-By Ken Plume
When most creative people view the re-launch of a venerable franchise as a 1,2,3 process of simply wiping out what came before and starting from scratch, it takes a delicate hand - and an often harrowing leap of faith - to decide to revitalize a franchise while still keeping its previous continuity intact.
It’s rare that such an endeavor proves successful, but just such a creative miracle was achieved by Russell T. Davies, executive producer the rejuvenated Doctor Who.
Re-launched last year on the BBC to critical praise and fan approval, the Doctor’s adventures pulled in huge audiences of both old and new fans of all ages, proving that you don’t always have to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
Starring Christopher Eccleston as the time traveling Doctor (the ninth in a line that’s included the legendary Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, Sylvester McCoy, Colin Baker, Peter Davison, William Hartnell, and Paul McGann) and Billie Piper as faithful and feisty companion Rose Tyler, it’s amazing how well it all pulled together.
The first series just wrapped up its debut airing on the Sci-Fi Channel here in the US, while the second series reaches its conclusion this weekend in the UK. You can pick up the complete first series on DVD this week from BBC Home Video, which is loaded with commentaries, documentaries, and more.
Quick Stop got a chance to chat with Russell Davies about Who past, present, and future.
KEN PLUME: Going back a couple of years, if you were to describe the goals you wanted to accomplish going into the new version of Doctor Who, what would those goals be?
RUSSELL T. DAVIES: Well, the main goal, which we achieved, was to - and it’s different in this country than to your country - but to create a science fiction show for a prime time terrestrial slot… which I think is true of America, as well. A lot of stuff gets into sort of niche channeling and slots for subscription markets - which are very, very popular in their own right - but I think that’s in danger of taking science fiction out of the mainstream and almost sort of preaching to the converted. So right from the start we knew we were given *the* prime time slot on British television, which is a Saturday night. I don’t think Saturday night is such a big battleground in America.
KP: In fact, I think it’s a dead night in America.
DAVIES: You watch! They’ll revive it soon! I give you three years, and it’ll become a battleground as they fill… that’s what broadcasters do - they fill every available slot, so it won’t stay like that for long, I’ll say. So we knew that we were up against the British version of the slots that go to X Factor, Pop Idol - they’re the big huge slots. That’s where we play our version of American Idol. That’s where we play all our big entertainment shows and things like that. But I was determined to make a science fiction show that wasn’t niche. That got a whole new generation of people watching. That got audiences that don’t watch science fiction to tune in - ’cause you could sort of more or less guarantee that that standard science fiction demographic would turn in.
KP: Right, that base level…
DAVIES: Yes, bless them. I thought the faithful few would be there, anyway. And that worked. That was what we set out to do, and we’ve got always got these aims and ambitions that very rarely work but that one did! (laughing)
KP: So, basically, you were looking for an Ant & Dec killer.
DAVIES: Yeah, well… no, we went up against Ant & Dec. What was absolutely lovely was that they kept their audience. We got a bigger audience, but we didn’t actually rob any of the audience of Ant & Dec.
KP: So you created an audience.
DAVIES: I think television is healthy when channels all supplement each other and are not stealing from each other.
KP: That’s definitely not how TV has worked for the past couple of decades.
DAVIES: (laughing) No, exactly.
KP: It’s good to know that you actually brought an audience in who wouldn’t otherwise have been watching that evening.
DAVIES: Yes. ‘Cause otherwise, you know, niche viewing gets smaller and smaller and smaller and more adult and more and more exclusive, and no program should be like that, I think. No program whatsoever.
KP: Which is not to say that the Doctor couldn’t every once in a while give away a car…
DAVIES: Give away a car! (laughing) Well, on the BBC - no advertising. No ad breaks. None at all.
KP: Well, it’d just have to be a generic car.
DAVIES: (laughing) Exactly!
KP: Give away the Who-mobile or something.
DAVIES: (laughing) You do know your stuff!
KP: On a personal level, what did you want to accomplish, story-wise?
DAVIES: Well, story-wise I was always absolutely determined that it was the same story. That it was the same doctor and the same Tardis having the same adventures. I didn’t want it to be a reboot. I wanted it to be a very a continuation of the 40 year history of a great institution. You know if you do something like Robin Hood or Sherlock Holmes you tend to do it from scratch. It’s what you do very well with Superman. You reboot it and start it from scratch every decade or so.
