Reappraisal Of An Era
As part of our Seventh Doctor take over, My Geek Heart speaks to novelist, comic book scribe, jazz enthusiast and former Doctor Who script editor, Andrew Cartmel!
It's perhaps something of an understatement to say there was very little love for Doctor Who within the corridors of power at the BBC in the late 1980's. It was a lot worse than that. Yet against the odds, Andrew Cartmel and his team of freshly gathered writing talent, were determined to keep the good Doctor afloat - and unbeknown to them help lay the foundations for his eventual and spectacular return. After taking over the reins as Doctor Who script editor in 1986, Andrew Cartmel set himself a task of bringing in new writing talent to reinvigorate the show. By 1988, Doctor Who was achieving its highest ratings since the 1985 hiatus and with action packed tales such as Remembrance Of The Daleks and creepier fests like The Greatest Show In The Galaxy - started to gather a young fan base once again. I've always wondered if the programmes standing improved within the BBC over this time but as Andrew explained that was never the case,
“ No, we never felt -- or at least I never felt -- that I was working on anything but a despised, inconsequential, sidelined show which was regarded with contempt by the powers that be at the BBC. “
Ratings were up , Doctorin’ The Tardis ( a remix of the Doctor Who theme by dance music pioneers the KLF ) had hit No.1 and the McCoy/Aldred combination seemed set to win back even more viewers. The season ended with a high of 6.6 million viewers, as The Greatest Show In The Galaxy did wonders for circus attendances around the country. Yet incredibly the following season received near to zero promotion, the highlight being a half page feature with Sophie Aldred buried in the very back of the Radio Times. I’ve never quite been able to fathom why,
“ As I say, we were hated by the BBC establishment and they wanted to get rid of us. “ Andrew explains, “ The fact that the show had turned a corner and was dramatically improving never got through to them. Or, if it did, they just didn't care. This is despite the fact that JNT had a real flair for publicity, understood its importance, and worked hard to get it. He really wanted a Radio Times cover for the 25th anniversary and it's a disgrace we didn't get one."
Once McCoy's first season had been completed and aired, the team came flying out of the traps in 1988 with the shows finest episodes since The Caves Of Androzani in 1984. I've always wondered if Remembrance of the Daleks was something of a statement of intent, as rumours persist the team were initially working under strict instructions to make Doctor Who funnier in that first year, but Andrew is quick to debunk this...
“ Absolutely not true about strict instructions. There probably was a feeling in the upper echelons that Who had become too dark and nasty (eg. Vengeance on Varos -- which I think is an excellent story, but indeed rather too dark and nasty) but there was categorically no edict to that effect, and John Nathan Turner never tried to influence the stories in that direction in any way. If the first season of McCoy had a different tone it was because we were finding our way, and also because we were stilling shedding the trappings of the Colin Baker Doctor, such as the companion Mel. As for the progress to a different tone, that was really just a case of finding our feet as we went along, and both Sylvester and myself settling into our positions and becoming more comfortable.”
Andrew's time on the show is remembered for what has been termed by fans as the Cartmel Masterplan, but also the introduction of perhaps the strongest female role the show had offered up to at that point - in the form of young Dorothy McShane. Better known of course as Ace, the team plotted her journey from Ice World to Fenric and introduced a story arc which spread through the seasons. Disproving the theory a companions main function should be exposition, did Andrew realise they were breaking new ground?
“ From the beginning all we knew about Ace was that she would be a fighter and not a screamer -- the antithesis of some of the earlier companions (Mel was a screamer). So that was our starting point. I also had made a conscious decision not to use the companion as a weary routine story device. For example -- as you point out -- not just to ask questions; although some of that is necessary. More importantly I wanted to avoid the standard cliché where you separate the Doctor and companion early in the story. Then the companion gets captured. Then the Doctor has to rescue her. Repeat. Lather. Rinse. Spin. Dry. Yawn... So that was the starting point. But the fact that Ace began to blossom as a strong three dimensional character is down to the fact that she was written by superb writers. Ian Briggs' contribution cannot be overstated. But other writers who particularly responded to her and fleshed her out were Ben Aaronovitch, Marc Platt and Rona Munro. The evolution of the character, through their contributions, was an organic process. And I only realised how different it was from the standard template years later. At the time, I just knew I liked it.”
