Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The long fingers of Doctor Who

Here's what I wrote for the FantasyCon programme, on the subject of writing for Doctor Who:
“His long fingers flashed over the keyboard with amazing speed.”
That’s how Terrance Dicks describes David Tennant’s Doctor on page 29 of his 2007 Doctor Who novel Made of Steel. The Doctor’s in an internet cafe, looking for evidence that the Cybermen weren’t all swallowed by the void he created at Canary Wharf. Cor, I thought when I read that sentence. And also, I’m having that.

At the time I was writing The Pirate Loop, my own tenth Doctor novel (all canap├ęs and badger-faced space pirates) and was struggling to find simple ways to differentiate this Doctor from his predecessors. I’ve written novels, short stories and audio plays featuring eight of the 10 Doctors and one of the trickiest things is getting each incarnation right. How do you make sure that the tenth Doctor sounds like the tenth?

Terrance Dicks was obviously the person to steal from. Dicks has written more Doctor Who than anybody else – he invented the Time Lords, script-edited all of the third Doctor’s era on telly and has written more than 80 Doctor Who novels and novelisations. Dicks also believes that the Doctor is always the Doctor; the same man despite outward appearance and mannerisms. In effect, you write the same character, it’s the actors who make him different.

A good example of this is the 2003 Big Finish audio play Jubilee by Robert Shearman. At the beginning of episode two, Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor is trapped in a room with a disarmed Dalek, played by Nicholas Briggs. It’s almost the same scene as the one in Dalek, Shearman’s 2005 script for the TV series, only with Christopher Eccleston in the role. While Eccleston’s Doctor shouts and drools flem, Baker’s performance is quieter, warier, more curious.

Before the new series, when only Real Fans were likely to pick up Doctor Who books, you could even keep the reader guessing, letting them suss out which Doctor you’d chosen by which companions or adventures you mentioned. But there are now people who love new Doctor Who, “fans” who can’t rattle off the names of the actors who played the previous incarnations. Who don’t recite them every night as they brush their teeth.

So Big Finish’s Short Trips anthologies now tell you up front which Doctor features, and there’s a handy guide to the first eight on the inside back-flap of each of our anthologies. But even when you tell the reader which Doctor it is explicitly, you still need to get him right. I once edited a story where I had to ask if the Doctor in it was the fifth or the eighth. It only took a tiny bit of tweaking to get it right, adding in a particular, simple line of description – especially early on in the story.

Terrance Dicks mastered these simple descriptions: the third Doctor’s “shock of white hair”, the fifth Doctor’s “pleasant, open face”; the “skinny geek” tenth Doctor with his long fingers.

It’s not just about pinching the descriptions from Terrance Dicks’ books. There’s also the extremely necessary research of watching lots of Doctor Who on DVD. I rewatched all the existing episodes of the first year of Doctor Who to properly depict William Hartnell’s first Doctor and his companions for my novel The Time Travellers. This vital preparation meant I could steal the first Doctor’s way of starting any statement, “I should say...” and the way he stands tall, gripping the lapels of his frock coat, whenever there’s a problem. Time well spent, I think.

It’s not that you’re parodying each performance. The research often helps you spot something to hook a story on, or at least an angle to show some new facet of the characters. Genre writing of any kind is often a sort of parlour game; you have to reshuffle familiar elements so that the result appears the same but new. How do you make the Doctor just like he is on TV yet also something new?

The first Doctor on screen turns out to be not quite the grouch Fan wisdom sometimes thinks. Yet he’s often single-minded, neglecting his granddaughter and other companions when some mystery or spectacle takes his fancy. He’s also a reluctant hero: fighting monsters and injustice only when he’s made to. Only some 50 episodes into the series, as the Daleks invade Earth, does he, unprompted, dare to stop them. (Though initially he gets involved only because he’s locked out of the TARDIS.)

In practical terms, the production team had realised they needed a more active protagonist, that the Doctor couldn’t keep having adventures by accident. But within the fiction itself, what changes in the Doctor? Why does he become the crusader we have come to know? Or rather, what stops him getting involved before this? That’s the sort of thing with which I padded out my book.

It’s Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor who spends his time being rude and insufferable to his friends. (A fanzine article in the 1990s argued this was his frustration at being stranded on Earth, unable to work his TARDIS.) I pinched that for my first professionally published short story: in The Switching, when the suave Master tries to escape from prison by swapping his mind into the Doctor’s body, the Doctor’s friends don’t just fail to notice, they think it’s an improvement.

The same story wouldn’t work with any other incarnation of the Doctor; or rather it wouldn’t play out in the same way. Likewise The Time Travellers only works with the first Doctor, and at that particular moment in his life before the Daleks invade Earth. The Doctors aren’t just different superficially; their different mannerisms spill out and shape the stories.

So that’s how it’s done, or at least how I do it. I said I’ve written for eight of the 10 Doctors. I’ve not written for the ninth Doctor because he was only around for a year and all the spin-off books and annuals are now on to the tenth. And I’ve not written for the second Doctor because I found him too difficult. His character is all in the performance of actor Patrick Troughton – not what he says but the gravelly-voiced, impish, naughty schoolboy way he says it.

But even “impish” I stole from Terrance Dicks.
“The girl watched him leave [the internet cafe]. ‘Pity,’ she thought. ‘Completely bonkers, of course. But he looked rather interesting for a geek.’

Doctor Who: Made of Steel by Terrance Dicks, page 31.

1 comment:

Le Mc said...

Great! For the record, I've enjoyed all your versions of the Doctor and how you differentiate them (well, the ones I've read anyway). You talked about Ten's cheekbones a lot as I recall, which made me very happy! :-D