You Were Expecting Someone Else: The Writer's Tale

(30 comments)

On 1 Mar 2014, at 21:01, Philip Sandifer wrote:

Ben -

So, cards on the table, I have no idea what I’m doing. Honestly, this just seemed like a neat idea. “I know Ben Cook’s a fan, I wonder if he’d like to help with the Writer’s Tale entry so it can mirror the structure of The Writer’s Tale.” But from there I’m not sure where to go. I have a vague set of themes and ideas I’d love to wander by, and stuff I’m mostly unconcerned about (if I ever ask “what’s Russell like?”, please just spike the whole project), but it’s all in the Maybe, as the book would put it.

Why don’t I start with my experience of the book? I paid money for it during my last semester in grad school, which was not a point in my life when I had a lot of money to pay for a hardcover. But I kept hearing good things about it… I’m not even sure where from, since I wasn’t hugely active in fandom. But it sounded fascinating, and I remember just losing an entire workday to it. I absolutely inhaled the book, and it was the exact book I needed then. I was over the immediate shock of my wife leaving me and my father’s stroke, but I was living alone and trying to finish up a PhD. And I remember an overwhelming sense of just… getting it. Of reading this weird and confessional document where Russell (it’s so weird to go with a first name there, incidentally, but it seems appropriate for this book) is at times visibly laying out more than he’s comfortable with. And of, over and over again, either thinking “yes, that is exactly what working long hours on a creative project in solitude feels like” or “yes, that’s an excellent explanation of why that is or isn’t a good idea,” both of which are thoughts that came fairly naturally to someone in the final stages of a dissertation for a PhD in English.

And I’ve never really talked about the book with anyone. To the point where I’m not sure if my romance with it is normal or not. I mean, it’s obviously a well-loved and successful book, but I’ve always wondered why other people love it, since my love for it is so intimately tied to when I read it. And people who spend a year holed up in their apartment alone more nights than not and working feverishly on a book that only a half-dozen people are ever going to read aren’t normal. So I’ve always been afraid that other people are really enamored with the behind-the-scenes gossip or the writing advice, which is good, but was never the heart and soul of the book I loved.

What about you, though? You must have realized you were working on something absolutely golden well before the end of it. What was that like? Especially as a massive fan. I mean, you’d obviously been close to production before because you were on DWM, but you were seeing pages before Julie Gardner or anybody. What was it like to be that close to the process? And when did you realize just how good a book you were writing?

Best,

Phil

On Apr 12, 2014, at 10:43 PM, Benjamin Cook wrote:

Phil! Hello! It’s taken me six weeks to reply to your e-mail. Six weeks! I’m so sorry. I planned to reply within a few hours, like I used to with Russell, but then… real life. I got distracted. The – original – Writer’s Tale was a year-long distraction. In 2007, I’d recently graduated, living back in London, thousands of pounds in debt, so I needed distracting. E-mailing Russell, usually in the wee small hours (some things never change; it’s 3am in the UK as I write this), was a fascinating, glorious diversion. Although, if I’d taken six weeks to reply to Russell's e-mails, The Writer’s Tale would have been a magazine article after all, not a book and a sequel. (That’s how it started: an article for DWM that grew too big, too quickly.)

I'm tempted to ask you to change the date of these e-mails, when you publish them on the TARDIS Eruditorum, to make me look better. Or would that be cheating? (Yes! Phil, don’t do it!) What was I even doing six weeks ago that was more pressing that replying to you? Hm, I’m looking back now at the selfies on my phone from early March, at the wild-haired young man smiling back at me… yes, he looks as though he’s forgotten to reply to an e-mail. For sure, Phil, I can see it in his eyes. What could be distracting him? Well, it’s March 1st, 2014. Pharrell Williams is at number one with his Oscar-nominated song “Happy” for the third time – the first song since 1957 to top the UK Singles Chart on three separate occasions – with Clean Bandit, Katy Perry, and Christina Aguilera also charting. In other news, Ukraine accuses Russia of deploying troops to Crimea and trying to provoke Kiev into "armed conflict”, a post-mortem reveals that actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an accidental overdose of a cocktail of drugs including heroin, cocaine and amphetamine, and the Northern Lights have been illuminating the skies across the UK.

And then you e-mail me, Phil. The lights in the sky! It’s a sign!

I’m not sure when I first stumbled upon the Eruditorum. Maybe it was the end of 2012, with your entry on The Eight Doctors, the first and last Who novel I ever read. (I was 14 when The Eight Doctors was published, and full of energy and optimism.) But I think your work is genuinely, properly, truly brilliant. Your November 2011 entry on Mary Whitehouse is one of the most moving pieces of writing on Doctor Who that I’ve encountered anywhere, ever. Except, it isn’t about Doctor Who, is it? (Nor was The Writer’s Tale.) That blog post is about shame, fear, class, politics, philistinism, the silent majority, and in particular bullying. "Held in the memory of a generation of freaks, waiting patiently for their time to come.” It gets better, Phil, but not much better than that beautiful blog post. I printed out a couple of paragraphs, to pin to the noticeboard above my desk. And that, I suppose, is why I’m entering into this correspondence. Finally.

