Ten ways to tell you’re watching a story from ‘The RTD Era’

And after that long, rambling assessment, here’s the epic season finale to my reviews of Russell’s tenure in charge of Doctor Who.

Every producer has had a recognisable style. Witty dialogue laced with philosophy and pratfalls? You’re watching Graham Williams/Douglas Adams. Moody Tom lurching through a dry ice recreation of a classic horror story? You’re watching Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes. Militaristic action laced with homespun Buddhism and environmentalism? You’re watching Barry Letts/Terrance Dicks. Similarly, there are several ways to tell you’re watching a story from ‘the RTD years’. Well, apart from the vastly improved budget, acting and sets. Here are some of them:

1. Sex. The classic series only ever vaguely alluded to shagging – logically the Doctor must have done some to get a granddaughter, and companions kept leaving him because they fancied a bit – even if they’d barely met, like Leela and Andred. New Who lets it all hang out – literally, in the case of Captain Jack. But the Doctor ‘dances’ too; thanks for the euphemism, Mr Moffat. He just doesn’t do it much, so presumably those parts don’t regenerate as effectively. Though, according to The End of Time, the Doctor can disprove Queen Elizabeth I’s nickname of ‘The Virgin Queen’! Elsewhere, we’ve got Jackie Tyler lusting after anything in trousers, the Doctor snogging every companion – even Donna, who isn’t interested – and even Mickey teaming up with his parallel universe counterpart’s boyfriend! Which brings us neatly to:

2. The gay agenda. Presumably these were the script pages colour coded in pink. Actually, the much-vaunted ‘gay agenda’ mostly took the form of showing that homosexuality actually exists – thankfully we never saw Captain Jack rimming a Slitheen. In keeping with the Virgin New Adventures style of showing that, in the future, sex will be pretty much equal opportunity, Captain Jack was a perfect poster boy for omni-sexuality. Elsewhere, we got references to Shakespeare fancying the Doctor, 1920s aristocrats fancying the footmen (Unicorn and the Wasp), smutty innuendo aplenty about happy bald men (Tooth and Claw), long married lesbian couples (Gridlock). Even Steve Moffat (the straight one, remember) got in on the act with that naughty man shagging the butcher in The Doctor Dances. Come on, there isn’t really a ‘gay agenda’, fan people. RTD just acknowledged that sexuality might be as diverse as the peoples of the universe.

3. The ‘Davies ex Machina’. Yeah, cheap shot, I know. But you know it’s RTD when he’s presented the Doctor with such a formidable threat that no amount of technobabble, ingenuity or plain old nous can save the day. Only some hitherto unsuspected miraculous event, indistinguishable from magic, can help us now! What’s that you say, the TARDIS can do it if only you can open that big panel? (The Parting of the Ways) Oh, we all have to pray to the Doctor at the same time, like children clapping to resurrect Tinkerbell? (Last of the Time Lords) Wait, mixing all that crap together and spraying it around will cure everyone, even though it’s referred to as ‘intravenous’? (New Earth) Ooh, I can avoid regenerating thanks to this handy hand which will incidentally give my companion the necessary superpowers to defuse the entire situation by pressing a few conveniently placed buttons and provide my other companion with a more compatible duplicate of me she can settle down with? (Journey’s End) Well, you get the idea.

4. Gratuitous set pieces that have no logical place in the story but look really cool. Viz: the liftshaft slide in New Earth (They still have cable lifts in the year 5 billion?), the window cleaning lift peril in Partners in Crime (originally in a different story but so irresistible it had to be shoehorned in elsewhere), the inexplicable spacewalk to retrieve the escape capsule in 42 (the button to do this is on the outside of the ship?), the reset button inconveniently placed on the other side of lethal, whirling fans in The End of the World (“Whoever wrote this episode should die!” – Galaxy Quest), the TARDIS/taxi chase in The Runaway Bride… I could go on, but shouldn’t.

