In honour of the Doctor Who finale airing this evening, I thought I’d do a run-through of how exactly I put together my own little slice of Whovian fiction – the me-penned episode “Twenty-Seven Seconds”. If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend popping across and I do very much appreciate feedback.
But if not, it (very briefly) concerned the lovely Rory trapped on one side of a time divide on an alien planet. While everyone else – including the Doctor and Amy – lived through the night time, Rory lived through the day, his only company a small terrorist cell of the species that had inhabited this planet before its invasion. The only overlap was the titular twenty-seven seconds, where Rory was forced to plan out a way to stop the warring factions, think his way back into the TARDIS, and get himself and his wife off the planet before civil war broke out.
Which might sound complicated, but the real central hook of the story – and the one that got me into the initial planning stages of the story – was the idea of Rory and Amy having such a brief overlap. A husband and wife having less than half a minute together every day for an extended time has got to take its toll, plus it allowed me to have fun with the idea of getting short-changed by the overlap.
At the beginning I had the kernel of an idea. A world where there are only twenty-seven seconds overlap between Rory and everyone else. After that I had to just play a game that in improv we call “if that then what”.
If Rory is trapped on one side, then Amy is on the other.
If Rory is alone, then everyone else is on the other side. Amy, the Doctor, and whatever race occupies this planet.
If this planet is time-shifted as such, then it doesn’t seem like the natives would be responsible, and it doesn’t seem natural. Quid pro quo (in my brain anyway) it was done by an outside force. An unsuccessful one, so maybe the original inhabitants, as a last-ditch attempt before they lost control.
If there were original inhabitants, then maybe some of them are still there. Maybe, in fact, some of them stayed behind to fight. At this point the two species came into focus, the original inhabitants known as the Rongai (the scorpion / armadillo looking types) and the invading force called the Machay. I was climbing Kilimanjaro last year and two of the routes were called Rongai and Machame, so the names stuck in my head. I also liked the idea of having a truly alien species, so that’s where the idea of the look of the Rongai came from.
So Rory is stuck.
If Rory is stuck, then he mustn’t have access to the TARDIS. Or how about he does? How about the TARDIS is stuck on his side? And the key is on the other? I had to do a little bit of hand-waving to say the TARDIS was shunted either side because it and its key are organic objects, but that’s hopefully not too much of a leap when you consider that it does have an actual mind of its own.
So with some fairly long-winded if minimal “if that then what”, I’d managed to create a scenario to trap one of our leads that had both plot and emotional weight, as well as two species at war, a background and physicality for both, and two overall goals – get into the TARDIS, and prevent this war.
And this is why writers say they are working on something when they’re just staring out the window.
The above was all background, but I needed an actual story – something that would happen over the course of the episode. There seemed to be a few key threads that needed to be followed through:
Emotional Story – Rory is trapped away from Amy, at a time when their relationship doesn’t feel particularly rock solid (this story is more a “lost episode” from their first season on the show) and he is jealous of her history with the Doctor. I didn’t want any “drama”, I just wanted to prove that he loved her and she loved him by virtue of their efforts to stay together (and to wait, which is a theme that has recurred countless times for this couple since I wrote this).
Lead’s Story – Rory has to get into the TARDIS in order to rescue Amy and the Doctor from the other side before war breaks out. He is clever enough to realise that if the Doctor landed here to get materials to rebuild the TARDIS, perhaps there is a possibility to recreate the TARDIS key. This is his initial goal, and it dovetails nicely with everything else that’s happening, but really this is subsumed into the final point of…
World’s Story – This is something that is a mainstay of Who but has been lost a little bit over the past two seasons: the idea that the Doctor will fix major problems for purely altruistic reasons. Countless episodes involve the Doctor falling out of the sky and right into a war or an unspeakable regime, only to make things better simply because he wants to. The reason these are less common these days is because the show is much more character-focused, which necessitates the stories involve our heroes being in danger. I wanted to explore this idea of altruism, but with Rory – he goes against his natural instinct of protecting Amy and himself in order to find the resolution that will help the most people.
As you can see, between the background created (and hell, the exposition required for same) and these three stories there was more than enough to fill an episode. Now to actually write the thing.
I actually went through several versions of the structure of this episode.
I generally put together a vague one-pager for anything before I write it, detailing the scenes and sequences of each act (although Who exists without acts, which is awesome for story-telling). There was an early version which looked to show much more of the Doctor and Amy’s side of things. This mainly appealed to me from a Rashomon perspective – because Rory never experiences night-time, things that happen then affect him, and vice versa for Amy and the Doctor (I also had some visual gags where Rory played pranks on the two by moving things around).
However it didn’t take long to realise that there was already more than enough here for Rory’s side of things to carry a whole episode. And it also added a lot to his character arc for the piece to have us isolated with him. The only time we ever see the other side of things is right at the end of the episode, so we are with him in getting the slow-drip of information, the shock of changes in a split-second, and the passage of time on his own.
After I’d made that decision, it actually all came together pretty nicely.
I talk a lot about “moments” when I’m writing, how they are the still pictures or pieces of dialogue that act as signposts along the way of your big story. They’re often the first to come into my mind when working on a piece, and doing a show that is essentially action-oriented made this all the more fun.
Things like Rory’s jump from the clocktower, Agaska dropping the bomb in the middle of the market square, the time-skip progression of our main couple’s fractured relationship and Rory’s chase through the abandoned streets – these were all frantic and easy-to-come-by developments (I also loved the moment where Rory is thrown through the air by the bomb blast and everything disappears before he lands).
But I also had to put together so many quieter, more tender images. Amy and Rory in bed together for twenty-seven seconds, the two of them watching the sunset, Rory leaving behind the message for the Doctor to “step up” if Amy needed a man. And, of course, the countless shots of their wedding rings, dropped and picked up again and again and again.
The whole thing was easy to write because the whole thing felt like it was already there, just waiting to be unpacked.
The script wasn’t without problems, though. I wrote a play last year called “Billy Redden” which involved cyclical and repetitive time travel (better known to nerds as the Novikov self-consistency principle), and it was then that I first encountered the sheer unending horrors of trying to keep a script in check when people are hopping, skipping and jumping through time.
And while “Twenty-Seven Seconds” didn’t have any hopping or jumping, it did have skipping – figuring out what it meant for masses of people to simply not be there for half the day was very much a head-scratcher. I like to think that the Rory I wrote went through the same processes, specifically when he eventually realised that if he threw himself off the clock tower at sunset, Amy would have a whole night to find something to break his fall.
That’s why I love science-fiction though, it opens your brain up to the loveliest and most confusing of possibilities – and as someone who enjoys logic puzzles as much as philosophical arguments it whetted my teat no end. It also implores you to write a resolution that makes sense, and I hope that the denouement here was worthy of what came before. No easy answers, just two races at the beginning of a relationship, and Rory and Amy back in bed together.
So that’s it, really. How I wrote a hypothetical episode of Doctor Who. If you have any questions or feedback on the script just let me know, or any tips.
I like tips. Tips are cool now.