AICN’s Doctor Dan Chats Up DOCTOR WHO/TORCHWOOD Mastermind Russell T. Davies About All The HD Sci-Fi On BBC America This Week!!
Published at: July 20, 2009, 2:39 a.m. CST by hercules
I am – Hercules!!
Card-carrying limey (beware the disturbing way he spells words like “favorite”) and regular AICN contributor “Doctor Dan,” famous for his thoughtful and thorough The Good, The Bad And The Geeky reviews of the BBC’s “Doctor Who,” finally got to talk to longtime “Who” mastermind/“Torchwood” creator Russell T. Davies last week.
Learn, among many other things, that Davies appears to have retired from “Who” to relocate here to sunny Los Angeles, where he’s making a run at American showbiz; here's "Doctor Dan":
On the eve of BBC America showing Torchwood's "Children Of Earth" and Doctor Who's "Planet Of The Dead" as HD "events", I was able to have a quick chat with showrunner Russell T. Davies about those specials, filming overseas, his writing process, casting actors, David Tennant's final three outings as The Doctor (including the approximate airdate of "The Waters Of Mars"), a possible explanation for those Comic-Con rumours, the likelihood of a special sketch for Children In Need, the future of Torchwood, his thoughts on his years in charge of his favourite childhood show, and his own plans now he's officially left Doctor Who...
RTD: Hello. Hello, Dan.
DAN: Hello, Russell.
RTD: Hello, how are you?
DAN: I'm fine. Can you hear me?
RTD: Yes, I can hear you. Can you hear me?
DAN: You're a little bit faint, but I can just about hear you.
RTD: Oh, right. Odd, actually. (adjusts something) Any better?
DAN: Yes, that's it, that's okay. I can hear you fine now.
RTD: Okay, brilliant.
DAN: Okay. We've got fifteen minutes, apparently, so I'll crack on as fast as I can. Hopefully, most of my questions you haven't heard before, but I doubt that.
DAN: "Children Of Earth", then. The new five-part Torchwood special. Where did the idea come from to begin with, and was it your intention to create something with a Quatermass vibe?
RTD: It was, it was. Well, we always all wanted to move the programme onto BBC1. Right from the day it first started that was always our ambition, and [former Controller of Drama] Jane Tranter worked very, very hard at that and finally sort of came to me and said "the one way we can get this onto BBC1, to a mainstream audience, is as a big event with five episodes. Do you fancy that?" I mean, she could have gone back and retrenched if I'd said "no", but I liked that idea and liked the idea of a continuous story, so I literally gave it one second's thought and said "yes, that's perfect, that's brilliant." So that was it, really. As a team we collaborated on the best way to sort of move Torchwood up to the next level.
DAN: The actual idea for the story, was that yours entirely? I know you had two co-writers [John Fay and James Moran] working on the scripts, too.
RTD: Oh, the actual idea was mine entirely. Um, yeah: the children stopping, and the 456, the idea of them in their tank I'd had for a long while, and I put most of it together. Not all of it. We only plotted up to episode 4, really, and then they both ran out of time. I still owe them for that.
DAN: Obviously, I saw it last week, as I live in the UK. It was definitely tough material, even for Torchwood. Probably the darkest material it's had in its history. Were you worried about that, because series 2 had already ended in quite a downbeat way with a few characters dying.
RTD: Oh God, it doesn't worry me. I don't think it generally worries an audience. I think, if anything, a science-fiction audience tend to have a sort of dark-o-meter, but they just follow the story. As writers the story dictates we go in a certain direction, so we have to follow that direction. We don't sit there deciding how light or how dark something should be. I don't even understand these terms -- literally. When we're talking about the script, the editing, or we're talking about the story, we don't talk about that for a second. We're just honest with the story. The audience will decide whether it's dark or light, when it's funny, when it's not. That's my honest feeling, really.
DAN: "Children Of Earth" has already been a big success here in the UK--
RTD: A huge success!
DAN: I know. Around six million people tuning in every night over the five days. Were you surprised by its success? Many people thought the ratings would gradually slip over the week.
