Andrew Cartmel on the Craft of the Script Editor and Helping Doctor Who survive for the 1980s and Beyond
Take a trip backwards in time to the late 1980s. Social mobility was nominally on the increase. Conversely: budget cuts weakened previously covalent bonds of community. The concept of ‘society’ and its attendant notions, such as family values, were in need of nourishment. The entertainment landscape was evolving accordingly.
And dear old DOCTOR WHO was in dire danger of extinction. BBC chiefs had attempted ‘resting’ the series once in 1985, only for its reprieve in 1986 and a make or break re-launch in 1987. Andrew Cartmel was the Script Editor charged with keeping the brand alive.
(photo / drawing: copyright, Wayne Tillett. )
Andrew faced an Herculean task, honouring old series mythology, whilst reinventing things suitably through modern sensibilities and a dash of world building mystery. If that sounds familiar then it might be because the tone and ethos of DOCTOR WHO today in effect owe much to Cartmel’s own style in those crucial years from 1987-89.
Ideas such as a companion as a ‘way in’; a series story arc unravelling through each adventure and concluding with a villain’s revelation (or ‘big bad’). Those are all defining features of ‘Nu Who’ (2005-present) but were perfected just as well during Cartmel’s tenure as Script Editor. I was lucky enough to sit down and chat to Andrew about his past, present and future career and his eternal bond with DOCTOR WHO.
(photo copyright: Helen Solomon)
The natural starting point is the distinction between ‘Show Runner’ and ‘Script Editor’. Today, DOCTOR WHO has a ‘Show-Runner’: a lead writer come Executive Producer. Russell T Davies was the first in that role, Steven Moffat is currently there and Chris ‘Broad-Church’ Chibnall will take the mantle imminently.
That’s an awesome responsibility. But it’s nothing ‘new’. Because on closer inspection, it appears that Andrew was doing more or less exactly what Russell, Steven and soon Chris have done /will do on the beloved and very British sci-fi show.
‘My role as a script editor was certainly equivalent to a show runner like Steven Moffat today. I’d say I had even more artistic control than Moffat does now. Back then it was just myself and the producer John Nathan Turner. That was it. We were the entire production team.
We also had a very bright secretary (Kate Easteal). But that really was it. The rest of the crew would join for individual stories and then disappear again. So, providing John signed off on it, I could do anything I wanted to.
Theoretically, we were answerable to the Head of Drama Series and Serials upstairs at Union House, but in reality, they couldn’t care less what we did, and they ignored us. So, providing we didn’t attract attention by doing anything vastly scandalous, we had total freedom and I had complete control of the scripts’.
‘It is worth noting, parenthetically, that our British notion of show runner is different from America — where the term originated. There, the show runner is also in charge of the budget. Sole responsibility for delivering the show to the network, both in creative and financial terms, rests on her, or his, shoulders. That’s a considerably larger, more responsible, and more powerful role than the British equivalent.’
With creative freedom though, comes some pastoral and political burden. And, in the face of a then indomitably powerful Thatcher Government, it fell upon Doctor Who to sometimes fight back, in the interests of democratic debate. It’s an appropriate tradition, with science fiction almost inviting satire by stealth. Was it actually a case of the Doctor waging war on Mrs T? Revisionists have frequently tried to imply that there was a political agenda in some episodes of the show.
A look at 1988’s HAPPINESS PATROL certainly looks a BIT like a poke at the UK’s then lady Prime Minister. Helen A, (played by Sheila Hancock) runs a totalitarian planet, whereby everyone must be happy or face death as a dissident.
The Doctor (brilliant Sylvester McCoy) and companion, Ace (lovely Sophie Aldred) are having none of it and they dismantle the regime. In some senses, that could describe just about any episode of a series that does adhere to certain formula beats. On the other hand, there is absolutely no escaping the pointedly political parallels. Cartmel does not deny the influence or intention, though draws the line at the notion of a pervasive crusade.
‘Ideological war is vastly overstating it. We were just opposed to the appalling Thatcher government and naturally that informed our attitudes and, in turn, our writing. Helen A was absolutely very consciously written with Margaret Thatcher in mind. Brilliantly written, I might add, by the great Graeme Curry. And wasn’t Sheila Hancock magnificent?’
So yes, fact informs fiction, but ultimately, the job focus had to be on crafting some bold and brilliant science fiction stories and executing those with class and style. A look at 1989’s Season 26 is a model of those qualities and it is a terrible shame that the show was yet again ‘rested’ for a hiatus after its airing, just as it was getting everything so right and against such tough odds.
