Russell T Davies and Doctor Who (Again)

doctor who russell t davies return 60th anniversary jodie whittaker david tennant chris chibnall moffat

Obviously, “one of the country’s most talented screenwriters is taking over Doctor Who” is unambiguously good news on its own terms. Coming at a point when the show has been, to be charitable, having certain difficulties, there’s something deeply reassuring about this.

It’s just complicated slightly by the fact that this isn’t just the writer of this year’s most acclaimed drama, it’s Russell T Davies specifically, returning to Doctor Who after nearly 15 years away.

The thing is, it’s immediately hugely exciting. I’m not going to pretend it isn’t – I love Russell T Davies’ previous tenure on Doctor Who (how strange to describe it like that!), of course I do. It was my introduction to the show and the reason why I took to it the way I do; arguably, really, the reason I care so much about television, the reason I write about it professionally now. It’s a return to such a specific thing with such an outsized presence in my life that it’s difficult to separate my reaction from that nostalgic response.

Nonetheless, with my intellectual grown-up critic hat on (it’s made of folded-up newspaper), I have certain reservations and caveats: it feels like a genuine shame to miss out on the projects that Davies might’ve worked on otherwise, for one thing. His Doctor Who was perfect – yes, even when it wasn’t – but it was also done. Russell T Davies writing Doctor Who for another few years means another few years again before we get another It’s A Sin or another Cucumber.

Also, though, I don’t know that it speaks well to the creative health of Doctor Who. Chris Chibnall was often implicitly understood (perhaps moreso by fans than industry professionals, admittedly) to have been hired to bring Doctor Who closer to the 2005-09 incarnation of the show: to then immediately replace Chibnall with Davies not only suggests a failure on Chibnall’s part (there’s so much pressure on Series 13 now, more than ever before almost), but also a limited imagination in terms of what Doctor Who is and what it can be. That’s a show and a format that should be infinitely flexible, but increasingly seems beholden to one particular vision.

How much that can be put at Doctor Who’s door is another matter, perhaps, as much about the state of British television as an industry in general as it is this one show. (Particularly too as the significance of Doctor Who as an Intellectual Property has grown, meaning the show is less likely to be shepherded by a writer/producer at an earlier point in their career – someone like Nida Manzoor, for example, who would’ve been my preferred choice, for all her obvious talent, is unlikely to get a look-in because she’s “only” showrun one project.)

In amongst all this though is a smaller piece of news, easily overlooked but far more significant really: “BBC Studios are partnering with Bad Wolf to produce [the new series]”. We’ve known for a while that changes to the BBC charter means it has to open up in-house properties to bids from external companies to produce them – this is the start of that. Bad Wolf is probably the best-case scenario for that here – certainly it’s better than Netflix, for example – but it’s the end of Doctor Who being made under a public service remit. It’s going to be opened up now to a number of private industry profit seeking initiatives, and that’s… concerning, long-term, for the forms it could take (both during and beyond the Bad Wolf deal). As of right now Doctor Who is a very different programme than it was when Chris Chibnall took over – that’s the biggest news to come out of today, really, Davies stepping into the showrunner role again is just a footnote.

Still, though. In the short-term, and taking the headline announcement on its own terms, I think this is… on balance, probably a good thing. What’s key I think is that Davies now is not the same writer as he was in 2005 – there’s nearly fifteen years of development and growth there. Not just personally, but in terms of responding to the industry around him too – one thing this announcement put me in mind of was Davies’ recent criticisms of shows like WandaVision and Loki, given Chibnall described the shows as Doctor Who’s direct competition in 2021 a little while ago too. (Hopefully too he’ll also be a better producer, able to cultivate a better working environment both for himself and his employees.)

Given that – and given, too, that Davies absolutely does not need Doctor Who anymore, not at this point in his career – he’s surely not responding as an emergency stopgap to help the show tread water. If Davies is returning now, it must be because he’s had an idea, a reason to risk all that goodwill and to dedicate years of his life again to a show he’d finished with.

So, yes. Excited for Doctor Who again, for the first time in a while. Which is always nice.

Anyway, here’s how we can finally get Class series 2.

Update 11/10/21: So, here’s some interesting news that changes the above somewhat. Industry magazine Broadcast is reporting that Sony are currently finalising a bid to take full ownership of Bad Wolf (there’s some more details over at CultBox).

