Robert Holmes (1980’s)

Here’s another set of quotes from Robert Holmes, one of ‘Doctor Who’s most popular script editors and writers. He talks about being called a clot by the Head of Series and Serials, about not wanting to use the Daleks, and about the ‘intentional’ continuity problems of ‘The Two Doctors’.

On ‘Spearhead From Space’

It was about the time plastic was coming in, in a really big way – it was everywhere. As there was so much of the stuff around, I thought it would be effective to have an alien force that inhabited and used it. ‘Doomwatch’ did a plastic scare story at exactly the same time, so it was a kind of current issue. The Nestene itself I thought of as a plasticky, swirling mass, a glob of pure instinct which spawns the Autons. The Autons come from the word autonomous, because although they were formed from the Nestene element, they weren’t a part of the host form. I started the show with a swarm of meteorites landing, because in ‘Doctor Who’ it’s very rare to actually see the alien land. As this was to be a season set on Earth, I thought it would be a good grab to open it with.

On ‘Terror of the Autons’

I was sitting opposite Ronnie Marsh, the then Head of Serials, across acre of polished maple. He started telling me about the guidelines he felt the programme should follow. ‘Two or three seasons ago,’ he said, ‘we had some clot who wrote the most dreadful script. It had faceless policemen in it and plastic armchairs that went about swallowing people. I might tell you, there were questions in the House. Mrs. Whitehouse said we were turning the nation’s children into bed-wetters’. Could it be that he was referring to my ‘Terror of the Autons’? ‘Tut, tut’, I muttered, feeling the job slipping away. ‘how awfully irresponsible’.

The elements in the story all came from plastic again. At the time there was a soap powder distributing plastic daffodils outside supermarkets, and I remembered all the warnings about children not being allowed near plastic bags. Then it all came together – I suddenly realised that all you need is a four-inch square of clingfilm to suffocate someone, and the spitting daffodils followed on. As for the doll and the armchair, well, there were some Danish troll dolls on the gimmick market at the time and I thought they were horrible, so I used that idea. Also, those plastic inflatable armchairs were all the rage, which is why I wrote in McDermott – specifically to kill him off in that chair!

On ‘Carnival of Monsters’

I was particularly fond of the ending, where the Master finally gets to finish his book! Meanwhile, Vorg and Shirna were a kind of in-joke on the acting profession – they’d been in theatrical digs all over the galaxy, and were deliberately very tacky. I thought it added depth to it. That was the one where I created a little anecdote about a place called Metebelis 3 – which they then went on to use!

On ‘The Time Warrior’

They wanted to do a historical, which they hadn’t attempted for some time. Now, I hate ‘Doctor Who’ in the history mode, because I think it’s too whimsy and twee. So I compromised and offered them a story mixing science fiction with a kind of pseudo-history. The Sontarans came after I’d been reading some heavy tome on war – it was terribly Teutonic and all about the Fatherland and so on. I saw the cloned Sontarans gaining sustenance from their shops wherein they are monitored to make sure they don’t spend too much time on the recharding. If they do, I saw a kind of umbilical regression surging down to kill them.

The bifurcated hand was my mistake – it was very difficult for the actor to pull out his laser or whatever. Other stuff in that script was Professior Ruebish, a favourite character of mine, because I like zany professors and that wonderful sexist line about Sarah, where Linx says she is useless because her thorax shows her to be the female of the species! The name Irongron was inspirted from the Danish names of warriors, while Bloodaxe was just hokey ‘Robin Hood’ style – you know, terribly butch men living in castles.

On ‘Genesis of the Daleks’

I said ‘Unless somebody can come up with something different, I’m not doing a Dalek story’. A lot of pressure was put on me to change my mind. Then Barry came up with the idea of calling it ‘Genesis’ and having this Davros character who had actually invented the Daleks in his own image. This gave the story some scope and we could have some acting going on. I’d looked at the viewing graphs for the Daleks, and saw that every time they were brought back they were popular in week one, as a lot of people had perhaps never seen them before, and then the graph would go straight down, because they were boring.

On ‘The Android Invasion’

I said to Terry Nation ‘Let’s have another story, but not Daleks’, and I think he was quite keen, as Daleks are terribly difficult to use, anyway.

On ‘Pyramids of Mars’

We had a character try to steal the TARDIS, to which the Doctor said it was isomorphic, only he could operate it. Then, later stories should Leela and lots of other flying the TARDIS willy-nilly. This appeared to be bad continuity – but surely when faced with Sutekh, the Doctor had good reason to lie.

On ‘The Brain of Morbius’

I ended up writing most of it, and it was the same with all my ‘Doctor Who’s – very difficult because you’re inbetween Grand Guignol Gothic horror on one sie, and Monty Python on the other. ‘The Brain of Morbius’ could terribly easily have gone over to the other.

On ‘The Masque of Mandragora’

The starting point for the story was an idea Louis Marks had that there might be some basis for the ‘science’ of astrology. That the stars, in fact, did have an influence on human affairs. We tried to rationalise this idea, and this led us to Demnos. We also decided that, if the story was to work properly, it should be placed in an era when astrology was taken very seriously.

On ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’

Tom didn’t like the Leela character at all, and at first was only mollified because he thought she was only gonig to be in the three stories. I remember during ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ that Philip Hinchcliffe had still not told Tom that she was signed up for another season. I kept going to him and saying ‘Have you told Tom yet?’. I think in the end he left it to Graham Williams.

On ‘Underworld’

Unfortunately, the CSO was very hard on the director, Norman Stewart. For years, he’d been one of the BBC’s senior production managers, and finally he went to the head of department and said ‘I think it’s time I became a director’. He did the course and went freelance, but it was really being plunged in the deep end to have to direct ‘Underworld’ as virtually your first assignment’.

On ‘The Ribos Oberation’

I like wild, rich, hammy characters and ‘Doctor Who’ is one of the few series where you can get away with them. I liked the Graff, with all his German connotations and one of the key stills in writing for the Baker Doctor was to make sure that there were strong enough parts so that Tom didn’t completely dominate – if an actor wasn’t strong enough, or if the part wasn’t there, Tom would overtake.

George Spenton-Foster directed and he tended to appreciate the humour in the script, so that Iain Cuthbertson was allowed to get away with a lot. That was my fault because of the writing, but this basic joke of a splended galactic con-man trying to sell a planet amused me.

On ‘The Power of Kroll’

It’s probably the least favourite of all my stories. It didn’t work. Anthony Read said to me ‘I don’t want any humour. I want the biggest monster ‘Doctor Who’s ever seen’. I instantly thought ‘We’re in trouble now’. It gave Norman Stewart terrible problems and I think it was a bit dull. Anyway, I hated the umbrella theme, because it gave everything an additional complication.

On ‘The Two Doctors’

When I wrote ‘The Two Doctors’, it was no mistake that the Troughton Doctor knew he was being controlled by the Time Lords. The theory which myself and other who worked on ‘Doctor Who’ began to conceive was that the Time Lords were in dual control of the TARDIS all the time. The first trial was a mockery, a public relations exercise, because the Doctor had become involved too close to home and something had to be done about him. That’s why he is almost half-hearted about attempting to escape, which normally he never was. He knew that they were in complete control and had been all along. To operate as sneakily as this, you would have to be corrupt, and that’s what came later, when I was the script editor. Did they not condemn the Doctor to exile for interfering in the affairs of other planets? And yet who had sent him on these missions? They had!

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