Why the Russell T Davies Era Worked
David Selby and Max Jelbart give their thoughts.
Let’s make it clear from the off – this is not an article criticising Steven Moffat. This is an article, in response to the treatment Russell T. Davies has received by some fans lately – it’s as if his service and input into this fine Doctor Who universe have been forgotten. This article will read as an argument, defending Russell T. Davies and explaining why, in our opinion, he is a superior show-runner. I know that Moffateers out there will be already, as you read this, massing a response attack, and your numbers are daunting, but we do not intend this to be an attack on the Moffat era – we are, rather, defending the man who resurrected Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies, and his skill as a writer, a producer, and a show runner.
This is one of the reasons why the Giant Welshman (as he is referred to) shouldn’t be forgotten, miffed, or dismissed entirely. The sheer diversity of his characters makes all the episodes under his run, at least in part, interesting and engaging. Perhaps an example that shows this best is the 2008 episode, Midnight. In this very Hitchcock-reminiscent thriller, the Doctor is trapped, with no way out, among a gathering of very ordinary and deeply flawed individuals. This is a master class in characterisation; all the chinks in the “armour” of these characters are revealed, and exploited. Some are more obvious than others, Val Cane is possessive, bossy, but deeply insecure, and plagued by uncertainty. The Hostess in trapped in protocol, and doesn’t mind throwing out another human to save the rest of the passengers, however she redeems herself in a final sacrifice. Even the Doctor is brought into a different light: frantic, out-of-control, and also (something we haven’t seen in a long, long time) deeply, deeply scared. These characters are unforgettable – and this is not unique in Russell T. Davies’ work. Something that really sets him apart from Steven Moffat, and indeed, other writers, is that he writes through character– it’s what all the episodes under his reign…? (Sounds right…) are all about.
Now, some might argue that this where Steven Moffat excels, the snappy, flirtatious banter between the Doctor and River, or, more recently the Doctor and Clara, can be very funny – but in defense, isn’t that how all Moffat’s female characters speak? It seems as if there’s only one style of dialogue he can write for women, and he dishes it out with cookie-cutter efficiency – whereas, looking at Russell, the dialogue is always one thing: real. Something that a lot of TV shows suffer from is characters written like they know they’re in a TV show, that is, only existing to enable the writer to get to the plot points quickly. It’s a very easy trap to fall into. There was no threat like this when Russell was at the helm – it was all down to earth, and more than often, it was his words that made us all bawl: Wilf’s goodbye to the Doctor in Journey’s End, Jackie’s “I will never let them down” speech to Elton in Love & Monsters; both examples of how character-driven, realistic dialogue can enhance the episodes immeasurably.
Now, this is all subjective – but when looking at the job of a show runner, essentially you’re looking for their mark on every episode, their feel. One thing you can certainly not dispute is that Davies made sure that every episode that went out was good as it could be. Now, of course I’m not saying that every episode under his reign (yeah, that sounds good) was wonderful – there were flops, how many depends on your personal opinions, but you just have to admire the Daviesness that every episode from 2005-2009 has. It was reliable (as much as I like the split series approach, I have noticed that it’s left a lot of casual viewers feeling rather cold), it was cosy, it was Doctor Who on Saturday nights for 13 weeks, every week being an exciting adventure. He returned it to what it had been for 26 years previously. Steven Moffat says Doctor Who shouldn’t feel cosy, it should be unpredictable, and you should never quite know when it’s coming back. I couldn’t agree less. Doctor Who should be reliable, you should sit down at 7pm, and know you were in for a fun, thrilling and terrifying ride. It’s part of the Doctor Who DNA, and it’s something that Russell thrived at.
There’s an interesting parallel here – I often see Davies’ run akin to Doctor Who in the 70’s, and Moffat’s approach similar to that of JNT in his early years with Peter Davison. In both worlds, a hugely successful Doctor has just backed down from an outstanding era that boasted some of the finest stories ever produced; Doctor Who effortlessly at the top of its game. Then, everything changes – as in both worlds; we enter a new decade (roughly) with a significantly younger Doctor, and significantly more companions, with significantly more inter- connected and off-beat, quirky stories (which, don’t get me wrong, I love). And this change is all very well and good, and it’s vital to keep the show refreshing. But what has happened, both times round, is that the fans adorn this new approach as superior, and more engaging, but with hindsight, this “of-the-times” approach, filled with references to the current world that we live in, can only date, where the big, epic, and inherently Who-ish stories can only thrive and can’t help but be timeless. I believe that Davies’ consistency is a virtue, and will work in favour of his era with time, because, in my humble opinion, I think Russell T. Davies’ era is inherently more Doctor Who.
The Doctor is without doubt a fascinating, unfathomable and morally complex character. He’s over 1200 years old, and has been subjected to so many of life’s ups and downs; love, loss, adventure, friendship, abhorrence, solitude; and thus to a certain degree, his experiences define him. Take Dalek; due to the calamitous events of the Time War, the Doctor despises the Dalek race, and is filled with rage, self- reproach (he destroyed two whole races) and animosity; he shares the lost, isolated, ancient semblance which the Daleks do but refuses to believe it. Both races lost; both survivors emulate one another.
