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Can Davies save the Doctor?

A journey back in time might be the only thing that can revive Doctor Who

No man (or woman) can turn back the clock. Except one. Today’s surprise announcement that legendary scriptwriter Russell T Davies will return to guide Doctor Who through its 60th anniversary has sent fandom — and TV industry insiders — into a giddy spiral. Hyperbole abounds. Boyd Hilton of heat called the announcement “The greatest breaking news EVER”, Caitlin Moran said it “feels like it will make literally everything better and usher in a new era of peace, joy, reconciliation and sexy Doctors”, while scriptwriter Andrew Ellard kept his giddiness on brand by describing the surprise change of leadership as being “like if Colin Baker regenerated into Tom Baker.” (Poor Colin being likely to bottom as many polls as Tom tops when it comes to favourite Doctors.)

Will Davies’ return be enough to save Doctor Who? For a series about time travel, Who has always been known for pressing forward, but it would take a particularly blinkered fan to mistake this victory lap as being anything other than good news. Back in 2005, Davies took a show that was very dead and very nerdy (generally only spoken about in hushed whispers by men of a certain age with very long memories and very understanding partners) and made it a global success. He took a tired, unloved property and made it vibrant, modern and new. You can see where I’m going with this.

When Davies stepped down the format he had created was beginning to look tired, now it looks positively knackered

Being a Doctor Who fan has been a fractious and disappointing business in recent years. As the high ratings for the start of Jodie Whittaker’s era proved, there are still a lot of us out there wanting the show to be good again. Going by the ratings since, most of us have been disappointed by Chris Chibnall’s stewardship.

Fans can’t agree what went wrong. A few blame the Time Lord sex swap. A few more than that blame the people who blame the Time Lord sex swap. Some will argue that nothing has gone wrong and say the show remains a smash hit — it’s just the world has changed. Nobody watches TV anymore. This is the same argument that was bandied about when Davies announced his revival in 2004. It was wrong then and, I suspect, is wrong now. For one thing, it doesn’t explain why 11 million people decided to tune in when Whittaker first claimed the TARDIS key. The audience is still there, they’re just not watching right now.

There is plenty to critique in the Chibnall’s era. A focus on identity rather than character, which left one of the show’s most diverse cast rendered uniformly bland. A tendency to write the first female Doctor as frequently passive and desperate to be liked. A determination to engage with social issues with such clumsiness that the actual message often seemed the direct opposite of the intent (in striving for wokeness, it regularly came across as, well, whatever the opposite to woke is). A singular lack of drama.

While the initial reaction to Davies’ reappointment has been positive, there will inevitably be a backlash from the same quarters of Twitter Chibnall has been trying to please. Davies is — as he’ll no doubt confess — another middle-aged white man or “stale male and pale”, as the Twitter parlance goes. Woe betide him if he dare cast a male lead. (Although imagine the ratings if he finally managed to cast Hugh Grant.) Yet to surrender to such lazy identity games is to ignore that Davies’ vision of the show gave us its most casually diverse and inclusive run.

What Davies got right about Who back in 2005 was making it look like it belonged on TV

For what it’s worth, I think Who should be engaged with social issues. The great thing about science fiction is its ability to challenge the status quo in a way that doesn’t alienate people who think they disagree with you. In an age where ambiguity is often read as suspect — or outright dangerous — it is unsurprising that Chibnall has eschewed allegory in favour of blunt lectures. Showing the end result of racism as being a hate-filled squid in a mobile tank killing everyone it disagrees with is, perhaps oddly, more powerful — and less divisive — than simply saying “racism is bad”. 

Davies understood this. His episodes were no less political than Chibnall’s, but allowed the viewer to find their own way to the message. His writing is sharp, savage and satirical but often without judgement. He can take aim at the deleterious effect of mass media while also acknowledging how much fun crap TV can be. Being a great dramatist, he understands that people are rarely ever one thing — that the things that motivate us can also destroy us. That all of us are wonderful and terrible. In his first Christmas episode, he has the noble and lovely Penelope Wilton obliterate a retreating alien spacecraft and earn the wrath of Tennant’s Time Lord — who then collapses her career with a bit of blatant misogyny. Was he wrong? Was she? I still don’t know! That’s what brilliant writing looks like. 

What Davies got right about Who back in 2005 was making it look like it belonged on TV. He fused American genre telly — notably Buffy — with British mainstream drama. Fans called it soapy. They bucked against the focus on emotion and character. They were wrong. Davies knew they were wrong. He was a lifelong Who fan — he had written a Doctor Who novel while the show was off-air — but knew better than to make the show for people like him. Gone was all that baggage and continuity, all those old men in capes, planets called Gallifrey and slow-moving adventures on the planet beige. His Who was fast, loose and colourful. It was for everyone. 

Making it a co-production between the BBC and Davies’ own production house might guarantee the show’s future

Times have changed. The geeks have inherited the pop culture. But Davies understands that Who isn’t for the geeks. The geeks will watch it, no matter how much they hate it. Back in the 80s, it wasn’t Buck Rogers or Star Wars that killed Doctor Who, it was the BBC running it up against Coronation Street

If Who is to survive and thrive in the 2020s, it doesn’t need to compete with Marvel or please the Twitter hordes. It needs to be a show that will win over the people who watch Bridgerton, Line of Duty, I May Destroy You and, yes, Corrie. Davies is the man to do it.

Some may fear a backwards step. But the new and most interesting part of today’s announcement was that, for the first time, Doctor Who will be a co-production between BBC Studios and Davies’ own production house Bad Wolf. 

This might be the one decision that guarantees the show’s long-term future. Rumours abound that the Beeb struggled to find a replacement showrunner for Chibnall, meaning the show might have sat out its 60th anniversary on the benches. Being overseen by an external production company could provide the show with a new sense of security, instead of being tossed between writers every four or five years. It isn’t hard to imagine Davies stepping back from the writing to oversee the show (and a new raft of spin offs)  and nurture new talent.

I think Davies was right to step down from Who when he did in 2010, not because he was exhausted, but because the format he had created was beginning to look tired. More than a decade later, it looks positively knackered.The same can’t be said of Davies. His recent work on A Very English Scandal, Years and Years and It’s A Sin suggests one of our greatest living dramatists is still peaking. He’s not travelling back in time to recapture past glories. If he’s coming back it’s because he’s found a way to save Who again. To make this oldest of sci-fi shows feel brand new again, just in time for its next big birthday bash.

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