Dear boy


On the left there, a somewhat poorly-scanned page from Alan Plater’s screenplay of Fortunes of War, based on Olivia Manning’s novels. On the right, a page from my Doctor Who script, Spaceport Fear. I am shocked to realise that 25 years separate the two, but what joins them is who said these first words of the characters. Prince Yakimov on the left and Elder Bones on the right were both played by Ronald Pickup, who died this week.

I’m a bit numb about that. It’s not like I knew him well and considering that he’s had the most astonishingly long and varied career, it’s a bit bad that I inescapably associate him and that fantastic voice of his with these two roles.

But Fortunes of War means the world to me. I can sit here, talking to you, and play pretty much the entire serial in my head, frame by frame. If you don’t know it, I’d say I envy you having it to enjoy, except that it’s quite hard to find now. Search YouTube for Fortunes of War, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. That’ll do you.

And you can always buy Doctor Who: Spaceport Fear to listen to.

Only, if the name Ronald Pickup makes me instantly picture Prince Yakimov saying “dear boy” in that voice, when I close my eyes I’m walking into the Big Finish studio where that Doctor Who is being recorded – and I’m trying to place the voice of whoever is playing Elder Bones.

I don’t remember why I didn’t already know who all the cast were. I certainly knew that Colin Baker was the Doctor and I was excited at the prospect of seeing Bonnie Langford perform my lines as Mel. I suspect that something changed, that I hadn’t been due to go to the studio and suddenly I could. Oftentimes you don’t go because you’re off writing something else, but whatever the reason, whenever the chance, it is gorgeous to hear first-class actors delivering your lines.

So I’m walking into the control room, I’m hearing that voice, and I’m also absorbing the news that Bonnie Langford isn’t there. I didn’t meet her, I’ve still not met her, and on that day her lines were read in by another member of the cast. Read in so well that I doubted the news, I was so sure that this was Mel talking to whichever man had that great voice. (Langford couldn’t make that recording day so she came in a week later, I believe it was, and recorded all her lines in one go then. I thought that must sound awful, but listen to the story: you cannot tell she isn’t reacting to everyone around her. It’s a remarkable job by everybody from Langford herself to director Barnaby Edwards and the whole crew.)


I was obviously late because they were all deep into recording. And the way the studio is laid out, I could see Colin Baker very easily, but some of the others were completely out of view. So I had this glorious voice filling the control room as if coming from nowhere. I know I know it, I know I recognise it, but it was a good twenty minutes before there was a recording break and I got to see that, yes, it really was Ronald Pickup.

In that twenty minutes, I went from wondering who the voice was, to wondering whether that was really Mel talking to him, and through the stages of mentally comparing what they were all saying to what I’d written. And then so very quickly into forgetting it was all my words, all my story, and just completely believing that this was the Doctor and Mel in some serious trouble.

Big Finish always gets superb casts so I freely admit that I’ve been starstruck at regular intervals. But for half an hour or so over lunch that day, I got to natter away about Alan Plater and Fortunes of War with Prince Yakimov.

Dear boy.



Plot vs story

Pull up a seat. Let me just tap this app and set the wifi iKettle boiling. I wanna tell you a story.

But it’s specifically that, a story. Not a plot. If you’re in a hurry and you don’t mind missing out on the biscuits, there is a short description of the difference which gets quoted a lot by writers and which goes roughly thisaway:

The king died and then the queen died (story).
The king died and then the queen died of grief (plot)

EM Forster said that. Everybody agrees, you miss nothing but ginger nuts if you have to leave.

Except, I don’t agree.

Maybe it’s just semantics but I would take those same two sentences and I would swap the parenthetical descriptions:

The king died and then the queen died (plot)
The king died and then the queen died of grief (story)

Truly, I stand alone here, I know it. But it’s a stance that comes from a lot of years reading a lot of thrillers and writing a few too. The ones that fail, for me, are those that have kings dying, queens dying, everybody dying and it doesn’t matter, I don’t care whether they die because I just do not care at all. That’s a plot. You can make it twisty, you and be brilliantly clever and you can definitely create fantastic moments, but the plot is a sequence of events. A story is where I care. The king dying and then the queen dying is a boring school history lesson. Her dying of grief is a story because now I care. Mind you, our two lead characters have just been bumped off so there’s not a whole lot of story left.


