RUSSELL T DAVIES
(Revival Showrunner of Doctor Who, 2005-2010)
Stephen Russell Davies OBE FRSL (born 27 April 1963), better known as Russell T Davies, is a Welsh screenwriter and television producer whose works include Queer as Folk, The Second Coming, Casanova, the 2005 revival of the BBC One science fiction franchise Doctor Who, Cucumber, A Very English Scandal, Years and Years, It’s a Sin and Nolly.
Born in Swansea, Davies had aspirations as a comic artist before focusing on being a playwright and screenwriter. After graduating from Oxford University, he joined the BBC’s children’s department, CBBC, in 1985 on a part-time basis and held various positions, which included creating two series, Dark Season and Century Falls. He eventually left the BBC for Granada Television, and in 1994 began writing adult television drama. His early scripts generally explored concepts of religion and sexuality among various backdrops: Revelations was a soap opera about organised religion and featured a lesbian vicar; Springhill was a soap drama about a Catholic family in contemporary Liverpool; The Grand explored society’s opinion of subjects such as prostitution, abortion and homosexuality during the interwar period; and Queer as Folk recreated his experiences in the Manchester gay scene. His work in the 2000s included Bob & Rose, which portrayed a gay man who fell in love with a woman; The Second Coming, which focused on the second coming and deicide of Jesus Christ from a mostly non-religious point of view; Mine All Mine, a comedy about a family who discover they own the entire city of Swansea; and Casanova, an adaptation of the complete memoirs of Venetian adventurer Giacomo Casanova.
Following the show’s sixteen-year hiatus, Davies revived and ran Doctor Who for the period between 2005 and 2010, with Christopher Eccleston and later David Tennant in the title role. Davies’ tenure as executive producer of the show saw a surge in popularity which led to the production of two spin-off series, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, and the revival of Saturday prime-time dramas as a profitable venture for production companies. Davies was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2008 for services to drama, which coincided with the announcement he would step down from Doctor Who as the show’s executive producer with his final script, “The End of Time” (2009–2010). Davies moved to Los Angeles in 2009, where he oversaw production of Torchwood: Miracle Day and the fifth and final series of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Davies returned as Doctor Who showrunner in October 2022 after the departure of Chris Chibnall; the first episodes of his second tenure will be the show’s sixtieth anniversary specials in 2023.
After his partner developed cancer in late 2011, Davies returned to the UK. He co-created the CBBC science fantasy drama Wizards vs Aliens, and created Cucumber, a Channel 4 series about middle-aged gay men in the Manchester gay scene; Banana, an E4 series about young LGBT people in the Cucumber universe; and Tofu, an All 4 documentary series which discussed LGBT issues. Davies’ later work for BBC One in the 2010s include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a television film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play; A Very English Scandal, a miniseries adaptation of John Preston’s novel of the same name; and Years and Years, a drama series which follows a Manchester family affected by political, economic, and technological changes to Britain over 15 years. Davies returned to Channel 4 for a third time in 2021 as creator of It’s a Sin, a semi-autobiographical drama about the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.
Doctor Who (2005–2010)
Since watching First Doctor’s (William Hartnell) regeneration into the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) at the end of the 1966 serial The Tenth Planet, Davies had “fallen in love” with the show and, by the mid-1970s, he was regularly writing reviews of broadcast serials in his diary. His favourite writer and childhood hero was Robert Holmes; during his career, he has complimented the creative use of BBC studios to create “terror and claustrophobia” for Holmes’s 1975 script The Ark in Space—his favourite serial from the original series—and has opined that the first episode of The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977) featured “the best dialogue ever written; it’s up there with Dennis Potter”. His screenwriting career also began with a Doctor Who submission; in 1987, he submitted a spec script set on an intergalactic news aggregator and broadcaster, which was rejected by script editor Andrew Cartmel, who suggested that he should write a more prosaic story about “a man who is worried about his mortgage, his marriage, [and] his dog”. The script was eventually retooled and transmitted as “The Long Game” in 2005.
During the late 1990s, Davies lobbied the BBC to revive the show from its hiatus and reached the discussion stages in late 1998 and early 2002. His proposals would update the show to be better suited for a 21st-century audience: the series would be recorded on film instead of videotape; the length of each episode would double from twenty-five minutes to fifty; episodes would primarily take place on Earth, in the style of the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) UNIT episodes; and Davies would remove “excess baggage” from the mythology such as Gallifrey and the Time Lords. Davies’ pitch competed against Dan Freedman’s proposed retool as a fantasy series, Matthew Graham’s gothic horror-styled reboot, and the Mark Gatiss—Gareth Roberts—Clayton Hickman pitch which made the Doctor the audience surrogate character, instead of his companions. Davies also took cues from American fantasy television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Smallville, most notably Buffy‘s concepts of series-long story arcs and the “Big Bad”.
