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1.    The Big Picture Show: Russell T. Davies’ Writing for Doctor Who

Graham Sleight

As I write, in March 2010, the revived series of Doctor Who has consisted of 60 episodes; of these, Russell T. Davies has been credited as writer on 30, including every series premiere, finale, and Christmas special. Davies has of course had other roles in the creation of the series – as Executive Producer, public face, and main cheerleader. He has also been disarmingly clear about the amount of rewriting he does on scripts written by others: in The Writer’s Tale, he says “I write the final draft of almost all scripts – except Steven Moffat’s, Matthew Graham’s, Chris Chibnall’s, and Stephen Greenhorn’s.”[1] This only emphasises what was clear already: that the tone of New Doctor Who’s scripts is, overwhelmingly, the tone of Russell T. Davies’ writing. In this chapter, I want to try to isolate the main features of his writing and offer some thoughts about when it is most and least effective.

First, though, some descriptions of the characteristics of that writing by others. The first is from an interview with Davies in Doctor Who Magazine in 2005, just after the overwhelming success of the first series. Davies is asked to describe his own writing style:

Fast. Cheeky. Colourful. Good laughs. Proper drama, proper emotion in it. And specifically – this is the thing that enticed me to do Doctor Who – big pictures. Television doesn’t do that enough; most television is people sitting there talking. I always try to write big pictures and it drives people mad, because the budget goes to hell. Even in something like [his 2001 ITV drama] Bob & Rose, there was a riot in Episode 4, in Manchester town square! Believe you me, the budget people were tearing their hair out – “Oh for God’s sake, he told us that this was a romantic comedy,” and I’m going, “Yes, it is, but it needs a riot with Penelope Wilton chaining herself to a bus in order to make its point!” At the same time, I knew that at its simplest Doctor Who is about a man and a woman, and that’s a great basis for any drama. An alien and a human. You’ve got to make him accessible; you’ve got to make her accessible.[2]

The second quotation is from one of the new series’ canniest observers, the writer Steven Moffat, who of course wrote several of its most acclaimed episodes during Davies’ reign, and is taking over as showrunner from 2010. This extract is also from a Doctor Who Magazine interview following the success of the first series:

… the reason the show has worked is that [Davies has] found a way of locating Doctor Who in modern television – it looks like it belongs. If you catch an old episode on UKTV Gold and you’re not braced for it, you think “That does not belong on that television set right now!” Russell, with his incredible knowledge of modern television – because as far as I can see he does nothing except watch television! – he knows exactly how to fit this show in. The creation of the Tyler family and positioning the Doctor as the ‘troublesome relative’ is brilliant writing. It’s more than writing, it’s authorship, it’s being the author of the 13 episodes, being the person who says “This is what this show is going to be.”

There’s a line in [“Rose”] which you could lecture on, it’s so brilliant. It’s in a conversation between Rose and Jackie – Rose says something about getting a job at a butcher’s, and Jackie says “It will be good for you. That shop was giving you airs and graces.” And in that one line, there isn’t anything you don’t know about these two people, or about that life and that world. You know everything about limited ambition, about the relationship between the two of them, about the envy and the crushing absence of horizons. That’s the colour and the depth Russell brings to it. And he was very concerned at the beginning, in “Aliens of London” and “Rose”, to say “This is a show that belongs here and now – it’s set on a council estate, you know a guy like Mickey, you know someone like Rose, and you definitely know Jackie, and here’s their eccentric friend the Doctor, the slightly annoying neighbour.” It locates the show back on television now, and it’s a brilliant piece of writing. I think ‘the Tyler effect’ is incredibly important in Doctor Who. Maybe not to the fans, but the fans don’t need to be sold Doctor Who. People who are saying “Is this show really me?” and seeing bits of their own lives and those of people they know, and the Doctor coming into that life and intruding a bit… They feel they’ve got a connection with it, and that’s why it worked.[3]

These quotations identify, I think correctly, a few central characteristics of Davies’ writing for the series: emotional depth, pace, and scale. I want to talk about each of these separately, along with a fourth element, Davies’ attitude to the series as science fiction. But there are some overarching issues that need to be considered first. In the quotation above, Steven Moffat identifies one of them: that the priorities of a ‘fan’ watching Doctor Who are likely to be very different from those of an ordinary viewer. I am, by any measure, a fan (and one in his thirties, at that), and my criteria for a good story may well be different from viewers as a whole. Whatever criticisms I’m about to make, it’s impossible to argue that the new series of Doctor Who has been anything other than an astonishing popular success, and in those terms probably the most high-profile success for any one writer in recent British television. There’s a sense in which the job of Doctor Who is not particularly to attract people like me to watch it, but rather children and, through them, the rest of their families. The gamble on which the new series was staked was that it was still possible, even in multi-channel digital television Britain, to create a programme which would be a shared viewing experience across age boundaries.

