How to Write Audio Drama

Anyone who has ever worked in an office is familiar with the self-styled “expert” who rolls in from London or New York. The grinning expert, who almost never listens to anything other than the hollow sound of his own voice, locks you into a conference room with a condescending four hour PowerPoint presentation. One often looks cautiously at such a mercenary, often paid an obscenely high sum for pablum, to see if he has a pistol concealed under the three piece suit. Why? Because the presenter’s vaguely sinister chest-thumping almost always feel more like a hostage situation rather than a true meeting of the minds.

Ego should never be the driving force when you advise other people. The collective journey must represent the true impetus behind any guiding effort. Unfortunately, the dreadful combination of arrogance and stupidity is an increasing affliction in American culture, which now prides itself on smearing a crowd with the soothing balm of anti-intellectualism, with hubris often serving as the prominent titanium dioxide. This strain was most recently evidenced by Tucker Carlson’s unintentionally hilarious but nevertheless dangerous notion that the metric system represents a conspiracy promulgated by revolutionaries. There are now too many circumstances in which wildly unqualified people — often illiterate and sloppy in their work product — anoint themselves as Napoleonic dictators for how to advance thought and who often do so without the nuts-and-bolts wisdom or attentive awareness that inspires people to conjure up truly incredible offerings.

I mention all this because I recently had the considerable displeasure of reading a typo-laden article written by a misguided audio dramatist who, while possessing a modicum of promising technical chops, remains tone-deaf to human behavior. To offer a charitable opinion, this dramatist is certainly doing the best he can, but his dialogue (which has included such inadvertent howlers as “Now dance with me, asshole,” “I envy your certainty,” and “I would have expected you to bring one of your underlings”) and anemic storytelling represents a form of “expertise” that my own very exacting standards for what constitutes art simply cannot accept.

You see, I really believe that audio drama, like any artistic form, needs to be written and produced at the highest possible level. But to give this guy some credit, we do have to start somewhere! As someone who has written about 1,400 pages of audio drama and who often labors months over a script until it’s right (as opposed to someone who bangs out an entire season in nine weeks), as someone who has gone out into the real world for months to do journalistic research to ensure that I’m portraying groups of people and subcultures realistically and dimensionally rather than subscribing to self-congratulatory, attention-seeking tokenism that cheapens well-intentioned inclusiveness through the creation of shallow stereotypes, and as someone who won a distinguished award for all this, if you’ll pardon my own statement of qualifications here, I think I’m reasonably well-equipped to offer better suggestions. Having said that (and as a free-wheeling anti-authoritarian who despises groupthink, who has never held a gun in his life, and who is writing this in a T-shirt and jeans rather than a three piece suit), I would also like to encourage anyone reading these collected thoughts to poke holes into my views and to challenge anything that I present herein. This is, after all, the only way that all of us truly learn.

Audio drama is a magnificent medium. It shares much in common with literature in its ability to challenge an audience and convey emotional intimacy. And while shows such as The Bright Sessions, Wooden Overcoats, and The Truth intuitively comprehend the emotional connection between audio drama and audience, the medium, on the whole, is populated by too many engineering nerds who are not only incapable of writing quality scripts, but seem reluctant — if not outright hostile — to probe moral questions or explore any difficult ambiguities that lead to human insight.

Here are some better guidelines for how to approach the exciting and often greatly rewarding realm of audio dramatic writing!

1. Before anything else, think of HUMAN BEINGS.

This is the true big one. If you don’t have human beings guiding your audio drama, you are dead on arrival. And you become no different from some engineering nerd who is less interested in narrative possibility and more concerned with being the cleverest guy in the room. Being in touch with human behavior humbles you and opens you up to wonder and empathy and insatiable curiosity that you can not only pass onto your actors and your audience, but that will help you transform into a better and more mindful person. If you want to connect with an audience, then you need to know how to connect with people. And your art needs to reflect this. One of my favorite audio dramas, King Falls AM, has literally confined its setting to a call-in radio show in a small town. But its two main characters, Sammy and Ben, are human enough to warrant our attention. We learn over the series’ run that Sammy is gay and that Ben is smitten with Emily, the local librarian. And the show’s colorful characters and the creative team’s commitment to exploring the human have ensured that the show has never once lost momentum during its eighty-seven episodes. (There’s even a charming musical episode!)

It’s also vital for human behavior to contain paradoxes. Very often, that means taking major artistic risks with your characters — even making them “unlikable” if this is what the story calls for. I recently revisited some episodes of the science fiction TV series Blakes 7 after its star, the incredibly talented Paul Darrow, passed away. Darrow, who appeared in many audio dramas produced by Big Finish near the end of his life, played an antihero named Avon — a man who ended up as the leader of a band of revolutionaries fighting against a fascist empire known as the Federation. Why was Avon so interesting? Because he contained so many contradictions! He could be smart, intensely charming, paranoid, inclusive, sarcastic, and self-serving. Much like Walter White in Breaking Bad, you never quite knew how far Avon was going to go. And there is no better exemplar of why Avon worked so well than an episode called “Orbit” written by Robert Holmes (who also wrote some of the best episodes of Doctor Who). Avon and his longtime partner Vila have five minutes to rid a spacecraft of excess cargo weight. The two men are seen frantically running around, ejecting bits of plastic through the airlock. It’s clear that they’re not going to dump the cargo in time. Avon desperately asks Orac — the ship’s computer — how much weight the ship must lose in order to achieve escape velocity. Orac replies, “70 kilos.” With great ferocity, Avon shrieks, “Dammit! What weighs 70 kilos?” Orac responds with an alarming calmness, “Vila weighs 73 kilos, Avon.” And it is here that the scene becomes truly thrilling and surprising! Avon now has a solution — one that allows him to survive but that also involves betraying his friend. Darrow instantly transforms, grabs a laser pistol, and the scene is among the best in the entire run of the show. (You can watch the scene here.) As a test, I described this scene to a wide variety of people who were unfamiliar with speculative fiction. One old school guy in my Brooklyn hood who I’m friendly with (and for whom I have been serving as an occasional consultant on his webseries), “Damn! That’s some gangsta shit. I gotta check it out.” Human predicaments like this are universal.

