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The Casebook of Robert Holmes
on 25 April 2014
For many readers (including me), Robert Holmes' professional `Life In Words' could probably be summed up by just two: `Doctor' and `Who'. (Or alternatively, `Blake's' and `Seven''!) In this excellent book, Richard Molesworth broadens our horizons by exploring the range and volume of Robert Holmes' television work over a quarter of a century. This included writing and/or script editing for ratings-topping series from `Dr. Finlay's Casebook' to `Shoestring' and `Bergerac', various soaps such as the long-running `Emergency Ward 10', and many shows in the mystery / adventure genre.
This is a fascinating, comprehensively researched book with an appendix listing Robert Holmes' TV writing credits. It's a long and varied list and Richard Molesworth brings the material to life with entertaining descriptions, analysis and many contributions from new and archive interviews with friends and colleagues and (through archive fanzine interviews) Robert Holmes himself.
Any `Doctor Who' fan will enjoy the story of the creative process behind many of the show's best scripts, with selected storylines and scene breakdowns. The proposal for `The Time Warrior' must be one of the most entertaining received by a lucky script editor; it nicely illustrates "Bob" Holmes' sense of humour that we saw in his many scripts - and his expertise; the first draft of the story is very close to the final broadcast version.
Also included are here his many projects and proposals that, for one reason or another, didn't make it to our TV screens. As regards `Doctor Who', these included a spin-off series starring that pair of Victorian heroes Henry Jago and Dr. Lifefoot from his masterpiece `The Talons of Weng-Chiang', (still the finest story in 50 years of `Doctor Who'), and what would have been a brilliantly audacious ending to `The Trial of a Time Lord'.
The book also covers the many controversies ignited by `Doctor Who'; certainly, Robert Holmes wrote the only television programme that ever really scared me! It was 1971, the first time I'd watched `Doctor Who' (aged 6) and I encountered the plastic horrors of `Terror of the Autons'! The book explores how that story caused more fuss than any other to date, with many complaints (not just from the usual sources), and even criticism in Parliament, while Robert Holmes said of some aspects of that script "I did make a mistake ... and I learned not to do it again."
So it seems I'd started by watching what was at that time the scariest, most controversial `Doctor Who' ever made and it didn't put me off! Years later I realised that many of my favourite stories were written by Robert Holmes or had his input as script editor. Many consider that the classic show reached its peak during that period from 1974 to 1977; his exceptional contribution is of course explored here in detail.
We then discover how in the years that followed, the new team did call on Robert Holmes again, with what some saw as mixed results during the `Key to Time' season. Personally, I'd place even `The Power of Kroll' above some later stories by others, in fact above one entire later season! If it's not his greatest story, it is, as we learn Robert Holmes himself said of `Doctor Who' "good, clean, escapist hokum, which is no small thing to be."
But that modestly underestimated the quality of his best writing: Autons waiting in the shop windows, Li'Hsen Chang scheming in Victorian London, Sutekh glaring green rays from behind his mask and Sharaz Jek raging for vengeance in a cave on Androzani Minor. And always, somehow, the Doctor (and good) wins through.
`Robert Holmes: A Life In Words' is a superb exploration and celebration of the writer who created such unforgettable characters and stories.