What can Doctor Who fans expect from Russell T Davies' return?
The showrunner's second coming sees him poised to take advantage of a dramatically changed television landscape – but it also presents some big challenges...
So it’s official – start synthesising those enzymes, brush up on your telebiogenesis: The Nyssa Adventures are coming!
Okay, so they’re probably not. Russell T Davies was almost certainly joking when he proposed a spin-off for the brainiac '80s companion during our conversation last December, so don’t expect to see Sarah Sutton slipping back into that purple velvet pantsuit any time soon (for shame).
In fact, I’d be very surprised if Doctor Who was already on Russell’s radar when we spoke just before Christmas. If it had been, I suspect he’d have been a bit more circumspect before casually floating the idea of a Doctor Who Channel and David Tennant teaming up with Matt Smith for a 10-part multi-Doctor adventure. Because some people will no doubt get very cross when those don’t happen. (I’m assuming they won’t, but who knows – as Russell says, did Star Trek fans ever expect a Captain Pike prequel?)
Still, idle spitballing or not, it does at least afford us a glimpse into Russell’s thinking, and the scale of his ambition to “shift Doctor Who up a gear” when he gets the keys to the TARDIS back in 2023.
And if anyone’s up to the job, it’s the dream team of Russell, Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner. Yes, they’ve got the old Bad Wolf band back together – but don’t go expecting them to just play the hits, any more than they did when they dragged Doctor Who kicking and screaming into the new century in 2005.
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Will it be easy, this gear shift? Not for a second. Firstly, anyone who thinks this is going to mean a return to regular Saturday night audiences of eight million (faithful) viewers is probably deluding themselves; that world no longer exists. Sure, the likes of Line of Duty and Vigil may have proved that reports of linear TV’s death continue to be exaggerated, but Doctor Who relies on continually refreshing its audience with a new generation of younger viewers. And, as Ofcom has warned, the traditional broadcasters are currently staring down the barrel of a “lost generation” who, lured away by sexy young buzz brands like Netflix, Disney Plus and YouTube, increasingly view the BBC as that funny old thing your nan watches in the afternoons. (BBC One’s average viewing age, lest we forget, is 61.)
In that context, five to six million ‘live’ viewers would probably have to be considered a good result, while – for all that Russell is famously passionate about Doctor Who being a big, Saturday night family show – the real metric by which we measure its success will increasingly lie elsewhere.
If, as hinted, Russell does want to expand the Doctor Who “empire”, what sort of expanded portfolio might we reasonably expect? The short answer: haven't got a Scooby. But has that stopped you starting to build your own fantasy Doctor Who Cinematic Universe in your head? Of course it hasn't.
So what’s on your bingo card? How about an anthology series featuring one-shot appearances from former – possibly unseen – Doctors? (Hugh Grant as a pre-Hartnell Doctor, anyone?) A stylish period spy-fi drama about the early years of UNIT? Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor versus The Division? A Dalek cartoon for the kids? The Humker and Tandrell Adventures…?
Will Russell be dusting off his proposal for Rose Tyler: Earth Defender? Is Torchwood coming back? (Er, probably not.) And will they please, for the love of the mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe, just give us something – anything – with Paul McGann in?
But stop. Before we get ahead of ourselves, is it even reasonable to think Doctor Who can operate on the same scale as those other franchises Russell mentioned in our interview?
For a start, Star Wars, Star Trek and the MCU are all American – and US shows are the world’s default TV lingua franca. Can Doctor Who ever be a truly global player without sacrificing some the essential Britishness that’s such a key part of its charm? International successes stories like Sherlock and Downton Abbey would suggest that it can, given a fair wind. Though, this time around, Russell would probably still have to think twice before writing in cameos for Ann Widdecombe and McFly, or making jokes about Christmas in Walford.
Also – and I hesitate slightly to say this but, isn’t Doctor Who just a little bit, you know, weird? For a big, mainstream family show, it’s always had a slight element of outsider art to it, while also never quite shedding its original, Reithian mission statement to inform and educate, as well as entertain. Compared to the crowd-pleasing, bang-for-your-buck spectacle of spaceships and spandex superheroes, Doctor Who’s funny, quirky stories about the Romantic Poets and Madame de Pompadour and farting green aliens becoming the mayor of Cardiff can seem like a cherishably odd proposition.
All of which is another reason to be grateful that it’s Russell T Davies who will be steering the ship through these uncharted waters. Because here is a man who balances a healthy respect for Doctor Who’s legacy – for its essential, unique DNA – without ever becoming a slave to it.
As a writer, he’s bold and cheeky, with a knack for tackling the biggest, most profound questions with the lightest of touches. (His writing, as he put it in that same interview, is “like life – sad one minute and sunny the next, and not a hair’s breadth between the two”.)
That said, this will be a different, older Russell, writing in a changed world. In 2005, he struck a defiantly optimistic tone: “I do think we live in an age where every day you open up a newspaper and it tells you that you’re dying – coffee is going to kill you and bird flu is going to kill you and genuine things like global warming are going to kill you,” he said at the time. “I wanted to do something that said there is a future of monorails and zip-suits and jetpacks and fun.”
Contrast that to the dystopian vision he painted in 2019’s Years and Years, in which no hot button – from Trump, Isis and the refugee crisis to the banks, #fakenews and Brexit – was left un-pushed. Yes, he was writing for a different audience but, just as It’s A Sin can be read as the yin to Queer as Folk’s yang, so Years and Years often feels like the hangover to noughties’ Who’s Panglossian faith in the human race.
I still wouldn’t bet on Russell “going dark”, though. Of the three modern showrunners, he’s the one who’s charted furthest away from the idea of Doctor Who as, to use Mary Whitehouse’s memorable epigram, “teatime terror for tots”. Of all his Doctor Who scripts, there’s probably only two – Tooth and Claw and Midnight – that fully lean into Doctor Who’s horror tradition. He tended to leave that to Steven Moffat, who, in 2010, noted that he was “more at the fairytale and Tim Burton end of Doctor Who, whereas Russell is probably more at the blockbuster, Superman end of the show”.
Quite how much Russell will be writing is another thing we can add to the list of don’t knows: you’d forgive him if, for the sake of his own sanity, he wanted to step away from the script treadmill a bit more this time. But that’s easier said than done, as he has the scars to prove.
Either way, one of the biggest joys of this whole out-of-left-field curveball is that we’ll be getting Russell T Davies at the absolute top of his game. Coming off the back of A Very English Scandal, Years and Years and It’s A Sin, his stock has arguably never been higher. And this is what he has chosen to spend it on – in large part, presumably, out of sheer, unbridled love for Doctor Who.
Gosh. Exciting, isn’t it? But if you simply can’t wait two years to see what Doctor Who’s going to look like in its next bold, ambitious and thrilling reinvention, the good news is you don’t have to: there’s a bold, ambitious and thrilling reinvention coming our way in a matter of weeks, when Jodie Whittaker embarks on one of the Doctor's most epic adventures yet.
So in our haste to find out what the era of – oh go on then – RTD2 is going to look like, let’s not wish away what we’ve already got because, from every angle, this is shaping up to be a very good time to be a Doctor Who fan.