Doctor Who's Top 5 and Bottom 3 Writers

Here's a way to get myself into hot water with readers... One of the things I started thinking about while reading Time Unincorporated, with all its attacks on and defenses of various eras, is the issue of Doctor Who being sold as essentially a writer's medium. After all, even to this day, the writer gets credit right at the top of each episode. As one essay in the book says, Doctor Who is BY someone. So who, then, are the best (and worst) contributors to Doctor Who in that regard?

The following lists are in chronological order going up to the present and then back down to the past. It is not a numbered ranking. Only on-air material credited to that writer has been considered, though script editing or extracanonical novels and audios may act as deciding factors when appropriate. And while I did consider a minimum of 3 classic stories/new series episodes as a minimum contribution, I've tried to differentiate between that contribution's importance/quantity and its quality. That's why you won't find Eric Saward, Terrance Dicks or Russell T Davies in these lists even if the mark they left on the program both as writers and script editors is hugely noticeable. To me, they sit somewhere in the middle quality-wise. Of course, you can make a case for them in the comments section. And of course, all this doesn't take into account how scripts are changed by script editors, production requirements, et al. We all understand the rules? Ok, let's go.

Top 5
David Whitaker
Doctor Who's very first script editor is also credited with 8 stories, each more different than the next. So though I really love John Lucarotti's historicals from the Hartnell era, it's Whitaker who's the real maverick, keeping the show in exploration mode before more formulaic eras move in. He could deserve a place in this list by virtue of the Shakespearean The Crusade alone, but look at what else he's written. The Edge of Destruction is a surreal thriller inside the TARDIS, off putting and ultimately wonderful. In The Rescue, nonsense plot aside, he creates the first new companion and edges the Doctor closer to the role of hero. Many consider The Power of the Daleks and The Evil of the Daleks the last instances of the Daleks being well used (debatable, but these do tell a story that's about more than "EXTERMINATE!!!"). The Enemy of the World is a rare 2nd Doctor story that doesn't use the base under siege trope, or even an alien monster. While all his stories aren't classics, Whitaker nevertheless delivered on variety even once he wasn't in charge of the script editing. I might go so far as to credit him for the show's ability to reinvent itself, insuring its longevity.

Malcolm Hulke
In Malcolm Hulke, we have a Doctor Who writer who refuses to paint the world in black and white. Best known for creating relatively minor but well-remembered monsters like the Silurians, Sea Devils and Draconians, it is important to note that none of these were ever shown to be "evil" (as the Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans always were). They were societies, with both good and bad elements, peacemongers and warmongers in each. Just as humanity was. Hulke often made the threat come from humans as the Doctor tried desperately to prevent a war. Even in stories that clearly don't work, like Invasion of the Dinosaurs, it's the effects that disappoint, not the characterization. The fall of Mike Yates is proof that even a good man and friend can find himself on the wrong side of an issue (the same could be said of the Brigadier in Silurians). Each of his 8 stories has some element of this, and in general, his extreme left wing politics don't get in the way of the story. The audience still gets to decide who they think is right, if anyone.

Robert Holmes
When people discuss classic Who writers, Bob Holmes invariably comes up on top. Overrated? Only if you say all his stories are brilliant. Let's not forget there's The Space Pirates and The Two Doctors in there. With some 18 credits to his name, as well as a major influence on the Hinchcliffe era's entire canon, Holmes is certainly one of the most important contributors to Who. In terms of quality too. Best known for his "double acts", characters seeded in any given story to channel the writer's ease with banter, Holmes is one of Who's wittier writers. The Talons of Weng-Chiang possibly remains the best Doctor Who story, ever. Holmes created the Autons and Sontarans (neither of which were ever used to good effect by other writers) and created the template for the Time Lords we know today. His other trademarks were retooling classic horror tropes into Doctor Who monsters and satirizing bureaucracy and television itself (going meta-textual on several occasions), all of which he did excessively well.