If I had time, I’d re-read The Writer’s Tale first. But I don’t. (I should have done that instead of gazing up at the Northern Lights while not replying to your e-mail for six weeks.) Also, I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’ll be embarrassed by Past Ben. Anyone who’s ever sifted through their old e-mails, text messages or Skype conversations will understand that. The Writer’s Tale is a first draft. It had to be. It’s raw, candid, and uncensored. From the off, I assured Russell that none of it would be published, in DWM or anywhere, before he’d had a chance to read it back in the cold light of day. In the end, we deemed very little of interest or import unsuitable for publication. A couple of things. But not much. If I were compiling The Writer’s Tale today, from our seven-year-old e-mails, I wonder whether we’d be more circumspect.

Truth is, I realised that I’d kickstarted something “absolutely golden” – your words, but I’m not arguing – a couple of e-mails in. Maybe less. As soon as I realised how passionately, thoughtfully, and frankly Russell was engaging with the project. He was, as I wrote in my foreword, “telling it how it is. Even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff." The Writer’s Tale takes a progressive look at the scriptwriting and storytelling processes, and at Russell's role as showrunner of the BBC’s flagship drama series. I don’t think it could have happened any time before or since. Certainly not since. Steven barely has time to write Doctor Who, let alone e-mail me every night, for a year. "It would just be the same book, with a shorter man,” Steven once said. "It would look like a budget cut.”

Phil, when you re-read your earlier blog posts, do you ever find yourself strongly disagreeing with Past Phil? Regretting things you said? Or wishing you’d said them differently (or not at all)? And does it help, to look back and cringe at what you wrote? Does that actually make you a better writer, or a better person? Or just more… cautious?

Best,
Ben

On 13 Apr 2014, at 21:21, Philip Sandifer wrote:

Ben -

Life and distractions happen, no worries. You were presumably off being a YouTube genius of some sort. Or insulting Nash Grier. I’m going to say “insulting Nash Grier” like I have any idea what I’m talking about and see how that goes for me. And this time you’ll have an excuse to reply slowly, because I fear I’ve gone on a bit here.

I’m terribly glad to hear you liked the Mary Whitehouse entry. Someone was asking me the other day what I would ask Moffat or Davies if I only had a one-question interview, and after grousing a bit that interviews don’t work like that and that a proper interview is about building questions in order so that the subject is doing more than just giving first impression/obvious answers, I gave my stock question for any creative person: what work of yours do you feel hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves?

It’s not quite fair to say that the Mary Whitehouse entry would be my pick: I’ve had a handful of people ping me at various times to say they liked that one. And looking at it, it has done quite well for itself. Sixty-five comments, five more than The Talons of Weng-Chiang. So clearly, actually, that has done very well and I really can’t grouse about it being under-appreciated. But it still means a lot when people say they like it. I think because it’s so personal, and not just in the obvious, confessional ways, but in terms of it being a real transition point in the project. It wasn’t just the sort of “End of Act One” moment that it sets itself up for being, but also an entry that coincided with my moving out of the house I’d started writing Eruditorum in – this old, poorly-repaired house in which I’d stay up terribly late watching Doctor Who interspersed with other British television, with very little social contact in my life whatsoever. It was the end of a very strange year spent very much inside my own head, and for me there’s an energy to that first year or so of TARDIS Eruditorum that can’t really be replicated in later stuff. So hearing that it matters to other people, particularly to people who’s work I admire, really does mean a lot.

Which gets to your final question, so I suppose I’ll jump ahead to that, then go back for The Writer’s Tale. I do cringe at bits of the old stuff, though actually in the middle period. The material that makes up the first four books I’m consistently proud of. That sounds terribly vain, but honestly, I do understand why that worked. I don’t think anything else until Attack of the Cybermen or so quite worked as well as that first chunk. I mean, the Logopolis entry I reman proud of, but ooh, the Williams era and especially the Davison stuff is rough. I’m revising it now for the book, and I’m really having a tough time making it feel like a book. Each of the first four books you have, I think, a big iconic statement. The crystallisation of Doctor Who as an idea, Doctor Who and psychedelia, Doctor Who and glam, and then the paranoid burst of horror that is the Hinchcliffe era. The Williams era… I don’t know. I didn’t find one while I was writing it, and I’m still struggling to. I have the outer edges of it, but I’m honestly not sure how to make it all cohere. 

“Cautious” is a good word for it, actually. There’s definitely a point where I started to write with the conscious knowledge of an audience, and knowing that I was in a much larger tradition and context. Most of Doctor Who up to Talons has a pretty uniform critical consensus, so it felt like I was only ever having to reply to one thing, but that really unravels after that, and I think there are ways I lost the nerve to just storm out and make big, definitive statements. I think that came back eventually, though. The tail end of the classic series I’m still very fond of what I did, and I think the new series stuff has been pretty solid. I’m really happy with the Moffat stuff so far. So it’s possible it’s something about the material, as opposed to me – that Horror of Fang Rock through Caves of Androzani is just a hard stretch of Doctor Who to get a grip on.

But enough about me in this post that is supposedly about The Writer’s Tale

Do you think Moffat is right that his Writer’s Tale (assuming he had the time to do it) would be the same book? One of the things that really fascinates me about the book is that Russell is such a singular mind. As broad and applicable as large swaths of the book are, and certainly it made me a better writer, I’ve never worked or thought like he does, nor even been tempted to. That mix of anxiety and mania… ooh, I’ve had manic nights where I pour out five- or six-thousand words (the Rose post was effectively just a two-day stretch of power writing), but I don’t think I’d ever want to sustain that. And Moffat’s personality, both in his writing and in interviews, is so different from Russell’s that I have a hard time believing it would be the same book. I’d be shocked if Moffat thought about his writing in the same way. Russell is so instinctive a writer, going off a sense of what feels right to him. He can explain it later, and does so eloquently, but he clearly writes from instinct and mood. Moffat always feels more methodical – like he starts from a clear vision of what he intends to have the script do, and then works backwards to the script. 

