And The Grand wasn't his only failure. Writing is, after all,
an imprecise science. Some things work, some things don't. Take
Mine All Mine, Davies's drama about a family who inherited
Swansea: by the end of its run, on ITV, it was getting two million
viewers. 'But there was still no way I would be unemployed
after that,' says Davies. 'It's just not that sort of
industry. There's a lot of work for good television writers.
And I'm one of those. In this country, you have to be a drunk
and a drug addict for people to stop employing you.'
Not that he's excusing an audience of two million. Davies
thrives off an audience. It defines what he does - popular drama.
He's a fan of everything from Coronation Street ('the wit
and wisdom of that show - I watch it five times a week') to
Cold Feet, and reckons that Shilpa's victory in Celebrity Big
Brother was 'the most fascinating two weeks in
television's history -almost.' To Davies, reality TV is
just a different way of telling a story. 'After all,' he
says, 'when Panorama discusses racism, who really wants to
watch?' Newsnight is currently pestering him for an interview,
and Davies is still saying no. There aren't many television
dramatists who would say no to the chance to discuss narrative arc
and subtext on Newsnight - apart from, maybe, Russell T. Davies.
'I very rarely watch it,' he says, 'but, when I do, I
end up throwing stuff at the screen. I think they're hugely
pretentious. I saw them once reviewing The Lion King, which is one
of the most brilliant films ever made. And the snobbery, talking
about Disney. I couldn't believe it.'
Early on in the Doctor Who production process, Davies knew he had
the Saturday night 7pm slot, and it informed the feel of the
programme he was going to make. 'If you channel-hop on a
Saturday night,' he says, 'you're up against the big
Light Entertainment shows, like Ant and Dec, with a shiny black
floor and a huge audience. With background music behind everything.
They're phenomenally loud, those shows, and I believe
that's what draws an audience. So we decided to make Doctor Who
Davies used to work with graphics, and it shows. He is keen on
visuals. He's even taken to drawing aliens - Cassandra was one
of his - to show his creatives. For the first few months of the job,
he was sat in the big chair saying 'Big pictures! Big pictures!'
'I was shouting: "Blow up Big Ben. Blow up Number 10.
Let's have a space ship. Not just 10 Daleks. Let's have
1,000 Daleks. Coming out of the spaceship. Coming out of 10
spaceships." That was one of the excitements of working on
Doctor Who for me: big pictures.'
Tell him that CGI is getting cheaper. Tell him - and then stand
back. Because today he's trying to get an extra shot that makes
sense of episode three. It costs £3,500, and he doesn't have
£3,500. Davies will never complain about the funding of Doctor Who -
not publicly, anyway. 'But it's still the sort of budget,
I gather, that they get for Waking the Dead. And they're
standing around in morgues. We're blowing things up, with
monsters everywhere. We could make a much smaller show. We
don't. We make it big and blousy.'
The new series has certainly escaped the confines of the
three-wall set, and it's more contemporary. 'I keep
reading about how I introduced emotion,' says Davies. 'How
ridiculous. I've introduced emotion? Doctor Who is about two
opposites travelling together: their friendship and their love for
each other. An alien and a human. He's got a Tardis; she's
got a family, and a mother and a boyfriend, which is an innovation
for Doctor Who - but not for me. It's the only way you can
write it now. The more polarised, the better.' He's 900.
She's 19. How much more polar can you get?
Davies divides his time between Cardiff - a nice little flat
looking out over Cardiff Bay - and Manchester. 'It used to be
50/50,' says Davies, 'but now I'm here for 10 or 11
months a year, and home for weekends - to see the most patient
boyfriend in the world.' He has, finally, got the pants and
socks to support the two-city lifestyle, but he can't get used
to one of the worst journeys on rail. 'Four hours of hell.
It's like Calcutta - sitting on a box of chickens with peasants
hanging from the windows outside.'
This is one of the reasons why Davies is ready for a new
challenge. 'I've always wanted to adapt The Old Curiosity
Shop. I love it. It's about time someone had the nerve to
rewrite Dickens. The whole plot is a mess. The first three chapters
narrated by Edward somebody? Obviously Dickens worked out that he
couldn't be in every scene. So, at the end of chapter three, he
goes: "That's the end of my part of the story -
goodbye." And Quilp's death? Is that it? Anyway, lo and
behold, ITV are doing it. If you stay too long somewhere you start
missing out on chances like that.'
A fourth series of Doctor Who has already been commissioned, and
Davies is putting the finishing touches to scripts for Christmas
2007. His work here is - almost - done. When he does leave, it will
be with happy memories, especially of the day the Doctor returned,
on 26 March, 2005. 'That afternoon,' he says, 'I went
into town, shopping and pottering about. There was a buzz in the
air. I felt like I was eight years old again. It was like
"Mum's dragged me to town, and I've got to get home
because Doctor Who's going to be on". I'll never
forget that feeling. As long as I live.'
The new series of 'Doctor Who' returns to BBC1 on 31
March at 7pm
THE RUSSELL T. DAVIES EFFECT
Before Russell T. Davies came along, there wasn't much of a
Doctor Who industry, just a specialist niche occupying small corners
of the internet and a few shelves in Forbidden Planet. But since
2005, the series has become one of the BBC's biggest
money-spinners, a sprawling beast that, like the thing Tom Baker
battled in The Power of Kroll (episode 105), has many tentacles.
Here are just some of them:
In the last week of 2006 the Top 50 hardback fiction list included
nine Russell T. Davies-inspired books: six Doctor Who and three
Torchwood titles. In the first week of January 2007, three of the
top five best-selling fiction hardbacks were Torchwood stories. As a
result, despite publishing no other fiction titles, the BBC is now
the 10th biggest publisher of fiction in Britain.
