Before he took a temporary hiatus Eddie took the chance to talk to Kill the Moon writer Peter Harness about his upcoming S9 Zygon two parter.
How did you go from being someone who wrote to a professional writer?
Well, I always wrote, ever since I was little. I think I wanted to be an actor when I was younger, probably because I wanted to play Doctor Who, but somewhere along the line, the writing took over and led me elsewhere, and since then I’ve never really made any serious effort to do anything else. I left a good university with a good degree, but I didn’t bother going to find a proper job, instead I locked myself away and wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I kept plugging away at it through failure and poverty and rejection, and after a few years which felt like a few lifetimes, I started to get odd bits and pieces of work, which then became more regular, which eventually became something which you might call a career. That’s how I did it, and it’s really as simple as that. Being a writer requires a bit of talent, but mostly it’s about commitment, and the ability to actually finish whatever you start.
How did the Doctor Who gig come about?
I’d been hovering around Doctor Who for years, telling anyone I knew who was even vaguely involved with making the series how much I’d like to write for it. Eventually, probably to shut me up, someone listened and invited me in to pitch ideas to Steven. And after a ceremonial trip round the Doctor Who exhibition in Earls Court, I showed up to the meeting and pitched them what would eventually become ‘Kill The Moon’. Of course, that story got a bit snarled up in development for a while, and I had to go off and writeJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, so it took a year or two between the initial pitch and the story making it to the screen. But I think it was all the better for it (although I’m sure some people wish it was still on the drawing board).
Whats the writing process with Dr Who? And was it different for Kill The Moon to the Zygon 2 Parter?
Well, personally speaking, it’s the same writing process I follow with anything. I come up with a vague idea – a world, a setting, a character or two that I’d like to explore – and then I just play around with that for a while. My first stages are always a bit chaotic, a bit messy and frustrating. I like to explore all sorts of different possibilities until I land up on the one which I think’s right. So I write odd scenes, bits of dialogue, to get me into the world and the tone and the heads of the people who are going to take us through the story; and eventually, these things coalesce into a first draft. I think of the first draft as my Morecambe-and-Wise draft – “all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order” – it gives me something to shape and rewrite and tinker with until I’m happy. Or until they start filming and are banging at my door, threatening legal action if I don’t hand in a script immediately. That’s more or less my process on everything.
For Doctor Who it’s not much different, except that the whole thing is overseen by Steven. Which is a terrific bonus and should be the case with all scripts. We meet up and discuss the initial outline, the first draft, and then I get notes all the way from there until the episode’s finished. ‘Kill The Moon’ was a little different to the Zygon story, because ‘Kill The Moon’ was my idea, whereas the Zygon story came from Steven. But I had a lot of room to flesh it out and steer it in whatever direction I fancied. The second part is co-written between Steven and me – we didn’t sit in a room together doing it, but we pinged it back and forth a fair bit in the later stages, as I think he had fairly definite ideas about where it should go towards the end, and particularly how Osgood’s story should evolve. I felt very glad of his input, and it’s a terrific privilege to write something alongside him.
What did you think of the finished version? Were the actors like the characters you wrote etc?
I haven’t seen the finished version of episode 8 yet, with all its music and effects and bells and whistles, but from the work-in-progress version that I’ve seen, I love it. And I love ‘Kill The Moon’ and ‘The Zygon Invasion’ too. Of course things change from script to screen, but that’s all part of the process, and one can’t regret it too much. One can’t mourn the little bits and pieces that end up on the cutting room floor. If you’re working with a good team, who have good judgement, then things’ll usually change and develop for the better. And that’s the case with Doctor Who. I like working that way, I like it that TV is a collaborative medium, in which the work evolves into its final form. And, more or less, I love everything that I’ve ever written: these scripts are my babies, I have to love them, even if they occasionally have an odd blemish here and there, or they don’t behave quite as I think they should.
What did you think of the fan reaction… it was mostly good as far as I could see. The spiders were terrifying!
Well, ‘Kill The Moon’ was obviously a bit of a Marmite story – clearly, it divided people. To a sizeable group, it was a fantastic episode, one of the best ever, they loved it. And to another, perhaps equally sizeable group, it was one of the worst ever and I shouldn’t ever be allowed anywhere near a script ever again. I can’t pretend that I’m overjoyed at the latter reaction, because any criticism is unpleasant, but if you write things that millions of people see, then you’re never going to get it right for everyone. And I think it’ll always be an episode that’s discussed and remembered, which I’d much rather have than one that’s just forgotten about. Difficult though it is, you can’t take on board too much of the reaction to anything, good or bad, because it’ll get in the way, it’ll make you write to someone else’s taste. So, if you can, you’ve just got to write according to your own judgement, and trust that.
What can you tell us about the Zygon story. A sequel to Day of the Doctor must have been daunting
Well, it’s not really a sequel to ‘Day of the Doctor’, it just picks up one of the threads and takes it elsewhere. And I couldn’t possibly allow myself to think “I’m writing a sequel to the Greatest Doctor Who Story Of All Time.” That would have driven me even more nuts than I am already. As I say, you’ve got to shut off too much extraneous noise when you’re writing, you’ve just got to focus on what’s in front of you, so I didn’t let the history or iconography of Zygons, Osgood, UNIT etc, weigh too heavily on me. What can I tell you about it? Well, it’s a partial sequel to ‘Mawdryn Undead’ (if you can spot it). It tells us something revealing about the Doctor’s choice of clothes. And there’s a Hartnell cameo. Ha!