It’s him behind ‘Doctor Who’

Special to The Times

It was a damp and windy afternoon in Cardiff, and Russell T. Davies had a cold. Also, he had been crying. He had just watched the latest cut of a new “Doctor Who” episode, and one scene really moved him. “I’m going to look really stupid,” he later admitted to worrying. “But it was so beautiful, I was bloody crying.”

Davies has had a long-founded emotional investment in “Doctor Who,” Britain’s beloved science-fiction series about a mysterious time-traveler and his companions. A veteran TV writer who honed his skills in children’s programming and soap operas, Davies grew up watching and adoring “Doctor Who” -- it began airing in 1963, the same year he was born. Characters from his breakout dramatic series, “Queer as Folk” (1999), about gay men living in Manchester, inherited Davies’ earnest affections, sometimes using obsessive knowledge of “Doctor Who” to gauge potential partners’ romantic compatibility. (This approach does, in one episode, backfire miserably.)

In 2003, the BBC approached Davies to revamp “Doctor Who,” and under his leadership, the show’s success has ballooned. It survived what could have been a massive blow when after the first season it lost its lead, Christopher Eccleston. He was succeeded by David Tennant, who has since become a high-profile star here; he will play Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company later this year. An audience of 13.31 million watched “The 2007 Doctor Who Christmas Special” (with guest star Kylie Minogue) -- a lot of people for a small country.


Licensed “Doctor Who” merchandise crowds the shelves at Boots and Borders. Eight-year-old boys in gray flannel school uniforms huddle at bus stops furtively trafficking in the show’s trading cards. “Doctor Who” appears -- at least to a displaced foreigner -- to be the most visible of Britain’s current pop culture commodities. Having been sold to 40 territories worldwide, it is also among its most exportable; in the U.S., it airs on BBC America and the Sci Fi Channel.

Even Davies sometimes finds it overwhelming. “Put the ‘Doctor Who’ stuff away!” is how he said he sometimes feels. “It’s weird, isn’t it? You see that logo everywhere.” He paused for a moment, and continued. “It’s the time of our lives.”

When filming, Davies works from a spartan flat overlooking Cardiff Bay and Roald Dahl Plass, the centerpiece of the set for “Torchwood,” one of the two “Doctor Who” spinoffs. The second season of “Torchwood,” about high-level investigators fighting evil in an alien-infested time rift (also known as present-day Cardiff), had its U.S. premiere on Jan. 26. (BBC America airs “Torchwood” and the third season of “Doctor Who” on Saturday nights.)

There are no writers rooms on the shows. “This country simply couldn’t afford that system,” Davies said. “We pay people per script, but within that we try to make it collegiate -- as much as one can.”

“Doctor Who’s” second spinoff is “The Sarah Jane Adventures,” a kids show that airs at an earlier time on the BBC and on the kids digital channel, the CBBC. All three shows swap cast members and villains. (“ ‘Sarah Jane’ inherited some of our ‘Doctor Who’ monsters,” Davies said. “We can’t afford new prosthetics.”)

They also share an increasingly complicated mythology. It falls to Davies “to keep balancing how much continuity there is, how many stand-alone elements there are.” Ever mindful of the shows’ “mainstream audience” (meaning, not just sci-fi enthusiasts) and put off by “exclusivity” in general, he said he is reticent of creating overly inclusive stories dependent on viewers’ in-depth knowledge of ornate histories.


This job is made easier by Davies’ policy of ignoring the voices of those most vigilant. “I think we’re an unusual science-fiction franchise in taking a very big step back from fandom and having nothing to do with them. . . . Every program on the BBC has a message board on the website. I forbid it to happen on ‘Doctor Who.’ I’m sorry to say this, all the science fiction producers making stuff in America, they are way too engaged with their fandom. They all need to step back.”

Spanning generations

What’s striking about the “Doctor Who” franchise is the wide age range it not only speaks to but also seeks out. When Davies embarked on “The Sarah Jane Adventures,” about an investigator and her 14-and-younger companions, he sought to tell younger stories without neutering them. There’s death and despair, he said, but less violence and more fun. Also, Davies added, with a laugh, “more hugs.” (It will be broadcast on the Sci Fi Channel beginning in April.)

The same can be said for “Torchwood,” though hugs on that show usually turn to more. If “The Sarah Jane Adventures” is G to “Doctor Who’s” PG-13, then “Torchwood” is decidedly R. Which is not to say kids here aren’t watching -- and Davies thinks the crossover is to be celebrated. “I won’t even engage in it,” he said of being confronted by parents offended by the open bisexuality of “Torchwood” leader Capt. Jack Harkness (played by American actor John Barrowman). “I won’t apologize for it. I won’t even defend it. Because a defense is an apology.”

In fact, all the main characters on “Torchwood” -- not just Jack -- experience sexual-orientation as more of a notion than a fixed state and are either too forward-thinking or too busy fighting aliens to mention or even think about it. Ask Davies about infusing politics in his work and he brings up “Bob & Rose,” the series he wrote for ITV in 2001 about a gay man who falls in love with a woman. Davies had intended to explore the biases the couple faced but after five pages realized anyone with prejudices was “stupid and wrong,” and since their issues didn’t merit analysis, he’d sooner “take the piss out of them.”

“What was conceived as a very radical and brave bit of political storytelling became, to my surprise, the lightest comedy on Earth. . . . You don’t get on a soapbox. There are other ways of telling the story that are subversive.” He said it’s the best thing he’s ever written.

If Davies regrets anything about the first season of “Torchwood,” it’s how fractured the dynamic among the agents got, he said. “After working on ‘Doctor Who’ for three years, I think we were desperate to explore adult material,” Davies explains. “I think we all interpreted ‘adult’ as backstabbing, angst, treachery and betrayal.” If the second season gets any reboot, Davies said, it’s that they’ll get along better.


It will help that in the season opener, they bonded in hatred over Capt. John Hart, a time agent who shares a complicated and passionate history with Jack. Much has been made of “Torchwood’s” similarity to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which gives a seemingly layered significance to the casting of James Marsters, “Buffy’s” Spike, in the role of Capt. John. But Davies said the choice was just a happy coincidence. He’d given up on finding a British actor to play the role and had temporarily scrapped the character when out of the blue Marsters’ agent got in touch. Still, Sunnydale-starved viewers may have felt that they got a shout-out when Marsters, in a costume half Adam Ant and half Janet Jackson circa “Rhythm Nation,” ended his first scene with the line “I’m thirsty.” It’s a recurring guest spot.

Season 4 of “Doctor Who” airs in the spring here and in the U.S. (on Sci Fi, starting in April). Then 2009 will be what Davies calls a “gap year,” with only four one-hour specials. Although the show has been commissioned for a complete season in 2010, he and Tennant are not yet signed on.

“I can’t carry on like this forever,” Davies said, sniffling -- his cold was acting up. He said that after this, he will likely return to drama about “the epic-ness of ordinary intimate deals of ordinary people’s lives,” which is what he really loves writing. “The only place for me to go here is back to six-parters or one-offs which won’t have the publicity, the merchandise, the budget, the profile.” He took a deep breath. “And I’m so looking forward to it.”