Don’t worry too much about your sound design when you’re conceiving your story. You certainly need to remember that this is a medium driven by sound, but, if you’re doing audio drama right, your characters (and thus your actors) will be sharp and lively enough to conjure up a divergent sound environment. It’s absolutely foolhardy and creatively bankrupt to enslave your actors to a soundscape. This represents tyranny, not creative possibility. Actors need to be free to create in a fun and relaxed environment. (In my case, I cook all of my actors breakfast, compensate everyone instantly after recording, and try not to work them more than three hours per recording session.) As perspicacious as you may be, as certain as you may think you are about the rhythm and the delivery, your actors will always have fresh ideas that you haven’t considered. You need to have a script and a recording environment that is committed to your actors first. If you’re looking to be some petty despot, become some small-time corporate overlord. Don’t toil in art. If your actors are hindered by your dictatorial decisions as writer or director, they won’t be able to use their imagination. At all stages, audio drama is a process of collaborative discovery. When you write the script, it’s about creating memorable and three-dimensional characters. When you’re recording with actors, it’s about listening to how an actor interprets the characters and shaping the scene together with openness, trust, and experimentation. Then, when you’re putting together the rough edit (dialogue only), you have yet another stage of discovery. The actors have given you all that you need. You’ll be able to imagine where they are in a room, what they’re doing, and what else might be with them. From here, you start to form the sound design. Worldbuilding always comes from human investigation. And if you’re fully committed to the human, then your instinctive imagination will be able to devise a unique aural environment.

But to get to this place, you need to have characters who are unusual and who contain subtlety, depth, and detailed background. What kind of family did they have? Are they optimistic or moody? What was their most painful experience? Their happiest? Are they passionate about anything? If you’re stuck, you could always try revisiting some personal experience. For “Brand Awareness,” a Black Mirror-like story about a woman who learns that the beer that she’s fiercely loyal to doesn’t actually exist, the premise was inspired by an incident in which I went to a Williamsburg bar, certain that I had ordered a specific Canadian beer there before. But when I mentioned the beer brand to the bartender, she didn’t know that it existed. (It turned out that I had the wrong bar.) I laughed over how ridiculously loyal I had been to the Canadian beer brand and began asking questions about why I was so stuck on that particular beer at that time. I then came up with the idea of a woman who spent much of her time collecting memorabilia for a beer called Eclipse Ale, one that nobody knew about, and decided, instead of making this character a rabid and obsessive fan, to make her very real. I placed her in a troubled relationship with a man who refused to listen to her, which then gave me an opportunity to explore the harms of patriarchy. I then had to answer the question of why this woman was the only one who knew about the beer and conjured up the idea of a boutique hypnotist who served in lieu of couples therapy. Suddenly I had a weird premise and some sound ideas. What did the memorabilia look like? What were the hypnotist’s methods like? Ultimately, most of my sound design came from my incredible cast. Their interpretations were so vivid that I began to create a soundscape that enhanced and reflected their performances. The process was so fun that our team’s collective imagination took care of everything. I would listen to the rough dialogue assembly on my headphones and physically act out each character as they were talking into my ears. And from here, I was able to see what the space looked like. I went to numerous bars and closed my eyes and listened and used this as the basis for how to shape the scene. These methods allowed me to tell a goofy but ultimately realistic story.

I can’t stress this next point enough. Audio drama should never be about being overly clever or showy. It should be designed with enough depth for the audience to use its imagination. Just as I consider the actors on my production to be my creative equals, I also consider the audience to my interpretive equal. Their takeaways from my show are almost always smarter than my own. It would be colossally arrogant of me to assume that I know better than them.

To return to the gentleman who wrote the article that I am partially responding to here, his advice concerning character tips should be avoided at all costs. Robots can be fun, but, however ephemerally vivid they can be, they are among the most tedious one-note characters you can ever drop into a story. Moreover, a character who appears on only two pages should have as much backstory as one of your principals. When the great Robert Altman made one of his masterpieces, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, he instructed all of the extras who were part of the Western town to develop detailed characters. This is one significant reason why that incredible film feels so real and so atmospheric. When in doubt, write vivid human characters with real problems. They always sound cool.

The misguided dramatist also reveals how pedestrian and unambitious he is in his storytelling when he tells you that you shouldn’t have more than four separate voices in a scene. This is only a problem if, like the misguided dramatist, you are too reliant upon seemingly clever ideas and don’t know how to write recognizable characters. If your characters are dimensional, then your audience will be able to follow the story. But you can also have your characters forget the names of the people who they are with so that you have an opportunity to remind your audience who they are. There are, after all, few people who attend a party and who manage to remember everybody’s first names. This expositional move doubles as a touch of realism and a subtle way of helping your audience keep track of a very large cast. Don’t squelch your ambition! If the dialogue is natural and the rhythm reflects real human conversation, then this will also help your audience lock into the narrative.

Also, I don’t know what living rooms the misguided dramatist spends his time in. But every setting is driven by sound. Only the most unimaginative and inattentive dramatist in the world would gainsay the textural possibilities contained in a car or a kitchen. These are seemingly familiar places. But if you spend enough time in various kitchens and simply listen, you’ll discover that each kitchen does have a separate tapestry of distinct sounds.

