It’s bigger than it seems on the outside

Look, I’d want to talk with you about this anyway, simply because it makes me so happy. You’ve seen the video on YouTube and television news of a young child who explodes with excitement that: “The new Doctor Who is a girl!”

The only difference between me and that child is that I said “Doctor”, not “Doctor Who”. And “woman”, not “girl”.

The thing is, I hadn’t realised just how very much I wanted the next Doctor to be a woman until BBC aired that utterly gorgeous one-minute video revealing Jodie Whittaker. And thinking about it a lot since then, I realise that the really key single reason for how much I wanted it was that it was now or never.

Of course it matters that we get a superb actor, as we have with Jodie Whittaker, and of course that should be all that matters. But it isn’t all that matters and I also realised that I would’ve been disappointed with any man. Apparently there are people who are disappointed that it was any woman, but there’s no accounting for folk.

Only, yes, I am a feminist and I do think it is ferociously wrong how few women are in drama – but I’ve always felt that more about the writing than the acting. Yes, no question: I write strong roles for women in my scripts both because it’s right and because so few people do that you are guaranteed to get truly brilliant actors.

Doctor Who, the series, has been just plain wrong in the ridiculously tiny number of women writers it’s had. I do think the show is amongst the very hardest to write so naturally I think the pot of people who can do it will be smaller than for other shows, but there’s no conceivable reason that the proportion of women in that could be as teeny as it has been.

I have not thought it wrong that the Doctor hasn’t been a woman before.

Follow. Alongside the praise the show has got for doing this, it has also got criticism for not doing it before – and that’s the bit I disagree with.

I think people tend to consciously or unconsciously see the Doctor as being a role in the same way that James Bond, Miss Marple, Hamlet and others are. It’s a role that many or even any actor can take on.


This isn’t about the quality of the actor and it isn’t even really about their gender, it’s about the character. The Doctor is not 14 different actors – don’t ask why Whittaker is called the 13th – who happen to be playing the same role. The Doctor is one character.

Think about soaps and the way they will re-cast a role and pretend nothing’s happened. Michelle coming back to EastEnders decades after she left. I’m struggling for another example but there was one in Corrie where a young man has been played by three or four young men. It’s that kind of thing. You are supposed to accept the new face and believe that it’s the same character.

It is the same with the Doctor, except that no new actor tries to completely mimic their predecessor. And then, worryingly, they change into clothes that they’re going to wear for the next several years.

But Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is the same character who used to wear that long scarf. He is the same character who first tried to stop Ian and Barbara from entering what looked like a police box in the 1960s. Actually, Peter Capaldi referred to this in a sweet chat with young fans that I can’t find on YouTube again. He spoke of his predecessors and said with total sincerity that if you look in his own face, you can see the Doctor’s previous selves.

And then in Jodie Whittaker’s announcement press release she said that one thing about taking on the role is that: “It means remembering everyone I used to be”.

So the Doctor is the Doctor is the Doctor. That doesn’t explain why she wasn’t a woman before. But go back to that soaps analogy. Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow is getting on a bit, if they wanted his character to continue they could perhaps recast the part. They would recast it as a man again because it’s the same character, but imagine that they didn’t. Imagine they cast a woman.

A woman taking over Ken Barlow’s role could be done – I don’t think it’s an acting problem at all – but it would have to be done with the most enormous storyline. Barlow would be transgender, it would run for months or more, it would be a gigantic deal within the storyline of the series.

In comparison, all that’s going to happen in Doctor Who is that Peter Capaldi will glow and out of the flame will step Jodie Whittaker. That’s it. On with the show, on with the character.

I think that’s fantastic. The Doctor is a woman, so what? Star Wars: The Force Awakens made me squeeze my cinema seat’s arm rest constantly because it has a lead woman who isn’t allowed to lead for one minute without a male character telling us it’s fine. The film expects us to be amazed alongside the male characters that this Rey is a pilot, for instance. It’s insulting to women, it’s insulting to everyone. I take it personally: it was insulting to me.

Doctor Who won’t do that, you can be sure, and Doctor Who can go straight into new stories without fuss because actually it has spent around five years setting this up.

I think it’s about five years. I’m trying to remember what there was in the fiftieth anniversary special around four years ago but there was something. I definitely remember another Steven Moffat episode where some random Time Lord regenerated into a woman. And of course for a couple of years we’ve had Michelle Gomez as Missy, a truly glorious incarnation of the Master. Funny and likeable and frightening.

Without her, then, and without the small touches through the last few years and, okay, without some pretty heavy-handed hinting in the last series, the change of gender has been made an organic part of the series.

If all of this had not been done, if the show had just decided on a whim to cast a woman, well, I’d probably still be pleased but then it would’ve felt like a gimmick. The show has been accused of doing this because it’s politically the right moment, because the BBC is under pressure about diversity, and if it were just a single casting decision, maybe that would’ve been true or at least partly true.

Instead, this has been worked on for perhaps five years. It has been created in the writing for perhaps half a decade.

That effort, that continued writing effort and talent, seems to me to be being ignored and it seems to me to be worthy of huge praise.

It was now or never and I am ecstatic that it was now. I don’t fully understand why I’m exactly this excited because I don’t know how the Doctor being a woman is going to change the show since this is literally the same character it always was. Each new actor brings something else and the tone of the show changes each time yet somehow this one being a woman makes the show tingle with new energy.

One more thing, just since it’s you. I was trying to explain to a guy why I was so pleased and I ended up focusing on a little half-smile, half-grin that Whittaker gives just after she’s been revealed. It’s when the Doctor sees her TARDIS and somehow it just promises adventure to me.

That’s true, but what I’ll tell you that I didn’t tell the guy is that I also got a ridiculous amount of pleasure writing the words “her TARDIS”.

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.

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.