To this day, a key failing in my writing is that I fear you will get bored so I run, run, run through story, I throw things at you and when I reckon you can’t have quite caught it yet, bang, I throw you something else. My latest Doctor Who, Scavenger, is practically real-time not because I wanted the benefits of that but because I would not pause for breath. A theatre producer I admire recently told me to slow my writing down. This week a very witty and hugely entertaining event producer told me she thought I had far too much going on in my The Blank Screen productivity course. They’re both right, I agree completely, I am just struggling to beat this compulsion. I’ll get there.

And I have got to the point where I know the truth about plots. Many years ago, I argued with Alan Plater that plot is crucial. I said that you’ve got to have things happening all the time – no change there, then – and it’s got to be great high stakes, it must be urgently vital. Plot is everything. Why else, how else would you get engrossed in a story? I’m paraphrasing here, but Alan replied with what may be the best advice I’ve had in writing. He said:


I’ve quoted him often.

Many girlfriends have quoted him back to me.

One of the most delicious things in life is when someone changes your mind. I vividly remember at college going to meet an old school friend at her university and disagreeing about something. I also remember having the most gigantic crush on her which is not in any way relevant and I don’t see why you brought it up. Anyway. Whatever this thing was, I said it and she said “But…”. At the start of her sentence, I believed one particular thing to be fully, entirely and irrevocably true. At the end of her short sentence, I knew that was bollocks and that she was fully, entirely and irrevocably right. I think of it and her often, I wonder if she even realised how much I enjoyed that moment.

Alan was equally fully, entirely and irrevocably right. It just took me years and my writing many scripts for him to change my mind.

I’m not going to claim I can tell you exactly what his opinion was: Alan died nearly four years ago now and I will always remain upset. But I can tell you what my opinion has become, and that opinion was shaped by him. My opinion goes thisaway:

Characters come first. Characters come above everything. Because if I don’t find those characters interesting, there is no plot in the world that could make me give a toss about what happens to them.

I would take one small step back from that and say that dialogue is supreme: if I don’t believe what someone is saying – if I don’t believe a real human being would say those words in that way – then I don’t believe the character and I cannot ever get interested in them.

If I knew what made a character interesting, I think I’d be initially elated and then a bit bored: finding them is part of writing and while a checklist of Things To Make Characters Real and Alive would be handy, I’m relieved that there is no such thing.

Alan was spectacularly good at slowing things down, at actually making it look as if there were no plot at all, that nothing was happening. It is a skill and a talent whose result is so quiet and low key that it somehow doesn’t get shouted about. But I said spectacular and I mean it: by the end of a plot-free Alan Plater piece, the most enormous things have happened. I long for you to read his novel Misterioso or for the BBC to finally release the not-as-good-but-still TV version of it on DVD. Because every conventional plot is simply ignored or dispensed with in Misterioso. It’s ostensibly about a woman searching for her real father. That’s the billing you’d see in Radio Times. But she finds him. She finds him really quickly. Because this isn’t a plot about tracking your father down, it is a story about a woman finding herself. Rachel at the end is not the same woman she was and I am actually tearing up a little here thinking of it.

Do you notice what I did there, though? I didn’t tell you what happens to her after finding him, I didn’t tell you what the changes are, didn’t say where this is set, didn’t say very much at all. That’s partly because this is what we remember from stories: we remember what we feel. And we never feel plot.

But I mostly described Misterioso that way because it’s how I work. When I am pitching you a story, I very, very, very quickly tell you this:

What it’s about

And then the instant I can, I get on to and I spend much longer on this:

What it’s really about

Misterioso is really about a woman who is forever changed – in a rather glorious way, incidentally, a way that makes you proud of her and actually changes something inside you too – and I know that is more important than the plot that it’s about looking for her father in London’s jazz joints.

That’s a good setting. You could spice it up by setting it during the Olympics. You could make it that her father isn’t really her father. Gasp. (He is. I’m just saying.) You could have the TARDIS arrive at a key moment. (And Rachel would make a great companion. Hell, I’d vote for her as the Doctor.) There are a hundred plot twists you could throw in to Misterioso and every single one of them would detract from the story.

