Authorship and Creative Management in Established British TV

The Writing Process of Doctor Who (2005-2017)

Autorité créative et management des talents dans l’industrie télévisée britannique. Le processus d’écriture de Doctor Who (2005-2017)

Autoridad creativa y gestión de talentos en la industria televisual británica. El proceso de escritura de Doctor Who (2005-2017)

Victoire Sessego

Autorité créative et management des talents dans l’industrie télévisée britannique


Electronic reference

Victoire Sessego, « Authorship and Creative Management in Established British TV », Biens symboliques / Symbolic Goods [Online], 6 | 2020, Online since 30 April 2020, connection on 06 August 2020. URL :

Authorship in television has been a blind spot in television studies, as the concept of the author does not go hand in hand with the collective nature of the production process. Redefining authorship in a collective context, this paper investigates the division of labour in the writing process of the British science fiction series Doctor Who, as well as the power dynamics resulting from symbolic attributions of authorship to specific players, and in particular the showrunner, depending on their reputation. This study shows how production constraints are integrated into the writing process, blurring the lines between writing, which is constructed as authored in British television, and the production process in itself, deemed more technical. Finally, the consequences of perceiving workers as authors, more broadly talents, are explored. It indeed leads to management methods specific to creative workers and to disruptions in the production process, to adapt to “talented” workers’ needs.

Dans l’industrie télévisuelle, les définitions classiques de l’auteur·e sont incompatibles avec l’essence collective du processus de production. Cet article analyse la division du travail du processus d’écriture de la série britannique de science-fiction Doctor Who, en explorant notamment les rapports de force conduisant à l’attribution du statut d’auteur·e à certaines des personnes engagées dans la création de la série plutôt qu’à d’autres. Mener à bien cette analyse impose de redéfinir ce que constitue le fait d’être auteur·e dans un contexte collectif, ce que nous appellerons « auteurité » (traduction du concept authorship). Nous verrons comment les contraintes de production sont intégrées dans le processus d’écriture lui-même, brouillant les frontières entre l’écriture, considérée comme le domaine de l’auteur·e dans la télévision britannique, et le processus de production, considéré comme essentiellement technique. Enfin, nous envisagerons les conséquences de la perception de certaines des personnes engagées dans le processus créatif comme auteurs et comme « talents » sur le management et l’organisation de la production.

En la industria televisiva, las definiciones clásicas de autor.a son incompatibles con la esencia colectiva del proceso de producción. Este artículo analiza la división del trabajo del proceso de escritura de la serie británica de ciencia ficción Doctor Who. Específicamente, exploramos las relaciones de fuerza que conducen a la atribución del estatus de autor.a a ciertas personas que participan en la creación de la serie, y no a otras. Llevar a cabo este análisis supone redefinir lo que constituye el hecho de ser autor.a en un contexto colectivo, lo que llamaremos «autoría» (traducción de authorship en inglés). Veremos cómo las limitaciones de producción son integradas en el proceso de escritura mismo, borrando las fronteras entre la escritura, considerada como el dominio del autor.a en la televisión británica, y el proceso de producción, considerado como principalmente técnico. Para terminar, exploraremos las consecuencias de la percepción de algunos trabajadores en tanto autores, y a término como talentos. En efecto, ello conduce a la adaptación de formas de gestión tradicionales y a cambios en el proceso de producción para adaptarse a las características y maneras de trabajar de «talentos».

Authorship in television has been hard to apprehend. Television has been deemed authorless, or rather overly polyauthorial (Burns & Thompson 1990), before becoming “authored” in the 1990s, with the rise of the showrunner, head writer and executive producer of a show, now seen as its “author.” Even when a work on authorship is undertaken, it is merely a search for the show’s “real” creator (Burns & Thompson 1990: chapters 1 and 6). These difficulties stem from an implicit definition of authorship as the production of a work of art by a single individual (common dictionary definition), whereas, in television specifically, the production process is a collective one (Becker 1974). It forces us to redefine authorship to fit the reality. Thus we consider authorship in a broader perspective, as the origin of a written work (the etymological meaning of the word), to be able to rebuild authorship without the (single) creator “fetish” (Bourdieu 1996). Considering the fact that television industries reward authorship through credits, thus naming a “writer,” our investigation leads us to reconsider credits as a negotiated recognition of workers, and therefore as social arrangements, as part of the drama of work (Hughes 1984: 304-310).

