Showrunner Russell T. Davies On Ushering An Inclusive Era Of ‘Doctor Who’

After 13 years away from the smash-hit British sci-fi series Doctor Who, showrunner and executive producer Russell T. Davies is back and ready to (slightly) reintroduce the Doctor in a way that’s a bit more nuanced and bolder than ever before.

This time around, in the series’ 14th season, the Doctor is played by Ncuti Gatwa, the first openly queer Black actor to take on the role. “When you become a senior figure in television, it’s your job to open doors and let the next people through and to let trans and queer stories through,” Davies told Deadline. Davies was the linchpin of the new iteration of the six-decade franchise from 2005 until 2010, making it one of the most successful TV reboots in modern history.

Deadline spoke to Davies about the importance of his work as a queer filmmaker and the unabashedly fun choices in the latest season of Doctor Who.

DEADLINE: You ushered in Doctor Who’s iconic revival in 2005, and now you’re back almost a decade later. I’m curious about the throughline of your work on things like Queer as Folk to Years and Years to now cultivating this new queer Doctor Who. As a queer person yourself, what does all of this mean to you? 

RUSSELL T. DAVIES: That’s like asking me, “What’s the meaning of life?” [laughs]. It’s something I’m immensely proud of. I often get asked, “Do you mind being identified as a gay writer?” And I say, “I’m absolutely delighted to be.” I’m identified by that. What a fine label to have. I consider myself to be very lucky, genuinely, throughout my life. When I came to write Queer as Folk—which was the game-changer for me— I just think I was lucky that I was the person that got [those types of stories] onscreen. Because I know I was part of a rising tide of gay, lesbian, and other writers, all of us contributing to the soaps and chipping into primetime dramas, all of us slowly and then rapidly, increasing the visibility of queer characters on screen. And I’m lucky that I was one that burst through and got that onscreen.

When you get lucky like that, I think you have to act with responsibility. I know it’s a very hungry audience that is rarely satisfied. I met someone recently who loved a show I’d written called Cucumber. Believe me, that show died a death—no one liked Cucumber. So, meeting someone who loved it was such a special moment for me. I’m always aware, especially as time marches on, that I carry this legacy of being white, male and gay. And it’s my job to look beyond that because there’s no point in sitting still. I have to look at myself and be certain that I’ve moved on. I look to society and try to listen to what’s going on and open gateways. When you become more of a senior figure in television, it’s your job to open doors and let the next people through and to let trans and queer stories through and to become familiar with this language myself instead of settling into middle age. 

One of the marvelous things about being gay is that actually you’re always in the news, whether you want to be or not. It’s in every presidential election or prime ministerial election in Great Britain, someone will ask about gay rights, someone will ask about queer rights; you find yourself in this remarkable position of always being topical and newsworthy.  And although I wish a lot of those problems and discussions didn’t happen—that they’d be fixed and settled but nonetheless, you find yourself always being in the news. And I think that keeps you topical and alert. It means you can’t quite settle into middle age because your rights are not enshrined and are paper thin. I have always said that our rights are paper thin, and lo and behold, the past five years have proved me right. I don’t take any joy or satisfaction in being proved right in this at all. So, when it comes to this whole world, this whole vortex of this whole continuum, my own work that I’ve created, then Doctor Who is simply just a natural part of that. And I have to believe that I’ve been employed to write, to be me, to simply write the way I write, and to say the things that I say.

DEADLINE: As you stated, the times and cultural climate have certainly changed, especially since you were last at the helm of Doctor Who in 2010. This is also reflected in some of the themes laid out in the early episodes of the show. The thing that particularly jumped out to me was the mental health of it all. The Doctor and Ruby Sunday seem more introspective about their backgrounds, or lack thereof, in this exploration of their identity crises. 

DAVIES: It’s a world now in which the greatest thing we can do is reach out to people and try to help in matters of mental health. To all young people, more so than ever before, we need to reach out to them and say, “Express yourself and tell us when you’re unhappy, and actually tell us when you’re happy.” One of the glorious things about TikTok is that they can all dance and show themselves having enormous fun in their bedrooms. It’s not all misery; there’s real joy in being a teenager.