What’s it like for you, by the way, watching the show now after having had such close access? And for that matter, what was it like watching Series Four as it went out? Did seeing the sausage get made affect the taste? Were there any episodes that surprised you when you saw them as opposed to reading the scripts? And for Series Five, was it strange to find yourself on the outside again? Did how your enjoyment of the show change from your year on the inside?

I’m also, though it’s not about The Writer’s Tale, terribly curious about your being fourteen when The Eight Doctors came out. It’s the same age I was, which means you must have been a child fan of the Wilderness Years. Though clearly not one who was buying all the books. I’ve often felt like being a young American Doctor Who fan in the early 90s has been a benefit in writing TARDIS Eruditorum, because it gives me a fresh take. What was your childhood Doctor Who experience like? How did a fourteen year old come to be a fan in 1997? 

Best,
Phil

On Apr 21, 2014, at 4:24 AM, Benjamin Cook wrote:
Phil –

Eight days to reply. Beats six weeks. Shut up, I’m getting better.

You mentioned Nash Grier. (Will anyone reading the TARDIS Eruditorum know who Nash is? Or care?) Nash is a teenager who became “famous" on Vine, the mobile video app, on which he has 7.3 million followers. Don’t ask me why. Then he started YouTubing, and became "YouTube famous” – not quite as oxymoronic as it sounds – virtually overnight. To date he has 2.5 million subscribers. In December, he and two friends uploaded a horribly misjudged video called “What Guys Look For In Girls”. “Be funny. Have a personality. Entertain me,” he demanded of his predominantly teenage, predominantly female audience. “A girl that can cook." “Shave. Brush your tenth.” “Arm hair – no! Wax. Shave.” “If you play too hard to get, it’s just, like, she doesn’t even like me, but if you play easy it’s just like, ooh, she’s a whore.” And so it went on. As if Nash’s impressionable, saucer-eyed, teenage girl audience isn’t insecure enough about… everything. Their bodies. Whether or not boys find them attractive. I had a bit of a go at Nash on Twitter (not that he cares – why would he?), and then I felt bad, because he’s only 16. Maybe you’re allowed to be a bit of a twat when you’re 16, even if millions of teenage girls do hang on your every dumb, neanderthalic grunt.

I wasn’t much younger than Nash when The Eight Doctors came out. (Marvel at how I dragged us, kicking and screaming, back on topic.) I was a child of The Wilderness Years. I stumbled upon Doctor Who in 1993, when I was 12 years old. The repeat of Planet of the Daleks on BBC One was my gateway drug. Then I watched The Green Death. Then Pyramids of Mars. Then the BBC stopped repeating Doctor Who on primetime telly, and I had to get my fix from my local library. I borrowed tapes of The Brain of Morbius, An Unearthly Child, DragonfireThe Mind Robber, The Five Doctors. I was hooked, but I had all of Doctor Who at my disposal – so long as it had been released on VHS. Then I discovered that UK Gold was repeating old episodes. (All episodes were “old" back then.) I started with Nightmare of Eden, skipped The Horns of Nimon (I can’t remember why, maybe I'd heard bad things), then watched a new serial each weekend from Logopolis to Survival. I couldn’t get enough of Doctor WHo. The Peter Haining books taught me everything I knew, half of which was probably wrong. For a while, all of Doctor Who existed at once – it started with Hartnell and ended, definitively, with my favourite Doctor back then, Sylvester McCoy. Nowadays we often forget that for at least half of the 90s, Doctor Who had an endpoint. We knew how the story closed. A final chapter.

In 2014, the notion that Doctor Who might end one day seems… impossible.

How is knowing the Eruditorum's endpoint – now that you’ve written it, and published it! – changing the way that you're writing it? Is your Time of the Doctor blog post, published two weeks ago, really the end? (I will not forget it, Phil. Not one line of it. Not one day, I swear.)

To your questions…

I have an easier time than you do, it seems, believing that a Writer’s Tale with Steven wouldn’t be all that different to the one Russell and I wrote. The fear is still there. That 4am terror, staring at a blank computer screen. More 4pm terror in a correspondence with Steven, perhaps. Less dark nights of the soul, more frantic afternoons of the soul.

And you ask what it's like watching the show now, after having had such close access. Of course, nothing compares to Season Four and the year of Specials that followed, the insights I was getting, knowing what could have been ad what almost was, the Maybe, the few things that we couldn’t put in the book, one MASSIVE thing that I can never talk about, I don’t think… but I still read scripts before filming starts (the shooting script to Peter Capaldi's Episode 3 arrived in my inbox a few days ago), sometimes early drafts, and I still visit the set. Next week will be my first set visit since Peter took over from Matt. And I’m often asked if I wish I could watch Doctor Who not knowing what happens next. To which the answer is, HELL NO! I still get my first time with each episode; it just so happens to be several months before your first time. Yes, that’s as much fun as it sounds. I’m very lucky. I know that. In fact, I get several first times: one is when I first read the script, another is at the read-through, another on set, another when I see a rough edit of the episode, another on transmission. I haven’t had that not-knowing-what’s-coming-next relationship with Doctor Who since 2004, when I read the script for Rose. Actually, thinking about it, the only time I’ve watched Doctor Who not knowing how any particular serial ends was Planet of the Daleks. After that, Peter Haining books filled in the gaps and spoilered all. Or DWM did. I learnt quickly. Even the TV Movie was spoilered by DWM’s The Doctor Who Movie Special, which appeared in shops a week or so before transmission. Since 2005, the joy of Doctor Who Saturdays is, for me, watching my mates view the episode for the first time. Now, watching the show is a communal experience. And it helps that Doctor Who is cool now. My mates watch it. Girls watch it. No-one else watched Doctor Who when I was at school.