This article focuses on the writing process of the long-running and established series Doctor Who (1963-1989, 2005-), a science-fiction series, which has a unique place in British culture, and has no creator nor long-lasting actors (as its main character, the Doctor, regenerates, which implies the casting of a new actor) (for a more detailed presentation of this complex show, see video below). Authorship, especially that of the showrunner (Russell T. Davies from 2005 to 2009, Steven Moffat, 2009-2017, Chris Chibnall, 2018-), has been used to brand the show since 20051, riding on the newfound role of the writer-producer as “author” with the rise of Quality TV, leading to a “forcefully” constructed authorship (Cornea 2009). Most episodes are stand-alone with a standardized structure that can be summarized as “resolution, linearity and repetition” (Tulloch & Alvarado 1984: 83-84), which allows for a division of labour in the writing process, and thus double authorship: that of the showrunner (on the overall tone) and that of the writer (on their episode); but it also creates the risk of excessive standardization. The tension between originality and standardization, which is necessary for production reasons, is indeed a core tension in television industries (Pasquier 1995: 19), as these industries are on the commercial side of the artistic field and battling for legitimacy (Bourdieu 1996).

Doctor Who explained!

Comic presentation of Doctor Who for neophytes.

© Nuclear Family, via YouTube

Credits: YouTube


Thus, I aim to study the writing process and to uncover the reality behind authorship construction, from the perspective of production studies and of the sociology of work. The focus on the writing process stems from the fact that the scriptwriter (or at times the showrunner) is designated as author in British television, more so than the director, who is mainly concerned with the feasibility and visual aesthetic of the script rather than storytelling, in a science fiction show such as Doctor Who. Furthermore, the writing process produces a material object, the script, on which I could rely.

Just like television itself, Doctor Who’s narrative (e.g. Butler 2007) and audience (e.g. Tulloch & Jenkins 1995) have already been extensively studied by communication studies, but its production process little investigated, especially in sociological terms. A focus on the organization of creative work allows me to unveil creativity under pressure, between economic (here costly special effects), labour market and cultural constraints (Pasquier 1995). Furthermore, it highlights the construction of authorship and its consequences on management and the production process. Creative industries are keen on reading creative workers’ skills through the concept of “talent,” “author” falling in that category. This has consequences on the organization of work. I won’t really try to state the veracity of the concept of talent, as even Pierre-Michel Menger’s analysis remains unsatisfactory (Menger 2016). “Talent” can also be used to justify positions in the field, excluding social factors (Schotté 2012). The focus will instead be on creative management and the organization of work, and how they are affected by talent ideology.

How do authorships, representations of authorship and production constraints impact the writing process of Doctor Who and its actors, considering its actors, considering the show’s ambition, economic constraints and branding? I will first describe the scriptwriting process before discussing conflicts of authorship, which can be understood as a battle for prestige and recognition. I will finally consider how negociations on authorship reflect the talent management model of the industry and its consequences on the production process.

Fig. 1. Doctor Who?

Image 1000000000000400000002AA7EA5D85A.jpg

The Doctor’s time-travelling machine in the show—the “Tardis”—has the form of a police box.

© Dorli Photography. Source: Flickr.

Television industries are difficult to access, especially the BBC (Born 2004), therefore a variety of sources were used and my method had to be unconventional. Out of the sixty people involved in the writing process of Doctor Who from 2005 to 2017, five were interviewed as part of the research: Robert Shearman (writer), Phil Ford (writer), Nikki Wilson (script editor and producer) Derek Ritchie (script editor, producer) and Mal Young (executive producer and BBC head of continuing drama). These interviews, based on predefined questions, were centred on the writing process, as well as on professional trajectories and on relationships with the audience. Interviewees were asked to give as much detail and as many examples as possible, to ground the discussion and avoid rehearsed discourses (Laurens 2007). However, as major actors (such as the two showrunners) were not part of the interviews, other material was used. Interviews in the media, mostly from specialized media (e.g. Den of Geek or the BBC’s Radio Times) were gathered, one hundred eighty-four were examined in total: ninety-seven interviews with writers, thirty-one with showrunners, forty-eight with producers and eight with script editors, in addition to online resumes. For the most part, these interviews were part of the show’s promotion and so were handled with caution, concentrating on topical questions calling for factual anecdotes rather than generalisations. This type of material was used primarily as a point of comparison with my interviews, to establish their generalisation potential as well as to get the perspective of other parties on events brought up in our interviews. However, media interviews came with extra biases: as part of the show’s promotion (and of self-promotion), they might give an over-enthusiastic version of reality, by erasing negative aspects as well as emphasizing the interviewee’s role.
Finally, my last secondary source was The Writer’s Tale, a book written by showrunner RusselT. Davies and journalist Benjamin Cook. This book is the transcription of a three-year e-mail correspondence between Davies and the Doctor Who Magazine journalist, focusing on the day-to-day life on the show and especially on the writing process, thus “the writing in motion” (Davies & Cook 2010: 11, 14). The book contains the same biases as the interviews, the tone is humorous and sometimes emotional and reflects Davies’ point of view, so that extra caution was needed to process the subjectivity of the book. It remains a rare insight on the day-to-day writing process, which was an element missing from the interviews, since they were made long after the writing process was over.

