When the writers for the first series of Doctor Who were announced, they were a fairly sensible lot. It was, by and large, a particular social circle of Doctor Who fans who entered television writing in the years immediately following the series’ cancellation. All had written either for Virgin or Big Finish, and they were all only one or two degrees of separation from each other in terms of being close friends or colleagues. They reflected, in other words, a particular generation of Doctor Who creators. For the most part they were of the Virgin generation, although, as noted, all but Moffat and Davies himself had written for Big Finish as well (and Moffat had been invited to write for Big Finish, but declined because he didn’t want to write past Doctors). But for the most part they represented the writers on the good half of the Wilderness Years, and their departure as the major creative figures in Doctor Who coincided with the post-TV Movie decline.
Given all of this, there was a name whose absence from the first series writing credits stuck out a bit: Gareth Roberts. He was, after all, one of the acclaimed figures of the Virgin years, had a number of high profile Big Finish audios, many with regular co-conspirator Clayton Hickman, and, more to the point, had worked with Davies previously on Springhill and had scads of television credits to his name. But for whatever reason he wasn’t. He’s said in interviews that this saddened him, and that he took on writing Only Human for the New Series Adventures line in part to show that he should have been asked to contribute.
The first thing we should say, then, is that it worked. Roberts wrote a raft of auxiliary material for the second season, including the interactive Attack of the Graske and the prequel TARDISodes, before managing the feat of getting tapped for a script in five consecutive production years of Doctor Who – a streak only equalled (not surpassed) by Russell T Davies himself. If Only Human was his audition piece, it was massively, phenomenally successful.
The second thing we should say is that this is tragically unusual. Gareth Roberts is the only person to have written for both the New Series Adventures line and the television series. This fact means that the New Series Adventures are not able to function in one of the most obvious ways that they could function, which is as a sort of minor league where new talent can be cultivated. We talked with The Monsters Inside about the relative purposelessness of this line, and how it existed seemingly without an audience, for the relatively cynical reason of selling stuff to young Doctor Who fans, or, more accurately, their parents.
One thing that could alleviate that – and not just in the sense of “giving the line a non-cynical reason to exist” but in the sense of making it a line that people write non-cynically for – would be if it were meaningfully possible to go from writing for it to writing for the television series. This is, after all, what the Virgin line in hindsight turned out to be: a proving ground where a future generation of Doctor Who writers developed their vision of Doctor Who. Sure, all the writers might well have made it onto television and then eventually to Doctor Who without writing for Virgin, but it remains the case that the writers who went from Virgin to the TV series by and large wrote the most acclaimed and beloved of the Virgin books. It was, in other words, a terribly good way of sorting out who was any good at writing Doctor Who.
But much of why the Virgin line excelled was because it was Doctor Who. It wasn’t the Doctor Who novel spin-offs. It was the Right and Proper Doctor Who of its era. It’s the only line in the wilderness years that had any sort of unambiguous claim to that for the bulk of its run. And so people reliably brought their A-Game to it. And while it’s certainly the case that plenty of writers of later lines (Paul Magrs, Lawrence Miles, Kate Orman, Jon Blum, Lance Parkin, to give an incomplete list) did too, there were also no shortage of writers who wrote for the paycheck. Which is to say that if your ambition for a line of books is mainly “tie-in fiction for obsessive fans,” that’s something of a cap on quality.
Unfortunately, the New Series Adventures are hobbled by what appears to be an ironclad rule for the new series, which is that you do not get to write for it unless you have other television credits. (Actually, this series it seems to have gotten even harsher – all but two episodes were written by people who not only have television writing experience, but who have been showrunners on some other series.) This is, to be clear, not something I’m complaining about. Much as I’d love to see episodes by Kate Orman and Paul Magrs, I have to admit that the basic logic of “let’s not turn over our most expensive drama production to people who have never written an episode of television before” is largely sound.
But there’s a price that’s paid here. The new series of Doctor Who is a Major BBC Production. Whereas historically Doctor Who was something beloved but marginal that was basically lashed together by a strange combination of crazy visionaries and people who just wanted to get paid and go home. (And often by people who were themselves strange combinations of both) It was a shoestring production at times, and while that often led it into trouble it also meant that we could get things like Andrew Cartmel bursting onto the scene out of nowhere to suddenly be in charge of all of the scripts, or people like Ben Aaronovitch, Marc Platt, or Andrew Smith, all of whom had their first (and in some cases last) television credits with absolutely phenomenal Doctor Who stories. Because Doctor Who was a weird and marginal program that was a sensible place to sell your first script.
