aRTICLE BY ROB SALEM – TELEVISION COLUMNIST
SAN DIEGO–Who, you might well ask, is Russell T. Davies?
That would be Doctor Who, the enduring English genre icon, who thrives not merely by virtue of his imagined ability to regenerate himself but by Davies’ actual ability to do so on his behalf.
The time-travelling, global and galactic disaster-averting Doctor has been a television touchstone since the early 1960s, through several generations of fantasy fandom. But eventually the years caught up with him, and by the end of the last millennium he had become a pop-cultural anachronism, even to those who had grown up adoring him.
One of those fans was Davies, a former scriptwriter for British children’s television, later the creator of such provocative adult fare as the internationally acclaimed gay dramedy Queer as Folk.
It was an unlikely merging of these disparate sensibilities that informed Davies’ 2005 reinvention of the Doctor, and indeed his entire Who-niverse, additionally spinning the flagging franchise off into Torchwood, a darker and much more daring variation, and The Sarah Jane Adventures, which successfully re-engaged the original Who’s youthful fan base.
The reborn Doctor Who, initially co-produced by the CBC, was an instant hit, almost equally at home and abroad. All of this seems to culminate this week, with tonight’s North American debut (Space at 9 p.m.) of the first of four Doctor Who TV movies, following a week of nightly instalments of the Torchwood miniseries, Children of Earth, all of the aforementioned written and produced by you know Who.
Essentially, it’s “Russell T. Davies Week” here in North America. Davies likes the sound of that.
“I’ll get on to BBC America,” he laughs. “But I doubt they’ll go for it.”
He’ll find no argument here at the annual San Diego Comic-Con, the world’s largest and most influential pop-culture geekfest, where legions of ardent American admirers lined up for hours for their first opportunity to shake the hand of the man through Whom the legend lives on.
“This is certainly a first for me,” Davies acknowledges. “I usually try to avoid any contact with fans whatsoever.”
Who has the time? For the last few years, Davies has been doing triple duty on Who, Sarah Jane and Torchwood – the latter has not yet been picked up for another BBC season, though the unprecedented ratings there of the Torchwood miniseries would seem to make that more than likely.
“That was one of the greatest surprises of my entire professional life,” Davies marvels. “I mean, I hoped it would do well. I was proud of it. But to see it peaking the ratings every night, that was amazing. It was a blockbuster. None of us anticipated that.”
Anyone who’s been watching Torchwood: Children of Earth here this week will immediately understand. “Dark” does not even begin to cover it, even for a series so defined by apocalyptic ennui, of living on the precarious edge of all hell breaking loose. This is a show that thinks nothing of arbitrarily killing off beloved regular characters – and not just science-fiction dead, but really, really, not-a-dream-sequence, no-cloning-or-alternate-universe, not-ever-coming-back dead.
This relentless internal cleansing, as those who watched now know, continued into the Torchwood mini, though compared to much of what else transpired it could be considered comic relief. Screaming children being dragged out of their homes by armed soldiers, herded into buses to be bartered to invading alien drug addicts …
All this from a guy who used to write kiddie shows. Unresolved issues, perhaps?
“You may have a point,” Davies cheerily allows. “But we all have different moods. Nice men can be bleak, and even the bleak man can have a laugh.
“You know, if I’m talking to you it’s one voice. If I’m talking to my grandmother, it’s another voice. If I talk to a 5-year-old boy, I’ll use another voice …”
In that latter case, likely as not, Davies would have the poor little bugger dragged off to his doom by homeland storm troopers.
“Actually, there is a serious point to be made, even though it’s a fantasy show,” Davies insists. “Soldiers burning houses, taking people away to be murdered … these things happen regularly, we see that on our television. It could be happening in Africa, it could be happening in Bosnia, it could be happening 40 years ago …
“You know, the older I get, the more I realize how close things like World War II really are. I mean, I was born in the ’60s, and it felt like that was 100 years ago.”
Perhaps ironically, tonight’s Doctor Who movie, the more ominously entitled Planet of Death, is actually just a ripping good yarn in the new/old Who tradition: funny, fantastic, exciting, exhilarating … no children in jeopardy, no horrible death (okay, maybe one, but it’s no one we care about).
“It’s just a great big laugh,” assures Davies, “a jewel thief, a housewife, giant metal stingrays, a flying bus …”
The jewel thief who tops that list will be a familiar face even to North American audiences – the former reborn Bionic Woman, Michelle Ryan, the latest in a long line of potential Who travelling “companions,” following last season’s guesting arc by the award-winning star of her own self-titled sketch show, Catherine Tate.
Whether or not Ryan returns after tonight, Davies won’t say. On the other hand, he happily confirms that Tate is definitely coming back. Also scheduled to come on board the Doctor’s TARDIS is Lindsay Duncan, perhaps best known here for Rome.