Before looking at each of the four elements I described above, I think it’s worth looking in detail at “Rose”,[4] the Davies-scripted episode that opened the 2005 series and that Moffat praises above. As a piece of writing, it carries in concentrated form many of the show’s defining traits. Its success is even more remarkable given the evidence now emerging that the filming of the programme’s first shooting block was extremely fraught – in 2008 Davies remarked[5] that after one week of shooting, the series was three weeks behind schedule. The opening shot of “Rose”, beginning with a starscape, and then swooping down to Earth, to Rose’s estate, and finally to her bedroom, sets the agenda perfectly. You may have thought (it says) that this was a programme about space, and the vast abstractions of science fiction; but no, it’s about someone like you. There follows a swift montage of Rose waking, heading into work, meeting her boyfriend Mickey, enjoying the London summer. Only at the end of the montage, and the working day, does something more unusual intrude. Rose ventures down to the basement to deliver lottery money to a colleague, and finds herself in a storage area filled with window dummies. They begin, gradually, to come to life; scared, Rose retreats until a stranger grabs her hand and tells her “Run!” This – though she doesn’t know it yet – is the Doctor. He introduces himself, leads her to safety, and tells her to leave the building and not mention him. As Rose does so, she sees the shop’s roof explode, and reaches home in a kind of daze.  

So, from the first, the series is presented overwhelmingly from Rose’s viewpoint. The Doctor’s activities are explained only so far as they impinge on her, and are always related to her everyday world. (The scene immediately after Rose returns home is almost entirely devoted to domestic questions – where she’ll get money from now that the shop is gone, where she’ll find a job, and so on.) When the Doctor reappears, it’s because of something Rose brought with her, an arm from one of the moving shop-window dummies. Their lives increasingly become entangled as the episode goes on, to the point where Rose ultimately saves the Doctor’s life in the lair of the Autons – as the shop window dummies are known. Along the way, the characteristics of Davies’ writing that he described above are all present and correct. There are big pictures – beautifully-shot vistas of London at night, and a huge space (a refitted paper mill) used, and then blown up, as the Auton lair. There’s cheekiness, as when Rose asks the Doctor why he sounds as if he’s from the North; he replies: “Lots of planets have a North.” There’s pace: the episode gets to its climax far more quickly than a story of Classic Doctor Who would have done. And, though it isn’t yet the dominant force it will be in later episodes, there’s more emotional content than the series had before, as Rose’s eventual decision to abandon Mickey and travel with the Doctor is not a simple one.

The criticism that could be made of Davies’ writing, on the strength of “Rose”, is actually a criticism that has been made of the series before, in the 1980s era of John Nathan-Turner as producer and Eric Saward as script editor. A Saward-written story such as Earthshock,[6] though widely acclaimed on first broadcast, has come in for quite severe criticism as time has gone by.[7] The charge against Earthshock is that, while it contains some brilliantly-mounted set-pieces – given the restrictions the programme was made under at the time, it’s a remarkable achievement – it doesn’t actually make much sense. The narrative glue needed to hold the set-pieces together isn’t always present, and so when you actually think about the story, the logic that supposedly underpins it starts to fall apart. In this case, the premise is that a group of Cybermen wish to destroy a summit conference being held on Earth, so they plant a bomb in some caves, and leave it guarded by two of their androids. Only when the Doctor defuses the bomb and traces the Cybermen to their space freighter base do we discover that there is in fact a whole army of Cybermen on the freighter. Their new plan is to crash the freighter into the Earth, where the blast from the antimatter that powers it will cause tremendous devastation. In that case, why not use some of those Cybermen to guard the bomb? Why not place this army of Cybermen on another freighter, one less likely to get blown up? And so on.