What’s it like for you, Phil, watching new episodes now that you critique and dissect the show so thoroughly – and astutely – on the Eruditorum? Can you ever relax and just… enjoy it? Or are you always considering the wider, cultural context, even as an episode airs? Isn’t that exhausting?

Best,
Ben

On 4 May 2014, at 22:11, Philip Sandifer wrote:

Ben - 

My turn to be slow! Was facing down a Last War in Albion deadline, which I ended up fighting to a draw – I got the blog post out, but I didn’t finish the chapter until a few days later. Much 4am panic on that one. 

I love that on a blog that has previously required a non-trivial working knowledge of William Blake’s personal mythology and the structure of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life we’re somehow deciding Nash Grier is the thing we have to stop and explain. 

But it’s an interesting question, and not entirely unrelated to the Eruditorum. You ask whether you’re allowed to be a bit of a twat when you’re 16, and all I can think is, “well, God, I hope so, or else I’m in deep shit.” I mean, I was properly awful at times as a teenager. But equally, I think you were pretty much on target. That “What Guys Look For In Girls” video did real damage to real people. You have to call that sort of thing out, don’t you? Just because it’s not hard to see how something that misjudged got made doesn’t mean you don’t call it out. And one hopes that Nash grows up and realizes that he was being a bit of a twat. I’m not sure you can do that without being called out. 

But making critiques like that is tough when you’ve got to confront the fact that there are people involved. It’s something that’s been a challenge in some ways for me writing the Eruditorum. Fairly early on in the process, Rob Shearman left a comment on the Daleks’ Masterplan entry. It was a really nice comment, but it was also the moment where I went, “oh my God, the people I’m writing about are reading this.” And that’s always made me pause before I criticize someone, because I know they might be reading. But, I mean, I don’t want to hold back or alter my opinions in some misguided effort to curry favor with Doctor Who writers either. That line between criticizing the work and criticizing the author is really tricky, not least because I don’t think there’s a writer in the world who really makes the distinction.

I had a problem with this right around the end of the Davies era, actually, when I decided to do The End of Time Part Two with a really brutal, critical entry. I was actually really nervous about that one once I realized The Writer’s Tale was going to be posted out of sequence, because I was worried you’d be upset that I was so rough on the story. And that one was particularly weird, because I actually quite like The End of Time, and if you’d asked me even a week before I wrote the post what I was going to do with it, I’d have said I was going to defend it. But then I sat down to write the piece and it just felt like the right thing to do. I’d praised so much of the Davies era, but there I needed to set up a problem that the Moffat era could solve, and just give voice to all the dark sides of the Davies era. 

Which is the added problem for TARDIS Eruditorum: in my mind, it has a plot, and sometimes I have to sacrifice my opinions of a story in favor of getting the plot to go where I need it to.

Which gets nicely to your question about the end. Is that the end? For now. I mean, I’m sure I’ll cover the Capaldi era eventually. At the end of the day, I’m going to have opinions on it, and if I write those opinions down and publish them people will give me money, so it’s a fairly attractive proposition. But I think everything after The Time of the Doctor is going to go straight to book form instead of being blogged first.

Even then, Time of the Doctor is the end. Much like Time of the Doctor itself is the end. Sure, the story goes on, but that’s clearly the end of it, just like The End of Time is, and like The Parting of the Ways is, and like that final speech in Survival is. And just like the last TARDIS Eruditorum entry I post is going to be the end, albeit a different sort of end.

I’ve known how I was going to do the ending, broadly, since last summer. It came to me while walking the dog, and was one of those “ah, yes, of course, that is the correct answer” moments. So I’ve been building to it for nearly a year. And I always had bits of the future structure in mind – the A Good Man Goes to War entry has basically existed in my head since the episode aired, and I just wrote it, and sure enough it’s what I thought it was going to be. So no, I don’t think it’s changed how I write it. If anything, it’s put a little bit of spring in my step again – knowing that the ending is coming gives you that little push to make every entry a good one.

I’m finding myself still very interested in this question of what Moffat’s Writer’s Tale would look like, just because I’m intrigued by the fact that you and I find different things in the book. For me, the heart of it isn’t the 4am panic, but the moments where Russell is thinking out loud and where you can see the ideas developing from the first thing that popped into his head to what we eventually see on screen. Looking at the way Russell frames a writing problem was fascinating to me, and still is, and that, I suspect, is something that Moffat would do differently. If you look at where Russell’s ideas start, it tends to be a pile of images and one or two iconic scenes. He talks about coming up with the two-door booth for The End of Time, for instance, or the two levers for Doomsday.

