Friday, June 26, 2009

Russell Davies Q&A on 'Doctor Who' and 'Torchwood'

In conjunction with tomorrow's American debut of "Doctor Who: The Next Doctor," the first of five "Doctor Who" specials that will conclude the tenure of both star David Tennant and producer Russell T. Davies (you can read my review here), I spoke with Davies about saying goodbye to the character he helped resurrect, and about the upcoming miniseries "Torchwood: Children of Earth," which BBC America will be airing July 20-24.

Davies called me as I was finishing up the third episode of "Children of Earth" -- an exciting, epic story in which Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and his team deal with alien invaders who can make our world's children do whatever they want -- and so our discussion begins with that.

What was the impetus behind telling this particular "Torchwood" story?

The main impetus came because in Britain, we were shifting channels. We'd been on a smaller channel as a sci-fi cult show, but this is moving it onto BBC1. It's the main primetime channel, so we needed to do something bit. Also, although I created "Torchwood," I'd been away from it for a while. I wanted to do something new, a different type of storytelling, to give it a big kick and stretch myself as well. So all of that thinking led to a new format. They've been doing this (miniseries) format quite a bit in Britain, where you'll do five shows in five nights. It's a new form of storytelling that I loved, and when the offer came to make "Torchwood" part of this five nights a week thing, I jumped at it. I loved it.

So do you think, if BBC orders another series, you'll stick with this format?

I think it's hard to revert to the previous format having done this, but if BBC1 says, "We want to do 13 weeks like before," of course we're going to do 13 weeks. We can do all sorts of things. The six-part weekly thriller is another standard British format that we haven't tried yet. That's what's nice in this digital world: the platforms change, the digital tier gives you new options, and "Torchwood"s been at the forefront of it, since we started on a digital channel.

"Children of Earth" seems more epic, both in its scope and in the production values, than anything you did in the first two series.

Glad you said so. That was the aim. "Epic" was one of the keywords that we used. And it's quite important for newcomers to the show to know they can watch it from scratch. We're going to give them this big huge story where they can understand everything important in the first five minutes and go from there. I love telling stories about scale, and it's a big international story. But at the same time, even if you make things epic, no matter how big the threat is, you've got to have great characters, great actors at the center of it, so everything works on a personal level. So we've got John Barrowman doing wonderful work as Captain Jack, Eve (Myles) as Gwen Cooper, and everyone.

But when you're making an event, five nights a week, it would be wrong to tell a small, detailed domestic story. It's a brilliant production team, because we didn't have any increase in budget. It just looks like we did because they simply worked like dogs. The cast have worked hard, and it's made by people who love this, and with real passion. And the end result shines through.

You said before that you love stories about scale, which anyone watching your version of "Doctor Who" would already know. Every year, it seemed like the finales got bigger and bigger. Is one of the reasons you're leaving that you realized you couldn't top yourself anymore?

There's always further to go. I don't just increase things in scale because I'm mad. With "Doctor Who," every year the finale got bigger, and every year the rating got bigger. We were adding, like, 2 million viewers every year. That's been a great joy, and part of the whole game of "Doctor Who" is that the public joins in, word spreads, and more people watch. Increasing the scale of the program has literally paid off. If the viewers had been deserting the show, I would have done something different. When we get to David Tennant's finale, you will not believe the scale of it. But it's all about the acting in the end. Wait till you see David Tennant in his last episode, and John Barrowman in his last episode of "Children of Earth."

I'm unclear on the timing of this: were these five specials always designed to end David Tennant's time in the role, or did that happen after you started doing them?

No, we always knew they were going to be his last specials. It was his choice. When Steven Moffat took over the show, of course David wondered if he should be continuing, because of course Steven will be the most brilliant showrunner in the world.

It's funny, we've now all moved on, for the most part. We all feel that we've done the right thing. There's not one moment where we'd want to use a TARDIS to go back in and do over again. It's been good, it's been healthy, no regrets. If the handover had gone wrong, I would have felt terrible. We've protected the show, and kept it enshrined for the people in the UK.