KP: That’s because we have no sense of history…
DAVIES: Yes, well, I thought that was impossible with the Doctor because he always… even within the show’s previous history, you always change his face so often. So whoever we cast as the Doctor would be seen as the ninth Doctor by the newspapers and by the media. No matter what we did it would be impossible for us to say this is the first Doctor. And plus, I love that old show and I wanted to continue it rather than write over it. So very subtly I wanted to do that without hitting people over the head with lots of continuity or baggage and stuff like that, and again we pulled that off as well. You know, because it wouldn’t be very welcoming for a new audience otherwise. And you’ve got to remember that in this country, Doctor Who was partly loved but partly had a terrible reputation. I love the old show, but its memory - it was remembered as a program that was cheap and somewhat silly and somewhat lightweight and a bit of a sort of kid’s run around, and I wanted to make it proper drama and give it proper standards, proper production standards and proper heart, and just welcome everyone in that way. So it was hard work to salvage the program’s reputation.
KP: Well, the UK has Tom Baker, and we have William Shatner.
DAVIES: (laughing)! Do you think we’re better off?
KP: You know what, I’d like to see the two of them go head-to-head for an interview program.
DAVIES: I’d like to see the two of them kissing. (laughing)!
KP: You know what? You need to produce When William Shatner met Tom Baker…
DAVIES: Can you imagine? That would be brilliant! (laughing)!
KP: “One came from the US, one from the UK. They met. They fell in love…”
DAVIES: (laughing) It’s a classic boy meets boy story.
KP: I think you’re sold on this…
KP: Forget Torchwood - here’s your spin-off.
KP: What was the biggest pitfall you saw in the re-launch? The thing that you were desperate to try and avoid that you actually saw as a valid thing that could happen, despite all your best intentions?
DAVIES: I think the… whoo, there’s many, many pitfalls to avoid. It’s a very careful balancing act with Doctor Who, which is to not make it look silly. I think a lot of people just consider science fiction to be silly, and sort of all monsters running around. But at the same time - at exactly the same time - to keep Doctor Who’s absolutely unique sense of humor. Because I think that is a unique property. There’s no point in replicating other shows… Shows like Stargate are excellent, but they have a very macho, military, hard-ass feel to them. And Doctor Who is more charming and more witty and more eccentric. So it’s to keep that lightness without being seen as a send-up, and it’s a very difficult balance act. We have very good writers and a production team who pulled that off, really.
KP: The fascinating thing is you also made a show that is watchable by children and families.
DAVIES: Yes, absolutely. Very much inspired by - I’m a very big fan of those modern cinema family blockbusters like Toy Story and Shrek. and stuff like that, and Harry Potter even. I knew that families would gather ’round our stuff the way they gather around those. I thought if we could make every episode that big each week, that much of an event each week, with the backing of a great big BBC publicity machine behind us as well, that there is a great family audience out there. They were plainly and clearly going to the cinema. I go ’round my friends’ houses and mum and dad would sit there with the kids and we’d watch Finding Nemo. And everyone in the room would love it. So that audience was clearly up for grabs, and had been completely neglected in the UK, and programs like that weren’t being made since Doctor Who. There’s 37 million of them coming along, because we proved that it can be done.
KP: Which is not to say that you haven’t tried to do it over the years.
DAVIES: Oh absolutely. I’ve tried, and plenty of these new shows coming along will try and fail, bless them, but it’s exciting. As a result of Doctor Who, there’s a new version of Robin Hood coming along by the BBC, which I’m really looking forward to. I think that’s very exciting. I’ll be sitting watching that…
KP: It’s interesting that you have, over the course of your career… and I say this having just watched the Unscripted documentary, that this is definitely a genre that you’ve tried to resuscitate over the years.
DAVIES: Yes, I suppose so. I mean, really I just keep moving genres all the time. When it was first announced that I was doing it, every tabloid newspaper announced that a gay man was going to do children’s programming…
KP: Obviously people who didn’t know the production history of Doctor Who…
DAVIES: Yeah, exactly. But there were plenty of headlines saying “Doctor Queer” and stuff like that, and the entire press lined up to sort of say that a gay man couldn’t possibly do this - and, as ever, I proved them wrong. Hurray!
KP: I thought it was quite ludicrous just how far the press went in trying to make that an issue.
DAVIES: Oh, I’m used to it. I’m used to it, and not one of them’s ever stopped me yet.
KP: The proof is in the pudding.
DAVIES: Absolutely, yes.
KP: The new Who has become a template. Over here in the US, there’s been a lot of failed relaunch attempts of various old shows…
DAVIES: Oh yes, it’s a potentially deadly battleground. There were plenty of people saying we were doomed to fail. But I knew… because I loved the old show. I still love the old show, and I knew how good it could be. I never doubted that it could work. But that’s no guarantee that you will actually make it work, because it’s much more complicated than that. Everyone sets out to make a successful program, everyone wants everyone to watch - very few of them get through. So we tried and somehow everything was in the right place this time.