Plots are easy. Stories are hard.

Plots are nothing. Stories are everything.


So you got me on to titles. 

But look, this post is called Untitled deliberately. Deliberately. I haven’t just spent six hours trying to come up with a title for a blog about titles. I have not.

It was five hours.

And 59 minutes.

Pound for pound, word for word, I have always spent far longer on titles for things than I have on things. And I was fine with that. I was fine because titles are that important and, oh, the pleasure one gets from reading a good ‘un is nothing compared to how fantastic you feel when you’ve written it. There were BBC Ceefax headline titles I was so pleased with that I remember them now, ten years or more later. That I was so pleased with that I’d tell you them now, except I’d have to show you the whole piece and I’d also have to explain all the topical references. But, still.

Six minutes ago, CD copies of Doctor Who: Scavenger arrived in the post. I wrote that two-hour drama about a year ago, it was formally released a couple of weeks back and I’ve had the download version, but here in my hand is the CD and that title, Scavenger. I am very pleased with it and I am enormously chuffed with the response it’s had, I’m beside myself with how great Big Finish made it sound.

But Scavenger was meant to be a temporary title. The script even says “Scavenger (working title)”.

I like it now and I think it works but maybe I and we just got used to it during the production. That happens: apparently nobody liked the title Star Trek: Deep Space Nine but nobody came up with a better one in time. Some people did like Scavenger, right from the start, so it’s not quite the same but I tried to find something else. The story involves all the junk and broken satellites in Earth orbit plus the story runs at a hell of a pace: it’s near-as-dammit realtime for the whole two hours. So junk plus speed, I have a draft of the script that I called Debris Encounter.

Literally nobody likes that. I did then, but now am wincing. So it’s 100% dislike for Debris Encounter.

My previous Doctor Who was called Spaceport Fear and was named by my wife, Angela Gallagher. One before that, still my favourite for how fantastic its sound design is, was going to be called The Prodigal Wirrn. The Wirrn are a famous Doctor Who monster so everybody buying the release would know what half of the title meant and they’d probably take five minutes to figure out how the rest worked and what that meant the story would become. Together director Nicholas Briggs and I renamed it Wirrn Isle. Which I like enormously.

But – have I told you all this before? I’m ringing bells here but I think about this stuff so much I lose track of what I blurt out to you and what I noodle about when people think I’m working for them. My least-favourite Doctor Who of mine has my absolute favourite title: it’s the prison drama called Doing Time. Jason Arnopp gave me that title.

I know I’m right that one gets used to titles. I remember being at a lightbox meeting at Radio Times when commissioning editor Anne Jowett was going through a list of dramas in production and for the first time I heard the title Life on Mars. There was something about that title that was just right. You get used to it, you get to say it without thinking, but in that opening moment, it was right and it was good and it got your attention. Titles are advertising and they are then encapsulating. They catch your eye but then they are summing up the entire thing.

I’ve had many projects that lurched forward with difficulty until I found the perfect title for them and then, wham, everything flies. The right title attracts the audience’s attention and makes them want to watch or listen or read, but the right title also sets the writer off on a roll.

You can have bad titles. You can have good titles that are bad for some people. Sports Night, for instance: I’d have bet money I would never notice a show called Sports Night let alone watch it. I have zero interest in sport, zero, so that title tells me unequivocally that this show is not for me. More than that, the title puts it outside my mind’s reach. I could read that somewhere and it would not register, I would not process the thought that it’s about sports, it would just be gone. You could argue that this is an efficient title, it communicates a lot to me. But as it happens, Sports Night is a treasure. It’s a comedy by Aaron Sorkin that’s done like The West Wing but in half the time and with twice the energy.

One advertising strapline for the show says: “Sports Night. It’s about sports. The same way Charlie’s Angels was about law enforcement.”

I do love that line and I do relish a great strapline. (I once watched a whole documentary about the people trying to write a strapline for the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I think it took six months and they came up with “Prepare to be shell-shocked”. Absolutely worth the whole time. Reminds me of The Lego Movie’s “The excitement is building.” But back to titles.)