Paul Cornell
I'm bending my own rules here, because while Paul Cornell's work on New Who does amount to three episodes, they're only really two stories (albeit two extremely good stories). Cornell's here in large part as a representative of the wasteland between classic and new Who. His New Adventures novels are extremely well regarded, with Love and War and Human Nature consistently touted (and not at all without cause) among the best Doctor Who stories ever, in any medium. The former introduced us with one of the best and most loved companions of all time, Bernice Summerfield, who went on to star in her own books and audios. And the latter was adapted as a Series 3 two-parter! His actual on-screen credits are deeply moving, personal stories, with just the right dashes of bravado and strangeness. I don't want him to take time off the great work he's doing at DC Comics these days, but I'd love him to pen more episodes down the line.

Steven Moffat
Before he became Doctor Who's showrunner, Steven Moffat had already won a place on this list thanks to his intricate and clever time travel plots and for laying more subtext than we'd seen since Ghost Light. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is a sexual commentary on the series, and Time Crash a brief, but satisfying love letter to it. Blink is a masterpiece of plotting, and The Girl in the Fireplace a wonderful fairy tale. And of course, there's the mysterious River Song, frustrating some who don't want the Doctor to take part in sexual politics, but intriguing most (enough so my Who Is River Song? post still gets dozens of hits every day). And the fear factor! Monsters under you bed, "Are you my mummy?", don't blink or the statues'll get you! All of this he brought to Series 5 - a clever series-long (and beyond) time travel plot, a fairy tale quality, more River than ever, creepy monsters (the Cyberman head ALONE...), loving references to classic Who, and subtext up the wazoo. We're in good hands right now.

And now for the bottom. The same rules apply, though the order now descends back through time. I must say I tried to get a New Who writer on there, but even the weakest could at least match the stories of those I left in the middle somewhere. Helen Rayner, for example, saves herself with two good Torchwood stories, even if her Doctor Who 2-parters had some dodgy ideas. Again, I realize that bad scripts might have been saved by the showrunner, the production team or the actors, just as some of the writers singled out below might have been let down by the same. Still, if your credit's gonna be at the front of the episode, you're gonna get blamed.

Bottom 3

Pip and Jane Baker
The Bakers don't have an ear for dialog, which is a big part of why they're here. Even in their interviews on their stories' DVD extras, they coo and flaunt the way they like to be educational and have kids scurry off to check their dictionaries to find out what a particular word means. That's not a bad thing in itself, except they have every single character talk that way. The 6th Doctor has that in his baggage (largely because Colin Baker... another dictionary-minded Baker!), but when everyone does it, there's really no sense that the Bakers are writing for different characters. Dialog via thesaurus, and to the point where even the most mundane conversation sounds like technobabble. Not that they're guiltless when it comes to bad plotting. While Terror of the Vervoids isn't too bad an Agatha Christie mystery, fluffy though it might be, they still have to account for what most fans consider the worst Doctor Who story ever - Time and the Rani. Not that Mark of the Rani makes any sense either.

Christopher Bidmead
Chris Bidmead's particular sin is thinking that his interest in math and computing are in any way interesting to a Doctor Who audience. He's only credited for three stories, two of them - Logopolis and Castrovalva - surreal math/computer metaphors. And you know, I can't remember a single thing about Frontios. Now, these stories all have good elements, and with distance there's a certain aesthetic interest in entropy coinciding with the 4th Doctor's departure from the series. The math puzzles (TARDIS within a TARDIS, the universe sustained my mathematicians calculating the universe's equation, etc.) are intriguing, but on repeat viewings are boredom-inducing. In the same way that I praised some script editors above, I have to admit some of my distaste for Bidmead lies in his own script editing during the 4th Doctor's last season. His tack was to dial back on the comedy/silliness injected by Douglas Adams and Tom Baker, but the pendulum need not have swung so far back! He robbed the Doctor, Romana and K9 of much of their natural humor and replaced with discussions about recursion and mathematical concepts (introducing e-space and Adric into the mix). Just the wrong instincts.

