Tuesday 28 September 2021

I'm surprised and delighted

 So, with a few moments to catch up, let's reflect on the big news of the Doctor Who world: Russell T. Davies is coming back as showrunner. I think I can speak for pretty much everyone when I say that this is unexpected. After all, RTD stepped down as showrunner almost twelve years ago, with his involvement in Doctor Who's wider universe continuing just a few years further into the Moffat era, with Torchwood: Miracle Day and an instalment of The Sarah Jane Adventures. He did a few bits of extra material for the lockdown, novelised Rose, and has given Big Finish his earliest script submission for a dust-off, but essentially, it looked like he was done with Who.

And yet, he here is. Quite how the BBC persuaded him to come back is unknown, although I imagine a substantial amount of money was involved, but beyond that, it's not like he's struggling for work. RTD is, if anything, a hotter property now than he was in 2003, when the Beeb basically brought back Doctor Who just to get him on staff. One thing he's said before in interviews is that he'd come back if the series was in trouble, and I think we can probably assume that this is what's going through his mind. 

The degree to which the Chibnall era of Who is failing has been blown out of proportion. Series eleven did rather better than the two before it, and while the twelfth series hasn't fared so well, concerns over ratings dropping over the course of each season aren't so significant considering that this happens with every run, sometimes with an upturn for the finale, but not usually a major one. TV ratings have dropped across the board, with traditional television struggling in the face of high-budget streaming productions on Netflix and Amazon. That said, I think it's hard to argue that the series' writing hasn't gone downhill, or that public and fan perception of the series has deteriorated. Some of this is down to sexism against Whittaker's Doctor and the "anti-woke" backlash, and some of this is down to the fact that the series has been on for a long time now so simply isn't as fresh and interesting as it once was. 

Nonetheless, as much as I've enjoyed the recent series, the standard isn't as high as it once was. Chibnall, although full of excellent ideas (and I, in the main, like the Timeless Child reveal), isn't anywhere near as strong a writer as RTD or Moffat. There were always duff episodes in a season, but with fewer episodes each time, there's less room for filler. The six-part thirteenth series really has no excuse to be anything other than excellent, and it has to be said, bringing RTD back, with a big announcement before S13 has even started, suggests a lack of faith in Chibnall's approach on the BBC's part . 

The programme has become very inward-looking in recent years (with S11 being a noticeable outlier), like the original run did in the eighties, which is potentially alienating for the general audience. What RTD did back in 2005 was relaunch a programme that had largely been forgotten, and that was thought of by those who remembered it with mockery. (Except for us true believers, of course.) RTD made that show relevant again, reinventing it, ditching what didn't work and keeping the essentials, slowly drip-feeding the audience with the more outlandish and geekier elements as they were slowly converted. A new, modernised and streamlined approach is exactly what Doctor Who needs again.

Of course, RTD has done this once. Can he do it again? Series one to four were very of their time and the approach was running out of steam by the time Tennant and RTD left. A redo of this would be just as tired as the current series. However, this is Russell T. Davies we're talking about. In fact, this is his whole team, with Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner as well, both essential to Doctor Who's comeback in 2005. This isn't merely a BBC production now, but a co-production with Bad Wolf, their production studio, named for, of course, the running mystery phrase in that first series. Judging by such recent series including It's a Sin, Years and Years and A Very English Murder, though, RTD's work is better and more daring than ever, and with his own studio involved, he'll have more creative control than ever.

In other interviews, RTD has expressed a frustration at doing Doctor Who before the rise of the streaming TV phenomenon, saying how he'd approach it like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While I don't think we're really going to get spin-offs for Nyssa or Jo Grant (that's what Big Finish is for), a more serialised Doctor Who as part of a larger, interconnected universe could well be the order of the day. That said, RTD has spoken at length about how the workload of Doctor Who alongside its spin-offs (although the first two series of Torchwood were largely run by Chibnall, as it happens) nearly finished him. I hope he isn't taking on too much again out of his love for Who.

I assume the odds of Olly Alexander as the Fourteenth Doctor have been slashed again - although I'd still prefer Lydia West or Omari Douglas if we're going for a Sinner - but really, we have no concrete idea about what Doctor Who will look like when RTD takes back control in 2023. Exciting times again.

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