The World Finally Caught Up With Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who Ambitions… What Now?

The World Finally Caught Up With Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who Ambitions… What Now?
Davies' return to Doctor Who goes beyond simply rehashing what he did 16 years ago. (Image: BBC)

Everything old is new again — Russell T. Davies is going to be running Doctor Who again for the first time in over a decade. He’ll make his return in 2023, replacing just the second showrunner to replace him since the series returned in 2005.

In the days since the bonkers news that the BBC would be turning back the clock and bringing the man who revitalised Doctor Who back into the fold, Doctor Who fans have speculated wildly about just what ephemeral RTD “vibe” could return with him. Down-to-earth companions like Rose, Martha, and Donna! Camp! More monsters! More silliness! The list goes on and on.

But Davies doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would return to Doctor Who simply to either re-litigate or erase what came before him. After all, the writer mostly exited genre when he left Doctor Who the first time around — dabbling here and there with the likes of Wizards vs Aliens or the dystopian near-future that sets the stage for Years and Years, but focusing more on queer drama like the twin series Cucumber and Banana, the seminal It’s a Sin, or the historical comedy-drama A Very English Scandal.

A return for Davies to Doctor Who is not to necessarily carry on with what he did before — for good or ill, depending on how you view his tenure in hindsight — but to try something entirely new. Hopefully, he’ll be taking what he has learned in the years since to do what Doctor Who has always done: grow, change, and evolve our definition of what it can be in the first place. But maybe there is one thing from Davies’ tenure that the sci-fi series could do with again, less about the show itself and more about it’s place in a TV world that has grown around it since he and the BBC returned to the TARDIS in 2005: Davies’ ambition that there is more to Doctor Who than, well, Doctor Who.

The TV landscape that Davies’ revival came into, even as it shot to almost immediate cultural popularity, was incredibly different from the one we have now. Even then, Davies and his team had a clear idea of what a show with Doctor Who’s reach could become — an idea that’s basically just common thinking in the genre TV we see today. From Star Wars to Marvel, from Star Trek to Game of Thrones, some of the biggest shows around are spinoffs branching out of a larger spine of stories. The Mandalorian, Lower Decks, What If in this age of studio-owned streaming, the franchises dominating the space are no longer solely confined to a theatre or TV screen, but are expanded upon through all different formats (novels, audio series, comics, movies, shows, games). That was something Davies wanted to do all the way back in 2005.

Image: BBC Image: BBC

“I was in the middle of running an empire, and my god I did that 10 years too soon, didn’t I?,” Davies recently told writer Paul Kirkley. “There should be a Doctor Who channel now. You look at those Disney announcements, of all those new Star Wars and Marvel shows, you think, we should be sitting here announcing The Nyssa Adventures or The Return of Donna Noble, and you should have the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors together in a 10-part series.”

It’s hard to state how unprecedented Davies’ shepherding of Doctor Who along its rise to success in those early days was, especially considering the current media environment. Having behind-the-scenes accompaniments like Doctor Who: Confidential, announcements of “mature” spinoffs like Torchwood, or something like The Sarah Jane Adventures — an even more explicitly family-focused riff on Doctor Who — and airing them alongside the continuation of the main series, with characters from each bounding around to show up on them, was practically unheard of at the time. Now? It’s just… what happens on TV.

Davies even knew when enough was enough for Doctor Who, like the scrapped plans for a Billie Piper-led spinoff Rose Tyler: Earth Defence after she exited the series in 2006. Davies was thinking a decade ahead of himself on Doctor Who by expanding its world beyond the remit of a Time Lord in a TARDIS for so long — something the series always prided itself on, whether it was in the beloved New Adventures novels that carried the series on after it first left the airwaves, or the ongoing world of stories told by Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio dramas.

The formula is there now for Doctor Who to build on the ambitions it’s always had — taking the variety, scope, and dreams that have fuelled the series under Davies, and in the years since his first exit, and pushing them out into an entire universe of Who. Maybe now that the rest of TV has caught up with them, when the writer returns to the TARDIS console in a few years, it’ll be the first step into a much larger world in time and space than even he could’ve previously imagined.