Is It Time to Relaunch Again?
Thoughts on Russel T. Davies Returning to Doctor Who
As we've spent the last month (as part of "Sci-Fi Saga September"), going through the stories of the first three Doctors in the 2005 relaunch of Doctor WhoThe longest running sci-fi franchise (at least in terms of sheer seasons), Doctor Who has seen cancelations, relaunches, and reboots, but the core of the series remains the same: a madman in a box traveling through time and space., (plus Paul McGann's movie), we did get a bit of news that I feel we have to talk about: Russel T. Davies, the mastermind behind the relaunch of the show back in 2005, who also shepherded the new series through its first two Doctors, will be returning after Series 13. Chris Chibnall is bailing at the same time as his one doctor, Jodie Whittaker's Thirteenth, making room for Davies to do what he does.
For fans of the relaunch era of Doctor Who I have to think that this news comes as both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, Davies is the one that cracked the code that got the show back on the air. After the original series was canceled back in 1986, the BBC spent a lot of time and effort trying to get the show back on the air (with not a whole lot to show from it outside the one Paul McGann movie I like). It took Davies -- creator of other popular shows such as Queer as Folk, Casanova, Cucumber, and many more -- to find the right style, the right formula to get the Beeb to sign off and put it into production. And, most importantly, his early seasons were an absolutely hit with audiences, making Doctor Who into a cultural obsession once again.
At the same time, though, Davies's run on the show wasn't exactly consistent. While he guided the show through some of its high moments, a fair number of episodes under his tenure were mediocre at best, out-right bad at worst. Every show has its highs and its lows, and nothing about the Davies era was particularly awful, not on a regular basis at least, but when Davies announced he was leaving after the final run of David Tennant specials (marking the end of the Tenth Doctor's tenure), fans were hopeful for where the show could go, especially with Steven Moffat taking of. And Moffat's first series on the show, Series 5, was brilliant, showing just how far the series could go with the right creative at the helm.
Meanwhile, it's also worth pointing out how uneven Davies's Doctor Who-related works were. While Torchwood has its fans (and I even like it's third season, "Children of Earth", and I'd call it the best chunk of episodes the series ever made), that series was wildly uneven even at the best of times. Meanwhile, the Sarah Jane Adventures was cute, a fun little lark for kids, but it lacked the substance to really hook most fans. It did go for five seasons, though, right up until the death of lead actress, Elizabeth Sladen, so it did have some spark to it at least.
Doctor Who since Davies left has been something of a roller coaster. As I noted, I liked Series 5 a lot, and I think there is merit in the rest of the Matt Smith run (although the later series and specials under his tenure weren't anywhere near as good). But once Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor left, the show felt like it floundered. Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor lacked the magic of the previous Doctors, being much grumpier and less interesting than Tennant or Smith, and his stories were either ho-hum or just felt like retreads of much better tales. When Capaldi left, Moffat followed suit, opening up another new era for Chibnall and Whittaker to come in and make the show their own.
Thing is that I like Whittaker, and I think she does a good job with what she's given. Her Doctor is too much like Tennant and Smith, that same motor-mouthed patter and up energy. I can see why the series went that route as Capaldi was such a chore to watch, but I do wish they could have found something interesting, and different, for Whittaker to do so she didn't just feel like another riff on Ten and Eleven. This wasn't helped, in any way, but Chibnall's run at the helm which had stories that were, at best, tedious. I like this show a lot (I did just write about it for a full month) and yet I still struggle to get through Series 12 of the show (in advance of Series 13 starting up soon). The Chibnall era is a total snore.
So I get why the BBC really wants a new show runner. Series 12 clocked in rather disappointing numbers (5.4 Million average viewers, which was in the same league as Capaldi's Doctor and far down from the average of the Davies and Moffat eras, which clocked between 7 Mil and 8 Mil viewers consistently). His first season did really well, at nearly 8 Mil viewers, but a dip like that in a single season is hard to ignore, and that's before we even look at fan opinions which generally praise Whittaker but hate the stories given to her Doctor. The Chibnall era has turned into something of a dud.
Thus, enter Davies, the man who saved Doctor Who once before. As fans Online have noted, "he saved the show once before so he's the first name on the list to save it now that it's a trash fire once again." Considering how quickly Chibnall is leaving (only three series and two specials when other show-runners have done five or more years) it certainly does feel like he's being pushed out so the show can be given a spark of life again. Whether the decision was really his or not, and it might very well have been, the optics of pulling Davies back in to "save the show" are certainly there.
Is Davies the right guy for the job, though? That is the question and its honestly hard to say. The show has matured and changed a lot since he left in 2010 and that new dynamic just might fuel his stories, giving him something new and interesting to work with. Of course there's also the fact that Davies never totally left the show; he always had at least a toe in, submitting scripts for audio plays, having watch parties with fans, and generally keeping up with the community around the show. He's still a part of Doctor Who and he clearly cares about the series even now. That's the kind of energy the series needs.
The worry, of course, is whether he'll bring anything new to the series. When his show was good it was really good, but he had a lot of stumbles in his tenure -- I described this, more than once, as "bombast over heart" -- and the concern would be whether these kinds of stories (and the narrative shortcuts they generally relied upon) return with the second Davies run. A run that just feels like a retread of what Davies did before, even if it will have a new Doctor at the helm, won't help the show any more than the further bungled adventures of Chibnall. The show isn't dying, but it does need the right spark to really reignite interest.
I do think the first new series under his tenure will be a massive success, probably getting back up to the 8 Mil mark (give or take). It'll be the return of the man that saved the show before, which fans will like, and it will have a new Doctor, which will attract general audiences. The question, though, is how long will that last? Will the ratings hold? Will the writing stand up? Will this new era be any better than what we're been getting for the last seven years? I want to hope for the best but I do worry. We've seen what Davies can do and not all of it is great.
And then there's the really unpopular opinion: maybe current Doctor Who needs a break. Perhaps, after the Chibnall/Whittaker era is over, maybe the show should take a couple of more years off and find its spark again. With Davies plotting out something, it seems like a good idea to take a little time off and let interest in the show renew. It's been going for 16 years since the relaunch, which is a long time for any series. Maybe now is the time to give it a little break and come back in, say, 2025 to usher in the next era of the show? That might give all the creatives time to really think over the series and define what makes Doctor Who work.
I like this show and I want to see it do well. Davies could do that, if he does it right. Now we just have to worry if the show can bounce back and carry on again, in some form, for the future.