As for momentum, I have one firm rule: Have at least something on every page that drives the story forward (or, failing that, a good joke). If it’s not there, then cut and revise the page until you get to that ratio. Because you have exactly five minutes from the beginning of your show to grab your audience. If you’re bombarding your audience with over-the-top sound design out of creative desperation but you don’t have anything human to back it up, you’re dead. The audience will tune out very quickly, especially when there are so many other audio drama productions up to the task. However, if you’re concerned with the human first, then you’ll be on firm footing. The misguided dramatist writes, “The specifics don’t matter.” Oh, but they always matter. This is a profoundly ignorant and offensive statement that ignores the lessons contained in centuries of dramatic writing. Having some random kid walking by with a blasting boombox may pump up your hubris enough to approach the editors of Electric Literature and say, “Hey, I’m an expert! Can I write an article and pimp my show?” But if your inclusion doesn’t serve the human needs of the story, it’s gratuitous. It’s flexing your muscle rather than lifting the weights. And as you make more audio drama, it’s vital that you never stop evolving. In an increasingly crowded world of audio drama options, you want to be the dramatist who can bench-press to the best of your ability. And you’re going to want to build yourself up so that you can increase the load you can heave above your shoulders. You don’t stay in shape if you stop hitting the gym. And art rarely works when you phone it in. It involves hard work, great care, and daily discipline.

2. Imagination.

Well, I can mostly agree with the misguided dramatist here. You definitely want to paint a picture in your audience’s minds. But you don’t necessarily have to do this with a melange of bad exposition such as “Teeth, there’s too many teeth.” All you need to do is to imagine how a human being would react to a set of circumstances and then slightly style the dialogue so that it reveals just enough exposition (but not too much). You can then sculpt the sound design accordingly.

3. On “Gross” Sound Design

Once again, the misguided dramatist lacks the ability to comprehend how an audience vicariously relates to an audio drama. You can do kissing in audio drama. I’ve included it in The Gray Area. This doesn’t mean that you drop in a flagrant smooch that’s going to drown out everything else in the mix. You want a dramatic kiss to sound pretty close to how it’s actually experienced. For the first season, I recorded some kissing foley with someone I was dating at the time. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life, perhaps the closest I’ve come to feeling like a pornographic actor. But it had to be done for art! Imagine two people lying in bed, both of them with headphones on, and a condenser microphone mounted just above them. We proceeded to kiss until I got the levels and the mic positioned just right for a very soft sound that is quite close to the sound that you hear when you kiss someone. This was a little difficult. Because I very much enjoyed kissing the person in question. But I was able to find the right balance. And I mixed this into the story quite gently and subtly so that it wouldn’t intrude upon the story. The Amelia Project has a character who very much enjoys cocoa, yet the slurps and stirs of the spoon never sound intrusive. And that is because the producers are smart enough to understand that flagrant foley of natural human sounds is going to sound “gross.” But you do have an obligation to depict the human and that includes sounds that might be categorized as uncomfortable.

4. Be Careful with Foley Description

I learned early on that writing four seemingly simple words (“GIANT RATS SCAMPERING AROUND”) created far more trouble for me in post-production than I anticipated. And while I enjoyed the challenge that I presented myself, I spent a week banging my head against my desk before I finally stumbled on a sound design solution. If you’re working with a sound designer, try to be mindful of the difficulty in coming up with sounds that reflect creatures or concepts that don’t exist in the real world. Even if you add “LIKE HORSES GALLOPING” to the giant rats description, that’s going to offer the sound designer some creative ideas that will make it easier for her to imagine and come up with something. If you’re collaborating with a sound designer, you need to offer a clear blueprint for her to create and imagine. Make no mistake: the sound designer is just as much of an actor as an actor.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

You’re not going to please everyone. So why spend so much time worrying about it? There are incredibly talented and impeccably kind people who produce beloved audio dramas and even they receive hate mail and vicious criticism. Critics, by and large, are far less useful than the honest and experienced people you have in your corner who understand both you and the hard work that goes into making audio drama. You need to be surrounded by beta readers and beta listeners who will not bullshit you. Your duty as an artist is to not give into the often insane demands of rabid fans (much as one very popular audio drama did a few years ago, forcing this truly terrific show to ignobly close its doors) and to concentrate on putting out your best work. The real crowd, your truly loyal listeners and the ones who you actually learn from, will trust you enough to continue with the journey. The same goes with your actors. I took a huge risk on a Season 2 script. And I was incredibly surprised, humbled, and honored when the actors were crazy about it and told me what a thrilling twist it was and brought their A game when we recorded. You have a duty to keep on growing. Keep in mind that critics, especially the small-time character assassins on Twitter driven by acute resentment, reflect a vocal minority. You’re also probably never going to get a TV deal. So why chase that kind of outsize success? Besides, it’s far more rewarding to tell stories entirely on your own terms. If the work is good and you treat people well, you will attract very talented actors. And they in turn will tell their actor friends about how much fun you are to work with. But if you tell the same story over and over again, or you aren’t sufficiently answering the many questions you’ve set up, chances are you’ll be pulling a Damon Lindelof. And everyone will rightfully ding you for writing a lazy and inane climax.

Formulaic writing may win you an audience. There is no shortage of box office successes that are more generic than a supermarket aisle populated by no name yellow boxes. But are you writing for short-term lucre and attention or long-term artistic accomplishment? Are you writing audio drama to grow as a person and as an artist? Always remember that the work is its own reward. And that means taking risks.

6. Be Passionate About Your Story at All Times

Don’t write a script just for the sake of writing a script. If you’re telling a story, it has to be something that you absolutely believe in. Your vision must be large and passionate enough to get other people excited about it. You must also be committed to surprising yourself at all stages. (It also helps that I’m crazy about everyone who works on this show and am naturally quite thrilled to watch them get better as performers.) While I have drafted a four season plan for The Gray Area (and have a “Bible” of twenty prototypical scripts), the plan is just loose enough for me to continually invent with each season. I don’t write scripts from an outline (although I have done so in writing for other people). Because I find that, if I know where a story is heading, then it’s not going to be fun for me. After all, if I’m not surprised, why would I expect my audience to be?

