Why Russell T Davies’s return to Doctor Who probably won’t be a case of déjà Who
Don’t be surprised of the once and future Doctor Who showrunner doesn’t simply give us a rerun of his previous era
When I first learnt on Friday that Russell T Davies was returning to the role of Doctor Who showrunner, I was very, very excited.
Having had a weekend to think it over… I am very, very excited.
And not just because Davies presided over the show’s most successful era ever, in terms of popularity. That’s not a subjective statement, it’s a fact. At no other time has the show been watched by so many people and made such a major dent in the public consciousness. TV critics loved it. New audiences adored it. It won awards. Awards that The Sun and The Mirror got excited about, not just the Hugos and stuff that normally goes to sci-fi.
There’s no denying, Davies made Doctor Who a show that had serious cultural clout. Sure, some fans had some issues (some reasonable, some not), and there were a few missteps along the way, but it was an exciting time to be a Doctor Who fan. It made your heart swell to hear the not-we seriously discussing our little show around the water cooler.
So who wouldn’t want the guy who achieved that back in control?
But what a lot of people forget is that it was also a time of great change, risk-taking and experimentation. Davies didn’t make the obvious choices. He kept the essential elements but changed what needed to be changed to make the show work for the TV climate of the early years of the 2000s. He took influences from US shows to inform the look of the show. He changed the format – ditching the series of serials approach – and the running time of episodes. He altered the tone. He encouraged the use of catchphrases that would be heard in schoolyards across the country come Monday mornings, and easy-to-draw monsters. He lightened the tone and created a successful family-friendly show at a time when most believed family-friendly drama was a pointless folly.
And that’s the crucial point here. Davies forged a show for its time. But he also created a template so strong that it has lasted 16 years. Times have moved on, but the show hasn’t.
Moffat made some attempts to retool to the show for the social media generation, with some success, by introducing complex arc plots designed to get the internet speculating. But he was still playing in Davies’s sandbox. More recently Chibnall had come across as totally straitjacketed by the Davies template, struggling to make it work with his more socially conscious aims for the show, then resorting to Davies-lite-style romps instead. And the more he tries to ape Davies’s style the more obvious it becomes that he’s just not on the same level.
Production-wise the show has failed to move on, too. The FX may have improved over the past decade and a half, yet somehow the show looks more dated now than it did in the noughties. And if you think that’s hyperbole, then rewatch, as I did recently, “Gridlock”: the CGI may be ropey in places, but the visuals remain potent and stirring, while the cat people are a zillion times more impressive than whatever the hell that alien thing in“Orphan 55” was. And if you turn off the “make video look like film” filter on “The Tsuranga Conundrum” the sets and style of direction would be completely at home in a Colin Baker series of the classic show. Even the recent rewrite of the show’s mythology felt like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic; why would the general audience get excited about a few changes to the show’s more arcane continuity? It wasn’t like a Cyber/Dalek war, was it?
So, time for a refresh, yes?
But why is the Davies the man for the job?
Because while most fans have been ecstatic about Davies’s return to the show, some have expressed understandable concern that it’s a retrograde step. He’s given us his vision of Doctor Who? Won’t he return just be more of the same?
Perhaps. But I think that’s unlikely. I doubt Davies has any intention of simply repeating the formula. In fact, I’d bet being able to shake things up again were part of the conversations Davies had with the BBC drama heads when the idea of his return was first mooted. It’s unlikely he’ll want to repeat himself. More excitingly, in recent interviews he’s spoken about how Doctor Who should become shared Whoniverse to rival Star Wars, Marvel and Star Trek: “We should be sitting here announcing The Nyssa Adventures or The Return of Donna Noble, and you should have the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors together in a 10-part series. Genuinely,” he told the Radio Times. This is a man thinking big and well aware of the current sci-fi TV landscape his new version of the show will exist in.
So expect surprises. Who knows? Maybe the next Doctor won’t be a new Doctor. I wouldn’t put it past Davies to change to rules so that the 60th anniversary has the Doctor regenerating through past incarnations. Maybe the next “new” Doctor will be in introduced in a multi-Doctor story, fully interacting with his predecessors rather than just as an eyebrow cameo. Maybe there’ll be a change of tone to something a little darker. Or lighter. Maybe we’ll have 90-minute or two-hour long episodes. Or half hour ones. Maybe there’ll be co-production deals with major streamers, which will mean the show has to be binge-watch friendly. Maybe the Doctor will be replaced by a talking cabbage. Maybe (probably) all these ideas are rubbish and Davies has a completely bonkers masterplan no one will expect. But I do fully expect him to make the look of the show (not just FX, but set design, monsters, cinematography, lighting, costumes, direction) one of the key factors that needs addressing.
(And I do hope we’ll see Davies writing for Thirteen – because she must be part of the 60th celebrations, surely?)
It’s also reassuring that the BBC is willing to back Davies, as he’s become an even more respected writer in the meantime. Having Davies back on board sends out all the right messages about the BBC’s confidence in the show. Heavyweight actors, directors and writers are going to be eager to participate.
So, whether you loved what Davies did with Doctor Who back in 2005 or you shudder at the thought of a return to soapy companion storylines, oral sex with paving stones and Dobby Doctors, his return as showrunner seems like the canniest decision the BBC could have made. Let’s hope it’s fantastic. (And that he gets the TARDIS interior redesigned again as soon as possible.)