Dennis Spooner (1980’s)

Here’s Dennis Spooner, one of ‘Doctor Who’s first script editors, talking about the early days of the show, including the need to edit down the script for ‘Power of the Daleks’ and the reasons why the Zarbi never returned.

“While he was working at ABC at Teddington, Sydney Newman did ‘Armchair Theatre’ and that was where Verity Lambert started. The BBC at this time were getting a terrible beating from ITV as they still hadn’t changed from their 15-minutes-of-the-potter’s-wheel interval style. ITV had become far more viable, and there was pressure from the government for the BBC to increase their hours and provide a proper channel. So the BBC brought over Sydney Newman, who in turn brought over Verity Lambert, and ‘Doctor Who’ was one of the first products of the shake-up.

“Sidney Newman started the post of story editor. They had never had story editors at the BBC until Sydney Newman came and David Whitaker was appointed by him to be the story editor for ‘Doctor Who’. Terry Nation was asked to do one of the early ‘Doctor Who’s by David Whitaker, and Terry mentioned to him that he knew me – we shared the same agent at the time. I went along to see David Whitaker and he said they were planning to do some historical stories and some science fiction, but really they had got all the science fiction ones so would I do one of the historicals? He gave me a list of about four possible subjects and I went away to the local library, did a bit of reading up and then phoned him back and said I would like to do one on the French Revolution. And that was how I came into ‘Doctor Who’.

“I tried to do it fairly light. ‘The Reign of Terror’ was three hours long, six half hour episodes, and you know there are going to be places in episode two where you don’t want to get further into the story because you don’t want that to happen until episode four. So if you can introduce an element of humour, it becomes a marvellous way of padding the show without boring the audience or breaking up the plot. The audience will always watch ‘a funny bit’ and quite like it. If the character had been a straight jailer, and I had needed to do three minutes on him, it would have turned out terrible. You have to be careful, though. You only have to look at Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to know how you can even let the humour take over at the end, whereas at the beginning it was just put in to vary the process.

“After the first series, we realised that the show was destined to run a long time. And in a television show, you have to learn very quickly what you are going to get away with, because once it becomes at all established they you cannot change it. People don’t like, for example, Noele Gordon being sacked from ‘Crossroads’, even though the scripts may require it. With the second series of ‘Doctor Who’, we knew that whatever we could establish would make the boundaries for a long time to come. ‘The Romans’ was done for comedy, and in ‘The Web Planet’ we wanted to see how far we could go with being weird. And my god, that tested facilities and technical resources to the limit. It went over-budget, in that you couldn’t take anything from stock – it was all webs and things like that, a designer’s field day.

“The Web Planet got very good figures – the first episode was the highest placed of that season – but we all decided we would not do anything like that again. Not because of the story content, but because of the sheer cost and technical problems involved, plus the fact that in the end we ended up with something that wasn’t that sensational compared with ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’. That story looked a far more realistic show, because it was recognisable with Daleks going over London Bridge. It set a precadent that has been more or less followed ever since for the Daleks. With ‘The Chase’, because we were able to go through time, one was able to constantly do episodes in recognisable situations. Even when Terry, in subsequent years, went back and did the origin of the Daleks, he put them in a Nazi environment.

“The Zarbi did not return because I think we felt we had over-stretched our resources with it. If you do a series like ‘Doctor Who’, you tend to work your costs pro rata and what happened was a show like ‘The Space Museum’ paid for ‘The Web Planet’. You see if, say, the budget per episode was £1,000 and you were doing 26 episodes, then Verity always used to look at it from the point of view that she had £26,000 to make 26 episodes. So, if she wished, she could have spent £25,000 on one episode and about £20 on the next 25. She had that power.

“We did one story, ‘The Crusade’, in which Bill Russell wanted to take a week or two’s holiday. Now much earlier on in the season, you have to decide your allocation of so many days of rehearsal, so many days in the studio and so many days on location. In those days, you did all the filming for a story in one go even if, in s tudio time, we were a serial or two in front. For ‘The Crusade’ we need not have had any filming, but because Bill Russell wanted to go on holiday and because we wanted to have him in the episodes, the story had to be re-structed so that we would see him in the desert for two episodes. Those sequences in the desert would then be filmed as part of the location filming allocation which meant, in turn, that certain scenes, which need not have been filmed technically could now be done on film. By doing that, though, it did limit the amount of film you could use for other serials which might call for it, more obviously.

“The William Hartnell series were always geared towards getting a good story and the Doctor would arrive and then work within it. The reason why I could not have cottoned on to doing a Tom Baker story was that those series always tended to start with the Doctora rriving when there was nothing going on, and then he would make it happen. In other words, he would initiate the events. If we had any brief at all as writers under Sydney Newman, we were told that the Doctor is an observer – a time traveller – looking around, and if he happens to go into history, or indeed into the future, he can never actively interfere with the events in order that he would change them.

“I was under contract to ITC when I got this call from Gerry Davis, who was just taking over as script editor for ‘Doctor Who’. They needed a rewrite on ‘Power of the Daleks, partly because David Whitaker had written far too much in his original scripts, but mainly because they needed a bit more for the Doctor to do. David’s script had ‘a’ Doctor in it, but because it was written before Pat Troughton had been cast in the role, nobody knew how the part was going to be played.

“By this time, David had gone off to live in Australia, so I was given the task of writing the opening story. I went and had a long meeting with Pat, and he told me his ideas about the recorder and the zany humour and I re-wrote the scripts from there so that the Doctor had a lot more to do in the story. I didn’t create anything new in the plot itself, although the director, Chris Barry, was very pleased that I cut out certain scenes such as one very long one involving the food machine. It was just a vast editing job, really, but it would have taken Gerry Davis right out of circulation for six weeks at the start of his taking over as script editor, and he couldn’t spare the time.”

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