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”.