RTD: I'm just sort of quietly laughing. I've done about forty interviews with people saying they were surprised the ratings didn't slip. Having said that, you never know if something's going to work. Everything is pot luck. You can't know what ITV are going to show, you can't tell what the weather's going to be like, you simply can't tell what mood the viewing public's going to be in that day. I always knew it deserved to work. Whether or not it was going to work was completely in the hands of the Gods. But to see it work so well; literally everyone was surprised. The BBC was surprised, we were all surprised, the cast were surprised. It's just lovely.
DAN: Does this mean we can expect more specials like this, or will you go back to doing regular thirteen episodes?
RTD: We literally just don't know yet, because it's just too soon to say. None of us have sat down and had a conversation about it yet. I'm in America at the moment. BBC Wales are just getting ready to start filming Doctor Who. The bosses are in Cardiff, the commissioners are in London, so literally none of us have got together yet. It's too early to say. It did very well, so I'd be hopeful.
DAN: The "Children Of Earth" special starts this Monday [July 20] on BBC America, and there's a perception that Torchwood is more popular than Doctor Who across the pond. Is that true?
RTD: It's not quite, actually. That's a bit of a myth -- spread by the Torchwood cast, bless them! [Torchwood has] been more of a success on BBC America than any other show they've got. Doctor Who on SyFy has actually done very well, and in terms of numbers Doctor Who actually does better. But just as this mini-series has pushed Torchwood up to the next level in Britain, I hope it does for BBC America as well.
DAN: I don't want to go into too many spoilers, but for British fans who've seen "Children Of Earth", the mini-series left us at a definite crossroads. Can you give us any hints as to where we might be going next year? New people? A new set-up?
RTD: No, not really. I mean I do know. Literally, I could sit here and type out the first five scenes. I was having coffee yesterday and I thought "oh, that could happen, then that could happen" and I had the first five scenes done... but I couldn't tell you that. Every year the commissioners come back and they say "we want thirteen episodes" or "we want five episodes". They might want a hologram on the moon next time! I think that's one of the strengths of Torchwood; it's what I always call a "digital weapon". A multi-platform, multimedia thing. It was designed for BBC3 and launched like a missile – it got the highest ratings, still, that BBC3 has ever had. Now it's shifted onto BBC1 and is a major nine o'clock drama series. It's got radio plays, it's got the novels. It really is a "weapon" that can take any shape in the future. I find that really exciting. More good years to come, I hope.
DAN: Moving onto the writing itself, Jack Harkness is quite a dark character. Do you prefer writing for him, as you may get a little fed-up writing for The Doctor, who has a very different, pacifist attitude to saving the world?
RTD: I never get fed-up writing for The Doctor! Dan! I'm going to come back over there to slap you! (laughs)
DAN: I just thought you may like to embrace Jack's darker nature from time to time.
RTD: I embrace whatever character I write, that's why I write. I'm quite mad, I think. I know the people who don't write have all these writing theories, like the "Mary Sue" character, but that's simply the language of people who don't write things. People who do write things have no idea what they're on about. I just can't imagine having a favourite character. Literally, if a secretary walks through the door with two lines, then in that moment she's my favourite character. Someone like Bridget Spears [a supporting character in "Children Of Earth"] – she did have five lines, but I loved her and said I'm going to do more with her... and by the end half the drama is pivoting on her! Every character is important. Every single one. That's the only way to write.
DAN: Do you ever write with particular actors in mind? Peter Capaldi, [who plays civil servant John Frobisher] in "Children Of Earth", put in an excellent performance.
RTD: Spectacular! No, I don't tend to write with particular actors in mind. I think you tend to limit yourself. You think you're writing to their strengths, but actually you're making your writing weaker because you tend to write their shtick. You write patter for them as opposed to writing the actual character. So, very rarely. And I actually discounted Peter Capaldi because he'd just been in ["The Fires Of Pompeii" in] Doctor Who. But our director [Euros Lyn] turned round and said "look what a perfect fit he'd be." So, for once, we broke our rule. We've got an informal rule about not casting people in Doctor Who that have been in Torchwood, and vice versa. But with a part that big and with an actor that brilliant, we were prepared to accept all rules were broken.
DAN: He was really very good.
RTD: Every gesture... his body language... that haunted look on his face... love him.
DAN: The scene where he's speaking to the alien 456 was a particular highlight for me.