But these days Doctor Who is only for established television professionals. And there’s a sense of the ladder getting pulled up, as a result. Doctor Who belongs to the people less than it used to. There are still benefits to it – first and foremost that despite it being a Major BBC Production you’ve still got the sort of manic energy of people trying to be more ambitious than their actual budget and means allow. Which makes for a fantastic bit of television, albeit at the price of, for instance, burning out Christopher Eccleston after one season. And there wasn’t any other way to make Doctor Who – there’s not room on a modern television schedule for a weird sci-fi program with bubble wrap monsters. It has to be done as an absolutely huge program to exist in the first place.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t mourn for what’s been lost. The wilderness years stumbled an awful lot, but any sort of open pool where anyone can take a shot at creating their vision of Doctor Who is going to. There’s something exciting about the vast possibility of what is, at least partially, a community owned text. And while the BBC obviously maintained plenty of control over it, the reality of the wilderness years was that the brain trust of Doctor Who could be found every month at the Fitzroy Tavern, and anybody who wanted to could wander in. It was a meritocracy with no real barrier to entrance. And what we have with Only Human is the last example of that at present. It’s the last time someone tried to storm the castle.
All of which said, it’s a belter – the most successful audition since Timewyrm: Revelation. It lacks the iconoclastic, revolutionary sweep of that story, but that would be inappropriate in 2005. Roberts is auditioning for Davies’s series. And so instead he goes for a sort of hyper-dense version of Davies’s already fast paced series. Roberts does not let a scene go by without at least some cleverness (I think I doubled the filesize of my ebook with the number of fun bits I highlighted), and delights in the cheeky audacity of things. Sure, Steven Moffat gets credit for creating a bunch of mad jokes of what the sonic screwdriver can do (mend barbed wire, light candles), but Gareth Roberts has the Doctor tame a horse by using psychic paper to convince it he’s a horse god.
And what’s astonishing is that this isn’t even unambiguously the best moment of the book. In fact, I think I prefer “so it isn’t the whole universe in danger this time, just the whole of north Kent,” although the joke about Captain Jack’s “big distraction” is pretty wonderful as well. And that’s just the bits where Roberts is working in his main wheelhouse of comedy – he’s also got sublime visual set pieces like a headless Rose. And he nails all three of the characters, including nailing Eccleston’s Doctor specifically, as opposed to writing Generic Doctor. All told, this is a madcap, inventive story that takes everything Davies’s Doctor Who does and just turns it up to eleven.
And that includes focusing on a human element. Indeed, in this regard Only Human works as a commentary on the Davies era and its fascination with human drama. Roberts explores the nature of what human drama is, taking a pair of extreme cases (a Neanderthal and emotionless people from the far future) and exploring what human drama can and can’t do. It is, generally speaking, effective, with the bits involving Lene being particularly brilliant. This is, first and foremost, a story about what it means to be human and why we care about people – a sort of justification of the Davies era at large.
Crucially, however, Roberts doesn’t just write a novelization of a story that doesn’t exist. Large parts of this book could only ever work as a book. The scenes in which Jack attempts to teach a neanderthal how to be a twenty-first century man are absolutely hilarious, but work because of the parallel diary structure used where we get to see two comically different takes on the same events. Likewise, the portion of the book narrated from the perspective of a nurse who gets briefly caught up in the Doctor’s plans is wonderful, capturing in a way television never could what the experience of being swept away by a madman with a box is like. Similarly, the sections of a drugged and mind controlled Doctor work because we get the Doctor’s obviously wrong internal thoughts in a way that can’t really be portrayed by acting.
Which is as it should be. Roberts is a skilled television writer, but this isn’t television, and the book would be harmed if he just wrote an unfilmed TV story. Instead he does something far more charming – he uses the books to expand on what the television series can be. As they should be, really. These are books. If they pretended to be television stories they would clearly be just that – stories too marginal and too shallow for the small screen, to adapt a phrase. That’s part of what’s so impressive about the book – the fact that it treats its status as a book with such respect while not hiding its larger ambitions.
And in doing so it makes a damn compelling case. It’s tough not to think that it would have been nicer to see a Gareth Roberts story than either The Long Game or Boom Town – indeed, he manages to make better use of Captain Jack here than Davies did in Boom Town, and that’s despite Jack having a plot that feels like it was added late (though the book would be far, far poorer without it). It’s a tour de force, made all the more wonderful by the sad knowledge that it is, for the foreseeable future, the last of its kind.