The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Rose

Decided to start blogging again. I’ve failed to keep up with all the stuff I’ve had released and if I can’t keep up with it, how can anyone else be expected to? It’s like a raging torrent of quality.

First up, in the latest, and still current, issue of DWM I have two articles. One is a feature about the last ten years of Doctor Who, with interviews and timelines and so forth. And the other is a Fact of Fiction about the story Rose, broadcast almost exactly ten years ago (it was exactly ten years ago a few weeks ago).


This was particularly fun for several reasons. One, firstly, most importantly, it’s a great story that I love, and that I think has a lot of interesting things to be written about it. Secondly, for the piece I emailed Russell T Davies a few questions and got some amusing, insightful and revelatory answers, which is great because it makes me look good for asking them. And thirdly, because I’d managed to track down the numerous drafts of the script, I would be in a position to reveal new facts, rather than simply rearranging well-known facts into a more convenient order (which I would never do, that is specifically what I am trying to avoid, but occasionally a well-known fact has to be included out of completeness).

The challenge is, of course, to find out stuff that Andrew Pixley hasn’t already found out. With this particular era of Doctor Who that’s easier than with older or more recent eras, because it’s an era which hasn’t had the comprehensive archive coverage of the old stuff or the very recent stuff, where Andrew has been free to divulge the contents of early drafts and shooting scripts.

(The other super-challenge is to find out things where Andrew Pixley has got it wrong. These are rare but wonderful facts, like discovering a copy of Marco Polo in a haystack. Usually, if I’m doing very, very well, I’ll find one of these per Fact of Fiction. Like, with Rose, in a DWM article he mentioned an actor playing Mickey’s headless duplicate in the back-alley location, when it turns out that the script was specifically re-written so that the headless duplicate wouldn’t be needed in that location. Tiny things!)

So that’s why I’ve ploughed the beginnings of a furrow doing Fact of Fictions for the new series stuff; so far I’ve done Rose, Dalek, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, Love & Monsters, The Shakespeare Code, Voyage of the Damned, The Next Doctor and A Christmas Carol. I hope to do more; I think there are interesting stories to be told about the writing of Aliens of London/World War III, Father’s Day, New Earth, School Reunion, The Girl in the Fireplace, Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, Blink, The Unicorn and the Wasp... the list is long and ever-growing.

The other great thing about doing Fact of Fictions for stories I like - I’m not sure I could do one for a story I didn’t rate, though it would be an interesting exercise – is that it’s a chance to deconstruct the structure, to figuratively look under the bonnet and see how it was put together (bad choice of metaphor, it’s the engine under the bonnet, not the chassis). I don’t know about other writers but for me analysing other people’s scripts, working out why they made the choices they did, working out the purpose of each scene, each line, is a huge part of the craft of writing. It’s a bit like literary criticism, except a) it’s not about the art, it’s about the craft and b) there is a point to it. Even with Shakespeare, for me it’s more interesting to analyse the dramatic structure than the imagery. Let me see the nuts and bolts!

And while it’s a trap to assume that every choice was deliberate – storytelling is a matter of instinct half the time, you don’t cut to another scene because a Robert McKee graph tells you to, you cut to it because that’s the next bit of the story, the bit you were telling has finished and there’s something more interesting going on over there with those other people. I’m not talking about post hoc textual analysis, what matters is the writing process – and given the opportunity to follow a script through its drafts, you can follow the process. Why stuff was cut, why stuff was added, why it was changed.


Rose is a great example of that. Next time you watch it, or read the script, just think about what each scene is doing, why it is there. Russell T Davies is – both consciously and instinctively – doing so many things at once. Establishing the characters, making you care about them, establishing the tone, the sense of humour; establishing the universe and its rules; and introducing every element of Doctor Who’s format clearly, accessibly, simply and unfussily, with each element arising naturally out of the developing narrative. It’s both incredibly clever – for the parts that are the result of conscious thought – and the work of someone who is incredibly talented – for the parts that are instinctive.

Usually, going through drafts, you find all the bad ideas which writers have discarded along the way, which is always entertaining, and very, very reassuring to discover that other people have bad ideas too. With Russell, though, although there is a process of refinement, of simplification, he doesn’t really have bad ideas. The first draft of Rose is pretty much the same as the final script, except it’s longer and has more ambitious action. But what’s interesting is the way it’s rewritten; to shift the emphasis, to make each scene do the work it has to do better.

For example, when the first edit of the episode came in short, Russell had to ‘pad’ the episode out by a few minutes, which he did by adding a couple of scenes with the Doctor and Rose walking through the Powell Estate (as well as rewriting the scene at the end of their walk so that it would follow on from the new stuff – meaning it would need to be shot again). Now, in a sense all of the added material is padding, it isn’t really telling you anything new or advancing the plot – but Russell is taking the opportunity to add some scenes in order to improve the story. He adds Rose questioning the Doctor’s lack of surname; he clarifies the not-immediately-clear plot point that the arm fixed on Rose because it was tracking the Doctor down; he adds the element that the Doctor’s fighting a war on his own. Maybe you wouldn’t miss these scenes if they weren’t there, but I think it’s interesting to see how Russell used them to address problems that must’ve popped out when watching that first edit – as well as showing us more of the Doctor and Rose’s chemistry.

Anyway, I’ve wittered on long enough. For the full story, read The Fact of Fiction on Rose in the current issue of DWM, available from all good newsagents.

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