The Romans

Lesson 12: If it isn’t plausible, make it funny…

In the dim and distant past of the late 1970s there was a fanzine called Gallifrey. In the dusty nethersphere that is my loft-space, or possibly the echoing void that is my box-filled garage, I have copies of most issues. It was a good one. Fanzines back then were just emerging from rather basic photocopies into an era when actual crude printing was available. With photos and everything. Well, maybe not everything, but certainly a few photos. On the cover. So only that had to be printed and the insides could still be photocopied quite cheaply…

Rather like Doctor Who itself, the better fanzines made up for the lack of production funding by the quality of the writing. Gallifrey was certainly one of the best. And it was in the pages of Gallifrey that John Peel (the John Peel who wrote various Dalek story novelisations, just in case you were confused) and Martin Wiggins clashed over the historical merits – or not – of The Romans.

I won’t go into detail. To be honest, without delving into the nethersphere and/or void I don’t recall the details, but it was a heated debate over several issues with article and counter-article. Which surprised me, because at the time I’d not seen The Romans (except possibly when it was first transmitted), and received wisdom was not that it was historically accurate or interpretative, but that it was funny.

And, having seen it again, it is funny.

And it has to be funny to get away with some of the story it tells.

Dennis Spooner wrote funny. Not always, but often and well. You might not guess that from his first predominantly grim Doctor Who script, The Reign of Terror. But even that has its lighter moments. And some of them – like an awful lot of the humour in The Romans – are there to disguise implausibilities in the plot. You couldn’t imagine the Doctor’s Emperor’s New Clothes ruse working in The Romans if it was played straight. For those who don’t know, he claims his lyre-playing is so good that only the most appreciative can even hear it and then proceeds to pretend to play.

Similarly, the fact that Barbara never meets up with Vicki and the Doctor at Nero’s court only works because it’s played for laughs. They keep missing each other like characters in a Whitehall farce.

The humour glosses over the plot and makes it work. It may not be credible, but because it’s funny the audience doesn’t care.

I’ve done it myself. On many occasions. Sometimes you get away with it, sometimes you don’t. To give you one example, I recently had reason re look back through a Doctor Who novel I co-wrote with the talented Steve Cole – The Shadow in the Glass. For reasons we needn’t go into now, there is a sequence where the Sixth Doctor and the Brigadier have to gatecrash a Nazi celebration and persuade Adolf Hitler to give them a sample of his blood.

That’s not the sort of thing that would happen. It’s not easy to make it credible. But the key moment – persuading Hitler that the Doctor can stick a needle in him – comes immediately after the Brigadier accidentally comes face to face with the Fuhrer at the buffet. Bluffing and blustering, he follows the Doctor’s lead and attempts to shake hands, but as he’s still holding his plate it appears instead that he is offering one of the most dangerous and unpleasant men on Earth a half-eaten sausage roll.

Whether it works for you, I can’t say. But while I saw several reviews of the book that mentioned the sausage roll faux-pas, I didn’t see any that suggested Hitler giving blood to a mysterious physician he’d never met before was somewhat implausible… Maybe I missed them.

Or maybe it works because quite a lot of the book is quite dark. It stands out in contrast. And actually, a lot of The Romans is quite dark too. For all the funny business and wit, it isn’t a comedy. It’s a story that touches on the fate and philosophy of the early Christians; it’s about slavery, and about how death is seen by some as a diverting entertainment; it’s a story in which – and this is truly ‘dark’ – one of the Doctor’s companions, Vicki, casually arranges the death of a random innocent…

But we remember it for being funny. Humour can be a powerful weapon for the writer, both affecting and diverting.

Whether The Romans is also historically accurate is a matter for debate. But if it isn’t, the fact that it’s told so well and makes us laugh means that it really doesn’t matter.

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The Rescue

Lesson 11: If you can’t hide your cards, play with a different deck…

Relegated to the near-forgotten backwaters of Doctor Who memory, The Rescue is generally considered a fairly inconsequential story, dwarfed by the preceding epic The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It’s only two episodes long, after all. It introduces Vicki, and it’s a whodunit that hardly taxes the deductive capabilities of the audience as there is actually only one suspect.

Hindsight does The Rescue no favours. Looking back at it now, it’s rather obvious that The Rescue is a whodunit with just one suspect. But, in keeping with the theme of the story as a whole, things are not what they seem. The accident that killed Vicki’s parents – among others – wasn’t an accident at all; the crippled survivor is actually neither of these things; the alien friend is also neither; the monster is not a monster; and the alien monster that is an alien creature isn’t a monster either, but a pet.

