ time putting them through multiple drafts trying to implement illogical, contradictory whims, or who simply ask for rewrites because they can, or who behave like the editor in this sketch. And sometimes the whole process is designed to get good scripts out of bad writers, so even good writers end up as mediocre sausages in the sausage machine.

In Doctor Who, it was the norm, for the first two decades or so, for the script editor to get the writer to do up to three drafts of a story before rewriting it themselves (without exception, they all ended up doing this, some reluctantly, some enthusiastically). And nowadays you have a show-runner who will often rewrite other writer’s scripts (in recent years, these have tended to be the best stories, even better than the showrunner’s own or stories by their credited writers alone). It’s only really during Andrew Cartmel’s time as script editor that individual voices come through unfettered; not because Cartmel wasn’t doing anything but because he was getting the writers to do their own rewrites under his guidance rather than just rewriting it for them. Which accounts for the sheer diversity of voices during that time, and the diversity of tone, which you don’t find in any other era of Doctor Who. From a writer’s perspective, that’s the best possible script editor to have. And if it resulted in stories like Remembrance of the Daleks, and Paradise Towers, and The Greatest Show In The Galaxy, and The Happiness Patrol, and Ghost Light and Survival... he was doing something right.

Anyway. Rush out and buy the new Doctor Who Magazine. It has a thing by me in it.

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