If you’re just phoning it in, then why would you expect your actors to give their all? One audio drama producer recently revealed a horror story about one regular actor leaving midway through the series. But listening to the audio drama, it’s easy to see why. The passion contained in the initial episodes plummeted in later episodes. A friend, who was an initial fan of the show, texted me, asking “What happened? It was so good! Now I can’t listen to it!” Well, I responded, the character in question, despite being played by a lively actor who clearly has much to offer, became one-note and confined to a sterile environment. And why would any actor want to stay involved with a character who remains stagnant? If you don’t feed your actors with true passion, and if you don’t take care of them, then you’re not living up to the possibilities of audio drama.

At all stages of The Gray Area, I talk with my actors and tell them what I have planned for their characters over many seasons. I listen to their passions and interests. I regularly check in on them. I try to attend their shows when they perform on stage. Because it is my duty to remain committed to my talent. All this gives me many opportunities to find out where actors wish to push themselves as performers and to suss out emotional areas that other directors don’t seem to see. I cast comedic actors in dramatic roles. I point out to some of my more emotionally intense actors how funny they are and write stories with this in mind. I have to keep my characters growing so that I can sustain an atmosphere committed to true creative freedom. Because I love and adore and greatly respect the people I work with and I want to make sure that these actors are always having fun and that they feel free to create. I’ve got this down so well that, when the actors find out I’m writing a new slate of scripts, they playfully nag me, wondering when the stories are going to be done.

If you’re doing audio drama right, you’re probably going to be surprised to find yourself exhausted after a long day. The fatigue seems inconceivable because you were having so much fun. But it does mean that you were driven by passion first, buttressed by hard work. And that will ultimately be reflected in the final product.

7. There Are Many Ways to Make Audio Drama

There’s recently been some discussion about establishing a set of critical standards that all producers should agree upon for the “greater good.” I find this to be a bunch of prescriptive malarkey, more of a popularity contest and an ego-stroking exercise rather than a true exchange of viewpoints. Take the advice that you can use and ignore the rest. That includes this article. If you see something here that whiffs untrue, ignore it. Or leave a comment here and challenge me. I’d love to hear your dissenting views! I’m offering one way to make audio drama, but there are dozens of ways to go about it.

8. Be Wide-Ranging in Your Influences

Don’t just listen to audio drama. Listen to nonfiction podcasts. Read books. Take on hobbies and interests that you’ve never tried. Play music. Above all, live life. Existence is always the most important influence. I’ve listened to far too many bad audio dramas trying to offer cut-rate knockoffs of popular shows. This isn’t a recipe for success or artistic growth. You need to find your own voice and be true to who you are as much as you can. Every story has already been told. But it hasn’t been told in the way that you express it.

(I hope that some of what I’ve imparted here has been useful! For anyone who’s interested, I am presently in the final weeks of production on the second season of my audio drama. I’ve been documenting my journey on Instagram, passing along any tips or tricks I discover along the way so that other audio dramatists don’t make the same mistakes that I have! Plus, there are many fun behind-the-scenes videos and photos. Feel free to check out @grayareapod and say hello. We’re all in this journey of making audio drama together! It’s a very exciting time to tell stories for the ear!)

Peter Davison (The Bat Segundo Show)

Peter Davison played the fifth incarnation of Doctor Who! But he also delivers numerous charming performances in A Very Peculiar Practice, All Creatures Great and Small, At Home with the Braithwaites and The Last Detective.

Play

(Many thanks to Roger Bilheimer for his great help in making this improbable conversation happen and to Yashoda Sampath for consulting on extremely pedantic Who matters in preparation for this talk.)

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Stumbling around his motel room for a celery stick.

Guest: Peter Davison

Subjects Discussed: Whether Davison is a PBS manifestation or a corporeal entity, why Davison tends to avoid psychotic roles, the BBC’s austere costume policy, Davison’s cricket skills, the thespic advantages of keeping your hands in your pockets or behind your back, working with Roger Daltrey, film vs. TV continuity, Davison’s secret aspirations as a pop singer, “Doctor in Distress,” working with the same writer and director for A Very Peculiar Practice, single directors vs. many directors on television, Peter Grimwade’s mysterious ousting as director on Doctor Who, the regrettable deficiencies of “Time Flight,” the inside story on “No, not the mind probe,” when directors don’t even notice line delivery, the live theater approach to doing television, working with Peter Moffatt and Graeme Harper, how Who directors are chosen and how this affects acting and production, why Davison left Who, the slim advance notice that Davison got in relation to stories, the importance of humor in Doctor Who, conflicts with John Nathan-Turner, the problems with having an American companion, Davison’s creative input on Who, the difficulties of playing the Doctor, problems with Season 20, being confronted with the blank slate of virtue, John Nathan-Turner’s middling efforts to make companions more interesting, mew Who vs. old Who, theories that Rose as the most important character in the new series, Mark Strickson’s frustrations, holding up wobbly sets and flimsy production values, acting when the wrong set was lit, whether any virtues and production techniques have been lost from old Who, the disconnect between what’s inside your head as an actor and what’s on camera, Davison having to change appearance after Doctor Who, the burdens of Who, Tom Baker, choosing variegated roles, and Davison ensuring that he’s not defined by notoriety.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You know, I always wondered if you were a manifestation on PBS. But now I actually know that you’re corporeal. You’re here.

Davison: (laughs) I have the same feeling myself sometimes.

Correspondent: Oh you do? How do you distinguish between that? I mean, when you go and perform a role, are you in a fugue state? Do you know who you are when you’re playing it? Do you summon some abstruse emotional energy?

Davison: No. What happens with me is a form of — it sometimes has to be very quick — osmosis. You start off with a blank page and, as you get familiar with the script, the character is joined to you. Like barnacles or something.

Correspondent: I see Tristan off your shoulder right now.

Davison: Exactly. And you do start, depending on the parts you play — you bring them home with you sometimes. If you are playing a bit of a psychotic character, it can mean trouble at home.

Correspondent: But you haven’t really been playing much in the way of psychotic characters.

