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July 30th, 2009

The Prisoner: 2009


I now know how I will fill the Who-less weeks of November...

(Isn't McKellen fantastic?)
This has been on my to-read list for a while. I read Carlyle's 1849 translation of Inferno many years ago, but this is the 1814 blank verse version by H.F. Cary, in a bargain edition which also includes Doré's famous engravings of five decades later. Unfortunately it has no footnotes at all, and I think I will need to get another version with more explanatory matter; too much of the text simply sailed over my head.

It is none the less a tremendous literary achievement - to merge Judeo-Christian and classical mythologies, and recent (for 1300) European history, into a fairly seamless world; to construct mappable spaces of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven; and to come out of all this with a reasoned but impassioned emphasis on Love as the driving force behind God and the universe - all these are remarkable things.

I can see why Inferno is the most popular of the three - evil is always more interesting than good or repentance. Oddly enough, though, the one moment when the narrative really grabbed me was towards the end of Purgatorio, when Virgil hands over the role of guide to Beatrice. I don't know if this is a general finding, or something to do with the translation, or just the mood I was in at the time.

Anyway, I now have a good sense of the overall shape of the story, and will look out for an edition which gives me more explanation of the details.
This book is essential reading, not just for the Doctor Who fan, but for anyone who is even slightly interested in the show, or more broadly who is interested in the process of writing for television.

It is structured as a year-long email conversation between journalist Benjamin Cook and Russell T Davies about the process of writing the fourth season of New Who, from Voyage of the Damned to Journey's End. (Also briefly including Time Crash.) On the scale of loving or hating RTD, I am sort of in the middle: I respect and admire his achievement in reviving Who in the first place, which I think in the end puts me just slightly on the "love" side of the divide, but I don't always like his writing, or his public persona. This book reinforced both my positive and negative prejudices about him as a professional, but it grounded them in a much deeper understanding of his personality, and in the awful responsibility of the writer on a show like Who: his loyalty and his guilt circulate around his key colleagues - Julie Gardner, Phil Collinson, David Tennant - and worrying that he won't produce the goods with adequate quality or promptness.

Vast amounts of draft script are included in the book, much of which made it to screen. I found the roads not taken rather interesting - who was the comedienne who might have played Penny, the companion who never was because Catherine Tate accepted the invitation to return? Imagine if Dennis Hopper had been available? And at the very end of the book, Cook rightly persuades Davies to drop a really awful linking script between Journey's End and The Next Doctor.

But even more interesting is to see what the fundamental idea of each story actually is. They are not always very strong. The Stolen Earth/Journey's End is almost entirely about showing rather than telling:
...Daleks, en masse. Lots of gunfire and exterminations. And the biggest Dalek spaceship ever - more like a Dalek temple. Christ almighty! The skies over the Earth need to be changed to weird outer space vistas. Also, visible in the sky, a huge Dalek ship exterior. The size of a solar system! This will probably explode. Like they do.

And Davros.
So the episodes are seen at this point largely as spectacle rather than story; the most effective bit, the end of Donna's travels with the Doctor, emerges rather late in the day from Davies' fevered imagination. One may not always like the solutions he comes up with, but the insight into the creative process. Is utterly fascinating and compelling.

(Certain sections of fandom will not be pleased by what he has to say about the internet. Too bad. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman on George R.R. Martin, Russell T Davies is not your bitch.)

There is a surprising amount of death in the book: Christopher Ecclestone's driver, David Tennant's mother, Verity Lambert, and most of all Howard Attfield, called from his sick bed to reprise his role as Donna's father, but unable to complete the scripts. After his death, his scenes are reshot with Bernard Cribbins. The show must go on.

Indeed, that is the bigger lesson from the. Book. If Doctor Who is sometimes less than perfect, it happens basically because The Show Must Go On, and because the writers and producers have determined to put on screen what they can. It is rather amazing that it ended up so well as often as it did.

Anyway, this is probably the most interesting book about Doctor Who that will ever be written. If you are even slightly interested in the subject, get it.

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