Robert Holmes (1985)

Robert Holmes was one of the most important contributors to the original ‘Doctor Who’, and if he was still around today he’d probably still be writing the occasional episode.This interview is from an old DWM.  The Autons and the Sontarans were among his most famous creations, and both have been resurrected in the modern version of the show.

He’s probably best remembered for his time as script editor in the mid 1970’s, covering some of the most popular Tom Baker stories, and he wrote or  co-write (sometimes uncredited, sometimes under a pseudonym) stories such as ‘The Ark in Space’, ‘The Sunmakers’ and ‘The Deadly Assassin’.

In fact, in the recent DWM poll to find the most popular episodes of all time, he wrote three of the top ten: ‘The Caves of Androzani’ (number 1), ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ (number 4) and ‘Pyramids of Mars’ (number 7). He was also script editor for ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ (number 3) and ‘The Robots of Death’ (number 9). Not bad going 🙂

Even though I’ve cut parts out, it’s still a long interview, so I’m going to split it over two posts. Part 2 will be up in the next few days, there may be something else in-between. Anyway, enjoy:

“I sent ‘The Krotons’ in, not as a ‘Doctor Who’ story but I sent it to the drama department as a story called ‘The Space Trap’, for inclusion in a series they were doing of four-part science-fiction thrillers, because I thought it was a suitable idea. Then I got a letter back from Shaun Sutton, the Head of Serials at the time, saying that they had decided to discontinue this series and he’d passed the idea on to ‘Doctor Who’. And I never heard any more about it. Three years passed and we were moving house and when I was clearing out my desk I came across the thing and thought ‘Well that’s not too bad’, so I rehashed it specifically for ‘Doctor Who’ and sent it in again. Terrance Dicks was script-editor by then and he commissioned it.

“(The Space Pirates) was originally intended as a four-part story, but at the last minute became a six-parter when one of their other six-parters fell through, so I went back and reworked some of it. I remember that the germ, that got me going on it, was this odd captain type chap in his battered space vessel who, every time it went wrong, kicked it or hit it was a beer bottle and got a result. I can’t remember too much about it, but my wife insists it is better than any of the others I’ve done.

“The cast (of Carnival of Monsters) never met! I can’t remember the reason, but I was asked to make it cheap – though I was told afterwards that it worked out quite expensive. So I decided that the way to write it was to do it in two sections: the onboard ship section and the people outside the machine. Only the Doctor and Jo passed in between. They shot that with the shipboard stuff done in the first session in the studio, and the outside recording two weeks later. It was quite a different and amusing idea to have this peepshow – my favourite bit was when the Doctor got out of the TARIS at the beginning and started talking to the chickens!

“I had been a script editor on other programmes about three times – I must have done probably about seven years editing in the last twenty-five years – I edited ‘Shoestring’ and ‘Knight Errant’, and they even asked me to edit ‘Blake’s Seven’ later. So I was quite used to the idea of script editing and I had written for ‘Doctor Who’ for some time, and had developed ideas on how I would like the show to change. Basically I thought it was over cluttered with characters – all the UNIT people – and I wanted to get it back into space because it had been stuck on Earth for such a long time. I also wanted to toughen it, try to make it more adult – to widen the audience and incorporate the mums and dads. I had Mary Whitehouse and Shirley Summerfield and ‘great’ people like that raising questions in the House of Lords when ‘Terror of the Autons’ was done a few years previously, so I think that was indicative of the way my mind worked anyway! I don’t think fantasy violence is at all damaging to children, and as I explained to Jean Rook and everybody else, if they think they have a sensitive child then don’t let it watch these programmes. It’s not up to television to cater for the minority of kids who might be influenced.

“I trailed Terrance Dicks for about three shows, including ‘Death to the Daleks’ and ‘The Monster of Peladon’. What that really meant was that as I worked on these shows, Terrance came in twice a week, poked his head round the door and asked ‘How are you doing? The aspirins are in the top right-hand draw!’ and cleared off again! And then I got him to write ‘Robot’ as he claimed it was traditional for a departing script editor to write the first episode of the next season! Good excuse, wasn’t it?

“(Season 12’s stories) were entirely ours. As I said, I got Terrance to do the first one, and then I asked John Lucarotti to write the next one, ‘The Ark in Space’. He was living on a boat in Corsica at the time and there was a postal dispute so the scripts came in – after I’d outlined the sort of story we wanted – a bit later than expected. When the second episode came in, we could see it was veering off the course that we wanted but it was too late to do anything about it. Then when the last bit came in, Philip (Hinchcliffe) said ‘We can’t use this thing – we’ve eighteen days to get it right’. That was just before the director, Rodney Bennett, arrived. So I took it home and totally rewrote it. It had my name on because I totally rewrote it. Wherever possible, though, I tried to keep the original writer’s names on the credits – unless it was 100% me. If not, as with ‘The Brain of Morbius’, we used pseudonyms.

“A similar thing happened with ‘Pyramids of Mars’, again a total rewrite. I commissioned Lewis Grieffer – I knew him from old and that he had an interest in mythology. He had written some science fiction before for ITV, but then he had to go into hospital and then had to go to be a television chairman in Tel Aviv or something. Anyway, the scripts arrived late and again we couldn’t get him to do rewrites quickly enough, not all the way from Tel Aviv, in the style we were looking for! I also got the impression that poor old Lewis had never actually got to see ‘Doctor Who’ because it was quite different from the series’ pattern and the Doctor’s character was odd and everything. So, I wanted the mythology and I wanted a re-run of ‘Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb’, or one of those, so I had to rewrite it. He didn’t even give me the story basis of Egyptian mythology – I got all that from a book! His story veered all over the place and wasn’t anything to do with Egyptian mythology. I wanted Horus, Sutekh etc. ‘Pyramids of Mars’ was, I think, his original title – he was very into pyramids.

“It was Philip (Hinchcliffe)’s idea to do ‘The Deadly Assassin’ and we decided I should write it. He said it would be good to explore this place we’ve never been to – home of the Time Lords. Lis Sladen’s contract was up and we decided to see if we could do a story for the Doctor without a companion, just as a rest. It was also the first story, if you discount the Master, that we struck the ‘received law’ that every ‘Doctor Who’ story had to have a monster. There were no monsters and ‘The Deadly Assassin’ was very popular. It aroused a lot of anger among the traditionalists, but that’s alright.”

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