Table 1. Synthesis of all the persons who had worked on Doctor Who and who are mentioned in this text



Function(s) in Doctor Who

Series worked on

Years (about)

in 2020

Interviewed in the research

More information/content

Russell T.



1 to 4






Writer and then showrunner

1 to 4; 5 to 10

2002-2007; 2008-2017





BBC Head of Drama




Yes, on April, 4th 2017




4 and 8

2007-2009; 2013-2014


Yes, on March, 30th 2017







Yes, on March, 2nd 2017



Producer and then executive producer

8-10 and then 11-present


Yes, on May, 5th 2017



Script editor and then producer

8 and 9


Yes, on March, 29th 2017




6, 7 and 8






Producer and then executive producer

1 to 4






Script editor and writer






Script editor and writer













6 and 7













Writer and actor

1, 2, 5, 6, 8-10











1. Writing: A Collaborative Process

1.1. The Perspective of the Writer

In order to explore the writing process of long-running shows, describing its steps is necessary.

The writer’s work begins when the script is commissioned. A script covers one episode, but a writer can be commissioned for a story that runs through two episodes. Commissioning implies that the production team has defined which episodes will be written by the showrunner himself (six episodes out of thirteen or fourteen episodes per series). An episode starts with an outline, which is included in the commission or elaborated from scratch by the writer. Commissioning officially starts with a meeting with the showrunner. The process unfolds slowly, as the outline goes through different drafts. After the outline comes the script, which also goes through different drafts, usually between three and five, more on average than on American television for example, as is consistent with the BBC’s habits (Born 2004). It takes around six months to complete a script, which has little to do with the hurried writing of soap operas such as the French Plus belle la vie, for which a week’s worth of episodes needs to be ready in four weeks’ time (Mille 2016). Between each draft, the writer receives notes from a variety of persons: the showrunner, executive producers, producers and the script editor. These notes, which comment on the narrative structure, characters and plots, but also on the feasibility of the script, are usually explained during a meeting with some or all of these actors. After taking all this in, the writer then has a month to rewrite his/her script. This step also includes informal meetings with the script editor in order to solve identified “issues.” For instance, D. Ritchie recalls spending an afternoon with Stephen Thompson, as the plot of his episode was deemed too complicated and unclear. Stories can evolve quite radically through this process. The episode written by R. Shearman illustrates this phenomenon. R. Shearman describes his first draft in the following way2:

“So the lead sort of villain was the wife of our American plutocrat […] she’s upstairs and she’s torturing [a Dalek3] […] all because she wants it to speak. The pay-off to all that is when it gets out, walks up the stairs and finally confronts her […] and she would say ‘Just, does my husband ever mentions me?’ […] it was supposed to be this achingly simple emotion… of loneliness.”

In the end, his episode was about a misogynistic billionaire keeping a Dalek in his underground base. The Dalek, once regenerated by human touch, escaped but committed suicide because it had been given emotions. The episode thus went from a human drama to a more conventional science-fiction plot, revolving around an alien, R. Shearman having followed R. T. Davies’ instructions.

Before the script has reached its final draft, the commission can fall through at any time. The show even relies on over-commissioning. R. Shearman, whose commission fell through in series 5, recalls that eighteen or nineteen episodes were originally commissioned, with only thirteen episodes planned to air. Once approved by the executive producers, the script is sent to the director, who starts prepping for the tone meeting. This meeting aims at discussing an episode’s “tone.” It mainly deals with the coming to life of the script in concrete terms. Both director and writer are present, which means that the writer has the possibility to speak their mind, even though executive producers have the final word, as described by N. Wilson. Then comes the read-through: the event, which takes place a few days before shooting begins, has a more symbolic value. Actors perform the script for the first time, in the presence of the production crew as well as other privileged players, such as BBC controllers. After the tone meeting, substantial changes can still be made, whereas only “last-minute amends” can be made after a read-through, according to N. Wilson. After the read-through, the writer’s task is over, even if they usually come on set for one day, mainly for publicity reasons (see for instance this promotional video). However, these visits also often make writers uneasy, because they feel like a “third wheel” (expression used by P. Ford and R. Shearman).