In August 2003, the BBC had resolved the legal confusion over production rights which had surfaced as a result of the jointly produced Universal Studios–BBC–20th Century Fox 1996 Doctor Who film, and the Controller of BBC One Lorraine Heggessey and Controller of Drama Commissioning Jane Tranter approached Gardner and Davies to create a revival of the series to air in a primetime slot on Saturday nights, as part of their plan to devolve production to its regional bases. By mid-September, they accepted the deal to produce the series alongside Casanova.
Davies’ pitch for Doctor Who was the first one he wrote voluntarily; previously, he opted to outline concepts of shows to commissioning executives and offer to write the pilot episode because he felt a pitch made him “feel like [he’s] killing the work”. The fifteen-page pitch outlined a Doctor who was “your best friend; someone you want to be with all the time”, the 19-year-old Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) as a “perfect match” for the new Doctor, avoidance of the 40-year back story “except for the good bits”, the retention of the TARDIS, sonic screwdriver, and Daleks, removal of the Time Lords, and a greater focus on humanity. His pitch was submitted for the first production meeting in December 2003 and a series of thirteen episodes was obtained by pressure from BBC Worldwide and a workable budget from Julie Gardner.
The first new series of Doctor Who featured eight scripts by Davies; the remainder were allocated to experienced dramatists and writers for the show’s ancillary releases: Steven Moffat penned a two-episode story, and Mark Gatiss, Robert Shearman, and Paul Cornell each wrote one script. Davies also approached his old friend Paul Abbott and Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling to write for the series; both declined due to existing commitments. Shortly after he secured writers for the show, Davies stated he had no intention of approaching writers from the old series; the only writer he would have wished to work with was Holmes, who died in May 1986.
By early 2004, the show had settled into a regular production cycle. Davies, Gardner, and BBC Controller of Continuing Drama Series Mal Young took posts as executive producers, and Phil Collinson, his old colleague from Granada, took the role of producer. Davies’ official position as showrunner combined the roles of head writer and executive producer and consisted of laying a skeletal plot for the entire series, holding “tone meetings” to correctly identify the tone of an episode, often described in one word—for example, the “tone word” for Moffat’s “The Empty Child” was “romantic”—and overseeing all aspects of production.
The production team was also tasked with finding a suitable actor for the role of the Doctor. Most notably, they approached film actor Hugh Grant and comedian Rowan Atkinson for the role. By the time Young suggested The Second Coming and Our Friends in the North actor Christopher Eccleston to Davies, Eccleston was one of three left in the running for the role: the other candidates are rumoured to have been Alan Davies and Bill Nighy. Eccleston created his own characteristics of his rendition of the Doctor based on Davies’ life, most notably, his catchphrase “Fantastic!”:
[The central message of the show is] seize life, it’s brief, enjoy it. The Doctor is always saying “isn’t it fantastic?”, which is one of Russell’s favourite words. “Look at that blue alien, isn’t it fantastic? Oh, it’s trying to kill me. Never mind, let’s solve it.”
— Christopher Eccleston
The show started filming in July 2004 on location in Cardiff for “Rose”. The start of filming created stress among the production team because of unseen circumstances: several scenes from the first block had to be re-shot because the original footage was unusable; the Slitheen prosthetics for “Aliens of London”, “World War Three”, and “Boom Town” were noticeably different from their computer-generated counterparts; and the BBC came to a gridlock in negotiations with the Terry Nation estate to secure the Daleks for the sixth episode of the series; Davies and episode writer Rob Shearman were forced to rework the script to feature another race, until Gardner was able to secure the rights a month later. After the first production block, which he described as “hitting a brick wall”, the show’s production was markedly eased as the crew familiarised themselves.
The first episode of the revived Doctor Who, “Rose”, aired on 26 March 2005 and received 10.8 million viewers and favourable critical reception. Four days after the transmission of “Rose”, Tranter approved a Christmas special and a second series. The press release was overshadowed by a leaked announcement that Christopher Eccleston would leave the role after one series; in response, David Tennant was announced as Eccleston’s replacement.
Tennant had been offered the role when he was watching a pre-transmission copy of Doctor Who with Davies and Gardner. Tennant initially believed the offer was a joke, but after he realised they were serious, he accepted the role and made his first appearance in the dénouement of “The Parting of the Ways”, the final episode of the first series. Doctor Who continued to be one of BBC’s flagship programmes throughout Davies’ tenure, and resulted in record sales of the show’s official magazine, an increase in spin-off novels, and the launch of the children’s magazine Doctor Who Adventures and toy sonic screwdrivers and Daleks. The show’s popularity ultimately led to a resurgence in family-orientated Saturday night drama; the ITV science-fiction series Primeval and the BBC historical dramas Robin Hood and Merlin were specifically designed for an early Saturday evening timeslot. Davies was also approached by the BBC to produce several spin-off series, eventually creating two: Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures.