Russell T Davies and the Rejoining of the Ways

Photograph of Russell T Davies by Fabio De Paola, used to accompany the BBC Media Centre press release announcing his return to Doctor Who.

Image Credit: Fabio De Paola (Fair Use)

Image Description: Photograph of Russell T Davies used to accompany the BBC Media Centre press release announcing his return to Doctor Who

Compiled by Matthew Kilburn

On the afternoon of Friday 24 September 2021, Doctor Who performed one of its most unheralded transformations as the BBC announced that Russell T Davies was returning as the series’ showrunner, twelve years after he completed his last episode in 2009. The man who brought the series back to television in 2005 will be reunited with his former colleagues Julie Gardner (who was executive producer alongside Davies) and Jane Tranter (controller of drama commissioning, BBC Television, 2000-2006, Head of Fiction, BBC Television, 2006-2008) as the company which they founded and head, Bad Wolf, will be co-producing the series with BBC Studios. We asked Tides writers present and past to react, and the result is this epic post.

First, the enthusiasts, and the man who broke the news on the Oxford Doctor Who Society chat group:

As it happened – Thomas reveals the news of Russell’s return to the Oxford Doctor Who Society chat

THOMAS BARKER It feels like an unbelievable scenario from a parallel universe has landed in our universe with a bang! After ​nearly fifteen years away, Russell T Davies is returning to the helm of Doctor Who, just in time for the sixtieth anniversary of our little sci-fi show. With the added benefit of having created so many excellent shows since he departed, including A Very English Scandal, Years and Years and It’s a Sin, I don’t think we will be treading old ground, though it’s clear this is a very safe (and lovely) pair of hands for the BBC to entrust the show to. The 2020’s will obviously be very different to 2005 (in so many ways, both on- and off-screen) and as Who changes with the times I am sure we will be getting something fresh and energetic (as well as potentially revolutionary!) in the years to come. As early as January this year, Davies spoke of the potential for a vast range of spin-off shows to add to the Doctor Who universe, and here’s hoping we can bring in a swathe of fresh talent and voices (as well as some old favourites) to unpack the limitless potential for interesting stories. Class shall be avenged!

I grew up with 2005-2009 Doctor Who (plus, of course, the Moffat era) and it forever awakened in me an interest in television and film, so I’d be silly to not admit my soft spot for anything its showrunners do, but I am sure Davies has so much more to say after so much has happened in Britain and the world. There are new challenges for British drama too. That’s what excites me. There’s also the added context of the Bad Wolf co-production, no doubt to try and make the show more competitive in the era of high-budget Disney+ and Netflix series. We will have to look out for what that means for the show as we learn more about how it will look and feel over the next few years. It’s equally important to mention the vital work of Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner, who are just as important and incredible in the story of the programme. Of course, there’s the opportunity to bring back some old favourites, and by all means I’d love to see Wilf, Brian, and Graham in a cross-over. Who wouldn’t? However, I hope we look forward, too, as the Chibnall era did behind-the-scenes and on-screen with its representation, and continue to build upon the fine traditions of this fantastic programme.

PENNY GOODMAN suggested we reproduce her tweet:

Penny Goodman (via Twitter): FINALLY SOME GOOD NEWS! I know, he (Russell T Davies) has his flaws, fans complained plenty when he was show-runner too. But he will write us some decent stories with human moments, proper attention to character and plenty of queer representation. I am here for that.

ROGAN CLARK When someone sent me the link with “new Doctor Who news” on Friday, I was expecting a Series Thirteen trailer. What else could it be? As it turns out, the biggest surprise of my week. Critical and commercial darling Russell The Davies, returning to the genre show everyone will tell you has been going downhill since 2010 and/or 2017, with a new commercial partner to pump it full of His Dark Materials money. While the Bad Wolf partnership bad been suspected for a while, RTD’s return was, to me, the least likely thing. It makes sense – given Moffat’s comments about how the fiftieth anniversary went down, and how there were infinite plates to spin, big head office people don’t want a new incoming showrunner to have to deal with it as their first task (of course, the sixtieth anniversary could just not be a big event, but imagine the fan outrage!) But, of course, RTD said yes. It’s not as if he’s starved for work – after It’s A Sin, he could probably do anything he wanted. Yet here he is. It’s 2003 again. Hopefully, this is a sign he has a vision for the show, a direction he’s planned out, and a readiness to steer the reborn show into it’s twentieth year. I don’t hate the Chibnall years as much as it seems everyone does sometimes, but I’m still optimistic for what comes ahead. Series Thirteen, and then R2D2 and beyond. The whole universe to explore.