Thus, the central part of the writing process is the rewrites made by the writer, after receiving notes on their last draft. However, the term “notes” is quite vague, which is why we have to analyse it further, to show how they put the script in the centre.

1.2. The Script as a Means of Communication: the Proliferation of Notes

The script can be described as a temporal boundary object in the production process, a medium of collaboration that supplements social interactions and structures work timelines (Davies & McKenzie 2004). Just as the script provides information, notes usually require the writer to clarify their script, so that all workers can take what they need from it, depending on their tasks. Writing becomes a process of explanation (Mille 2013). The notes, all directly made on or adjoined to the script, are of three types: story-based notes, production notes and those I will call direction notes.

Usually, the showrunner provides most of the story-based notes, commenting on characters, locations, plots and suggesting additions or changes. If we look at R. T. Davies’ notes on P. Ford’s first episode, taking place on Mars, R. T. Davies suggests making the base more “primitive” and smaller, calling it “Bowie base” or making the events “historical,” so that the Doctor, being a “Time Lord”, is aware of them (Davies & Cook 2010: 426-428). However, executive producers and producers get to write story-based notes as well. For example, a scene in “The Caretaker,” in which the Doctor and a pupil are bonding, is attributed to N. Wilson. Story-based notes are mainly a way for producers to make sure they engage with the story, since they are the one making decisions on the parts of the script to be cut in case of delays in production. Though valued, story-based notes are not required of producers. Production notes, however, are at the heart of executive producers’ and producers’ job. These notes communicate to the writer, via the script, production constraints. Producers are indeed the tangible link between all the steps of production, managing the financial side. For example, executive producer Phil Collinson suggested using an industrial area as location for one of R. T. Davies’ episodes (Davies & Cook 2010: 143-144), while N. Wilson mentioned how camera angles could be used to reduce special-effects costs. Production notes can also ask for precisions on creatures or props, since building has to start as soon as possible, as highlighted by D. Ritchie. Writing and production are therefore intertwined and writers have to adapt their script to economic challenges. For instance, R. Shearman was asked to choose between several battle scenes, while R. T. Davies had to rewrite a narratively crucial scene in Partners in crime, because it could not be shot without breaching Health and Safety regulations (Davies & Cook 2010: 224). Cutting special-effects costs is also among R. T. Davies’ greatest worries when writing, showing how much production constraints weigh on the writing process.

Yet, writers can also write direction notes, communicating with producers and director, via the script. Direction notes are elements of the script, that are not entirely necessary but provide extra information. R. T. Davies discusses how his style and layout are a way to communicate his vision of the script to the director, using capital letters, putting concise descriptions of each character, writing “Pause” on a line of its own, specifying camera angles or special effects (Davies & Cook 2010:110-119; 646). The stakes for the writer are high. An omission might lead to missing the writer’s intent. For instance, R. T. Davies mourns the effect he intended for a scene in the episode “Partners in Crime”: it was not carried out because he forgot to specify the two characters’ positions (Davies & Cook 2010: 245).

Through the script, we have thus mentioned all actors taking part in the script but one, often not mentioned, even by writers in interviews, unless asked about them: the script editor, the invisible hand of the writing process4.

1.3. The Script Editor, Coordinator of the Writing Process

Script editors (one per episode, usually two per series, working together for continuity) liaise between the writers and the rest of the production team. They are the ones who, for each draft, send the notes from the whole creative team to the writer, with an introduction summarizing their main topics (for an example, see Davies & Cook 2010: 139-140). They play the role of assistants of the writing process, scheduling script meetings and deadlines (and keeping the rest of the team to it), as well as being at the writers’ disposal if they need someone to discuss their script with. They also get to write notes, though of a technical nature, as they have to ensure that the script fits into the production format, especially in terms of length, as well as editorial policy5. To sum up, script editors, performing an entry-level job, do the “dirty work” of script writing (Hughes 1984: 338-348). They indeed make sure that production standards and deadlines are respected, when the creative work partly rejects norms and industrial procedures (Hesmondhalgh & Baker 2011: 84), as shown by R. T. Davies, who refuses to be normative in his book. Script editors can be considered as the only “below-the-line” workers in the writing process, i.e. agents whose work is not recognized as creative (Banks 2009). Yet, just as nurses who, while taking care of the “dirty work,” stress their role in the healing process (Hughes 1984: 338-348), script editors put an emphasis on the creative side of their job, assisting writers at every step (as shown previously –see § 9– by D. Ritchie’s anecdote on the troubleshooting of an entangled script). Moreover, as they summarise conflicting notes to writers in an agreeable way (Davies & Cook 2010: 140-141), they also assume “feminine” functions of reassurance and communication, which is somewhat confirmed by the gender ratio in this activity (43% of women, compared to 14% for writers).

