The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Sunday, 26 April 2015


This month also saw the release of John Dorney’s excellent adaptation of Gareth Robert’s Doctor Who novel, The Well-Mannered War. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet but I’m sure it’s excellent if the script is anything to go by. I script-edited this story, along with John’s previous two adaptations of Gareth’s novels The Romance of Crime and The English Way of Death.

I’m not sure what there is to say about script-editing. Obviously, in these instances, the story was already there, so my role was mainly to act as a fresh pair of eyes, to give my honest opinion. Because I’ve written a few Doctor Who scripts myself, and because I’ve saturated my brain with the contents of other people’s Doctor Who scripts, I’m in a position where I can not just merely criticize, but also offer suggestions on how things might be fixed; the writer doesn’t have to follow my suggestions, I am not Genghis Khan, it’s more a case of going ‘If you’re stuck, here’s one way that it could be fixed, which might give you an even better idea of how to fix it, in which case, even better’. Also, in suggesting a way something might be fixed, I’m hopefully giving them a clearer idea of the nature of the problem. I know from being on the receiving end of notes how vexatious it can be to receive notes saying ‘This bit doesn’t work’ without the notes being clear why it doesn’t work or giving any clue how it might be made to work.

The important thing, I think, is that although I’m offering suggestions on how things can be fixed, the writer is welcome to go their own way. Or to argue that I’m entirely wrong, of course, that’s also welcome. Quite often my suggestion will be to just cut the bit that doesn’t work, because (in my experience) quite often the reason why something doesn’t work is because it doesn’t need to be there. A successful TV writer of my acquaintance told me a while back that the most valuable thing about script editors’ notes isn’t what they say, but that they tell you at what points in the story the script editor was bored! I’m not sure I completely agree with that, but it never ceases to surprise me how often a problem with a script can be solved by simply cutting the problematic section, or by entering scenes later and leaving them earlier. ‘If in doubt, cut it out’, is a motto I have just made up.

(It also saves a hell a lot of time and effort, but that’s just a bonus).

The one other thing that I think is important is to point out which bits of the script are good, which bits are exciting, where you laughed out loud, where you felt emotionally involved, because the writer needs to be told ‘For God’s sake, don’t cut this bit out!’ Plus it can be very disheartening to get back notes which are all negative, I think notes should be encouraging and chatty, not a school teacher marking your essay and nitpicking over grammar and punctuation.

But that’s in general. In specific, what was unusual with these stories was that they were adaptations, so, as I said earlier, the plots were already there, they already worked – but they would need to work on audio, for a new audience. So although I’d read and greatly enjoyed the novels back in the day (The Romance of Crime was partially responsible for me getting back ‘into’ Doctor Who) I thought it would be a mistake to re-read them before editing the scripts. I wanted to make sure I came to the stories as a new listener would, to make sure I wouldn’t be subconsciously filling in bits with stuff I’d read in the novel, and that I would be judging each line on its merits, irrespective of whether it was a line by Gareth Roberts or John Dorney. I didn’t want the knowledge of knowing whether a line or not was from the novel to influence my reaction to it. All that mattered was the script as a script, judged in its own terms, not how true it was to the novel.

Although, as I’ve said elsewhere, Gareth’s novels were quite close to TV scripts, being written as novelisations of imaginary TV stories, I think that adapting them wasn’t as straightforward as you might think. Because while the novels contain scenes that are deceptively evocative of the TV show, if they were just copied and pasted into a script they would be far too long. In a novel you can have characters chatting away for page after page, making long, amusing speeches, but in a script you’re always aware that the clock is ticking, that as soon as you go onto 3 pages you’re into what is going feel like quite a long scene, and that 4 pages is kind of the absolute limit unless there is a very good reason not to cut away. So John did a hell a lot of work, editing stuff down and restructuring the plot (because the plot of a 280-page novel is far too much for a 90-minute script). I can take no credit for this, I just sat back and watched him do it, and said ‘well done’ when he’d finished.

However, that said, with all the books there were bits that I remembered from reading them, favourite moments that had stuck with me, and so inevitably I would be looking out for them when reading the script. Usually they were in there, or there was a very good and clear reason why they weren’t there, but once or twice there were scenes I missed. On those occasions, I made a case why they should be included (not solely because I’d remembered them, but because they served a purpose, such as getting across a lot of exposition quickly, neatly and amusingly) and then it was up to John to decide whether or not to include them.

The one other thing is that because these stories are set in the 1979 era of Doctor Who, when it was script-edited by Douglas Adams, I felt they should really capture the spirit of that era. That’s another element of script-editing, I think – to identify what a script is trying to achieve, and to help it do that thing as well as possible, and not to try to make it do something else out of personal taste (unless what the script is trying to do is the wrong thing for some reason). Anyway, as far as these stories were concerned, that meant that I would suggest some extra jokes in the notes. Most of which John Dorney very wisely ignored - though I hope he found them amusing - but some he incorporated one or two. Usually it would just me be going ‘This bit is very funny, why not take it even further’; building on what was already there, not sticking funny bits in where it wasn’t appropriate (although, it could be argued, Douglas Adams occasionally did do that!).

But as far as my contribution goes – my very small contribution – that’s about it. Anyway, to summarize, Gareth Roberts’ three novels were excellent, one of them is back in print so you can buy it if you like, and John Dorney’s adaptations of the novels are as good if not even better, so you should buy those too.

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