Dennis Potter/Doctor Who

So the story goes, as was revealed some years ago now, that Dennis Potter, a television script-writer with a staggering reputation, once submitted a script, storyline, or at least an idea to Doctor Who during the early years of the show.

It makes sense. Potter had flirted with writing for TV in the years immediately before Doctor Who began, but it wasn’t until the series became established, around 1965, that Potter settled on writing television drama as a viable career. Potter did not in the event contribute to the series, instead making a name writing inventive and emotive single dramas for adults, such as Where the Buffalo Roam, and Son of Man, before going on to make several towering contributions to television drama in the seventies and eighties.

So what is the the great lost Dennis Potter Doctor Who story about? Legend has it it’s about a schizophrenic, a delusional who hallucinates or believes himself to be a time-traveller. How modern, how very Potter to take something fundamental to the series format and twist it in such an interesting way.

What would happen if such a person met ‘real’ time travellers? What would happen to such a person if they ‘really’ get to travel in time? What kind of dramatic journey does that entail? What does that do to a character? What does that do to the audience? Thinking about it it undermines, in interesting ways, the very core of the programme. In Doctor Who, how can we be sure an hallucination of time travel remains just an hallucination; how can mental time travel be just a delusion in Doctor Who?

Time travel has always been possible in dreams.
Madame Vastra, The Name of the Doctor

And if that is true, how can we be sure of anything? Perhaps the Doctor himself is just a very advanced type of schizophrenic whose delusions and hallucinations have somehow become his physical milieu?

Russell T Davies

Potter’s ghost remains an influence on the series. Certainly Russell T Davies was influenced as a writer by Potter. And when considering some of Steven Moffat’s ground-breaking work on the series, I think of the brilliant conceit in his 2008 episode Forest of the Dead, in which a character begins to realise she’s trapped in a virtual reality because she notices the edits in the television drama programme she’s in. I almost can imagine Potter thinking: I wish I’d thought of that.

3 thoughts on “Dennis Potter/Doctor Who

  1. Yes he did, sorry, did I not make that clear enough? I wrote

    When considering some of Moffat’s ground-breaking work on the series, I think of the brilliant conceit in his 2008 episode Forest of the Dead

    1. @Whooligan and I continued this discussion on Twiitter. I needed clarification that my poor wording causes my crediting of Moffat to be overlooked, and I have amended the post accordingly. You can read the original offending passage in my comment above.

      @whooligan makes the point that he “can’t think of a Potter inspired idea written by RTD”.

      Fair point, neither can I offhand, except perhaps to mention their shared interest in religion in their work, and shared antipathy towards the religiose, and to point that how RTD uses the power of popular religious music – the Old Rugged Cross – in Gridlock bears some similarity with Potter’s use of music in his drama. The interest in the power of music for people, for life, has some resemblance I think. Outside the confines of Doctor Who, we could also compare and contrast the use of the Devil as a character in Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle and the use of Jesus in The Second Coming (which I haven’t actually seen I should add), and of course the use of the Devil in The Satan Pit (the Matt Jones written script) which, it’s fair to say, RTD had a hand in.

      But I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I wrote my post, I was thinking simply of RTD’s stated interest in and admiration for Potter, on such occasions as his BBC4 interview with Mark Lawson.

      Even with Forest of the Dead, I wouldn’t go as far as to say the formal experimentation, though Potter-esque, was directly inspired by him. Even if they were more similar, we couldn’t say for certain there’s a causal link. The point is they’re equally clever, and are motivated by a similar desire to transcend the conventions of ‘dull realism’ in television drama, both by Moffat and under RTD’s authority.

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