Unthinkable after the shows cancellation in 1989, the series returned in spectacular style in 2005 - yet had many theorising over its somewhat familiar setting. The final story in Doctor Who's original run was rather aptly titled Survival and written by another newcomer to the programme, Rona Munro. Featuring a stark urban setting, The Doctor and Ace find something sinister is stalking the streets and playgrounds of her home town. Many now regard the story as a true steeping stone to the Powell Estate of Rose Tyler's time,
“ When I watched Rose on its first transmission I didn't make this connection, “ Andrew admits, “ but since then I've become emphatically aware of it. And it makes me very proud. I also love Survival. It's one of the best things we've done and Rona Munro's script is a work of genius. But I can't stand the Cheetah People costumes. They're just cuddly. But that's a minor point. It doesn't prevent it being a milestone Doctor Who story, though. And Russell definitely followed our lead in using that sort of council estate background, that very mundane urban reality, as a superb contrast for otherworldly science fiction action. It's highly effective and he did a brilliant job with the new show.”
Attending my first comic con earlier this year, I was delighted to see the amount of young fans crowding into a talk given by Sylvester McCoy. It would seem the work of Andrew and the production team has finally gained the recognition and appreciation it deserves,
“ The reappraisal of not only Survival but our era as a whole is tremendously gratifying -- and a real surprise. It seems if you hang in there long enough, people begin to appreciate what you were doing! “
With current Doctor Who show runner ( Steven Moffat ) now citing the era as one of his favourites, would Andrew like a shot at the new series?
“ My standard answer to this is, of course, I would absolutely love to work on the new show. However I always also add that while I don't have any Doctor Who stories which are currently ready to go, I know Ben Aaronovitch ( writer of Remembrance Of The Daleks ) has a dynamite idea. Not a script, you understand, but a brilliant idea, all shiny and ready to develop. On the other hand, if someone was to offer me a chance, I'm sure I'd have half a dozen fairly brilliant ideas of my own by tomorrow morning. “
Of course as is the case with everyone it touches, Doctor Who will always be a part of Andrew's story - yet new and exciting projects lie just around the corner. Andrew's friend and former Doctor Who colleague Ben Aaronovitch has recently had great success with his Peter Grant novels. Better known under the umbrella title taken from the first novel, Rivers Of London, which introduces London Metropolitan Police officer Peter Grant, who is recruited by a small branch of the MET dealing with magic and the supernatural. The books have shot to the top of many a bestsellers list and are currently optioned for TV. I asked Andrew if there is any possibility he may assist Ben with the adaptation,
“ Ben is indeed developing Rivers of London for television. Keep your fingers crossed! And if the cards fall right, and it goes ahead, and happens the way Ben would like it to, I would jump at the chance to be involved. I'm a huge fan of the books, and I remember when they were just a twinkle in Ben's eye. (We used to discuss them on the phone. I remember telling him Nightingale was a great name for a character...) But in the meantime Ben and I are writing a series of Rivers of London comics for Titan. These are new, original stories set in the world of the books, not adaptations of the existing books. We've completed the script for the first five-issue miniseries, which will be released as monthly comics and then as a graphic novel. The first issue is due out in April 2015. We've just seen the art for the first issue and we're very excited. In addition to that I've written a series of three crime novels which I've just sold (also, coincidentally, to Titan Books). They're about a character called the Vinyl Detective, who is a record collector turned sleuth. Each book is a murder mystery and thriller and centres on a rare record. Like the hero of the books, I am a vinyl nut, record hunter, jazz fan, and cat lover. (Luckily, though, no one has ever shot at me. ) The first Vinyl Detective adventure, entitled Written In Dead Wax, will be published early in 2016. “
Andrew also found time to publish a full and frank account of his time at the BBC, Script Doctor takes the form of a unique memoir of which he is rightly enormously proud,
“ When I was working on the show by a great stroke of good luck I was keeping a diary. And I wrote down a lot of what happened in great detail, so I was able to bring those years back to life on the printed page. Anyone who is interested in the McCoy era should check it out for a behind the scenes story which is unlikely to ever be surpassed (because no one else was keeping a diary!). “
The book can be ordered from this link to the publisher MIWK or if you’re in USA next year, Andrew will be attending conventions in Nashville and Wichita.
“ That way I can sign the book to you... and have the pleasure of chatting with you! “
You can’t argue with that now can you.
On a personal note, My Geek Heart thanks Andrew for his time and for those Monday and Wednesday evenings, where the adventures of The Seventh Doctor and Ace stood as a beacon of inspiration amongst the dull TV landscape of the late 1980’s. Here’s to burnt toast, homemade Nitro-9 and that certain somewhere else where the tea is always getting cold.
Script Doctor is available now.