Dr Who: The Roots of Evil

To mark the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, Puffin Books has asked some children’s authors to come up with a series of stories – one for each of the Doctor’s eleven incarnations – which will be published as e-books monthly throughout the year, prior to the release of a printed anthology in November.  The identity of the authors has been swathed in secrecy, but the stories which have appeared so far are by Eoin Colfer, Michael Scott and Marcus Sedgwick.

When they asked me, just before Christmas, whether I’d like to do one, I was very flattered but thought it probably wasn’t for me – my knowledge of Doctor Who is patchy, and my feelings about the current TV show distinctly mixed.  But when I realised that they wanted me to write about the 4th Doctor, played by Tom Baker, I decided that this was something I could do after all.

I came late to Doctor Who, so Tom Baker is the first actor I saw in the role – and, consequently, the ‘real’ Doctor as far as I’m concerned.  I think the couple of years when I watched the show regularly must have roughly coincided with Douglas Adams’s spell as script editor; I remember the scripts being full of irreverent humour, helped by Tom Baker’s brilliant, barking mad performance.

By way of research I watched the DVDs of a couple of stories, City of Death and The Sun Makers, and was surprised at how well they’ve aged – and at how detailed my memories of them were, right down to lines of dialogue.  There wasn’t a lot of SF available to me in the late seventies, so I must have watched each half-hour episode of Doctor Who with intense concentration, probably studying the props and costumes to see if there was anything I could replicate in my own Super-8mm movies.

And I expect I found plenty that I could: one of the pleasures of these old episodes is how cheap they are, and how little it matters.  The guards in The Sun Makers carry space guns which are clearly made from old bits of plank with a length of pipe glued to the top, while the clunky futuristic computers have big knobs and dials which were presumably jig-sawed out of plywood. But TV drama in those days was much closer to theatre than to film, and the fact that the sets wobble and the interior lighting doesn’t begin to match the exteriors no more spoils the story than would the fact that Elsinore is obviously a painted backdrop when you see Hamlet at the National Theatre: the set-dressers give you the cues, and your imagination does the rest.

Tom Baker as the Doctor, Louise Jameson as Leela

I’ve tried to keep my Doctor Who story, The Roots of Evil, something that the programme makers of the late 70s could have done without too much trouble.  My approach to writing was pure nostalgia: I just tried to imagine myself back in 1978, lying on the carpet in front of the telly in my parents’ living room, and visualised the Doctor Who story I’d like to watch.  My favourites were always the ones set in far flung futures rather than the present day, so I had my imaginary set-builders get busy with planks, pipes and plywood, and sent a mental memo to the BBC special effects department to construct a Convincing Miniature of a gigantic living space-station called the Heligan Structure, grown from a single, genetically modified tree…

Of course the Doctor can’t resist visiting such a strange place, but as he explores he starts to realise that it’s a Doctor trap, devised by people who have a 900-year-old grudge against him.  Leela features as his companion (she’s the first companion I remember – I believe the story where she met the Doctor was the first one I ever watched) and there’s also a brief walk-on (or roll-on) part for K9, though the story is only 10,000 words long, so for simplicity’s sake I had to leave him in the TARDIS.

The Roots of Evil e-book will be released on 23rd April, and is available from Amazon (UK and US) and I-tunes (UK or AU). The paperback anthology will be released on 23rd November.

(All pictures copyright BBC)

8 Comments

  1. cerebus660
    Apr 02, 2013 @ 15:14:14

    That's fantastic news! I'm glad you decided to give a Doctor Who story a go and I'd love to read your version of Mad Tom. Can't wait!!

    Reply

  2. Candy Gourlay
    Apr 02, 2013 @ 15:24:18

    Okay. One copy of The Roots of Evil, sold.

    Reply

  3. Cary Watson
    Apr 02, 2013 @ 19:07:25

    I have a theory that the cheaper a SF show's budget, the better the storytelling: you can't rely on glitzy SFX to paper over weak concepts or leaky plots so the writer(s) really have to knuckle down and produce a solid, clever narrative. And now that you've posted that picture of Louise Jameson I deeply regret I wasn't on board with the Doctor during the Tom Baker era. Sigh…

    Reply

  4. L. M. Silva
    Apr 03, 2013 @ 12:57:37

    Philip Reeve and Doctor Who? I'm already seething with anticipation!! Really looking forward to Roots of Evil!

    Reply

  5. Philip Reeve
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 11:04:29

    Thanks everyone! Cary, I think you may be right: I'm a great fan of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass serials, which mostly predate Dr Who and are incredibly primitive by today's standards: in Quatermass 2, for instance, the surface of an asteroid is clearly made of blankets draped over some boxes, but it matters not a bit because the writing is so intelligent.

    Reply

  6. Junk Monkey
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 00:29:53

    My favourite bit of low-tech prop making on the old (real) Who was a small, hand-held fire extinguisher waved about by Nyssa during an episode of The Visitation: six inches of plastic drainpipe with a 90 degree bend glued to the end. Probably cost 25p to make. It worked.

    Using CGI to paper over dodgy scripts just doesn't work. The kids are too used to all the flash effects now. They aren't wowed by it. My 11 year old daughter is bored with the New Who and stopped watching half way through the last season but will avidly watch Tom Baker and Peter Davidson era DVDs. They are, as she so accurately put it, "more real".

    Reply

  7. Philip Reeve
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 08:54:58

    Yes, my son is the same age as your daughter and he was put off by all the mawkish Amy and Rory stuff & has never returned to it. Yet he happily watched the Tom Baker stories which I watched while I was working on 'Roots of Evil'.

    Reply

  8. Anonymous
    May 22, 2014 @ 17:10:41

    I bought the paperback version, which has a story per Doctor, and The Roots of Evil is one of my absolute favourites. It is so cleverly written, and just like Mortal Engines, kepps you gripped to the end. It really captures the feeling of Doctor Who in all its glory… Definitely recommended!

    Reply

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