The same argument can be made with “Rose”. One example is the means by which the Doctor destroys the Autons’ controlling Nestene Consciousness, a phial of ‘anti-plastic’. This is surely pure plot-device, a narrative shorthand to end the story without any need for more detailed justification. More to the point, Rose’s initial encounter with the Autons in the basement of Henrik’s department store makes no sense: why would it be at all to their advantage to activate only slowly and chase after Rose? If they’re worried that the Doctor is present and about to blow them up, then it would make more sense for them all to be running about throughout. (And that would also be the logical thing for them to do if they’ve recently been active killing Rose’s colleague Wilson.) But everything, including logic, is subordinated to what goes on screen: in this case, the spooky awakening of the Autons in their dimly-lit basement. Davies’ single-mindedness about this – one might say, his ruthlessness – is probably his central quality as a writer. All writers are manipulators, this one more overtly than most.

One can understand all writing as being a matter of choices. In another world, Davies might be someone who wanted to provide this kind of narrative glue. There would be costs to that, of course: he would have less time for the big pictures and big emotions he wants to put centre-stage. My argument in this chapter is that any writer’s choices, including the ones Davies has made, have consequences and costs.

Emotion

The ways in which Davies and his team of writers gave Doctor Who emotional resonance marked the biggest break from the series’ past. In the Classic series, there was only in the rarest circumstances any idea that the Doctor’s or his companions’ emotional lives were relevant to the stories being told. Perhaps most typical of this approach is the end of The Invasion of Time[8] when the Doctor’s companion Leela – originally a ‘primitive’ warrior – decides to stay on the Doctor’s home planet Gallifrey and marry Andred, perhaps the wettest character in the series’ history. There has been scarcely any foreshadowing of this, even in the last episode of the story, and Leela’s departure is as peremptory as an actor’s contract ending. To be sure, there are exceptions to this rule – the departure of Jo Grant at the end of The Green Death[9]is the most obvious example. But throughout Davies’ four series, it’s no exaggeration to say that the entire story-arc has as its spine the relationship between the Doctor and his companions.

The most prominent example of this is the story of the Doctor and Rose Tyler, as told in the 2005 and 2006 series, and as seemingly concluded at the end of the 2008 series. It only slowly becomes apparent that Rose loves the Doctor, and that he reciprocates; the emotional charge is only really paid off when they are forced to part, in “Doomsday”.[10] I’ll return later to Davies’ desire to have another go at this story. Far more interesting, though, is the story of Martha Jones and the Doctor, running from “Smith and Jones”[11] to “Last of the Time Lords”.[12] Only when viewing the whole of Series Three in retrospect is it clear how extensively Davies worked into the stories the idea of Martha’s unrequited love for the Doctor. The viewer is bound to notice what’s going on, but only slowly – and not as slowly as the Doctor.

When Martha and the Doctor first meet, it seems that some time has passed since his parting from Rose in “Doomsday”, and the adventure that followed immediately afterwards, “The Runaway Bride”.[13] “Smith and Jones” starts, like “Rose”, exclusively from the companion’s viewpoint, and only introduces us to the Doctor when Martha meets him. We see Martha walking to her work as a trainee doctor; through a rapid succession of phone calls, we get an idea of the complex relations between members of her family. She encounters the Doctor, as a patient called ‘John Smith’, as part of her training rounds, but only fully becomes aware that he’s someone out of the ordinary when the hospital is transported to the Moon by the Judoon, rhinoceros-like alien police. The Judoon are seeking a ‘Plasmovore’, an alien in human form that feeds on human blood. Hence they are testing the hospital’s inhabitants to see whether their DNA is human. In order to evade detection by the Judoon, the Doctor decides he has to kiss Martha to transfer her DNA to him – though only after explaining to her that what he’s about to do means nothing, and could save thousands of lives. The Doctor and Martha duly help track down the Plasmovore and save the hospital’s inhabitants, and Martha is offered the chance to travel with the Doctor.