RTD: Y'know, I've always wanted to write one of those scenes for about twenty years. You don't know if the alien language translator is working properly... you don't know what that thing's thinking. I love that.
DAN: Moving on a little bit to "Planet Of The Dead", the Doctor Who special that's coming to BBC America on 26 July--
RTD: That's right, for the first time, yes.
DAN: -- you filmed overseas in Dubai for that episode. How was that challenge?
RTD: Well, we've filmed overseas before to get some plate shots of New York in the third year, and did the Pompeii episode in Italy in the fourth year. So we're sort of learning and spreading our wings as we go along. Not that filming abroad is essential, but I think if we get the chance and you can budget is correctly... for a show that's meant to go anywhere in the universe, you want to open up the vistas
DAN: Well, you can't linger around Cardiff too often!
RTD: (laughs) It's a nightmare for the crew in Cardiff, going abroad. It's not like going on holiday. I mean, imagine having to do your job and having to do it in the middle of a desert. Not very pleasant. (laughs)
DAN: Michelle Ryan is The Doctor's assistant in that special. Did you cast her because you knew she was popular with fans, who were keen to see her as the fulltime companion?
RTD: No, to be honest, we don't take fan thinking into consideration. Certainly not with casting, certainly not with script. That's never an issue and never will be, I think. Umm, but she simply... well, I'd met her, actually. I'd met her at the launch of Jekyll and I thought she was lovely. And I'd watched everything she'd done. I'd watched EastEnders. I watched the Bionic Woman as well – I thought she was excellent. The entire team knew of her, so it was the sort of casting where she was the one obvious name and you'd be mad to turn her down. You just offer her a part like that and hope and pray that she'll say yes. And she did. So, we were so lucky.
DAN: There is quite a quick turnaround of actors on Doctor Who and Torchwood. Many people disappear, die, regenerate in The Doctor's case, or get amnesia. Is that something you do to keep the shows fresh?
RTD: It is, unintentionally. It's sort of become accidentally intentional as we've gone along. We didn't start out with it as a policy, but working on Doctor Who I realized that we had a big launch every year, with David [Tennant] standing there with his sonic screwdriver. And in the background there's a fireball, or outer space, or New York, or it's lasers. It's hard, y'know, you have to keep those images changing because they have a profound effect. So how you handle that, I realized, is to have a different companion every time and it really relaunches the show. And on a much more profound level, as well, not just the superficial aspects of publicity. It's like, y'know, for the writers, if you give them a new companion they can't relax. They can't take anything for granted. They have to keep restating the principles of the show. Every year you go back in history and say how marvelous it is... you go to alien planets and you say how marvelous it is... every year you go to the future and you say how marvelous it is. The whole format of Doctor Who relies on turning the cast over. And it surprisingly works. Every single year our viewing figures got bigger. It sort of accidentally worked.
DAN: Over your four years running Doctor Who you've brought back a lot of classic villains. Are there any that you didn't get around to bringing back, that you wish you had?
RTD: Not really. Well, I mean, I could keep bringing them back forever, to be honest. Obviously you've got to mix the old with the new. My first episode, the whole relaunch of Doctor Who, we had the return of an old villain [the Autons], so I was kind of laying my cards out on the table from the start. But, so long as you have new stuff coming in, like Steven [Moffat's] Weeping Angels, the Slitheen, the Ood, then you just balance the old ones. So in a way you could bring back any old monster.
DAN: Were you ever tempted to bring back Paul McGann [who played the Eighth Doctor in the 1996 TV Movie]?
RTD: No, not for a second. He was a wonderful Doctor. If you look back, there's no way in 2005 we'd have relaunched a new show with an old Doctor. But I think he's brilliant – what a fine actor, y'know. But it was never even discussed.
DAN: Looking ahead, David Tennant's last three specials are on the way. "Waters Of Mars" is next up. Do you have any idea when that will air?
RTD: You won't know when that's going to air until about a fortnight beforehand. Literally, I don't know, but I would say it's going to be November. But someone at the BBC may change their mind and it will suddenly be a different day. It can't be before November because it's not ready. It has to be scored and dubbed before then. Sometime after the end of October. Not Halloween. I know some people think it's going to be Halloween, but it won't be ready by then.
DAN: The BBC have released a preview clip and it looks incredibly scary.
