Edinburgh International Book Festival: 50 Years of Doctor Who

Review by Paul F Cockburn | 28 Aug 2013
  • Justin Richards

Given Doctor Who's current mainstream success and the likely geekfest around this November's 50th anniversary celebrations, it's important to remember there was a time when the show was far from popular, not least within the BBC.

Ben Aaronovitch was one of the show's script writers during the final two years of its original, 20th century run on television, when admitting any involvement with the show inside the BBC was akin to saying you had leprosy. (That said, the show still had a good reputation among actors, as can be seen by the show's guest list at the time.) Steve Cole, meantime, was in charge of Doctor Who novels in the late 1990s, gleefully pointing out that, for a time, they were placed within BBC Books' "factual" division because the powers that be didn't know where else to put them. Justin Richards, meantime, was there at the less-than-confident merchandise launch in early 2005, when there was little more than a Monster Book and three novels on the cards.

How different things are now, of course: Doctor Who is a global brand and iconic British institution which now announces its new lead actor on a show broadcast live around the world. That said, Aaronovitch still believes that, at least at a corporate level, the BBC isn't that enamoured with Doctor Who – though, conceivably, could this be just metropolitan bias against the show being made in Cardiff rather than in London?

In the 25 years since his first Doctor Who story, Remembrance of the Daleks, was broadcast, Aaronovitch has made a name for himself as a novelist, most obviously with his Rivers of London series. Yet his earliest novels were actually Doctor Who books; his first – an adaptation of that much-loved Dalek story (which included the first time we saw a Dalek climb stairs) – has been reprinted as part of the show's 50th anniversary celebrations. He also penned several novels in the New Adventures series published by Virgin Books during the early 1990s which, thanks to its rare 'open door' policy for submissions, helped launch the professional careers of writers including Mark Gatiss, Paul Cornell and Gareth Roberts – all of whom have since written for the 21st century incarnations of the show.

Richards and Cole continue to write original Doctor Who novels for BBC Books, although they admit that far more people now want to have their say about them since the show's triumphant return to our television screens. This isn't always with any obvious knowledge of the field either, if some of the notes given to legendary SF writer Michael Moorcock (author of the Doctor Who novel, The Coming of the Terraphiles) were anything to go by! Aaronovitch, however, is sanguine about having done his bit for the show; and wouldn't want to give himself even more deadline stress by writing either a TV episode or new Doctor Who novel.

Nevertheless, he's still willing to "take one for the team," responding to what chair David Bishop described as "a hand grenade of a question" about what the panel thought about the new series' scripts. Aaronovitch admitted he thought some of the writing could have been tighter, but pointed out that he wasn't really in a position to judge as he didn't know the full story behind their production. Nevertheless, he also insisted that the revived Doctor Who under Russell T Davies (and now Steven Moffat) could have been the worst-written show in the world but he'd still love it, not least because – by so convincingly wiping Celebrity Wrestling off the planet – Doctor Who single-handedly turned the tide in favour of popular TV drama again. For that, as a viewer, he will always be grateful.

50 Years of Doctor Who took place at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 23 Aug. http://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/ben-aaronovitch-steve-cole-justin-richards