It’s a febrile time for David Tennant/Catherine Tate Doctor Who returns, with the fan-favourite actors set to make a comeback (under mysterious circumstances) to the acclaimed BBC sci-fi series next year.


Fans have a while to wait before they see them in action – but in the meantime they can revisit the pair’s heyday thanks to a new novelisation of The Fires of Pompeii, based on the 2008 episode that saw the Tenth Doctor and Donna take their first adventure in the TARDIS together.

Travelling to Pompeii (instead of Rome – whoops!), the newly-formed partners in time argued over the Doctor’s responsibility to help the doomed people, fought lava-monsters and met some (future) familiar faces in Peter Capaldi’s Caecilius and Karen Gillan’s Soothsayer. Now, that story comes to life again – with a textual twist or two.

Recently, we caught up with writer James Moran to find out what it was like to adapt his own script into a book, what new details he retrospectively added into the story and his thoughts on the next Tennant/Tate comeback on the way.

Plus: who knew tectonic plates were so noisy?

More like this

Hi James – I have to ask, what was it like adapting your own script for prose? What was the process like?

It’s tricky, because I’m so used to scripts now, and I’m not used to prose. I find it a lot harder than scripts. Obviously, the story’s already worked out, so that part is taken care of. It was just trying to figure out all the things I wanted to put back in – all the places where it needed to be expanded, and some of the things that I couldn’t really do.

In a TV episode, you can cut back and forth between scenes very quickly, but you can’t do too much of that in a book. It gets a bit confusing about who’s speaking, and whose point of view it is.

Right from the very first sentence, it was just the knowledge that people would be seeing every single word I put down on these pages, whereas in a script, most people don’t tend to read the script – they just see the episode or the film.

Was it a bit nerve-wracking?

Completely, yeah. When you write scripts, it doesn’t matter if your grammar isn’t amazing, because what matters is that you’re communicating in the stage directions what the audience see and hear. So it doesn’t have to be beautiful, flowery language. But in prose, they’re going to see every single word, and it’s terrifying.

I used to be very, very good at grammar, but I’ve developed a few bad habits over the years with scripts.

Doctor Who author and screenwriter James Moran
Doctor Who author and screenwriter James Moran James Moran

If you cast your mind back to 2007, what were the biggest obstacles you found when you sat down to write the story in the first place?

There were two main ones. The first was that because it’s a real event in history – we obviously can’t change history and say that it didn’t happen. It’s a big event that the Doctor can’t prevent. He can’t stop it from happening. So that was quite a challenge because it kind of sits right in the way of your story. That was tricky.

The other main challenge for me – because I’ve been watching the show since I was 3 or 4 years old, as long as I can remember – the very first time I tried to write the Doctor’s first line… I did a few lines, where I was like, “No, that doesn’t sound like him.” And I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t sound right.

And then I realised: it doesn’t sound right because to me, the Doctor’s a real person, and my brain is aware that I’ve just made that line up for him. So it doesn’t sound right because I’ve made it up, and he hasn’t said it. So that messed with my head a little bit.

And also doing things like… When you write “INT. TARDIS” for the first time – that is bonkers. And is it “DAY” or “NIGHT”? Because they’re in space, so it’s neither. So my brain kind of got in my own way a little bit.

You mentioned putting some stuff back in to the Target book. Was there anything you cut from the TV script that you reinstated?

Yeah, there were a couple of things to do with volcano behaviour. There was a really cool piece of research I found when I was planning it. It was just about how the Earth’s rock plates grind together under the ground. I found some recordings of that, and it’s just the creepiest sound. They slowed it down, because normally you can’t hear it. But it was terrifying.

So I took a bit of artistic license with that, and used the slowed-down version. It’s things like that where in a TV show, you make the point once, and you don’t need to come back to it. In a book, you’ve got more room to put in some more tangents and inside notes and things.

Future Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi as Caecilius in Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii
Future Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi as Caecilius in Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii BBC

I did notice one or two bits that I think were added. You highlight Caecilius’s distinctive face, which obviously was played out in the series when the Twelfth Doctor (also played by Peter Capaldi) recognised the connection. Was it fun to retrospectively tie that together?

The concept had already been done. So it’s not like I had to think up an explanation for it. Luckily, Steven Moffat had explained it in one of his own episodes. I didn’t actually ask him. I just sort of lifted it.

I think he’ll allow it.

It was supposed to be just about what’s in the episode, but I thought, “I’ll throw that in.” I just sort of hinted at it, so hopefully he won’t sue me for royalties.

I think it’s fine. When I read Russell T Davies’ redo of Rose, he added in Jodie Whittaker and Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi to Clive’s shed. So for these Target adaptations, I think it’s a little tradition.

Yeah. I think if I hadn’t, people would have been a bit taken aback.

There’s a little reference to the Doctor Who lockdown watch-along video as well, wasn’t there? The Descendants of Pompeii?