And I’d bet that’s not how Moffat works. I’d bet that if you asked him to describe a scripting problem – the actual meat of what has him in a 4pm panic – he’d give an answer that feels different from Russell’s answers. Russell even talks about this to an extent, pointing out a variety of ways in which Moffat’s a very different writer than him. Somewhere in there, there’s a bit about how Davies never writes stage directions from the perspective of the viewer, instead describing the action like it’s really happening, whereas Moffat writes them with lots of “we see X” and attention paid to the audience’s point of view as a part of the storytelling. Surely that would come through in The Moffat’s Tale. The panic might be all the same, but I don’t think they’d explain their thinking the same way at all.

Of course, this could also be that I have a weird perspective on things. That gets to your other big question, about whether I can relax and just enjoy Doctor Who. And that’s a strange one – I honestly don’t know what to say. I’ve been asked versions of this question before, and I never quite get it, because it always feels like the question is assuming some sort of difference between enjoyment and criticism that I just don’t feel. Maybe this is because I’m the sort of person who gets a PhD in English, but for me criticism is part of the fun. It’s how we preserve the fun of stories after the first go. I can’t watch The Big Bang for the first time ever again, but I can use critical analysis to keep finding ways of enjoying it and understanding it.

So do I have an uncritical first go at it? Only sort of. I mean, I certainly don’t notice as much on the first pass as I will on the third or fourth pass – I’m too busy learning the plot and things like that to notice all of the big critical stuff – but I don’t think that’s the same as relaxing the critical part of my brain; it’s more that watching and being thrilled by an episode is the first step of criticism. Kieron Gillen, a comic book writer I really admire who started his career as a critic, makes the really good point that one of the basic things criticism does is put into words what people felt when they first watched something. So for me, there’s not really a firm line between where watching and enjoying ends and criticism starts.

But that does mean that there’s not a lot of purity to the “first time” for me either. It’s not even always the best go. I think for Time of the Doctor, for instance, I had much more fun the second go-around. It was when I noticed that Murray Gold reused the Amelia Pond musical cue when the Doctor looked at Barnable through the scanner and decided to stay on Trenzalore that I really, properly fell for the episode, because I was so busy being thrown that it wasn’t what I expected on the first pass. But once I noticed that bit the episode clicked and I went “ah, OK, I see the sort of thing they’re doing here,” and now it’s one of my all-time favorite episodes.

What about you? You get your first time ages early, but what’s your actual, proper favorite time? When has Doctor Who most just swept you off your feet with the sheer romance and beauty of it all?

Best,
Phil

On 1 June 2014, at 3:05, Benjamin Cook wrote:

Phil –

Since we last spoke, Nash Grier has been give his own movie. This is the universe’s way of punishing me for not replying to your e-mails quicker. Four weeks. Sorry! (Better than six.)

>> What about you? You get your first time ages early, but what’s your actual, proper favorite time? When has Doctor Who most just swept you off your feet with the sheer romance and beauty of it all? <<

First times! First times are the most memorable. My actual, proper favourite first time was Tom Baker’s scene in The Day of the Doctor. Ask me right now what my favourite scene is from all of Doctor Who, and I think I’d pick that one. “You know, I really think you might.” A heart-stopping moment, even though I knew it was coming. To see it – on the big screen, at the BFI, as the episode aired on TV and in cinemas across the world – in a theatre full of Doctor Who fans, amongst them Steven Moffat, and the communal gasp it prompted, the applause, then sudden hush, ssh, SSH!, the stillness that fell over us as Matt went, “I never forget a face,” and Tom went, “I know you don’t. And in years to come you might find yourself revisiting a few. But just the old favourites, eh.” The audacity of that line. And of that scene. Also, I’m a sucker for a “surprise” cameo, even when I know it’s coming. More applause as Tom exits (was that his final Doctor Who appearance, do you think?), from a BFI audience swallowed up in the joy – and relief – that the most anticipated episode in Doctor Who’s 50-year history hadn’t disappointed. I replay those two-and-a-half-minutes on YouTube often, and in my head the BFI audience’s response. I could write an essay on those two-and-a-half-minutes. (You know, I really think you should.) The romance, and the beauty, and the nerve of that scene.

I’d never seen Steven looking as nervous as at that Day of the Doctor screening. In the bar afterwards, I’d never seen him looking so relieved. What a chapter of The Moffat’s Tale’s that would have made. To have e-mailed Steven that night, or the night before –! I wonder if he can ever relax and just enjoy Doctor Who. Who knows, eh? Who… knows? I might ask him, actually. In fact, I wonder if Russell can. I’ll definitely ask Russell. We haven’t discussed Doctor Who much since he left.

We're still e-mailing, though. Not every day, like in 2008. But we’re working on a web series together, for Channel 4. It’s called Tofu, and it’s part of a trilogy of programmes Russell has devised for Channel 4, E4, and online. The other two shows are dramas – Cucumber for Channel 4, and Banana for E4 – but Tofu is a documentary series, and it's all about sex. Good sex, bad sex, real-life sex. Smut, basically. It’s about smut, Phil. I’ve some experience of making online documentary series – last year, The Observer described me as "the official chronicler of Britain's YouTube generation” (and I’ll have that written on my gravestone, thank you), so Russell invited me to make Tofu, and I started filming it last month. The more I work with Russell, the more I realise how much I learnt from him during that year or so that we were e-mailing back and forth for The Writer’s Tale – about TV and about writing, but also – Russell’s greatest triumph as a showrunner – how to work with and inspire other people. To make people feel good about themselves, their work, and their craft. The number of writers, over the past six years, who have told me that that book inspired them to feel good about what not so much what they do, but how they do it. They're not alone. That’s the heart and soul of The Writer’s Tale, I think. And that’s not me, that’s Russell.