Obviously, we’re not privy to the details of the contracts, and any speculation is just that. I think you can make reasonable assumptions, though – there’s been a lot of talk, for example, about Davies’ comments earlier this year about Doctor Who spinoffs, and I feel like it’s a reasonable assumption that Bad Wolf would have a first look producing option for (and presumably some ownership stake in)any hypothetical spinoffs written into their contract. You’d expect that to be an incentive to come up with new spinoff concepts (again, if at all) rather than putting energy into bringing back something like Torchwood – but this is, of course, armchair contract lawyering without any real knowledge behind it.

Still, Sony is interesting one, if only because there’s often rumours swirling about it being bought up itself – rumours that its CEO has recently dismissed, of course, but even so, we’re in an era where the entertainment industry is consolidating quickly and big monopolies are getting even bigger, and it’s not hard to imagine Disney eventually buying Sony in the same way they did Fox. Even then, though, my understanding is that Sony Pictures is the least profitable arm of Sony overall, and there would surely be an interest in getting as much money as possible out of a newly owned recognisable brand. (Particularly given, as we know, Sony Pictures was actively pursuing a Doctor Who movie during the late Moffat years.)

But, again, we don’t really know. Bad Wolf is making Doctor Who for the BBC, rather than now owning it outright (though I do think it’s a reasonable assumption they’ll have partial or full ownership in new concepts or aliens introduced, though). Sony in turn also wouldn’t own Doctor Who outright, even if they do end up owning Bad Wolf – probably the main thing here, really, is demonstrating the potential long term significance of the Bad Wolf deal to everyone who assumed “Davies, Gardner, it’s not that big a deal”.

Related:

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Doctor Who Review: Revolution of the Daleks

doctor who revolution of the daleks review chris chibnall lee haven jones jodie whittaker john barrowman bradley walsh chris noth police

When have I ever let you down before?

I will shortly be suing Chris Chibnall for plagiarism.

That’s a joke, obviously, but let me explain. About a decade ago, I wrote an episode of Doctor Who. (Yes, I am and have always been exactly as cool as you thought.) It was called Legacy of the Daleks, and it was about a politician using Daleks as state police – not real Daleks, but fake, robot ones, cobbled together out of hollowed out and abandoned Dalek shells. The idea was that the imagery and iconography of the Dalek alone – the concept of a Dalek – was enough to create this culture of fear and suppression. It doesn’t last, anyway, because the Doctor shows up, and shortly after that so do the real Daleks, here to clean up the mess.

Sound familiar?

I was so pleased with this that I printed it all out and posted it to BBC Wales. (Like I said: I am, and always have been, exactly as cool as you thought.) Some months later I got a letter back in the post, with a signed picture of Matt Smith – signed by Steven Moffat, I think, though I was never clear – and an explanation that, for legal reasons, they couldn’t read any old rubbish someone sent them in the post, in case an episode they put out later had any resemblance to it whatsoever. Which struck me as basically reasonable, anyway, and I went about my life otherwise, only ever thinking about Doctor Who an appropriate and healthy amount from that moment on. (Um.)

What I didn’t realise then, of course, was that they were playing a long game, waiting a decade before brushing the cobwebs off the script and recycling it for Revolution of the Daleks. So, like I said: lawsuit pending, I want my 10%. (Again, I’m joking – they did say I wasn’t allowed to sue them, after all – but genuinely, this is the best idea I’ve ever had, and they beat me to it! I’ve been going silently feral since the first promotional pictures of Daleks with the police dropped. Sigh.)

In fairness, I will grudgingly concede that after Chibnall found my work down the back of a sofa, he did bring a few good ideas of his own to it. Legacy was set on a colony world in the far future; Revolution moving it to present-day London, with thinly veiled analogues for Theresa May and Donald Trump, is plainly a marked improvement. With the layers of metaphor pared back, the imagery of Daleks alongside police, using tear gas and water cannons to quell protestors, is all the more potent and striking than it might’ve been otherwise.

Granted, I’m not convinced Revolution of the Daleks actually did a great deal with that imagery. It’s a genuinely great concept, the best idea anyone’s had for the Daleks in about a decade – well, I would say that – but it’s just imagery. The sheer frisson of Daleks as border guards and police officers goes a long way, but I want it to go further: what does this episode have to say about fascism or about policing, what does it have to say about authoritarianism and security, what does it have to say about government use of force? Ultimately, I think Chibnall just isn’t actually especially interested in my his idea here; it’s a clever trick to contrive some Dalek infighting, as opposed to anything deeper. (Even setting aside the politics, he struggles with what it would mean for his characters: is Yaz still a police officer?) So, what fills that space instead? If this isn’t an episode Daleks, fascism, the surveillance state, and the contested aesthetics of each – sounds good though, right? – what is Revolution of the Daleks about?