Terry Nation
What?! I've got the creator of the Daleks on here?!? Why yes, I do. For one thing, it is debatable whether Terry Nation deserves as much credit as he does for the Daleks. He scribbled on a page that they should look completely inhuman, be encased inside a machine, and move without apparent means of locomotion, leaving it to the now-embittered production designer Raymond Cusick to interpret. What made the Daleks overnight sensations then? Their look or their first story? Because it's important to say that their first story is one of Nation's only stories. He repeats almost beat for beat in Planet of the Daleks, and elements from it come up again and again throughout his work. Plagues, postwar wastelands, barely characterized female characters (he once told his script editor he couldn't write for them), ramping up the danger only to resort to a cop-out solution, invisible aliens (I don't get this one, but it's shown up much too often), Flash Gordon physics and planets named after their plot function (Aridius is a desert and Mechanus is where the characters meet abandoned robots). His other "story" is the serial that has the characters running from environment to environment with barely a plot in place. The Keys of Marinus, The Chase and The Daleks' Masterplan all fall into this category. In one episode, you might have Barbara and Ian fighting a living jungle (also a common trope of his), and in the next, the Doctor is involved in a court case. Not only do these force the production crew to cut corners to achieve this production design extravaganza, but they barely keep the audience from noticing there's no story at all. According to the many DVD extras I've consumed, it seems that Nation often "phoned in" scripts, writing them in a matter of days, and often just submitting outlines for the editor to fill out. Consequently, I must assume the quality of Genesis of the Daleks is all up to Bob Holmes, and the funny bits in Destiny of the Daleks obvious Douglas Adams additions. But at some point, Nation didn't want the Daleks to be used unless he wrote them, so... we got what we got because the show's most popular monsters were held at ransom.

But you might not agree or have your own horses to praise or flog. You know what to do.


Anonymous said...

Controversy! I still think Russell T. Davies belongs on the list of best writers. Oh, lord knows I can come up with a long list of crimes to charge him with -- the man made me stop loving the very notion of "farting space monsters" and I didn't think I ever could -- but credit where it is due for having the right instincts on how to modernize the series while keeping consistent with its roots. The fast-paced dialogue rather than plodding BBC drone, the extended cast back on earth, the season-long story arcs that nonetheless allowed a user to enjoy episodes in standalone mode ... the guy does not receive nearly enough credit.

I could point to any number of good stories under Eccleston or Tennant, but I'll single out just a few scenes where RTD more than holds his own:

- "Boom Town": Margaret the Farting Space Monster explaining that she's not so evil any longer, and the Doctor telling her why random acts of kindness don't matter.

- "Bad Wolf": the Doctor threatening the Dalek fleet with essentially a bluff (which he later made good on).

- "Christmas Invasion": Harriet's speech about why we can't count on the Doctor. The lady had a point.

- "The Next Doctor": "I guess they all break my heart." I don't like the Doctor so much in Lonely God Mode, but damn if it didn't ring true for once.

- Every single scene with Wilf, and most of the scenes with Donna.

There are no shortage of RTD cringe-inducing moments, but even Moffat gave us Space Whale Is Friend To Children Everywhere, so if Moffat can get on the list, so should Davies.

Siskoid said...

I agree that his character work has been excellent, but for me, each time there was an awesome character scene, it had, very near it, a groan-inducing moment (usually because the writer couldn't filter his ideas). I can't say that about any writer I put on the list.

I know I lost my patience for it during the Specials. There's certainly a cumulative effect here. I might forgive fart monsters, but would later perhaps wince at sex with tiles, and throw up my hands in despair at Ghost Rider Master flying around. Perhaps with some distance, I'll change my mind. Ask me again in 5-10 years.

snell said...

I'd say that Davies was a better showrunner than writer, especially at the end (Midnight notwithstanding) when his scripts essentially became a parade of self-congratulatory homages to how wonderful his era was. Great character moments, but when multiple "Companion Farewell Tours" kept getting in the way of actual plots, well, the show teetered into fanfic territory too often.

I rather liked Frontios, despite crap special effects that almost ruined it. Castrovalva wasn't much, but in the old series a new Doctor's first story was almost always underwhelming...almost as if there was a production mandate to not let any story get in the way of showcasing the new star. Overall i rather enjoyed Bidmead's era, especially as I thought the panto of the previous seasons was killing the show (at least for me).

Yeah, and Terry Nation was crap.

Siskoid said...

I also gave Davies credit as a producer. A better producer than writer (which Moffat may turn out not to be, we'll see).

Matthew Turnage said...

I'd definitely put Davies on the top writers list with credits like The End of The World, Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways, Tooth and Claw, Utopia, Partners in Crime, Midnight and Turn Left to his name. All among the very best of Who IMO, and enough to move him ahead of David Whitaker for me.