Where are the Doctor Who Frubes of yesteryear?

Others share notes of caution and regret amidst the celebrations:

SAM SHEPPARD I used to complain – fairly frequently – that people my own age were overly nostalgic for the Russell T Davies era. This isn’t to say that it wasn’t good, simply that most casual viewers seemed incapable of accepting it was over. It wasn’t really Davies himself they wanted to return, I argued – rather, they simply wanted to revisit a nostalgic childhood where they were ten years old, the world seemed like a simpler place, and David Tennant’s face loomed over the shelves in Toys R Us.

And now, here we are. Even a day or two after the announcement, it still hasn’t quite sunk in that Davies is actually, properly back. On the one hand, part of me is a little disappointed; it would have been nice to see a fresh face, and get an entirely new take on Doctor Who. However, this seems somewhat unrealistic – Who is now such a well-established brand that I can’t really see the BBC entrusting it to someone without prior experience of spearheading prime-time drama. Besides, Davies is a safe pair of hands, so to speak; he’s already proven that he has the energy to keep up with the demands of the Who production machine, having established the ‘auteur’ style by which most viewers define twenty-first century Who. More importantly, he’s an excellent showrunner in his own right. Whatever you may think of his approach to the show, he’s clearly passionate about it, and was extremely savvy when it came to marketing. I’ve often been frustrated with the low profile of the Chibnall era, and while we may not be going back to the days of Doctor Who Frubes and the Dalek Sec Hybrid on the Radio Times cover, it’s nice to think that Who will probably be promoted more heavily under Davies’ stewardship. I’m only sorry that Series Thirteen already seems to have been overshadowed by this news (though, to be fair, it might have helped if they had actually confirmed which classic monsters are returning, given that everybody and their nan seems to know already). Now then, Russell, give us a new Dalek design, please…?

ADAM KENDRICK Even though this appointment is a highly risk-averse move by the BBC, who are clearly hoping for a return to Doctor Who‘s heyday of the mid-2000s, it’s hard to think of a better showrunner for the upcoming sixtieth anniversary than Russell T Davies himself, and I’m optimistic that whatever happens to the show next, it’ll be great.

Damn the haters and the clickbaiters

SAM FLOWER My first reaction when I saw the news that Tom had shared on the WhoSoc chat was disbelief. Surely this must just be another click-bait April Fool’s-style mick-take, like the time I saw the actress who plays Velma in Orphan 55 announced as the Fourteenth Doctor. But then I noticed it was on the official website. And the official Facebook. And BBC News. That was when the complete shock hit.

I still can hardly believe it; it seems utterly unbelievable, utterly preposterous, more impossible than Clara Oswald. It goes without saying, this is the good kind of unbelievable news. The original Russell T Davies era was an utter triumph that was beloved by fans and the general public alike. His stories were full of memorable characters, crowd pleasing excitement, and devastating emotional sledgehammers. But I am sure the great Welshman is far too canny to just repeat what has gone before. I don’t expect to see the re-return of Rose for example, but for this new era (RTD2 as everyone has already called it) to offer a bold, different take, partially informed by Davies’ hugely successful dramas of the last few years. Anyone who ‘celebrates’ this as the end of the ‘woke’ era is in for a rude awakening; I fully expect stories that feature greater diversity than seen in the 2000s, and that deal with modern themes, perhaps in a way that feels more organic and less surface-level than some of the more recent stories that have tried this. We are after all talking about the man who wrote Years and Years, which is about as topical as a TV show can be, while also helping to make the message more engaging by powerfully embedding it in the lives of the characters. My only concern, which honestly is something I worry about far too much in this era of aggravated discourse, is the optics of it all. Certain parts of the internet will be very smug indeed and will use this to further their narrative of disaster, and now the return of the saviour. It did take until Saturday evening for me to see a YouTube video along these lines to pop up on my recommended feed, which is longer than I expected. The thumbnail claimed this would mean the end of the Timeless Child, but I feel that the idea of unknown past Doctors is the kind of interestingly heretical idea that Davies would keep around. He is the man who destroyed Gallifrey.

