I was a little harsh on Russell T Davies yesterday. Despite all my issues with him – philosophical nihilism, his domineering approach to script editing, the production chaos of the Eccleston year – he genuinely is a brilliant writer and television dramatist.
And he did what many people considered impossible. He brought Doctor Who back from the wilderness of semi-forgotten television properties and made it a popular and critical success.
And he is a genuinely brilliant television writer – RTD’s Doctor Who stories are excellently paced, conceptually innovative, emotionally powerful, and punctuated with deft humour. He inspired – or ruthlessly rewrote – the same into all the writers in his stable while he was creative producer.
|"Prepare yourselves to travel to a terrifying time! The 1980s!"
I’m far from the first to remark on how similar his approach is to the abortive sci-fi soap style that the early Peter Davison years were aiming for. Davies is brilliant at writing just those kinds of stories, where characters go through intensely dramatic plot arcs and relationships, while each individual unit is a wonderful story in itself. Just look at his original Queer as Folk or the masterpiece Cucumber.
So I wondered what the first two years of Davison’s tenure as the Doctor would have looked like if Russell T Davies had disobeyed his own ideology about the tragic inevitability of history. If he had travelled back in time to 1982 and taken over from Christopher Bidmead as John Nathan-Turner’s script editor.
|No matter how concerned you might rightly be, every
Doctor Who setup and TARDIS crew can be done
brilliantly. The problem is that not everybody always
knows how in the moment and on deadline.
I’m not going to speculate about what different stories a time-travelling Davies would have produced. Having gotten to know RTD’s style of writer’s notes from reading his The Writer’s Tale, I can give a pretty good idea of what his notes to those season’s contributors would have been.
So imagine that the stories are all the same as what actually played out. The season’s character arc is the tragedy of the TARDIS crew’s crackup. Adric looked up to Tom’s Doctor as a father figure, and feels alienated from Peter’s.
Adric also feels lost in the crew, because Nyssa is a better scientist than he is and Tegan is so brash that he almost feels bullied. But instead of building his own identity and leaving on his own terms, he’s killed in a Cyberman attack. The trauma from that tragedy quickly drives what could have been a wonderful TARDIS family apart.
Castrovalva, by departing script editor Christopher Bidmead:
“Chrissie! I love this space-bending city! It’s marvellous! But we don’t get to spend enough time with its people. We need to get to know them as characters. The Doctor’s trying to calm himself after regeneration turbulence, so he needs to relax more. We’re hiring Michael Sheard, for God’s sake! There are great actors for Peter to play with!
“Shrink those first two episodes on the TARDIS to one. Have them crash on Castrovalva as the cliffhanger. Then part two is Nyssa and Tegan walking the Doctor’s meditation box to the city. Janet and Sarah have great chemistry!
|There's real drama and humour to be plied from how
exasperating Adric is to everyone around him all the
time. It's the only way to make the character watchable.
“I love what you’ve got done to Adric! I’ve been to those kinds of leather clubs, and they’re so much fun! And Adric should be having fun! The Master should be seducing him, or at least trying to. I want more conversations with the Master and a tied-up Adric. This is where Adric’s hostility toward the Doctor gets its seed planted. So spend eps 2 & 3 going back and forth from Castrovalva to the Master trying to talk Adric into betraying the Doctor!”
For Four to Doomsday by Terrence Dudley:
“Terry! Fantastic story! I love all these ideas. Maybe tone down some of the multiculti android dancing, though. Here are some articles I found on Indian, African, and Chinese culture and philosophy around 2am last night. All the different civilization groups on Monarch’s ship should each engage the Doctor in a tough talk about the role of authority and people’s freedom. Monarch is exactly as he says on the tin!
“This is an Adric–Doctor story! Monarch almost finishes what the Master started, seducing Adric away from the Doctor. Monarch makes Adric think that people need strong authority to rule and control them. It appeals to his own uncertainty as a teenager. He misses big, authoritative Tom.
“Adric finally lets his frustrations with Peter’s more low-key Doctor fly in this one. Adric actually betrays the Doctor, then sees the error of his ways. And the Doctor forgives him and takes him back to the TARDIS! How could he not?”
|In real life, we only saw the team of Davison's Doctor,
Nyssa, and Tegan in three stories, but Fielding and Sutton
had such chemistry that it was such a waste to forget
about the possibilities of that crew of three.
For Kinda by Christopher Bailey:
“Christophoro! I love it! The dream sequences are so trippy! Janet’s going to act the pants off this story! But Nyssa’s got nothing to do – you’ve literally knocked her asleep for four eps. Won’t do! Won’t do!
