To Gallifrey and Beyond: 50 Years of Doctor Who
From the “killer of K9”, to Jenny T. Colgan, author of a new digital novel; ALCS Members have been contributing to the success of Doctor Who for five decades. We look back in ardour with them at one of the most enduring British television dramas of all time.
“The Doctor will face his darkest day. And his greatest threat. Himself”. So blazes the trailer for the fervently-awaited 50th anniversary special episode of Doctor Who which will be broadcast – sorry, simulcast – worldwide in 3D on Saturday 23 November 2013, 50 years to the very day since the first episode of the cult show - 'An Unearthly Child' – was unleashed on the British viewing public..
ALCS has paid out almost £285,000 to writers for Doctor Who-related work. Remarkably, over £50,000 of that total was distributed during the period the show was off-air.
Since that first broadcast, the inimitable Time Lord has been played by eleven different actors, whilst his inter-galactic adventures have been imagined by numerous different writers, not only in the form of TV scripts but also as films, spin-off series, original novels and novelisations, e-books, audio books and games. Such is the character’s appeal that Doctor Who projects continued during the off-air years between 1989 and 2005, reflected by the statistic that since 1999 (when the Membership Relationship System, also known as the MRS, came into being), ALCS has paid out almost £285,000 to writers for Doctor Who-related work. Remarkably, over £50,000 of that total was distributed during the period the show was off-air.
By way of a Whovian birthday tribute to one of the most enduring and influential original British dramas, we asked ALCS Members who have written for the series in its various incarnations to share their memories. From the "killer of K9" to the campest line ever, the programme has proved to be a stellar source of anecdotes. But first, a few words from Jenny T. Colgan, novelist and lifelong devotee of the Doctor, and now the author of "Into the Nowhere", a Matt Smith e-book short.
Jenny T. Colgan: Into the Nowhere
Jenny T. Colgan: "I am not cool."
I am not cool, right. No writers are cool, it's a fact. Well, except Irvine Welsh. But even he's a terrible giggler. The kind of traits necessary to make it as a writer – bookwormishness, a taste for solitude, an unseemly interest in what other people are thinking and a desire to make other people pay attention to you so strong that you actually put your words between covers and demand money for them – are all the antithesis of coolness. But occasionally I can put on a reasonably good show at it if I really have to. Put up a bit of pretence when I go to some quite cool parties, or meet someone famous from the telly and that.
Not when it comes to Doctor Who though. When it comes to the Doctor I am always ten years old, and wondering, if I wished hard enough and closed my eyes, whether the TARDIS might appear in my playground and whisk me away on intergalactic adventures.
I was a huge Doctor Who fan as a child – way before it was popular to be geeky, back in a murky pre-internet existence way before I even knew other female Doctor Who fans existed. I loved Tom Baker, I loved Peter Davison; I read all the novelisations of the old Doctors, when they didn't show reruns; won competitions, looked forward anxiously to the (disappointing) Paul McGann American reboot in the mid nineties, and was unutterably rapt when it came roaring back to fabulous, passionate, spirited life with the wonderful Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper in 2005. David Tennant's era, which coupled his magnetism with some of the most wonderful writing and producing – not just on that show, but on television in general – was the icing on the cake. At last it was cool to be a fan, to be out and proud.
Because I am a total idiot, it didn't occur to me for ages that I could possibly work with the show myself. Me – WRITER. Doctor Who novels – HAVE WRITERS. Argh, what on earth wasn't I thinking? Anyway, fortunately, the very talented writer Naomi Alderman is a friend of mine and she wrote a novel for the series, whereupon I instantly muscled in and said "OOH, OOH, I want to do one too!" and instead of saying "bug off you, this place is taken" she very kindly and generously pointed me in the right direction of who to speak to.
Did I then cool-ly suggest that my agent spoke to their people and blah blah blah? Or did I immediately jump on the email and go "Please! Please! Pleeeeeeeease can I do this?" (If I am with people I want to impress and they ask how I started writing for the show, I usually skip this bit, and imply that the BBC came round begging at my door).
The first time I typed, "the Doctor pushed open the door of the TARDIS" I genuinely couldn't believe that this was my life...
At first, I will say, they weren't entirely convinced. After all, my normal kind of writing is romantic comedy, with plenty of kissing, and occasionally a bit more.
BBC: You're not to make him do kissing.
BBC: Are you sure?
Me: I have been a professional writer for 15 years; and I am steeped in the history, lore and traditions of the Doctor. I would never do that.
BBC: Well, okay then.
Me: Unless it's a David Tennant Doctor Who book.
BBC: It's not
I pitched three stories and they picked the one they liked best and, finally said, "Go on then."
Oh, being handed Matt Smith's wonderful, alien, quirky characterisation and a whole 75,000 words to play with honestly felt like a gift. The first time I typed, "the Doctor pushed open the door of the TARDIS" I genuinely couldn't believe that this was my life, and that the 10-year-old in the playground had finally got her wish granted. Meeting and joining the many extraordinary writers who've worked on the show in varying capacities has been such a thrill – Paul Cornell, Cavan Scott & Mark Wright, Terrance Dicks, the amazing Jaqueline Rayner, Gareth Roberts and many others. I continue to bombard the poor BBC within an inch of its life pitching more.
Is this cool? Cool as a fez, my friend, cool as a fez.
Into the Nowhere, a Matt Smith Doctor Who adventure by Jenny T. Colgan, publishes January 14th 2014.
