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.

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?

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The End of Time Part Two

doctor who the end of time part two review david tennant russell t davies

I wonder what I’d be, without you.

This was perfect.

It isn’t perfect, of course, but it was: the best episode of Doctor Who is always the last episode I watched. It was the best episode of Doctor Who a decade ago, and, for a little while, it was the best episode of Doctor Who again today.

At about ten past eight on New Year’s Day 2010, David Tennant became an actor again. He went to Hollywood, and didn’t find much success there; he came back to television, and did. David Tennant elevated an above-average coastal crime drama into must see television; David Tennant was one of the best parts of a nominal comic book adaptation already much better than its peers; David Tennant is going to be in a Channel 4 crime drama we’ll all have forgotten about by the time he’s in the ITV true crime drama we’ll all have forgotten about by the end of the year. But before all that, he wasn’t an actor. It’s not that David Tennant didn’t exist – he did, in magazine articles and Doctor Who Confidential and on the news and little trivia details about stage names and Pet Shop Boys – but rather that David Tennant was a distant afterthought, far less immediately material by dint of being genuinely real.

David Tennant is not a perfect actor. He is a very good actor, but he’s not a perfect actor; there is actually perhaps an argument to be made that he’s the weakest actor of the five who have played the part he’s most famous for since 2005, although at a certain point that’s just splitting hairs. He is very good at being charming; he is extremely good at making meaningless exposition entertaining (a skill not very many actors have, but any would need to be the Doctor). But David Tennant is not especially good at playing angry. Well, no, he is – it’s just that’s he’s very good at a very particular type of anger, of overt, immediate flashes of temper. For the most part, David Tennant doesn’t do subtle gradations: it’s a raised voice, a contorted expression, wild eyes. He does it very well, and he stays in that niche. (Admittedly, having said that, The End of Time Part Two is perhaps actually one of few places where he is very good at a subtler, rising anger.) That’s obvious watching, say, The Idiot’s Lantern in 2016; less so in 2006.

Except, he wasn’t an actor in 2009, nor had he been for a few years at that point. David Tennant was the Doctor – just the Doctor. For all that Christopher Eccleston existed, or Paul McGann existed, or Peter Cushing existed, or Tom Baker in The Hand of Fear existed, David Tennant was the Doctor. It’s not a question of acting or of craft or of performance – it simply was.

He was perfect. And he was perfect again, today, for about an hour and fifteen minutes. The best episode of Doctor Who is always the last episode I watched.

doctor who the end of time part two russell t davies david tennant review

Russell T Davies is not a perfect writer either.

He is a very good writer, though. In the years since he left Doctor Who, he’s written some of my favourite television, full stop. I loved Cucumber, with all its idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, probably the most personal piece of drama I’d ever seen when I watched it. A Very English Scandal was brilliant, one of my favourite television programmes of 2018. Years and Years, too, found its way onto my end-of-year best of list. It felt vital and current and so entirely in tune with the zeitgeist, a perfect expression of a very 2019 set of anxieties. Some of it was amongst Davies’ best work – the fourth episode is perhaps one of the most impactful things he’s ever written. But it also wasn’t perfect, its ending, perhaps, a little overly simplistic. It’s difficult to write a story about a world falling into fascism, and then write a solution to that, because, well, we don’t have a solution to that at the moment – and it certainly isn’t going to be “if only people knew the full extent of what was happening”, because, well, we more or less do.

But that’s an adult criticism of an adult drama. If the moment-to-moment plot mechanics of Doctor Who don’t entirely make sense, well, to be honest I’m not entirely sure how much I would’ve noticed that a decade ago… but even then, I’m not sure how much I would’ve cared. Davies’ emphasis was a writer was never about those plot-based details, but instead on stories that made emotional sense. (You can see the same style in Years of Years, although there perhaps that strength of Davies’ becomes something of a flaw.) Because Doctor Who was the first television drama I really engaged with outside of cartoons, I’m similarly minded; I’m generally a lot less inclined to worry about plot mechanics as I am character and theme.

Which is to say, I suppose: the final montage is perfect. It’s not, obviously – even outside of the unfortunate racial implications of Martha and Mickey’s marriage, that whole scene is just a bit rubbish – but it is, actually, too. I’m not sure there’s really any way that this iteration of Doctor Who could end, and it genuinely doesn’t feel, to me at least, smug or egregious or self-satisfied. It’s exactly the goodbye the series warranted. Watching it, it’s perfect.

In 2009, this was perfect. And The End of Time Part Two was perfect again, today, for about an hour and fifteen minutes. The best episode of Doctor Who is always the last episode I watched.

doctor who the end of time part two david tennant tenth doctor regeneration euros lyn review

That, I suppose, is always where this was headed. If Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor was about the gap between Alex, the ten-ish-year-old watching Doctor Who, and Alex a decade later, now demonstrably a weighty intellectual and accomplished television critic (hahaha), then that’s the point in the end – there isn’t a gap at all. Sure, we all change, all through our lives, and that’s okay, so long as we remember the people we used to be.

But more to the point, the conclusion isn’t “this was perfect a decade ago”, although it was. The point is that it can still be perfect today. Not above critique, no, because if nothing else, that takes the fun out of it. The two approaches can and do exist alongside one another: I love it, and that’s why it’s worth criticising it, worth engaging with it. Doctor Who is perfect because of its flaws, despite its flaws, inseparably from its flaws. Sometimes it’s genuinely awful, and worthy of real, targeted critique – again, I’m reminded of The Idiot’s Lantern – but it is, I think, quite easy to reconcile that with a love of it, and an enjoyment of it. And, in fact, a very current enjoyment of it: even if it isn’t always very good, the best episode of Doctor Who is still the last episode I watched.

It feels, admittedly, like an almost entirely unnecessary point to make. It should be, really – the idea that you can love something wholeheartedly, yet still criticise it in turn, feels immediately quite intuitive. But it’s worth restating anyway, I suppose, particularly considering what the more mainstream view of these things is, or is becoming: that you’re not a real fan if you ever criticise something. But, well, that’s just silly. And that’s what this has always been about. Doctor Who is perfect because I loved it when I was ten, it’s perfect because I love it now, and it’s perfect because it’s imperfect, because I can review it and criticise it and find it wanting, and love it all the same.

Thus it ends, as it must. Doctor, I let you go. Sontarans perverting the course of human history. We’re all stories in the end, so make it a good one. You were fantastic, and so was I.

I don’t want you to go. But, well, you never really did.

10/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index