I've only seen two of the specials so far, but there's this recurring theme about The Doctor not wanting to take on a new companion because of what happened in "Journey's End."

Poor Donna Noble.

You're a bastard, by the way.

Ha ha ha! He just called me a bastard. Ha ha ha ha!

Well, is there a specific character arc to these specials?

It's what I love about "Doctor Who." It's 46 years old, and now in my final year, we discover there's still a brand new way of telling the stories, which is The Doctor traveling on his own, which was done only once in the old years, Tom Baker with "The Deadly Asssassin." it gives us a chance for him to have a different companion every time. In "Planet of the Dead," we have Michelle Ryan, and in "The Waters of Mars," we've got Lindsey Duncan as the companion; she's almost 60 years old, quite a brilliant actress, a different way than we've gone previously. In the finale, it's Bernie Cribbens, who played Donna Noble's grandfather.

The bigger picture is why The Doctor's traveling alone -- because he's heartbroken, because he loses too much in the end (each time). This is an arc over these last few specials, gradually, especially in "Waters of Mars," which comes up in November, we discover that he travels with a human because he needs a human. He's too powerful, and without that (human with him), he can become a dangerous man. Donna pointed that out to him in her very first story, "The Runaway Bride." That is a story we're telling. We're sort of all heading towards series 5 and the new Doctor and the new companion, played by Karen Gillan. I think it's a nice set-up for her, in that The Doctor needs a companion and we're going to understand why.

Given what you said before about the lack of regrets, I'm guessing the answer's no, but are there any stories you wanted to tell with this series that you didn't get to?

Not really. Obviously, because I knew almost two years ago that I was leaving, I started thinking about stories. Other dramas I wanted to tell. Every now and then an idea will come into my head, though. I think there's a very good "Doctor Who" story to be told about Twitter, about the idea of communicating in 140 characters. There's a story somewhere, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone on the (new writing) team is thinking of that. They don't need me anymore. And I cannot tell you how much I'm looking forward to being a viewer. Other than the movie (1996's American-produced "Doctor Who" pilot), the last time I got a chance to sit down and watch a brand new series was 21 years ago. So I'm dying!

So have you asked Steven not to tell you anything about what he's doing?

I can't help overhearing little things. I already know far too much. And one or two things he had to check with me to make sure we could overlap material. What I do know is so exciting.

I want to go back to when you took over the franchise. What was the mandate you had in mind for yourself?

Simply, the one very clear thing I wanted to do at the beginning was to get a new audience, and a permanent audience. Because of "Doctor Who"'s long history -- he ran on BBC1 for so many years -- I knew we would get some old viewers who remembered the character fondly, but that simply wasn't enough for me. The BBC is funded by the public in Britain. So we're making a very expensive show, paid for by the public, so I thought I had a duty to spend that money well, and get as many of the public watching as possible, This wasn't a time to make a niche show, and that's so foften what British science fiction is. I knew it had to be lifted out into the mainstream. There was no precedent for that ever happening in Britain.

I wanted children watching. I thought if you're going to bring back this character, you want him to appeal to children; you want a child who, in 40 years time, will be me, bringing the character back again. It deserves the status of being like Robin Hood or Merlin or James Bond -- those rare British cultural figures who just run and run. I worried that, if I'd fumbled it on this reusrrection, it would have been fumbled for a few decades.

And we got lucky in the timing, If we'd been five years later, we would never have been able to afford the program I wanted to make. I wanted it to be expensive. I'm not saying all good television is expensive, because I've worked on some of the cheapest shows in trhe world. But the ambition, and the big picture, and the epic intimacy demanded that. And then all of this was theory, and none of us knew if it would work, but we got on air, and it worked, and it's been wonderful.

And all of that money is very clearly there on the screen, where the original series always looked so incredibly cheap: lots of stories with only one or two settings and minimal movement, where you're all over the place with the action and the special effects.

I so respect those old production teams because having made the show, I can't imagine how they made it on 1/10th of the budget that I had. And they made something I loved all my life. They found different ways of launching themselves into children's memories.

