The Madness of Russell T. Davies, part 2: just not bothering

I know that it’s been a while since part 1, but:

Continuing our trawl through The Writer’s Tale, Russell T. Davies’ email-archive memoir of his time as Doctor Who showrunner …

Davies' cartoon of the Shadow Proclamation, as originally envisaged. Nearly all of these aliens were cut from the final version due to budget limitations.

Consider the level of thought, diligence and professionalism that went into this:

“I’m rewriting Agatha [Christie] next week.  She’s fighting a giant wasp.  We really couldn’t think what sort of enemy she should fight.  Dickens?  Ghosts.  Shakespeare?  Witches.  But Agatha…?  Then Gareth [Roberts] came up with a wasp — and I remembered the old paperback cover of Death in the Clouds, which was a plane being attacked by a symbolically giant wasp.  ‘That’ll do,’ we said.  Our most tenuous link yet.”

– Russell T. Davies, 8 July 2007 (p. 149)

Well, The Unicorn and the Wasp was by some distance the silliest episode in the rather silly Season 4, so let’s write that one off as an unfortunate aberration.  But we know from Davies’ emails that The Fires of Pompeii was the big production number in this season, that a huge amount of budget was spent on its effects and a huge amount of time went into its filming.  So we can be pretty confident that lots of careful planning and thought went into the writing.  Right?

Right?

“How come the Stone Aliens’ presence in Pompeii is allowing the city’s soothsayers to tell the future?  In Doctor Who terms, there must be a scientific explanation, even if it’s not real science.  Is Pompeii on a Time Rift?  Don’t laugh, it’s a quick solution.”

– Russell T. Davies, 7 July 2007 (p. 170)

That’s where Benjamin Cook, the co-author of The Writer’s Tale and Davies’ constant correspondent, really should have stepped in and said something.  But he didn’t, and so this is how the Pompeii episode developed:

“Instead of all those months of thinking and consideration, rewriting somebody else’s script is more like plate-spinning — keeping lots of things in the air, making them look pretty, hoping that they won’t crash.  In an emergency, I throw lots of things in there — soothsayers, psychic powers, prophecies, funny squares of marble — and hope that I can make a story out of them as I go along, like an improvisation game.  [...]  The psychic powers are caused by the dust, which is the aliens, and the aliens are thwarted by the volcano erupting, etc, etc, etc.  Ram them all into each other.  It’s [...] a car crash!  Fun, though.”

– Russell T. Davies, 12 August 2007 (p. 177)

Oh, Russell, Russell, Russell.  All this time we’ve been trying to figure out why it is that so many of your stories don’t make much narrative sense; it’s both horrifying and curiously liberating to discover that it’s because, well, you never intended them to.  You just intended us to watch you playing Just A Minute for 45 minutes.  Except of course without that pesky “no repetition, hesitation or deviation” rule.

And then, and then … oh dear.  There’s this one, describing one of the more With One Bound Jack Was Free moments in Partners in Crime.  This causes me something close to physical pain:

“How to escape?  It just struck me: the Doctor has a sonic screwdriver and Miss Foster’s sonic pen.  What happens when you hold two sonic devices together?  I’ll tell you what.  You get wibbly-wobbly vibrations and guards clutch their ears for long enough to enable you to escape!  That’s what happens, because I say so.  I hate using the sonic screwdriver as a solution, but that’s what comes of making this an action-adventure series with a hero who doesn’t carry a gun.  Small price to pay.”

– Russell T. Davies, 19 September 2007 (p. 225)

That is nothing short of contemptuous.

The truly horrible part of all this is that we know RTD is capable of so much more.  It leaves you wondering how on earth Doctor Who has managed to avoid being terrible for the last four years.  If this was all that the reign of RTD had brought us, then I wouldn’t even be bothering to blog about it.  It just wouldn’t matter.  Doctor Who would be one more dumb TV show that I don’t bother watching.

But of course it’s not.  Those four years contained sublime moments.  And although the best whole episodes tended to be the work of either Steven Moffat (The Empty Child, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink) or Paul Cornell (Father’s Day, Human Nature), we shouldn’t forget that many of the best individual moments were in Davies’ episodes.  Think, for example of the scene at the end of The End of the World when Doctor Chris and Rose, having been with aliens billions of years in the future, arrive back on present-day Earth, into the anonymous bustle of a crowd of people in central London — and Rose sees all those people as though for the first time.  And then the dialogue as the crowd passes, unrecognising, past them:

Doctor: You think it’ll last forever: people, and cars and concrete.  But it won’t.  One day, it’s all gone.  Even the sky.  [Long pause.]  My planet’s gone.  It’s dead.  It burned, like the Earth.  It’s just rocks and dust.  Before its time.

Rose: What happened?

Doctor: There was a war, and we lost.

Rose: A war with who?  [No response.]  What about your people?

Doctor: I’m a Time Lord.  I’m the last of the Time Lords.  They’re all gone.  I’m the only survivor.  I’m left travelling on my own, because there’s no-one else.

Rose: There’s me.