5. Pop culture references.  Until now, the quotiest Doctor ever was Colin Baker, with a literary aphorism on hand for every occasion. Plainly, it was his misfortune he didn’t nip into the future and read Heat magazine for some handy quips. As early as the first season, we had such instantly dating references as the Big Brother house (cancelled now, so unlikely to be around in the year 100,000), while later the Tenth Doctor had a handy sideline in quoting from EastEnders, The Lion King and Kylie Minogue. Oh, and Shane Warde’s Greatest Hits on a billboard in Fear Her (Set in 2012, remember). Methinks the team overestimated the staying power of crap talent show winners. Obviously, Buffy’s constant pop culture references were an inspiration here, but Joss Whedon had the sense to use references that had already guaranteed their staying power, rather than leaping on the bandwagon of whatever was trendy at the time. Thankfully, before things went too far, Shakespeare rushed in to save the day.

6. The sentimental bit that will make you cry. Actually, sometimes this was good. Mainly in stories written by Paul Cornell, who has the art of subtle emotional manipulation honed to a fine skill. But elsewhere it just jarred: like the bit in New Earth where Cassandra inexplicably decides she’s just going to die after all, and the Doctor gives her a ‘second chance’ to get the viewers’ tearducts flowing. The ‘sad bit’ became such a staple by The End of Time that my tearducts had become nearly immune to it – but not quite. Thanks for that, Bernard Cribbins.

7. The companion’s large, irritating circle of family and acquaintances that the Doctor just can’t get away from. Until now, companions’ friends and relatives were either unseen plot devices (Jo Grant’s string-pulling uncle, Sarah Jane Smith’s conveniently absent aunt) or there to be horribly murdered (Tegan’s Aunt Vanessa, Nyssa’s father, Victoria’s father etc). New Who gave us the opportunity to be consistently menaced by soap opera subplots about who Jackie was shagging, whether Martha’s Dad was having a midlife crisis, if Donna’s mum would ever approve of her, and so on. With hilarious consequences.

8. The Doctor is God. Actually, it’s not really fair to have a pop at RTD about this one, as the Virgin New Adventures had already established this to be the case. But his messianic resurrection in Last of the Time Lords left little doubt, after the Face of Boe had already referred to him as ‘the Lonely God’. And that bit in The Family of Blood where we didn’t even see how he trapped the family but just took it for granted kind of clinched it too. At least we get to see him shamed after abusing his godlike powers in The Waters of Mars.

9. Really, really loud music. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Murray Gold’s sweeping, almost cinematic style. Once he’d got over the urge to score it like Queer As Folk, as seen in Rose. The trouble isn’t in the music, it’s in the mix. When you can’t actually hear the dialogue over the swelling emotion of the string section, someone needs to fiddle with the sound settings. And no, it shouldn’t be the viewer.

10. The Doctor is sexy! Yes, even Christopher Eccleston. Hartnell would never stand a chance now, with the posterboy likes of David Tennant and Matt Smith. As if that wasn’t enough to freak out the old school fanboy, the Master’s quite fit now too! Especially with all the homoerotic overtones between him and the Doctor… oh no, it’s the gay agenda!


I’ll just finish by saying that all of the above is meant in fun. Like the Roman satirists of old, I’d like to conclude by begging for a free pardon from Steven Moffat:)

The RTD Era


I honestly never thought I’d be in the position to assess an ‘era’ of Doctor Who again. And that, more than anything else, is reason to give Russell T Davies an enormous amount of credit.

Doctor Who has never had a ‘showrunner’ as such before; actually, such an exalted position is still relatively rare on British TV. If you want to credit anyone with starting the trend, it has to be the Americans – notably J Michael Straczynski, whose single minded determination to do Babylon 5 the way he wanted set a trend that would be followed by the likes of Joss Whedon with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Still, Doctor Who has had kinds of showrunners before. They used to be called ‘producers’. Each producer, usually working in tandem with a script editor, produced his/her own distinct vision of the show. When John Nathan-Turner took over for his unchallenged nine year reign of terror, things became a bit more complicated, and the show’s style changed several times according to who was script editing. Thus, we had incomprehensible hard science under Christopher Bidmead, masses of unbelievably gratuitous violence under Eric Saward, and a sub-Tolkien ‘story arc’ from Andrew Cartmel (years before J M Straczynski had one!).

