Russell T. Davies made his name in television as the writer and creator of the groundbreaking BBC series Queer As Folk, but by far his biggest success has been the revival of Doctor Who, the venerable British science-fiction show following the adventures of the peripatetic time-traveling alien known only as The Doctor. An institution in Britain and a cult success in the States, Doctor Who fell into relative obscurity after its 1989 cancellation, becoming (perhaps rightly) viewed with a certain embarrassment for its cheap production values and shoddy storytelling. Davies brought a new energy and a modern look and feel to the show, which has become a full-fledged hit for the BBC. After shepherding the program through five seasons, a change of lead actors (from Christopher Eccleston to David Tennant), and the spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, Davies recently announced that he would be leaving the show, handing over the reins to incoming producer Steven Moffat at the same time that The Doctor will regenerate again, with Tennant replaced by new actor Matt Smith. Davies will preside over four more Doctor Who specials through 2009. The next, Planet Of The Dead, premières on BBC America on July 26. Davies recently took a break from editing his Doctor Who finale to talk to The A.V. Club about endings, new beginnings, and the right way to bring a time traveler into the 21st century.
The A.V. Club: Before 2005, a Doctor Who revival wasn’t a sure thing; the show struggled in the ’80s before being cancelled, and the American attempt to revive it in 1996 was a bust. What qualities did you think the show would need in order to be successful?
Russell T. Davies: I think it simply needed to look like a show made in the year 2005. It should not look like a retro piece, a nostalgic reinvention. I sort of thought it should be “If the program had never gone off the air, what would it look like now?” Because I’d always loved it; I didn’t think there was any problem with the format. As an old fan of the show, I loved those things, and wasn’t setting out to change it. You just had to make it look like it was part of the modern world, and had to make it appeal to children again, because… It’s not quite the same in America, I know. But over here, there was a 46-year tradition of—not being a children’s show, but appealing to children constantly. I just had to keep all that intact, really. Trust the program and not wander off the brief.
AVC: Did you have other shows in mind as models for what you wanted to do?
RTD: Well, every well-written show, really. I mean, I loved what Joss Whedon did with Buffy The Vampire Slayer, obviously. Particularly, I love The West Wing. I loved all sorts of modern dramas in Britain, this drama called Shameless written by Paul Abbott that’s got a ferocious energy to it. To be honest, my own shows, too. I have a long history of inventing my own shows for British television. It’s the first time I’ve gone to someone else’s property and revived it. And I have to feel, whether it’s arrogant or not, that when the BBC came to me, they wanted me to write it like I write my shows, in the voice of the writer of Queer As Folk and The Second Coming and the other dramas I’ve done. So I had to have the nerve and the confidence to write it in my tone of voice. That was the important thing. And for once, it worked. [Laughs.] It doesn’t always.
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AVC: One element you added to the show from the beginning was a darker side to The Doctor than seen in earlier incarnations—his loneliness, and his survivor’s guilt over destroying his home planet during the Time War.
RTD: Back in the old days, in the ’60s and ’70s, the heroes of action-adventure-drama could be thinner characters. They’d be filled by great performances, but they weren’t necessarily great jobs of writing a lot of the time, as long as they fulfilled their function within the story. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek film has done more work on Captain Kirk’s character in two hours than a whole three years of Captain Kirk back in the ’60s. That’s how we write now. We were happy to watch heroes being heroes in the ’60s and ’70s; now, we expect to connect with them and understand them. Not necessarily be like them—that’s too simple. But the audience is simply wiser now. We demand psychological insight into our heroes. Otherwise, we’re not interested. We’ll drop them and move on to something better-written and more complex.
So in coming to The Doctor, I couldn’t just write a man who was happily stepping out of his time machine every day and saying, “Oh, let’s have another adventure, let’s have fun.” That’s how everything was written in the ’60s, and now you’ve got to give him reasons and motivation and backstory and history and doubts and arrogance and insecurity and everything. So by elaborating on his Time Lord history, but changing him fundamentally from just being a Time Lord, to being the last of the Time Lords, that sort of automatically makes him lonely, which makes it more intimate, and suddenly you’ve got a character with whom you can empathize, and can cry. And once you are crying with a character, you can also laugh, you can share in the funny bits as well. It would be impossible to write a lead character well these days without doing that. Some people do on some shows, and they die. It’s not like I had a great schematic with all these things in mind, and I ticked them off in a box—you tend to talk about these things quite functionally in hindsight when you’re analyzing what you’ve done. But when I first came to it before any of this was laid out on a chart in front of me, I simply wrote The Doctor in the way that I would write one of my lead characters, which is simply to make them interesting. So it was a quite automatic process.
AVC: And that probably drove the tendency in the new series to focus more on the relationship between The Doctor and his companions.
