INTERVIEW – Doctor Who Showrunner Russell T Davies Answers a Few Questions About the New Series and the New Doctor

Russell T Davies returned as Doctor Who’s showrunner late last year with three 60th Anniversary Special and the Fifteenth Doctor’s first Christmas special.

This year he is leading the charge with Ncuti Gatwa’s first full season as the Fifteenth Doctor.   The first two episodes will be broadcast on BBC iPlayer at midnight on Saturday, the 11th of May.  Alongside his new companion, Ruby Sunday ( Millie Gibson), the Fifteenth Doctor will battle to save a spaceship full of talking space babies, meet the legendary Beatles and meet a new foe – the all-powerful Maestro portrayed by the incomparable Jinkx Monsoon.

Before the excitement starts, the latest and returning Showrunner answered a few questions about the upcoming season, the new Doctor and his new companion.

Doctor Who S1,Premiere,Ncuti Gatwa, Millie Gibson and Russell T Davies, ,BBC Studios, Photo by Jonanthan Birch
Doctor Who S1,Premiere,Ncuti Gatwa, Millie Gibson and Russell T Davies, ,BBC Studios, Photo by Jonanthan Birch

Q: What made you so eager to come back to the helm of Doctor Who?

A: I just love the show. I have loved it all my life. I think about it all the time. It’s not like I ever stopped thinking about it, really. I have every single issue of Doctor Who Magazine in a special cabinet with a glass front. I used to smoke, so that would protect the magazines from my cigarette smoke. That’s how much I love the show.

Q: Why is now the right time for you to return to Doctor Who?

A: All those years while I was away, I was beginning to think about what the future of Doctor Who looks like. And then the BBC hijacked me on a Zoom – they trapped me! They sprung their ambitions on me to make Doctor Who bigger, with worldwide streaming, a simultaneous drop, a production partner with a global scale and ambition. And it literally fit exactly what I thought the show should be doing. I think I actually said ‘yes’ on the spot. You’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to say, ‘Let me go away and think about this.’

Q: What part did you play when speaking to potential streaming partners?

A: I pitched the concept of the entire first series. There were no scripts, but I worked out the rough format of how it would go and the shape of it and what it would look and feel like.

Really, I just described the fundamentals of travel in time and space, anywhere in history, anywhere in the future, any planet, any genre. That’s the important thing to understand about Doctor Who. It’s very rare. We can have a comedy one week, a terror the next week, a haunted house the next week and a thriller the next week. That’s very unusual. I was selling it from scratch, really, but always emphasising the Doctor and the companion as the heart of it. And it worked. And now here we are. Hurray!

Q: What convinced you to cast Ncuti Gatwa as the new Doctor?

A: He’s already one of our great actors. In Sex Education, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. I literally swear, in five years’ time, you’ll have the next James Bond right here. I’ll be being held back by security, saying “I know him!”

I consider myself to be the luckiest man on earth that in the year that I came along to take over Doctor Who, Ncuti Gatwa was coming to the end of his time on Sex Education. I’m so lucky that happened. It just looks like it was meant to be.

When you see him in action as the Doctor, he’s just astonishing. I had to have a few words with myself. I thought, ‘You have done a few Doctors now, can you do it again? Are you going to get excited? Are you going to get energised?’ And then you look at Ncuti doing the role, and it’s like a brand-new playing field. It’s open vistas and new horizons ahead of you. It’s so exciting that it inspires me. It generates stories in me. It’s an absolute joy to work with him.

Q: What qualities does Ncuti have that work so well in the Doctor?

A: He’s limitless. That’s really all you look for in every single actor. I’ve been so lucky over the years to work with people like this. There’s a certain breed of limitless actors who are unafraid to go anywhere or do anything. An awful lot of acting is wanting to be liked, but they don’t care about that. The good ones just want to be, to exist and to ride to the emotion, whether it is terror, or joy or all the emotions in between. And you’re never quite sure where they’re going to go. There’s a great feeling of the unexpected. In a recording session, I listened to a line that Ncuti delivered off camera and it made me burst out laughing because it went the opposite way to what I was expecting. I was taken by surprise, and that’s a lovely thing.

Q: What other characteristics does Ncuti possess that inform this version of the Doctor?

A: Quite by chance, I wanted a more emotional Doctor, and lo and behold, we have cast someone whose emotions are vast, turbulent, and visible. He cries when it’s sad, he laughs when it’s funny, and he’s got the biggest smile in the whole universe. When fear or suspicion play across his face, he signals wildly to the camera what’s going on. You can’t miss it. Historically, Doctors have tended to keep their emotions to themselves and play the game of being reserved. And the actors have done that brilliantly. But right now in 2024, I want a man who cries when it’s sad. And Ncuti does that to an astonishing degree. I just genuinely feel lucky to be part of this now. With him in the TARDIS, it is wonderful.

Q: What does Millie bring to the role of Ruby?

