Russell T Davies is one of the most important figures in Doctor Who. A huge amount of ink has been spilled on the nature, essence, and themes of his era as creative producer on the show.
Much of the definitive ink and data have been arranged by Phil Sandifer, who’s been an inspiration for this series of posts and this blog in more ways than one. And I encourage you to check out the best of his posts on the Davies era at TARDIS Eruditorum. Especially on The End of Time, a two-part post.
The first part describes the importance of Julie Gardner in Doctor Who’s revival and the making of the RTD era. Davies himself may get the credit and was the primary engine of story and character, and he certainly took up most of the oxygen in the room when the press came calling. But the show wouldn’t have come together at all without Gardner.
Davies’ first year producing Doctor Who was famously a complete shit show. The production was unbelievably chaotic, simply because no one involved had any idea just how much had to be done in how little time to produce an episode on schedule.
Davies’ first Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, quit after a single season. We didn’t really know the official reasons for a long time – due to Eccleston’s long-standing friendship with RTD and his genuine care for the show, he kept quiet about his reasons for years, giving only cryptic statements.
Nearly a decade later, Eccleston came clear in an interview that the production was such a ridiculous, stressful nightmare. The last straw came when he saw an overworked episode director losing his temper at the minor error of a prop man. Everyone else’s indifference, for Eccleston, made a terrible tolerance of bullying.
Yet Davies shrugged off the sudden departure of the new series’ star with his typical enthusiasm. In his first interview about it, he was utterly happy that people seeing Doctor Who for the first time in this generation would see the full range of the show’s possibility: they can watch the Doctor change his face.
That sums up the basic ethical message of Davies’ aesthetics in Doctor Who. A wild exuberance for the flash and pizazz of the present moment hides a cruel reality.
For a while, I thought Davies’ ethical presentism is a redemption from the hopelessness and nihilism that you sink into when you accept the mortality of reality. If one day everything will end, doesn’t that make all our actions ultimately meaningless? Is the worth of our lives only a matter of their legacy in time?
I found Davies’ answer to be no. Because the present here and now can be made worthwhile in itself through your own dedication to making it so. I got one of my first essay publications writing about this idea.
But I reconsidered just how redemptive this was when I thought about what Phil Sandifer ultimately had to say about the Davies era in 2014. You can think about it in whatever way you want. And there are plenty of ways to do it.
There's the redemptive way I thought of. My essay was primarily about the Season Three finale, Utopia / Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords. That story pushes the optimism in RTD’s worldview to the forefront. Despite the terror of the end of everything, we can embrace love in our present moment if we choose. No matter that terror.
Phil thought of it in terms of our relationship to history. Ultimately the Doctor can save a few people from history’s horrors, but leave the rest to die in inevitability. Fixed points in time remain so, and the single flow of history – the necessity of total causality at the cosmic scale – chains us to its necessity.
And Davies could never think of a better rebuttal to the terror of this worldview than “But it’s wonderful!” As if the sublimity of absolute meaninglessness could justify our terror, or the momentary joys of adventuring across the sparks and crackles of an empty universe could justify the emptiness.
|For a man who laughs so heartily, Russell T Davies has
a terribly nihilistic, hopeless attitude that appears in many
of his stories for the Doctor Who universe, Torchwood
included. Maybe that's why he laughs so hard.
It was an ethical emptiness. Of a world where we have no power to change our lot. No power to change history for the better.
The Davies era was undoubtedly a success. It brought Doctor Who back to the forefront of British culture, and was one of the most popular television shows in the country. It became a flagship program of the BBC like it had never been before. It became one of the only shows in Britain to unite the whole country in watching it, out of everything available on modern cable.
And it was actually good television. My problems with RTD’s era are really only on this very abstract ethical-philosophical level. Every season produced at least one genius story, usually more.
Even the greatest stinkers tended to be overambitious explosions of weirdness that just couldn’t maintain their coherence in the face of all that insanity. They may be terrible stories, but they still work just because of the sheer volume of weirdness. The kind of stinkers that only Doctor Who could do.
Doctor Who under Russell T Davies was, episode by episode, one fantastic, hilarious, tragic, beautiful adventure after another. He brought the show back to the front of public consciousness and his brilliance as a writer (and his radical rewriting of nearly every script to pass his supervision) made it the best it had ever been.
Lay the ethical squeamishness to the side. Surely Doctor Who couldn’t get any better than this?