This week’s Top 5 looks at the best of the best writers to have worked on the television show. Given the vast number of men (and a few women) who have written for Doctor Who since 1963, I’ve had to exclude those who’ve only contributed one or two scripts, even where that contribution (hello, ‘Vincent and the Doctor’) has been a standout. You’ll note most of the list comprises writers from the classic era – this is mainly to do with what I see as the writer then having more input and influence into their script. In the model we have today, the show runner rules the roost in a way the script editor from days of yore didn’t. Tell me in the comments below what you think of the list and which writer deserved to be in this Top 5!
What is there to say about Robert Holmes that already hasn’t been said, other than he was easily the best writer to ever work on the show? His work, both as writer and script editor (during what many regard as the series’ peak of quality in the mid 70s) remains without peer. His inventiveness, his ability to craft sympathetic characters, and his cynicism about power structures and elites, all mark him as a writer who aspired to do more than provide words on a page, but to shape a story so that it meant something, whether merely at the level of entertainment, or a higher intent.
A veteran of World War II who served in the British Army in Burma, Holmes returned to Britain and became a police officer. Observing with interest the work of journalists in court rooms when he was giving evidence, he soon turned his hand to journalism himself. It isn’t hard then to understand how a man who had such a breadth of life experience, working with people of all social classes, seeing people at their best and their worst, would be able to create thrilling stories and characters that resonated on the page and screen.
Admittedly, his first two stories, ‘The Krotons and The Space Pirates’ were less than stellar, in a year where the production was struggling towards the end of Troughton’s tenure. However, the advent of color seemed to unleash something in Holmes, because he went on a multi-year run of stories that can only be described as iconic and fantastic. ‘Spearhead from Space’ launched Jon Pertwee onto the British public as the Third Doctor. A conspiracy thriller and alien invasion story, Spearhead not only introduced a more adult take on the series, it put in place the building blocks of the UNIT ‘family’ that would serve the series well for many years. Elsewhere, Holmes helped create the Master, in ‘Terror of the Autons’, satirised television in ‘Carnival of Monsters’, fused the historical and the alien in ‘The Time Warrior’ (and frightened your very young writer way back in 1977) as well as introducing the Sontarans. He was then tapped to script edit the start of the Tom Baker era, working hand in glove with producer Philip Hinchcliffe to raid all the horror tropes of the Universal and Hammer horror movies. ‘The Ark in Space’ is a brutal story of alien infection, The Pyramids of Mars’ is an iconic story riffing off the tropes of ancient Egypt and the ‘aliens as gods’ movement personified by Erich von Daniken. While ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ is problematic in its use of yellowface, it is a triumphant, epic farewell to Holmes’ time as script editor, creating the characters of Jago and Litefoot (so fondly remembered they appeared in more than a dozen audio box set releases from Big Finish over thirty years later). His cynicism at politicians and bureaucracy saw full flower in the ‘The Deadly Assassin’, which used elements of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ to topple the Time Lords from their lofty perch as neutral galactic observers. ‘The Sunmakers’, which took aim at the UK tax system, doesn’t miss, as the enslaved people of Earth, unwillingly transferred to Pluto, rise up and overthrow the rapacious forces of the Company.
After a few years absence, Holmes agreed to come back, penning Peter Davison’s farewell in ‘The Caves of Androzani’ which continued Holmes’ scarifying look at elites and the military. Such was the success of this brilliant story, Holmes followed up with ‘The Two Doctors’ ,which looked at his personal interest in vegetarianism, before illness led to his death as he wrote the finale to the Trial of a Time Lord season.
Holmes’ career and impact on Doctor Who cannot be underestimated. He gave his characters actual character, a sense that they had led lives before the Doctor’s arrival, and would continue to do so after he departed. The stories he wrote looking at politics dripped with cynicism, but never to the point they descended into bitterness. His stories were often moving (see the scene in’ Pyramids of Mars’ where Laurence Scarman entreats his brother Marcus to to stop, before Marcus strangles him), often amusing (see the byplay between Henry Jago and Professor Litefoot in ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang) but always invested in a humanity (see Oscar’s death scene in ‘The Two Doctors’) the show rarely addressed.