I quoted David Lodge last week about names and his The Art of Fiction book has plenty to say about titles too, including this:

The title of a novel is part of the text – the first part of it, in fact, that we encounter – and therefore has considerable power to attract and condition the reader’s attention. The titles of the earliest English novels were invariably the names of the central characters, Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, Clarissa. Fiction was modelling itself on, and sometimes disguising itself as, biography and autobiography. Later novelists realized that titles could indicate a theme (Sense and Sensibility), suggest an intriguing mystery (The Woman in White),or promise a certain kind of setting and atmosphere (Wuthering Heights). At some point in the nineteenth century they began to hitch their stories to resonant literary quotations (Far From the Madding Crowd), a practice that persists throughout the twentieth (Where Angels Fear To Tread, A Handful of Dust, For Whom the Bell Tolls), though it is now perhaps regarded as a little corny.

There’s a wit to the best titles, I think. The sitcom Friends famously eschewed ‘proper’ titles and instead tried to name episodes the way that a viewer would, hence: “The One Where Everybody Finds Out”. Veronica Mars stole a title I have been longing to use since the first day I heard of the computer game Resident Evil: I wanted to and the show Mars did have a story called President Evil.

Veronica Mars had gorgeous episode titles like The Quick and the Wed or Hi, Infidelity that work before you know the story and even if you don’t know the series. But then it also had titles that earned attention. The second-season finale is called Not Pictured and it’s when you know why that it becomes this huge thing. That’s an earned title rather than a great pun, it’s a encapsulation of the story instead of an advertising line. I love that title.

But I do also love witty ones. I am a sucker for a great title and I wanted to bring you my favourite. I’m afraid I rejected all Shakespeare – though he did invent the numbered sequel, give him that – and I ran through all my favourite novelists, all my favourite writers of all descriptions. Found a million titles.

And I think this is the best. There was a 1970s detective series called Banacek – it was a locked-room kind of mystery, very much Jonathan Creek but years earlier and without the wit – and in one episode there a famous crucifix was stolen from a church under the most mysterious circumstances. It was stolen right in front of people who did not see it go and who could not find it afterwards.

The episode was called:

No Sign of the Cross.



Naming names

I read the starts of two friends’ novels this week.


That sounds like I chucked them aside, couldn’t be bothered to finish them. So far both friends only have the starts of their novels. Normally I wouldn’t read anything until it was complete but there were special circumstances. One was being readied for an agent who has a publisher waiting to see it – and his publisher is in for a treat, I can now tell you – and the other was at a much earlier stage but I’m working with the writer generally and we’d talked about it, I wanted to see it. If she’d had the rest of the novel, I’d be reading that now and pointing you at Amazon for it.

But while we wait for both of these books to be finished, I want to figure out something that happens to be in both of them. It’s actually in every novel: it’s about the names we give characters. It was just noticeable in these two because hers had a character I am sure is named after two famous ones and I’m dying for her to reveal I’m right. And his unfortunately had a name that might be a problem.

I can’t tell you the name but, to give you an idea of the issue, it was like a more sensible version of Cormoran Strike. Cormoran is the lead character in JK Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling (a rather excellent crime novel she’s written under the name of Robert Galbraith. Don’t get me started on pseudonyms. I was once paid extra by a newspaper to make up a couple of bylines so that it didn’t look like I was the sole writer on a supplement project. One of the ones I picked was Dennis Price. That’s the ‘real’ name of the photographer character in Lou Grant, the guy usually called Animal. Nobody would get that. Except Dennis Price, an uncle of my wife Angela’s. I’ve never told him the truth.)


This guy’s novel features a character who has a much more real-world and believable name than Cormoran Strike. You read his and accept it unthinkingly whereas with Cormoran you go through the stages The Simpsons described for The Beatles’ name.

PRINCIPLE SKINNER: We need a name that’s witty at first, but that seems less funny each time you hear it.

There are reasons why Cormoran Strike is called that and I particularly like that Rowling only suggests the reasons quite far into the book. Explaining it directly, explaining it immediately would be like defending it and that would somehow be calling out that it is an author’s contrivance instead of a real character’s – a real person’s – name. My guy doesn’t need to suggest or explain, his character name is just effective and believable. But it’s close enough to Rowling’s that I had to tell him.