RTD: Absolutely, yes. The companion gets richer, and at the same time having the companion’s family, which had never been in the old show. It’s just to make these characters more real. And that has a beneficial effect, because then you start attracting great actors; you wouldn’t attract David Tennant with a very thin layer of characterization. They want stuff to get their teeth into. And the same with the companions, you know—Billie Piper and Catherine Tate and Freema [Agyeman]—they’re great actors, and at Billie’s or Catherine Tate’s level, they would not be interested in the show, and would get much better offers of work, if you weren’t writing to that high level. So it was vital, to get the cast onboard, to raise the script up to that level. That wasn’t me single-handed, there was a whole team of us.
AVC: Doctor Who has a built-in mechanism to deal with changes in lead actors, with The Doctor’s alien ability to regenerate his body after mortal injury. The new Doctor is usually distinctively different from his predecessor in personality, which can change the whole tone of the show. How did you want to reinvent the show with David Tennant, after you’d had a year of it after your belt?
RTD: I think in the past, changes to The Doctor have been a reason for a huge change in style and characterization. But bear in mind, we’d only had Christopher for one year. We were lucky to cling onto his genius for one year, and then he was always going to regenerate to introduce the concept, and therefore the entire history of all his regenerations to a young audience. So I wasn’t changing the whole format of the show; I mean, we just learned to make the show in our first year, so all we did was carry on finessing it. It’s a remarkable show, because it’s different every week. That’s the whole point. It’s not just a different place, it’s a different style every week. You can land in the 1920s and have an Agatha Christie murder mystery. You can land in the far future at the end of the universe and have a very bleak story. You can have comedies, you can have chases, you can have philosophical episodes.
So I think it’s important not to change the format of the show too often, because there’s enough changes already. What I wanted to do was repeated patterns within the show, like every year we would go to the year five billion. Every year you’d go back in history and meet a famous figure, whether Queen Victoria or William Shakespeare or Dickens. Every year we’d come back to Earth and spend some time with the companion’s modern-day family. Not absolutely fixed within that, not a rigid path. But I think it’s important in an ever-changing show to have sort of little rocks or anchors that you can cling to and sort of say “Don’t worry, we’re still on the same show, I’m going to still always come back to what you like.”
AVC: How did your goals for the show change from year to year?
RTD: It hasn’t, really. The show’s own ambition has kept me on my toes. It gets bigger and bolder. In the very first year, I wanted to do a Pompeii story, about the destruction of Pompeii when the volcano erupted. We wouldn’t have known how to tell that in the first year. It took us four years to be able to tackle that story, to meet it with confidence, to know how to make it work in a script, what sets we’d need, what CGI we’d need. And so eventually in the fourth year, we had a struggle to make “The Fires Of Pompeii,” which is ferocious, it’s huge!
What we all really learned was how to make it bigger. In the first year, we did Dickens in the past [in the episode “The Unquiet Dead”], which was a lovely sort of contemplative ghost story. By the time we made [“The Shakespeare Code,” in the third series], we were doing it on a huge scale, with the whole of London under attack, and the Globe Theatre, and hundreds of extras. I’m not interested in bigger for bigger’s sake, but we actually took the audience with us. And we have this miracle of over four years—we started out with a great audience, and it then got bigger and bigger over four years until we were the most-watched show of all at the end. That’s all I wanted to do, was keep it working.
AVC: Your desire to bring the show to a new and larger audience probably also ties into your reluctance to pay too much attention to the previous fan base, or get too tied up in continuity issues.
RTD: I speak as a fan myself, and literally I could list off five billion facts about Doctor Who, which I’ve watched since I was 3 years old. I have all the magazines and books and videos and DVDs. I loved that stuff, but I know full well that can push people away. I have been remarkably faithful to the entire mythology and history of Doctor Who, and never contradicted, actually, a single fact from its original 26-year history. That really takes some doing. But to some extent, most people wouldn’t notice; I haven’t put that center stage. That’s just my own personal love of the show ticking away in the background.
But the people who loved the original series when they were young are now in their 40s, and I’m not remotely interested in making a show just for them. That would be tragic. It’s too good an idea to be pigeonholed away with that small of a demographic. We’ve been given millions of pounds of the BBC’s money, and the BBC’s money is public money. We’ve been given that money to make an entertaining show for everyone. I wanted everyone who classically didn’t watch science fiction to watch, simply because they should, because it’s a great show with a great big beating heart. If they’d wanted a cult Doctor Who for the cult audience, I would have made that. I equally know how to do that. And when the BBC first asked me to bring back Doctor Who, the first thing I did was make sure it wasn’t for a nostalgic cult audience, and it was going to be for everyone.
AVC: The final three specials have yet to be broadcast, but they’ve all been written and filmed, is that correct?
