Friday, November 29, 2013

It's your fault

Here be spoilers. Well, there be spoilers: down there, a lot of spoilers a bit of the way down the screen. If you haven't seen the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who, please do. Go watch it. It's very good.
All I ever want from a story is to be caught up in it to the exclusion of anything else. That's all. Analysis and whathaveyou, that can come later if it must. Just scoop me up, please. And Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor did exactly that. Job done.
Only, I'm surprised that it did because at its core is something that goes against a thing. I was going to say it goes against a drama principle of mine, but nuts to drama principles: if it works, that's your principle right there. But we tend to have issues that colour our writing, things that we come back to because we're trying to find them in ourselves, beacuse we're trying to mine them for others or maybe just because we're good at them.
And I have one thing that is guaranteed to appeal to me, utterly certain to get me obsessed, and which you break at your peril. Yet Doctor Who broke it and worked. I don't know how. Let me tell you that right up front, if you can call this the front when I've already rambled on at you a ways. I want to explore this and see if I can figure it out because it matters to me.
Here's what it is. If you wanted to get all academic about it, drama is about obstacles. I seriously do not know why you would want to get academic if that means boiling down the richness of drama into a checklist with only one thing to check, but it's not unreasonable to say drama equals obstacles. Fine. Someone is faced with something, that is or at least that can be drama.
But for me, it's really only drama when the thing they face is their own fault. Having something done to you, that's awful. It's powerful. Having something done to you and it is entirely your own fault, though, that's wonderful. It's not that I'm especially in to my characters being punished for something and it's only a little bit that I am in to the genuine meaning of tragedy: a tale that ends badly because of something within the lead character. It's specifically the point that if this terrible thing is your own fault, you could have prevented it – and now there is absolutely not one single thing you can do to put it right. You can't undo the past. This is the real reason I am forever coming back to the issue of time in my writing: the regret, the permanent regret for things lost and things done badly. You can't rewrite history, not one line.
Except in Doctor Who. This is where the spoilers start.
The day in The Day of the Doctor is the one where the fella ended the Time War. This was a huge and so far never seen portion of Doctor Who history: immediately before we saw Christopher Eccleston's Doctor, there was this war, right. War between the Daleks and the Time Lords. And it was ended by the Doctor. We slowly came to learn that though he ended it – so far, so Doctor-heroic-like – there was something of a cost. The war was ended only by the complete and total destruction of both sides. Time Lords and Daleks, all killed. All killed by the Doctor.
The Day of the Doctor undoes this and if you'd told me that before I saw it, I'd have thought again about going to the cinema. I read an interview with Steven Moffat on DigitalSpy this week that ran in part:

It was about a year ago. I remember thinking, 'What occasion in the Doctor's life is the most important?' Well, it's the day he blew up Gallifrey. Then I tried to imagine what writing that scene would be like and I thought, 'There's kids on Gallifrey and he's going to push the button? He wouldn't!' I don't care what's at stake, he's not going to do it. So that was the story – of course he never did that, he couldn't. He's the Doctor – he's the man who doesn't do that. He's defined by the fact that he doesn't do that. Whatever the cost, he will find another way. So it had to be the story of what really happened, that he's forgotten.

