How Russell T. Davies Can Help Save Doctor Who a Second Time

TV Features Doctor Who
How Russell T. Davies Can Help Save Doctor Who a Second Time

Sometimes impossible things just happen, and we call them miracles. Though that line was originally spoken by the Eleventh Doctor in the Season 5 episode “The Pandorica Opens,” it might feel strangely relevant to Doctor Who fans in 2021, who are trying to process the news that everything old is indeed new again, and former showrunner Russell T. Davies is officially returning to the series he left behind back in 2009.

For those that don’t know, Davies has something of mythic status in the world of Doctor Who. Truly, it’s hard to overstate his contributions to the concept of what a modern-day version of this show should be and do. Responsible for the show’s revival in 2005, he brought Doctor Who back from the literal dead after the 1996 Paul McGann TV film flopped so badly it kept the entire franchise off the air for nearly a decade. He, along with former Doctors Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, helped define the character and the franchise for an entirely new generation of fans. He broke ratings records. And, he’s a big part of the reason the show is the global powerhouse it is today. Now, Davies is apparently returning to help shape its next decade.

Davies will return to helm a Doctor Who that looks quite different than the one he left. Gone are the dodgy props and shoestring budgets—this is now a show with episodes that now often look and feel like feature films. After years of complaints and dodging questions about the issue, a woman is playing the Doctor. The show is tackling more contemporary and social issues than ever before. It’s literally a whole new world. But it’s still one that Davies is uniquely suited to tackle.

Because his Doctor Who was never about the aliens, the time travel, or the mystery box plots that the showrunners after him embraced—those things were never the point. Davies’ show was always much more focused on characters and relationships, grounding the Daleks and the outlandish science fiction plots in down-to-earth characters and human stakes. For all that his first season ended with the Doctor facing off with his oldest and most dangerous adversary, its emotional weight came from Rose’s journey, her determination to get back to and fight beside Nine, and the catharsis of the revelation that she was the Bad Wolf all along.

Davies always understood that people, like stories, are made up of a pile of good and bad things (to crib another line from Eleven). His Doctors, their companions, and the many supporting characters he introduced were never purely black or white, but creatures that existed somewhere in the middle, which is what helped make them all feel so rich and relatable. He made you care about his characters in a way that subsequent showrunners either weren’t terribly interested in or couldn’t manage.

Steven Moffat, a former writer under Davies and showrunner in his own right, had an incredible vision and a unique ability to plot out massive, complex plots full of shocking twists and turns. (Like his series Sherlock he didn’t always stick the landing, to be clear; but it’s certainly hard to fault his ambition.) Yet, at the end of the day he was much less interested in the everyday people that populated those stories than his predecessor had been. Davies wrapped the companions’ families and other everyday people into his arcs, making it feel as though his Doctor Who world was a large, interconnected web of stories, rather than the adventures of a single being who occasionally touched the lives of others.

In recent seasons, current showrunner Chris Chibnall has struggled to really give Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteen, the franchise’s first female Doctor, and her companions anything that feels like genuine interiority or emotional arcs. The series has also been strangely resistant to really portraying her story in a way that interrogates or challenges our understanding of what having a female Doctor (versus simply a woman playing the Doctor) would necessarily mean. This is no slam on Whittaker, who truly has worked wonders with what she’s been given, but it’s hard not to view the Thirteenth Doctor era to date as something of a missed opportunity. Especially when you consider how diverse her initial Team TARDIS was, and how little we learned about Yaz, Graham, or Ryan in the last two seasons.

To be fair, Davies’ previous tenure certainly wasn’t perfect. There’s entirely too much reliance on childish jokes and body humor (the less said about “Boomtown” and the farting aliens, or “Love and Monsters” and that poor girl whose face got turned into a sidewalk slab, the better). And I think we must acknowledge that his treatment of Martha was frequently problematic in ways both large and small.

Yet, in the 11 years since he left Doctor Who, it’s also obvious that Davies has grown as both a showrunner and a storyteller, and it’s hard not to look at shows like It’s a Sin, A Very British Scandal, or Years and Years and be anything other than thrilled at the prospect that he’ll get another crack at the Doctor and life aboard the TARDIS. How will his take on the Doctor have evolved? I honestly cannot wait to find out.

Doctor Who will turn 60 years old in 2023, which is maybe the biggest indication that this franchise doesn’t actually really need saving all that much. But it’s not an accident that Davies’ return will coincide with this landmark anniversary, and take place at a moment when it feels especially like the show might need another kind of fresh start. These days, it’s suddenly cool to be a Whovian. Genre television is everywhere now, and the nerds have inherited the Earth. Everything—from the specifics of the show itself to the things we, as viewers, want and expect Doctor Who to do and be—feels different than the last time Davies was here. But could there possibly be any better person to show us how to make this oldest of TV series feel brand new and necessary again than someone who’s already done it once?

Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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