Return of the King: Russell T. Davies

In the first few years of the 21st century, being a Doctor Who Fan had roughly the same amount of street cred as being a Train Spotter or a Crown Green Bowling enthusiast and if anyone ever tells you different, they’re talking bollocks. I’m not dismissing The New Adventures et seq – they were great while they lasted, but they were only really known in sci-fi circles; if you stopped a man in the street and said, “Benny or Fitz, which do you prefer?” you’d be in for the longest, blankest stare you’d ever had in your life. Nope, Doctor Who was not cool. Not even tepid. It was ice cold… but all that was about to change. The commercial failure of the TV Movie and the Universal co-production deal had wounded fans deeply, so when word trickled out at the end of the 90s of something in development called Doctor Who 2000, written by Queer as Folk creator Russell T. Davies, almost everyone brushed it aside as an idle fantasy.

‘2000’ was a generous estimate, of course, and it would be 5 years after that when Doctor Who finally returned to our screens. No-one had any idea that it was going to be the colossal success that it was; even Russell T. Davies himself admitted that he tried a number of mixed approaches in Series 1 because they didn’t really know what kind of audience the series was going to find. As it turns out, that audience was virtually everyone; relatives and work colleagues who would never have dreamed of watching the show in the 80s were suddenly hooked, with the pilot episode Rose raking in a staggering 10 million UK viewers – virtually unheard of for a family adventure show in the noughties. It went from strength to strength and although the saviour of Doctor Who Russell T. Davies left the show in 2010, it’s still going strong 11 years later.

But now he’s back (from outer space, presumably) to shepherd the series through its 60th anniversary year in 2023 with a new Doctor and what promises to be a ground floor reboot. The current incumbent Jodie Whittaker has been in the role since 2018, with Chris Chibnall as the show runner. To say that their time on the series has been divisive is an understatement, with many fans unhappy over the radical changes that Chris Chibnall has made to the canon. Of course, as you would expect, the more toxic corners of fandom are leaping to the conclusion that both Chibnall and Whittaker have been given the boot and Russell T. Davies has been drafted in to drag the series back to its ‘Golden Days’. That’s not true, of course; both parties planned to leave and haven’t been forced out in any way, shape or form.

The truth is much less machiavellian. Jodie Whittaker’s third season and subsequent specials will be the last to be produced in-house at BBC Wales; in order to maximise production values, the next series will be a co-production between the BBC and Bad Wolf, the independent company who produced A Discovery of Witches and I Hate Suzie for Sky and His Dark Materials for the BBC. Bad Wolf was founded by Julie Gardner, who was the executive producer of Doctor Who from 2005 to 2009 and Jane Tranter, who as BBC Head of Drama green-lit the series’ revival. Both Gardner and Tranter have a strong connection with Russell T. Davies’ time on the show (and their company quite obviously takes its name from the 2005 series), so it’s only natural that if they want to make a strong impression with the co-production, they would turn to the man who gave them such a big hit all those years ago. There was no guarantee that Russell would say yes, but luckily for us he’s a capricious fellow and seems to have seized the opportunity.

Having said all of that, it can’t have escaped the BBC’s notice that public interest in Doctor Who has waned in recent years. It still has its fans, of course – but then it still had its fans when it wasn’t on the air at all. Some people have chosen to blame the fall in popularity on the casting of the first female Doctor, but that’s just them attempting to justify their own prejudices and it flies in the face of the fact that ratings figures have been steadily dropping off since the tail-end of the Matt Smith era. So, for the BBC, it’s a very exciting decision, because their flagship series is now back in the hands of the man who delivered them a massive hit in 2005. But it’s more than a mere troubleshooting exercise; it’s putting the series in safe hands and it’s also great publicity! Russell T. Davies return to Doctor Who has grabbed headlines in a way that seems unheard of for a writer. It says a lot about his public image, which is something more than mere creativity that he brings to the show.

So, what on earth will Russell T. Davies’ second crack of the whip (already being waggishly referred to as RTD2) actually be like? Well, your guess is as good as mine – but there are certain broad generalisations that are being bandied around that we can dismiss with the application of a little common sense. For starters, it won’t be an exact duplicate of his original stint on the show; he’s far too inventive a writer to be happy with simply retreading old ground. For the same reason, I can’t imagine him bringing back David Tennant, unless the BBC presented the Tenth Doctor’s return as a fait accompli. I think we’ll get a really good actor in the lead role, cast for their charisma and acting talent, rather than because they are the face of the moment. I don’t think he’ll necessarily go back to a white male (again, unless the BBC demand it) and it may be someone you’ve never heard of. Let’s not forget, David Tennant – arguably the Tom Baker of New Who – was far from being a household name when he was cast as the Doctor.

The same goes for companions. I think we’ll probably have the odd return for a familiar old friend – anniversary year and all that – but the likelihood of Rose or Donna or whoever returning on a more permanent basis seems very small. Russell T. Davies always used the companion as a prism through which to view British society and British society has changed since 2005, so I think he’s more likely to go for someone new, different and (not wishing to cause offense to any of the actors from his original run) younger. He also never seemed to be interested in alien companions (I’m with you there, Russell), so the new companion(s) will likely be earthbound and relatable to a young audience. Yes, I said a young audience, because I suspect he’ll be aiming to draw a new generation of kids to the series. Sorry if you’re of a generation who grew up on Doctor Who Adventures and Totally Doctor Who, but you’re a stodgy old adult now and lumped in with us Classic era farts.

If you’re expecting to tune into Doctor Who in 2023 and see the ‘taxi cab’ logo heralding a story with David Tennant and Billie Piper at the controls of the ‘coral’ TARDIS console room, I suspect you’ll be in for a major disappointment. This is not Big Finish; nostalgia is not the goal. Russell T. Davies is an intelligent, insightful and constantly evolving writer and I think that Doctor Who 2023 (that’s what I’m calling it) will be something entirely new and vibrant, with nostalgic elements gently introduced in the way that elements from the classic era were gradually brought back in 2005. Will he stick with the controversial new continuity introduced by Chris Chibnall? Who can say, but my personal suspicion is that the whole weight of continuity will take a back seat in favour of good solid storytelling. Davies’ era was always particularly strong on the 2-parters and I think we’ll be seeing quite a lot of those, but other than that, your guess is as good as mine.

I always look forward to any new era of Doctor Who (see here for my keen anticipation of Jodie Whittaker’s arrival), but I have to say that the news of Russell T. Davies’ return has made me more excited than I was since the series returned in 2005. He pulled it off then and I can’t see any reason why he can’t pull it off again. To be brutally honest, I don’t think that the series will ever return to the frenzy of popularity that it enjoyed in 2005-06, when every toy shop was bursting with new merch and there were at least 4 spin-off shows on TV, but if Russell T. Davies return can get Doctor Who back to being a show that is enjoyed by casual viewers as much as it is by sci-fi fans, I will be a very happy bunny. And the bonus of all this is that the publicity that his return has sparked will probably rub off on Jodie’s last season and give the ratings a much-needed kick up the arse. Nice one, Russell – you did that without even writing a word!

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