RTD: Yes—just before you rang me up, I was watching an edit of the last but one episode. It’s marvelous.
AVC: You’ve been dropping hints about the finale into earlier shows since at least the early part of series four. Have you had the regeneration story in mind all that time?
RTD: I have for a long time. I think when David Tennant came on board, it must have been within a few months of that. I always knew roughly how he died, and the details sort of filled themselves in, and you add things and change things. I’ve never changed it fundamentally, though. In fact, now we’ve shot it, I sit there watching it thinking, “Yeah, that’s what I had in mind about three years ago—that’s how I always thought he’d go.” And, oh, I’m so happy with it. It’s going to be epic and immense, but very, very exciting.
AVC: Now that you’re handing over the show to Steven Moffat as executive producer, do you have any thoughts about the direction they’re taking the show?
RTD: Oh, I just have joy about that direction. Steven is brilliant—it’s been my great joy to work with Steve Moffat over the past four years. And I’m not kidding with that. He has a very busy career of his own, so he would only have time to write one or two stories for us a year, and the day his scripts arrived each year would be a day of high excitement, with all of us running around thrilled and demanding to know what would happen next if it was a two-parter. So I have no doubts it will go on to greater heights, and everyone is energized. [Also,] having a gap has been wonderful for the show. We did a very risky thing in saying, “Let’s not do a full series in 2009.” I always thought it would work, and I trust my instincts on this show by now. I always thought we were a bit overfed with the amount of Doctor Who product on television, because over here, the program is repeated to death. It’s almost shown too often.
I think there’s a little starvation now; I think it’s been missed. I can guarantee you that when it comes back next year, if the excitement is like this now in June, by the time it comes back to a full series, it will be phenomenal. I want to be in Britain on that week, when the first show of the Matt Smith Doctor goes on air, because I can guarantee, it could be like a firestorm. And shows need that, you know? All shows degrade after a while. One of the miracles we’ve done with Doctor Who is to increase the audience every year. It’s very important that the Matt Smith series keeps on doing that, and I think it’ll happen. They’ve got excitement on their side, and people will be dying to see it. So good luck to them, I say.
AVC: How closely did you work with the new team on the direction of the final three shows?
RTD: Only in the last scenes, really. We’d give them synopses of what we were doing, and we’d get rough little one-line descriptions of their episodes, just to make sure we weren’t copying each other. But at the end, Steven and I talked just in a couple of e-mails. That was very easily done, and we’re both very happy, and no arguments. We both wanted the same thing, really. Quite by chance, we both wanted to start from the same point. I wanted to end at the same point at which he started.
AVC: The regeneration scenes aside, was it difficult to write a “final” chapter for a story that you knew would continue without you, and perhaps in directions you wouldn’t have gone?
RTD: No. I think it’d be very odd if The Doctor was a character I’d invented. With Queer As Folk, if someone was taking those characters into new adventures without me, that’d be very strange. But not with The Doctor. Even now, we publish comic strips and novels about the David Tennant Doctor that I can’t keep up with. I sign off on them briefly, but I simply don’t have time to read them, so there are already Tenth Doctor stories that I know nothing of, and I’m the man who invented him.
So it feels like a public property, it genuinely does. I can’t imagine anyone ever feels that they truly own Robin Hood, or Dracula or Sherlock Holmes. You grab them and make them your own for a while, but you know full well that you’re part of a large canon, a huge, never-ending cycle that will just keep on retelling those things. So it’s not the same. It’ll change, and it should change. It had better change. It’s bound to change. Steve Moffat is way too clever of a man to even bother copying or mimicking anything I might do. He has his own ideas. And that is what has kept [Doctor Who] alive for so long. It’s a program that already ran continuously for 26 years; that’s a phenomenon already before we even came along. And they did it by having new teams in, and constantly reinvigorating it, and recasting it, and just made it the most complex and bristling and alive concept in television fiction, really.
AVC: Do you know what you’re moving on to after Doctor Who?
RTD: I do vaguely, but nothing concretely yet. I’ve been exhausted, to be honest. I normally write the next job like a six-month overlap with the previous job. I haven’t with Doctor Who. I’ve just finished it. We finished filming on it a few weeks ago; now we’re editing. So I’ve got nothing lined up, nothing on paper. And you know, we’ve got Torchwood coming up as well, and The Sarah Jane Adventures is filming at the moment, so no time yet to really pause.
AVC: A sequel to Queer As Folk has been mentioned.
RTD: Yes, it’s possible. It wouldn’t be a sequel, because Queer As Folk was done; it only ran for 10 episodes in this country, because I wanted to finish it and move on. But the lives of gay men, or women, are certainly interesting to me, and I’ve got things to say about it.