Russell T Davies is returning to the world of Doctor Who.
This is, to put it mildly, an interesting development. Davies’s absence from the Doctor Who world, after standing down alongside David Tennant back in 2008, has been fairly striking. Other than a brief, and really rather excellent, cameo during the (also rather excellent) The Five-ish Doctors Reboot, he was entirely in absentia from Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary shindigs. While some of that might simply be out of respect for his replacement, Steven Moffat, it’s still noticeable that the person responsible for guiding the show back from the Wilderness Years, and the person who single-handedly turned it into one of the most popular shows on television, was completely absent from the big party. Davies has done nothing for Big Finish at all, a company he claims to have been rather proud to have saved in the early days of the new show by quietly deflecting questions about licencing. And if ever there was a refuge for Doctor Who writers of the past, it’s Big Finish. There’s been the novelization of Rose, and it’s pretty good for what it is, but beyond that? Zip.
Not that he’s been resting on his laurels or anything. Despite being crap, Years And Years (reviewed right here), was very well received. Cucumber, which is actually good and rather unjustly forgotten, saw him returning to the themes and situations of Queer As Folk, but with a more mature, measured approach to great effect. A Very English Scandal, although an adaptation, is quite possibly the best thing Davies has ever done, and It’s A Sin has been positively showered with praise. He remains well regarded, well liked, and does not appear to have difficulty when it comes to getting projects green-lit. Suffice to say, a return to Doctor Who at this stage is very much not something that is a career necessity. And yet it’s happening.
This news has been broadly welcomed, both by fandom and the wider world. Despite only being two-thirds through, the Chibnall era of the show has already been effectively written off as a bad job and something to be moved on from. While there’s some justification to this – and it’s hard to have much confidence that Chibnall will be able to pull his era together in a way that satisfies… well, anyone really – it’s also just a bit harsh too. While a full defence of the era is impossible to mount, there are some things it got right, not least of which was Jodie Whittaker who is a straightforwardly terrific Doctor. Chibnall’s second season was also substantially better than his first, and if his third is by the same measure better than the second then while it will never be a classic era it certainly won’t be a complete bust either. Sure, “The Timeless Children” is hot garbage, but nobody complains that “Keep Left” is somehow less great just because “Journey’s End” shat the bed, and there’s plenty of good episodes in Chibnall’s second season to enjoy despite that dreadful ending. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Davies’s appointment is an epitaph for the Chibnall era – an insane over-reaction – while others insist that Doctor Who’s platonic form is 2005-2008 and so the return of Davies is a miracle on a par with the feeding of the 5000, which is equally ridiculous. The truth, inevitably, is somewhere in-between.
Because let’s be honest, if you want a steady hand on the tiller then Davies is about as good a choice as you can get as far as showrunners go. But by returning to old territory the show is also doing something new, because this isn’t something that’s ever happened before. Ok, Barry Letts was brought in to oversee John Nathan-Turner’s first season as producer during the show’s original run, but one should be wary of drawing too many parallels with the original show here because “showrunner” wasn’t A Thing then – you had a producer and a script editor, and those roles don’t quite directly map onto the current iteration of showrunner. Still, obviously Davies has a proven track record, a built-in and loyal fanbase from his previous time on the show, and there’s going to be a certain amount of weight behind his (re)appointment. No era is universally popular, but if you had to pick a broad-consensus best era for the revived show, the Tennant/Davies years are pretty much going to be it. Not, to be clear, to dismiss Eccleston’s time on the show, but he only had one season and, good though much of it is, the show was still clearly finding its feet during that first season. So fine – we have the return of one of the best-regarded writers on the show who covered Doctor Who when it was at its imperial-phase, cultural peak.
But is his return actually wise? Yes and no. On the one hand, it’s clear that Davies can land a base-level of competency, actually has the ability to run what is notoriously one of the hardest shows in television to keep on the rails, and can keep moving parts… well, moving. Though he gets praised for handling plot arcs well, especially in terms of the fairly messy plot arcs of the Moffat era, this tends to get a little overstated – both the Bad Wolf and Torchwood storylines from his first two seasons are less plot arcs and more references dropped into every episode with one episode per season (“The Long Game” and “Tooth And Claw” respectively) linking directly to the season finale. Which, fine, works, but is very different from, say, The Impossible Girl arc or The Timeless Child. Still, that restraint is clearly something that’s been successful.
