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Doctor Who – Writer / Producer… Russell T Davies

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Doctor Who - David Tennant
David Tennant in the upcoming special © BBC

Under the brilliant re-imagining of Russell T Davies, Doctor Who has received two BAFTA awards, including Best Drama Series in 2006, three Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form in 2006, 2007 and 2008 as well as the Saturn Award for Best International Series in 2008.

Now Davies feels it’s time to move on and, along with David Tennant, perhaps is the most popular Doctor Who of recent times, they are saying goodbye to the franchise together. Davies spoke to the TV Critics Association in Los Angeles about his tenure as the most successful writer/producer of the series.

The ninth doctor (Christopher Eccleston) was very serious, and the tenth doctor (David Tennant) seemed to have a lighter touch. You cast both of them. How did you choose two such different portrayals of a character you loved?

Sarah Jane Adventures - Elisabeth Sladen and David Tennant
Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) and The Doctor (David Tennant) in the TARDIS © BBC

It really comes from choosing two different actors. And hand on heart I can’t say I ever sat there thinking massive differences between the two doctors. I always think there’s very essential doctor-ness behind whatever he’s saying and doing. And I think if you get hung up on adjectives and descriptions and one-line hooks for characters, then that’s all you write.

So I just tend to write just in terms of the flow really and see where he’s going and just follow the story.

I think if the ninth doctor did seem harder in places, that’s because he was recovering from a war. And if the tenth doctor seems lighter, that’s because he’s getting better in that recovery and his human companions are making his life different. So I tend to think of it in story terms.

When you’re transitioning from one doctor to another, do you take the opportunity of changing aspects of the show to reflect the new doctor?

You’ve got a different lead actor, but everything else is the same. We just carried on. It’s such an unusual show because it’s different every week.

If it was a very regular precinct show, always in the same place, then the change of lead actor would have enormous repercussions on everyone around it. But because it’s always changing, it literally goes to a different place every week and there’s a different style every week, you don’t need to worry too much about the change of doctor. We all just hang on for the ride, really.

Who was your favorite Doctor Who?

I was a Tom Baker man. I was just the right age. I was 11 going into comprehensive school. And 11 is right about the age you could give up the show. You find other pursuits. But that’s when I really fell in love with it, and it’s the most extraordinary combination of an actor and a part coming together, just absolute television magic.

Doctor Who - Lindsay Duncan and David Tennant
Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan) is effectively the companion for The Waters of Mars, seen here with The Doctor (David Tennant) © BBC

The doctor’s assistants have done so much for the franchise.

I think that’s been a vital part of the format in that you’ve got a man who’s 906 years old, and he’s an alien and he’s a time lord. He’s a wonderful human, but he has that huge other dimension of being practically immortal, hugely wise and also dangerous. So the human person just literally brings him down to Earth, and it’s the ying and the yang, the human and the alien, the man and the woman. It’s just oddly inventive.

That’s the great classic patent for a series. It just happens that this has got the human and the alien added to it, but so many series have the two males and the female leads for which you explore every story. And maybe it’s true to say in the old days in the series the companion wasn’t quite so well-developed, but that wasn’t that purpose then.

But now in bringing it back to have the female lead, to attract people of Catherine Tate status to the series, you’ve got to write it well otherwise you’re not going to get them. So that was one of the joys of the whole show to work with people like that.

Were you ever tempted to bring Susan back?

No, that would mean bringing back a character known as the doctor’s grandmother from 1960 – who left in 1964. You’d have a hell of a lot of explaining to do there!

How early on did you decide that you were going to get rid of the Time Lords so the doctor is now the last of his kind?

Oh, straightaway. It’s funny because, as a long-term fan of the show, it’s like the show had 40 years of market testing. I was a 40-year-old focus group working on what worked and what didn’t. I never liked the Time Lords and always thought they were slightly boring and bumped the program down.

What can you tell us about the finale?

Our very last episode coming at Christmas, David’s very last episode, is one hour and 15 minutes long. It’s a personal epic. But there’s a seven minute scene of David and Bernard Cribbins having a conversation together in a café. It’s really intimate at the same time.

It’s got funny little aliens with green spiky faces running around – what more could you want?

It’s a huge goodbye.


The Doctor Who Special, The Waters of Mars can be seen…
UK Airdate November 15, 2009, 7pm
US Airdate December 19, 2009, 9pm