KP: It really shows when you sit down and watch the program, that it’s coming from a position and a point of love and respect for the concept.
DAVIES: Yes, we truly have a team where everyone is dedicated to it. It’s quite extraordinary, actually, and it is a British cultural thing. There’s a genuine love of it, and there were hundreds of people on that show. You know what a film set is like, and it’s like they’re all putting in extra hours, extra bit of work - the design team particularly, especially the computer graphics people, are people who grew up with Doctor Who, who grew up loving science fiction, and it’s genuinely loved by the people making it. And by its executives. The support we get from the head of drama is quite extraordinary. She loves it. She absolutely loves it. So we’re in a very, very lucky position and we all know that.
KP: Was there any reticence on their part when you came to them saying, “I want to do a continuation, not a wholesale revamp of this…”?
DAVIES: No, they got me in, and again - I know I’m very, very lucky. They trusted me completely. They didn’t get me in to give me 27 rules. They got me in to tell them how to bring it back.
KP: Was it known from the very beginning that the season would end with a regeneration?
DAVIES: Yes. It was always a possibility, and we discussed that right from the start. Things could have changed and we kept everything fluid as we went along, but yeah, things happened as we planned them.
KP: Was it always your intention that David (Tennant) would be the replacement?
DAVIES: No, we didn’t know that until we were casting properly. I mean, fortunately Julie Gardner, who’s the other executive producer, and I had just worked with David - while we were making Doctor Who - on a production of Casanova, which was the first time we’d ever met him or knew him. I remember right at the beginning of Doctor Who his name was mentioned, and none of us knew who he was. (laughing) Gotta be honest, bless him! He wouldn’t mind me saying that! So while we were doing Doctor Who, we worked with him at the same time and just loved him. Plus it saved us having to do a great big casting call, because that would have been a nightmare, I think. We were able to do it very quietly and very discreetly, so it was very, very lucky.
KP: So really, after 20 years, you made his career…
DAVIES: (laughing)! Don’t say that!
KP: No Harry Potter if it wasn’t for you…
DAVIES: (laughing) Exactly…
KP: Going into it, was it a transition that you were worried about, that, “Hey, we’ve got a winning formula, how is this going to affect it?”…
DAVIES: Yes, sure… you always worry about everything. You worry about every new episode, to be honest, because the thing about Doctor Who is it’s very different every week, so every week you’re sitting there thinking, “Will people like this one?” But we have to do it. We’re confident. We have to hope that it would work. And the fact that it has has been brilliant. But you never know. You just try and do the best, really.
KP: It’s amazing - from someone who knew Doctor Who and knew the mythos but wasn’t fully invested in it over the years, to go into this with a knowing but fresh eye and be swept up in it… You really pulled it off for me. You’ve been able to carry on and reintroduce concepts with a spin, but have it still be valid - it continues to impress me, when I’ve seen so many other series crash and burn.
DAVIES: Yes, it’s easily done. We keep a very close eye on it. The nice thing is that after the success of the first year, not one of us relaxes. We thought there would be time to relax, but we really haven’t. And obviously the episode going out this week, coming on Saturday, you must download it as soon as it’s available. It’s astonishing. It’s absolutely lovely.
KP: Well, the preview alone already has me energized. I really did enjoy last week’s episode.
DAVIES: Lovely, wasn’t it? That’s what I mean by Doctor Who’s charm. It’s a very charming episode, that one.
KP: I keep hoping you have some kind of American episode that doesn’t involve some crazy industrialist…
KP: You know, we’re not all mad…
DAVIES: We’ve got Captain Jack. He’s American. He’s gorgeous. Bisexual. Fantastic.
KP: Yes, but we haven’t seen him for six episodes…
DAVIES: But we’re building a whole show around him. Don’t worry. We hope to sell that to the States as well, with a bit of luck.
KP: I’m sure eventually we’ll find out he’s from Canada.
DAVIES: (laughing)! He’s not, though. Bless him.
KP: Speaking of Torchwood, is that still slated to come out next year?
DAVIES: I think it’s going out at the end of this year, actually. I lose track of things like that, but no, it should go out on… yes it is. Ah, October, end of October, something like that. I think that’s the plan.
KP: Oh, excellent.
DAVIES: Yes, but it’s on target for that. Of course they always shift things and change their minds and move things around, so that’s beyond my authority, but we’re on schedule for that, anyway.
KP: And honestly, since you’ve toyed around with people so much, do you have any intention whatsoever of bringing Liz Sladen back?
DAVIES: Oh bless her, I don’t know. I mean, that was a beautiful one-off episode, but I don’t think you’d spoil it if she met the doctor again somehow, I think.
KP: Or if she was involved in a potential spin-off show you’re working on…
DAVIES: If we have time. If we have the living time to do that…
KP: It’ll run for years, come on….
KP: So now you’ve reintroduced the Daleks rather spectacularly…
KP: You reintroduced the Cybermen rather spectacularly… That really only leaves on other villainous cornerstone…
DAVIES: Oh, which one’s that then? Oh, the Master?
KP: The Master.
DAVIES: Oh right, no there’s a few. There’s Ice Warriors…
KP: But as far as the ones everyone remembers…
DAVIES: I’m not too keen on the Master, myself. I remember when I was a kid he was probably my least favorite villain. So I think I do believe in bringing back all the great icons of the series, but I think that if we’re gonna bring him back, we need to think very carefully about how to do it because he can be a bit of a moustache twirler sometimes - and that’s exactly what you want, but…
KP: I have to admit I was a bit disappointed when I saw “School Reunion,” because I thought, “You know, Tony Head would have been great as the Master, in the way he played that role”…
DAVIES: What a lovely man. What an absolute delight to work with, that man. I’ve admired him from afar. Watched everything every single episode of Buffy all those years, but you don’t know what the man’s gonna be like until he actually arrives. He’s charming. Absolutely gorgeous.
KP: I did a six hour interview with him a few years back.
DAVIES: Did you? He’s lovely, isn’t he? Very clever, very witty, very wise.
KP: And amazing the stories he’ll tell when he’s giving an interview at the pub.
DAVIES: (laughing) I think I had a couple of them but maybe not as many as you. Lovely man. That’s one of the lovely things about working on this show, is getting to meet people like that.
KP: Of course, who knows, in Doctor Who anyone can return in any form.
DAVIES: Absolutely. He was very popular. There are no plans, I must admit. There are no plans to bring him back, but he was wonderful.
KP: And Stephen Fry’s episode has been moved back to the next series?
DAVIES: Yes, the next series. Filming on series three starts in four and a half week’s time.
KP: Well, that’s good to know you’re starting on another series.
DAVIES: Yes. Oh, brilliant, yes. We’re very happy.
KP: Any hints as far as what can be expected for the third series?
DAVIES: No, it’s too early to start hinting about that, really.
KP: Any ideas of where you want to go?
DAVIES: Oh yeah, it’s all storylined. We’ve got about seven scripts underway and… more, probably… Eight scripts underway, actually. So it’s all laid out and patterned and I know exactly what’s… I can tell you the ending of series three right now, but I’m not going to.
KP: But, I’m so nice…
DAVIES: (laughing)! You could be sitting there naked in a bucket for all I know!
KP: Is that how you’re envisioning me?
DAVIES: (laughing)! It helps with the vocal piece!
KP: Whatever makes it easy. It seems, with a 13 episode run, that there’s so much you want to do that things get a bit rushed towards the end.
DAVIES: Yeah, do you think?
KP: The last season, the Bad Wolf reveal didn’t strike me as wholly satisfying.
DAVIES: Well, that’s tough, Ken.
KP: I’m not saying it in an accusatory fashion…
DAVIES: No, I have to say, we loved it.
KP: Do you feel straight-jacketed in any way about, “I wish we had a little more time to tell story…”?
DAVIES: No, no… absolutely not, no. It’s enough doing these episodes as it is.
KP: So you can’t ever envision doing a 26 episode series?
DAVIES: Oh no, thank you. Blimey. No, we just wouldn’t have time to… admittedly wouldn’t have time. The performing hours are very different over here. It’s like, I know things like Buffy and all those big shows, Angel - I know you do 22, 24 episodes a year, but your filming hours are extraordinary. In fact, you will film 16 hours a day to get it shot because you have different union rules and rules about overtime and stuff like that. We don’t. It’s an 11 hour filming day over here and that’s the end, and you do not film beyond that. So we literally don’t have the scope to film like the Americans do. It’s illegal over here.
KP: Which leads to you not having the burnout rate we do…
DAVIES: No, I suppose so. Well, I wouldn’t know, ’cause there’s no chance to burn out like that. You literally cannot do it! (laughing)
KP: Can you ever envision doing an American show?
DAVIES: Oh, I suppose so, yes. I mean, I had a fair bit of contact with that lovely team that did the version of Queer as Folk for Showtime, Ron Cowan, and it was a very exciting seeing them work and seeing the writer’s room and that sort of stuff. So it’s attractive, yes.
