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Doctors: Anatomy of an Episode #2

Joy Wilkinson


Phew! That's the really hard part over with. However it turns out, watching your own stuff in any form can be uncomfortable, can't it? Like listening to a tape of yourself singing, instead of just blissfully warbling, unaware of how it sounds.

So how did that episode [edit: this one for those who missed it] come about? Warning: this is long! Get yourself a cuppa

The idea -

I often choose Michelle as my regular, because I find her fun to write and it can be easier to get her involved in people's predicaments as she's unafraid to stick her nose in. I can recommend starting with your regular and thinking about what story you want to write for them. They are the ones we watch the show for.

I read somewhere that one of the best places to find ideas was to think about things that scare you. After I had my son, I was forever having terrors about him being alone in the house, helpless, so this was one of the sources of the idea.

The medical aspect came from my son having conjunctivitis (very handy, these kids!). I put the two elements together and started working something up. It often helps to put more than one idea together. Sometimes an idea you're struggling with turns out to just be one moment in a bigger story, so don't be afraid to cross-fertilise.

Initially, going straight for the obvious, it was about a mum, but that felt clichéd - do we really need to guilt-trip working mums again? So I switched to a dad. It instantly felt fresher. Changing a character to someone more unexpected can transform your idea, a tip I nicked from 'Alien', in which Ripley was originally a boring bloke.

The ep was also going to be darker, with the dad having lied about his dead wife and suffering a full-on breakdown when he faces up to the fact that she left him. As it developed, that felt like a leap too far, and it also got a bit lighter because of...

The serial -

I was excited to bag this episode because it had two good hooks that worked together well, and resonated nicely with my guest story. Sometimes you have to work harder to get the different elements to meld and to build a cliffhanger, but this episode already wanted to be written.

The serial dictated some changes though. It was very much about couples, love stories. This made me focus more on Luke/Saskia as the heart of the guest story, rather than the parent/child aspect that had inspired it.

It might seem like a lot of the work is done for you in the serial document, but there's also a good deal of room to take the beats and make them your own. For instance, I had to show Ruth's edginess, but how, if she couldn't tell anyone? I took the Easter egg hunt element and ran with it, filling her pockets with chicks and eggs.

Likewise, the planetarium was a given, but what occurred was largely down to me. It went through a few incarnations and we ended up chucking out the 'tender confessions' because it felt better unsaid. This was just one of the changes that came in whilst I was...

Writing the episode
The episode went through a scene-by-scene treatment (around 6pp long) and four drafts before getting locked off for production. The big changes happened early.

The main note I had to grapple with was getting the Luke/Saskia relationship right. In the original idea, it was quite vague about how close they were, but my producer quite rightly made me pin down what had happened in the past so that we knew what was at stake. It's a big thing on Doctors to know why the change has to happen to your character TODAY. The job interview and Aggie's conjunctivitis were driving the change TODAY, but if where Luke had to end up was in a relationship with Saskia, that had to be set up more clearly as a goal, even if Luke was blind to it to begin with.

Other changes were more practical. The treatment included Saskia's house and Luke's interview, but my location count was getting out of control so I had to cut it down. That's okay. Working within boundaries can help you to be more creative.

Another reason for the changes to the Simon/Will conversations was because Will's character was still evolving. It's tricky to nail the voice of a new character. Smithy was easier because he'd been in the show before. However we did change the hook, as it seemed OTT to have him looming like that. In fact, it felt more menacing for him to be gentle. That's one of changes I was pleased with in....

The final product
Remember, we're only interested in the storytelling now - if I criticise something, it's my work I'm slagging, no one else's execution of it (for the record, I think they did me proud). So, what do we reckon?

My first impression is that generally the serial worked better than the guest story. There was so much to set up in those first scenes - the interview, financial straits, frisson with Saskia - and I could probably have done a better job. Perhaps there was a more elegant way to relate it or perhaps there should just have been less to relate.

I think the guest story caught light after that. The big moments seemed to work - Luke leaving Aggie alone, Michelle realising that, Luke cracking up. I also like that Michelle didn't help Luke initially. That felt like a nice change.

I think I slightly laboured Saskia lying for Luke, and then rushed the resolution. The relationship angle got a bit lost. I wonder if deep down the parent/child story was still too central for the relationship side to really flower in the time and space we had. I haven't checked yet, but I think some of the story was cut and it does strike me now that the guest element may have been a touch too big for an episode with such strong serial.

I felt the serial turned out well, the planetarium scenes especially. I'm really glad we left the actors to tell the story with their looks and the handholding. I also liked Smithy and Ruth, the switch from romance to it all falling apart, and the ominous burnt cake in the oven. I don't know if I was 100% successful in conveying Ruth's growing unease during the day. There may have been more cuts, but I might just have been too subtle. How might you have conveyed I?

Perhaps perversely, I really loved the Zara and Charlie moments, which only had a secondary function, to support the stories and provide a little light relief. But then I do think it's easier for me to relax and enjoy the bits where there's less storytelling at stake. And more mucky jokes.

Over to you
Having banged on at inordinate length, I just want to add one final thing - this is a 'How It Was', not a 'How To' guide. In no way am I putting this up as a model episode to emulate. You have to do your own thing, it's the only way to get your voice heard. That's why it'll be interesting to hear how you'd have done it differently.

Given this serial, what other ways would you have found to play it out? If this was your guest story, what changes might you bring to make it your own? You don't have to answer right now, or ever really. Just go scoff chocolate eggs and have a think about it, maybe have a scribble. And have a very happy Easter!

[edit: in response to the request, here is the script


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