“Very prestigious,” Davies boasts, adding that the lineup of interested actors only starts there. “After five years of Doctor Who, you should see my mobile phone … it’s mad, and extraordinary. Everyone wants to get involved.”
Everyone, that is, but Davies and his Doctor, the 10th and among the most popular, David Tennant, who have both now left the show behind as it begins shooting its sixth season up in Wales.
The keys to the TARDIS have been handed to fan-favourite writer/producer Steven Moffat and his new Doctor, 26-year-old Matt Smith.
“I spent five years literally working every weekend, every holiday … never really had a day off,” Davies explains. “That’s enough Doctor Who for the moment. There’s a new team. Time to move on.”
He’s hoping for a chance to write and produce some “straight” drama – something that doesn’t require flitting about through time and space.
“I think that’s naturally next,” he says. “I’ve had a brilliant time in science fiction land, but you know, I’d kind of like to flex those (other) muscles.”
But never say never – a particularly fluid concept when one is used to dealing with a Time Lord. “I could never turn my back on it,” he concedes. “I love it too much.”
There is still Torchwood, its fate hanging in the balance. “I do hope we can keep that going,” Davies affirms. “It’s not commissioned yet … I really hope it will come back in some shape or form.
“But we’re in the middle of a £2 billion deficit with the BBC, so now is not perhaps the best time.”
But then, as much for Davies as The Doctor, time has never really been an issue. “It certainly never stopped me before.”
TIME LORD TIMELINE
Doctor Who first airs on BBC television. The Doctor travels (often with one or more companions) in a craft known as the TARDIS, the exterior of which appears as a blue 1950s police box. (TARDIS stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.) William Hartnell portrays the first Doctor.
The original (and memorable) theme music is composed by Ron Grainer and realized by electronic musician Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
The Doctor’s greatest adversaries (and audience favourite), the Daleks, are introduced in this first year, but their catchphrase, “Exterminate!”, is not uttered until 1964.
Faced with the departure of Hartnell due to poor health, writers create the plot device of the Doctor’s ability to regenerate his body when near death. Now a major element of the series, this allows for the recasting of the lead actor when the need arises. Patrick Troughton assumes the role of the Second Doctor.
Jon Pertwee becomes the Third Doctor.
One of the best-loved companions of the Doctor is introduced: feisty investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith (played by Elizabeth Sladen). Sarah Jane later reappears in the series in 2006 and gets her own spinoff, The Sarah Jane Adventures, in 2007.
When Pertwee announces plans to resume his stage career, Tom Baker takes over the role, portraying the Doctor for seven seasons, making him the longest-serving actor in the part. With his trademark long, striped scarf, Baker is often regarded as the most popular of the Doctor incarnations.
The Doctor Who serial “The Deadly Assassin” reveals that a Time Lord can regenerate 12 times, for a total of 13 incarnations (though one Time Lord, the Master, has been able to circumvent this).
The robotic dog K9 is introduced as a companion to Baker’s Doctor. Extremely popular with the audience, K9 is years later dismissed in the Guardian newspaper as “an annoyance on every level.”
Peter Davison, best known for his role as Tristan in the television version of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, portrays the fifth incarnation of the Doctor. At age 29, Davison is the youngest actor to play the role.
Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) becomes the sixth Doctor. Baker had previously appeared on the show in 1983 as the character Commander Maxil.
Sylvester McCoy takes over the role and becomes the seventh Doctor.
The song “Doctorin’ the TARDIS” by the Timelords (later known as The KLF) reaches No. 1 on the British charts. The song samples the Doctor Who theme and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part 2).”
Due to falling viewer numbers, the BBC suspends production and effectively cancels the series.
The Doctor Who television movie premieres as an attempt to revive production of the series. Co-produced by the BBC, Universal Television and the Fox network, it is a ratings success in the U.K., but does not fare well in the United States and no series is picked up. The movie introduces Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor in his only television appearance. Controversy arises among series fans when the eighth Doctor describes himself as “half-human.”
Doctor Who successfully relaunches on the BBC, with development money contributed by the CBC (which is credited as co-producer). Christopher Eccleston becomes the ninth Doctor and former pop singer Billie Piper plays the Doctor’s companion Rose Tyler.
Soon after its premiere, Eccleston announces he will not be returning for another season. David Tennant is cast as the 10th Doctor. Tennant’s Doctor becomes one of the most popular incarnations. In 2006, readers of Doctor Who Magazine name Tennant the “Best Doctor” over perennial favourite Tom Baker.
The Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood premieres. Torchwood (an anagram of Doctor Who) focuses on the activities of the fictional Torchwood Institute, which deals mainly with extraterrestrial activities. The Institute is led by Captain John Harkness (played by John Barrowman) who appeared on Doctor Who in 2005.
Matt Smith is unveiled as the 11th Doctor. At 26, Smith will be the youngest person to portray the Doctor. His series will air in 2010.