Opinion no image

Published on April 5th, 2011 | by James Colvin

Do You Remember the First Time?

The Dæmons. The Face of Evil. Full Circle. Warrior’s Gate. Kinda. Enlightenment. Remembrance of the Daleks. Ghost Light. Survival. Dalek. Daleks in Manhattan. Fairly exciting list of episodes, no? Diverse, you must admit. I’ve heard from people who don’t like The Face of Evil (I know!), but The Robots of Death has a lofty reputation. What connects all these? Guess….

Go on….

They were all written by people who’d never written for television before. Now the writers for the next series have all been announced, they include: Steven Moffat (he’s written a few, they seem popular), Stephen Thompson (new to the show, wrote the best Sherlock), Neil Gaiman (…well some of you seem excited about that), Matthew Graham (The Last Train, Spooks, Hustle, Life on Mars, Bonekickers, Ashes to Ashes, Fear Her (underrated)), Mark Gatiss (you’re getting the idea now), Tom McRae, Toby Whithouse, Gareth Roberts (it’s even a bloody sequel).

So it’s fair to say there are some experienced men writing for the show. And of course in the last series, there was Simon Nye and Richard Curtis. I’m not about to get at this being an inherently bad thing. It’s good to have experienced writers’ working on a show. But there is a very strong emphasis on the ‘established voices’. I already felt I knew what a Richard Curtis script would be like (snidely sentimental and reductive of human life), and I’m pretty confident I know what a Neil Gaiman script will be like (and I’ve nothing nice to say about that either). Stephen Thompson is the closest to a new writer we’re going to get.

Surely part of a script editor/producer’s job is to seek out new talent to bring fresh perspective to a long-running show? In fact, look at that list again. The gaps between those stories happen to be when the show gets stale. Tail-end of the Pertwee era: The Time Warrior is the only serial from Season 11 that doesn’t feel like a weary rehash. Eric Saward believed that Enlightenment was the worst thing he ever commissioned, and wasn’t fond of inheriting Kinda. In fact, Saward hardly brought any new writers on at all, and those he did he bitched about how terrible they were. Enlightenment suggests he didn’t know gold when he was sat on it, The Twin Dilemma and Timelash were terrible, but he commissioned them, and the onscreen evidence doesn’t make it look like he did much in the way of editing the scripts. Way to nurture new talent, Eric. He became heavily reliant on established writers such as Robert Holmes and Philip Martin, regardless of whether they were actually any good or not, as Pip and Jane Baker’s work indicates.

In fact, Saward generally did his job so badly that it made his replacement, Andrew Cartmel, look like he had a ‘masterplan’, just because he did his job at all. Every single writer who wrote a Sylvester McCoy script (no, Time and the Rani doesn’t count) was new to television. And they were bold and experimental and pushed the format in new directions. Regardless of whether or not you felt it worked, it kept the show fresh, and the current series is still indebted to ideas first tried here.

There hasn’t been a new writer on the show since 2007. I recognize that Helen Raynor’s Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks aren’t exactly fan favourites, but name another episode like them. They took a bold risk with one of the central icons of the series in a way that The Stolen Earth, Victory of the Daleks or The Pandorica Opens did not. Incidentally, she’s also the only woman to write a script for the revived series. Isn’t it getting to be a bit of a boy’s club?

Does this matter? Maybe not. Being experienced doesn’t mean you can’t try something new. Love & Monsters, Gridlock, Midnight all prove otherwise. But with arts funding being cut to nothing, schemes that exist being streamlined into propaganda machines, the BBC under threat and a general attitude of hostility toward arts, culture and entertainment which results in, among other things, a curtailing opportunities for young writers, it would be nice to see windows of opportunity somewhere. But when you’re spending millions on a show like this, why take risks?

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