Yeah, because I just thought that was a nice idea – and I’ve done this in a few other stories as well – just the thought that occasionally the Doctor would go back and check on people. He wouldn’t just pop into their lives, and disappear forever. I liked the idea that he would check in on people that he’s encountered, and just make sure they’re OK.

I also really enjoyed the Latin jokes, especially the chapter titles. That’s something that would only work in this context, on the page.

I was trying to figure out, where do you divide the episode into chapters? It’s not meant to be that way on screen. It’s just figuring out where the breaks were.

And then I suddenly thought: “I could do the chapter titles in Latin but use some really well-known Latin phrases so I wouldn’t have to explain them” – and then that might be funny. And once I’d done that, I thought: “Now I’ve got a handle on it.”

It was mainly for my amusement, but it helped me get into the feel of it. I put a kind of old Roman-style font on it as well, just to get myself in the mood.

Obviously back in 2008, this was one of the first adventures for David and Catherine, which Donna’s internal monologue focuses on. Was it strange to hear they’re coming back to the main series?

Yeah, I didn’t know that. No one told me. Because obviously it’s a very secretive ship that they run. If you don’t need to know, they just absolutely do not tell you. And that’s how they keep the secrets.

So that was quite a surprise. I’m very, very happy to see them again. The thought of getting more Tenth Doctor and more Donna is always a good thing.

In a way, did working on this remind you of what a great dynamic they have?

Oh, completely. You know, I was apprehensive about doing a prose novel, even though they’re not as long as bigger books. But as soon as I got onto that first page, and Donna started talking, it was like riding a bike – or falling off a bike, in my case.

It just felt immediately familiar and comfortable. And I said this at the time: I could just write for Donna, and nobody else, forever. Because she’s so much fun to write for.

David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii looking skywards, concerned
David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Doctor Who in 2008 BBC

You’ve done this Target novel – are there any stories you’d like to adapt? I know Jenny Colgan did The Christmas Invasion before, and there’s a long tradition of writers taking other screenwriters’ episodes.

Ooh, I don’t know. It’s tricky because one of my favourite episodes is Midnight, but I don’t know how you would adapt that into prose form, because it’s so dependent on the fact that you had two actors talking at the same time. So I’m not sure that would have the same sort of impact.

You’d need to do something funny with the layout, wouldn’t you? Make the words run down sideways or something. You’ve got to see something strange.

I think that would be a nightmare. But I don’t know. I always think it’s easier to do your own ones. But at the same time... it’s put me on the spot. Which one would I like to do?

I probably would have liked to do The Day of the Doctor because I love that episode so much, but there’s no way Steven was going to let anyone else do that. And fair enough. I wouldn’t have let anyone do that.

Looking back on your time writing the original episode, what made the experience stand out?

You’re so sort of sheltered and looked after on that show. At least I was, during that era. They give you all the tools that you need but they don’t let you fall.

That’s one of the other things people probably don’t realise – Russell was across every single aspect of it. I don’t know how he had time to sleep or eat or go to the toilet. He was just across absolutely everything, and was the biggest inspiration. Even meetings where he’d be metaphorically tearing the script to pieces. But you’d be laughing your head off because he’d do it in such a funny way.

You’d be very aware of what you got wrong, and what to do to fix it. But you then come out of the meeting excited for the next draft, because he’d given you the tools you need to fix what you’ve done.

And at the end, he does a rewrite, so even if you haven’t fixed certain things, it goes away, and magically comes back a million times better.

Doctor Who would not be anywhere near the way it is without him running it the way he does.

Cover art for Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii's Target novel adaptation by James Moran
Cover art for Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii's Target novel adaptation by James Moran BBC Books

And now he’s back too!

I didn’t expect that either. But I could never guess who's going to join the show. I always put a bet on who the new Doctor is going to be, and I’ve never been right once. In fact, when it was Peter Capaldi, everyone was asking me – friends and family – “Do you know who it is?”

I said, “No, I don’t know.” And I said, “But what I can tell you with 100% certainty is that it’s not going to be Peter Capaldi. I know that for a fact. It just won’t be.”

And then it was!

They might just think you were throwing them off the scent.

Yeah, they do think that now, but I actually didn’t know!

Obviously you revisited this episode during lockdown for the rewatch and for this Target book. Has it kind of reminded you of those days? And does it make you wish you could do more? Would you like to do more of Doctor Who on TV?

I would absolutely love to do more. They know the time that I’m available, and that I’m fast and cheap. So anytime they want me to come back, I would happily do that.

But at the same time… I mean, I said this when Chris Chibnall was hired, and somebody asked me, “Which writers would you bring back if you were taking over?” – I just said, “It’s doing myself out of a job, but I wouldn’t bring anyone back. I would just start afresh.”

Just start from scratch, and bring in some new blood, because that’s what the show needs every few years. And even if it means I never get to go back, I think that’s a really good thing for the show. Just keep it moving.

Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii by James Moran (BBC Books, £7.99) is on sale from 14th July.

Check out more of our Sci-Fi coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.


The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for only £1. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times podcast with Jane Garvey.