Since I got into Doctor Who, I’ve been increasingly fascinated by the process of writing for the Doctor. Not necessarily the words he says or the adventures he gets into, but the general understanding of the character and of the specific take on the role by the actor playing him. No two have been exactly the same, but they’ve all been, undeniably, the Doctor. I wanted to figure out how it’s done, and so went to two authorities on the subject: Paul Cornell and Cavan Scott, who’ve both been writing Doctor Who material for years. The two are currently writing for Titan Comics, where they’ve written multi-Doctor stories.
I figured, who better to ask about this kind of phenomenon than two people who’ve written as much branded material as these two? Cornell has written novels and comics and even some episodes of the TV series. For Titan, he’s written the multi-Doctor event miniseries “Four Doctors” and has penned the upcoming Third Doctor series. Scott has likewise written a number of novels and is the writer of the ongoing Ninth Doctor series, as well as the epic miniseries “Supremacy of the Cybermen,” co-written by George Mann, which began last month. They’d know the answer, surely!
“The most important thing about writing for a licensed property,” Cornell began, “is getting the voice right, which is something I think Titan has does so well across the entire Doctor Who line. You have to do the things the actor does normally so it’s a bit like having to write a lexicon of how they speak, but also how they, move to a certain extent.” He explains that watching how the actors move informs the way he writes. “In my panel directions for the Third Doctor comics, for example, I’ll write, ‘He’s rubbing the back of his neck as he sometimes does when he’s uncertain.’ The artist, Chris Jones, is as immersed in this stuff as I am that you have a sort of shared language of how to write and draw the Third Doctor and how to bring a dead actor’s body language back into play and speech patterns back into play.”
Scott reiterated that paying attention to the patterns of speech is of supremely important. “The thing is,” he said, “you listen to them a lot. What I do with writing the Ninth Doctor, especially with the ongoing, is I quite often put on the show, but don’t have the screen facing me. I just have the voices going constantly. If I had the screen facing me, I end up watching it and I don’t get any work done. But they are so different when you actually look at them.” He continued that listening in this way made him realize that the Ninth Doctor’s speech is very clipped whereas the Tenth’s is very sing-songy. “Then when you get to the Eleventh,” Scott said, “he just doesn’t stop talking. He just goes on and has conversations with himself. And then you get back to the Twelfth and he’s just a child in an old man’s body. He’s just being rude to everyone.”
Scott also praised the writers of the new series for giving each of the Doctors a catch phrase, which he uses as a jumping-off point. “And quite often what I’ll do,” he said, “is drop them into a conversation and then take them out again because if you put them into a conversation, it gets too in-your-face. But you don’t want it there all the time, so I quite often put them in on the first draft and then take them out.”
For his series “Four Doctors,” Cornell brought in the Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, and War Doctors into one story, interacting with each other. I asked if it was difficult with the War Doctor, because there’s so little of him to listen to. “It was very important for the War Doctor to get a John Hurt lexicon going. For instance, I’ve got him saying ‘lads’ which is not something you really hear the other Doctors doing, but for some reason you can hear him saying it.” He continued, “you need a certain fine awareness of how characters in these properties would act, especially with particular actors.”
Likewise, I wondered whether if there were times when he found a Tenth Doctor-y speech coming out of the Eleventh Doctor’s mouth. “It’s actually much more important to play up the differences and indicate the differences of character, especially the drama between them,” Cornell said. “Doctors always clash; it’s what’s fun. It’s a good way of showing their differences. It’s easy with Capaldi because he’s got a differential; he’s got a bloody clear dividing line between the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors.”
When I asked both writers which Doctor they’d like to write for that they haven’t gotten to very much, they both had a very interesting response: The Second Doctor! “I haven’t written much of the First and Second Doctors so I’d also like to go back, especially the Second Doctor,” Scott explained. “I’d really like to go back and do a 1960s, base-under-siege kind of story with the Second Doctor. And I’d like to see some crossovers with Doctors from the 21st Century. I don’t like [saying] ‘new’ or ‘classic’ Doctor Who. To me, it’s just Doctor Who. I’d like to see some of the early Doctors cope with the later Doctors. I think Troughton would be really interesting with the Ninth. If I can get him into the Ninth Doctor comics, that’d be great.”
Cornell shared Scott’s admiration for the Second Doctor, but added that it would be tricky. “Troughton would be a big challenge,” he began. “Getting Troughton [right], because the biggest thing is the form of these stories is shaped by the production circumstances of the time. So budget actually plays into what those stories are like. And I think doing a Troughton story with an enormous “budget” with all sorts of fantastic spaceships and aliens, I think, would just feel weird. You really do want to say, no, we can’t get out of the base here. You want to impose those limitations on yourself.”
Limitations or not, both Paul Cornell and Cavan Scott will get to keep on writing Doctor Who for a while. Scott’s Ninth Doctor ongoing series is continuing along with more of his “Supremacy of the Cybermen” miniseries. He’s also penned a Fourth Doctor audio adventure for Big Finish, coming soon. Cornell, on top of writing tons of non-Doctor Who novels, comics, and TV episodes, has his Third Doctor series from Titan coming out later this month.
Images: Titan Comics
Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!