Review: Script Doctor / Author: Andrew Cartmel / Publisher: Miwk / Release Date: November 28th
Some chalices are more poisoned than others. Pity poor Andrew Cartmel, the bright, ambitious young script editor who found himself taking over the responsibility for commissioning stories for Doctor Who at a period when the BBC were embarrassed by the show’s very existence and when its chiefs routinely admitted they just didn’t watch it and just couldn’t care less about it. No-one really sets out to make bad TV and whilst this reviewer has little or no time for the era of Doctor Who Cartmel was responsible for, it’s hard not to sympathise with him for the enormous and impossible task he was undertaking in attempting to get back on course a show which had crashed onto the rocks years before and had been slowly sinking ever since.
Script Doctor, originally published in 2005 but now reissued by Miwk with 32 all-new pages of photographs, is based on diaries and notes kept by Cartmel during the turbulent period he was working of Doctor Who and trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Arriving just as Sylvester McCoy was coming on board as the Seventh Doctor, Cartmel is rightfully appalled by the dire Time and Rani scripts produced by veteran writers Pip and Jane Baker with whom Cartmel enjoyed a frustrating relationship. The story, one of the very worst in the Doctor Who canon, left Cartmel in the firing line from fans and friends alike even as he was battling to commission new writers who were proposing what, in his opinion, were better scripts. But that’s all subjective and we all have our opinions on the merits (or otherwise) of the likes of Paradise Towers, Delta and the Bannermen and Silver Nemesis. Cartmel was constantly thwarted across his time on the show by his producer John Nathan-Turner’s inability to recognise a good script, badly-lit studio production, unimaginative directors and designers and scrappy visual FX. But it’s hard to reconcile all this with Cartmel’s own assertion that McCoy and his companion Sophie Aldred as Ace were “a unique team” (they certainly were but perhaps not in the way he imagined) and that every other script was “terrific”. Excited by scripts in McCoy’s second season, Cartmel seems to genuinely believe that by the third McCoy season his plan to make the show unmissable again, the so-called ‘Cartmel Masterplan’ (which seemed to consist of putting McCoy in a darker coat and making the stories almost incomprehensible), would make the show the talk of the TV schedules again. Unfortunately Cartmel hasn’t recorded whatever disappointment he must have felt when this didn’t happen or, indeed, much in the way of emotion or disappointment when the show finally fizzled out in 1989.
But Script Doctor is irresistible reading, providing a fascinating look back at the machinations of the BBC in the late 1980s when the show wasn’t even considered worthy of discussion at the Corporation’s weekly programme reviews. “They don’t watch it, Andrew” he was told dismissively. Doctor Who is a unique and fragile format and those who tamper with its core values do so at their own peril. It happened in the late 1980s, some might say it’s happening again today; Cartmel came into Doctor Who determined to reinvent the wheel which was absolutely what it didn’t need - it just needed the wheel to be balanced again and the screws tightened. Cartmel’s plans may have been misguided and misbegotten (and ultimately doomed) but his memoir of his time on the show is a vital and compelling - and occasionally clumsily-worded - record of the darkest days in Doctor Who history when the show teetered on the abyss before finally plunging into oblivion. It’s a cautionary tale and one worth bearing in mind as we put on our party hats and tuck into our TARDIS cakes and celebrate the show’s fiftieth anniversary. Nothing lasts forever…