Davison: No. I think that’s a good thing. (laughs)

Correspondent: I mean, you’re too nice a guy? Have you had a great desire to chew the scenery like that?

Davison: You know, every so often. I have made a career of playing fairly nice guys. And I’m very happy doing that. But every so often.

Correspondent: Very nice doing that.

Davison: Thank you very much. But every so often, you just kind of get a feeling. You just want to be play a nasty character. And fortunately, usually when those feelings come about, one comes along that you like and you’ll accept it. I played a bit of a bad guy recently in an episode of Lewis, which is a British detective series.

Correspondent: Oh really? How evil were you for this?

Davison: I was pretty nasty, actually. I was very much a…

Correspondent: You pushed ladies downstairs? Widmark style?

Davison: I kill people.

Correspondent: You kill people?

Davison: And make them disappear. But in a nice and charming smiley way.

Correspondent: So I’m going to have to ask you about one of the reasons why you’re here. Doctor Who. And I”m going to try and do it through a few unusual angles. There’s one thing I have noticed. I know that when Tom Baker left, he took his boots with him. And during the early run of Doctor Who, you’re wearing what I guess is your own sneakers. Is that true? Is that safe to say? Does the BBC actually allow you your own? Did they actually make shoes for you? Or did you have to come in with your own footwear?

Davison: Oh no, no, no. You have proper costume fittings and people sit down for long periods of time and discuss what you’re going to wear. And I think they were pretty much off-the-peg shoes. But the BBC did pay for them.

Correspondent: Oh, okay.

Davison: And the rest of the outfit.

Correspondent: So you can wear them home.

Davison: Well, no. They wouldn’t trust you to bring it back in the morning.

Correspondent: Oh really? Well, what input did you have into the design of the Doctor’s costume? How was it like for you? I mean, how strict were they? I know you’ve said in other interviews that there were some bizarre union restrictions in which lights went out at 10 or something.

Davison: Oh, the whole thing in those days was a very complex procedure. I mean, I had input into my outfit. But it was very much not in specifics. The producer said, “We’re looking for something that’s more youthful and slightly more energetic and sportier.”

Correspondent: Cricket says youthful.

Davison: And I thought cricket fitted the bill exactly. So I suggested the idea of a cricket outfit. If I’m honest with you, I would have chosen a more off-the-peg look. It was a bit too designer for me. Because the idea with the TARDIS is a room somewhere in the depths of the TARDIS in which is a whole range of clothes. And when the Doctor regenerates, he simply goes into the room and he goes, “Ah, there’s this bit here. I’ll try this on here.” And he comes out with a kind of thrown together outfit. With my outfit, it just seemed like it probably wasn’t sitting around on a peg, which is what I didn’t like about it. On the other hand, I thought it had a very good style to it. I was very happy with it in the end.

Correspondent: You showed off your cricket skills in “Black Orchid.” What were your cricketing skills before that? Or was that pure acting?

Davison: No, no. It wasn’t. I’m not bad at cricket.

Correspondent: Really?

Davison: Compared to most actors, who are pretty rubbish.

Correspondent: You’re not going to name names.

Davison: I could actually, but I won’t. But in one of the scenes there, you can clearly see me actually bowl somebody out. Which I was very fortunate that they were able to get it into the shot. So I wasn’t bad. I was very happy to do that.

Correspondent: While we’re talking about physicality, I have to ask. So I watched a good deal of the Doctor Who run yet again — after many, many years — that you did. And the one thing I noticed is that you kept your hands in your pocket or behind your back quite a bit.

Davison: Yes.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering if you were just a spastic guy or a guy who gesticulates. If this was an effort to try to prevent yourself from doing that on camera.

Davison: (laughs)

Correspondent: Because sometimes you have your hands in your pocket and they’re clenched in there like you know your hands are going to go free. So what of this?

Davison: Well, I don’t know where it first came out. I think probably it just came out of — I played a role before Doctor Who in All Creatures Great and Small.

Correspondent: Yes. That’s right. Tristran.

Davison: Unfortunately, Tristran, I think, is described as forever having his hands in his pockets. So that became such a kind of…

Correspondent: The Davison crutch?

Davison: Yes! A Davison crutch. Absolutely. But I think it just carried on a bit. And probably it shouldn’t have done. On the other hand, I have to say — you know, I did a series about three or four years ago with Roger Daltrey. You know, of The Who.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Davison: He played a part. And we were having this scene together in the pub. And we’d do a shot on him where he was doing his lines talking to me. And then we’d do another shot from another angle. And the continuity person would keep coming up to him, going, “Uh, Roger, you raised your hand in the air on this shot. And you put your hand on the drink in this shot. And you put your hand in your pocket on that shot.” And he got into such a terrible state. And nothing was ever said to me. And he said to me, “How come you’re so good at this?” And I said, “Because I never do anything with my hands.” (laughs) By the way, it’s a great advantage to put your hands in your pockets. Because no one comes up to you and says, “Ah! You did this with this hand here.” I think I probably overdid it.

Correspondent: Well, how rigid were the script supervisors, or continuity, during the BBC days in the ’80s and the ’90s? Were they really as anal as they are now? Or what?

Davison: You know, in my experience — and I’ve had a relatively tiny experience in film — but in television, they’re absolutely spot on. You rarely — you do get mistakes. But I’ve seen more mistakes in movies — in editing and things where people’s positions and hands and props and which hand they held their things up in — than I have done in television. They’re pretty good in television. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that the actors in television are doing a lot of things. They’re fairly disciplined, I think, TV actors. And maybe film actors somehow are, shall we say, maybe less disciplined. Maybe more inspirational. Maybe more original in some areas. But less disciplined. And I certainly notice more mistakes watching the average film than I did in watching TV.

Correspondent: So I have to ask. We talked cricket beforehand. I had heard some sort of rumor that you were pursuing a career as a pop singer roughly around the time of All Creatures Great and Small and even while you were playing Doctor Who!

