If you believe Rob Shearman, writer of the award-winning Doctor Who Season One episode ‘Dalek’, it’s pretty astonishing that the show was ever greenlit. It’s a “bonkers idea,” he says, a series which “goes out of its way to be tonally confusing. It can be both ridiculous and terrifying within a second”, which is not something TV executives are traditionally fond of. He cites Sunday’s special ‘The Waters of Mars’ as an example – after the more light-hearted Easter special, ‘Planet of the Dead’, “it was terrifying. Really emotional and wrenching, and the Christmas special seems to be changing the tone again. You never know what you’re going to get.”
This lack of tonal consistency, which Rob sees as Who’s greatest strength, made the experience of working as part of the writing team “actually rather fun”. “Every meeting with Russell,” he says, “you’d leave inspired.” But signing up for his story, which, when the BBC briefly thought they’d lost the rights to the Daleks, was set to include the Toclafane (they finally appeared as the baddies of the Season Three finale), caused him a lot of difficulty, both as a writer and a lifelong fan. “Doctor Who is so scrutinised and chronicled that you don’t want to be seen as the guy who was rubbish and got chopped off.”
In the event, of course, he had nothing to worry about, but Joe Lidster (Torchwood – ‘A Day in the Death’) agrees about the sense of responsibility involved in writing for the Who family. “They’re such well-crafted shows,” he says. “The Sarah Jane Adventures, for example, is the only decent kids’ drama out there – that’s what the pressure is.”
However, they both insist that this is no reason to play it safe. “Everything you write ought to have the risk in it,” says Rob. “I’d rather you hated it than thought it was just OK,” agrees Joe, who admits that he is “not a big fan of spaceships and aliens,” preferring instead to write “depressing, angsty” character-based episodes. This preference seems only to extend to his own writing – his favourite Who episode is ‘Aliens of London’, the storyline of which involves a spaceship full of aliens crashing into Big Ben.
When asked about the future of Torchwood and Doctor Who, the two are enthusiastic. Rob is full of praise for new Who show-runner Stephen Moffat, who is “one of the best comic writers in TV. He’s a lighter writer than Russell – I think we’ll get scarier stories from him, but stories that are also upbeat. He’s very redemptive.” The year’s gap between seasons, he says, had to happen, but the specials “make it feel like it’s building to something. It’s quite nice. David Tennant’s departure feels genuinely newsworthy.”
Joe does not share any of John Barrowman’s reported reservations about the success of the five-night event that was Torchwood’s third season. It was “amazing, astonishing TV,” he says. “I was jealous of the people involved in it. It got new viewers interested and the public loved it.” The small pool of remaining main actors means that “it can now come back in any way, shape or form – it could be set in Cardiff or anywhere else.”
According to Rob, it’s a great time to be a fan of science fiction on TV. “A lot of what’s going on in twenty first century culture is actually speculative. I think that what’s happening is that the bridges are being broken down, and people are far more used to the idea of fantasy in their lives. A lot of people I know who watch Lost wouldn’t say they were watching sci fi, but it’s now very obvious with the time travel storyline that it is. People seem more receptive to the idea that ordinary fiction can intrude into areas that are unnatural or fantastical.”
And that, for the future quality and appeal of shows like Doctor Who and Torchwood, can only be a good thing.