On Screenwriting, Doctor Who and More: A Chat with Sarah Dollard

There are some really amazing women out there working on movies and TV shows and here at Rogues Portal, we decided to shine a spotlight on one of them.

Sarah Dollard has worked on a number of big projects that you’ve definitely heard of such as Doctor Who, Primeval, Merlin and more. She’s also written a bunch of episodes that you’ve definitely talked about within those shows including “Face the Raven” which was the last episode with Clara Oswald (as played by Jenna Coleman) on Doctor Who.

We had a chance to chat with Sarah and discuss her writings and more. Take a look at the interview below!


How did you start your screenwriting career? You’ve worked on some fantastic shows, Merlin, Primeval, Being Human and created and wrote Cara Fi, how did you know you wanted to write?  

I started out with a traineeship in the story room of a nightly soap opera called Neighbours in Australia, and I couldn’t have asked for a better education in screen storytelling or working in a creative team. As for knowing I wanted to write… I’ve always loved it, but I was a bit slow on the uptake when it came to picking it as a career path. I only realised I might be able to write for a living once I’d finished uni and seen a bit of the world and the penny finally dropped that no other career would fulfil me like this one. So I then had to somehow make it happen.

What are some of your favorite things about being a screenwriter? What are some of the most challenging things?

Best things? Working at home with the dog most days! Getting so into a script you forget where you are and who you are, and the characters just do their own thing while your fingers fly over the keys. Bliss. Similarly, that moment when a new character clicks for the first time – when suddenly you know them, and you can’t believe there was a time when you didn’t. And finally, when a brilliant actor and/or director brings something to a scene that you never imagined but it’s utterly perfect. Most challenging things? Fear of the blank page, which boils down to self-doubt and imposter syndrome. Over-thinking everything, on and off the page.

What were some of your early influences for writing? Do you have any advice or inspiration to help young and thriving screenwriters? 

I read every book I could get my hands on while growing up, and all that goes into the mix once you start writing for yourself. Plus I was obsessed with TV. As a teenager, I would watch my favourite eps of my favourite shows (to name a few: The X-Files, Northern Exposure, Frasier, Red Dwarf, Buffy) over and over again. Which, it turns out, is actually an ideal way to absorb the craft of story structure, scene structure, joke structure, the lot.

This was the olden days, so I had this huge library of videotapes of TV I’d recorded, all of it indexed. My family thought I was mad but in retrospect, those tapes were my education. I also learned a ton from writing fic. It’s a great way to train yourself in work with a particular voice or tone, and because you have an immediate audience, it’s brilliant practice at being entertaining and actually finishing your stories.

So I guess my advice to young screenwriters is: nerd out. Read and watch what you love and embrace your obsessions. Write fic if you like writing fic. Write something else if you don’t. Go with what you love.

Do you have anything you do to kind of… come down from a big screenwriting project? Do you jump into another project or start thinking of ideas for your next job? Or do you take some time for yourself and woo-sahh? 

I usually need a day’s break between drafts of big projects just to clear my mind, my desk, and my inbox. Downtime is important, so you don’t burn out, so the work stays fun, and so your body doesn’t fall apart. I say this like I always follow my own advice, but it’s a tricky balancing act when I’m busy or stressed. I don’t always get the balance right. It helps to hear from other writers that proper breaks are essential for them too and nothing to feel guilty about.

Now its time for me to be a legit geek cause I can’t ignore that you wrote Doctor Who, especially one of my favorite episodes. Thin Ice addressed race in Doctor Who that I’ve been waiting for since Martha and Mickey made their companion journeys. Why was it necessary to write those small scenes regarding race? 

(C) BBC – Photographer: Simon Ridgway

Obviously when you write for any character in any genre you have to put yourself in their shoes and imagine the details of their very particular and personal experience. You want your writing to be as truthful as possible. So for me, there was just no way to write about a woman of colour going into the past on Earth without acknowledging how the colour of her skin would have impacted how people reacted to her there. Obviously, it also had to be entertaining and true to the tone of the show, so I tried to make it an intrinsic part of the story, rather than just add-on.