Davison: How? Where did you hear that? (laughs)

Correspondent: I have my sources. And I was hoping to go ahead and, before they continue on the Internet, to actually get the hard journalistic truth. Did you have pop singer aspirations?

Davison: I did. Well, I’ve always written songs.

Correspondent: Oh you do?

Davison: Yeaaaaaah.

Correspondent: There are loads of tapes hidden in your basement?

Davison: Loads of tapes. And I still have a little mini-studio in my house.

Correspondent: Really?

Davison: Yeah. And I still do stuff. But I think I’ve rather given up the idea of becoming a pop idol.

Correspondent: But do you still record?

Davison: Actually, I do still record stuff. And there was a time — I suppose it was about that time — where I thought, “You know, I’d be really good to just get a band together,” and not use my name. I didn’t want to try and sell it as Peter Davison doing it. So I’d just get a band and just get some songs together and just see what happens with them. If one wasn’t pushing it from a point of view. Because I think it’s a kiss of death. Actors saying they’re in a band. So I just wanted to do it from an entirely different angle.

Correspondent: Or in the case of Doctor Who, “Doctor in Distress.” It was disastrous.

Davison: Absolutely. But it came to grief, for a bizarre reason, that musicians have a completely different lifestyle to actors. It seems like they would be very close, but we would do things like we would call a rehearsal session. Seven o’clock in the evening. So I’d be there at seven o’clock. This was just rehearsal. Seven o’clock in the evening. And then at about 11 PM, the bass player would turn up. Then at about 1:00 in the morning, the lead guitarist would turn up. And at about half past two, we’d actually get enough people there to actually start rehearsing. By which time, it wasn’t long before dawn was breaking. And I was exhausted! ‘Cause I’m not used to it. Musicians just have this idea, you know. “Aw yeah, let’s just do a little bit of jamming for a couple of hours and then let’s get down to it.” So I realized really — although I loved doing it, I didn’t have the mentality of a musician, of a band member. I was a bit too conformist even for that. I thought actors were fairly unconformist.

Correspondent: Well, A Very Peculiar Practice, I know, that you had basically one writer and one director through a good chunk of the run. Do you prefer that kind of constancy as an actor? As a performer? That this is actually better for you? Do you get nervous if there’s a constant shuffle of directors?

Davison: It depends on what it is. I’ve done a couple of series where the same director has directed all the episodes. I did a series called A Very Peculiar Practice. One director. All Creatures Great and Small, The Last Detective — you’re right. We had different directors coming in actually for most of the episodes. But you still have the same crew coming on every week. You have a certain amount of consistency. It’s just — it’s horses for horses. Series television, I think, is quite good to get varied directors in. Because it just gives it a different spark. A different style to the episode. Whereas if you’re doing a serial, I think it’s important to have, at the most, two directors. Ideally one director. ‘Cause they know exactly what they’re doing.

Correspondent: Speaking of directors, I’m hoping you might be able to provide some light on this rumor involving Peter Grimwade. Director of “Earthshock” and “Kinda.” The story goes — at least promulgated by Eric Saward — that he actually snubbed John Nathan-Turner, didn’t invite him to a party. And then Peter Grimwade eventually was just doing writing for the show. Do you have any insight as to why he stopped directing? Because he was really good.

Davison: Um, he — I think Peter was very talented. He wasn’t — I didn’t think he was that great a director really. As far as the actors were concerned. He probably had good ideas.

Correspondent: Aha. More of a visual director.

Davison: I probably undervalued him, to be honest with you. I didn’t have any say on whether he did any more or not. But he didn’t inspire you with great confidence about what he was doing.

Correspondent: Really?

Davison: As a director. Although I think he was a very talented writer.

Correspondent: Even “Time Flight”?

Davison: Well, “Time Flight.” “Time Flight” was unfortunate, you see. Because “Time Flight,” I think, could have been done very well. But we had no money. The sets were probably the most dreadful sets that Doctor Who had ever had to put up with. And we literally shot England before humans…

Correspondent: Pleistocene. Exactly.

Davison: In Studio 8 of the BBC. With a little model of Concorde sitting on the back of the…and it was just…

Correspondent: And the color separation overlay as the airplane leaves. It was amazingly…

Davison: Catastrophically bad. You felt very frustrated by the fact that there was just no money. The monsters were lumps of polystyrene moving around the set. But I think the actual script itself wasn’t bad. But the realization of it was hugely disappointing.

Correspondent: So it seems to me to make a good Who story, you really need to have good direction and good acting in order to sell the illusion. What do you do when you’ve got a guy like Paul Jerricho delivering “No, not the mind probe!” in absolutely horrendous delivery in “The Five Doctors.” “No, not the mind probe!” Which is a very famous…

Davison: Yes, I know.

Correspodnent: How do you as an actor deal with this?

Davison: (laughs) Well, I think you have to use your instinct and not be led astray by the director. Sometimes, I’m always very, very wary of “Give me a bit more! Give me a bit more!”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Davison: You think, “Oh no! I’m sure that’s not right! I’m sure it’s not right.” But I’ve learned now that you have to make a decision as to whether you’re going to trust the director or not. Who are you going to trust? Do you trust yourself more than the director? And it’s a difficult thing to do.

Correspondent: Did anybody even say anything when he delivered the line that way? I mean, it’s so remarkably bad.

Davison: You know, a lot of directors, I’ve discovered, barely even notice.

Correspondent: Really?

Davison: Visual directors. I’ve worked with a lot of directors where I’ve said entirely the wrong line, entirely the wrong line. Stumbled over it and then I hear the click going, “Okay, let’s move on! Great! Let’s move on!” You’re going, “No, hang on a bit. I said the wrong line!” And they’ll go, “Oh, did you?” They don’t notice.

Correspondent: Wow.

