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.