This question is from my Tardis Teammate Billy. Were there any little small, nerdy easter egg you put in your episodes for ‘Face The Raven’ and ‘Thin Ice’? 

I had quite a few nerdy easter eggs in Face the Raven that never made it to screen because of budget constraints. It was a street full of aliens who had got trapped on Earth for one reason or another, so I basically gave a cameo to all my faves from past episodes. Alas, it wasn’t to be for all of them. (RIP Adipose)

In Thin Ice, I really wanted to acknowledge that the Doctor had been to this particular frost fair before, with River Song. There’s a scene about River that didn’t make the final cut, but you can catch it as a deleted scene.

More personal easter eggs usually come in the form of character names. I gave Rigsy a first name – Christopher – after my friend Chris Miles who’s a huge DW fan. And I named one of the street kids in Thin Ice after my goddaughter Harriet because I felt like I was finally writing an episode of TV that she was old enough to watch and enjoy! Oh, and Sutcliffe is called Sutcliffe because I was writing some Hannibal fic at the same time as DW and the name just bled over without me realising. I feel like Sutcliffe in Hannibal could actually be a descendant of someone in Lord Sutcliffe’s family. He’s just as selfish and twisted, after all.

How do you feel about the new Thirteenth Doctor? Can you tell us if you’ll be back to write an episode in Series 11? *puppy, please face*

I am properly sad to be saying goodbye to Twelve and Bill, but I’m delighted that the Doctor is finally presenting as a woman and I know Jodie Whitaker will be brilliant. Rachel Talalay has told me some deliberately vague yet still very exciting things about her take on the character, so I’m doubly excited.

I won’t be on S11 due to workload/schedule clashes this past year, but I had a really great chat with Chris about his plans. So hopefully, I’ve left the door open for a possible return in the future. It would be an honour to work with him and write for Thirteen.

As we’ve listed before, you’ve written episodes and worked on some spectacular shows. What would you say was your favorite show you’ve been apart of or written episode(s) for? 

(C) BBC – Being Human

I’ve been very very lucky to work on a bunch of great shows but I think Being Human might be closest to my heart because it was a joy to write for that cast and I worked with some really good eggs who have remained close friends. Cara Fi (Love Me) is obviously very dear to me as well because that show was my baby and everyone who worked on it was a dead set legend.

Your adaptation for Frances Hardinge’s “Cuckoo Song” was announced last year. Can you give us any details? What are some of your next projects we should look out for?

Cuckoo Song is so delicious to adapt that I pine for it when I’m working on other stuff. There aren’t many horror/fantasy stories out there with complex young female leads, but Frances Hardinge’s novel has three of them at its heart. It’s such a rich, fascinating world and I can’t wait to see it on screen. There aren’t too many details I can give you at this stage except to say it’s coming along very nicely. Stay tuned!

Something that’s coming to screens a little sooner is A Discovery of Witches, an adaptation of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy for Sky starring Teresa Palmer, Matthew Goode and – notable for Doctor Who fans – the ever-dazzling Alex Kingston. That’s been great fun to work on, and my episode is shooting right this very minute.

Thank you so much again for speaking with me Sarah! Can you let our wonderful readers let us know where we can find you? Via social media, website, etc.? 

No problem! I’m @snazdoll on twitter and @carrionlaughing on Tumblr.

Insha is a writer, sleepy otter, and massive film nerd. She enjoys cartoons, comics, and b-movies. She talks on Comicsbound, Missfits, Weird+Wayward and writes for RP, B.M,D and Geek.com. She has an unnatural knowledge for everything Twilight Zone. Stay Weird. ♡

Insha Fitzpatrick

Insha is a writer, sleepy otter, and massive film nerd. She enjoys cartoons, comics, and b-movies. She talks on Comicsbound, Missfits, Weird+Wayward and writes for RP, B.M,D and Geek.com. She has an unnatural knowledge for everything Twilight Zone. Stay Weird. ♡

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