Yes, DOCTOR WHO came back (once in 1996 and then in 2005 until the present). And the brand did and will no doubt again need the occasional absence to refresh the fan base. But a look at that (then) final season from Cartmel and co is a lesson in great writing. Character, plot, philosophical motif: all ‘there’ and wrapped in some genuinely thrilling science fiction tropes on a budget. Was there a ‘favourite’ story at all?
‘It’s a bit like naming your favourite child — there are so many greats. I mean, look at Survival, Ghost Light, The Curse of Fenric… These are always floating around my top choices. But then someone might mention The Happiness Patrol or Greatest Show and I’ll realise how good those were. However, if I have to name one, my most consistent favourite would be Remembrance of the Daleks, so superbly written by Ben Aaronovitch’.
One reason it might be difficult to choose a top story, aside from natural diplomacy, is that the Cartmel seasons were a lesson in the brilliance of a ‘story arc’ or common thread. Andrew gave viewers a sense that the mysterious Doctor/ hero could be ‘more than just a Time-Lord’. And the villains and companions were designed accordingly. Ace was a strong and independent young woman with hidden powers and vulnerabilities in equal measure, as well as a fundamental connection to the ‘big bad’ of Season 26, Fenric.
‘Rose is Ace done right’: bitched some hardcore Whovians, noting the parallels between Ace and her 2005 counterpart Rose, played by Billie Piper. ‘No. Ace is Ace done right’ ripostes Andrew and I’d have to agree.
So WAS there an actual ‘Cartmel Master Plan’ and DID it entail the Doctor effectively being God (and Fenric, therefore, as nemesis, a take on Satan?). And if so, was there much involvement from the actors and fellow writers in shaping character and plot development?
Andrew explains, once and for all:
‘I had a plan — although it was amorphous, intuitive and never very formalised. The objective was to make the Doctor darker, more powerful, more enigmatic, more mysterious. To go back to the original concept that gave the show its name, and get away from him being a marginal figure and guest star in his show, who was acted-on instead of acting.
I certainly did encourage Silver Nemesis to be written as though the Doctor was God. It was a short-hand that allowed that particular writer to grasp what I was getting at, and thereby excite him with the concept. And you want your writers excited, to get their best work out of them.
On the other hand, when working with another writer, one like Marc Platt, who was a dyed in the wool ‘fan’ of the show and conversant with its mythos, we very specifically spoke in terms of Gallifrey and the Time Lords when discussing our aims and methods.
But no, the Doctor wasn’t ‘God’. (Hence ‘Fenric as Satan’ falls by the wayside.) The Doctor wasn’t supposed to be anything specific. The idea was that he was older, more powerful potentially and simply ‘other’ than the Time-Lords. We wanted abiding mystery, permanent enigma. No specifics, no solutions.
To pin him down as ‘God’ — and presumably we’d being talking about the Judaeo-Christian god here, as opposed to any of the myriad others — would be as limiting and dull as any other explicit, permanent solution.
We certainly discussed the notion of the more mysterious, more powerful Doctor with Sylvester and he was totally on board, and helpful. We also discussed Sophie’s characterisation of Ace with her. But in all cases the ideas flowed down from the writing department, to the actors, who were then involved in the discussion.’
It’s a passionate and comprehensive response: matched by the quality of the relevant stories. Curse of Fenric is a triumph of acting, scripting and action choreography. It has mature depths and real stakes.
Can that quality transcend the medium of television? Is Andrew Cartmel just as free to explore creative avenues in novels as he was on screen? Thankfully, it’s a yes!
There is of course, Andrew’s memoir about his time as Script Editor but he has moved from memoir to fiction now. THE VINYL DETECTIVE is a series platform to some fantastic reads. Written in Dead Wax and The Run Out Groove are great page turners. Roll on further episodes!
I ask about a general summary of / introduction to Andrew’s novels.
‘The Vinyl Detective is a record collector turned sleuth. My old buddy Ben Aaronovitch, had become a bestselling novelist, and I aspired to something similar. I asked him what the secret was, and he said, ‘Write about what you truly love.’
I love crime novels, but in my personal life I love listening to music on vinyl, and searching out rare and beautiful old records. So I combined these passions in the series of books. The first was well received the second is published in a couple of weeks. So check them out.