The other part of Friday’s announcement was that the show would be a co-production with Bad Wolf, an outside production company. I believe it is the case that the BBC is under pressure to make more of their shows as co-productions. In this context, Russell’s appointment is less surprising. Julie Gardner, executive producer throughout the original Davies era, is one of the founders Bad Wolf. An outside production company has profits to make, and so will want to guarantee that the shows they make are popular and successful. In that context, hiring someone with near-unparalleled success and popularity makes sense, especially after the divisiveness of the last few years, and with the huge undertaking that is the sixtieth anniversary right ahead. It is in many ways the ‘safe’ choice. I am hopeful however that the era to come will not be one of ‘safe’ creative choices. I would still put money on the next Doctor being a woman. Overall, this is good news. Of course it is. One of the nation’s greatest writers is returning to the greatest show in television. Damn the haters and the clickbaiters. A new era dawns. A new Doctor dawns. I’m sure it’s going to be amazing.

JAMES ASHWORTH My first reaction to Russell T Davies coming back was one of disbelief. Surely this was a joke, sent from a parody account? But no, it was verified. Then other BBC outlets began to report it, before Lizo Mzimba had his final say. Even a few days later, I’m still in shock. Though technically the first Doctor Who I ever saw was Dr Who and the Daleks, it was Rose et al. that made me a fan. Since RTD left, I’ve continued to enjoy Doctor Who, as well as RTD’s other works, so I’m surprised that he’s made the move back again. But I’m very glad that he has, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can bring to Who with twenty years more experience. I’m also hoping he’ll bring more representation and recurring characters, which have been somewhat lacking in the past two years. While I’m a bit wary of Doctor Who becoming a co-production, I hope we can have more regular series, and a lot of good television, in the years to come.

GEORGIA HARPER I had ONE work call on Friday, from 3pm to 3.45. Whatever I expected to see in my notifications afterwards, it certainly wasn’t this! Some of the BBC coverage around Chibnall’s departure – quoting uncritically the “too woke” complaints from tabloids – had made me worried about the direction the show would take next, so my main reaction is relief. To be honest, if Russell T Davies had never written for the show, I’d have been delighted that just “the writer from It’s A Sin is taking over”!

I have some reservations – for one thing, this was essentially the most palatable way imaginable to announce that production of Doctor Who was being outsourced. RTD’s return also doesn’t (and shouldn’t!) mean a return to 2005, and the “brought in to save Doctor Who” narrative is already building – Doctor Who doesn’t need saving as it is! I eagerly await the logical acrobatics in that discourse if/when he casts a Doctor who isn’t a white man – T’Nia Miller with a flaming sword as per the Rose novelisation, anyone? But for now, I’m just enjoying all the fandom excitement!

Thwack the ravens of wistful revisitation

RYAN BRADLEY To say I was surprised by the return of Russell T Davies to Doctor Who would be an understatement. While his principal Doctor may have been, famously (or perhaps infamously)reluctant to go, Davies’ tenure on the show very much felt ‘finished’. The excesses present in stories like Journey’s End and The End of Time, both wearing their ‘endingness’ on their sleeves, seemed like Davies’ parting gifts to himself. In the Moffat and Chibnall eras which followed, calls to reinstate good old king Davies and/or the associated figures of David Tennant, Billie Piper, Catherine Tate, and so on felt regressive and dismissive of the programme’s innate capacity for change, for being one thing and then another. I’ve frequently felt that the Davies era, brilliant as it often was, could be tediously romanticised by certain viewers who grew up alongside it, whose perspective could be symptomatic, pardon the pun, of the proverbial rose-tinted spectacles. While both Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall have faults as writers (for the sake of transparency, Moffat is my favourite of the three ‘NuWho’ bosses), Davies’ weaknesses, on Who at least, are more readily forgotten by critics of subsequent showrunners.

