Thursday, 1 November 2007

Dr Who - Notes from a Parallel Universe

Asked by the BBC website which programme she’s most proud of, Jane Tranter (BBC, Controller Fiction Commissioning) replied with two words that are unlikely to surprise anyone: “Doctor Who”. Asked what she thinks is the best thing on TV she answered, ‘Torchwood - because it’s audacious, bold, entertaining, intelligent, heightened, humane, powerful and funny.” Torchwood, of course, is a spin-off from Doctor Who. Elsewhere, at the recent CBBC commissioning day, a particular programme was cited by Anne Gilchrist, (Creative Director, CBBC), as exemplifying the energy and originality they’re looking for. It was – you guessed it - Doctor Who.

Obviously nobody can grumble at the arrival of a genuinely exciting, grippingly inventive drama series that wins both audiences and prizes and becomes, inevitably, the proudest feather in many an executive cap. But is there a lesson here to be learned?

Among many of the writers currently labouring in the catacombs of series TV, there are some dark mutterings that maybe the success of Doctor Who has something to do with where it was made - which is to say, not in any of the usual BBC places (Television Centre, Elstree, Bristol, etc) but in a far, far-away land called ‘Cardiff’ where writers rule and everyone has fun. While there are undoubtedly corners, rooms and occasionally cupboards in the great BBC empire where writers aren’t bottom of the food chain and ‘fun’ isn’t a dirty word, the grumble these days is of an increasingly stultifying atmosphere.

That the series actually originated in a completely different era (black and white, remember?) may not be irrelevant. Those were the days of good ideas being given a shot, of chances being taken, of creativity being trusted, of writers living under the somewhat audacious impression that they were the writers. What Cardiff did, arguably, was reproduce the conditions of a Golden Age, the results of which speak for themselves.

So what might have happened if Doctor Who had been offered to those other institutions within BBC Commissioning, those august edifices populated by hordes of feverish executives and fresh-faced editors clutching their media degrees, stumbling from the tidy flipcharts of how-to-write-drama courses into the brutal reality of slovenly, unpredictable, slightly smelly and frustratingly non-jargon-spouting creatures called ‘Writers’? Perhaps we’ll never know. Perhaps it’s obvious. The following is a guess.

From Sharon (Script Editor).

Hi Russell,

Hope you’re okay.

Loads of thanks for getting the treatment over to us so fast (you hero), hopefully we’ll be able to give you a bit more time for the third draft or so but you know how it is here – completely mad. I’m afraid to say we’re really pressed for time now so absolutely need to crack on. Sorry also that it’s taken so long to get back to you. Peter was away for two weeks and didn’t have a chance to read it until he got back. But I thought I’d get these notes over to you by the end of the week so you’ll have a chance to change things and hopefully get another draft to us on Monday, preferably first thing.

We all really loved the way you told the stories and thought the character development was really intriguing and the whole idea of a time machine sort of thing is still such a great idea (well done!) so a pat on the back to you.

We did think, though, that it needed a bit more focus in places. Peter’s had some really great ideas and Becky and Shioban and also Simon came up with some brilliant suggestions. See what you think. Obviously these are suggestions only, we do want you to enjoy what you’re doing. If there’s anything you don’t like in this, just give me a call and I’ll talk you through it.

The main headline note (which is very much about focus) is to do with the opening which sort of knocks on to the rest of the episode. Basically, we start with Rose and her life and go shopping with her and meet her family etc etc, but Peter says as this is about a time traveller who fights monsters, it would be much better to kick off with some time travelling monster fighting. As it is – perhaps you hadn’t noticed this – The Doctor himself doesn’t actually appear for ages. The problem is that when he does turn up, we really don’t know who he is and Shioban is particularly worried that the audience won’t be fully engaged with him if they can’t engage with him right from the start. I think you did the course last year too so you’ll know that it’s really really important for the audience to ‘understand the central character, where he’s coming from, what he wants and how he intends to achieve that’. Just in case you mislaid it, I’ve appended the document ‘ten questions you need to ask from your main character’ for you to have a look at. In any case I think it goes without saying that the main character does need to appear pretty much at the beginning so we know he’s the main character. So Scene One, if you don’t mind, should feature the doctor absolutely at the heart of it. I think it makes sense. (The Big Question, as ever is: what is at the heart of the show? The big answer in this case has got to be: The Doctor!)