As always, simply transcribing the script doesn’t begin to do this justice.  The writing is good, but it’s brought to life by simply superb acting on the part of both principals — Billie Piper visibly processing everything around her and all that the Doctor’s saying, and Chris Eccleston stating the facts as baldly as he can, not allowing an excess of emotion, keeping a tight lid on it all (because the Doctor, alien or not, is definitely English).  But in giving the actors due credit, I’m not taking away from Davies’s writing here: it was his vision that they brought to life.  The Last Of The Time Lords trope has done so much work now (much of it not very good work) that it’s easy to forget how startling that was back in the day — a complete change in the Doctor Who universe, and one that cast him a new and much starker light.  It was transformational.

For those who prefer shorter moments, how about the bit in The Parting of the Ways when Emergency Program One is activated, the TARDIS starts to take Rose home, and the hologram of the Doctor explains to her what’s happening — and then turns sideways to look directly at her as he says “Have a good life”.  That is electric.  I felt a tingle down my spine when I first saw it, and I feel it again now just thinking about it.

[Five minutes later: I just broke off writing to watch that bit again; and yet again it literally brought tears to my eyes.  It is, and I don't say this lightly, perfect.]

So, you know: Davies can do it.  He really can.

I just wish he would, more often.

So I’m going to close this Madness Of series with the good side of RTD.  Because as I read on through The Writer’s Tale, I was astonished to find, just TWO PAGES after the sonic screwdriver debacle, the beginning of this sequence:

“I admitted to Julie today that Tom MacRae’s Episode 8 [a story about the Doctor appearing on a Most Haunted reality TV show] simply isn’t right.  Tom’s script is good, and we could make it great, but I don’t think it can ever be great enough. It’s misconceived,  This is entirely my fault: I don’t like the concepts I gave him, and I don’t like the overall tone of both 4.7 and 4.8 being comparatively light, fun episodes.  Two in a row.  I’m left with the prospect of have to write a replacement script myself.  But I’ve no time.  I’d have about three days!  [...]  We’re going to wait a week, to get 4.5 dealt with, and then decide what to do about 4.8.”

– Russell T. Davies, 27 September 2007 (p. 227)

And eleven days later:

“If I keep up this rate of work, I could find time to replace Tom MacRae’s 4.8 with a completely new episode.  It means writing two episodes, 4.8 and 4.11, in two weeks — yikes — but it can be done.”

– Russell T. Davies, 8 October 2007 (p. 229)

And two days after that:

“This mysterious 4.8 that I haven’t got time for has been building in my head.  [...]  The box sets off on its journey, with the Doctor and five or six other interesting people on board, but then it breaks down.  There Is Something Outside.” [Further description of what is recognisably the episode that was eventually broadcast as Midnight.]

– Russell T. Davies, 10 October 2007 (p. 232)

Three more days and:

“Oh well, I started 4.8.  Like an idiot, I couldn’t resist.”

– Russell T. Davies, 13 October 2007 (p. 234)

And five more days:

“It’s finished!  [...]  I’m coming down off that 4.8 rush.  I keep saying things to people like ‘I’m not tired’, but I think that’s bravado.”

– Russell T. Davies, 18 October 2007 (pp. 239-240)

Now this is astonishing.  Midnight, an episode that even the notoriously hard-to-please Andrew Rilstone loved, went from Seed Of An Idea to complete in ten days.  That’s not just the work of a good writer, or even of a merely brilliant writer.  It’s the work of a brilliant and hard-working writer: one who took the seed of a good idea and worked it and honed it and wrought it into an actual story (and did so in an amazingly short time).

So I am bowing out of this short Madness Of series (this second part will be the last one) on a positive note, remembering what Davies did well rather than all the times he just didn’t bother.

As to why he so often skimped?  I can only guess it’s because he had too much to do — writing too many episodes and of course running the show as well.  That’s why I am slightly disappointed (though I fully understand why) that he’s not writing a single episode in the new series, and why I was pleased to hear that he’ll be writing a story for the forthcoming Season 4 of The Sarah Jane Adventures.

So: goodbye, Russell T. Davies.  When you were good, you were very, very good.

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10 responses to “The Madness of Russell T. Davies, part 2: just not bothering

  1. I think RTD was very lucky he had such wonderful actors to speak his (often silly) words with such conviction.

    I’ve read his book and I am simply horrified and amazed that he ran DW and was writing for Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood all at the same time. Talk about trying to do too much! I understand it’s a tough business and you have to make a name while you’re hot, but jeez, it could’ve been SO much better had he concentrated on the ONE show.

  2. Yes, when he was good, he was fabulous… and although he was sometimes terrible as well, I would trade this entire Series 5 for one more Doctor and Donna episode. I know some will disagree, but as far as I’m concerned SM as showrunner has not yet given me a single sublime moment to look back on and think about/tear up over, and RTD, faults and all, gave me many. And I have to say that as scattershot as RTD’s plotting could be, the SM regime has handed us a hell of a lot of bizarre plotting and incoherent nonsense… and not a lot of interesting characterization, which was always RTD’s strong point.

    Knew I’d miss Tennant, but didn’t think I’d miss RTD this much.

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  7. Russell T Davies should die in a fire. Now.

  8. Gemstone, I think that is going much, much too far. As it happens, I am just about to write about a Davies story — check back on the front page in a couple of hours!

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