Davison: There are some directors that listen. And I love those directors that listen. Because they’re what you might call actors’ directors. Who are really concerned with what you’re giving as an actor. And you trust them. So if they say, “That’s fine. Let’s move on,” you go, “Okay, that’s fine.” Other directors you know are just looking at the picture. They barely notice. Until they sit down. But you know. They will sit down in the cart and go, “He said it like that? And we let him get away with it?” You don’t know. I mean, when you’re on the floor and you hear someone say, “No, not the mind probe,” you don’t quite know how it’s coming over. Upstairs they should have known how it came over. They should have said, “Let’s go again.” But I think there’s panic. There’s rush. There’s not enough time to get the thing done. They think it will be fine. And it’s very often not.

The Bat Segundo Show #493: Peter Davison (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Russell T. Davies’s End

Longtime readers of this blog know of my antipathy for Russell T. Davies’s contributions to Doctor Who. So it was with no expectations whatsoever that I fired up “Journey’s End,” the season finale of Doctor Who, assuming that my intelligence and my emotions would be condescended to and that the fanwankery set into motion last week would be taken to new masturbatory heights. Yes, there was a gratuitous appearance from K-9. Yes, there was the Davros-Sarah Jane Smith showdown referencing “Genesis of the Daleks.” The less said about the phony resolution to last week’s cliffhanger, the better. And I could do without the ridiculous manner in which Earth was transported across the galaxy.

But despite these melodramatic flourishes, this episode worked for me. It was a fitting end to Davies’s tenure on the show, bringing in nearly all of his supporting characters and leaving the Doctor more or less where he started at the beginning. I enjoyed the Daleks floating above Nuremberg speaking German. (Alas, Davies’s German is not so good. He got the German verb for “Exterminate!” wrong. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the Nazi parallels.) I liked Davros questioning the Doctor’s motives, which not only echoed the lone Dalek from “Dalek,” but referenced similar talk of genocide from “Genesis of the Daleks.” Let’s not forget that in “Genesis,” the Doctor asked Davros whether he would let loose a virus that would destroy all forms of alien life. And this quiet reference to the show’s longtime continuity was a surprisingly restrained Davies moment that I have to give him props for.

The whisper into Rose’s ear, the heartening future of Sarah Jane Smith having a 14-year-old, and Donna’s fate suggested unspoken connections that called into question the notion of what it is to be a companion to the Doctor. Traveling with the Doctor, whether as a companion or a viewer, involves being at a specific time and place in one’s life. But Davies reminded us with this finale that no matter where one is at in the series, there’s always a thread one can pick up. So at the end of Davies’s run, I have to thank Davies for using his influence to revive Who, while remaining wary of his overall writing contributions during the past four years. Nevertheless, I have every faith that, in the hands of Steven Moffatt, Who will truly demonstrate its potential to capture our imagination. And I’m glad that Davies closed out the show with a rousing, if problematic denouement, without entirely taking the easy way out.

Having said all this, however, there’s a part of me that wonders if Moffatt will continue portraying Tennant’s Doctor as the amiable metrosexual we all know him to be. To some degree, Tennant is the Alan Alda Doctor. The geeky guy who knows how to order the best wine at an Italian restaurant, but who will probably get his ass kicked in a roadhouse if the cops don’t show up in time. There were a few reminders of the tough Eccleston Doctor in “Journey’s End,” and I believe Tennant is capable of inhabiting this emotional territory. But I certainly hope we begin to see more of the Doctor’s dark side over the next few years. If Moffatt wimps out, I’ll be one of the first to lock his writing contributiosn in my crosshairs.

[RELATED: Worrisome io9 speculation that Moffatt is overrated.]

Russell T. Davies: The Hack Who Cried “Bad Wolf”

This season’s penultimate episode of Doctor Who, “The Stolen Earth,” was a big fuck you to the fans, giving them everything they seemed to want, or that writer Russell T. Davies seemed to think that they wanted. It featured cheeky nods to Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, the return of Davros (with a ridiculous explanation for how he escaped death), a Richard Dawkins cameo, more holes than a porous street neglected for a decade by a bankrupt city maintenance department, Rose running around Earth with a preposterously gargantuan gun (still no explanation for how she escaped her universe), and an insulting cliffhanger suggesting that we’re getting yet another “it didn’t happen” two-part finale*. Davies even manged to name check Facebook. What next for next week? The Doctor stepping out of the shower, revealing that his real Gallifreyan name is Bobby Ewing, and gallivanting off through time and space with Rose?

I think it’s quite clear that most of us have had enough of Russell T. Davies. The biggest question now is just how much Davies will screw up the show before he hands it off to Steven Moffatt. Keep in mind that we still have a Christmas special and three additional 2009 specials. And every single one of these is to be written by Russell T. Davies.

Yes, I’ll keep watching this train wreck. But between “The Stolen Earth” and this year’s disappointing season of Battlestar, the latter redeemed somewhat by a Planet of the Apes cliffhanger, I’m wondering why I bother. It’s a bit like waiting for George Bush to leave office. With Doctor Who, there’s the hope that the regime change will result in additional intelligence. With Battlestar (new episodes a good year away), it’s hoping that Ronald D. Moore will somehow figure everything out and go out with a bang. But in the meantime, one must sift through a good deal of interstitial dreck. Guess it’s time to dust off the Blake’s 7 and Red Dwarf tapes.

* — I don’t want to reveal what the cliffhanger is for those who haven’t seen it, but if it goes the way I think it will, then it will make Graham Williams’s infamous “let’s try out new bodies” scene for Romana look like Moliere.

[UPDATE: Charlie Anders offers her thought on this fantastic travesty, pointing out, “Since each finale has to top the last, I’m guessing next year would involve a magic virus that turns everyone in the universe into a Sontaran, including Rose, and then the Cybermen from 29 different universes fight with the Gelth, with exploding ribbons! Spoilers for what actually did happen ahead.” Indeed. I must confess that I have a morbid curiosity as to just how much of a mess RTD is going to make for Moffatt. It’s almost as if the man is determined to create a massive continuity clusterfuck that will take at least three seasons to sort out. As for the heartbeat that Donna hears, am I the only one who thinks that this is actually the Dalek heartbeat? I mean, the heartbeat in question had the same intonation and everything. Seemed like this was a foreshadowing to Donna transforming into a Dalek and her character being killed off the show. That’s my prediction at any rate.]