Simon pointed out that although The Doctor is our hero, his first line basically is ‘run’ which isn’t very heroic when you think about it and there’s a danger, therefore, of losing audience sympathy which obviously we don’t want to do! So when we meet the Doctor, it would be great to see him really getting stuck in there with something. Becky also thought that it would be better to have monsters that are more recognisably monsters from the start. The thing is, shop-window dummies are very ordinary and not scary really and we feel we ought to be really scared right from the start. Audience Research did a focus group last year about what audiences find scary and I’ll get that over to you hopefully tomorrow. Basically, though, the scariest things are things they don’t understand or even recognise, like the Daleks who come in later, which is great, but everybody knows what a dummy looks like. So could we change that please?!!!

Don’t get me wrong, we all loved the way you opened the story with Rose and all the bits of her life and everything – really, really nice characterisation – but we just felt that it went on a bit. Sorry. We also thought that it belonged to a different genre. As a kind of modern life study sort of thing: great. But sci fi? Sci Fi is all about science and gizmos and interesting technology as well as taking a twist on life as we know it plus the unexpected, obviously - but it’s just ages before that actually happens. I’m sure you’ll agree. I’ll try to dig out the document on ‘Genres and how to know which one you’re writing for’ - which I think I’ve got somewhere - for you to have a look at. What’s most important, I seem to remember (it’s been a while since I did the course!) is consistency. Remember the three laws of Genre? Consistency, consistency and consistency. It always makes me laugh, that one. But basically you open with a police box spinning in space and then go to a kind of kitchen sink drama and I fear that we’re going to lose our audience before The Doctor even turns up.

Regarding the police box, by the way … I’ve asked around the office and nobody here has ever seen a police phone box and some didn’t even know what one would look like if they did see one! We’re going to lose the younger audience if they’re baffled right from the start. So we need something everybody knows and instantly recognises. Also in the days of the mobile phone, let’s face it, phone boxes are really old hat even if they don’t work. Becky asked for something shiny and sleek which is how she imagines a time machine would actually be. It doesn’t have to be anything other than a time machine really, does it? I’m sure design could come up with something. So don’t worry about the actual shape of the tardis for now, we can take care of that, but just have a look through and remove any references to it being a blue box or anything to do with Police. Peter said that we really don’t want this series to be confused with a Police series anyway so any reference to that particular genre has to go. The three Cs anyone?! (Actually, we did wonder if maybe we should go the whole way and make it an actual Policeman who becomes a time traveller but apparently there’s something a bit like that already in development.) What really matters, though, is that the shape of the tardis makes a strong, positive and instantly memorable statement about the main character (The Three Keys to a Strong Main Character’, remember?). It is his vehicle after all and as Peter said, you can always judge a character by what he drives (Morse, Peak Practice etc.). So something chunky and big and even a little bit in yer face which is how we think the Doctor should be.

Also, we got your note (thanks) about Gemma’s query but I’m afraid it still doesn’t quite answer our worry. I thought you were working on a name for the doctor and was a bit surprised when you said that was his name! The thing is, it’s not really a name at all and I think people are going to be asking who he is - which might be okay for a secondary character who is a bit mysterious but seriously the audience has to know the main character or they’ll just switch off. The shows that are doing really well at the moment (Daziel and Pascoe, Rosemary and Thyme, Murphy’s Law etc) all have a definite name in the title. Other shows, like Casualty and Eastenders tell you immediately and recognisably what they are. But ‘Doctor Who’ doesn’t really tell us anything and sounds a bit like we just couldn’t think what to call him. So it’s either got to be a name or something to do with Time Traveller. Simon thought maybe just call it ‘The Time Traveller’ which tells you instantly what it is. Marketing said they’d have real problems selling a show that doesn’t have a proper title. I did argue your point about it being a mystery but I’m afraid nobody really bought that. We’ll have a think too and let you know what we come up with. Peter said that if we called it ‘Doctor Who’ then it should have a question mark after it and I’m afraid there’s no way we can have a question mark in the title. Imagine, say ‘Eastenders?’ Or ‘The News at Ten?’!