People pretend. Bennett’s whole role is based on an act, a fiction. Vicki pretends she doesn’t care if she never gets rescued. The Doctor pretends that he doesn’t miss Susan as much as he does. And writer David Whitaker pretends all sorts of things. In fact , that’s how he gets away with it.

Or rather, how he got away with it. Because the tricks he pulls work only the first time through. So if you haven’t seen The Rescue, then I’ve (a) probably already ruined for you and (b) am about to ruin it a whole lot more. Sorry.

Back in 1964, when he was writing The Rescue (which was broadcast in January 1965), David Whitaker had two jobs. The first was to introduce a new companion, Vicki, to replace the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan. The second was – as we now know – to somehow contrive to get away with a whodunit that has only one suspect. He had two great advantages. The first was that most people knew that Vicki would be the new companion (or if they didn’t, they could guess), so their focus would be on her. The second was a little more insidious. Looking back now, it’s pretty obvious that The Rescue is a whodunit. When it was broadcast – no one knew.

It’s not a trick you could play in many series. You can’t pretend that an episode of Midsummer Murders isn’t actually about spotting a murderer. But in Doctor Who you can get away with anything. The Rescue is actually much more complex than it pretended to be. The surprise that Whitaker disguises and then reveals isn’t that Bennett is the murderer. It’s that there has been a murder in the first place.

And look how he does it. The Doctor Who audience was by now used to aliens who looked a bit like actors wearing masks. The Daleks are an obvious exception, but after Voords and Sensorites, it’s easy to see that Koquillion was simply the next man-in-mask alien to appear in the series. And the twist here is that the alien that looks a bit like a man in a mask actually turns out to be (gasp) a man in a mask.

The problem is that these are not twists that work well with hindsight – or, more accurately, narrative foreknowledge. Yes, you can watch The Rescue knowing this and get some satisfaction from seeing how Bennett fools Vicki and the others. But it’s never going to be quite the same as the growing niggle of suspicion as the clues build up and we begin to suspect he isn’t all that he seems. Even after we see the empty cabin where the crippled Bennett should be, the story is more of a ‘what’s-he-done’ than a whodunit…

So what’s the lesson here? I suppose it is that the very best twist in a story is the one you didn’t even think to look for. It’s not easy, but a narrative development that suddenly turns everything the audience thought they knew upside-down is something to be treasured. The biggest problem is when the audience knows there is a twist coming.

I didn’t see The Sixth Sense until after a lot of other people I knew had seen it – and everyone said it had a great twist at the end. As a result, I realised what was going on about half way through the film. (During the scene in the restaurant, for anyone interested.) How much more effective and satisfying if I’d not known there was a twist to spot? Maybe I would still have worked it out, but I doubt it. Just knowing changes the way that we view or read or listen to the story.

So maybe the real lesson here is about the expectations of your audience. Play to them. Give them what they expect. But only as far as you need to in order to disguise what you’re really up to – then pull the rug away when they least expect it. When they didn’t even realise they were standing on a rug. That’s how to make a whodunit work when there’s only one suspect…

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The Dalek Invasion of Earth

Lesson 10: It’s The End – so prepare for the moment!

I’ve heard (and read) some writers claim that they don’t plan their work. They get an idea, the Muse takes them, and off they go. It’ll all come together as part of the writing process. They will discover the characters – and be surprised by them – as they write.

I suspect that actually this is rarely the case. Their planning may take very different forms, they might not even see it as planning, but I think more often than not it’s there. Lurking. One of the many joys of reading Russell T Davies’s The Writer’s Tale was realising the very different way he plans his scripts to how I plan my work. I’m meticulous (usually), making notes and getting everything nailed down – certainly in terms of plot and story development – before I start. If it’s a novel, then I have an outline that is basically a short story version before I start my first full draft.

Russell’s first draft script seems to sort of coalesce out of a fog of ideas. But (and it took me a while to get this) that’s because his first draft is his planning. It’s his outline. It serves the same function as the ‘short story version’ that I start from and is every bit as malleable. The real script grows from that process of assimilation, experimentation, and discovery… He still does the planning, but in a very different way.

And usually, I think, the writers who claim that they do no planning actually do a lot of it. But perhaps not in a form they recognise as planning. Maybe it’s all in their head (impressive!), or maybe the writing process itself is a form of planning, a sort of Draft Zero. That said, I have read a few books – and seen a few films or TV shows – where it really did seem to me that the writer was making it up as they went along. And not in a good way.