The Doctor is explored in comparable ways in the Moffat era; you’ve got The Vampires of Venice, which stresses how much the loss of a race at the Doctor’s own hands affects him, or A Good Man Goes to War which exemplifies how the Doctor’s anger can harm not just his enemies, but his friends too. There are others; yet I cannot help but feel as if Moffat occasionally goes a little bit wrong with his representation of the Doctor. Take The Big Bang; after the build-up of a potentially dark storyline, you’ve got a man who is running around with a mop and fez, and defending himself with a satellite dish. It’s an odd contrast to the themes of the previous episode and I don’t think it works. The writer always has to draw a line between ‘childlike’ and ‘childish’, and, whilst this is questionable, I personally deem Moffat as not being quite able to do so.
The Russell T. Davies era demonstrated perfectly the Doctor’s age and his darker, more dangerous side (“He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe”) whilst still being able to juxtapose this to his more fun, adventurous side (“There’s an old Earth saying, Captain: a phrase of great power and wisdom and consolation to the soul in times of need. Allons-y!”).
There are also a lot of objections about how the Doctor ‘fell in love’ with Rose. It was established in The Power of Three that the first face the Doctor sees in each incarnation is ‘sealed onto his hearts’; hence he had that attachment to Rose too. He’s suffered the events of the Time War and is alone; Rose is a new spark of life, he can see the adventure through new eyes (more than that; naïve eyes), which helps him get over his losses. Ultimately, he forms a bond with her, and realises how much they’ve helped each other. Why not fall in love?
He Brought It Back
This gives the impression to be a harsh retort to someone who’s been praising the Moffat era (“I think the Moffat era is better”/”Hey, he brought it back!”), but that’s not what it’s intended as at all. My sentiments are simple; he wrote the first series and the BBC kept it on, right until Russell T. Davies himself decided to quit, so therefore he must have done something right. He introduced us to Rose, a young, relatable, but somewhat vulnerable character. He started a mystery surrounding the Doctor: since when has he appeared so shadowy, so alone? What are the other myths of Gallifrey?
He began with a captivating mystery: mannequins are becoming animated across London (the urban setting was another facet which brought the viewers in); why and how? Obviously, classic fans would have picked it up, but to bring in new audiences using an old villain in a new scenario was a stroke of brilliance. The series is well structured, too; it begins with Rose, a well-paced contemporary mystery, then plunges far into the future, to Platform One, which despite the low-budget villains has a slightly magical quality to it – straight after that, Rose is taken to the past in an outstanding pseudo historical by Mark Gatiss, and from then on the series just flows so well. How much Russell had to do with this is debatable, but what I am certain of is that his contribution was excellent.
What you deem as being ‘sad’ is to some degree subjective; it depends how emotionally invested you are in a show’s characters. I find The Girl Who Waited the saddest of the Moffat era because it’s the pinnacle of Amy’s journey; it’s a horrific position, which you wouldn’t put anyone in. I don’t think, however, that anything tops the emotive connotation of Jackie Tyler. She’s a normal mother, who’s lost her husband and has only her daughter. Then, her daughter is snatched away from her and she’s left alone, not knowing whether Rose is alive or dead. This is illustrated in Love and Monsters; the highpoint of Jackie Tyler’s time on the show.
Similarly, the Moffat era frequently gives the impression to have a fear of making an ending too dark. For example, Amy and Rory’s suicide in The Angels Take Manhattan would have been a far superior ending; it would have been properly tragic and had a greater impact on the viewer. As it was, the pair popped up from the graves afterwards, ruining the mood of the noir-pastiche. In the Russell T. Davies era, however, characters who were vital to the show or the protagonists of particular stories were occasionally killed off; Adelaide Brooke, Harriet Jones and Lynda Moss being prime examples in this matter. It added a certain expanse of realism to Who, proving that the Doctor doesn’t always save everyone, and in the case of Harriet Jones, isn’t always right.
The Doctor is, in some ways, an antihero, whilst still rescuing struggling planets and doing other wonderful things. That’s what I loved about the ending of Earthshock, for example; Adric didn’t die saving the day, or saving one of the central characters: he was doing something he thought he’d succeed in but in the end failed, and principally, it was down to the Doctor. The fact that companions and other one-off characters are rarely killed takes away from how much of damage the Doctor’s character is, precisely how the lack of the companion’s background and the consequences the travelling has had does. Clara’s deaths, however, are beginning to change this, which is something I’m glad of. The Snowmen had a very bittersweet ending, though some may forget this due to Clara’s counterpart still being alive.
The Russell T. Davies era gets far too much criticism, and deserves more respect. It’s consistent, has poignant albeit simplistic stories, and was an era full of fun, adventure, action and emotion. Russell T. Davies, take a bow…