Russell T Davies was neither producer nor script editor. His rather ill-defined job title was ‘executive producer’. But in practice, he was the one man behind getting the show back on our screens and making it the astonishing success it has become. To put it another way, he’s the one responsible for the people who used to call me a sad geek asking me respectfully what I thought of each episode as it went out. He’s the man who made the Doctor trendy again.

One of the factors so vital in his success was the fact that, as we discovered, the BBC and the country as a whole are stuffed full of fans, previously terrified to come out of the closet (or police box). So the new regime at the BBC gave RTD a budget the likes of which the series had never seen, and the creative freedom to more or less do what he liked. They wanted six episodes, he said thirteen. So they went with thirteen. He even masterminded the extremely clever marketing that trailed the show, and planned out that first season in exhaustive detail before even hiring writers. While the writers filled out the dialogue and plot complications, he even went in and ‘fine tuned’ scripts (isn’t that usually the script editor’s job?). In short, he undertook and enormous amount of work for what was, basically, a labour of love.

And the fans who were now working as writers and producers helped him do it. Phil Collinson (allegedly the basis for the character of Stuart in Queer As Folk) took on a producing job the likes of which he could never have been prepared for. Longtime fan writers such as Robert Shearman, Paul Cornell and, most significantly, Steven Moffat were brought aboard. RTD couldn’t have picked a better crew.

He made a lot of very good decisions in planning the first season, too. Ditching the old four-part 25 minute episode stories was probably the most significant, possibly vying with his determination to see the show back in its traditional Saturday early evening slot, watched – and tailored for – a family audience rather than for the hardcore fans. Not that the hardcore fans were ignored. From the start – the one with the Autons, remember – it was clear that this wasn’t a ‘reboot’, but a continuation of the old show. Just with more money. And better acting. And bigger effects.

Like most fans, I was pleased to hear that a serious actor had been cast as the Doctor. Christopher Eccleston turned out to be a far better choice than I’d imagined; though I respected him as an actor, I expected a very serious, dour, Northern performance. Northern it certainly was, but he displayed a gift for comedy and eccentricity I’d never seen before, that was perfect for the part. Here was a Doctor with all the necessary gravitas, who could still gurn like Sylvester McCoy and leap manically about like Tom Baker. Fantastic!

Like most fans, I was horrified to hear that a low-rent pop star had been cast as the Doctor’s companion. And like most fans, I was proved very, very wrong. Billie Piper turned out to be a fine actress as Rose Tyler, and a surprisingly hard act to follow.

Not that mistakes weren’t made. While Russell made a great showrunner, I had serious issues with his skill as a screenwriter – at least for this kind of thing. His Virgin New Adventure novel Damaged Goods was a clue – interesting setting, great characters, terrific, witty dialogue – and a plot that bordered on the incomprehensible and seemed to go nowhere. It’s worth remembering that even Queer As Folk. the show he was justly lauded for writing never had a proper ‘ending’ to either one of its series.

While Rose was a steady enough season opener, it’s notable that in that first season, the real standouts were the scripts by anyone but Russell – in fact, his The Long Game was probably the weakest story of the season. And while the slam bang season finale was jaw droppingly spectacular, it showcased Russell’s problem with writing himself into a corner and using a magical deus ex machina to get out of it.

He was also still learning about the publicity/fan gossip process. It would have been superb if the Ninth Doctor’s regeneration after only one season had come as a total surprise, but a combination of flubs by the production office, the BBC, and Eccleston himself ensured this was not to be. Still, it was a learning experience, and later ‘surprises’ were handled better; though the Daleks v Cybermen match up at the end of season two wasn’t entirely a surprise.

We also saw the introduction of ‘soap opera’ style relatives and friends to ‘ground the series in the real world’. In fact, for the first couple of years it rarely got away from the real world, due to Russell’s worry about unconvincing alien planets – like the ones we were all used to already. Thankfully, after a couple of years he stopped worrying about that, and started to tax the Mill’s CGI effects often beyond their ability to convince.