I see his point and he wrote it superbly in the show, but I'm mithered. I detest beyond measure the way that a soap, for instance, will get a character into a dramatic situation and then pull back at the last moment to say it's all right, really. It wasn't him. It isn't her. They're dreaming, whatever. Go away. I'm never watching again. So having this thing in Doctor Who that we know was big and then showing us it being even bigger but then taking it away, it shouldn't have worked for me.
I think it's that bit about 'I don't care what's at stake'. For me, the drama was in how there were these stakes that required him to do this. Now, actually, I have to play this both sides because a huge amount of the drama – can you quantify drama like this? a good 43% was angst, 12% personal torture and so on – was to do with how he had no choice. But if the Doctor has no choice, that is big and huge and enormous but it isn't the same as him having a choice and making the decision anyway. If the Doctor presses the big red button, everyone dies on Gallifrey. If he doesn't press it, everyone dies on Gallifrey anyway because the Daleks are attacking very thoroughly.
There is the fact that they're attacking because presumably they're seriously hacked off at the Doctor so nearly efficiently destroying all their plans, ever, so the whole attack is his fault. I'll have that.
So with this storm of issues going on, it does all come down to the small moment, the huge yet tiny moment where he has to do this or not do it. The fact that he does speaks to me about the stakes of the story but it also completely engages me in this Doctor character. The fact that he doesn't do it, that takes most things away. It reduces the stakes, because somehow he's now got a choice, and that reduces the character for me.
Except, maybe it worked for me, worked in this one story, because Moffat could undo the destruction of Gallifrey, he could rewrite one very big line of history, yet do it in such a way that the Doctor was left with the same burden we thought he had.
Doctor Who often reunites various different Doctors and there is always the issue of why a later one doesn't remember all this from when he was the earlier guy. The Day of the Doctor makes many little nods to this and does explicitly state that the Doctors' time streams are out of sync and that neither David Tennant's Tenth Doctor nor John Hurt's Nth Doctor can possibly retain the memory of what has happened. It's plot convenience and it's what has always happened before, but this time the lack of memory means that John Hurt's Doctor and David Tennant's and up to a point Matt Smith's one all believe they destroyed Gallifrey. They carry that burden for four hundred years.
Four hundred years. That's enough carrying of blame and regret and fault even for me.
Good people doing bad things. That's what chimes with me. Making irrevocable choices. That's me. But I thought it was a rule, an inviolate rule of drama that you do not ever undo a character's bad choices, you do not give them a reprieve, you do not give them an escape. The drama is in living with the things you cannot live with. And The Day of the Doctor says bollocks, William.
Quite right too.


Friday, November 22, 2013

It's not you, it's me

I've been talking with other people.

Are you okay with that? We're still special, you and I, aren't we?

I'm not going to excuse what I've done but I owe it to you, I owe it to both of us, to be completely open with you. I talked with Yes. Yes. I talked with them about Doctor Who, which is usually our thing, isn't it? One of our things. We've got a lot of them. But we've always had Doctor Who and we always will. It's just that this time, I wrote a piece for about the show's fiftieth anniversary and, actually, I really want you to see it. Just because I had such a good time writing it and – I can tell you – I also think it came out rather well.

I'd simply slip you a copy or post the text here but that would be stealing so instead, let me give you a link. Here's Radio Times with the Bluffer's Guide to Doctor Who – I mean, How to be an Instant Doctor Who Expert.

Doesn't that feel like I'm trying to push something on you? Get you here, sit you down, try to sell you something.


This does.

Also out this week is my new book: "Self Distract – from Doctor Who fan to Radio Times and Big Finish". (That's the UK link: if you're in the States at the moment, this one on Amazon USA will do you better.)

It's an ebook on what it’s like being a Doctor Who fan inside Radio Times and then being with fellow fans at Big Finish plus it includes a major new interview with the Restoration Team. Doctor Who is forever special and I have always been a nut for radio drama so you know it is a privilege to write for Big Finish and you can guess that it's an immeasurable pleasure to hear the productions. It’s immeasurable or I’d have measured it for you.

Self Distract is my attempt to quantify it in some way and tell my disbelieving teenage self how far that decision to watch The Invisible Enemy would take me. Plus, I did once say to Steven Moffat that I thought The Snowmen was magical – the TARDIS in the clouds? Gorgeous – and he thanked me but said my other review was funnier. He meant 'Live Blogging Doctor Who at Christmas', a piece I wrote mocking the real live blogs of this world. So naturally, that’s here in the new book.

And naturally I want to tell you about it.


I'd also like to see you.

If you're in Birmingham tomorrow (Saturday 23 November) at the annual Writer's Toolkit, come say hello and I'll buy you a cup of tea.

