Robert Holmes: A Life In Words by Richard Molesworth (book review).

Is Robert Holmes your favourite ‘Doctor Who’ writer? For me he’s definitely up there on the High Council, alongside Castellan Davies, Cardinals Baker and Martin, Chancellor Whitaker and Keeper of the Matrix Dicks. Would he be President? Probably, because, rather delightfully, ‘Doctor Who’ was Robert Holmes’s favourite show. Not only to work on, but maybe also to watch, too. Holmes’ contribution to the show and overall career as a writer is discussed at length in ‘Robert Holmes: A Life In Words’ by Richard Molesworth.


As most ‘Doctor Who’ fans know, Holmes joined the army during World War 2, became a policeman and then a journalist, churned out short stories for magazines and then decided to give telly a go. He came from a group of writers that were around at television drama’s infancy and helped raise it through adolescence. Holmes’ development as a TV writer saw him starting out scripting crime adventure ‘Knight Errant Ltd’, slogged his way through scores of episodes of ‘Emergency Ward 10’ and ‘Market In Honey Lane’, briefly tangled with ‘The Saint’ and then, rather improbably, wrote ‘The Krotons’ for ‘Doctor Who’.

Years of delivering for soaps had given Holmes a keen feeling for character, brevity in scene setting and the much-sought-after ability to hit deadlines. None of this had blunted his imagination or wit. This made him very useful to Terrance Dicks, who needed scripts for ‘Doctor Who’s troubled sixth season. ‘The Space Pirates’ quickly followed and, the next thing you know, Holmes is introducing a new Doctor in full colour and creating monsters that would reappear thirty-five years later.

Richard Molesworth is no stranger to the history of ‘Doctor Who’, his book ‘Wiped!’ is a brilliantly comprehensive examination of the show’s missing episodes. His attention to detail here is similarly deep. Molesworth examines every series that Holmes contributed to and stories that didn’t get off the ground. Sometimes you feel the attention to some scripts is frustratingly short. As Molesworth states in the introduction, he has not indulged in ‘over-analysis’ which is fine, though did make me want to head for my copy of ‘About Time’ or ‘The Television Companion’ to read more on ‘The Ribos Operation’ though. Frankly, the DVDs have such a wealth of material now, one might as well head straight to the finished product.

Perhaps it was a preview copy, but Telos Publishing’s presentation of the book didn’t feel as good as others. On some of the pages the printing was smudged and at the back there is no index, simply a list of scripts written by Holmes, which cut off before it got to ‘The Caves Of Androzani’. Once again, with a Telos Publishing book, the odd error creeps in: it’s Wendy Richard not Richards and she spent a lifetime correcting people on that (see also singer Mary Hopkin, who must despair).

Molesworth has delivered a comprehensive guide to the work of Robert Holmes and has turned up some great archive material. The original transcript of the interview from the ‘Doctor Who’ production office used in ‘The Lively Arts’ documentary on the programme is particularly illuminating, the version used on-screen was hugely hacked about. ‘Robert Holmes: A Life In Words’ is a good testament to a great writer. Buy it and make sure you’ve got a copy of ‘The Krotons’ at hand.

John Rivers

November 2013

(pub: Telos. 442 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £15.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84583-091-5)

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