KP: But not something that you foresee for the immediate future.
DAVIES: No, no I’m too busy. I’m 43 years old, and it’d be a little bit like starting from scratch, you know? You bang on the door of American studios and they’d say, “Who the hell are you?” I’m getting a little bit old in the tooth to start from scratch.
KP: But you can’t tell me that they’re not banging on the door to get you.
DAVIES: No, they’re not actually. None of them do.
KP: From what I’ve heard it’s doing very well on the Sci-Fi Channel…
DAVIES: That’s what they say. I hope so, yes. It’s an unusual little show for Sci-Fi, and they’ve been very nice to us. They’ve been very lovely to work with, actually, so I hope it works for them, because they deserve payback for the faith they’ve given us.
KP: It was faith they gave after realizing that they made a mistake not picking you up in the first place.
DAVIES: (laughing) I don’t know what happened there.
KP: Don’t worry - I’m not making you say that, I’m saying that. There must be other projects besides the Doctor Who universe you want to do…
DAVIES: Oh, there are. There’s a few things on hold for the moment. I won’t do this forever, but at the same time it’s such a big set up. We just moved to a brand new dedicated studio for Doctor Who and Torchwood, which is massive and huge and providing an awful lot of employment in South Wales, so it’s not a project I’m about to walk out of quickly. Partly because I love it, and I think on British television I won’t have the chance to write anything like this stuff again. But partly because of this huge investment in South Wales. You know, South Wales is not a big television-making capital. But we’re making it so with these programs, and work creates work. We get other programs to follow us here, and that’s happening already. So it’s not something to walk out on quickly. But at the end of the day, there’s a million shows that I want to write that wouldn’t fit into Doctor Who’s brief or Doctor Who’s universe at all. So like everyone, I’ll move on in the end.
KP: At what point would you realize it was time to move on?
DAVIES: I suppose really when I feel like I’m missing out on other work, to be honest. When I see my peers writing stuff in 9:00 slots and 10:00 slots that I envy. Because I absolutely love the Doctor Who world, but there’s certain things you simply cannot write in it. And neither should you. You shouldn’t impose it on Doctor Who. So I could literally, when I get itchy feet - not at the moment - but there are various things lined up and they’re simply waiting. I have people saying, “Well, just come back to us in a couple years when you’re ready.” So I’ll let that filter down. I’m literally enjoying it too much. Literally, we just finished episode 9 at the moment. Episode 8 goes out on Saturday. I’ve just come from the meetings on the dub of episode nine, and I could not be more happy with the piece of work. I just think it’s absolutely stunning. But when you come out of something buzzing like that, you think, “Well, why look for work elsewhere?” This is lovely.
KP: Well, you’ve done a fantastic job so far, against all odds…
DAVIES: Bless you, sir.
KP: And one geeky question that I’m being forced to ask you…
DAVIES: (laughing)! There’s someone else in the bucket with you, isn’t there?
KP: Yes, there’s someone else in the bucket. It’s a rather large bucket, actually…
KP: They’re like that in America…
KP: One of the other staples of the past Doctor Who run was the occasion to run into previous doctors…
DAVIES: Yes. I’m not too keen on that, I’ve got to say, because… I mean, if the perfect idea came along… I always tend to find that you’re watching the actors, not the Doctor. I sort of think everything that happens to the Doctor and Rose should feel like something that you can correspond with yourself. You know, when they’re in danger, when there’s fear, when there’s great love between them - you can feel that as an audience. Meeting a different version of yourself doesn’t correspond in any sort of human equation. You’re sitting there thinking, “Well, that’s never gonna happen to me.” So it’s the one area where I tend to find it becomes a television show in inverted commas when they do that. I think it’s a little bit self-aware.
KP: And considering the aging factor of some of the actors…
DAVIES: Well, there is that, as well.
KP: Is there a potential, though, for them to play other roles?
DAVIES: I’m not too keen on that. None of us has ever suggested that, because again, it becomes terribly self aware then.
KP: I noticed how quickly you shuttled off K-9.
DAVIES: Ah. No, I love K-9. I love it. It’s gorgeous.
KP: At least you gave licensees the ability to make new K-9 products.
DAVIES: (laughing) I’ve got one!
KP: Well I don’t want to keep you. I know you have a lot more to do today.
DAVIES: Bless you, Ken.
KP: I appreciate it, and I look forward to speaking with you in the future. And remember, no more bad Americans!
DAVIES: (laughing) Okay!
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