It’s touch-and-go. I talked about it with him and though he sees the problem, though he’s looking at changing it, I wouldn’t be overwhelmingly surprised if he decides to stick with his first choice. You’d think that a name is a name, that one is as good as another, that a swift search-and-replace in the word processor makes it easy to change a name. But if you do think that, you also won’t be surprised that I’ve read a lot of manuscripts and scripts where the writer has searched-and-replaced but you can tell. I’ll never tell you who, but one writer obviously changed the name Bill to something else, which gave rise to this at the start of a chapter:

“Dick, please.”

I’ve had to change names for legal reasons or because, like this guy with the Rowling-ish name, I’ve spotted or been told something is too close to something else. It’s so hard to get a reader into a story that you can’t afford to throw them out again and if I had a character named James Bond, it wouldn’t go by unnoticed. But changing names is wrenching and I love that I can show you this quote from David Lodge who wrote in The Art of Fiction that:

The invention of the word processor has made it easy to change the name of a character at a late stage of composition, just by touching a few keys, but I would have a strong resistance to doing that to any but the most minor character in my fiction. One may hesitate and agonize about the choice of a name, but once made, it becomes inseparable from the character, and to question it seems to throw the whole project en abime, as the deconstructionists say.

I read Lodge’s book twenty years ago but mise en abime didn’t make it into my ideolect: if it’s new to you too, it means sent into the abyss. But while I’ve got you with the page open in Lodge’s book, take a squint at this next bit:

I was made acutely aware of this in the process of writing Nice Work.

This novel concerns the relationship between the managing director of an engineering company and a young academic who is obliged to “shadow” him… it is generally a… straightforwardly realistic novel and in naming the characters I was looking for names that would seem “natural” enough to mask their symbolic appropriateness. I named the man Vic Wilcox to suggest, beneath the ordinariness and Englishness of the name, a rather aggressive, even coarse masculinity (by association with victor, will and cock), and I soon settled on Penrose for the surname of my heroine for its contrasting connotations of literature and beauty (pen and rose). I hesitated for some time, however, about the choice of her first name, vacillating between Rachel, Rebecca and Roberta, and I remember that this held up progress on Chapter Two considerably, because I couldn’t imaginatively inhabit this character until her name was fixed.

Eventually I discovered in a dictionary of names that Robin or Robyn is sometimes used as a familiar form of Roberta. An androgynous name seemed highly appropriate to my feminist and assertive heroine, and immediately suggested a new twist to the plot: Wilcox would be expecting a male Robin to turn up at his factory.

Wirrn IsleI’ve had the same concerns and the same delays but I’ve never delved so finely. I think I tend toward the more natural names and avoid connotations and allegories and deeper meanings – though listeners to my Doctor Who: Wirrn Isle didn’t like my character names Toasty and Iron, absolutely perfect though they were – but I also find it hard to change names. Even between projects. I must’ve written a good dozen scripts before I started getting anywhere, I could well believe I’d done twenty if you wanted to insist, and a very early one featured a woman called Susan Hare. I liked that name so much that in the next script, stuck for a new name, I borrowed it. And did so again a few years later. And at least once more.

As it happens, poor Susan has never been in a script that got made or I’d have to stop doing this. But it tickled me one day to realise that, with some effort, you could actually link every one of these scripts and have every one of those scripts be about the same woman. Not perfectly, I’m relieved to say her character was different in each, but chronologically. The child Susan Hare could have become that teenage Susan Hare who could have just about become that adult Susan Hare. It got so I spent a ferociously long time thinking about what would make that child turn out that way. I started sketching out other scripts that might fill in the gaps. If I ever do The Susan Hare Chronicles, that’s where it started.

More often, I am vividly clear on the character but I imagine I’m not fussed about the name. I know changing it later will be a wrench, I know that I get very connected with the names, but at the point of creation, I have extremely often just looked up at the bookshelves next to me and combined a couple of different author names. Consequently I’ve had characters named Beiderbecke a bit. Also some Woodwards and Bernsteins. Just between us – please don’t tell anyone else – I am quite a bit chuffed that this looking-up-at-bookshelves now means I often risking naming characters Gallagher.