On their next adventure, “The Shakespeare Code”,[14] at an inn in Elizabethan London, the Doctor and Martha are allocated a room with a small double bed to sleep in; Martha is obviously very much aware of the sexual tension this causes, while the Doctor seems oblivious. (Indeed, he keeps referring to how much easier it would be if Rose were present – she would, he says, know what to do.) In the next story, “Gridlock”,[15] the Doctor takes Martha to the planet New Earth around the year 6 billion – as he says, a place he’d earlier taken Rose. Martha by this point is more than aware of how much Rose meant to him, and makes the point (harsh but fair) that it feels as if she’s being used as a rebound from Rose. Later in the series, in Paul Cornell’s two-parter “Human Nature”/“The Family of Blood”,[16] Martha has to stand by as a humanised version of the Doctor falls in love with Joan Redfern, a nurse at the school where he is teaching. Although the Doctor eventually renounces his human nature (and, in doing so, loses Joan), the episode clearly leaves a deep mark on both him and Martha.

So, by the time the series finale is reached, Davies has very carefully laid the ground for the ending of the Doctor/Martha story. At the end of the penultimate episode, “The Sound of Drums”,[17] the Doctor’s arch-adversary the Master has taken control of contemporary Earth and sent the Toclafane, a race of aliens who serve him, to destroy a tenth of humanity. He has also captured the Doctor and subjected him to vastly accelerated aging. Martha manages to escape and, as the episode ends, sees the devastation the Toclafane are causing. The next episode, “Last of the Time Lords”,[18] begins with a caption saying “One year later”. Martha has been travelling the Earth, despite the Master’s security state, and telling the Doctor’s story. She is finally captured and returned to the Master’s headquarters, where this storytelling becomes an integral part of the defeat of the Master. The Doctor is restored to his normal state, and the last year’s history is rolled back. There, it seems, the story should end, but there’s a final scene in the TARDIS between Martha and the Doctor. She finally states what’s been increasingly obvious: that she adores the Doctor, that he hardly seems to notice her except as “just a friend”, and so rather than pine away after him she’s going to stop travelling with him. It’s a rejection of a kind the Doctor has never encountered before, and its impact on him is at least as severe as it is on Martha.

In order to make a storyline like this work, as it manifestly does, a degree of long-term planning is needed that the series hadn’t had before. Although I think it contains more weak stories than any of the other Who series Davies has supervised, the 2007 series also contains more strong stories and is also the most intricately constructed. Martha’s role as a ‘full’ traveller in the TARDIS is carefully withheld until halfway through the series when she’s given a key to the ship; Martha’s family is a constant throughout, in the way identified by Moffat in the quote at the start of this essay; the fob-watch concealing a Time Lord’s essence is used in both “Human Nature” and “Utopia”;[19] and the Master’s premature-aging technology is based on the device at the heart of the earlier story “The Lazarus Experiment”.[20] Not all of these, I grant, are connections that give the story an emotional charge; but some are.

I think this kind of long-range planning demonstrates a response on Davies’ part to one of the series’ structural problems. Each week, the Doctor has to arrive with his companion in a new venue, essentially unchanged. Whatever’s new in the story (what science fiction critics would call a novum), it’s not going to be the time-travellers. In order for the viewpoint characters to be transparent for viewers – especially for viewers who might not have seen every previous episode – they can’t take sudden left-turns in how they act. But at the same time, people do grow and change in real life, and the series has to acknowledge this. In fact, it seems to me, Davies has become visibly more skilful at doing this kind of thing as the series has progressed. At the end of “World War Three”,[21] for instance, there’s a rather protracted scene after the main alien menace has been averted in which Rose makes clear to her mother that she’s going to continue travelling with the Doctor. A later scene, like the one between Martha and the Doctor described above, is not only more effective but more economical.

In a sense, this is no more than bringing to Doctor Who the lessons of television learned in other places – in soap operas, or series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.[22] And it’s notable that the integration of emotion into Doctor Who can only go so far: by and large, ‘action scenes’ and ‘emotion scenes’ are presented very differently. On the occasions when a story has to turn on an emotional point, this often winds up being muffled or passed over quickly. (As an example, there’s the Doctor’s dilemma at the height of “World War Three”, when he tells Rose: “I could save the world but lose you”: this is so quickly arrived at and bypassed that it feels like an artificial piece of tension-heightening.) But no-one can deny that the new Doctor Who gains a huge amount of its power and appeal from scenes like the Doctor and Rose’s farewell at the end of “Doomsday”. Such scenes may have altered the shape of the series, and may have costs of their own, but they are probably Davies’ most distinctive addition to Doctor Who.