Best,
Ben

On 3 June 2014, at 23:24, Philip Sandifer wrote:

Ben -

I'm cheating now - I'm not even actually sending this as an e-mail. I'm just tacking it on before I post this on the blog itself. But congratulations on Tofu. I bet it'll be way better than Nash Grier's movie.

So I suppose I should wrap it up here. I'm not sure how, really. You've said it all about The Writer's Tale - certainly that was my experience years ago, and it's still, as I said, a book that I have enormously warm feelings to. Thank you for it. And thank you for indulging me with this daft little experiment. I hope something worthwhile came out of it.

Actually, I know how to wrap this up. Because this does fall, chronologically, at the same point in time that TARDIS Eruditorum debuted - January of 2011. I've had people suggest from time to time that I should do a post on TARDIS Eruditorum, and I've always found the idea amusing, but I've never quite liked it. It always felt egotistical. I'm not the person who should document my own impact on the culture or on Doctor Who. 

But I have to say, I'm glad this fell where it did. It feels like the right thing to post here, as a reflection on the fact that we're entering the part of Doctor Who that this blog coexists with. And because the truth is, I don't think TARDIS Eruditorum would have happened without The Writer's Tale. So thank you for that. Starting this blog is one of the best things that ever happened to me.

And that's not all Russell. That's you too. So thank you. I look forward to working on a webseries with you in six years. I say we do a Nash Grier biopic. 

Best,
Phil

Many, many thanks to Ben Cook. Have you watched his YouTube stuff? It's really quite marvelous.

Comments

Lewis Christian 2 years, 10 months ago

I absolutely love this entry, Phil (and Ben). Brought back many vibes I had from reading The Writer's Tale. Throughout university, that book was my bible; I found myself relating to Russell in terms of how I wrote and, even when I didn't, I found myself debating with a book. Such a great idea of yours, Phil, to email Ben for this entry - and I just wanna read it all over again!

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Scurra 2 years, 10 months ago

And thank you. That's all.

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ferret 2 years, 10 months ago

"And then you e-mail me, Phil. The lights in the sky! It’s a sign!"

That Ben magic is back :-) The only problem I have with this post is that it had to end. Much like The Writers Tale I wish it could just go on and on.

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Seeing_I 2 years, 10 months ago

Hear, hear. In the true spirit of The Writer's Tale, you two really should do an expanded version of this post at some point.

I simply adored The Writer's Tale, and "inhaled" to use Phil's phrase both editions. It's a book I gladly dip into now and again, and am always amused, fascinated, and enlightened. Honestly, one of the best books on writing I've ever read, and anyone who's not read it can't claim to know a thing about RTD or his era.

BEN: "one MASSIVE thing that I can never talk about, I don’t think…" Oh, go on. It's just us here!

Seriously, though, you do realize that at some point you'll need to write a memoir of your life with Doctor Who, right? Because you've had an absolutely unique perspective on the new series and its creators, and it's one that, someday, we'd all love to hear more about.

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Katherine Sas 2 years, 10 months ago

"Which is the added problem for TARDIS Eruditorum: in my mind, it has a plot, and sometimes I have to sacrifice my opinions of a story in favor of getting the plot to go where I need it to."

Yes, yes, YES! Thank you for that sentence, and for writing your blog with this critical ethos in mind. It's what separates thoughtful, intelligent criticism from...everything pretending to be that. That criticism itself is a form of storytelling. It's why I can read my favorite bloggers with respect and interest even (and often especially when) our opinions on the work conflict. Thanks to both of you for a beautiful blog entry. I've been vaguely wanting to read The Writer's Tale for some time now, and this has inspired me to run out and buy it immediately!

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Spacewarp 2 years, 10 months ago

To anyone planning on buying The Writer's Tale, be aware there were two editions. The first edition (hardback) has lots of glossy photos but only goes as far as "The Next Doctor".

The second edition - "The Final Chapter" - contains all the text of the first edition but continues on to the end of RTD's tenure, with The End of Time, David Tennant's farewell, and the move to LA. It has no photos but is by far the more essential buy.

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SpaceSquid 2 years, 10 months ago

I've had people suggest from time to time that I should do a post on TARDIS Eruditorum, and I've always found the idea amusing, but I've never quite liked it. It always felt egotistical. I'm not the person who should document my own impact on the culture or on Doctor Who.

Why not do it as a guest post? Get someone from Gallifrey Base to write it. Then surround the area with a thirty-foot concrete wall guarded by starving Tetraps and never speak of it again.

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SpaceSquid 2 years, 10 months ago

My thing here is how to ensure the story doesn't end up requiring twisting individual entries into unfair/ridiculous readings. I mean, not presenting one's actual views, fine, but there are many excellent reasons why this sort of narrative-driven approach is viewed as a terrible idea in political journalism, and I'm wondering - from a position, I freely admit, of near-total ignorance - where the difference between that and Phil's approach lies, other than the ideas that a) I approve of Phil's twists more than most, and b) reshaping events to feed a political narrative can be more destructive than reshaping stories to feed an aesthetic one.

If, indeed, that last proposition is even true...

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Aylwin 2 years, 10 months ago

"I was so busy being thrown that it wasn’t what I expected on the first pass."

Given how central the idea of Moffat setting the audience up to expect one thing and then giving them another is to your interpretation of his era, and the fact that that interpretation was presumably pretty well-formed by the time of Time (especially in the light of the remark on AGMGTW in this post, since the notion of him setting up the expectation of something epic and then undercutting it is so prominent there), I would be interested to know what you were expecting.

