Planet Gallifrey: An Interview with Steve Gallagher

Sunday, July 17

An Interview with Steve Gallagher

When I decided to attend the Vworp 4 mini Doctor Who convention in Manchester I had one real goal in mind and that was to have a chance to interview one of my favourite Doctor Who writers from the classic series, Steve Gallagher.

Steve, who penned Warriors Gate (Season 18) and Terminus (Season 20), does not attend conventions very often although I find it hard to believe that he “does not get asked much” as he is a very engaging and fascinating gentleman.  He is quite conscious of not being one of those people who earns a living from convention going like some do for “holding a spear once in 1974” but equally appeared to be delighted to have been asked to Vworp 4

Not only did Steve grant me an interview but he insisted we moved outside in the blistering sunshine (yes that was the one day of summer!) so I could record the interview better and granted me 30 mins of his time which I am extremely grateful for.

Hi Steve – Do you find it amazing that here we are in 2011 talking about a show that started in 1963?

It is amazing to me that even though Doctor Who is a flagship show once again, the BBC still does not understand what it has. There are people in the organisation who seem to feel that such a programme embarrasses the institution. They'll play around with scheduling and budgets just like they did when Michael Grade was in charge, and claim that it’s the show's fault if ratings are affected. However, its longevity and success cannot be denied by anyone.

Your first contribution to the show came in 1980 with Warriors’ Gate? How do you regard that show now?

Quite a few of the key elements that I wrote remained within the episodes, but a lot of things were stripped out. Because I was young and relatively naive I asked for things that weren’t achievable on the budget. As I got older I learned what you could push for and what you couldn’t

Was that the case with Terminus which followed three years later?

The same situation, really. I do remember Eric Saward telling me to shoot for the sky ideas-wise, but obviously there was a limit on what could be done. On that show I wrote in a small robot which gave them all sorts of problems on the studio floor, way out of proportion to its story value. Though when it came to the Garm, I described it as essentially two glowing red eyes in a dark silhouette, and nothing more. They didn’t take the easy option and ended up creating this elaborate Hector's House doglike creature!

Your ideas are very visual and your concepts complex at times. What was the level of disappointment when you saw your ideas not transferred successfully to screen?

I suppose I was a bit crestfallen at the time. You almost want to buttonhole every viewer and tell them what you really wanted them to see, but of course that is not feasible. A lot did get through, though. That derelict castle in Warriors' Gate is spot-on. And the core ideas of Norse mythology in Terminus are there if you look for them.

Early on I remember being left in the Production Office, and as you do I took the chance to sneak a look at some of the other submissions on the editor's desk. I quickly realised that other, more experienced writers were writing to budget. But I was encouraged not to do that. I was told to work up whatever concepts I could imagine. The job of bringing it to life on the screen would be someone else’s problem. Which can be a recipe for conflict, if you think about it.

Did you have a preference between working for Christopher H Bidmead and Eric Saward?

Well it was Chris that gave me my break which, of course, I am grateful for. He was very much into science and numbers; he was the first person I knew to have a word processor. We both believed that things in the show should have some sense of a connection to reality. For example the concept of Dwarf Star Alloy (which recently made a re-appearance in Day of the Moon) may not be scientifically possible, but within the context of the show it flies by with a certain plausibility.

As for Eric, well, he was more of a details man. As I mentioned before he would tell me to shoot for the stars but I remember getting a note from him on one of my proposals saying, “it's another million pound production and we just can't do them.”

You have referred to yourself as “old guard” and that you and new Doctor Who wouldn’t mesh. What do you think of current Doctor Who? 

I like the new version a lot, though I think the sonic screwdriver solves far too many issues and is essentially a magic wand. But having said that, it's probably the new fairytale-inspired approach of Steve Moffat that has drawn me back in. The Doctor and Amy – they're basically Peter Pan and Wendy, aren't they? We even had a shot of Amy flying outside the Tardis in her old-fashioned nightdress!

I appreciated the Russell T Davies era on an intellectual level, but I think I fell out of synch with it and drifted away after a couple of seasons. Davies did a great job but he has much more love and tolerance for irritating characters than I have. I kept recording the episodes but they just sat there on the DVR. I thought Tennant was very good, though, and I made a point of watching “Blink” and “Girl in the Fireplace” because of Moffat and thoroughly enjoyed them. I raised an eyebrow when he took over. I thought, why take over a show that is already a franchise and runaway success? Why not branch out on your own? I don't think that now.

Could you not argue he has done that with Sherlock?

To a degree. I loved the approach, though I found the stories a bit uneven. But story points are less important than the 'take' because if that doesn't work, the show never will. All the intangibles are there and they feel right, which is why it worked right from the beginning.

Obviously Sherlock has eccentricity in abundance in Benedict Cumberbatch. But what about our own Matt Smith. Has he made the role of the Doctor his own?

When I first saw he had the role I thought ‘my God, that'll never work, he's 12 years old!’ But as I watched him I could see the same reasoned eccentricity that you see in Sherlock, the same kind of thought patterns there on the screen. Smith plays it like a ninety five year old man let loose with a teenager’s energy and he plays that character really well.

As a writer which shows have really caught your imagination in the last couple of years?

There was Terriers, which starred Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James. It only lasted for one season of 13 episodes before it was axed. But imagine the two guys in a pickup truck from Tremors working as unlicensed private investigators. The writing on that show was superb. Thankfully they gave the season a logical story arc with a conclusion, so at least viewers weren't denied closure when it was cut.

I also loved Damian Lewis in Life, as a convicted police officer who is released after twelve years in jail for a crime he did not commit. He appears to have taken a Zen approach to find inner peace, but the real joy of the show comes when his hidden desire for revenge is revealed. This one lasted two seasons but again it had a perfect story arc to conclude the show.

Your experiences with American networks will allow you to empathise with these shows plight surely?

Of course. But the American readiness to kill shows is matched by a readiness to take a big gamble on just about anything. And when it comes to cancellations they're not anti-quality, they're just pro-numbers. Shows get picked for their potential appeal and killed for their bottom line, but in the space between the two there's always going to be something interesting to see. And when cancellation comes you learn to shrug your shoulders and move on to the next project. The US version of my Eleventh Hour delivered a season average of 12.15 million viewers for CBS, peaking at 15 million. This would be excellent even or a prime time 9pm show, but we were on at 10pm.

CBS broadcast the show, but their studio didn't make it. Warner Bros was the studio, so they stood to collect all the non-broadcast profits. It made more economic sense for CBS to bring Medium (which their own studio made) over from NBC, who'd just cancelled it, than to continue with our show despite its ratings. We were all disappointed. But that's 18 hours of TV that I'm proud of, and in the next 6 months I sold two more pilots.

The one thing I have learned from being a TV writer is this is not a just universe!