Doctor Who: The Return of the Russell T. Davies–What I’m unenthusiastic about

Its been a big news cycle for Doctor Who lately, with the announcement of a new showrunner for the series after Chris Chibnall steps down at the end of 2022.

(Daily Doctor Who #309)

The name has sent ripples of reaction, discussion and opinion to the online world of Doctor Who fans…as it is none other than Russell T. Davies. 

Davies of course was the head writer and producer who shepherded the series’ creative direction when it returned to the airways in 2005. He oversaw the entirety of the eras of both the Ninth and Tenth Doctors—Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant. 
The majority of response that I’ve seen to this news has been unreservedly positive—almost messianic in tone at times—with the sense that the guy in charge the last time Doctor Who was great is back, and that he will pull the show up from the dregs it has been lost in for the last two or eight (or whatever number suits the view) seasons.

Other responses (including mine) are more guarded. There are things that Davies brought to the show that I really liked, but there were others that I didn’t.  Yesterday I mentioned some of the positive thoughts that it gives me.

But here are some of the things that the news makes me feel a bit cautious about…

Deus ex machina endings

In truth, none of the modern Doctor Who showrunners have proved themselves to be all that adept at wrapping up their big plotlines very well. With Davies, his most frequent problem was relying on simplistic deus ex machina solutions for otherwise insoluble problems. If you’ve got a giant horde of marauding Daleks on your tail, the best thing to do is expose one of your companions to Time Lord technology and get her to wipe them from existence, or to pull a lever that sucks all into the void, or to expose one of your companions to Time Lord technology and get to her to science them into helplessness…you get the idea.

And actually, that brings us to the second point…

Over-use of the Daleks

Daleks have always been a big deal on Doctor Who, almost from the very start. And both Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall made use of the Daleks. But they didn’t use them quite so frequently as Russell T. Davies, who at least had a big two-parter that focused on them each season. And then three out of four of his seasons ended with big Dalek stories. It is, frankly, just too much.

Lots of companions’ mothers

Hey, I’ve got nothing against mothers. I’ve got a great mother. My children have a great mother. My children’s mother has a great mother.

And it makes sense that the companions on Doctor Who have mothers. But it’s a little unusual that Russell T. Davies keeps using their mothers as major characters who are all variations on the same theme: suspicious of the Doctor, and a bit of a nag and a bit of a nuisance but authentic in their love of their daughter.

In all the cases the fathers are either absent or ineffectual, and the mothers generally treat their daughters like they are teenagers. This makes sense with Rose given that she was basically was a teenager. It was a bit stranger with Martha since she was actually a grown woman with a profession. By the time you get to Donna it’s become a bit of a joke.

Individually, each of these characters were fine, but collectively it become a bit tiresome.

Lots of Doctor-companion romance

It started off slow but by the David Tennant was hitting his stride, all the major companions had to be at least partially defined by the question of romantic relationship with the Doctor. With Rose, she and the Doctor were basically in love with each other. With Martha, she experienced unrequited love with the Doctor (while he continued to pine over Rose). With Donna, she was most assuredly not in love with the Doctor (nor was he in love with her) but the idea had become such a fixture in the show that a joke is made out of it in almost every episode they are together.

To be fair, this continued to be a thing with Matt Smith (and Steven Moffat), only finally ending when Peter Capaldi became the Doctor. It all started under Davies, though, and I’m in no hurry to see it return, though.

Leaning a bit too hard into macabre silliness

The Davies era (and his stories in particular) was punctuated by moments that were both extremely gruesome and silly. We were often invited to laugh at people as they were being killed. Off the top of my head I’m remembering Mickey being pulled into a (not quite) killer wheelie bin in Rose, the Slitheen’s whole deal in Aliens of London, the Plasmavore lady in Smith and Jones sucking people’s blood with a straw, the way the journalist is killed in The Sound of the Drums, the lamentable monster from Love and Monsters, and more.

I suppose it was an effort to keep the show “light-hearted” even as it dove into dark concepts, but I always found the mix of tones jarring and a bit distasteful.

Anyway, in spite of these comments, like I said last time the biggest take away from the news about Russell T. Davies is all positive: Doctor Who has a future. The increasingly sparse production schedule, compounded by COVID, makes one feel that the program might just sort of peter out. But the news of a new showrunner, and especially such a high-profile one, shows me that the BBC is still investing in the program’s success.

And that is good news.


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