And we can get back to nattering madly about drama and writing and OmniFocus and everything.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Lie to Me

The UK mobile phone operator 3 phoned me last week and asked what I do for a living. "I'm a writer," I said automatically. And as it turns out, that was a dangerous answer because it triggered a whole new script from them: did I mean journalist?

I said no then, but more calculatingly than automatically. I've known this before: if you're a journalist, you are excluded from most marketing surveys and the like. I know it because I've been glad and after I've mentioned this to other people, they've pretended to be journalists for the same reason. This time I knew where it was going and I said no mostly because I wanted what they were offering: I'm about to beta test their 4G service. Now, in case you get a job with 3 and have a conscience, and/or they have a Google Alert on their name – and employ myriad minimum-wage people to read every website that ever includes the number 3 – then I want to tell you that I wasn't lying.

On the strict, literal, in that moment, defense-in-court kinda way, I wasn't lying because that day I wasn't doing any journalism at all. In a feels-better-in-your-heart way, I wasn't lying because I'm a writer. I even told them that I used to do journalism. "But you're cured, right?" they didn't say.

It's the word automatically that I want to talk to you about. I think you missed that: back there in mid-rant I said that I'd automatically answered that I'm a writer. You know the difference but maybe you don't think it's a very big one. Apparently 3 does. But you're not convinced.

I left computers and got into journalism writing because I wasn't technical enough and I certainly wasn't interested enough in the latest metal box and the newest drama about a poorly-written Windows DLL executable. What I didn't realise for a long time that it was really that I was more into actual drama. Genuine drama. Television and radio and stage and prose drama. I wrote about computers, then I moved into media writing.

But for all the fun I had and all I learnt and all the people I got to meet –

– wait, quick aside?

When I was writing for BBC Ceefax at BBC Television Centre, the Corporation's drama department was based over the road at Centre House. Julie Gardner was there. Google her now and you'll get a tonne of results about how she brought back Doctor Who with Russell T Davies and that is true, that is something superb, that is something to be proud of and it's right that there should be all those web pages. But she did much more and you have to Google deeper to see what a force she was in drama at BBC Wales. And then you can Google as deep as you like, you won't find that she encouraged me.

To be utterly honest, I can barely remember the details. This is maybe 15 years ago now and more that specifics of script writing advice and comments, what I remember and in fact what I carry with me is that I have yet to come within a pixel of achieving what her other writers have. It is a smouldering, burning, igniting ambition of mine to write something that impresses her. If I did, I doubt she'd even know about it because she's long left the UK: she's now being a force in American television. If I did write something that well, there's no reason to think she'd connect it with the journalist she met half a dozen times in 1999.

Yet that's my ambition because even in those few meetings and despite how I wasn't that keen on the shows she was working on at the time, I admired her then for what she said. And of course now I admire her for what she did.

– that wasn't a very quick aside, but it is relevant, I promise.

I was saying that I had all this fun, I met all these fascinating people, I learnt so very much and in all of it, there's only probably an hour I'd ever change. But I had one thing that I now understand prevented me ever becoming a hard news journo.

I want you to lie to me.

Okay, I did this one phoner interview with a guy I can't name. Let's call him Trev or even Bert. Bert was the toughest interviewee I ever did because he could be and though I felt then that he was excruciatingly shy and struggling, I've been told myriad times since that no, he's just excruciating. Because I have this pretty detailed knowledge of American television drama, I may be the only journalist he spoke to who knew about a particular series he went there to do. He lied to me about it. I could accept a boast about it being more successful than I knew it was, but he casually lied about facts and figures. He must've known I knew. So I didn't like that lie.

But that was only a small part of a foul interview, I can't take it as an exception. In general, I want you to lie to me and I want you to lie good.

At least, I do in drama. And while it's become a universal rule for me, it started with Doctor Who.

For I can see me now, driving down to London around 6am one morning and hearing on the radio that Christopher Eccleston was leaving the show. Remember this: Doctor Who had just come back and it was immediately the most enormous hit. It was a surprise hit and that just made its success feel all the greater. It was also the most vibrant show with enough energy and verve to make other dramas feel unfinished. So the news that he was walking away from this massive, massive success was a shock.

No question: it was news.

But imagine how much more of a shock, how much more of a news story it would have been if we'd got to his last episode and didn't know? We'd have had the usual building tension about whether the Doctor will survive and of course we'd have the usual naturally-he-will-or-the-show-is-over tap that keeps us from quite believing it. Then it would have got much further along this tension than usual and we'd start thinking well, it's the end of the season, this is building to a really big cliffhanger. And then Eccleston's Doctor would've died and who the hell is this new guy standing there?

David Tennant's first lines as the Doctor include a reference to teeth. He could've been talking about every one of us because our mouths would've been open and our jaws bouncing on the floor.

And we were denied this because the news leaked.

Russell T Davies, speaking in the rather nightmarishly mesmerising book The Writer's Tale (with Benjamin Cook) said the news was leaked by the BBC's Peter Fincham, Controller of BBC1 and Head of Drama Jane Tranter. He doesn't blame them, but:
The BBC is powerless with the press. No one can control the papers, they'll print what they want, and we need them, so threatening to withhold or punish simply doesn't work. We'll just go crawling back, cap in hand. But the central problem is that the BBC is a public service broadcaster, funded by the public so we are Not Allowed To Lie – and we end up craven and apologetic. That's why the leak about Christopher Eccleston leaving could not be plugged. Once asked by The Mirror, Jane Tranter could not deny it. Even though it ruined the surprise cliffhanger to Series One. How incredible would it have been to keep the Ninth Doctor's regeneration a surprise? But we had to be scrupulously honest. It's all the consequences of the Hutton Inquiry. But Doctor Who is hardly Hutton! This is fiction! I don't give a damn, I'll lie all I like if safeguards the stories that we're telling. They can't stop me. But there's little point when Peter Fincham has to tell the truth. Madness.
I don't know that it's the Hutton report, though. I think there is an element that is down to the soaps. There's certainly pressure from fans – of anything, not just Doctor Who – to be told everything now, now, now. That gets fed a lot by producers aware of the interest and wanting to keep it, wanting to stoke it, and doubtlessly also wanting to talk with people who care so much about their work. But without exception, whenever anything at all is revealed about anything at all, someone loves it and someone hates it. Loudly. Then whether anything revealed is true or not, it is treated as truth and we end up with the weird situation where people are disappointed that something that wasn't going to happen doesn't happen.

Next time Apple is about to announce something, take a peek at the storm of analysts saying it will definitely be an Apple TV set or it will be an iWatch, no question, we've got proof, and then when it isn't, shield yourself from the storm of "Apple fails!" stories. I switch off my RSS news feed around these times.

But with soaps, I can't. It's not that I plug soap news into my RSS feed but I do tend to shop in supermarkets and there is not one day I do that there isn't a shelf of magazines with soap headlines on them. This character is about to die, this one is about to kill, that one is pregnant. Most of them are extremely over-hyped but some would genuinely be big moments in their series, except we know about them already.

It's not a mistake. I don't think it's right, but I know it isn't an accident. The job of big moments in soaps is not to tell a story, not to completely arrest the viewers. The job of big moments is to advertise that you should watch the series. This is when soaps are not drama. Coronation Street had a gigantically successful storyline a few years ago with a long, long, long-running tale that ended up with a court case and a major character in danger of being falsely imprisoned. Even I watched some of this and I don't happen to follow Corrie. But then the producers had one last big thing to leak that would get them some headlines: they said that they would never let a character be falsely imprisoned.

I never watched another second.