The Last Days of Russell T. Davies

“Turn Left” isn’t quite as appalling as last year’s “This didn’t really happen” two-part Doctor Who finale. But it’s still filled with Russell T. Davies’s insufferable complacency. There doesn’t appear to be much of a purpose to this episode, other than for Davies to remind the Who fans just what he’s given them. It reminded me of the childish “Dimensions in Time” promotional nonsense that John Nathan-Turner was once deservedly ridiculed for, but that Who fans now accept without question. (I also don’t think it was an accident that we were given a moment in which the TARDIS was gutted by Torchwood, with numerous wires and cables affixed to the dying police box. There seemed something metaphorical here about Davies’s relationship with the show.)

Now I’ll give Davies last week’s “Midnight.” Once you got past that episode’s first ten minutes of touchy-feely nonsense (Wow! A lesbian!), Davies did spin a half-decent claustrophobic yarn, helped in part by Alice Troughton’s crisp direction and the fascinating bigotry channeled by David Troughton. But let’s face it. On the whole, Davies’s writing contributions have amounted to little more than camp, politically correct casting, and speculative fiction premises that are about as cutting-edge as a Betty Crocker recipe unleashed at an Eisenhower fundraising event.

“Turn Left” reminds us of the reprehensible fat blob babies from “Partners in Crime,” the disappearing hospital from “Smith and Jones,” and numerous other references to the last four years that suggest deep import. But it’s been Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Robert Shearman, and Steven Moffatt’s scripts that have offered originality and intelligence, and have kept the show rolling. (The less said about Helen Raynor’s “give the people what they want at the expense of Who mythology” two-parters, the better.)

That insectoid on Donna’s back was about as convincing as a leftover prop from a Roger Corman cheapie. Hell, Alpha Centuari, that silly six-armed alien from the Pertwee Peladon stories, was more convincing. And you want to know why? Because at least that silly supporting character had heart. The unspeaking insect was utterly ridiculous in its purpose and its motivations. “Turn Left”‘s premise, complete with the insultingly pedestrian paradox presented in the episode’s title, was bullshit. We’re expected to believe that the Doctor wouldn’t regenerate after being smitten down by a spider queen. Never mind that the Timelord was able to regenerate after being poisoned by spectrox toxaemia. Rose Tyler appears from another universe that she was supposedly trapped in without any reasonable explanation. And it has long been clear to anyone watching the show that the Doctor is useless without his companions. So why ramrod this point into the audience’s noggins?

Next week sees the first of a two-part finale featuring Captain Jack, Daleks, three companions, and a partridge in a pear tree. It too is written by Russell T. Davies. And I fear the worst. I hope that some of the “Midnight” special comes through. But until Russell T. Davies is gone permanently, I suspect that I will be forced to drink copious amounts of bourbon to cope with Davies’s unpardonable tamperings.

Oh Come On, Russell T. Davies

I have been watching an episode of Doctor Who called “The Unicorn and the Wasp” that is set around Agatha Christie’s disappearance. The giant wasp flying around, in clear defiance of the laws of gravity, is bad enough. But I cannot for the life of me accept an episode that includes the following story holes:

1. Despite the fact that Agatha Christie disappeared for eleven days in December 1926, everything outside is inexplicably sunny. And the formal wear is inexplicably summery. No snow or winter winds, eh?

2. Donna, the companion played by Catherine Tate, brings up Miss Marple, who Christie introduced in December 1927 (“The Tuesday Night Club,” Issue 350 of The Royal Magazine), the year after her disappearance. This is a neat effort on Roberts’s part to suggest Christie being influenced by Donna. The problem is that Christie got the name from a railway station she was stranded in. Noticing the sign, the name stuck.

3. Donna also references “talking pictures” and Agatha Christie is baffled by such a concept. Actually, talking pictures were already showing as shorts. Before The Jazz Singer appeared in 1927, Al Jolson spoke in the 1926 Vitaphone short, “A Plantation Act.” And cinema with sound wasn’t entirely a crazed concept.

4. In front of an entire kitchen staff, the Doctor performs a wild pantomine and, using his Gallifrey biology, manages to escape cyanide poisoning. Everybody, including Christie (who was a nurse), accepts this preternatural discovery without a second thought. The next cut has everybody seated at dinner.

5. Where is Agatha Christie’s daughter? As I understand it, she went upstairs to kiss her shortly before disappearing.

I’m about 25 minutes into this, and I’ve now almost totally lost interest in the story. I can suspend disbelief up to a point. But when the writers clearly think so little of audience intelligence, when they cannot perform even the most rudimentary research on a major figure who, quite frankly, I’m hardly an expert on (all of the above, with the exception of the story reference, was lifted from my noggin) — a British icon, no less — one wonders whether there was even anyone trying for accuracy on this. And then one is reminded that Russell T. Davies remains the producer. The handoff to Steven Moffatt cannot happen fast enough.

UPDATE: Okay, maybe I’m just being too damn picky, but surely the art director on Doctor Who could have spent more time getting the title font kerning right, as well as making sure the artist’s signature was there the woman’s skirt. The drop shadows are off too.

A still from the episode:

The dust jacket from the 1926 edition of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd:

And here’s a closer shot. The woman is arched over too much. And I’m wondering if the actor is holding the book in that way because the art director messed up something on the lower left-hand corner.

And here’s Agatha Christie returning after her disappearance to the Harrogate Hydropathic Hotel, with a hilarious modern-looking sign and an exterior that looks nothing like the place (now called the Old Swan Hotel).