While Chris Boucher’s time writing for Doctor Who was short, it was definitely sweet. Responsible for stories in Seasons Twelve and Thirteen, Boucher introduced Leela, the savage tribeswoman from the Sevateem. Not only that, but his three standout scripts from three efforts, is 100% strike rate not achieved by any other writer in the series.
An avowed atheist, Boucher’s first story, ‘The Face of Evil’ (informally known as The Day God Went Mad) sets up an alien society as a dual structure – the ignorant, superstitious Sevateem scrabbling for survival in the hostile jungle, and the technology worshipping Tesh, who serve an insane AI known as Xoanan. The irony here, as the Doctor attempts to navigate his way through these competing sides, is that both tribes are consumed by superstitions that have no basis in fact. The double irony is that Xoanon is actually the brain print of the Doctor, recorded in a previous, unseen adventure. So, we go from the Sevateem attempting to free their god Xoanon, to the Doctor revealing Xoanon’s more prosaic origins, and ‘curing’ it godhood by repairing the damage to the AI that rendered it insane. Amidst the traditional trappings of Doctor Who, this is an audacious script from a newcomer to the show, boldly undermining the tenets of faith and religion, while introducing a captivating new companion. But the best was yet to come.
‘The Robots of Death’ has often been described as an Agatha Christie in space, and on the surface, it fits that description. Aided by robots, the debauched crew of a Sandminer travel in luxury while their craft sucks up minerals on an otherwise barren desert planet. But when one of their number is found dead, the Doctor and Leela immediately become suspects. But something far darker and more troubling is afoot. The script is full of interesting and rather ugly characters, from the bombastic leader, Commander Uvanov, to the craven and mentally brittle Poul. Under the traditional murder mystery facade, Boucher has crafted a script that is full of interesting ideas – robophobia, the mania that grips humans in the presence of robots, the idea that robots are somehow enslaved by humans, and the resulting robot revolution that will be led by the human traitor, Taren Capel. Amidst all this are wonderfully biting performances, fuelled by cutting lines supplied by Boucher.
Boucher’s last script for the program was ‘The Image of the Fendahl’. Boucher mines the pseudo-science that gripped the 70s, namely reincarnation, aliens as gods, cult activity, and the manipulation of humans for the benefit of strange beings from beyond the horizon of the solar system. ‘The Image of the Fendahl’ is full of strong performances, none more so than Scot Fredericks as Max Stael. His death scene, where he begs the Doctor to hand him a gun so he can shoot himself, is some of the finest and most disturbing in the show’s history. Boucher is a writer who doesn’t look away, who doesn’t flinch when it comes to displaying the horror that can befall characters who enters the Doctor’s orbit.
A final note: the creation of Leela, played by Louise Jameson, was down to Boucher, in consultation with the show’s producer. An antidote to Sarah Jane Smith’s middle class sensibilities, Leela the savage, the warrior woman who reached fist for a knife to settle an argument, was a huge departure for the show. Designed in part to appeal to the Dads watching (check out her costume for a pitch perfect example of mid-70s sexism), the strength of her character lies with Jameson, based on Boucher’s convincing writing and willingness to try something new. That Leela is still a character who appears in Big Finish audio dramas 40 years after her creation is testament to Boucher.
A second final note: While Boucher has basically quit writing, in 1999 he wrote ‘Corpse Marker’, a book based on his Doctor Who work, which you should seek out. He also contributed an audio play, ‘Death’s Head’, to the Kaldor City range of audios, which combines his work on Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, for which he was script editor for its four year run.
Getting his start in television writing in Canada, John Lucarotti soon crossed the pond and began working in Britain. Aside from making his reputation working on The Avengers, and creating no less than three television series, his name has gone down in legend as the writer of three stellar historical dramas for Doctor Who.
The first appearance of the Daleks derailed show creator Sydney Newman’s intent of providing educational fare for the kids, via historical stories. But in that first tranche of episodes, Lucarotti wrote three highly regarded stories that drank deeply from their historical settings. These stories also helped establish the dynamics within the first TARDIS crew, establishing a rhythm in the interactions that held the series in good stead.