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TheSmilingStallionInn 2 years, 10 months ago

My paperback of the Final Chapter does have glossy photos in several places. And it doesn't actually have all of the text--apparently they edited out some of the scripts from the first version.

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Spacewarp 2 years, 10 months ago

Ah yes, actually I forgot that other people are actually interested in scripts whereas I'm not and I just skip over them to get to the next email conversations. In which case yes you do need both versions. And funnily enough I am actually half way through re-reading it again (he's just finished the script for Journey's End).

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Andy 2 years, 10 months ago

I've just read the Nash Grier entry on Wikipedia. I didn't understand most of what it said. I may be quite old now.

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Katherine Sas 2 years, 10 months ago

Thanks Spacewarp - I did have that question, so good to know the difference between the two editions.

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Katherine Sas 2 years, 10 months ago

SpaceSquid - That's very true, and good for the writer and reader to keep in mind. Maybe that's the difference between criticism of fiction and something like political commentary, though. In the latter you do have obligation to approach the material from (as much as possible) an unbiased, journalistic point of view of presenting the facts as they are. When explaining a work of fiction, however, it's often about more than just the "facts" as you (or I) see them. It's about something more. Not sure what that something is all the time, but good criticism often gives glimpses of it.

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Bennett 2 years, 10 months ago

Though the scripts were edited out of The Final Chapter (to keep the book from being large enough to draw in orbiting satellites, I assume) they were made publicly available at http://thewriterstale.com as recompense. Sadly, the URL now redirects to a page on the Doctor Who Encyclopaedia so newer readers might be out of luck. And now I'm off to make backups of the PDF files I saved from that site.....

(Oh, and to avoid making another comment just to heap on glowing praise - The Writer's Tale is probably my favourite non-fiction book. I owe a debt of gratitude to both of its authors for writing and sharing a work that has profoundly influenced the way I see the creative arts and life in general. And to parody its structure for this blog post was genius - I can't think of a better way for the Eruditorum to close the loop on its own pre-history).

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Froborr 2 years, 10 months ago

I've had people suggest from time to time that I should do a post on TARDIS Eruditorum, and I've always found the idea amusing, but I've never quite liked it. It always felt egotistical. I'm not the person who should document my own impact on the culture or on Doctor Who.

You could do what I did, and do a sort of cross between self-parody and massively self-indulgent public self-flagellation.

On second thought, yeah, your first instinct is correct. It's high on the list of posts I regret writing.

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Lewis Christian 2 years, 10 months ago

I believe the scripts from thewriterstale.com can be accessed using those fancy internet 'wayback' things.

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encyclops 2 years, 10 months ago

I love this entry, both concept and execution. Thank you so much for it.

I'm in the midst of The Writer's Tale now. I don't usually read books of its kind (I'm not sure how many of its kind there actually are) but I absolutely love this one. That sense that both Davies and Cook are really just putting it out there, that this really is just what occurred to them to discuss and what they actually said about it (as opposed to being ruthlessly edited, shaped, forced to fit), is a key part of its appeal for me. It's fascinating and a little bit shocking to see how duff some of the germs of the episodes were, compared to how sparkling they turned out. It's a little inspiring, too, because I hate editing and this book makes such a good case for it.

I'm enjoying the hell out of the book and even though I'm taking it very slowly I can feel the urge the devour it. It's so cool of you and Cook to have paid homage to it for this entry.

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Bennett 2 years, 10 months ago

You're right, Lewis - they can. Thanks for that.

"Nothing is ever forgotten, not completely. And if something can be remembered, it can come back."

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John Seavey 2 years, 10 months ago

I love the hell out of this entry. I loved the hell out of that book. It was so wonderfully raw and personal and fresh and loving and amazing that I think I spent most of it astonished that these people were actually telling me this much of the truth about their feelings. You don't generally get that much honesty in a book about a TV show. Everything's always carefully sanitized. I respected Russell and Ben both for that book SO MUCH. And I'm glad to see it respected and loved here as well.

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Adam Riggio 2 years, 10 months ago

A wonderfully appropriate entry for a beautiful book. I wasn't sure what to think of it when I first heard the concept, but on reading The Writer's Tale, I was entranced. And I once had a professor friend tell me that email had killed epistolary relationships. If anything, it offered the opportunity for even greater intensity and detail, and this book is the living example of modern literature of friendship.

"The Williams era and especially the Davison stuff is rough. I’m revising it now for the book, and I’m really having a tough time making it feel like a book. . . . it’s possible it’s something about the material, as opposed to me – that Horror of Fang Rock through Caves of Androzani is just a hard stretch of Doctor Who to get a grip on."

I actually loved your entries from this period, I think because of the tension that made them so tough to get a firm critical grip on. My mother always said I liked making things more difficult for myself, and I guess that includes things that make other people's lives difficult. But I think there are themes in these eras, which your posts have made clear, even though their presence in the show is more complex.

Hartnell: the amorphous idea of Doctor Who coming together. Troughton: Doctor Who and psychedelia (even though the execution in the show tended to fall short). Pertwee: Doctor Who and glam (even though the action style of the show tended to clash with it, it was a productive schiz that itself generated more glam). Hinchcliffe: paranoid horror. Well, how about these ideas, which I see in your work.