There’s never a connection between me or those other authors and the characters, I’m never trying to name someone after someone. That Wirrn Isle also featured a woman named Veronica Buchman and she was named after the fictional characters Veronica Mars and Mad About You’s Jamie Buchman. (I do love the name Veronica Mars with its mix of old-fashioned forename and unusual surname. Until a character in that TV show pointed out that Veronica Mars drives a Saturn car and lives in a town called Neptune, I hadn’t even connected Mars with the planet. “Move Uranus,” she tells that character. “Mercury’s rising.”)

I do have an Izzy somewhere, in something, I’ve gone blank now, and she was named after a BBC Radio producer just because I liked her name. I liked her too, but I really liked her name. Otherwise, I can only think of one single time I’ve named a character after someone: there is a Jyoti Cutler in my latest Doctor Who, Scavenger, and she is named after Jyoti Patel. She’s the script editor who took a chance and commissioned me to write for Crossroads. I doubt she even remembers me, but I am grateful and I liked her a lot. But I also just really liked her name or I wouldn’t have used it.

I mean, much as I like you, I’m not going to use your name in a script or a book. Your name is yours: it means you to me. I loathe these contests where the winner gets a character named after them, usually in a crime novel, usually a character who gets murdered early on. Couldn’t do it.

Because names are that important to me. You may have gathered that.

Just don’t get me started on titles.



The Gravity of the situation in Doctor Who: Scavenger

Just by the way, apparently this is the 300th Self Distract blog. Let us raise a mug of tea.

Clink. Good to be with you.

Doctor Who Scavenger coverNow, here’s the thing. My latest Doctor Who radio drama came out last Friday and it’s doing rather well. I’m so pleased with how Doctor Who: Scavenger sounds and, if you don’t mind my saying so, I think it really perfectly caps off the latest trilogy of adventures for the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and Flip (Lisa Greenwood). But if I phoned up Big Finish today and pitched exactly that same idea, they would reject it.

Of course they would: we’ve just done it.

But I mean if there were no Scavenger, if I’d done something else for this month’s release and I now pitched Scavenger, I doubt that it would have a chance. Because between my writing this and it being produced last year, the film Gravity came out. You may have heard of that one. It’s not the same story but both it and my Who are set mostly in Earth orbit where space junk – dead satellites, broken bits of equipment, accidental litter – is the threat. Gravity has this great tension because the junk is orbiting so you know it’s coming back around soon. In my Doctor Who, there’s certainly plenty of that but my space junk isn’t accidentally whipping around the planet, it’s hunting you.

There really is an astonishing, frightening amount of junk in LEO (Low Earth Orbit). NASA and others track everything above a certain tiny size and it’s an astonishing number. For Doctor Who, I just wondered whether amongst 12,000 bits of broken human technology, there might be one working alien bit.

I learnt all this about space junk a couple of years ago and my first thought was that we finally manage to get into space and we drop litter there. I can’t tell you the idea that started me off on this Doctor Who because it’s there in the story, it is an action set-piece and I think Big Finish and director Nicholas Briggs have pulled it off deliciously well. But alongside realising what the Doctor would do with space junk, I was also drawn to this litter idea. That’s what makes it Doctor Who to me: not that it’s got alien technology, not that it has the TARDIS in low Earth orbit, but that it’s about something we have done. What happens in Scavenger is our fault.

Only, you will go pale when you find out what we’ve really done and how much we’ve really done it. There’s a thing called the Kessler Syndrome that I refer to in Scavenger. (Just as an aside, I could not use Kessler as a name of a main character: I wanted to, nobody would’ve wanted to stop me and there are plenty of other real-world references but to me, Kessler will always be Sturmbannführer Kessler from the wonderful BBC drama Secret Army and its eponymous sequel.)