One of the most disappointing symptoms of this when the ending fails to live up to the rest of the story. And now – at last – we get to The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It’s a terrific story, a thrilling premise, a fantastic script – and, oh yes, it’s certainly well planned. But the finale, the resolution of the action-adventure elements of the story is a bit of a let down. Some stock explosions / eruptions, and then we have to take the Doctor’s word for it that the Dalek saucer was caught in the blast and destroyed.

To be fair, this isn’t writer Terry Nation’s fault. Well, not entirely. The production simply isn’t up to delivering what his script asked for – so I guess he is partly to blame for asking! But given what they did achieve, on this script and the first Dalek story, it’s maybe not surprising he set his sights so high. For me, one of the places where the film version Daleks – Invasion, Earth 2150AD scores over the TV original is the ending. Hurriedly edited maybe, but the film climaxes in spectacular fashion with Daleks sucked into the Earth’s core and their spaceship dragged down to explode in an impressive model shot.

Of course, the TV version doesn’t end with the destruction of the Daleks. There’s several more minutes yet, during which we can forget the disappointing lack of pyrotechnics and enjoy the conclusion of the emotional story that has unfolded in parallel with the battle against the Daleks. This is the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan’s love story and its resolution – her coming of age, and moving on. And ending and a beginning. Perhaps it is also a deliberate way of tidying up after any shortcomings of the grand finale if, as turned out to be the case, it didn’t quite cut the mustard…

For the sort of fiction I tend to write, that’s why I do so much planning. It isn’t just to put off for as long as possible the challenge of the first page, the fear of starting on the story, though I’m sure that is a part of it. It’s simply that I want to be sure that what I’m about to write will work. That I won’t get to a point where I don’t know what happens – or simply run out of steam and ideas so that nothing happens, or find I’ve messed up thousands of words back and have to do it all again… Most basically of all, I want to be sure that my story has a proper ending, a fitting conclusion. I want to know where I’m going and I want that point to be worth aiming for.

We’ve all seen films or read books where there is an absolutely incredible set piece midway through. Maybe it’s the most amazing car chase, or the biggest shock revelation ever. But it’s always a disappointment if the ending of the story, the finale, is not every bit as good – and preferably even better – than that mid-point stunner.

So I plan it all out with the intention of making the ending the most exciting, most thrilling, most memorable part of the story. It’s what we’re building up to all the way through, so it has to deliver when we get there.

I’m sure I don’t always succeed. But I’m also sure that whatever you’re writing – be it prose fiction, film, TV, audio, whatever – knowing where you’re heading before you start, having an end point in focus all the way through, being sure that the best is yet to come, has to be a good thing.

One of the novels I struggled with most when trying to work out the ending was The Parliament of Blood. If you look at my very first handwritten notes for the book (assuming you can decipher my writing!) from May 2006 you’ll see that it started with a different title – The School of Blood, or one of a couple of alternatives. You’ll also see that these notes are all to do with the general story, the background, with just a few specific moments or set-pieces suggested. Nothing about the ending.


In fact, it was very late in my planning – worryingly late, I recall – that I hit on how it had to end. I had some terrific set pieces already in place (like the vampires scratching their way out the walls where they’ve been entombed, which is alluded to briefly here). But I needed an ending that topped those.

What finally gave me what I wanted was the change of title. Having worked out the notion of a vampire parliament that forms an underground mirror to the real one, I’d decided to title the book The Parliament of Blood. And surely a book with that title had to reach its climax in the Houses of Parliament. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but with that decided at last I had something to start from.

Whether I succeeded in providing an ending that lived up to the rest of book and brought it to a satisfying, exciting, and appropriate conclusion is up to the reader to decide. It’s still in print if you want to decide what you think (though sadly there’s no eBook, at least not yet). Your local bookshop can order it in, or you can look at Amazon or Waterstones


And while we’re doing some shameless plugging that’s loosely linked to the subject matter, let me just point out that I’m writing my own alien invasion of Earth series – The Never War – albeit set in the Second World war rather than the 22nd century. The first book, The Suicide Exhibition, is now out in paperback – again, from your local bookshop, Amazon, or Waterstones. And there is an eBook of this one, so add iTunes to that list.

The Suicide Exhibition may be the first in a series, but I reckon it’s got a terrific ending…

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