Hundreds of Doctor Who novels have been published since the late
1960s and following the cancellation of the series in 1989, Virgin
Publishing developed a successful range of original stores under the
Doctor Who New Adventures name, many written by fans, a number of
whom are now writing for the television show (including one Russell
BBC Books published six Doctor Who novels last year, all
featuring new stories not seen before on television. Each sold at
least 50,000, while the top seller, The Stone Rose, has so far sold
70,000, an amazing figure given that most hardback fiction sales
reach just a few thousand. A further nine new titles will come out
in 2007 along with eight Torchwood novels to accompany its second series.
Penguin also benefited from the RTD effect last Christmas when
its Doctor Who Annual sold more than 300,000 copies, way above the
few thousands sales the industry usually expects for children's annuals.
Toys and stuff
Doctor Who merchandise was responsible for an estimated £50
million of retail sales last year. The show has dominated
Britain's toy industry over the past 18 months and earlier this
year the Doctor Who Voice Changer Helmet was voted Toy of the Year
by the Toy Retailers' Association, while Doctor Who action
figures - more than 1\u221978 million of which were sold in Britain
last year - picked up the Boys Toy of the Year Award.
A wide range of Doctor Who merchandise is now available, ranging
from character walkie-talkies to bedlinen, alarm clocks and even a
remote-control K9. DVD sales are soaring: the complete series one
compilation quickly became BBC Video's top grossing 2006
release in North America. Internationally, the show is also selling
well: broadcasters in more than 32 countries including Russia, Japan
and India have acquired the series from the BBC. Torchwood has so
far been bought by nine broadcasters.
The show recently made the transition to the stage, according to
gallifreyone.com, the biggest Doctor Who website, which boasts more
than 25,000 visitors a day. The Ten Doctors, a new story, ran to a
packed house during Gallifrey 2007, the annual convention which took
place in America last month.
Britain's biggest channels spent years trying to reinvigorate
Saturday night television by experimenting with variety formats -
and then came Russell T. Davies's Doctor Who.
The series showed how well-written, slickly produced sci-fi drama
could once more reunite the family around the television on a
Saturday night. Ratings for the first two series averaged just under
eight million an episode, while the Christmas 2006 special attracted
an audience of close to nine million. And it didn't take long
for ITV to try to emulate the BBC's success.
Within weeks of the Doctor's return in March 2005, ITV
confirmed plans for its own £6 million sci-fi rival about
time-travelling scientists, Primeval, which launched last month with
almost seven million people watching the first episode. ITV also
developed Eleventh Hour, a sci-fi series starring Patrick Stewart.
It was broadcast last year to lower-than-hoped-for ratings.
Back at the BBC, commissioning editors sought to build on Doctor
Who's success in the Saturday early evening slot by developing
more drama for a family audience. First came Robin Hood which,
despite a subsequent slip from the opening show's audience of
just over eight million, is set to return for a second series. Now
in development is Merlin, a reworking of the Arthurian legend,
destined for the 7pm Saturday-night slot next year. Cardiff
Swansea-born Russell T. Davies has also produced a lasting legacy
for Cardiff. Both Doctor Who and Torchwood raised the profile of the
Welsh capital as a go-ahead 21st-century city. In response, Cardiff
has built a tourism package on the back of the shows and is courting
a new breed of 'sci-fi tourists'.
The city's four-star Park Plaza Hotel, for example, sells
Doctor Who luxury weekend-breaks. Visitors receive two tickets to
Doctor Who Up-Close, an exhibition running in Cardiff Bay that has
attracted 130,000 visitors, and an inflatable Dalek. The tourist
body Destination Cardiff, meanwhile, has dedicated a page to
Torchwood on its Visit Cardiff website, which also has details of a
tour of Torchwood locations.
The RTD effect has also put Cardiff's television production
business on the international map. Before it kicked in, few
high-profile network series were made in Wales. Since the BBC chose
to base Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures in the
city, however, creative talent that might otherwise have left has
chosen to stay while a number of top creatives from London have
packed up to head west. BBC Wales also produces BBC1's Life on
Mars, which is filmed in Manchester.
The BBC has created a wealth of Doctor Who spin-offs to capitalise
on the success of the revived television series.
The newest is The Infinite Quest, an animated story with voices
provided by David Tennant and his new sidekick, Freema Agyeman. It
will air a day or two before each episode of the new Doctor Who
series within Totally Doctor Who, the weekly fanzine broadcast on
CBBC. The new series, which was developed by the usual Doctor Who
editorial team, consists of 13 three-and-a-half minute episodes. At
the end of the run, each will be rebroadcast together to form a
single, new Doctor Who episode.
But The Infinite Quest is not the first Doctor Who spin-off the
BBC has produced. Following the Christmas special in 2005, for
example, digital TV viewers could press the red button for a 15
minute interactive experience of life as the Time Lord's
companion. And to accompany series two, the BBC produced 13
minute-long 'mobi-sodes', bite-sized prequels to each
episode to be watched via mobile phone.
The BBC has also produced a series of weekly podcasts featuring
commentary about the series which fans can download from the
BBC's official Doctor Who website (www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho), the BBC's most
popular site dedicated to a single programme. The podcasts of last
year's series two quickly became i-Tunes' most popular
Meanwhile, former Doctor Who designer Paul Tams and Bob Baker,
the co-creator of the Time Lord's former robot sidekick K9, are
developing K9 Adventures. The £3 million, 26-part series, which
combines live action with computer animation, is due to air on the
commercial TV channel Jetix Europe next year. The Doctor won't
be joining K9 on these adventures, however, because of contractual obligations.