A: She is just tremendous. She also brings an awful lot of experience – she has been in Coronation Street since she was 14 years old. I was watching the show for the entire time that Millie was in it. I used to watch agog as they piled more and more plots on her. I’ve worked on soaps, and I know how they work. I literally sat there thinking, ‘The writers love her.’ I know some of the writers and they told me, ‘Oh my God, she’s terrific.’ I consider myself to be so lucky because as we turned our wheel round to look for a new companion for Doctor Who, she decided to leave Coronation Street – to the extent that literally her last episode transmitted on a Friday night and she walked into the audition on the Saturday morning. That’s amazing. That makes you think it was meant to be.

I don’t need to tell you how much skill she’s got, how much energy she’s got, how much life she’s got, how much comedy she’s got. She’s immensely skilful at comedy, and that’s very rare. She’s got salt, she’s got spice, she’s got fire. But I particularly love the fact she’s genuine a 19-year-old playing a 19-year-old. That’s very rare. A 19-year-old playing a 19-year-old brings an energy that an older actor couldn’t. I wanted that. I wanted those open eyes. She is like the viewer who has never watched Doctor Who before. She brings a freshness and a newness and a joy to it. It’s really lovely to see. I’m so pleased that it worked.

Doctor Who S1,Premiere,Steven Moffat & Russell T Davies, cc BBC Studios, Photo by Jonanthan Birch

 Q: Is there a theme that runs throughout the season?

A: You could watch every single episode separately without bogging yourself down with continuity. But as we saw at Christmas, there is obviously a mystery to Ruby’s birth family. She was a foundling left at a church. It is a fairy tale like story, but it keeps following her. That story is not finished. Who is her mother? How can they possibly find out what went on? The way the Doctor ties into this is fascinating. This emotional man I’ve been talking about opens up about his family in a way that he’s never done before.

He left his family behind in 1963 and practically never mentioned it again. That’s a man who doesn’t know his family, and that is fascinating. So as his mind is focusing on that, Ruby’s mind is focusing on her family. Those two stories come together in possibly the greatest finale ever committed to film, except we don’t actually use film anymore! But it really is an astonishing climax.

Q: How have you developed the character of the Doctor in this series?

A: I was thinking, ‘What is a hero for a young audience?’ Because for a while when I was not working on the show, I started to think that a lot of action heroes and other superheroes just punch people to sort things out. Even Star Wars characters carry a phaser, and heroes have lightsabers. But the defining feature of the Doctor is that they don’t carry a weapon, and, quite profoundly, he makes jokes in the face of danger.

That is the unique and wonderful thing about the Doctor. I love them for that. Our audience now is much more emotionally connected with the world. Six years olds are much freer in this day and age to say whether they’re unhappy, or whether they’re happy. We encourage them to talk about their feelings. It’s time for a new Doctor who carries those emotions on the surface more visibly instead of hiding them away. The Doctor doesn’t  just wear one heart on their sleeve; they wear two hearts on their sleeve. I thought it was just the right time for that to be centre stage. And that’s what I’m here to do.

Q: After 61 years, how does Doctor Who stay so fresh?

A: It’s not like I have to walk in with any special skills; the show keeps refreshing itself. Every week, he lands somewhere new. Every week, he meets a new person, a new enemy, a new friend. And that’s lovely. That does mean that a lot of stuff has been covered. We have to be wary of anything set in the Dickensian era or landing in World War II once too often, except sometimes those are the loveliest stories of all, so you just have to take a deep breath and say, ‘That works.’ But as long as you keep it fresh, it will succeed.

That comes naturally. It’s 2024, so we’re all writing a show that sounds like it’s in 2024. That means you’re not delivering something they would have delivered the 60’s. We have new attitudes, new morals, new insights into people. The world has changed. And as long as you continue to do that in the dialogue, in the stories and the attitudes, then we will stay on top of the wave. I think that’s important.

Q: How do you hope viewers will respond to this series?

A: Most importantly, I hope and I know this will happen in some shape or form, that some six-year-old will start to draw that blue box and will run around the school yard with a sonic screwdriver, and will start to think of stories and in 30 years’ time will be sitting doing an interview for their own show.

Q: One of the Doctor’s greatest traits is that he is always remarkably tolerant, isn’t it?

A: Absolutely. He steps out of the TARDIS and he’s happy to meet whoever, whether they have two heads, three heads or are from 1660 or 3060. He is a man – and he has also been a woman – who’s happy to travel. He is simply accepting of everything and everyone. If they cross the line, he’ll do everything to stop them. But until then, he is the universe’s friend, I think it’s a great example for children – and adults. Now is the time for the Doctor. Please step out of the TARDIS. We need you!

 

Doctor Who returns Space Babies and The Devil’s Chord at midnight on May 11 on BBC iPlayer and 7pm ET on Disney+. They will be broadcast simultaneously on Disney+ around the world.  Please check your own time zone

SPACE BABIES – OFFICIAL SYNOPSIS: Ruby learns the Doctor’s amazing secrets, when he takes her to the far future. There, they find a Baby Farm being run by babies. But can they be saved from the terrifying Bogeyman?

THE DEVIL’S CHORD – OFFICIAL SYNOPSIS: The Doctor and Ruby meet the Beatles, but discover that the all-powerful Maestro is changing history. London becomes a battleground with the future of humanity at stake.

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