Williams: Hyper-meta self-parody of the show, sci-fi, and Doctor Who's own production circumstances. Davison: Doctor Who's first crack at soap sci-fi, JNT's best aesthetic idea. One common thread in both these concepts is that the show couldn't quite get the talent together in its bullpen to succeed at these concepts consistently. Williams had his revolving door of script editors, and only someone with the talent of Robert Holmes or Douglas Adams could spin all these meta-textual plates at once (your Armageddon Factor essay would be key to this analysis). Adams himself was not the best person to have as a script editor, loving the whooshing sound of deadlines, after all. Moffat himself said so in the City of Death DVD documentary.

And the Davison era suffered a similar lack of writers talented enough to handle such a sophisticated network of character relationships as necessary for the Season 19 cast and the Turlough concept to really work. It didn't help that Eric Saward was too green as a script editor to seed small moments of growing conflict across multiple serials, as you noted in Planet of Fire. Saward also brought his own aesthetic to Doctor Who, which was totally incompatible with the Davison era's tendency to skirt true serialization, as Earthshock and Terminus would show. Describing Saward's aesthetic would seed one element of the shit hurricane of the Colin Baker era.

I hope this helps.

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Froborr 2 years, 10 months ago

The only other book of its kind I know of is The Odyssey File, which collects the e-mails Peter Hyams and Arthur C. Clarke sent back and forth during pre-production on 2010.

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Mike 2 years, 10 months ago

People should really watch Ben's Becoming YouTube. It's how I first knew about Ben (I've been meaning to read The Writer's Tale for ages) and I was really impressed. While I have effectively grown up with YouTube (I turned 20 a few months ago), I learnt a lot about it and it is very accessible to those who know nothing about the site.

I imagine that The Writer's Tale resembles Becoming YouTube in that way - providing an insight into a subject people assume they know all about it, and revealing the intricate details involved and how passionate creatives in those areas are.

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encyclops 2 years, 10 months ago

I was thinking more generally of books about the making of movies and TV. I have a hard time making myself sit down and watch DVD commentary as well. But I'll bet The Odyssey File is pretty interesting.

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Pen Name Pending 2 years, 10 months ago

You guys got me all interested, but according to Amazon the book is out of print in the US?

So...I guess I'll wait and get it secondhand someday, or spend $15 for it on Kindle (which I usually don't do for books that would be cheaper in print for the real thing I can display on my shelf).

Oh well.

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Zoe Anderson 2 years, 10 months ago

What an entrancing post, in concept and in execution. The Writer's Tale is an extraordinary book: so raw, so scarily honest, so intelligent, so brave. This is a lovely evocation and tribute.

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encyclops 2 years, 10 months ago

I'm glad I own it in physical form, but it's over 700 pages long and I'm worried the paperback is going to rip itself in half before I'm done reading it. It's definitely worth $15 and you might find it easier to manage on the Kindle.

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John Seavey 2 years, 10 months ago

To be honest, I think Saward was too green a script editor to be able to properly cultivate talent. Apart from Robert Holmes, who he actively courted throughout the end of Holmes' life, he tended to simply rewrite the scripts himself until they looked like what he wanted, then avoid that author instead as they didn't give him a script that suited his needs. That made for a lot of burnout, a lot of turnover, and a tiny stable of writers who could work on the program.

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Daru 2 years, 10 months ago

Oh Phil and ben I adored this post utterly. I could so easily take the journey with you two through a dialogue similar to, but different from the original. You made my day when I read this, thank you.

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Kyle Edwards 5 months, 4 weeks ago

Wow. I have to say, Phil, that the comment on the plot of the blog really gave me a lot of perspective on how I enjoy Doctor Who. See, in 2013, Entertainment Weekly published a 50th anniversary Doctor Who special. I flipped through it, mildly interested (my favorite memory of the issue was seeing David Tennant for the first time and thinking, "Why is this skinny weirdo so popular?", which may in fact be the perfect description of Doctor Who as a show and a cultural phenomenon). After that, I decided to give the show a go. The first episode of Doctor Who that I ever watched was The End of the World (1x02). It was fine. I'd seen clips of Matt Smith on YouTube, so I decided to watch one of his episodes. I picked, quite randomly, Asylum of the Daleks, and it blew me away. The thing is, it wasn't even an exceptionally good episode of the show (or, one could argue, a good episode at all). But being an episode of Doctor Who, it was still fifty times better than anything I'd ever seen. The horror, the acting, the comedy. Brilliant stuff. From there, I watched the whole of the Smith era, and from there backtracked to Eccleston and Tennant. I loved the Smith era wholeheartedly, and was stunned when I saw the hate he got in fandom. When Capaldi debuted, I didn't even want to watch it, I was so attached to Smith as an endpoint of what Doctor Who could be. My brother coaxed me to watch it, and of course it was absolutely brilliant, but that small sliver of time when I was just attached to Smith made me realize that that was the start of my opinions of Doctor Who. Holding Smith up as a pinnacle led me to frame every argument in terms of how Smith improved or contrasted with it, and framing stuff past and present i the context around it. Since then, I've never allowed myself to watch Doctor Who on its lonesome. And thinking about it so thoroughly has made me love it more than ever. It's probably why I've been drawn so thoroughly to TARDIS Eruditorum; someone who had similar (but crucially not the same) opinions as me, who thought of Doctor Who in same terms (though broader and more thoroughly considered), and who was a hell of a better articulator than I was. Bravo on all of this, Phil. It's truly beautiful.

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