Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Thanks be to... Russell T Davies

Russell T Davies is the man hardcore Dr Who fans love to hate. I'm not quite sure why. After all, Dr Who was consigned to the BBC archives in 1989, after a sad, slow decline from the glory Pertwee/Baker years (OK - yes - that's my era, but dammit they were good) to the awfulness of Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford. Then came the 1996 TV movie which I found unwatchable, and the  show was kept alive by the kind of person who is never more happy than dressing up as a cyberman at a convention (in other words any character from The Big Bang Theory). So when the Beeb announced it was coming back in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston and RTD writing, it seemed likely to be another doomed failure.

Except that it wasn't. And despite the many, many complaints I read on the internet about RTD being "silly", "unable to write", "derivative", "using deus ex machina all the time" etc, he has turned a show that had become a laughing stock into event television.  And now, he's left us. So here, on my blog, I pay tribute to a great screenwriter, a great TV producer who gave us 2 wonderful doctors, a whole host of companions, added emotional depth to the format, and wrote some fine episodes. RTD - we'll miss you.

I was slow to get into New Who, mainly because it arrived when the kids were too little. I love Christopher Eccleston, so I enjoyed his arrival in "Rose" which was a lot of fun. Billie Piper was a revelation in that she could act, and it was great that here was a companion who kicked ass and didn't run around screaming all the time. But we missed the next episode, and catching "The Unquiet Dead" convinced us the children would be too scared. This was confirmed by watching "Father's Day" at my sister's house which caused our then 4 year old to have nightmares. So it wasn't till about half way through Series 2 that I started following it properly. The 4  year old was nearly 6 by then, and to my surprise sat with me through a couple of episodes and quite enjoyed it. It was when I watched "Army of Ghosts", that I was truly hooked. In my innocent pre-spoiler days, I had no idea what was coming. The sight of the Daleks emerging from the mysterious globe was the most fantastic surprise. And right until the moment Rose was grabbed by her Dad at the end of "Doomsday", I really did think they might kill her off, so I found the bitter-sweet farewell with the Doctor just lovely. From that moment, I was enthralled and when Series 3 came along, the children gradually joined in watching with me (though the youngest still gets too scared and spends most of his time behind the sofa).

I'll be the first to admit that RTD doesn't always get it right. Sometimes, the aliens are just downright silly - like the farting Slitheen 7 the Adipose  (though I wonder if that is deliberate because the idea behind them are pretty nasty). His grand finales are often overblown  and he does lay it on with a trowel. This is particularly true of "Journey's End", which gushes sentiment and where Rose's original ending is totally ruined. And even though I love "Last of the Time Lords", the return of the Doctor from his "Dobby " phase looked daft, though the concept behind it - tyranny is overcome by people thinking independently- is a great one. But, I'll forgive all that for what he has done  well.

The character.

One of the great strengths of New Who is the complexity of the Doctor's character. I'm sure it was probably there in Old Who - particularly in the Tom Baker era - but my memories of the Doctor was that he was never wrong. RTD has created a Doctor who is phenomenally clever, charismatic, dark, tortured, funny and fallible. I like that, because it makes him much more real. From the moment we realise that Christopher Eccleston's Doctor has had to kill off his own people to end the Time War, we know we are in the company of someone with a huge amount of baggage. I think this is a brilliant stroke. The Doctor was probably always a bit lonely, but now he is on his own for ever. He carries the burden of his own guilt, a certain hardness because of what he has done, and a greater than ever determination to try and stop such horrors again. I particularly liked that we had to wait for David Tennant's final episodes to understand just how corrupt and evil the Time Lords had become, which explained just why he had done something so terrible.

RTD's version of The Doctor can be incredibly hard and unforgiving. Adam in "The Long Game"  is unceremoniously kicked out of the TARDIS for trying to change the future.  Harriet Jones in "The Christmas Invasion" gets removed from office because she blows up the Sycorax ship. The Empress of the Racnoss in "The Runaway Bride" has all her children drowned ,until Donna makes him stop. The Family of Blood are all trapped for eternity in terrible situations in "The Family of Blood." It's a great character trait because it makes us question him and wonder whether he's always done the right thing. The Doctor can also be very arrogant. Sometimes this is a good attribute. When he orders Yvonne to stop the "ghost shift" in "Army of Ghosts", when he takes over in the hospital on the Moon in "Smith and Jones", when he takes control of the failing Titanic in "The Voyage of the Damned", his decisiveness is what's needed to put things right. But when he over-reaches himself, as in "Midnight" (one of my favourite episodes) he puts himself in real jeopardy. And  in "The Waters of Mars" he gets it really wrong and makes everything much worse. Such attributes make for great story-telling and make sure you're thinking about it long after the credits roll.

But the Doctor still has the counterbalance of the zaniness that I remember from Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton (Jon Pertwee always seemed a bit dour to me). I love the humour,  "we meet up every year - Hermits United", "worst escape EVER", the running, the jumping about with excitement. It all adds to the idea of someone we'd all be inspired to travel with. And we get to see a lot of his compassion too.  I know it's a lot in the acting, but  when RTD put David Tennant in a situation where he has to abandon people in "The Waters of Mars"the look on The Doctor's face as he hears them dying is just, just wonderful. Equally brilliant is his response to Adelaide saying "Why are you telling me this?" - "Consolation". Similarly, the strongest parts of "The End of Time" are his conversations with Wilf and The Master. I particularly loved him telling The Master he could be so wonderful, and seeing The Master moved almost to tears, till he snaps out of it.