Having accepted the highs and lows of the Chibnall era (and there have been, despite shortcomings, several highs) as the latest face of a programme whose face is rarely consistent, I was expecting, and perhaps hoping, for another ‘New Vision’ of Doctor Who following his departure. Why, then, are my mixed feelings about the return of Davies teetering more towards the positive than the negative? My relief at being spared Who under some of the more likely but uninspired candidates recently suggested for the showrunner’s job aside, I am, despite some reservations about the wider implications of this decision, erring on the side of hope. Hope that while reinstating Davies may be regressive, he himself will not be. With an evolved creative maturity evident in more recent work like the tragicomic A Very English Scandal and the often devastating It’s a Sin, I am hopeful that he would not return to Who to retread old ground and cater to tedious nostalgia. If he goes into his second era, helpfully dubbed RTD2 by Twitter, with this ethos, I believe his Who will be as much a New Vision of the show as many other probable showrunner’s might have been, perhaps more so.

That ‘if’ is important. Davies has suffered, like many writers, from self-indulgent creative impulses (think The End of Time once again), yet if he thwacks the ravens of wistful revisitation away (no companions from his previous era seems like a good starting rule here) and begins somewhat afresh, I do think we could see something very interesting and, with some luck, nowhere near as creatively stagnant as the initial decision might appear. Admittedly these hopes are what they are; ifs. I could very well be proved wrong. There are, of course, still many other hurdles to overcome (one hopes, for instance, that the set culture nurtured on the earlier series of ‘New Who‘ will not be repeated, something Davies perhaps should address more directly). I am, however, intrigued as to what Davies’ return will bring, while fearing a narrative that Davies was The One True Showrunner and had to descend from the clouds like one of his own deus ex machina to resuscitate a show that has suffered on with water in its lungs since he left. Despite this, there are certainly elements Davies can conceivably improve in the show, particularly when it comes to characterisation and representation. While casting both the first woman and the first black Doctors has been a high point of the Chibnall era, which has also improved diversity with its team of writers, the showrunner’s promise of LGBT+ representation ‘across the spectrum’ ultimately proved quite hollow. Davies, having directly returned to stories of gay men in his recent work, has the opportunity to make good on Chibnall’s promise and create a yet more inclusive vision of Doctor Who. Insert obligatory joke about Moffat returning here.

EVAN JONES It was Friday 24 September 2021, just gone twenty past three in the afternoon, when I saw this incredible tweet saying that Russell T Davies was coming back to be the showrunner of Doctor Who. I laughed. “What an excellent prank”, I thought for about the next ten seconds. And then, finally, I clocked that official Blue Tick. This wasn’t a joke. This was the real deal. RTD is coming home!

I recall having some anxious thoughts about the show’s sixtieth anniversary earlier in the week. Not at helped by the lack of news and promotion for the upcoming series, I was starting to wonder if there even would be a sixtieth anniversary special, now that we know Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall are leaving in 2022. All of this has disappeared in an instant. The show is now back with the very writer who resurrected it and who’s really at the top of his game right now, coming off the back of A Very English Scandal, Years & Years and It’s a Sin in recent years. Some seem a little concerned by the lack of new talent or even the lack of specific future details; all of these can wait a little while longer. The important thing is that the future of Doctor Who is secure, and I just know it’s going to be very, very exciting.

Russell T Davies will return in 2023. It seems like he just doesn’t want to go.