Pace

The speed at which the new series is told is, perhaps, the most predictable change from the classic series. It’s a commonplace that attention-spans are shrinking, that editing in film and television is faster and faster, and that a generation raised on cartoons and pop videos demands a constant flow of visual invention. Certainly, watching an episode of Classic Doctor Who now is, as Steven Moffat suggests above, something of a culture shock. Quite apart from the production values, the old series is simply slower. Exposition, in particular, is almost entirely verbal, and those stories where this is not the case, such as Kinda,[23] are very much marked out as exceptions.

The contrast with the new series is pronounced. An action sequence like the breakout of the Autons at the end of “Rose” is told far more quickly than its predecessor in Spearhead from Space,[24] and the same is true of the aggressively-edited takeover of the castle by red-robed monks at the start of “Tooth and Claw”.[25] But there’s another aspect specific to Davies’ writing and, I think, less present in that of other writers for the series, that helps keep the pace up: his willingness to defy expectations.

As an example, consider the Slitheen in “World War Three”: as viewers, we (as well as the Doctor) are primed to think of them as an alien species. The revelation that Slitheen names not a species but a family is given almost offhand in the second episode, and not much is done with it in that story. What it does, though, is send out the message that you need to have your wits about you – you need to pay attention – if you’re going to keep up with the new Doctor Who. A slightly more elaborate example is the Time Lord-killing gun around which much of the plot of “Last of the Time Lords” revolves. Here Davies is selling both the viewer and the Master a dummy: the gun is just a pretext to allow Martha to get close to the Master to execute her real plan. (He’s also, perhaps, saying that over-elaborate ‘sci-fi’ plotting is not what the series is now about.)

So much of pace, however, stems from things that aren’t normally in the writer’s control: performance, direction, editing. Davies’ remarks on the DVD and podcast commentaries for many of the episodes make it clear that it is a primary goal for him throughout the process.

Scale

One of the great problems of the old series of Doctor Who was that, whenever aliens invaded Earth, they tended to target England; and, more specifically, bits of England within easy shooting distance of BBC Television Centre in London. Getting past this perception of the series has clearly been one of the things uppermost in the minds of Davies and his colleagues, especially when putting together the series finales. The problem they have had to contend with is that, even given a budget generous for television, they simply can’t compete with the vocabulary established by the movies that Doctor Who viewers will have seen.

I’ve already talked about the sense that, with “Rose”, Davies wanted to announce that this version of Doctor Who would have a grander scale than its predecessor. But in retrospect, the real statement of intent was made in the fourth and fifth episodes of the first series, “Aliens of London”[26] and “World War Three”. Here is an alien invasion story very like those seen in the UNIT era. The aliens land on recognisably contemporary Earth, soldiers are among the forces trying to defeat them, and location footage is used extensively to anchor the story in the present day. But rather than, as with so many UNIT stories, setting the action around some isolated research establishment, this story places it right in the heart of London. Big Ben is destroyed by an alien spaceship, there are shots of Whitehall and Westminster Bridge, and the final confrontations take place in Number 10 Downing Street. In the Pertwee era, the government might be an off-screen presence, sending an incompetent civil servant down to misunderstand whatever the Doctor was trying to deal with. But here, the action is right at the heart of the British government. Quite apart from anything else, this allows Davies to be far more directly satirical than the series had been before, as when the aliens bluff the humans into believing they are under the threat of “massive weapons of destruction”.

Similar examples abound, whether in stories by Davies or not: the depiction of the Blitz in “The Empty Child,”[27] the Dalek attack on Earth in “The Parting of the Ways”,[28] another spectacular attack on London in “The Christmas Invasion”,[29] the almost casual use of the Olympic Stadium in “Fear Her”,[30] or the Cybermen and Daleks’ battle in “Doomsday” – and that’s just restricting myself to stories from the first two series. Even a relatively “quiet” story like “Boom Town”[31]is garnished with an earthquake in Cardiff.

Part of what has enabled this expansion of scale, of course, is the recent boom in (and therefore decrease in cost of) computer-generated special effects. A tale like “The Shakespeare Code”, with its grand canvas of Elizabethan London, would have been simply impossible to put on screen without the matte paintings and models that brought the era to life. There is a sense, though, that such increases in scale are often bought through legerdemain. When you examine an episode closely, you see that the large-scale effects work is actually rationed out quite carefully, and that even something as seemingly grand as “Journey’s End”[32] has most of its action take place on a small number of sets.