Was Christopher Eccleston always only going to do it for a year?

That was always the plan, and then the plan got fumbled because the newspapers found out about it. Can you imagine what a shock that regeneration would have been if they hadn't known? We got better at that over the years, found ways to keep other secrets. Nonetheless, Chris Eccleston is just a blazing comet of talent, and we are lucky to have had him for even a short time. I'm so grateful to have had him.

And then you got David Tennant, who many people insist is the best Doctor ever.

We cast Chris, and we thought, "Brilliant, but what the hell do we do next? Surely, there's no one who can be on a par with Chris." And the gods were smiling with us when we found David. Just to see him do this, at the same time he's doing "Hamlet" at the Royal Shakespeare Company, I'm so lucky just to have caught hold of that man for a short while.

Was it a coincidence or by design that all of the major companions during your run were women?

It's by design, to be honest. The show has had male companions in the past, and there have been times when he's had three or four companions at the same time, but if you strip the show down to its essentials, it's one man, and one woman. I don't think I would have been happy if it was just two men in the TARDIS. In the year 2009, still, there aren't enough lead roles for women, anyway. At the same time, we introduced Captain Jack, who was a companion for a time before we put him in "Torchwood."

There was that moment where you revealed that Jack would eventually live so long that he'd become the Face of Boe. Was this something you planned all along with the character?

It wasn't exactly planned. I did spend a long time thinking about Jack's immortality, and one day it occured to me there was another immortal character on the show. It made me laugh. To be honest, on the screen, it's couched in terms that are not absolute gospel. There are these spin-off books and comic books, and every now and then I'll see a script for one where they say definitively that he's the Face of Boe, and I always stop those from being printed. I have my own personal theories, but the moment it became very true or very false, the joke dies.

In general, though, how much long-term planning was there in the series? You got a lot of mileage out of cutting off The Doctor's hand in "The Christmas Invasion," for instance.

I did, didn't I? It's hard to say. Some things are planned. There was never a rigid plan that I followed for five years and never deviated. But the important thing is, I was thinking about "Doctor Who" more than I should have every day. Even the strongest fan of "Doctor Who" will think about "Doctor Who" a lot, then go on to their regular job, and I was thinking about "Doctor Who" all day, every day.

It's like having a great big play shop, I would introduce things like The Doctor having his hand cut off, and I realized I could bring it back in "Torchwood." What you don't notice are the things I introduce that I don't bring back. It's a more ruthless process than it is whimsical. Actually, it's very diligent about what makes sense, and I'm very careful about not losing an audience. If their enjoyment depends on them emorizing a bit of dialogue for 40 episodes earlier, you're in trouble. But we cut his hand off in a special that aired on Christmas, that almost ten million people in Britain watched at the time, and I thought they'd remember that. I can't say that I ever knew that three years later it would end up saving his lfie, but the potential was there. I know my own mind and it's always prodding the idea and finding ways to push it forward. If "plan" means having everything constantly in flux, then that is what we had.

In terms of an idea that you introduced and didn't bring back, it's implied at the end of "Journey's End" that Martha and Mickey are going to join "Torchwood," but they're not in "Children of Earth."

That was genuinely a potential idea. We did actually investigate that, and we did plan to use Martha and Mickey, and then Freema (Agyeman) was cast in "Law & Order: UK," and she was absolutely fantastic in it, and this was before we could confirm the commission of "Torchwood," and it's 13 episodes a year instead of five besides, so lovely, lovely Freema has got a job for life, so of course she went and did that. We're friends, we're in constant contact, and we were able to adapt, so we brought in Cush Jumbo as Lois Habiba, who's kind of the Martha figure. She doesn't act like a Martha clone at all, she's much more innocent and out of her depth. It's plate spinning, it's like that, you just keep things spinning. It was a possible plan, didn't work out, but if there's a "Torchwood" 4, and Freema's available, maybe we could use her again.