Sadly, two of these stories are wholly absent from the BBCs archives, but fortunately, their audio tracks exist in their entirety. Examining them in this manner is fortuitous, as it allows the keen student of the show’s beginnings to get a sense of the words of the script, without the visuals to distract.
The seven part epic ‘Marco Polo’ was well regarded from its broadcast at the time. The long storyline, which depicted the TARDIS crew’s trek from Central Asia to the court of Kublai Khan, allowed the fractious atmosphere of the early stories to fade, as the reluctant companions all came to terms with each other. The Doctor in particular begins to lose his sharper edges, as he is forced to work with his companions, as the TARDIS is no longer under his control. Lucarotti’s evocation of different cultures, especially ones alien to the relatively insular Britain of the 60s, is an early indication that Doctor Who could and did bring something new and exciting into the family rooms of the audience.
‘The Aztecs’ which fortunately exists, does something extraordinary on two levels. One, it challenges head on, through Barbara’s attempts to get the Aztecs to abandon human sacrifice, the Doctor’s insistence that history cannot be changed. Subsequent stories have completely abandoned that notion, but this early, the series attempted to set guardrails limiting what the Doctor would dare to do. The other idea explored is that not all Aztecs were bloodthirsty savages, slave to placating insane gods by carving chests open and plucking out hearts. Through the character of Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge, we see the possibility for redemption for the Aztecs. Similarly, in the courtship of the Doctor and Cameca, there is a humble domesticity on offer to him. This effort to look at what is effectively, to our eyes at least, an alien civilisation, is an interesting humanistic effort for the show. Barbara fails in her scheme, but the effort is nonetheless worthwhile.
Finally, Lucarotti’s script for ‘The Massacre’ (or ‘The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve’ for the pedants out there) inserts the Doctor and his companion Steven directly into the middle of a fractious and bloody religious conflict in 16th century France. Catholics versus Protestants is the order of the day as the weak French King, Charles, dominated by his headstrong mother, Catherine de Medici, vacillates between coddling the Huegeonots and allowing a wholesale slaughter of them by the Catholic faction at court (which do you think prevails?). The deft way Lucarotti examines both sides of the arguments, demonstrates the weaknesses inherent within men, and the almost casual resort to violence and bloody retribution, tells you a lot about what he thought about the human condition.. Of all the missing episodes from the 60s, this is the story your writer would give a kidney to have back in its entirety.
I had to have one new series writer here. For all of Russell T Davies’ strengths as a writer, his real talent was in marshalling the talent on both sides of the camera. His best work is to be found elsewhere, away from Doctor Who (I’d recommend ‘The Second Coming’, which stars Christopher Eccelston – unless you’re a committed Christian, in which case, it is a very distressing couple of hours of television).
Stephen Moffat, on the other hand, while he has brought me to the point of tearing out what little remains of my hair, is head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of new series’ writing talent. The suppleness of his writing, his ability to wring emotion from almost any scene, his audacity of his ideas, and the epic nature of some of his storylines make him a writer suited for the new series of Doctor Who.
‘The Empty Child’ /’The Doctor Dances’ two parter is a crowd pleasing story that many fans loved, but it was with ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ that Moffat really had his biggest early impact. Starting out with the series ‘Press Gang’ Moffat has always written romance into his scripts, though often lacing them with acid and melancholy. From the hate/hate relationship of Lynda Day and Spike Thompson, we get a glimpse that Moffat, at least fiction-wise, doesn’t regard landing that one true love as being the easiest thing in the world to do. The way the romance between the Doctor and Reinette blossoms and becomes an artful dance, is testimony to Moffat’s view of love, but also how he can craft a relationship in a handful of scenes.
I won’t linger on the creation of the Weeping Angels, as I’ve written about them before, but they, along with the Empty Child, and latterly the being in ‘Listen’, demonstrated that Moffat has a darker side. Scary stories have always featured in Doctor Who and Moffat has been one of the stand out writers in creating an atmosphere of unease for modern audiences. The genius of something like the Empty Child or Listen, rests with these being fears grounded in common, every day concerns – a lost boy or a childhood nightmare coming to life. Daleks might terrorize you, but a creature that lurks in the corner of your eye…that’s another level of terror all together.