The status of script editors changed with Quality TV, which transferred most of their creative power to writers and showrunners (Robinson 2010): the showrunner, as head writer, is able to claim the authorship status while the script editor is left with only his/her supervising role. This change of status illustrates how creative recognition comes down to power relations. For instance, Robert Holmes and Terrance Dicks are recognized for their years in classic Doctor Who (1963-1989) as script editors and writers, whereas now script editors tend to be left out of the narrative by writers in interviews. In terms of responsibilities, script editors, before the rise of the showrunner, were the first to lay eyes on a new draft; they used to make story-based notes and suggest episode ideas in the commissioning process: these tasks are now taken up by the showrunner and executive producers. In the current setting, the technical and organisational tasks take up most of the script editors’ time. Consequently, they are the only ones who, despite being involved in the writing process, are not part of the title sequence, and are instead among the technical staff in credits.

Describing the writing process and its actors has allowed us to uncover its mostly hidden collective aspect. However, all the people involved do not have the same creative influence of recognition, which prompts us to investigate authorships along the production process.

2. Authorship Negotiations: Balancing Individual Recognition and the Collective Nature of the Writing Process

2.1. Levels and Forms of Authorship

Following our account of the writing process, writers share forms of authorship with the whole creative team. Writers and showrunners actually write ideas in their script, while producers can suggest ideas that are then incorporated into the script by the writer, and executive producers hold decision-making power. The producers’ and script-editors’ jobs are often described as “troubleshooting” (N. Wilson). However, their ideas, expressed as potential solutions, don’t give them the right to be credited as such. Writers can contest (as highlighted by P. Ford) or refuse notes (Davies & Cook 2010: 141), as long as their next draft is deemed good enough. They thus learn throughout their career how to take back some of their authorship and regain autonomy, choosing which notes they (do not) take into account. However, studying the writing process, one cannot help but notice the creative control held by the showrunner, through official means such as notes and decision-making, as well as more informally.

2.2. Achieving Control as a Showrunner: Secrecy and Rewrites

The BBC, like creative industries in general, is a secretive organization, since it relies on the element of surprise. As a publicly-funded institution, the BBC also tends to be harshly criticized by the press and thus aims to control which pieces of information go public. The showrunner and executive producers are responsible for managing leaks, introducing secrecy within the organization of the show itself. They hide major production changes, even to people working on the show, such as the 2009 break in schedule, which has been planned since 2006 but was leaked, unannounced, in late 2007 (Davies & Cook 2010:213). What is kept secret mostly concerns characters and overall story-arcs. There are no bible of characters and arcs (Pasquier 1999), no synthetic table of timelines (as in Plus belle la vie, Mille 2013: 177) in existence. Consequently, central characters can remain undetermined. For instance, the 12th Doctor was only described in vague indications to P. Ford. The showrunner then becomes the ultimate holder of the character’s identity, a fact that strengthens his authority. It is reinforced by the individual management of writers, who are kept apart, as stated by R. Shearman. The main result of this secrecy is to make it necessary for the showrunner to rewrite scripts when they have reached their last draft, as unified tone, story and character identities cannot be achieved otherwise. According to P. Ford, the showrunner’s “polish” is a common practice in the television industry. However, it was not part of the original organization of the show. R. T. Davies started “polishing” in series 1 for “The Unquiet Dead,” in order to attract Simon Callow as a guest-star. He presented it as improving the script, adding elements “enhancing a line that the original writer hasn’t realized is good” (Davies & Cook 2010:150), standardizing the tone across episodes, while remaining “faithful” to the writer. Yet “polishing” is often referred to as “rewriting,” or even as “(re)writ[ing]” by R. T. Davies, covering up to “almost 100 per cent of a script” (Davies & Cook 2010: 173-176, 150). If a certain amount of rewriting is common in British television, the grasp it gives to the showrunner in Doctor Who, thanks to secrecy, is significantly greater: it had to be explained to S. Moffat, an experienced showrunner, when he replaced R. T. Davies (Davies & Cook 2010: 297).

