Christopher H. Bidmead (1988)

Here’s an old DWM interview with Christopher H. Bidmead, in which he talks about his brief time on the show, which covered the changeover from Tom Baker to Peter Davison:

“Robert Banks Stewart was talking to John Nathan-Turner, who was looking for a script editor. Bob mentioned my name as a writer he’d enjoyed working with, but what he didn’t know was that in the interim I’d been writing a lot of scientific and technical stuff, dealing with computers and gadgetry, which I thought equipped me very well for ‘Doctor Who’.

“I then had to confess to John and Barry Letts that I didn’t actually want to do ‘Doctor Who’, as it had got very silly and I hated the show. They agreed with me – Barry wanted to go back to earlier principals and to find a way of familiarising children with the ways of science. You can understand how deeply that idea had been subverted.

“Two things were going wrong. One was the pantomime element, and the other was the element of magic which had come in. Magic is entirely contrary to science and to my mind the Doctor’s view of the world is that he looks at a problem objectively and then tries to apply laws derived from experience to reach a scientific solution.

“We had David Fisher’s story (The Leisure Hive), which had been commissioned by John before I joined and that was the only one of the shelf that we were committed to do. But it had been commissioned before we hammered out the new principles of scientific integrity, and it did contain a lot of silliness. This wasn’t David’s fault – he was picking up on the previous season. So we had to do a great deal of rewriting.

“I then turned to the production heads and said ‘Can we have the file index on all our writers and I’ll get busy ringing them all up and talking to them’. They said ‘What file index?’ The horrific thing was that we’d inherited no list of writers at all. And of course I didn’t actually want to use the writers from the previous season, so I scraped around in the back of my memory, after first approaching writers of the calibre of Nigel Kneale. The last thing they wante to do was our show.

“The rules we established in that first year were undoubtedly good for the series. It’s very hard if you’re trying to write for a totally unpredictable fantasy situation where anything¬† goes. The idea was that the eccentric and unpredictable Doctor would arrive at a real planet which had real rules and a real economy and a real history, however bizarre. It was all to be rational and understandable, the only element of fantasy being the Doctor himself. We had to persuade Tom Baker that the ad-libbing which he felt was so necessary to fill in the script was no longer needed – something he didn’t take to.

“State of Decay had been coming and going for some time and poor old Terrance Dicks had been messed around from pillar to post over the thing. The premise was based on something which I greatly disliked in ‘Doctor Who’ – borrowed plots. I absolutely loathed riding on the backs of other people’s stories, that sort of ‘nudge, nudge, do you recognise this?’ For me, ‘Doctor Who’ was entirely unique.

“That script started off very much as a rip-off of the standard Hammer vampire story. I was interested in injecting more detail into it and there was a great deal of creative tension between myself and Terrance over that. It was very hard to argue with a guy who had much more experience, but argue I did, and I think the result was a great improvement. I got him to make all the vampires scientists, and I brought all that stuff about the conflict between science and superstition into it.

“Peter Moffatt and I came to blows, because I was still working on the script after he joined – I tried to have some of the gothic nature of the sets removed, because I found it most unbelievable that you went to this alien planet and you found yourself on the set of a Hammer movie. It was still early days, you see, and people hadn’t quite grasped what we were trying to do.

“What we did with Adric, which may have been a mistake in practical terms, but which I still think is a good idea, was that we invented the character as a whole, rounded entity and then cast it. Other shows often work the other way around. What drew us to Matthew, although he wasn’t wholly the character we designed, was his tremendous enthusiasm as a real fan of the show, coupled with his interesting and unusual face.

“I didn’t have any responsibility for deciding on companions. John Nathan-Turner simply came and told me that Nyssa is to be a companion, and another new girl called Tegan Jovanka will join. I invented much of Adric with John. Sarah Sutton was a super actress and Janet Fielding was such a strong personality, she created much of it herself. Personally I feel we didn’t give her a good chance and we wated her, but she became very popular.