Well, this and that. Like all the best Chibnall episodes, there’s a lot going on here; Revolution is reliant on, if not momentum exactly, certainly the fact that a lot of plates are spinning all at once. Where one aspect falters, there’s always the chance to cut to something else – the special is always moving, at least, a bit of structural sleight-of-hand that goes some way towards papering over the more obvious cracks. Not much insight with the Daleks? Cut to Chris Noth chewing scenery (brilliantly, in fairness). Bored of that? Here’s John Barrowman doing all his old jokes again. Heard it all before? Well, let’s see what Jodie Whittaker’s up to at the moment – more than last time, hopefully?

On one level, this is nominally a story about the Doctor finding herself after The Timeless Children. Revolution was always going to find itself in a difficult spot there, caught awkwardly between a need to function as a special for a general audience, and a need to follow-up on the series’ most insular, inward-looking plotline since 2005. As is so often the case with Chibnall’s scripts, there’s the shape of something that might almost work: the Doctor, lost and insecure, redefining her identity against the Daleks. He revisits something I really liked about Resolution, too, this sense that being around the Daleks drives the Doctor to be wildly more reckless than she would be otherwise – last time almost throwing Aaron into a supernova, this time ringing up the Daleks and calling for more (in my version, they turned up on their own; there was a joke about copyright infringement).

But we return to the same problem we often do – dialogue that doesn’t play to Jodie Whittaker’s strengths, continuing to hold the Doctor at a strange remove from the narrative, character writing that’s inconsistent at best. For all that the script gestures at the idea of the Doctor having an identity crisis, she doesn’t really… do that. So maybe there’s more going on with our companions?

Again, Revolution is caught trying to meet two demands, not quite managing either: it has to serve Ryan and Graham’s final episode, while also re-centring Yaz, leaving her character ready for more dramatic weight going forward.

There’s a sense, watching these scenes, that Chris Chibnall has little recollection of his own era. So much of Revolution of the Daleks is reliant on groundwork he hasn’t laid, character development that’s simply never happened. The moment Yaz pushes the Doctor, for example, is genuinely quite exciting – but it shouldn’t be? Mandip Gill is doing some of her best work here, to be clear, and I’m excited to see where that goes; between this and Can You Hear Me?, there’s a thread starting to develop that posits being a Doctor Who companion essentially as an unhealthy coping mechanism. The thing is, though, this is Gill’s twenty-third episode as Yaz – far past the point where something like that push be notable, let alone remarkable. I’m not sure Chibnall quite realises that though, clearly hoping – or worse, believing – Revolution can stand on the strength of its character writing.

Similarly, look at that heart-to-heart conversation between Ryan and the Doctor. We’ve noted before how rarely the two of them share scenes together, leaving what arguably should’ve been the core dynamic of the show feeling thinly sketched at best; Revolution relies on a relationship that simply doesn’t exist. Tosin Cole (reliably the most interesting actor of the main cast, and the one I’ll miss most) plays the scene as though he’s trapped talking to an acquaintance he doesn’t particularly like, and it’s hard to blame him. His and Graham’s exit worked well enough, at least; I appreciated that Chibnall didn’t kill either of them off, as it looked like he might at times. I can’t say I cared particularly for the “maybe we’ll fight aliens” part, which feels less interesting than the climate activist/community organising thread hinted at last year. (Really, this episode needed Tibo to pop up again – as written, there’s not enough sense of Ryan newly established in a life he doesn’t want to leave anymore.)

And that’s that! We’ve turned the page on a particular chapter of the Chibnall era, Revolution of the Daleks in many ways the equivalent to Doomsday and The Angels Take Manhattan before it. Whatever returns, whenever it returns, is going to be manifestly different from what came before. I enjoyed this episode well enough (even the bits I didn’t write!), and I’ll miss Cole and Walsh going forward, but it’s hard not to welcome a change – any change – at this point.

Related:

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You might also be interested to take a look at Will Shaw’s review of the episode, over at his website, or Tom Byrne’s review of the episode from an alternate universe, over at his new substack.

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?