So that’s the world I’m in now, and that’s very much the world I wanted for Doctor Who. I wanted that joy, that expression, but also that freedom to talk about mental health, and that comes with a story about adoption and fostering. I think it’s funny because I think we can all relate to stories about adoption and fostering, because, frankly, I’m quite sure I was kidnapped as a child, and I actually belong to a royal family, let’s be honest [laughs]. I’m very safe and secure in knowing who my lovely mum and dad were, yet I still wonder who I am and where I came from. The bloodline doesn’t answer everything about who I am. And I genuinely had a lovely childhood; I have no problems to unearth there, and yet I end up as this queer kid, locked away in what was a very sporty household with my dad loving rugby. My dad almost playing rugby for Wales; he was a big rugby captain. So, I even think, where do I come from? We all do.

So, for those people who’ve been through the adoption process or the fostering process, and certainly, amazingly, for people who’ve been foundlings, it is a very rare thing but an astonishing experience to have to go through. We’re all wondering who we are, and I think that’s a very modern question to put into Doctor Who. And when you also factor in that the Doctor has recently discovered that he is not a Time Lord by birth, that he was an abandoned child, it just starts to resonate. The best thing you can do with a science fiction property is make it mean something at home. In the way that I love Star Trek, it aspires to be the best of us. Star Trek genuinely encourages us to do well, to trust our friends, to have faith, and to have faith in the system.

Doctor Who has different values, Doctor Who’s much more individual and idiosyncratic and would run away from a formal process as being the crew of a spaceship. Nonetheless, they’ve all got something to teach us, and I think that’s a great place to be working. I love writing this stuff. I love doing this stuff because if you can humanize it, then as all great science fiction has always done, it’s only people who don’t watch science fiction who think that science fiction is cold. 

Doctor Who Ncuti Gatwa Millie Gibson

Doctor Who

BBC Studios/Bad Wolf/James Pardon

DEADLINE: This season has so much zaniness than in the previous iterations. Now that Doctor Who has a Disney budget, how has that amplified your approach for the new season? 

DAVIES: I wanted the show to be fun and a bit nuts. I think there’s an awful lot of television now, and I watch an awful lot of television, but I think there’s so much television that [sticks too rigidly] to the three-act structure. You know when there are 10 minutes left to go, when there’s going to be a major event, or when the murderer is going to be caught. So, I think it’s time for a show just to break those rules. Writing is about the heart and the pulse and sparks in the brain. Writing is about psychology. It’s about understanding people and why they do what they do. It’s not about hitting a particular beat 17 minutes in. So, I wanted to show this kind of laughing in the face of those rules. 

Doctor Who has its own charm and property; it’s always been mad. The whole fundamental principle is here’s a wooden box that’s bigger on the inside than on the outside, and it just goes anywhere for no reason. It’s not his job, it’s not his mission, it’s not his task, it’s not a quest, he just pops off to the next place at random, and that is joyously freewheeling. You have goblins who sing, a God of Music, and you pop back in time to meet the Beatles. And I can promise there is lots more of that to come [in future episodes]. 

But, at the same time, it’s worth saying to new viewers that there’s always a very strong story. There’s always good and bad at work. There’s always a crisis for the Doctor. There’s always the human companion to experience things through. So, the bones of a proper story are still there, but I think the chance to have fun and go wild is irresistible.

DEADLINE: Speaking of music, there’s quite a bit of singing this season. When you cast Ncuti and Millie Gibson, did you tell them they’d do all this beforehand? 

DAVIES: To be honest, we didn’t. Just in case they ran away [laughs]. I think they were surprised. I’m putting words in their mouths, but I think they weren’t ready for the fact that they actually had to sing in the studio. I think they thought it’d all be pre-recorded, but we did a kind of Les Misérables on them and said, “Let’s actually sing it for real,” so that was a shock. 

But they loved it. You can see from the finished result how much. They are just two such talented people. If you look at a photo of them, your eyes can see their talent seeping out from their pores. So, any challenge like that is done with the biggest grin. Because it’s not just all fun, and they absolutely dedicated themselves to getting that right. On top of all that singing they also have to come in on a Saturday morning and learn all that choreography and dance steps and record their voices and stuff like that. So, it’s a lot of work for everyone, but always worth it. 

Doctor Who is now streaming on Disney+, with new episodes every week until June 21, 2024.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]

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