The only example of a before/after re-write in our possession is reproduced in the Writer’s Tale (Davies & Cook 2010: 173-176): it is a rewrite of “Fires of Pompeii.” The main changes, apart from the addition of new characters, the soothsayers, can be found in the dialogue, the plot staying the same while the lines’ order changes and others are added,, consistent with P. Ford’s description of the polish as “tweaks of dialogue.” Yet R. T. Davies also develops a secondary character’s personality, when he does not alter the Doctor’s behaviour entirely (as in “The Waters of Mars,” where the Doctor is in an unusual situation). This illustrates how the writer’s theoretical authorship is contested by the showrunner’s role in Quality TV.

Thus, we can consider the writer as a middle man in the writing process, to whom some of the showrunner’s workload is delegated, particularly for writers with less prestige. R. T. Davies clearly delegates the “Fires of Pompeii” episode to J. Moran, new to the industry, to accelerate the process, planning to “re-write him heavily” (Davies & Cook 2010: 97). Writers are given the task of putting up a coherent plot and writing the first full version of the script, as a structured base from which the showrunner can efficiently work.

Nevertheless, most writers are credited, as is standard in the industry, with full credits. How is one’s presence in the credits negotiated between writers and showrunners, and how does it change publicly recognized authorship?

2.3. Credit Policy on Doctor Who: Does “Polishing” Give Rights to Credits?

As seen previously, it is hard to attribute full or even dominant authorship either to the writer or to the showrunner, so that credits are a policy linked to rewarding and attracting writers. Pay and rights might also have been part of this equation. However, rights, as well as fees, are highly regulated at industry level, through agreements between the BBC and the Writers’ Guild, the writer’s union (Writers being freelancers, they are paid per episode based on the duration in minutes of an episode (with extra broadcasting fees for broadcast on other channels). On the one hand, the showrunner’s contract with the BBC is a hire-contract, which means that all his creations during his employment are property of the BBC. On the other hand, freelance writers theoretically get rights for “original characters,” but the strict definition of the term “original character” (a character who was not in any way present in the original outline) implies that most characters reused in other episodes cannot be considered as original because they were mentioned in the original outline.

Thus, pay and rights regulations do not allow for enough leverage to shape writers’ recognition policies. Consequently, credits and therefore public recognition become the central mechanism through which writers are rewarded. The main credit policy was “full credits,” that is through the title “written by” followed by the writer’s name alone in the titles. It resulted from an arrangement between the showrunner and writers, hidden behind a discourse revolving around fairness (Hughes 1984: 316-326). R. T. Davies indeed claims wanting to be “fair” to writers, while feeling “trapped” (Davies & Cook 2010: 176-177) by a policy that gives (unfair) credit to writers for pieces of scripts written by him (as for the episode “Human nature,” Davies & Cook 2010: 130). R. Shearman also noted the unfairness of being blamed for creative choices he had not made (be it the original outline or specific scenes). The uneasiness of both sides reveals the contradiction between the conventional definition of authorship and the reality of scripts being the product of a collective, just as “authenticating” Rembrandt paintings is almost impossible (Alpers 1988). Nevertheless, credit policy is also shaped relatively to local practices in the industry. Writers in British television are recognized as individual authors, in contrast to the writers’ room, which is hegemonic in the US. It is due to the original proximity of British television with theatre, as well as the importance of serials (6-episode novel adaptations). Full credits (and a degree of professional autonomy) is thus expected by writers. Aiming at recruiting “good” writers, who can afford to refuse a proposal to work on the show, thus implies recognizing their work through credits as well as through media visibility (interviews in the press, presence on promotional pictures and videos, etc.,—without these activities being an extra source of revenue). Romantic comedy writer Richard Curtis, bestselling author Neil Gailman or playwright Mike Bartlett are a few examples of the success of this strategy.

Still, co-credits were envisaged as a way to let the writers know they would be rewritten extensively, which was R. T. Davies’ strategy on “Waters of Mars” (Davies & Cook 2010: 258). However, it implied a closer cooperation between showrunner and writer than usual on the show, so P. Ford did not appreciate having to share his credits for “Into the Dalek,” when it had not been established as such when he was commissioned. Attempted on series 8, this policy was then dropped.

To sum up, creative authorship, if understood as the power to make creative choices, comes in many forms in television writing; but if understood as total creative control, such cannot be attributed. Yet, the industry’s configurations require individual recognition: credits are thus negotiated, creating rampant conflicts inside the organization. Even though the concept of “author” and more broadly of “talent” is a social construct, it does not prevent it from structuring the production process, and particularly management, through and through.