But, undoubtedly the most important factor was the casting of the Tenth Doctor. David Tennant’s fanboy enthusiasm and undoubted good looks took a show that was already successful and propelled it into the stratosphere. I’m not saying that a good actor can’t play the Doctor without being a fan, but Tennant’s instinct for how the character worked was incredibly useful. A combination more of Tom Baker and Peter Davison than anything else, he was initially a bit hard to take after Christopher Eccleston’s intensity – he often seemed to be revelling in his delight at playing the part he’d gone into acting to get. Thankfully, he ditched the smugness and dialled down the manicness after his first season, maturing tremendously to give nuanced performances like those witnessed in School Reunion and Human Nature. At this point, I didn’t think we could ever have a better Doctor.

After the end of his increasingly irritating ‘relationship’ with Rose, companions came and went, some good, some not so good. Noel Clarke improved immensely after his first, cartoonish stab at playing Mickey, and was pretty easy on the eye for those of us that fancy blokes. John Barrowman was so over the top he was in orbit as Captain Jack, but fair’s fair – that’s exactly what the character demanded. Freema Agyeman tried hard but made little impression as Martha, but then Catherine Tate – whose comedy show I can’t stand, incidentally – knocked our socks off as Donna Noble. With all the self-righteousness of Sarah, the mouthiness of Tegan, and none of the simpering looks at the Doctor of Rose or Martha, I’d venture to say she made the most perfect companion since the show returned.

As a showrunner, Russell was already good, but as a writer, he seemed to improve a lot. The absolute nadir of his writing was the execrable and plot hole filled New Earth, but this was immediately followed by Tooth and Claw, an excellent little episode that showed his writing to be at its best when not trying to overdo the spectacle. The nicely wacky Gridlock and taut claustrophobic Midnight went on to prove this.

One noticeable lack was Russell’s failure at creating any really memorable new aliens. It’s significant that in each series, the overarching baddies were derived from the classic show – the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Daleks, the Master, Davros and the Daleks, and finally, the Master and the Time Lords. While some of Russell’s creations were fairly memorable, none really seemed to be crying out for a return visit. No matter how much he tried to convince us that the Slitheen were great, I don’t think anyone really bought into that.

The final thing Russell got perfectly, absolutely right was the manner of his departure. As head of one of the BBC’s most successful drama series, he orchestrated the reports of his own and David Tennant’s departure with great aplomb, giving us more of a surprise than some of the show’s plotlines had! And his decision to, effectively, take the show off the air for a year, was what Sir Humphrey Appleby would have disdainfully referred to as ‘courageous’, yet has made the specials, and the show’s return, more hotly anticipated than ever.

In future, fan books will probably be written about ‘The RTD Years’ – much as they have been for every producer of the show since 1963. He’s hotly divided the fans like no producer since John Nathan-Turner. And I’ve been the first one to bang on, sometimes unfairly, about the weaknesses of his plotting. But the bottom line is this – he is almost single handedly responsible for getting Doctor Who back on the air, he got it a decent budget, a proper time slot, real actors and dragged it into relevancy in the 21st century. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, but come on – I think doing all that probably makes him the most important ‘showrunner’ since Verity Lambert. Steve Moffat has some very big, Welsh shoes to fill.

The End of Time

I don’t want to go…”

And so, at last, the RTD era is over. My thoughts on his tenure as show runner will follow soon, but what of The End of Time – fitting end of an era?

One of Russell’s problems as the man in charge has been this compulsion to consistently outdo himself in every series. The overstuffed silliness of Journey’s End, which tried to include every character and situation from Russell’s run, was however going to be hard to top. After the serious, intelligent writing of Waters of Mars, though, I had high hopes that the Tenth Doctor’s swansong might be a little more sophisticated than Russell’s usual season finale tales of sound and fury. Sadly, this wasn’t to be, but while unbalanced dramatically and suffering from a somewhat incomprehensible plot, The End of Time was a fairly enjoyable romp.

On the positive side, I was utterly relieved that we didn’t have to have the Daleks again. Don’t get me wrong, I like them every bit as much as any fan, but their near-constant presence since the series returned has become something of an irritant. A Dalek story used to be a special occasion; now it’s just something that crops up at least two episodes a season, predictable as clockwork.

