The Return of RTD

Doctor Who has a new showrunner. But he’s actually an old showrunner. Is that a good idea?

Since the news broke yesterday, Doctor Who fan forums have been discussing nothing but the fact that Russell T Davies is returning as showrunner after Chris Chibnall’s regeneration special is broadcast next year. Most fans seem to be very excited by this prospect; I’m not so sure.

Before I start, I should point out that I’ve been a big fan of Russell T Davies since long before he brought Doctor Who back to our screens in 2005. I’ll always be grateful for the work he did to bring the show back and I believe that he’s responsible for some great moments in Doctor Who history.

But I’m not sure I want to see him back as the showrunner. Let me explain why I’m so out of step with most of the show’s fans.

Firstly, although I’m grateful to him for bringing the show back, he’s not my favourite showrunner. Obviously, any Doctor Who is better than no Doctor Who but there was a lot of stuff in Davies’ first run that I didn’t like. For example, He was the person who first introduced us to companions’ families, which brought a slight soap opera feel to some of the episodes. Also, I thought that he often wrote himself into a bit of a corner. This was most apparent in the end of season two-parters. There were many occasions when the first part set up a fantastic premise only to be let down by a finale that just couldn’t live up to the promise. The Stolen Earth was great; Journey’s End was terrible. Then there’s The End of Time. Again, it started off well but had verged well into the ridiculous by the end of the first part. And don’t get me started on the self-indulgent, mawkish nonsense that made up the last twenty minutes of that story — leading to the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration.

I admit, however, that my opinions on Davies’ writing are purely personal. And, because of the massive rise in popularity of the show during his tenure, many viewers see his approach as the gold standard for how the show should work. My other points are, I hope, less opinion-based.

Secondly, Doctor Who is a show that should always be moving forward. In the classic era of the show, previous Doctors and companions would reappear very rarely. When someone left the show, you knew the chances of seeing them again were very slim. When an executive producer left (we didn’t call them showrunners back then) you knew that the show would change in new and experimental ways. Sometimes the changes didn’t work; most of the time they did. Change is fundamental to the show. It’s how the show has kept going for (most of) sixty years.

The newer sections of the audience don’t seem to realise that. I constantly hear fans wanting things to go back to how things were. As soon as Rose was written out at the end of series two, there were calls for her to come back. And while series four has some pretty good stuff in it, I think that bringing Rose back was pandering to the fanbase in an unhealthy way. We now have a situation where fans expect every character who has been written out of the show to be brought back at their whim. There aren’t very many weeks that pass without me seeing someone in a Facebook group suggesting some convoluted way that David Tennant could be brought back to be the Doctor again.

The show must always move forward. It must always change. I believe that RTD knows that, so I hope that his second era in charge will be sufficiently different to his first. But I worry that fans will start asking for Tennant back as the Doctor with Billie Piper by his side. For some fans, that seems to be the only version of the show they will be happy with.

Finally, I worry about what RTD’s reappointment means for the future of the show. When Chibnall’s departure was announced, all of the news stories claimed that he and Whittaker had a “three and out agreement” between themselves and that he only ever planned to do three years running the show. That’s rather at odds with the talk of him having a five-year plan for the show when he was appointed to the role. I realise that he will have done five years in the post by the time he goes, but he will have made three seasons and a handful of specials — so I’m not sure that counts.

No, I think it’s clear that Chibnall has been hounded out of the role by that toxic sector of the fanbase that refuses to give his work on the show a decent chance. And, given that Moffat also put up with a lot of abuse from certain fans, I begin to wonder how easy it is to find someone to take over the job. Chibnall’s departure was announced at the end of July and the BBC would certainly have known about it for some time before that. But they have failed to find someone new and exciting to take over the job and I wonder if it has become a bit of a poison chalice. People want to do the job because, hey, it’s running Doctor Who! But, on the other hand, if you don’t please the fanbase (and no-one can please all of the fanbase) then you’ll be vilified online and hounded off social media. Add to that the fact that both Davies and Moffat cited insane working schedules as part of their reason for leaving and, suddenly, the job doesn’t look quite as tempting.

I have no inside information here at all, but I wonder if the reappointment of RTD was an act of desperation on the part of the BBC. We know that Chibnall is steering the show up to and including a BBC centenary special that will be broadcast in 2022. But the show’s 60th anniversary is the year after that and without a showrunner, you can’t cast a new Doctor and without a new Doctor in place pretty soon, the 60th-anniversary celebrations would seem to be in danger.

The news of the reappointment has all been very celebratory, of course, but I wonder if that’s actually the case. I wonder if the BBC’s approach to RTD was more like this:

“So, that show you resurrected back in 2005. Well, we can’t find anyone to take over as showrunner, and unless we get things moving pretty quickly we’re not going to have a 60th anniversary worth speaking off. Seriously, we’re thinking of just cancelling it… unless you can suggest something that we could do…”

This, of course, leaves RTD thinking that the only way to save his baby is to step in himself. Maybe he’s stepped in as a stop-gap until the BBC finds someone else to take over. The announcement says he’s signed on for the 60th special and following series. But that’s a bit vague (because the English language doesn’t have a plural for “series”!) so who knows how long he’ll hang around for. Time will tell, I guess.

But, if you’re one of those fans who think it’s big or clever to be unrelentingly negative about the showrunner on social media, please stop and consider whether you’re part of a problem that could end up with no-one wanting the job and the show being cancelled.

All-in-all, I wish that the BBC hadn’t done this. I would have far preferred to see the show moving forward. But if, as I suspect, the alternative was no new Doctor Who for the foreseeable future, then obviously this is a good plan. I’m keen to see what Davies has in store.

But first I’m really excited to see what Chibnall has in store for his final series and the subsequent specials. If series 13 improves on series 12 to the extent that series 12 improved on series 11, then it’s going to be great.

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