Last week came the news that Russell T Davies is returning to Doctor Who, and we wanted to have a little chat about it.
Steven Moffat went first.
Not long after the announcement that Russell T Davies was returning to the world of Doctor Who was sprung on us, Moffat replied to Davies’ Instagram post with the message “RTD MUST GO!!!”. The way these things go, he won’t be the last to say it, even if each week Davies delivers an award-winning masterpiece at Saturday teatime.
It’s Doctor Who, isn’t it? Somebody’s bound to be pissed off.
Instantly, it reminded me of a time when I was back editing Den Of Geek just over a decade earlier when at least one commenter a week would be posting some message along those lines. It comes with the job of being the person in charge of Doctor Who: that a very vocal minority seem to want you out the door as soon as you’re back through it.
How lovely it was to see then so much warmth temporarily coating social media, as pretty much unanimous praise was rained on the genuinely surprising announcement that Davies is to succeed Chris Chibnall in the Who top job. He’ll be showrunning Doctor Who for its 60th anniversary year in 2023 and at least one series thereafter. It feels like very, very good news, and ignited a huge, fresh wave of excitement surrounding the show.
Davies presumably will be getting started shortly – once he’s cleared his commitment to a project he said earlier this year he was making with ITV – and then he’ll be onto casting, for the third time, the next Doctor. Given the two that he’s handed the keys to the TARDIS to previously have been Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, that’s exciting too.
What’s interesting is that Davies’ return seems to have come on his terms, at least to a sizeable degree. For the first time, the BBC is allowing Doctor Who to be made by a third party production company, albeit one that knows the show particularly well. Bad Wolf Productions was founded by Julie Gardner and Jane Tranter in 2015, and both of them are returning to produce the show they were on along with Davies over a decade ago. The gang is back together. The Times’ Jake Kanter has some theories on what’s going on, and you can read that here. I have no insight to add with these rumours.
What I do have better eyes on is just how we don’t appreciate the people who take on the mantle of Doctor Who when they have it.
Three people have held the ‘showrunner’ job since the programme came back – thanks to Davies – in 2005. All three of them have been subjected to torrents of abuse, and the worst sides of fandom, for doing what for each of them from the outside looking in appeared to be a dream job. It’s just that the dream job that tends to come with a swathe of anonymous people telling you how shit you are.
The mind boggles at just what it all involves just to get 60 minutes of Who to the telly. Were Davies, Steven Moffat or Chris Chibnall overseeing an American science fiction show, they could perhaps contend with luxuries such as a budget to match the scale of what goes on screen, deeper resources and perhaps even a bit more time. Instead, Doctor Who is a programme that requires huge lashings of ingenuity to visually keep up alone, yet alone thrive.
There’s been a sense that it’s not getting easier either: the era when it was possible to make 13 episodes and a Christmas special of Doctor Who year after year seemed gone, and reading the superb book The Writer’s Tale – that Davies penned with Benjamin Cook – I’m amazed he got through his tenure on the show the first time around. More than that, though: he soared, and launched spin-offs too. I was exhausted just reading about it all.
I love Doctor Who. There’s not an era of the show that I’ve not gleamed pleasure from. I’ve watched my niece get utterly energised by the show with Jodie Whittaker in the TARDIS, just as my son was when David Tennant was driving the thing. The Doctor when I seriously got into the show was Sylvester McCoy, and the fresh eyes on some of the stories he starred in have finally given those involved the credit they were deserving of then. I lived for the UK Gold omnibus on a Sunday morning too, which shows you how old I’m rumoured to be.
But I want to come back to this point. I think what’s become clear in the decade and more since he left Who is how much Davies wasn’t appreciated at the time. I was guilty of that. It’s mind-boggling that half the television viewing public watched as David Tennant regenerated into Matt Smith for a start, and no television drama to my knowledge has managed that since. But also, just rewatching the stories from his time on the show is so entertaining.
Just as with Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall, whether you like their stories or eras or not, I think Doctor Who has been lucky to have each of them. Not least because we only see what they put on the screen: we don’t see quite the battles they’ve had to get it that far. It’s the kind of show that needs people to fight for it.
I also don’t think it’s a massive stretch though to say that the show has faced testing challenges. Not so much ratings, as the sands have shifted there. Catch-up services have proven to have a very long tail where Doctor Who is concerned. But I do wonder if the energy and excitement surrounding it has fallen a little, and the inconsistent scheduling – not helped by the Covid era – has a part to play there. It feels borderline impossible for it to get momentum if episodes are coming every 18 months, and in varying quantities. I hope that changes for the better.
But change is coming with Who. It always does. It’s for Davies and the BBC to decide to tell who went to who when it became clear that Chris Chibnall was handing the job on. But I’d like to think that Davies was negotiating from some position of strength, and was able to use his position as one of the premier writers and producers working in television to get a bit more heft behind the show.
The worst we’re going to get here is a whole lot more episodes overseen by an excellent storyteller who has a proven track record in the magic of Doctor Who. And whilst I’m sadly confident too that the naysayers will be lurking waiting to tear him down, I’ve long learned my lesson about appreciating what we have.
Long live the Doctor, whoever it turns out to be…
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