Friday, 2 October 2015

Why Patrick Ness is exactly the right thing to happen to Doctor Who

At 2300 GMT last night it was announced that multi-award-winning and highly acclaimed YA writer Patrick Ness is to create and write a spin-off of Doctor Who to air in 2016, entitled Class and set in the show's Coal Hill School (a locale that has featured in 1963, 1988 and from 2013 onwards). The series will be eight episodes of 45 minutes each and will be aimed at young adults/teenagers. It will air on BBC3's online platform before hitting BBC1 and BBC3 on telly (so it'll have more of a Torchwood or Being Human vibe than The Sarah Jane Adventures).

Predictably, this met with derision from certain quarters of fandom: "it'll be aimed at kids", "no one was asking for this", "I'd rather have a series about Daleks", etc. Such arch-traditionalism is both grating and ruefully unimaginative. In this blog post I'd like to set out why I think Patrick Ness is an outstanding choice to run this new show and why it heralds a very exciting new era for the programme.

1) He's a terrific talent. Seriously, check out this guy. If you haven't read any of his books yet, you really ought to. The Chaos Walking trilogy, his first and arguably biggest hit consisting of The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men, is very distinctive indeed: a dystopia full of terrorism, xenophobia, genocide and all manner of dark things packaged up for a teenage audience. It's about as hard-hitting and yet emotionally true as these things come. It has a very, very taut stream-of-consciousness style unlike many other more plodding YA novels. It's set on a world in which everybody can hear everybody else's thoughts, constantly, all the time (it's called "Noise", tapping into our own fears of information overload etc). A Monster Calls is a beautiful, elegiac novel; after the death of the novelist Siobhan Dowd (who was also a great talent), her publishers contacted Ness to write the book she was going to have written. It's hauntingly good, and - unusually - has some outstanding illustrations. This is being adapted into a film in 2016 starring Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver. The film's screenplay has been written by Ness (so he'll have some crucially important scriptwriting experience there) and the film is released in October next year. Just in time to *significantly* raise his national profile, again a great boon for the show. He's also done two very well received books called More than This and The Rest of Us Just Live Here, which I hear good things about but haven't yet read; the latter focuses on the anxiety and worries of ordinary kids as opposed to tormented chosen ones like Buffy, which sounds like it could be an interesting theme in a high-school drama. The Crane Wife, his latest adult novel, is very strange and off-kilter, but full of interesting and beautiful ideas.

Best of all, he blends the emotional sensitivity of an RTD with the complex darkness of a Moffat, wrapped up in a certain anarchic earthiness that's all his own.

2) It's excellent for the show itself. At a time in which the BBC is desperately cutting as much as possible, it is a vote of *enormous* confidence that Doctor Who gets its first official spin-off confirmed since 2006 - in other words, in a decade. Both Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures had good long runs of five years each and it's great to be able to welcome a new show into the fold which will expand the universe in a new way. Ness is quite a coup in terms of a big name to write for the show, which will only help with its success in 2016 (even if rumours of the parent programme's slightly stunted run for Series 10 are true).

3) He's a great guy. I confess to some personal bias here - not just because I really enjoyed his books, but because I once met Patrick in 2009, at the ideal-YA-target-audience-age of 14. I'd written a short story called Last One on the Ice (about global warming and its effect on polar bears, bizarrely enough) and submitted it to the London School of Economics for a short story competition they were running. Patrick was one of the authors picked to be a judge on the panel, and specially selected my story as one of the three winners (the prize, incidentally, involved a year's correspondence with terrific novelist Ali Smith, so it was a good day for me). Patrick is in other words inexorably bound up with my own personal feelings about writing and how it really can happen, how it doesn't have to be just a crazy hobby. I felt like he legitimised me, and that was worth a great deal at 14. So I'm over the moon that he's got this new gig.

(But don't just take my word for it. He really is good, good people. The guy has done an amazing amount of fundraising (over $1million) for Syrian refugees.)

But enough from me. Suffice to say I'm very, very thrilled about this news. Doctor Who just got that little bit bigger.

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