Shioban is not convinced by the episode title, either. I know you said that you were introducing Rose and I agree that if we called it ‘Rose’ then we’d know that that was what it was about but Gemma said that it’s not really about Rose it’s about The Doctor so really, the title needs to be either to do with the Doctor directly or in some way introduce the idea of monsters and jeopardy. The word ‘Rose’ doesn’t sound very threatening really and we need to get a sense of threat all the way through. Remember ‘J for Jeopardy’. We need to know what the danger is and what’s at stake. So we’d really like you to have a think about ‘What’s At Stake’ for the Doctor (what does he stand to lose). That ought to be reflected in the episode title and it must be something we know about early on. At the moment he’s just too cheerful. I mean, there’s danger everywhere and he just seems to be enjoying himself. Becky said if The Doctor isn’t afraid why should we be? I think that’s a good point. It does feel a bit like you knew we were spending too much time on Rose as a character and therefore called it ‘Rose’ to get away with it but we’re all agreed I’m afraid that it’s not quite working for us. Nice try but could you have another look at that?

On the subject of gizmos and technology, Peter pointed out that it’s really important for ‘The Doctor’ to have an instantly recognisable weapon. He said that apart from a person’s car, it’s mostly by his weapon that people judge him. Or something like that. Think Dirty Harry. We all laughed at the sonic screwdriver jokes and think that’s fine in principle (keep it) but we’ve been talking to some casting options and one of the things they said was that they’d like to have a really huge weapon that blasts monsters very spectacularly. Again, have a think if you can.

I’ll send a scene by scene hopefully by this evening or first thing Saturday but in the meantime this is just to let you know that we’ve had a few thoughts about casting. We talked it over this morning and although we all agree that Christopher Ecclestone is a brilliant actor and personally I loved him in Jude and some other things he’s done but he can be a bit sort of gloomy … ? We’re just not sure he’ll have the charisma to pull off The Doctor over a whole series. The good news is that Ross Kemp might be interested. Also Peter said we’re looking for a Ross Kemp vehicle at the moment and when he mentioned a monster-killing time travelling macho hero sort of thing Ross got quite excited. It might mean a few changes here and there (some of the dialogue you suggested does feel a bit long especially the science things – which might get a bit boring anyway) and obviously not the screwdriver.

As for Rose, Simon said he can’t remember having seen Billie Piper in anything quite like this and thought perhaps we ought to try asking Jessie Wallace (Kat from Eastenders?) instead because we know she’s got such a terrific range and can be really bolshy and brash, as a character, which is what we feel the character needs. Jessie’s a great actress and we are looking for something for her to do. The audience really responds to her – she’s extremely popular – and I reckon she’d be great. What do you say?

One other point: Peter had another look at the series outline and raised what I think is an important point. The whole ‘Bad Wolf’ thing just doesn’t do it for him. He says it’s great in principle but basically we’re going to have all these references to something which people won’t understand until pretty much the end. When we do find out – at the end – he doesn’t think anybody is going to remember having seen them anyway. You see what I mean? We had a long conversation about it. Simon thought we should maybe just lose the references and play the story at the end as a stand-alone. He’s really keen that we don’t confuse our audience. Peter suggested – and I’d like you to have a think about this – that we start the series with the last episode. I think this is brilliant because it solves two problems. Firstly we don’t have to bother with all that stuff in the shopping arcade but also we don’t run into problems with confusing people over the ‘Bad Wolf’ thing. Also he says could we not call it ‘Bad Wolf’?

Oh and finally, Nigel was thinking maybe less Cardiff (though we all like Cardiff as a place and think it’s really sexy and ‘with it’ at the moment) and maybe somewhere similar but a bit further towards say Bristol. We’ve already got a fictional Bristol-type place that people know and wonder if it could only benefit the series to use the same brand identity which is working so well. If you could work ‘Holby’ into the title that might solve that problem too! Nigel thinks this would really kick-start publicity and we could even have Rose, for instance, working in A&E (guess which one) plus The Doctor could find himself in the General Hospital, interacting with our fave characters from Holby for a couple of episodes. He is a Doctor, after all, isn’t that right? Peter says there’s some talk of maybe having a series about the Police in Holby (they haven’t got a title yet) so we could even tie in with that which would be great!

Anyway, there’s plenty here for you to chew on. I’ll get you the rest of the notes asap, just waiting on feedback from Kevin who’s been on a conference and is a bit snowed under at the moment.

Have a lovely weekend.



Phil said...

This is sublime - may you live for ever..!

Anonymous said...

I think I saw that memo! You missed out the ps - 'Oh, one other thing, just flagging it up, we've also commissioned something a bit similar from Tony Jordan.'