Later in his run, Moffat pleased many, many fans by bringing back the Eighth Doctor and giving him a fitting farewell in ‘The Night of the Doctor’ short, helped fans everywhere celebrate the 50th anniversary with ‘The Day of the Doctor’ before launching into the Capaldi era. Here, it felt like Moffat was letting his inner fan come to the fore, and brought a renewed sense of energy after the stagnation of the latter Smith era.
In quick succession, Moffat spun out stories of the caliber of ‘Listen’, ‘Heaven Sent’ and ‘World Enough and Time’/’The Doctor Falls’ (which should really have been Capaldi’s swansong). It seemed that the darker energy that Capaldi brought to the role infected Moffat’s writing, bringing a greater sense of melancholy, as his and Capaldi’s time on the show wound down.
It’s not all good – Moffat’s insistence on crafting stories that sometimes ate their own tail, his decision to Clara on into the Capaldi era, and his preference for bringing the Weeping Angels back repeatedly (granted, when you are on a writing treadmill, a writer will reach for the tried and tested trope), and his complete mischaracterization of the First Doctor in ‘Twice Upon a Time’, do undermine his legacy somewhat. But at his height, there was no writer on the new series with the titanic talent, sheer gusto and bravado, than Stephen Moffat. Also, he has a magnificent head of hair, which can never be underestimated…
Conscientious objector and lifelong Communist. It is no wonder that some of Malcolm Hulke’s lifelong pursuits influenced his writing. While to many, especially in its earliest years, Doctor Who was simply a kid’s show, Hulke saw it in another light. A vehicle for, amidst all the action and adventure, some sobering moral tales that made those stories some of the best in the show’s history.
His first story, ‘The Faceless Ones’ is an amiable enough, if slightly too long, runaround for the Second Doctor. It was working in tandem with Terrance Dicks, under extremely onerous conditions, on the ten part ‘The War Games’ that Hulke came into his own. Hidden amidst the machinations of aliens kidnapping human soldiers from all times and places is a story that militates against the military, especially when the different human factions come together to fight a common enemy. In the final two episodes, Hulke and Dicks reveal the Doctor’s origins – a renegade from his own race, the Time Lords. I think it is not a coincidence that the Doctor, a free thinker and free spirit much like Hulke, would find himself in opposition to a bunch of patrician pseudo-Gods who refuse to dirty their hands by helping the oppressed across the universe.
Hulke’s full flowering as one of the best writers for the series came in the 70s, during the Pertwee era. He would use these opportunities to examine colonialism, racism, the Cold War, environmentalism and the overreach of the military industrial complex. ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ is as much an examination of morality, that of the Doctor versus the Brigadier, as it is an exciting adventure with dinosaurs. The Silurians sought shelter from catastrophe millions of years ago, to awaken and find that ‘their’ world had been overrun by the upstart mammals calling themselves human. With his larger perspective, the Doctor seeks to broker a rapprochement between the two sides, while the Brigadier, the embodiment of the Little Englander, bombs the Silurian bunker, entombing them again. The bitterness with which the Doctor attacks the Brigadier sounds like Hulke venting his own anger at the racism and xenophobia on display.
The balance of terror and the Cold War feature in ‘Frontier in Space’ where humanity and the Draconians are on the verge of all out galactic war. Again, Hulke is in his element here, depicting both sides as being motivated not by any larger goals, but by narrow, parochial interests. A story worth examining is Hulke’s last for the series, ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs.’ While it is unfortunate the slightly dodgy dinosaur effects have distracted some, the overall theme of the story allows for a deeper perspective, while also matching Hulke’s personal interests. The evacuation of London due to the dinosaur attacks is all a cover to allow elements within the military and bureaucracy to allow their masterplan, Operation Golden Dawn, to come into effect. If successful, it would’ve rolled time back to an idealised, idyllic past – no technology, no consumerism, no capitalism, just man in his native state, pure, uncorrupted and at peace with himself and his fellow humans. A utopia, in fact, just like the vision that Hulke’s attachment to Communism hoped to achieve.