That's soap: build it up in the press, let it fizzle away on the screen. All I ever want, all I have ever wanted from a story is to be in it. Absorbed. Carried away by its characters and its tale. And this will not happen with soaps because I can't even pretend to myself that anyone is in any jeopardy and there will never be any true surprises, true dramatic delights because every key moment is on my supermarket shelf as an advert.

Of all the dramas on TV, I'd take a guess that Doctor Who gets the most coverage after the soaps. At the moment, at least. Actually, since its return in 2005. It's been a remarkable run. And to this day, to this minute, every possible scintilla of news about what's happening in the show gets picked up and examined.

So I was delighted to read this recent comment by Steven Moffat:
I'll be honest with you: what you know is entirely conditioned by which bits we had to shoot outside. So then we say 'we've decided to tell you...'. We just tell you what we have no choice about. If I could make this on the dark side of the moon and tell you nothing at all, I'd do it. I'd also lie to you prodigiously and regularly if I thought it would help keep a secret. Watch me!
Good man.

Keep it up.

Do you know yet why I'm saying this to you today? If you don't, I don't want you to. I want you to find out for yourself. It's fifty/fifty whether you'd shrug or you'd be delighted, but I watched something yesterday without knowing anything about it and this little show was a truly delicious, surprising delight.

So delicious that I wanted to keep eating it, somehow, and as ever with these things, I had a poke about online. And the very first thing I found that was talking about it had the show's biggest surprise slapped right there in the headline. Followed by the tiny word 'Spoilers'.

Don't tell me these things. Don't tell me anything.

And if you must, then lie to me. Please.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Writing the perfect thriller

I once went to a workshop about writing thrillers. I went partly because I like thrillers very much and also, frankly, everything I ever write turns into one eventually –

– wait, what was that noise?

– is someone following us?

See what I mean?

But I did also go because I rate the producer who ran it and I wanted to work with her. That happened: we worked on a project that fizzled away. But I enjoyed it, I hope I work with her again, and today I want to tell you what I should've said to her three years ago. She wanted to know how I could say I like thrillers but I visibly can't cope with blood and gore. She wanted to know how anyone could claim to love thrillers yet be unable to watch The Silence of the Lambs, for instance.

Um, I said.

But today, I have the answer.

I've just watched something that had no gore, no blood and was a primetime US network TV show so there was never going to be a lot of anything. And the scene that made me want to talk to you about this and to track that producer down to go see? there? look! had nothing happening in it. I mean, nothing. Tim Daly starred as this character who was, for this quite long scene, waiting in a room. On his own.

And what made it a thriller was watching how he became ever increasingly sick with fear.

No dialogue, no other characters, no inciting incidents or whatever you could call it. Just a man in a room trying to stay calm. It was riveting.

And it was The Fugitive.

You know the title, you certainly know the Harrison Ford film version from 1993 – oh, my lights, I just looked up the year: I can't believe that this is now the 20th anniversary of that movie. I watched it recently and it's still very good. For writers, it's particularly interesting because it has no rise and fall, light and shade, ups and downs, it is a ramp from start to finish with unrelieved, unreleased tension.

Hopefully you also know that it was originally a TV series in 1963 starring David Janssen and Barry Morse.

The Fugitive was created by Roy Huggins, who also made Maverick and The Rockford Files, and the story goes that one day when he was working at home, he called for his wife to come quick. Take a photograph of me, he said. I want a record of the moment I thought of a perfect TV show.

Roy Huggins:
I thought it was the greatest idea I'd ever come up with and was a cinch sale. And a cinch success.
(Incidentally, I got that quote from the late Huggins' appearance on the astonishing Archive of American Television interviews on YouTube. Hours upon hours of detailed interview with utter legends of US television drama.)

But to give every writer in the world some solace, Huggins says he discussed the idea with friends and colleagues:
Every one of them hated it. Howard Brown said Roy, you've got a great reputation in television, don't tell that to anybody or it'll be gone. My agent's [eyes] glazed over and he changed the subject. Nobody liked it.
The series ran for four years and for a time its finale held the record as the most-watched show ever screened on American television. Then there was the film. And then the one you are less likely to know about, the one I've just been watching: a TV remake made in the year 2000.