EMMA MORRIS I know I’m not alone in my surprise at this latest Doctor Who announcement – Russell T Davies’ career has only gone from strength to strength since his first tenure as Who’s showrunner, so it feels almost humbling that he would return to the fold. This is perhaps a strangely sensational parasocial reaction to the appointment of a guy I’ve never met, but given the impact the show’s revival had on my childhood I think I’ll allow myself a bit of giddy nostalgia. A large part of this announcement that seems to have been eclipsed by the shock of Davies’ appointment is the decision to partner with Bad Wolf. While my political view is firmly against the involvement of private companies in public services, I am prepared to receive this news more pragmatically in light of the BBC’s current existential crisis. Threatened on all sides by the popularity of digital giants’ online streaming services and the Tory regime’s hostility towards the TV license, the Beeb have made it their custom to entrust their most important brands with private production companies. Considering the stellar job Bad Wolf are doing with His Dark Materials, I can at least rest easy that they are the corporate hands I would most trust with Who. This acceptance is not completely without cynicism, as my faith in the BBC’s top brass is not exactly at its peak after the show’s recent history. I am however holding out some hope that, with Davies’ veteran leadership, Who can rise again to become the best thing on the telly. After all the snide remarks about Who ‘becoming woke’, I look forward to Davies continuing his track record of diverse casting and intelligent social commentary. After a long period of Davies being relegated to just a fan of the show (a period that I would like to point out will extend for another year from now), I can’t wait to see what new ideas will be brought to Doctor Who!

Did you say… Bad Wolf?

The logo of Bad Wolf, depicting a stylised wolf facing right towards the capital letters 'BADWOLF', WOLF being in bold type.

For others, including those with long memories, there are deeper worries:

WILLIAM SHAW I’m genuinely curious about what Russell T Davies is thinking here. What prompted him, after a string of acclaimed dramas, to come back to his most stressful job? Someone other than BBC Media Centre needs to interview him. That aside, the involvement of Bad Wolf gives me pause. This is the first time Doctor Who hasn’t been in-house since the 1996 TV movie, made by Universal Television and BBC Worldwide, with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network in the United States as the principal customer. This time, I fear outsourced production will stick. Bye-bye, public service Doctor Who.

IAN BAYLEY I feel a bit deflated. It’s as if the BBC has admitted (wrongly) that the past eleven years were a mistake and that viewers who left Doctor Who when David Tennant did were right to do so. Many of those I know who enjoyed only the Russell T Davies era were in primary school at the time and will not enjoy new RTD episodes as adults. Or if they do, and changing one of the show’s variables back to its 2005 setting magically revives its popularity then, all of a sudden, only one person is capable of showrunning Doctor Who and we can only have it for as long as he is in good health and motivated. What happened to the show that can always reinvent itself?

ALAN STEVENS I can’t say I particularly enjoyed Russell T Davies’ time on Doctor Who, in part due to his relentless self-promotion and heavy media presence. Now, the idea that he’s coming back to “rescue” the show will probably make his belligerent air of self-congratulation more obvious and even more oppressive.

Equally, although it is rumoured that the early announcement was inspired by the fear of a leak, its perhaps inadvertent consequence is that the BBC appear to have written Chris Chibnall off even before he’s finished working on the next series. Which seems unfair —  although I guess some fans will applaud.

I read a post the other day accusing Chibnall of “dividing fandom!” This is, of course, nonsense, and likely to be just another way of saying: “I can’t forgive Chibnall for recasting the Doctor as a woman and then suggesting the Doctor isn’t a Time Lord because that’s soooo important to me!”

In the real world, Doctor Who fandom has been fighting amongst itself since the formation of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society in 1976.  Back then, it was about how The Deadly Assassin had ruined the Time Lords; that Tom Baker wasn’t taking the role of the Doctor seriously and should be sacked; that producer Graham Williams had no respect for the Daleks; or that producer John Nathan-Turner was turning the programme into a pantomime. I recall one chap at a convention telling me that Doctor Who should have ended with Logopolis and that “wet vet Peter Davison needed to take some acting lessons off Matthew Waterhouse.”