And yet… and yet. There’s something terribly safe about Davies’s return to the show. Doctor Who is very rarely at its best when it plays it safe. Obviously Davies has had plenty of time to develop as writer since the Tenth Doctor’s sentimental declaration that he didn’t want to go, but even so – there’s a sense that by making the obvious call, the show is interested in more-of-the-same rather than taking a big swing, and more-of-the-same rarely makes for wonderfully innovative television. It’s understandable to a point – Doctor Who is worth a lot of money and publicity to the BBC and they’re not going to want to mess that up. But it still feels safe in the way that, for all the criticism the choice of current showrunner came in for, Chibnall’s appointment wasn’t. Nobody really knew what Chibnall would bring to the table. Not a great deal, as it turned out, but at least the show was going with someone new.
Of course, speculation is rife as to why Davies’s appointment was necessary. A dependable hand on the wheel after the critical drubbing of the Chibnall era is certainly one possibility. As stated, Doctor Who really matters to the BBC these days – hilarious for those of us who were around for the dying days of the brilliant McCoy era, where “contempt” was the best the show could hope for – and if the BBC have taken the criticism of the current regime to heart then trying to redress the balance makes a certain amount of sense. They’re not going to want to kill the goose that lays – and keeps on laying – the golden egg. It smacks a little of give-the-fans-what-the-fans-think-they-want, and that thinking is what drove the original show into the ground so that approach should be, at best, treated with caution.
Another, much speculated about, possibility is that there is a mysterious someone who wants the job but isn’t available yet, so another person needs to fill in until that someone is free to take the reins. This seems substantially less likely. Quite apart from just how insulting it would be to a writer of Davies’s stature to be asked, “eh, would you mind vamping for a season or two while we wait for the real next showrunner to turn up?” it’s also just likely that Davies would say no to that. Why take a caretaker position when you’ve already been the manager? On top of which, that’s also what was said when Chibnall was appointed. Few, if any, were greatly excited by his arrival, but he was coming off a hot streak on Broadchurch and if he was to be a caretaker manager while Jamie Mathieson/Mark Gatiss/Insert Usual Collection Of Names Here was getting themselves ready then, well, maybe it would be OK? Of course he wasn’t and, um, it wasn’t. The “caretaker” angle really is little more than a fan invention to avoid the reality of [PERSON FAN DOESN’T LIKE] actually getting the job.
There is also a third reason, which may too have a bit of weight to it – desperation. Doctor Who is hard to make, and it’s unbelievably difficult to find someone who can actually do the job. All three of the modern show-runners have their roots in Doctor Who – Davies wrote for the Virgin New Adventures line, Moffat wrote for Davies, and Chibnall for Moffat. No showrunner has, post-2005, come from a world other than Doctor Who, and this may in and of itself be telling. Given what a success Doctor Who is for the BBC they are certainly not going to simply let it end for lack of a showrunner, but actually finding one? That’s a different matter. So if they can’t find a new one…. Maybe an old one? Maybe indeed.
So what of the future? Well at this point there’s really nothing to go on at all. We likely won’t even get a new Davies episode until 2023 or 2024 and there’s plenty of Our Jodie to get through until then. And, as a quick sidebar, it’s been incredibly heartening to see just how many “but why can’t she stay till Davies is back / hopefully she’ll be in for the 60th anniversary” comments around. Whatever the sins of the Chibnall era, it’s great that Whittaker isn’t being tarred with them. Ahem. Anyway. While the past may well give an indication of what’s possible the complete absence of Doctor Who related material alongside Davies’s other writing means that any speculation is just that – speculation.
Naturally attention will also turn to Jodie Whittaker’s replacement, and that of course is all grist to the mill. Will we get the first non-white Doctor? A queer Doctor? Default White Male again? All fun to take random guesses at, of course, but there’s just no way to know. Given that the general signs of Davies’s return suggest a more conservative rather than radical approach it’s perhaps best not to get ones hopes too high for something convention-shattering, but then again as with everything else that’s just conjecture too. Yet the return of Davies can’t help but feel small-c conservative in its approach, because returning to past glories rather than striding forward will always feel that way. It is in the nature of nostalgia to be conservative, because it is by definition fixed. Whether this approach will be justified – and really, it’s hard to avoid chronology-based puns here –time will tell, but while the track record is good, the future is entirely unknown, as it always must be. We know that Davies can – or at least could – do the job. What remains to be seen is whether he can do more than just repeat what he did last time, and whether he can take what worked from his era and expand on it while learning to leave behind the less successful bits.
Colour me optimistically cautious.