I don't think that's a great trailer. And the show itself had a dreadful title sequence. You can only get the first two episodes on DVD, or anywhere, and that shiny disc cost me a whole £1.34 two weeks ago. (Have a look at it on Amazon, though while you're there, you know, if you're in the vicinity, you could also look at my new book. I thank you.)

The 2000 series is by the same production team that made the 1993 movie, more or less, and I bought it in part because I'd just enjoyed watching that film again, because I liked Tim Daly in a detective show called Eyes, and because I wanted to see how they could tell the same story for the third time. Dr Richard Kimble is convicted of the murder of his wife and no one believes his claim that it was a one-armed man who did it. On his way to prison, there is an accident, Kimble escapes and goes on the run.

I think the one-armed man is weak. In all of the versions. If he weren't one-armed, there wouldn't be even the breadcrumbs there are that let Kimble at least begin to track him down.

And that's part of what does make this a perfect TV idea. The story is not that Kimble is innocent, it's that he is hunting the one-armed man. It's that as he does so, Kimble himself is being hunted by the police and specifically the dogged Detective Gerard. Roy Huggins points out on the DVD for this version that this means the show has two chases going on, permanently, and he's right that it's unusual and unusually effective.

Then there was the fact that Kimble is a doctor. Roy Huggins:
I made him a doctor because I wanted him to a have a profession that I could use for good storytelling. Here was a guy who every time he had to behave like a doctor was putting himself in jeopardy. 
Being a doctor means that he has skills but also you can believe the compulsion to help people. So now your lead character has an ability and a need to get involved in new stories every week. He's a bit of a do-gooder type but he's a more believable do-gooder than your usual character in this type of TV show. Plus unlike every other hero who rolls into town in those shows, Kimble can never just call the police.

Two constant chases, one constant requirement to get embroiled in new stories. Huggins was right, it is a brilliant idea and that original version was the most enormous hit. It doesn't half seem ponderously slow now, though. Take a look. This is the opening to most of the early episodes.

Just for completeness, I don't think the trailer for the 1993 film is all that much better:

I can almost see why Huggins's pals didn't like the idea. Three versions, three trailers of a sort, all a bit dull. Then there's the fact that you know in every version that Kimble will prevail in the end and, more immediately, that he can't be caught this week or the show is over. That's no different to any other series and if we are caught up in the tension, it is at least partly our willingness to be.

For all that its format is exceptionally tense, The Fugitive only works if the stories keep us engaged. The film could tell us solely the Richard Kimble tale and that was plenty for two hours. The TV shows absolutely have to keep going and going but they also therefore have to engage us with other stories. They have to do that every week. The original series did it marvellously and the point of it, the power of it, was not that Kimble was always within seconds of being caught but rather that he could be. That anything he did could be the thing that would trip him up. That any person he spoke to could be the one who turns him in.

I'd have liked any of the versions to use the murdered wife as more than a starting point for a tale about her husband. But otherwise The Fugitive is the perfect thriller for me because it creates a world where Dr Kimble is both constantly and naturally in peril.

You can see the movie easily: it's available everywhere and it crops up on the telly regularly. You can get the original series pretty easily as it's all on DVD.

What you'll struggle with is the 2000 remake. It only lasted a single season and – spoiler – it's the sole version of The Fugitive that does not get resolved at the end. There are those two episodes on very cheap shiny disc but then the whole series has been put up on YouTube. You have to question the legality as each episode is up in three 15-minute chunks of pretty low-quality ripped-from-VHS, but at least you can see it.

I didn't give you that link, right? But I did and I do urge you to try at least one version of The Fugitive. I really do think it's the perfect thriller and no more than Veronica Mars, I wish I'd written it.


Writer: The Blank Screen, The Beiderbecke Affair, Doctor Who