Terry Nation doesn't deserve to on the bottom. The Daleks, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Daleks Masterplan and Genesis of the Daleks are all classics. If he reused certain ideas its most likely because he was asked to keep churning out Dalek stories. I think its also unfair to assume Bob Holmes deserves more credit for Genesis given a) there's no evidence for it that I'm aware of; and b) you don't discount Paul Cornell's contributions, despite RTD's reputation for rewriting scripts.

I also wouldn't put Bidmead at the bottom. I haven't seen Frontios yet, but I love Logopolis and Castrovalva.

Anonymous said...

Siskoid: fair enough about RTD. The guy's given us some of the best and also some of worst of "Doctor Who", and that's saying a lot.

The "Boom Town" dinner scene, showing RTD at the top of his game:

They simply never would have done this scene in old "Who".

I was going to find other Slitheen clips to showcase the other side of the RTD coin, but then I realized I was tapping one of the most powerful database engines in existence to find "Doctor Who vinegar fart", and I realized I need to reassess my life.

Siskoid said...

It is very easy to fill the top 5 with New Who writers, because 1) they are more in tune with how we like our television today and 2) their stories are fresher in our minds. I didn't want to do that. I'd surely put RTD as #6, though if I were to move him up, it'd be either in Cornell's slot (the volume argument) or Hulke's (the padding argument).

With him and Nation (oh you've seen enough of the Daleks' Master Plan have you?), while there is some good stuff, time eventually showed where their weaknesses lay. But it's only ever opinion, and yours is as solid as mine.

Jeff R. said...

So how does Douglas Adams not make the top five part, though? You said you rejected the 3 story limit (and even then Shada's been recreated enough times to sneak it in, plus the script doctoring work on Destiny and others....)

Siskoid said...

I'm surprised it took 8 comments for Adams to get a mention!

Well, let's look at his televised credits. The Pirate Planet. That's it. Not a bad story, certainly filled with fun ideas, but I wouldn't call it truly great.

There's City of Death, but that was written by like 3 people (as "Robin Bland"). The good bits are almost certainly all his. It does show off how unreliable he was though, terminally late with scripts, and like Terry Nation, handing in bit and pieces rather than full scripts. I didn't count Shada, I know.

As for the script editing, it was partially responsible for one of the sillier eras in Doctor Who, which went as far into the wrong territory as I claim Bidmead sent it the other way.

I like what he's done, don't get me wrong, but he didn't quite reach my Top 5.

Matthew Turnage said...

Yeah, I don't blame you for your opinion as RTD and Nation certainly have their flaws, but for me the good outweighs the bad.

I've only seen the surviving episodes of DMP, but I've got the narrated soundtrack and I'm judging the story based off that. I'd rate it as one of the First Doctor's best, and one of the best Dalek stories. The Nation scripted episodes (bar The Feast of Steven) are the best of the bunch for my money, although the last three or four episodes pick back up after a couple of slow Spooner-penned tales. We can probably blame that on trying to fill 12 episodes with one story, though.

Siskoid said...

I've of course seen the surviving episodes, but not heard the rest. Concidence: In the same batch of emails that signaled your response to me, I got a shipping confirmation from Amazon for my soundtracks for the Hartnell stories.

LiamKav said...

Working out how much credit is due to the script editor is always tricky. Take "Remembrance of the Daleks". Usually considered one of the top 3 classic Who episodes. Do we give first-time wrtier Ben Aaronovitch the credit for that, or script editor Andrew Cartmel?

With classic Who, because we had a large number of script editors it was easier to see the influence they had on the stories. Since we've only had two with new Who, it's much harder to spot what is there's and what is the approach of the show in general.

I will say that one of RTD's greatest tricks was making Tennent in to a "National Teasure" (TM). Always a shame JNT never managed something like that.

Siskoid said...

I've often thought RTD and JNT did the same things. One well, and the other badly.

Unknown said...

this has problems, for a start steven moffat is awful, as were most of his creations, then there's the fact that you have completely missed out douglas adams, who wrote the greatest episode ever, and then theres the fact thet terry nations on here purely because Raymond cusack was more important to the daleks creation, and not because of the quality of his writing

Siskoid said...

First, those aren't problems, they're differences of opinion. (And Adams doesn't meet the 3 episodes as writer criterion unless you count Shada.)

Second, I put Nation in the bottom, not the top, which makes me question whether you read the post at all!


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