A further aspect to the issue of scale is the series’ attempts to take the Earthbound action outside the UK. So far, there have been two stories that do this wholeheartedly: “Daleks in Manhattan”/“Evolution of the Daleks”,[33] and“The Fires of Pompeii”.[34] Neither was credited to Davies – the first was by Helen Raynor, the second by James Moran. Both, again, are quite carefully rationed in how much they use their overseas locales, to the point where the absence of a major New York street scene in Raynor’s episodes is glaring. Perhaps more relevant to this chapter are the series’ attempts, especially in its series finales, to show that the whole of the Earth is under attack, not just the UK. The first prominent instance of this is in “Army of Ghosts”, when the “ghosts” that have been preoccupying the world materialise fully as Cybermen brought through from a parallel Earth. In addition to the main manifestation of Cybermen in London, we also see them appear in front of other landmarks such as the Taj Mahal. In a sense, this is a traditional disaster movie ploy, which can be seen in movies such as Independence Day (US, dir.: Roland Emmerich, 1996) or Armageddon (US, dir.: Michael Bay, 1998). The difference is that Doctor Who isn’t able, either for time or budget reasons, to follow through on the idea of Cybermen in India. We merely see them stomping up and down, plus footage of that old standby, news reports from around the globe. The problem is even more pronounced in the finale of the 2007 series, “The Sound of Drums”/“Last of the Time Lords”. At the end of the first of these episodes, the Master summons the monstrous Toclafane to Earth, kills the President of the USA, subjects the Doctor to premature aging, and sends the Toclafane to kill one tenth of the population. The Doctor’s companion Martha manages to escape from him, and spends the next year (in the interim between the two episodes) travelling the planet and telling people about the Doctor. When the second episode begins, she has just returned to Britain and, after discovering new information about the Toclafane, is quickly captured by the Master. Once again, the international dimension of the story is told through news footage, gaps, and occasional bits of inserted footage. So, in this case, the impact of the story on the USA is depicted through shots of four young people watching the Toclafane’s manifestation on TV; they wear American football jerseys and their apartment is prominently decorated with Stars and Stripes motifs. This is not, to put it mildly, very convincing.

In the series’ defence, Davies clearly knows he has to do something to suggest global scale if he’s going to do the kind of epic finales he wants to. But, as with “Daleks in Manhattan”, I think the sequences I’ve described are cases of Doctor Who’s reach exceeding its grasp. The question, then, is whether this kind of ‘epic-ness’ is actually necessary to give a series of Doctor Who its climax. If nothing else, the evidence suggests that younger viewers do respond to this kind of story. When Doctor Who Magazine conducted a survey of its readers[35] to find the most popular of the series’ stories to date, viewers under 18 consistently voted the post-2005 series finales higher than did their older counterparts. Perhaps that is sufficient justification, but it does have its costs.

Science fiction

There is a sense in which one of the things that marks out Davies’ time at the helm of Doctor Who is a disdain for ‘sci-fi’ – that is, at least, elements of science fiction which he feels might be offputting for the viewer. From the interview with him that I quoted at the start of this chapter:

Honestly, it drives me mad... because there’s so much potential in science fiction, but you read the listings magazines and under Star Trek: Enterprise it’ll say, “The Crystals of Poffnar have been hidden in a cave, and so-and-so argues with the Federation that they have to be retrieved.” What is there to watch in that?! But one of Buffy’s billings might be, “Buffy falls in love, and discovers he’s a monster.” Brilliant! It speaks to your heart. That’s a great model to follow. It’s the emotion they get in there, the fun they have. They do big pictures, big fights, big monsters, corny dialogue – sometimes you want to get corny – but they’re unashamed of the size of it. Crystals of Poffnar is not going to work, but Rose meets her father, and Rose sees the end of the world, and the Doctor fights a fleet of half-a-million Daleks is actually going to work. It’s the size of it.[36]