Bob Baker (1971-1980)
I wrote with a partner, the late Dave Martin. Dave and I always tried to include somewhat extravagant scenes. We had replies from script editor Terrance Dicks which said things like: "Can't do that. We're not MGM you know"; and "We've had to invent a machine to do what you've asked for".
Tom Baker (no relation) was the best Doctor Who of all. Official.
During the final seconds of the last night of recording Claws Of Axos (studio lights were turned off at 7.p.m. sharp), Jon Pertwee pleaded to be allowed to re-do the last scene, where he starts up the TARDIS to go on a new adventure. He said he'd pushed the buttons in the wrong sequence. To which came the reply: "It doesn't f***ing, fly Jon"!
Douglas Adams was script editor on the last Doctor Who I wrote. He was a fantastic man who script-edited over fantastic lunches. Not the same these days. And Tom Baker (no relation) was the best Doctor Who of all. Official.
Kevin Clarke (1970s)
Invited to pitch the 25th anniversary story, I sat down in front of the producer, John Nathan Turner without a sliver of an idea. Desperately I started: "I think the question we've been asking ourselves for 25 years is...Who is the Doctor?". I stopped, having run out of material. "Good", said John Nathan Turner. "So who is he?" Without warning, the answer came to me. "God," I said.
Glen McCoy (1985)
In my 20s, very wet behind the ears, I arrived in Eric Saward's office thinking I was there to explore my story submission for Doctor Who, only to be immediately asked when the first draft would be ready. It was quite a shock. Within minutes I was introduced to John Nathan Turner who seemed an incredibly shy man - or was it my aftershave? - before being whisked off to a local Italian for lunch where there was an extraordinary collection of famous faces. Clearly a BBC-approved watering hole. After chit-chat over zabaglione I found myself in a darkened studio where I perched to watch a scene being recorded with Colin Baker in his eye-popping ensemble. When the studio lights went on I looked back and realised I'd been leaning on the central control paneI. I was sitting inside the TARDIS.
Stephen Gallagher (1981-3)
Doctor Who was my first TV job, and I was the writer of the serials Warrior’s Gate and Terminus. Over my eight half-hours I was assigned to write out two companions and a robot dog. After thirty-odd years and a Hollywood career; to the local press I'm still "The Man Who Killed K9".
Philip Martin (1984)
“A piece of your dialogue has been voted the campest line ever on Doctor Who”.
A few years ago I was on holiday in Morocco. My wife was sitting next to me on a hotel balcony reading a three-day-old English newspaper. She gave me an odd look. “A piece of your dialogue has been voted the campest line ever on Doctor Who”.
‘What’s the line?’
‘I want to hear you scream until I go deaf with pleasure.’
It came from a 1984 Doctor Who script of mine entitled Vengeance on Varos. It is a story that refuses to be forgotten. It has appeared as a video, an audio reading, a novel, and a clip shown on Newsnight which made even Jeremy Paxman crack his face. I later did a few more scripts for the programme but none of them could compare with Vengeance on Varos. A couple of years ago a special edition DVD was made in which all those involved recorded their impressions of the original production.
Varos was the first script I wrote for the series (my Doctor was Colin Baker). It included horror elements to it, and some violence, much of which happened ‘off-stage’. However, the imagination of some viewers was obviously stimulated enough to believe the events shown were worthy of protest. An irate parent wrote a letter to the Radio Times saying the episode “reminded her of the worst excesses of the Second World War”. I remember blinking a little at this. Writers like to make an impact with their work but this reaction I thought a trifle extreme.
Stephen Wyatt (1987)
It was my first day in the studio, on my first Doctor Who story Paradise Towers. There on the set stood the iconic blue police phone booth. I couldn’t resist opening the door and stepping inside. There was an overwhelming smell of stale piss. How many Doctors, I wondered, had relieved themselves within its narrow walls?
Steve Lyons (present)
I’ve been a Doctor Who fan since I was eight years old. Looking back, I can’t believe my luck that, just as I was struggling to become a professional writer, Virgin Books began to publish original novels based on the series – and to read unsolicited submissions.
My favourite companion – Anneke Wills, who played Polly – left the series in 1967. I could never have imagined that, 43 years later, she’d return to the role in an audio drama – and I’d be the one putting words in her mouth!
Back then, the TV series was off the air, and Doctor Who spin-offs were being produced for a small, cult audience. It was a big surprise when, suddenly, the show went mainstream again in 2005. My oddest claim to Whovian fame is that I wrote David Tennant’s first Doctor Who story. Four years before he himself became the Doctor, he played a German guard in Colditz castle, alongside Sylvester McCoy in a CD audio drama.
The best thing about Doctor Who is that it has such a flexible format. One day, you can be writing a historical tragedy; the next, a science-fiction thriller or an out-and-out comedy. I’ve written Doctor Who novels, audiobooks, radio scripts, comic strips, short stories and role-playing game scenarios. It never gets boring, because each job is completely different from the last one.
In Doctor Who, the past never dies. New stories are still being created for old Doctors and companions. I love working with the new-series characters, but there’s a very special thrill in being able to go back and write the version of the show that I grew up with. My favourite companion – Anneke Wills, who played Polly – left the series in 1967. I could never have imagined that, 43 years later, she’d return to the role in an audio drama – and I’d be the one putting words in her mouth!
With special thanks to all our Members who contributed their experiences.