3. “Getting It Right”: Is Aiming at Quality Giving More Authorship and Autonomy to Few “Talents”?

3.1. A Highly Individualized Management: Implicit Talent Ideology and Its Impact on Management

First, the labour market’s structure reinforces the individualisation of careers, which are seen as prototypes (Pasquier 1999). It was strengthened in British television by the casualisation process of the 1980s (Tunstall 1993), which saw freelance becomes the standard form of employment. Employment conditions thus allow for reputation to be held by individuals (Schotté 2012). The use of individuals’ names (or first names) instead of their position is thus common in conversations, as if they were self-explanatory. For example, N. Wilson, when remembering her career path, mentioned her former bosses by name, e.g. well-known producer Linda Laplant. This leads to a personalization of workers, to the point where executive M. Young referred to R. T. Davies as a “brand.” “Talent” was put forward as a central value (Tunstall 1993) at the same time as careers became more heterogeneous. Solitary working conditions, particularly as freelancers, and individual narratives strengthen individualization, in turn creating a “mystique” around writing, an activity that is rarely witnessed (Davies & Cook 2010: 611). In interviews, this situation is illustrated by the use of the expression “going away and [doing a task]” to describe one’s work (used five times by R. Shearman, six by P. Ford, three by D. Ritchie and once by M. Young). In fact, the only moments when the writer is physically co-present alongside all other members of the creative team occur during a small number of meetings. As most writers do not live close to the studio nor do the showrunners, they stay in contact with the production team through other means of communications, such as e-mail.

Building on the individualization of workers, the concept of “talent,” as inner abilities uniquely linked to individuals at the heart of their production, was implicitly present throughout this research, one interviewee using it explicitly. First, it was notably through the use of topical vocabulary singling out performances: “genius” (used five times by P. Ford) or the word “brilliant,” used numerous times by R. T. Davies. Lastly, the showrunner model, giving a great amount of authorship to an individual, requires a belief in individual specificities as it is based “on an individual serving as the project’s leading management,” leaving their “stamp” on the show, which is deemed to bring distinction and prestige (Higueras, Gomez-Pérez, Alberich-Pascual 2018:102). Indeed, if one’s “talent” is unique, using it means letting it spread to the entire production and thus giving maximal authorship to its owner.

All in all, this situation is not surprising, since talent ideology stems from the arts, but it shows its magnitude, as well as the blurring of boundaries in the cultural field (Duval 2006), since television industries are tied to its commercial side. Yet, talent appears to be unevenly distributed, especially considering gender, with women representing only 14% of writers (an inequality permeating the whole industry, but worsened here by typecasting- Bielby & Bielby 1996), talent ideology can be exposed as a justification of social inequalities. This ideology then informs the organization of labour, particularly management and recruiting.

First, the will to recruit “talented” writers leads to considering recognized writers with little to no experience in television, which can create costs and delays. For example, R. Shearman, who is more used to theatre, wrote ten drafts of his episode, when the norm is around three or four drafts, while Richard Curtis imposed his wife as script editor. Secondly, talent management implies protecting talents, while considering that, as a manager, one cannot find the answer, but only help the talent find it. As D. Ritchie puts it:

“I’m not here to say, ‘I think you should write this’. This is a dialog. […] you want THEM, which is why you employ them, because of their talent, to […] come up with a solution better than you could have ever, ever found.”

As Hesmondhalgh and Baker noted (2011: 84), creative management is conceived as less directive, because creativity is reluctant to follow orders. D. Ritchie thus describes his job as manager : “You really have to […] pull that down to get to the knot of the problem.” Triggering creativity trumps representing authority. Valuing talent also implies a form of care, especially for female producers. N. Wilson depicts her job as producer as “holding the director’s hand,” providing moral support. It also means being reachable at all times and making arrangements to carry out the “talented” persons’ ideas (e.g. rising money to finance episodes at the last minute- Davies & Cook 2010: 373). However, more than management, the belief in “talent” impacts the production process, disrupting it to let talents’ creativity express itself.

3.2. “Getting Away with It”: Disrupting the Industrial Production Process in the Name of Talent

In describing his job, D. Ritchie enthusiastically referred to the specificity of working with “talents” as: “It’s really walking a fine line of making sure that [these talented] people know what they’re doing but know they have freedom to make the most of it.”

