When the man who revived Doctor Who returned to the BBC with his latest programme idea, he was in for a shock. “We kind of thought that the BBC would automatically say yes to our next show but they didn’t,” recounts Russell T Davies in mock indignation. We had to pitch to them!
“Part of me thought, ‘Don’t you know who we are?’ and part of me was delighted, because how often do you have to prove yourself? That made us focus on the show really rigorously because we were scared we wouldn’t get the commission.”
The “we” is Davies and Phil Ford, who co-created the new show, Wizards vs Aliens, and was lead writer on his Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. “Phil and I worked out our pitch and really rehearsed it. We had a script, designs and flip charts. It was like The Apprentice!”
It’s a while since Davies last had to prove himself. Even before he brought back Doctor Who in 2005, breathing new life into the broadcasting behemoth that then begat Torchwood as well as The Sarah Jane Adventures, Davies was one of the most respected and powerful writers in British television. From Channel 4’s groundbreaking Queer as Folk, through ITV heartland dramas such as Bob & Rose, to BBC3’s Casanova (starring a certain, pre-Who David Tennant), Davies’s work has been rewarded with both commercial success and critical plaudits. His dramas are bold and full of exuberance and heart – and Wizards vs Aliens is no exception.
In a way, Russell T Davies wishes that he’d never had to create his new children’s drama, which sees young wizard Tom and friend Benny battling alien invaders while negotiating the equally fraught arena of being teenagers in 21st-century Britain. (As titles go, Wizards vs Aliens does exactly what it says on the tin.)
“This show came out of the oddest circumstances, which we’d never been in before – our lead actor died,” Davies explains. “Lis Sladen passed away – which none of us saw coming because none of us knew she was that ill – and it was just the most bizarre, tragic thing. And never mind bizarre and tragic for us: imagine being six years old and that happening. I can’t think of a similar example anywhere else where someone that children love, a character like Sarah Jane Smith, has been lost to them like that.”
Contemplating the death of Doctor Who companion turned Sarah Jane Adventures star Elisabeth Sladen (left, with Davies at the 2007 Radio Times covers party), from cancer in April 2011, the usually ebullient Davies is sombre for a moment. But he’s also pragmatic.
“It’s still strange and sad that she’s gone, but the brutal truth is that there were also a lot of people out of work – writers, designers, crew and everyone in that brand-new studio in Cardiff, so we had to come up with something. We could have got another old Who companion and put them on that set, but it would have been so fake.”
Wizards vs Aliens is something of a departure for Davies, who has returned to live in the UK after two years in Los Angeles while he worked on Torchwood: Miracle Day. For a start, Wizards vs Aliens has two boys at its heart – cool Tom and his hapless sidekick Benny.
“It is unusual, especially for me,” says Davies, “but I wanted to do something boysy. I was always very aware with Sarah Jane that there was never a comic and when I was told that no boy would buy a comic called The Sarah Jane Adventures, my heart sank. I can see the truth in it, but I wished it wasn’t so.
“When we started out with Wizards vs Aliens, it was much more of a family show – Tom had a sister and it was the two of them, dad and grandma. But that felt very Sarah Jane-y so we had a rethink and decided to make it a buddy show. Then I invented Benny and that was a real epiphany for me. I’d never really written a buddy-relationship like Tom and Benny’s before and it really gave me a new energy.”
This isn’t just unusual for Davies. Cast your eye across children’s TV drama and you’ll notice that much of it is powered by girls – from home-grown shows such as The Story of Tracy Beaker (and indeed The Sarah Jane Adventures) to the American imports that made stars of Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus, Wizards of Waverly Place and Hannah Montana respectively.
For Davies, it’s not as straightforward – or as cynical – as making two boys central to Wizards vs Aliens in order to attract a young male audience. “We made The Sarah Jane Adventures for five years and it was the number one children’s show, so it’s not as if boys won’t watch girls – that was a show with a middle-aged female lead, which was very unusual, and by the end it had three girls and one boy in it. But to do two boys was brand new to me.”
Besides, says Davies, “Frankly, I’ve done a very good job of bringing stronger women’s roles into science fiction, so for the first time, I decided to make it boysy. In the third episode, we have another boy coming along who comes between Tom and Benny and that’s an interesting story to tell. By and large, male friendship isn’t explored very much on television at all.”
Wizards, on the other hand, aren’t exactly strangers to our screens, small or otherwise – the prosecution calls Harry Potter. While Davies can lay some claim to abetting the alien invasion of British telly and so a certain degree of ownership when it comes to sci-fi, was he wary at all of wading into wand-waving territory?
“I love spaceships and robots and Phil loves the supernatural and everything magic, so it just made perfect sense to bring those worlds together, precisely because it doesn’t happen,” Davies enthuses. “If you suggested that a spaceship should land in Merlin, they’d chuck you out of the room and tell you that it’s the wrong mythology. Similarly, you could never cast actual spells in Doctor Who. Wizards vs Aliens is a genre-shock of two genres that never usually meet – there are stories spilling out because of that. As soon as we thought of it, we could see ten years of stories ahead.”
Whether or not Wizards vs Aliens will be around in ten years is uncertain, but 26 episodes have been made –12 in this series and 14 for the next. In fiction of all kinds, the idea of a parallel world, in which aliens or magic or superheroes exist, is incredibly popular, and shows no sign of going out of fashion. That would suggest a long life for Wizards vs Aliens… but isn’t it just the slightest bit derivative?
“Tom’s no Harry Potter,” says Davies. “Tom is young, he’s good-looking and he’s got magic – why wouldn’t he be popular? So he’s the most popular boy at school and he does his homework by clicking his fingers. Then along come the aliens and he has to grow up and learn responsibility. He can’t use his spells to do his homework because he’s fighting a war in his spare time. I think that all children secretly imagine that they are fighting a war in their spare time.”
Part of Davies’s brilliance at writing for children and younger audiences is that he’s never lost touch with his own inner kid. “When as an adult we fall out with our friend, we know it’s only for a couple of days and we’ll have a drink with them on Friday, but when a kid falls out with a friend, it’s the end of the world. You have to remember that those emotions are huge. So when Tom and Benny fall out, it’s heartbreaking. They lose a felt pen, it’s disastrous. You’re telling stories about life and death. Who’d be a kid? It’s like a storm in your head, a furnace.”
Moreover, Davies passionately describes children as the “most demanding audience”.
“If you or I are watching Coronation Street and there’s a plot you don’t like, you stick with it because you know it will go back to Stella in the Rovers or Tommy Duckworth with his vest on. Children will turn over if they get bored. Or they’ll watch a Pixar film or whatever. They’ve got the finest entertainment on tap, so you’ve just got to be good!”
Wizards vs Aliens is on Mondays and Tuesdays at 5:15pm on CBBC from 29 October