• 14th February 2010 • Review by Jonathan Capps •
Getting a peek ‘behind the curtain’ is something a very specific kind of person enjoys. DVD commentaries and documentaries are created specifically for the sort of person that loves a certain thing so much they want to gather as much information about said thing as possible, even if that were to mean the illusion of fiction is forever ruined. In some cases this can be fascinating or even exciting (I challenge you to find one Red Dwarf fan sans stiffy whenever a DVD release day rolled round) but in most cases it feels more like Derren Brown describing how he predicted the Lottery numbers; disappointing and full of lies. Getting into the mind of Russell T Davies is the ultimate act of peeking behind the curtain for any Who fan, and effect this book had on me was a curious one. I was never bored, never disillusioned and never disappointed. I was, however, terrified.
Thinking back to when I read the original edition of this book–released last January and mainly covering the writing of series 4–I found myself to be profoundly angry at certain parts. These parts almost always involved Russell currently trying writing an episode, failing to get it done on time and (seemingly) rushing through just to get it finished and I was angry because this rushing seemed to result in grade-A shite like Partners in Crime or Voyage of the Damned. “He’s losing it!”, I cried to no one in particular other than the cat (who, frankly, couldn’t give a shit about Doctor Who, the idiot) until I read about exactly the same writing practice (procrastinate, procrastinate, rush, rush, rush) with Midnight. Which I loved. The terrifying part is realising that, by and large, this is how every single episode has been written over the years. Even the stunningly brilliant ones. RTD is not a normal writer, and normal rules do not apply when you try to critique the way he manages his work load, because the fact that he’s rushing at something means bugger all to the final product. It’s terrifying to think the main creative force behind the show works like this, and it’s even more terrifying that it’s worked.
I think the answer to this lies in The Maybe, Russell’s name for the masses of ideas floating around in his head, which end up clicking together and written down in script form. It’s the analysis of The Maybe that Ben Cook (DWM journo and the man on the other end of the emails) managed to coax out of Russell that provide the highlights of the book, as we see ideas that have long since been written, filmed and broadcast. The oft mentioned moment where Russell suddenly realised who should be the one knocking four times as he was writing the email is the perfect example of the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-massive-Welsh-pants writing style Russell has.
That leads on to another terrifying aspect of the book, and that is the amount of influence Ben seems to have over Russell and his writing. At the end of the first book, Ben was making a case to Russell that there was no need to have a “What? What?! WHAT??!!” moment at the end of Journey’s End, which would lead into The Next Doctor, because it would wrongly puncture the sadness at the end of the episode, and, frankly, all that “What?!” stuff is pretty much done with by this point. He was right, of course, and the idea was taken on board and both episodes were better as a result. Add to that playing a big part in persuading Russell to go ahead with his plan to bring back the Time Lords but not the Daleks in The End of Time and you have someone with a great amount of power in his suggestions. Again, though, something that could be terrible just works, as Ben clearly has an instinct for the show and can make some very good calls when viewing situations from the outside.
That said, the tone of Ben Cook’s can often be a little wearing as he slips effortlessly into his new role of Advisor while at the same time falling into the same trap Julie Gardner long since plunged into of starting to sound exactly like RTD, and while he’s not afraid to criticise it’s hard to see him enthusing about ideas or characters that, in my eyes, are blatantly shit. Of course, that’s a matter of personal taste, but I can’t help but recoil when the subject of bringing Donna back was met with such a strong reaction you’d be mistaken for thinking she was the BEST COMPANION EVUR. She’s not. She’s shit.
Speaking of Julie Gardner, I think I should take some time to be fair to her, here. One of many things these books have done is bring into focus the extent to which she has been absolutely essential to this show since 2003. Of course Russell will always make sure he’s shouting her praises as much as possible, but I lost count of the amount of times a problem was encountered and Julie just… fixed it. When she’s managed to magic hundreds of thousands of pounds extra budget for various and even Russell doesn’t know how she’s done it, you know the show has been in very good hands. It hardly matters that she often comes across as a queasy RTD impersonator, because it’s what she’s been doing behind the scenes that obviously matter the most and you get the impression that the show losing her is going to be one of the bigger hurdles Moffat and Wenger are going to have to get past. Once again, I’m terrified because I know too much.
To conclude, what we have here is one of the best companion books ever. Honest and genuinely fascinating and put together by a man in Ben Cook who’s clearly got a very big talent as an interviewer, judging by what he can get out of Russell. So, well done Ben for two excellent books, and thank you Russell and co. for the last 5 years. It’s been fantastic and shit scary in every way imaginable.