So the villain was to be the Master. If you were reading this blog back in the season three days, you’ll know that I love John Simm’s Master for his sheer, barking insanity – the only thing that makes the character’s motivations and overly complex scheming make sense. Simm didn’t disappoint here, taking the character to new levels of nuttiness. When he was Harold Saxon, he had to at least maintain a veneer of sanity to get to the position of Prime Minister. Shorn of high office and hanging around with the homeless, he could let it all hang out. Even the other tramps thought he was scarily mental, especially when they found that he’d eaten the cooks in that burger van inexplicably parked in the middle of a wasteland.

And as in the past, the Master must have laid the groundwork for his incredibly elaborate resurrection plan while still working on his previous global domination scheme. It’s always occurred to me that having so many complicated back up plans going on at once means that he always expects to be thwarted. Either that or he just likes to keep busy.

As Timothy Dalton’s portentous voiceover informed us of ‘the final days of Earth’, it was hard to see how the scruffily mad Master was going to achieve this, but Russell was actually quite clever at putting the pieces in place. The odd coincidences surrounding Wilf, the presence of yet another sinister businessman in Joshua Naismith (who can’t stand still without posing with his arms crossed), and finally the mysterious Immortality Gate all seemed to be good ingredients for a nice, apocalyptic finale. Only that peculiar failsafe power system that required one person to remain locked in a room smacked of ‘that’ll be useful as a contrived plot device later on’. You know, like that bit in Event Horizon where Sam Neill points out the explosives that can separate the ship in two, then just forgets about it till it’s needed for the plot.

Part one took a bit of time to nicely establish characters and set up situations. Wilf’s quest to find the Doctor was entertaining – I chuckled at ‘the silver cloak’ – and it was lovely to see June Whitfield acting up a storm. I actually hoped we’d see bit more of her, but her part amounted to little more than a showy cameo, which made it seem rather like unnecessary padding. It was nice to see Catherine Tate back as Donna, and even nicer that Russell didn’t succumb to the temptation of undoing her previous tragic fate. But, oh, Bernard Cribbins! Given a more substantial role as the Doctor’s companion this time, he managed to make every scene he was in little short of magical. That first scene with Wilf and the Doctor chatting in the cafe was one of the highlights not just of this story but of the new series as a whole, up there with Sylvester McCoy’s similar cafe scene in Remembrance of the Daleks.

Which brings us neatly to Mr Tennant himself. Whatever you may think of the story as a whole, this undoubtedly one of the finest performances from an actor who’s really grown into the part. His first series found him so smug and manic I wanted to thump him half the time, but this story showed just how much his performance as the Doctor has matured. That cafe scene, with him just holding back tears as he talked about his oncoming death with another old man was just one of many moments that, calculatedly or not, brought a lump to my throat. And his interplay with the Master was far better than their previous encounter, where they hardly had any scenes together. The scene in part two where they were talking very softly to each other about their childhoods, faces mere millimetres apart, had one of us in my house crying out, ‘oh, just kiss, for God’s sake!’.

OK, the Master’s plan was, ultimately, very very silly. But still in keeping with John Simm’s interpretation of him being nuttier than squirrel shit. Everyone on the planet being played by John Simm must have been hell to shoot, but was well done; however, it was never clear whether every version of him was aware of what every other version of him was seeing. Presumably not, as he kept having to give orders to other versions of himself. And it was fun to see ‘Barack Obama’ changing into the Master – confirming every Republican’s worst fears – though perhaps the show ought to steer clear of political comments like ‘he’s found a solution to the recession’! And just why did he continue standing at that podium throughout the crisis?

But the end of part one had the not entirely unexpected reveal that the Master wasn’t the main bad guy after all – it was (gasp!) the Time Lords! At this point I began to think that perhaps Russell should perhaps have kept the threat a bit more low key. As Timothy Dalton impressively proclaimed through a mouthful of spit that he was going to ‘bring about the end of time itself’, I wondered how exactly such a danger could be visualised. I wasn’t to wonder for long, as apparently it’s best demonstrated by showing Gallifrey pop into existence next to Earth. Impressive though that looked, I couldn’t help noticing that Gallifrey was at least four times the size of Earth, which made me wonder why visiting humans such as Leela were never crushed by its presumably heavy gravity.

