Sunday, April 19, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: THE WRITER'S TALE (Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook)

Showrunner and primary writer of the new Doctor Who series Russell T. Davies decided to take on quite an extra challenge when starting out upon the fourth season of the show - he agreed to an email collaboration with journalist/Who fanboy Benjamin Cook, during the entire season, detailing just how he made all his creative decisions, wrote his scripts, and what his own writerly mechanisms and methods consisted of.

It's probably the first time a succesful screenwriter has let 'the audience' inside his head, exposing his doubts, concerns, convictions and emotions to an unprecedented degree. The only 'censorship' applied to the email conversations were the excision of spoilers about the specials following season 4, and tons and tons of profane language, as the book is aimed primarily at the Doctor Who audience which includes a sizeable portion of youngsters. And Davies' personal life is also kept out of the proceedings unless it directly impacts his work as showrunner/writer.

The result is a hefty (512 pages!) hardcover book, lavishly illustrated, and full of information and insights into the making of a television series which no one who is not intimately involved with the production of the show would be privy to. As such, the book is a resounding success.

Davies is very honest, and his personality shines through warts and all (i.e. no attempts were made to make this some sort of hagiography). At times he's insensitive to others, crushingly insecure, arrogant, and egotistical. His homosexuality and sexual politics are also prominently mentioned, as Davies (who first became famous with the taboo-breaking Queer As Folk) deliberately uses his status and fame to confront audiences with the issue. At times his drooling crushes on attractive actors do become fairly annoying though - and for the record, if this book was written by a heterosexual showrunner who shared his crushes on female celbrities it would be just as irritating.
In any case, at all times Davies' passion for the show and his enormous creativity shine through. And he's also an amazingly gifted illustrator-cartoonist.

The book starts with the writing and production of the Titanic Christmas episode, co-starring Kylie Minogue, and then quickly segues into the creation of season four proper.
Season 4 introduced comedienne Catherine Tate as the new companion to the Doctor, after her appearance in a previous Christmas special. I'm no fan of Tate's, and didn't like the character of Donna much (though I have to admit it could have been much, much worse). It's intriguing (and frustrating) to discover that another companion had been designed first before Tate became available and showed interest to sign on for a full season.

We also follow the genesis and development of each script, both those of RTD himself and those of the other writers on the show - all of which except for Steven Moffat (the new showrunner) are heavily rewritten by Davies. In a few cases we get to see before-and-after script snippets, and there are many excerpts from Davies' own scripts. These often include scenes and even whole characters which were changed or deleted later on, so for hardcore Who-o-philes these excerpts are a real treasure trove. No complete scripts here though - but some scripts are excerpted so heavily they might as well be.

Davies is a natural writer, which is to say he didn't study screenwriting, but just does it following his gut instincts. The questions Cook poses him force him to think about what he does exactly and why he does it. And it turns out he actually follows traditional screenwriting concepts and precepts quite closely. Which just proves how well they work, and how strongly they permeate Western culture.

We also discover Davies is a very undisciplined writer, missing every possible deadline (including, several times, the really final one) and writing the scripts in a frenzy of adrenaline, guilt and self-reproach. This probably one of the main sources of his weaknesses as a writer.
Another source is that, apparently, there seems to be no one in the production to tell him when an idea is less than stellar (Benjamin Cook also never ever offers even a smidgeon of a critical thought, although that might have made their collaborative work more difficult or fracticious, which certainly wasn't the intention of the book). He is basically the only editor on his scripts, and it shows.
The scripts often have giant plot holes, sketchy and cartoonish guest characters, big set-ups leading to unsatisfactory payoffs, puerile bathroom humour which doesn't fit the series and isn't funny in the first place, sentimentality and blatant preachiness. On the plus side, though, there are big and bold ideas, a brilliant interpretation of the lead character, some really funny lines and moments, a sense of grandeur which no other current science fiction show can match, and a very strong and unique sense of romanticism. One just gets the impression that Davies could come up with truly stunning scripts if he found some collaborator(s) who could amplify his strengths and tone down his weaknesses.

This is a seminal book for anyone interested in writing for television: it's the first time (and maybe the last?) that a succesful writer in control of a wildly popular franchise allows access into his creative process, warts and all. As such it's an education about the writing life in itself, although it absolutely is not intended as a how-to manual. It's a 'how-I-do-it', and Davies often counsels against taking his methods and madnesses as an example to follow.

So the bottom line is: get it, read it, learn from it. It's not just a book, it's an experience. And you can get it here :


ertv said...

thx for the post, great review. Keep sharing.

mrswing said...

Will do!