When the show returned after its seventeen-year television hiatus, battle commenced again, but now transferred from the pages of fanzines like Doctor Who Bulletin to websites such as Outpost Gallifrey, and later Gallifrey Base, Twitter, and Facebook. This time the opposing forces were those who liked the ‘Classic’ series (and by that they meant its entire twenty-six season run) and not the reboot, and those who liked both. When RTD left it became a three-sided fight between those who loved the original and hated the reboot, those who preferred RTD to Moffat, and those who thought Moffat was the best thing since Zoe Heriot’s PVC miniskirt.

Contrary to ‘dividing fandom’, I think we can see Chibnall has done the opposite.  He has, in fact, united all these disparate factions into a communal loathing of him. I suppose bringing back RTD is to start the process all over again. Indeed, a number of fans have stated that the return of RTD will see an end to “Doctor Woke”, apparently forgetting those previous accusations that the showrunner was working to a “Gay Agenda” and had turned the series into a “multicultural soap opera”!

Inevitably there will always be a core of small-“c” conservative, unreconstructed reactionary elements within any fanbase, and this is certainly true of Doctor Who. Of course, a sixteen-year-old Chibnall appeared on the BBC’s Open Air in 1986, wearing a bad suit and suspicious haircut, for the sole purpose of slagging off that much-loved classic, The Trial of a Time Lord, so perhaps he deserves all he gets.

Conclusion

MATTHEW KILBURN writes: I’m a contemporary of Chris Chibnall and remember his appearance on Open Air. This might have been the first time fan criticism was exposed to the cameras, a semi-private world of expectation and vocabulary suddenly lit up in a BBC studio for conversation with Pip and Jane Baker. I wonder how far Chris Chibnall has been led to be the most reserved of twenty-first century Doctor Who showrunners by his memory of that experience and his awareness of the gulf between his teenage fan self and the adult writer. In contrast, Russell T Davies appears to enjoy talking about his own work and television in general. The news media seem to enjoy interviewing him and he seems to like them, though his dedication to publicity rounds and wider public engagements must take its own toll.

There is a lot of love for Russell T Davies expressed above, but a lot of concern too. In part, this stems from the surprise of the announcement and absence of any plans for the series. The involvement of Bad Wolf is a mixed blessing. The already stellar reputations of Julie Gardner and Jane Tranter have been enhanced by their own company’s productions, as well as their establishment of their own studio facilities in Cardiff – will these be used rather than, or as well as, the BBC’s Roath Lock? However, the very fact that Bad Wolf is a private company with influential corporate shareholders – Len Blavatnik’s Access Entertainment, Sky (now owned by Comcast rather than Rupert Murdoch) and HBO (soon to be part of emerging media giant Warner Bros. Discovery) – gives many Doctor Who fans pause. Outsourcing Doctor Who seems to strike against the public service broadcasting traditions integral to the programme. While we are glad to be a long way from Lime Grove, we wonder what Sydney Newman or Barry Letts would think of all this.

However, the presence of shareholders with highly commercial entertainment backgrounds doesn’t necessarily determine corporate intent. Bad Wolf also have a partnership with the Welsh government, who are the owners of their studio facility. The company has created 1,000 jobs in Wales and runs a classroom on site to support their apprenticeships and employee development. Although the business was recently (Screen Daily, 3 September 2021) reported as being up for sale, the sought-for purchaser would share “its creative vision for continuing to build the business’ Welsh presence.” The BBC is unlikely to entrust so high profile a programme as Doctor Who to a company whose reputation for social responsibility is imperilled.

In the immediate term, as Chris Chibnall’s final series is prepared for broadcast, Russell T Davies and colleagues at Bad Wolf and BBC Studios are hopefully bringing in new and imaginative talent from their extensive contact books and nurturing extraordinary ideas which will entertain and hopefully do some educating and informing along the way without indulging in overt didacticism. However, let’s enjoy Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor and her friends run their last few laps first.

All opinions stated in this article are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Tides of Time or the Oxford Doctor Who Society.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s