November Books 14-15) Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale / Tolkien’s Book of Lost Tales

14) Doctor Who – The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter, by Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook
15) The Book of Lost Tales I, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

Both of these books are about the creative process of writing, though writing in very different situations. Davies and Cook exchanged emails and texts for the last two years of Davies’ tenure as show-runner of Doctor Who (ie 2007-2009), so the narrative is spontaneous, spur of the moment, and feels very genuine (though of course the reader cannot know what has been edited out in the process). I had already read the first half, and Cook and Davies spend some time in the second half discussing the reception of the original version. The Book of Lost Tales, on the other hand, was published in 1983, interpreted from a series of longhand notebooks started by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1917, as later interpreted by his son Christopher. Davies is perpetually struggling with deadlines, with his other responsibilities as showrunner, with his role as a public figure and spokesman not only for his own show but for his industry. It is rather different from Tolkien’s series of linked short stories, written in his spare time from his academic career and family obligations; once he decided to abandon the Lost Tales and start over, he probably did not expect that they would ever see the light of day – this is essentially a private set of thoughts whose author did not deem them ready for publication.

But both books, though written ninety years apart, offer insights into the process of writing, crafting and drafting, trying to get it right, be it over the period of weeks and months of producing Doctor Who, or the decades which led to Tolkien’s great works. Occasionally one can trace particular elements to the outside world: Ben Cook, normally a passionate but detached observer, persuades Davies not to end Journey’s End with a Cyberman teaser for The Next DoctorThe Writer’s Tale is much more interesting than The Book of Lost Tales. Structured as a dialogue between two writers, with lots of pretty pictures and extra amaterial, it is also about a success: whether or not one is a fan of Who or of Davies’ treatment of it, the fact is that he revived a faded franchise and made it a hit, and that in itself is a good story even if we are only getting the final years. I commented about the first edition that there were a lot of deaths in it; there is only one in the second half, but it is significant – the mother of the Executive Producer, Julie Gardner, of the same illness which Davies’ own mother had succumbed to a few years earlier. While of course all authors draw on many life experiences, it’s not too fanciful, I think, to see a direct link between this and the creation of the Claire Bloom character in The End of Time, who in Davies’ mind is very explicitly the Doctor’s own mother.

The Book of Lost Tales, on the other hand, is of interest more because of what it eventually led to, and also to an extent because of what fed into it, than because of the content. Of course Tolkien drew on the ancient literature with which he was very familiar in crafting his own work; but the style seemed to me to have strong links with Lord Dunsany and with the earlier and less weird Lovecraft. Dunsany’s The Gods of Pegāna had of course been published in 1905, but I see that Lovecraft only started publishing horror in 1919, so I guess it is a case of two contemporaries drawing from a common well.

I couldn’t really recommend The Book of Lost Tales to anyone but a Tolkien enthusiast (and I have been one for most of my life, but have only now got around to reading it 27 years after it was published). The Writer’s Tale, however, is probably the best book about Doctor Who that will ever be written, and of immense interest to anyone who cares about television, sf, or indeed the creative process.

One thought on “November Books 14-15) Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale / Tolkien’s Book of Lost Tales

  1. Ah, extremely limiting indeed. There are usually loopholes to be exploited in precognition, like are things pre-ordained or changeable, but with limited views into the future you might have to play a very long game – if it were possible at all.

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