(Warning: they may contain cats.) Mostly, they’re for people who like a blend of suspenseful and exciting thriller with the “cosy” crime genre — with a considerable dash of humour. In other words, they’re for readers who are fed up with the current cycle of depressing noir epics of ‘Danish disembowelment’.
Whilst happy to discuss where his ideas come from (that age old writer question), Andrew does not accept that editing need be some ruthless chore. No ‘darlings’ will be ‘slaughtered’ here when cutting words.
‘Stephen King used to have two standard answers for that question: “From the Lord Satan.” and “Mail order from Pittsburgh.” I do my best thinking about writing when I’m performing a mindless task, for example swimming lengths at the local pool or vacuuming my house. But the initial starting point generally drops into my head out of the blue — or it will be something someone tells me, or which I read somewhere .
This can be as small as a few words or an evocative phrase — just the title or a line of dialogue, and I then work out the larger structure that suits these words. Editing is simply part of the process, and I like it.
It comes naturally. I do it as I go along, and also once something is finished, I can see it more objectively and go back over it. I’ve cut over 20,000 words out of a novel, once I had some distance from it. I never use the phrase “slaughter your darlings” because I try and maintain an amiable and affectionate relationship with my creations — be good to your subconscious and your subconscious will be good to you.’
So, there is life after DOCTOR WHO. But the brand will always follow Mr Cartmel, as it did from the moment he left his position as Script Editor. Before the one off 1996 television film (starring Paul McGann), there were some attempts to revive the show and Andrew was approached.
‘I was indeed consulted at one point by a team who were pitching to do a revival of the show — the writers were Paul De Vos and Bill Morrissey. Nice chaps, and Bill has gone on to some success in feature films. But other than that I was never involved or consulted’.
Andrew also wrote for the Virgin New Adventures line, then marshalled by Peter Darvill Evans.
‘I think Peter took things too far with the New Adventures. I’m thinking of Ace becoming a hard-bitten space marine and slaughtering gaily away. As you may be able to detect, I haven’t actually read the books in question — but what I know of some of the things they did with Ace… I think they were reprehensible or at least badly judged.
Initially I did feel liberated by the New Adventures. But this proved to be a mirage because that free hand was almost immediately taken away and a straitjacketed continuity was imposed on us. While Peter – and more importantly his very talented editor Rebecca Levene — certainly had an influence on the series, I felt I was much more than just a writer for hire following their lead.’
Andrew remains in touch with colleagues and has encountered figures from other eras of the show, such is the inter-connected quality to it all.
‘I am in touch with virtually all of the writers from my era, and they are good mates and it’s a pleasure to hang out with them. I get along well with Sylv and Sophie, and see them on the convention circuit frequently.
I have certainly made friends with a lot of people from past eras of the show, again through conventions. It was a delight, for example to meet Victor Pemberton. I do occasionally run into people from the new era, too.
I haven’t struck up any lasting friendships, but on the basis of some brief and glancing meetings, Burn Gorman is a very nice chap and Eve Myles is a honey-pie and an absolute scream (don’t try to out-drink her, though). But my most numerous and lasting friendships is with folks who are fans. A big shout-out to all of them.’
He has also contributed to the BIG FINISH audio plays. They dramatized the ‘lost’ season 27 (from when the show was in its post season 26 wilderness yet had stories at the ready). And he wrote WINTER FOR THE ADEPT (a Peter Davison, Fifth Doctor, audio adventure).
It’s interesting to note that this current series on BBC (Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat’s final bows on the show) sees a story from RONA MUNRO, writer of SURVIVAL (the final story of season 26, back in 1989). It was Andrew who oversaw that commission. The past and future of Doctor Who are catching up, via the present.
‘I very seldom see the new show. It’s just too damned painful to watch something I’m not involved in. It’s like a party I’m not invited to. I will say, though that I had a particular admiration for Freema Agyeman. It’s just so wonderful Rona is back. Survival is a stunning and subtle piece of writing. I hope they treat her decently on the new show and don’t muck her about too much.’
Obvious question to finish off: Would he return to a future series of DOCTOR WHO? ‘I’d love to write for the show and indeed have an idea in mind.’ Failing that, he’d love a go at GAME OF THRONES. He’d be suited brilliantly to either show’s future plans and we’ll just have to wait and see what the future holds. ‘Time will tell, as it always does’ (Doctor Who).
Thanks to Andrew for his time and best wishes with all his upcoming projects..