Anyway, the real-life Kessler syndrome just says that at some point, right, we will have so much space junk that we won’t be able to launch anything new. We won’t be able to get a spacecraft into orbit because there will be all this stuff smashing into it. As you may now know from Gravity or as you may well already have known, the tiniest speck of junk is an enormous problem because of the speed it reaches in orbit. A golfball-sized bit of a dead satellite would effortlessly put a hole through a rocket. So if we reach this Kessler point, we will have finally learnt how to leave the planet Earth – and we won’t be able to. Millions of years of yearning for the stars, and we will have shut ourselves off from them forever because we don’t pick up our trash.

There’s just one more thing.

We’ve already reached the Kessler point.

It’s not true everywhere, in every part of orbit, and there are people arguing that we’re not there yet anyway. They agree we’re close, which is scary enough. But there is a strong argument that we have already reached this point in certain orbits.

That’s when I went pale. I’d been having such a good time up to then: researching away, learning little nuggets like the International Space Station’s pizza box. (The ISS can’t stay in one orbit because periodically it would get smashed up by space junk. So it moves. Not very far, but it moves sometimes to get out of the way. And the block of space it can shuffle about in is quite narrow in one direction, broad in another. It’s a block of space in the shape of a pizza box. I love little unexpected details like that. You’re always telling stories about people more than you ever are about technical details, yet the reality the correct detail adds is gorgeous. Doctor Who script editor Alan Barnes said to me about a completely different part of Scavenger that I had done the research, I shouldn’t be afraid “to show people your library card”.)

Now, Donald J. Kessler thought of this syndrome in 1978, when it seemed like some far-off possibility. Given that it’s thirty-six years since he said that, you’d reckon it was a fair bet that there would be at least a couple of dramas involving the issue. But for them to happen in the same few months, what are the odds?

Unexpectedly high.

This isn’t something that you can figure out with a ready reckoner, there are no statistics you can analyse for drama, it just seems that ideas have their time. Robert Heinlein says in one of my favourite books, The Door Into Summer, that: “When railroading time comes you can railroad—but not before.”

I have got to tidy up my office. I just had a search through my shelves for a book I know has an anecdote you’d like, but it ain’t there. Did you borrow it? And are you the one who’s still got my Veronica Mars season 1 DVDs? I must like you a lot. But, anyway, the paraphrased anecdote goes thisaway. Two writers got a meeting at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and pitched a story to the producers who said they loved it so much that they were airing it tomorrow night. I actually think that was a good thing: maybe they should’ve checked their TV Guide, but they’d come up with an identical story so that meant they’d got the series right. That’s harder than it sounds so I’d have taken this as a good thing and I’d have invited them back to pitch other ideas. That’s exactly what the producers did and that’s exactly why.

Okay, same anecdote but this time not paraphrased and about me instead of Star Trek writers whose names I can’t find in this book I really fancied re-reading. I just hope you’re enjoying it. I was asked once to pitch a Doctor Who story at short notice and I had a very good evening coming up with something I loved. That same editor, Alan Barnes, sounded ashen in his email the next day: I’d proposed something that was near-as-dammit the same as the story that was being recorded in studio that day. (We figured out something else and it became Doctor Who: Spaceport Fear.)

Three weeks ago I thought of something I burn to write. Jotted down the key points, found a whacky title, emailed it in – and got back a reply within seconds saying something like “we love this idea so much that we sent it back in time thirteen years and made it then”. I still burn to write it, but the bones of the story were the same as an old Big Finish tale. And my wacky title was only about a syllable different from the one they’d used then.

You’re dealing with finite possibilities even in Doctor Who. The TARDIS can go anywhere and it can go anywhen, you can have high comedy or bitter personal tragedy. Yet still you’re using the Doctor and a companion or three and you’re putting them in a setting. You get a hopefully great idea and you start building constraints for yourself just in order to tell the story instead of having some random cacophony. So as disappointed as I was with that latest wacky idea being already done, I’m not surprised.

It happens and it’s normal, you just wouldn’t aim to do something that had already been done. So I wouldn’t aim today to write a story that in any way touched on the same issues or had the same setting as Gravity. I’m so pleased with how well Doctor Who: Scavenger turned out that I am beyond relieved that it happened this way around, that we made it before knowing about Gravity.

Still, I know where my next Doctor Who will be set and you bet your life I’m scouring through IMDb’s Films In Production section.