“How about this? Have her appear in Tegan’s dream. Janet and Sarah get along so well on screen, so have the TARDIS put a sleeping Nyssa in Tegan’s weird Mara dreamscape to guide her through the craziness. Just as Tegan’s about to give in, Nyssa pulls her back from the brink!
“The Doctor can help too with his meditation and work with the natives. With Adric in the big mech pushing around the colonists, this could be the first time the team all really comes together to save the day! The TARDIS family together at last!”
For The Visitation by Eric Saward:
“Eric, you squishy young lad! Marvellous adventure! The design department’s going mental with the Tereleptils – you’ll love what they’re doing with them. But there’s too much stuff going on. Too many characters. That Richard Mace talks too much. Downplay his character – make him just a comedy guide. Like Sancho to the Doctor’s sane Quixote! Give some of his plot to Tegan, she’s great at getting into trouble.
“The scenes where Nyssa and Adric are building the machine to jam the robot are terribly dull, though. This could be great to build tension between them. Like, they start building the jamming machine together, but Adric keeps messing up. He’s a great mathematician but a crap engineer!
“So Nyssa builds the machine and makes Adric run around the forest as bait to draw the killer robot into a trap! And he gets more and more pissed at her the entire time for getting him into this mess! And leave it hanging at the end. Adric just goes back to his room and seethes, so angry at Nyssa for nearly getting him killed. Tease more conflict between them in the future!”
|Every season of Doctor Who has its silly story.
For Black Orchid by Terrence Dudley:
“Terry! Great story! Sarah will love the dual role! It’ll give her a chance to show off Nyssa. Maybe make Nyssa a little more relaxed now. She and Anne can make friends because they’re both traumatized by family violence: Nyssa losing her homeworld, Anne with the Cranleigh’s secrets. Nyssa’s also loosened up by now, travelling with the Doctor. She can help Anne face her emotions, be a little freer.
“But maybe tease the dark underbelly of the Cranleigh family a little in the first episode. The mystery feels too rushed being packed all into part two by the cliffhanger.”
For Earthshock by Eric Saward:
“What a corker, Eric! Can you maybe get a few more Adric stumbles in the story? Moments where he tries his best, but still messes up and gets everyone deeper in trouble or gets some supporting characters killed. We’ve got to feel his mistakes harder.
“That way, when he stays behind trying to stop the ship crashing, it hits the audience in the guts! The one time he tries to fix something, it turns out that he could have just left and history would have gone on fine! The poor boy dies because he can’t stop himself from screwing up!”
For Time-Flight by Peter Grimwade:
“Peter the Great with the Great Script! I love how much crazy you’ve thrown together! It’s a kitchen sink story better than my own! Not that you’ll see them for 20 years.
|I honestly think the Master just enjoys dressing up in
silly costumes and being nefarious all day. He could
have become such a more (intentionally) humorous
character in the Davison years for that.
“Anyway, amp up the tension between the three remaining regulars. Their fight disappears after that initial scene in the TARDIS. You’ve got to have them constantly at each other’s throats blaming each other for Adric’s death. They’ll get too caught up in the plot to say it explicitly, but they’ll just keep being so mad at each other! And the Master just wants them to play along with it all, but they’re all too angsty about Adric! He’s all ‘I came up with this elaborate plan to destroy you all! Why aren’t you having any fun fighting me?!’
“Then Tegan just walks away at the end of it all. Goes back to her stewardess job – horrified at all the death and losing her annoying little friend. Nyssa’s not even with the Doctor by choice – she feels stuck there because her homeworld’s gone – nowhere else to go. Same with the Doctor – just wasted and worn out. We’ll have them weeping into their sofas!”
I thought about how RTD would have written the following season’s arc – the Black Guardian enlists an alien refugee living under an assumed identity on Earth to infiltrate the TARDIS crew and kill the Doctor on the false promise that he’ll be able to return home. That season saw the return of Janet Fielding, but the departure of Sarah Sutton, who never thought Nyssa got a fair shake on the TV series.
But if Davison’s first year had been assembled by someone with the dramatic instincts and skills of Russell T Davies, Sutton might not even have wanted to leave. Davison himself might have stayed on longer than the three years he chose. The show’s potential would have been completely different.
Doctor Who would have a writing staff – or at least story guidelines – on how to handle a four-person TARDIS crew and maintain detailed character development across multiple stories and writers. The season, and as a result the whole John Nathan-Turner era, would have unfolded with a much greater success.
Perhaps Doctor Who would never even have been cancelled in the first place, and continued on television through the 1990s, at the forefront of popular television sci-fi in dialogue with the revival and renaissance of Star Trek and the creation of Babylon 5. History would have been completely different.
Yet that wouldn’t have been the John Nathan-Turner era. It would have been the time-travelling Russell T Davies era. We’re stuck in history’s misery once again.