Getting back to the idea of scale, one of my favorite "Doctor Who" episodes that you wrote was sort of the opposite of that: "Midnight," which was this low-budget but extremely creepy story with The Doctor stuck on the train with the woman who kept repeating everything and the paranoid passengers.

You'd be surprised by how not low-budget that is. That set is four walls, and a very robust set, and we had to book a whole cast every day for two weeks, because they had to be there all the time. Actors are normally split up, and that was very actor-intensive. We didn't do it to be cheap, but I thought with the great big epic arias at the end of that series, it was time to be more intimate right beforehand. I thought of that idea as I was coming to the end of my time on "Doctor Who." That idea had been in my head itching away -- "What if you spoke to someone who repeats everything you've said for the whole episode?" -- and I had to do that episode before I left. I had to see if it worked. And it worked. That's a great big token of the freedom that the BBC gives us. On a great big popular expensive show, they allowed me to experiment.

If you had to pick a moment, or several moments, from your tenure that you're especially proud of -- that exemplify what you were trying to do with "Doctor Who" -- what would you pick?

The problem is, there's hundreds of them. Because I was so stepped in the show, it's very interesting to go back to the very first episode -- and to be blunt, we hit the ground running with it. That episode is the template for everything we did since. It has the companion being as strong as The Doctor, it brings back an old monster. It's in modern-day urban London. The companion's family is important, the emotion is at the forefront, but there's comedy and chase scenes. Normally, you look at episode one of a long-running series and it seems ancient, and I'm very proud of it because I look at it, all your favorite (kinds of) moments are in episode one.

But there are so many. It ranges from Lesley Sharp in "Midnight" giving the most brilliant performance with David Tennant, to when we won the BAFTA Award. When they played the clips of the nominees for Best Drama in this big posh ceremony, those clips are very often people crying in the rain about serious issues -- Iraq war, or illness, or drug addiction, because that's what usually wins awards -- and in the middle of all this, the "Doctor Who" clip played of thousands of Daleks flying through the air, and then we won the award! It just showed that a program that is so much fun and has so many children watching and so much fantasy, to win a big proper televiison award like that was genuinely wonderful.

Can you go back and watch episodes that you wrote and produced and appreciate them as a "Doctor Who" fan? Or are you too occupied thinking of how the sausage got made?

I don't know if this is good or bad, but I've always been able to sit and watch my own stuff and enjoy it. Sometimes, I'll sit down and I'll just catch an episode by chance. I caught the Shakespeare episode ("The Shakespeare Code") by chance the other night and I thought it was magnificent. I really, really can watch it as a viewer. I always cultivated that in my head, you have to train yourself to watch it as brand-new, so you can see its faults and its strengths, so I've always been good at it. So I can watch it on repeats. I still love them. And thankfully, I love watching the old show as much as I did. I can still watch the old classics from the 70s and be as happy as I was when I was a kid.


Nicole said...

Waiting until November for the next special is going to be a killer. I was hoping that one would be aired in the summer.

Joseph Thomson said...

Come on Alan, the 'Jack is Face of Boe' revelation was in 'Last of the Time Lords'.

Also - how come we've still not seen Children of Earth over here when folks in America are getting it in less than a month?!

Alan Sepinwall said...

Come on Alan, the 'Jack is Face of Boe' revelation was in 'Last of the Time Lords'.

You're right, dammit. "Gridlock" is where Boe dies. I conflated the two.

Also - how come we've still not seen Children of Earth over here when folks in America are getting it in less than a month?!

In the other Doctor Who thread today, people are complaining about how usually there's too big a gap between the UK airings and the American airing. They can't win. :)

Joseph Thomson said...

I'm quite happy for Doctor Who to air in the US pretty quickly after being on BBC1, but it's been bloody ages and we've not even had confirmation of an airdate over here, I don't think.

Still, this was an enjoyable read and it makes me more psyched for 'Waters of Mars' every time I hear the title.