RTD: We have a fantastic trailer ready for Comic-Con at the end of July. It's brilliant, it's really exciting. I was just looking at it this morning, actually, and I love it. But yes, it's a good old fashioned, claustrophobic, trapped episode -- with brilliant monsters and a moral dilemma at the heart of it. It's really exciting.
DAN: I'm a big fan of your Doctor Who episode "Midnight".
RTD: Oh, excellent, thank you.
DAN: I thought it was very good, and very claustrophobic. Did you enjoy writing something that small-scale instead of millions of Daleks flying around?
RTD: It’s just a different set of muscles. A different set of writing muscles that every writer should have. A bunch of people stuck in one place is like writing a stage play. We could even do it on stage. But yeah, it's just to keep things, as ever, varied. It was just an idea I'd had in the back of my head for ages, and I knew I was in my final year, so I thought "if I don't write this now, I'll never write it." It was my one chance to throw it into the mix.
DAN: Also, Doctor Who often film a special sketch for Children In Need. Is that going to happen again this year?
RTD: No. No plans this year. We simply didn't have time. I know there are lots of rumours flying about. But no, there's nothing. We'll do what we did last year, and show the opening pre-titles sequence of the next special. Y'know, we want to give Children In Need anything we can because we love them and it's a great cause. We're dying to help, but I think we'll offer them something like that.
DAN: I guess Doctor Who's finished for you now, and you're just winding down?
RTD: Yes, I'm coming back in October to do the dubs and then that'll be it.
DAN: But you're still in charge of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures?
RTD: Yes-yes-yes, we were discussing that today. I get the Sarah Jane edits on my computer and that'll be out there in... oh, when does Sarah Jane air? September, normally, isn't it. That is a great series, so yes.
DAN: Looking back on your ten years – oh, ten years?! I mean four years on Doctor Who --
RTD: (big laugh)
DAN: -- has there been any episode you were especially pleased with, or a moment you were proud of?
RTD: I think the surprise of the success of Torchwood on BBC1 has been the biggest surprise. Literally, none of us were expecting that. We'd all hoped it would do well, as I say. You sit there with fingers crossed. [Its popularity] was gobsmacking. But the whole thing, honestly, is to think -- as I'm sure you know, Dan – that I've loved Doctor Who since I was six years old. And, do you know, it's the only television show I've loved this much. I liked other things. I like Coronation Street, I like reality shows, but I don't love them the way that I love Doctor Who. To see something that's so ingrained in me, and such a huge part of my life, becoming such a huge part of the culture, is just a joy. But I'm quite sure I haven't got my head around it, so perspective won't come until after I've left. But it's just been... literally, if you'd asked me five years ago how successful would it be, I'd never have dreamed of this amount of success. Imagining five years ago that a spin-off of Doctor Who would be the BBC's number one drama in primetime... it would have been impossible. In children's, that Sarah Jane Smith would be back with her own series, the number one series for them? It's just been brilliant! What an adventure.
DAN: What are your plans now, after Doctor Who, apart from Torchwood? Any new projects in the pipeline?
RTD: There will be new projects, hopefully. I mean, I'll keep an eye on [Torchwood and Sarah Jane] as opposed to running it, and we don't know what Torchwood's future is yet. I'm out here in America to sort of learn the American system and study, talk to people over here and learn how they do things. It'll take years. It's a long-term investment, sort of thing. A whole new adventure,
DAN: So you've actually moved to America?
RTD: Yes. Oh, yeah-yeah. And very nice it is, too. Sunny outside.
DAN: It's not so bad here today, either.
At this point the BBC America publicist told us our time was up.
RTD: Okay, is that alright, Dan?
DAN: Could I ask one more, quick question?
RTD: Go on! Quickly.
DAN: Can you confirm or deny the death of the Torchwood pterodactyl?
RTD: (big laugh) I think she must have been blown up in that blast.
DAN: (laughs) Okay, thanks very much for your time.
RTD: Thanks, Dan.
The first seven minutes of Torchwood's "Children Of Earth":
“Torchwood: Children of Earth”: Monday-Friday 9 p.m. BBC America.
“Dr. Who: Planet of the Dead”: Sunday 8 p.m. BBC America.