So Davies is very clearly putting two things in opposition: the way that science fiction has traditionally been depicted on television, and many of the values he as a writer prizes most. Time and again in other interviews, and in The Writer’s Tale, Davies says he retreats from particular versions of ideas when they become “too sci-fi”. There’s a distinction to be made here: Davies has never been afraid to use the props of science fiction – whether from the tradition of sf as a whole or the particular inheritance Doctor Who has. Indeed, he tends to wield them with joyous abandon. But he is not particularly concerned with getting his stories to make the kind of sense that is often (thought not always) a hallmark of sf. The anti-plastic in “Rose” is one example; the Delta Wave in “The Parting of the Ways” is another. The Delta Wave, in fact, is another example of the viewer being sold a dummy, as it only exists to get the Doctor to the point where he agrees not to use it, so that Rose can arrive and bring the plot’s real resolution. In fact, all of the four series finales tend to work by pulling some rabbit out of their hat and annihilating armies of previously indestructible monsters in a blaze of CGI. The point is not that the programme shouldn’t do this, but when it does so repeatedly, the viewer is entitled to feel they’re being shown the same card trick.

Conclusion

In what I’ve said above, I may have conformed to the stereotype of a ‘Crystals of Poffnar’ science fiction fan; but there is a deeper point here. I think the argument can be made that Doctor Who does not particularly tell science fiction stories; it’s a popular entertainment series that uses science fiction tropes to its own ends. Davies is just continuing the work of his predecessors in using only those bits of sf that appeal to him – after all, this is a tradition that goes back to the series’ first script editor, David Whitaker, who seemed to allow anything to be possible provided it was enabled by static electricity or mercury.

It is worth saying, though, that it doesn’t have to be this way – and, indeed, there’s a counter-example within the new series already. Steven Moffat scripts such as “The Girl in the Fireplace”[37] or “Blink”[38] gain their drama from the working out of their premises – in both cases, as it happens, using time travel as a central device. The endings of each don’t require any rabbits to be pulled from hats: the solution (like the gun in a murder mystery) has been on the wall all along. In Moffat’s “The Empty Child”, once the viewer (and the Doctor) figures out the answer to the central question, of who the gas-masked child’s mother is, everything else falls into place. Both writers can paint big pictures; but Davies often stops at that. I needn’t rehearse here the extraordinary ratings success that Davies’ approach has brought the series – and the accompanying sense that Doctor Who is once more a central part of British culture. What Moffat’s forthcoming tenure as lead writer may well explore is whether the audience wants more than the big pictures which have been so stunningly successful for Davies.

 




[1]                Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook, Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale (London: BBC Books, 2008), p. 180.

[2]                Benjamin Cook, “Tooth and Claw: The Russell T Davies interview”. In Doctor Who Magazine 360 (14 September 2005), pp. 12-19, at p. 13.

[3]                David Darlington, “Script Doctors: Steven Moffat” Doctor Who Magazine 364 (4 January 2006), pp 46-63, at p. 52.

[4]                S1E1.

[5]               Davies and Cook, op. cit., p. 322.

[6]               Earthshock, 8 – 16 March 1982.

[7]               See, for instance, Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood, About Time: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who. 1980-1984: Seasons 18 to 21 (New Orleans: Mad Norwegian Press, 2005), pp. 158-160.

[8]               The Invasion of Time, 4 February – 11 March 1978

[9]               The Green Death, 19 May – 23 June 1973.

[10]            S2E13.

[11]            S3E1.

[12]            S3E13.

[13]            2006 Christmas Special.

[14]            S3E2.

[15]            S3E3.

[16]            S3E8/S3E9.

[17]            S3E12.

[18]            S3E13.

[19]            S3E11.

[20]            S3E6.

[21]            S1E5.

[22]            Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997-2003.

[23]            Kinda, 1 – 9 February 1982.

[24]            Spearhead from Space, 3 – 24 January 1970.

[25]            S2E2.

[26]            S1E4.

[27]            S1E9.

[28]            S1E13.

[29]            2005 Christmas Special.

[30]            S2E11.

[31]            S1E11.

[32]            S4E13.

[33]            S3E4/S3E5.

[34]            S4E2.

[35]            Peter Griffiths, David Darlington and Jason Arnopp, “The Mighty 200”, Doctor Who Magazine 413 (16 September 2009), pp. 18-41.

[36]            Cook, op. cit., pp. 13-14.

[37]            S2E4.

[38]            S3E10.