Narrative Drive

Davies is a master storyteller. He can get it wrong, as I've said before - several of the specials don't quite work for me, and "Journey's End" was a disappointment after "The Stolen Earth". He can be schmaltzy, promise more than he delivers and pile on too much. But  I think he gets it right more often than not, and it is because he knows how to maintain our interest.

His particular strength is cliffhangers. A tribute to quite how good he is at this, is a very early RTD vehicle "Revelations". I am probably one of the few people in the country who watched this. A soap opera about a Bishop's family it was unbelievably bad, but what gripped me was the superb cliff-hangers, the constant need to know what happened next. And he's used this to great effect in Doctor Who 2 parters. I've mentioned "Army of Ghosts"but others are equally good.  "Bad Wolf" ends with the Daleks invading Earth"Utopia" with The Master nicking the TARDIS and leaving The Doctor and co  at the end of the Universe; "The Sound of the Drums" with The Master sending down the Toclafane to decimate the people of Earth; "The Stolen Earth" with The Doctor apparently regenerating and "The End of Time Pt 1" with  the return of the Timelords. Whilst, it's true, that he doesn't always deliver on the cliffhanger - I still think he's a genius at making you want to find out what next.

He's also great at plotting story arcs. There are the big obvious series arcs such as "Bad Wolf", "Torchwood" and my personal favourite "Mr Saxon" (because I love The Master!). But, he is much more subtle too. Thus, (and thanks to my sis Jane Henry aka Julia Williams for this) in Series 2, Rose and The Doctor keep getting separated - possessed by Cassandra, trapped in the devil's pit, captured by the Wire etc, a foreshadowing of what eventually happens to them. In Series 4, Donna, like Rose, wants to travel with The Doctor for ever. Yet there are warnings scattered throughout the series that this isn't going to happen - Martha tells her being around The Doctor is dangerous, River Song looks horrified when she meets her, someone in the Shadow Proclamation says she's sorry for her loss. And when The Doctor ensures Donna loses her memories to save her, it's one of the most poignant scenes of the whole series.

RTD's big episodes are the ones people often remember, and he is great at increasing jeopardy ("The Sound of the Drums" and "The Last of the Timelords" are particularly good at this), I think his smaller, quieter episodes are better demonstrations of his writing talent. "The Long Game" and "Boom Town" are two of my favourite episodes from Series 1 - because they explore interesting and difficult ideas - the power of the media to control minds in the first, and whether we should save someone unpleasant from the death penalty in the second. I love "Love & Monsters" from Series 2, because it seems to capture something of the nature of celebrity chasing. And "Utopia" has got to be up there just because of the fantastic revelation that kindly Professor Yana is in fact The Master. Finally - "Midnight" is a stand-out episode for me  for three reasons. Firstly, it's very tightly scripted and paced, so the build up to The Doctor being in such peril is just right. Second, it gives us a new angle on the people trapped with an alien threat. Thirdly, the alien itself was so clever, so scary & the fact that it could turn The Doctor's strongest weapon -his power of speech - against him was a very clever twist.

Modern family TV.

The moment Christopher Eccleston picks up a Heat Magazine in "Rose" and says, "That'll never work, she's an alien and he's gay", we knew this was a Doctor for our times. Sometimes this is a negative. I think people are right to criticise the focus on "Eastenders" type family situations and does everyone have to come from London? But part of the fun of the show is that it has something for everyone. The kids all love the silly gags, the fart jokes, the Titanic nearly crashing on the Queen; the explosions, The Doctor saving the day. But, there's a lot for us parents too.  We can enjoy the story but we also get treats like  the wonderful parodies of Big Brother/The Weakest Link/Trinny and Susannah in "Bad Wolf"; The Master's comment on Jack and Martha -"nice to see you ticking all the demographics"; the use of SatNav as a murder weapon in "The Sontaran Stratagem". And I really enjoyed Davies' two fingers to the people who moan about his "gay agenda" when he got The Doc to set Captain Jack up with Alonso just before he regenerated...

Finally - I love the fact that a show for kids also has a strong anti-violence message. Violence does get used to save the day, but it's usually the last, rather than the first solution. The Doctor consistently chooses not to use weapons which is refreshing in a world where guns are often seen as the only option. The fact that this sometimes leads to other problems is also a strength, because it helps kids see that such questions are complex and every choice we make has consequences.

I could go on about the nature of choice, consequences, how hard it is to be a hero, the companions etc. But this is enough I think.

So, I embrace RTD warts and all. and am grateful to him for bringing Dr Who back, for making it work, and for leaving it in such good health. I'm sure the new team of Moffat and Smith will be equally good, but I'm sorry to see the old guard leave.

And, whatever you write next, Mr Davies, I'm sure I'll be watching.


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