Oh, and also, off-topic, but cheers Alan for getting me into 'Chuck'. Quite possibly the best decision I've ever made.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Wikipedia says it's airing July 6-10 on BBC1, which still gives you a two week headstart on us.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Official BBC site also has July 6 as UK premiere date.

Heather said...

Thanks for asking about Martha and Mickey on Torchwood! He totally sidestepped and didn't even answer what happened with Mickey, though. I sort of already knew why Martha wasn't going to appear. They really played up Jack and Mickey's camaraderie in Journey's End, at the expense of, I think, Jack and Rose getting any sort of moment together, so I'd really hate to see that go to waste with Mickey not even *showing up* on Torchwood, let alone becoming a regular character. Plus, I just love Noel Clarke to bits.

Great interview! I'm going to miss RTD and his giddy enthusiasm for the show once his tenure is officially over at the end of the year.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else think that the Matt Smith/Stephen Moffat run of Doctor Who would be the perfect time for NBC to pick it up? Given that Syfy is dropping the series, and NBC has shown some willingness to import shows like Merlin, the timing would be perfect.

Nicole said...

I think it would be "Fantastic" if NBC picked up the series with the Eleventh Doctor. Although I still think there is a prejudice against shows viewed as "science-fiction", so I don't see the execs doing it.

Noel Clarke won a BAFTA for Adulthood, a movie that he wrote, starred and directed, so I think that he was also unavailable for Torchwood, and probably wants to focus on that more than playing a character he has already done on a spinoff.

Trent Jensen said...

Is Bernard Cribbins going to be playing Donna's grandfather in Tennant's last episode, or is he playing another character? It could go either way with this show, but this might be the opportunity for Davies to make right with Donna!

Anonymous said...

Ha! Thanks for the interview. I loved that you stuck it to the man by calling him a bastard on behalf on Donna Noble. :D I'm still hoping she'd make a surprise appearance on Doctor Who again(and of course, regain her memory somehow), because I got far more attached to the character than I ever thought possible.

I'm actually dying to see Torchwood; it really has been a long time since last season, and having killed off almost half its staff, I'm interested to know how the team is functioning with new characters. I am a bit disappointed about Mickey not joing the team though.

Karen said...

When I read Davies' description of seeing the clip of the Daleks right before winning his BAFTA, it made me happy for him but sad for us. So: a "genre show" can win a top award in the UK, but here in the US, shows like Buffy and BSG don't even get nominated?


Nicole said...

Doctor Who is more than a genre show in the UK, it's an institution. Star Trek doesn't even have that large of an audience in the mainstream, and except for the brief resurgence in the 80s and 90s, it wasn't on television as much as Doctor Who has been. And DW aired on BBC, not cable or syndication, like Star Trek and BSG, so absolutely everyone had the opportunity to watch the show.

So DW winning the BAFTA is outside of the norm for a show classified as sci-fi, because basically every British kid of a certain age was watching this show while growing up. RTD was able to improve the quality of effects and writing, but the nostalgia factor also helped with the win.

Anonymous said...

Question for Cablevision customers: Do we get BBC America? If so, what channel? I don't think we do but I saw a commercial saying we did...guess I will have to place a call to the goliath and find out.

floretbroccoli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
floretbroccoli said...

You write "Cablevision," and I read it as "Time-Warner Cable."

For what it's worth, my parents in Brooklyn do have BBCA on Cablevision, although I don't remember what channel it's on.

Craig Ranapia said...

Is Bernard Cribbins going to be playing Donna's grandfather in Tennant's last episode, or is he playing another character? It could go either way with this show, but this might be the opportunity for Davies to make right with Donna!

On God of Teevee, please no! I just found Donna's departure so incredibly moving, it would be a serious shark circling moment if RTD contrived a way for Donna to get her memories back and live. Dare I say it, I found Rose's return in 'The Stolen Earth'/'Journey's End' contrived and incredibly annoying -- did she have much to do besides pout about not getting enough attention? On one level, I admire RTD's ability to throw in everything and the kitchen sink and (just) have it all hang together. But this time, I'd really like it if she stayed in her parallel word.