“Talents” can thus disrupt the industrial process in the name of ambition, which is illustrated in the industry by the phrase “get[ting] it right.” The representation of writers as “talents,” which makes them the legitimate holders of authorship, with their idiosyncrasies directly linked to their creativity, allows them “to get away with murder” (Davies & Cook 2010: 231). Yet it also means that working conditions can get quite extreme (as illustrated by R. T. Davies’ all-nighters).

In concrete terms, being recognized as a talent gives a writer the legitimacy to be given (or to claim) more authorship, especially for pitching and getting rewritten. Pitching refers to a selling summary of an idea. For writers, pitching focuses on the plot of the episode, with all production criteria being translated in narrative terms (Mille 2013:172). Asking about pitching is topical in media interviews, giving us insight. R. Shearman was given only a one-paragraph pitch to work on, for instance. Legitimacy can earn someone the right to pitch, which is a transfer of agency and authorship from showrunner to writer and means taking a risk. For instance, Mike Bartlett, whose theatre and television record provided for his reputation, had to pitch (see video below). Some writers even dodge the pitching step altogether, directly writing a draft: it was the case for S. Moffat on series 4, creating trouble due to plot resemblance with another episode (Davies & Cook 2010: 246-247). Rewriting worked in the same way: established writers avoided being re-written (S. Moffat, M. Graham, C. Chibnall and S. Greenhorn on series 4, Davies & Cook 2010: 150), while less recognized writers, such as J. Moran, were heavily rewritten.

An episode of the Fan Show, a youtube show run by the BBC to promote Doctor Who for series 9

Writer Mike Bartlett is interviewed and is asked about pitching (from 3:00 to 4:00).

© Doctor Who (BBC), via YouTube

Credits: YouTube


Moreover, the flexibility and the authorship offered to writers is limited compared to that of the showrunner. His authorship affects the existence of episodes themselves. It can happen with the most established writers on the show, such as writer Mark Gatiss in series 4 (Davies & Cook 2010: 96-97, 108). The 8th episode of series 4 is an interesting example. A month before shooting began, R. T. Davies decided to write and entirely different episode (though cheaper, being a “behind closed doors” episode), writing the script in the meantime. Showrunners can ask for drastic changes in overall scheduling: upon arrival, showrunners S. Moffat and then Chibnall asked for a “gap year” in order to put their production team together. The showrunner can also bypass most of the writing process, as his many responsibilities make him prone to delays. R. T. Davies delivered several first drafts on the day of the tone meeting or even later, so that the shooting schedule had to be pushed back, with extra costs (for instance the 2008 Christmas episode). It was still happening under S. Moffat, as P. Ford reported writing his episode before S. Moffat had written the first episode, which complicated the writing process.


To conclude, this article attempted to show that, despite being fundamentally collective, the writing process of Doctor Who could still be apprehended in terms of authorship, providing a more comprehensive definition of the term, refusing the definition of authorship as individual. Furthermore, in the industry, creative workers are represented as talented individuals, so that credits are the results of power relationships in the workplace. Finally, the belief in “talents” and in the importance of their authorship in the industry has consequences on the industrial process of production, giving more power to those identified as “talents,” disrupting traditional management methods and the production process as a whole. This made the day-to-day writing process quite erratic, far from the standardized process that theoretically prevails. The consequences of this belief show how, even industrious parts of cultural production, the belief in art and in the artist is valued and can overcome, to a certain degree, industrial and economic constraints.

1 For instance, they are at the heart of the documentary series Doctor Who Confidential (2005-2013).

2 Unless mentioned otherwise, every quotation in the article is extracted from interviews or subsequent emails.

3 Daleks are aliens, they are the iconic villains in the show.

4 They are indeed the only ones asked about their concrete jobs in interviews.

5 i.e. the lay-out of the script, but also the respect of the BBC’s editorial policy concerning contents aimed at children (violence, language, etc.).

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1 For instance, they are at the heart of the documentary series Doctor Who Confidential (2005-2013).

2 Unless mentioned otherwise, every quotation in the article is extracted from interviews or subsequent emails.

3 Daleks are aliens, they are the iconic villains in the show.

4 They are indeed the only ones asked about their concrete jobs in interviews.

5 i.e. the lay-out of the script, but also the respect of the BBC’s editorial policy concerning contents aimed at children (violence, language, etc.).

Fig. 1. Doctor Who?

Fig. 1. Doctor Who?

The Doctor’s time-travelling machine in the show—the “Tardis”—has the form of a police box.

© Dorli Photography. Source: Flickr.

Victoire Sessego

École normale supérieure de Paris Saclay – Département des sciences sociales (Sociens)

© Presses Universitaires de Vincennes 2020