“I remember reading a Chistopher Priest book and thinking ‘This is absolutely wizard’. I spoke to Chris, and I was very impressed with his creativity and his business-like approach. I put it to John that we commission Chris, bearing in mind that Chris was too distinguished a writer to have to bulldoze his story into shape. Chris and I would work closely together to produce the final draft, and it was on this basis that we went ahead. I can’t exactly remember what went wrong. The first draft of ‘Sealed Orders’ was a very good story, but showed lack of TV experience. I think I made the mistake of over-estimating the amount of time I’d have to work side by side with Chris, because I’d underestimated the time the rest of the show took to get going.

“I found Johnny Byrne by going back to an old telephone list of mine from the early Seventies. I’d met him in a pub, where he claimed to be a poet. When I tracked him down, I found I wasn’t finding someone new to TV, but getting someone who at that stage had considerably more experience than myself. The story of ‘The Keeper of Traken’ shows the writing process very well. Johnny came to us with a stimulating and interesting idea which he turned into a draft s cript and then announced he was going off on holiday. John and I had hammered out a principle that by the time a director arrived, the script must be what we called director-proof – we didn’t want loose ends, because inevitably a director would latch onto these and alter the script.

“The problem with ‘The Keeper of Traken’ was that Johnny said ‘Here’s your script, I’m off to Greece’ – a way of working I now greatly understand – and left the story in need of tightening up. In the course of doing this, I found many things which I thought could be made better, so I put of lot of input in it, and largely re-wrote it. Mind you, Johnny had given me carte blanche to do so, but it would have been difficult if he hadn’t.

“The premise of ‘Doctor Who’ is so exciting and it seemed to me that the TARDIS was particularly exciting. I wanted to take it apart and understand how it worked. In the course of doing so, you came across story ideas by the handful. That ‘unique to ‘Doctor Who’ thing was one of the most appealing things about ‘Logopolis’. Now, I accept the Douglas Adams criticism that my high seriousness approach led to ‘cod’ scenes like the cited one in ‘Logopolis’ where the Master broadcasts to the universe. My approach was subject to the odd ‘cod’ idea and shortage of budget, but I still stick by it.

“With ‘Castrovalva’, it was super to start off a new Doctor. It was written at short notice because another script had fallen through, and it was quite a slow burn. They weren’t quite sure how Davison was going to work out and I was asked to write the script accordingly. I realised that the Doctor had to be the central part of it, but at this vulnerable stage I saw him being placed in a box – making him the focus of interest. The unstable regeneration was a wonderful, inherited idea and it was logical to go on exploring the TARDIS. I poured over an Escher book for a long time but the ‘Castrovalva’ print is not typical of his work.

“Eric Saward phoned me up and asked me to do ‘Frontios’. They wanted the monster element, which was a struggle because I always hated ‘Doctor Who’ monsters – partly because they tend to look cheap and mainly because they are so limited on dialogue. Dialogue is so important in a low budget show – it creates the whole effect. Part of the complex idea behind ‘Frontios’ again involved the TARDIS. If you’ve got a story about gravity and things being sucke through the Earth, then why not push the thing a bit further and actually break the TARDIS up? I wanted the Doctor to be no safer than these poor last vestiges of humanity. I wrote it at the time of the Beirut crisis and I was influenced by that.

“The Tractators were based on woodlice – my old flat was infested with them and I used to watch them very closely. I was told we had no filming, which was an exciting constraint. As for characters, I found Turlough very interesting – he was an extraordinary actor and Plantagenet I rationalised by saying that one of the things they were carrying over was their culture. Plantagenet as a name had echoes of history.

“They had a script (for season 23) which I have just finished re-working into four episodes, but whether they will use it I can’t say. One thing, though, is that it’s all new plot-wise – I don’t like digging up old characters who I think have generally served their time.”

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2 Responses to “Christopher H. Bidmead (1988)”

  1. Shakira Habeeb Says:

    You bet Sarah Sutton’s a great actress!! Anyone who says she can’t act and looks old can suck it!!

  2. bidmead Says:

    I’m not sure of the provenance of this “interview”. I can’t say I remember it, but that’s ok — it was a long time ago. What I can say is that although it expresses more-or-less the ideas I remember having at the time, it certainly isn’t a verbatim account. I’d never, for example, use syntax like “getting someone who at that stage had considerably more experience than myself”. Someone’s done a rewrite job on this. Just saying…

    ChB

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