Russell T. Davies turned to fantasy to make Doctor Who think harder

Doctor Who — a show about a time-traveling alien traipsing through the cosmos in a ship that looks like a British police box — has always been whimsical. But in its newest season, the long-running sci-fi classic leads with a supernatural otherworldliness that makes it feel much more like a magical fantasy. 

In the buildup to Doctor Who’s 14th series / season, showrunner Russell T. Davies let everyone know he planned to establish new lore meant to deepen our understanding of Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor. That wasn’t surprising coming from the man who complicated Doctor Who canon in a massive way back in 2005 by introducing the Time War — a conflict that left the Doctor as the sole survivor of his extraordinary race. But it was hard to imagine how Davies could successfully pull off even more massive Doctor Who twists after episodes like “The Timeless Children” (which gave the Doctor a whole new origin story) and “The Giggle” (which split the Doctor into two people) without ruffling some feathers.

When I spoke with Davies recently ahead of the new season’s premiere, he explained that he didn’t spend much time worrying about whether superfans would gripe about changes. As a fan himself, Davies trusted that his enjoyment of the new directions he wanted to take the Doctor was a sign to keep going. But he also felt that opening the season with big changes would be the perfect way to remind viewers how Doctor Who has always been a show about transformation.

Reactions to newer lore establishing the Doctor as both an orphan and an abandoned child were a bit polarizing because it reworked some core aspects of the series in a really unexpected way. What about stepping into this new era of Doctor Who and taking really big swings felt risky to you? 

It never feels risky to me, to be honest. I’m the man who created Queer as Folk in 1999 — I live off risk. I love it. I think we can be unfair to fans sometimes when we say the viewers are polarized because there’s nothing fans love more than a good debate. Just go and talk to a bunch of football fans. There are no football fans saying, “Our team is perfect, we’re really happy, and we’ve got nothing to say.” They’re all arguing all the time, and that’s just what fandom is. If things are polarizing, I think we’re in a healthy position, but I also think we sometimes overstate the importance of discourse on Twitter, [now X].

That said, I’m a fan, and I’m not dismissing fan opinions at all, but I think that as long as I personally can find a good emotional path through the story, it’s in a good place. I’m not quite sure where I am when I’m talking about the history of the legend of the Timeless Child. That actually doesn’t mean much to me. But if you say to me, “The Doctor is a foundling” — an orphan who doesn’t know who his parents are — that sells it to me. Suddenly, I can listen to that man and empathize with him. That’s when you know you’re in really rich emotional territory, and I think that’s where Doctor Who is right now.

You’ve said that you wanted to see Doctor Who step into this kind of Marvel-esque era of prominence and production values and scale, and you can definitely see that in these first two episodes. But this is also a time when Marvel fatigue is at an all-time high. Is guarding against a larger sense of Marvel-ification something that you’ve given any consideration to? 

I know what you mean, but I have no Marvel fatigue myself at all. What a privileged position to be in to be fatigued by that stuff. Doctor Who is unashamedly a smaller player, and its genius comes from the fact that it’s the cheeky kid at the back of the classroom. It’s not the superhero punching through walls — it’s the whiz kid in the back with the wisecracks being a bit sarcastic about things. Doctor Who has always had a very different glitter compared to other shows. My colleagues in the past always worked very hard to make it look lovely, but we have upgraded it for this new series, I think, and it looks even more lovely.

It’s not a vast budget. We’re not on a Marvel or Star Wars scale, which I’m glad about because I think Doctor Who thrives in ingenuity. We’ve gotten a bit more money for effects, but in this first episode, we haven’t spent it on 1,000 spaceships; we spent it on talking babies, you know? That’s very much in the nature of Doctor Who — to be inventive and a little bit sly that way — and it’s something I’m honestly not tired of.

Both the Christmas special and the season premiere put so much emphasis on children. Why is that? 

I find the stories of foundlings fascinating in the modern world because now, of course, for the first time in history, DNA testing exists. These children need to be abandoned, and that was mostly the end of the story. But now they can actually trace their families through DNA. I was watching documentaries and stuff about that, and they started to feed me ideas. 

I kind of thought, if you put this concept of modern foundlings into a science fiction setting, it really starts to come alive, and all of these ideas about The Doctor, Ruby, and being abandoned on a church doorstep on Christmas Eve began to chime with each other. We keep going back to that story about Ruby Road, and it’s not finished yet, but it has the most fascinating conclusion.

You’ve talked about the fan perception that Billie Piper’s Rose was treated exceptionally among Doctor Who’s companions but how you yourself never really were consciously trying to write her as being special. Donna Noble grew into being a very distinct companion, but with Ruby, there’s a textual uniqueness to her pretty much right from when we’re introduced to her. What’s been some of the thinking behind your approaching your evolving approach to fleshing out companions? 

I think with Ruby, it’s not so much her character or her spirit but that she has a stronger story than I’ve ever given a companion before, and it unfolds in this huge way. But Rose, Donna, Martha, and now Ruby do have one thing in common, which is that I’m initially presenting them as the most ordinary people. That’s the joy of Doctor Who. I think one of the strengths of Star Trek — and I’m a very big Discovery fan — is you’ve got to be the best to be aboard the Enterprise. You are the elite. You are the best of the best of the best. Even the Lower Decks are very good. I think that’s true of American society, which is very aspirational. 

Star Trek always feels very demotic and down to earth, but if I was alive in the 24th century, they wouldn’t let me on the ship. They’d say, “No, you’re banned. You’re a fire hazard. Get out.” But the joy of Doctor Who is that the TARDIS could land on a street corner and take anyone. That’s what I used to think when I was walking home from school every day — stepping into the TARDIS and escaping the ordinary. There was nothing wrong with my life and nothing to escape from, but who doesn’t want to go to those endless horizons? That’s what my companions have in common.

Ruby, bless her, turns out to be wonderful and brave and, yes, very special. But her actual life’s very small. She lives with her mum and her gran. She’s earning 50 pounds playing a keyboard in bars. She’s living a low-key life before she meets the Doctor, and it’s only after she embarks on these adventures that her specialness comes to the fore.

You weave The Maestro into Doctor Who’s mythos in such an organic way, but they are a somewhat kind of new presence for this series to a certain extent. Talk to me about what you wanted to do with characters like the Maestro that would set them apart from previous bigger bads in the series. 

I wanted to increase the danger for the Doctor, really, and to shoot for a bigger, wider sense of imagination. When you have characters who can change the structure of reality, that’s the time that you can really start playing with the pictures — especially since we’ve gotten this bigger budget. In a science fiction setting, the Doctor is always two steps away from pressing the right button and saving the day. 

But when you introduce a fantasy element to the equation — which is only in some episodes — it allows us to take away the buttons. There’s no computer or sonic screwdriver for him to immediately save the day with, and all rules are off, which means the Doctor has to think harder and fight harder than ever before, and I really enjoy that. 

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