The trouble with piling threat upon threat like this was that once the Time Lords actually appeared, they actually had very little time to do, in effect, not much. Oh sure, they changed the human race back to themselves, and kept muttering doomy pronouncements like HP Lovecraft’s Elder Gods, but what did they actually do? Timothy Dalton’s President (who seemed to be referred to as Rassilon at one point) played with a silly gauntlet that looked suspiciously like that one out of Torchwood for a couple of minutes, then the Master charged in and saved the day! It was a nice bit of circular logic for the Time Lords to have, effectively, created the Master by driving him nuts just to save themselves, but that smacked rather too much of fanwank – answering a question that never really needed to be asked. And ultimately, left the Doctor without much of a role in saving the day.

So what did the Doctor save? Well, that was, for me, the most interesting aspect of an all over the place story. With so many apocalyptic events looming, the Tenth Doctor finally died to save just one man. While this was nicely unexpected, it could have been telegraphed slightly less by Wilf’s selfless but silly decision to climb into the convenient Booth of Doom.

Still, as the Doctor writhed in the grasp of alien radiation, his face hidden, I very much expected that when he finally turned to camera, it would be Matt Smith we’d be looking at. But it wasn’t, and that’s where the narrative seemed to really go to pieces. I can appreciate that his extended tour of all of his friends’ fates (yet again) had the poignant feel of a terminally ill man putting all his affairs in order. But we just saw all that lot gathered together at the end of the last season, and it really undercut the pace of the narrative for the Doctor to spend the better part of fifteen minutes popping by to say hello. So Martha and Mickey got married? Whuh? And while mostly going around conveniently saving his old friends’ lives, apparently the most he could contribute to Captain Jack was to give him the opportunity of a shag, something he probably wouldn’t have had much trouble with anyway. Still, it was nice to see Russell Tovey popping up again as Midshipman Alonso Frame from Voyage of the Damned, especially in light of all those comments RTD made about wanting Tovey as the next Doctor.

All of this made us wonder whether the Doctor might actually get away without regenerating at all, as it was beginning to seem like it would never happen. But happen it finally did, albeit with less drama than if it had occurred when the Doctor appeared to be seriously injured. It’s unusual for a regeneration to happen with no one to witness it – Troughton to Pertwee, I suppose, and McCoy to McGann. Oh, and McGann to Eccleston. All right, not that unusual then. But a first in the new series. And yes, Tennant’s final line was heartbreaking, and for that moment I didn’t want him to go either. But change finally happened, in the most unnecessarily pyrotechnic regeneration ever. While I like the ‘shooting out energy’ effect of recent regenerations, surely the near total destruction of the TARDIS interior was a bit excessive? Lucky that never happened on other occasions; Ben and Polly might have been burnt to death, or the Pharos Project telescope might have fallen over.

And so, here was the new boy! I like Matt Smith, having seen him act his socks off in a number of other productions, but when I heard of his casting as the Doctor, my main misgiving was ‘he’s actually not too different from David Tennant, is he?’ And so it proved, at least initially. It’s impossible to judge a new Doctor after a couple of minutes – after all, Colin Baker looked like he might be good – but Matt’s post regenerative confusion seemed rather too similar to Tennant’s back in 2006. He even commented that he was ‘still not ginger’! But I liked the energy of his performance, and his self-mockingly aghast ‘I’m a girl?’ And I trust Steve Moffat, so I think he’ll be good.

Ultimately, The End of Time was more of a reasonably serviceable story than the celebration of an era Russell T Davies clearly wanted it to be. The trouble with his approach of making every season finale top the last meant that it really had nowhere to go, and on occasion it seemed to be trying very much too hard. And the story structure was all over the place, making it hard to maintain the level of emotional involvement that might have been nicer to wind up the Tenth Doctor’s tenure. That said, Tennant was undeniably great, as were John Simm and Bernard Cribbins, and from the online trailer, the new era looks rather good. Roll on Series 5/1/32, or whatever you want to call it. And whatever we thought of this particular story, a definite salute to Russell T Davies for bringing back the show we loved, and doing it so well that it’s now one of the most popular shows on British television. Well done, sir.