The Madness of Russell T. Davies, part 1: criticism

Fuelled by my excitement about the new series of Doctor Who, and the emergence of the 11th Doctor as his own man, I’ve recently bought The Writer’s Tale [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk], a record of emails between showrunner Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook, intended to provide a unique window on how Series Three and Four of the show were written and produced.

I’m not far into it yet — page 185 of 704 — but already it bears all the hallmarks of Russell T. Davies’ work on Doctor Who: it’s fascinating, infuriating, disjointed, and inspiring.  The good bits are very, very good; the bad bits make almost no sense at all.  I can’t recommend it highly enough: at the low price I got it for (£8.50 including postage), it’s fantastic value.  Yes, you read correctly when I wrote “704 pages” above — it’s a lot of email, and it covers a lot of ground, coming right up to date with discussions of the recent sequence of specials between Series Four and Five, and the appointment of Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor.  If you love, or care about, or even are mildly interested in Doctor Who (or indeed if you’re interested in the process of writing more generally) then you’ll find the book lives up to its aspirations: it really is a unique window on its world.

At times, it’s left me thinking “What the heck does Russell T. Davies think he is doing“?  Like this (from page 39) on the subject of Penny, the projected Series-Four companion before it became apparent that Catherine Tate would be available to reprise the role of Donna Noble:

Under all this is my need to write The Doctor In Love again.  I think we’ve handled it exactly right for Series Three: he’d never fall in love with Martha, because he can’t just love the next woman to walk in the door, after Rose.  That would cheapen the whole thing.  […]  Penny is walking into the Doctor’s life at just the right time.  […]  The first time that the Doctor sees Penny, it should be like — wham! Both hearts.

I am pretty much lost for words here.  It’s apparent that Davies has no conception of, or perhaps more likely no interest in, the Doctor’s alienness, his otherness.  To borrow terms from theology, he’s prepared to throw away the transcendence in return for more immanence.  But surely it’s obvious to anyone that the whole point of the Doctor is that he’s not human, he’s not Ross from Friends, or Bertie Wooster’s friend Bingo Little who’s constantly falling for every woman he meets.  If he becomes like them, then what we have is no longer Doctor Who.

And yet, and yet …  The Doctor Who that we’ve all been watching for the last four years is RTD’s creation.  Somehow I’ve picked up this notion of the Doctor’s otherness from watching the very shows produced under the authority of the person who I am saying doesn’t get it.  That doesn’t make sense, does it?  Either my conception of the Doctor is based on Tom Baker and has somehow survived unchanged due to my complete obliviousness of the what the last four years have actually been showing me; or somehow RTD’s perfectly mundane Doctor In Love notion (which by the way sounds like the title of a terrible low-budget British 1960s sitcom) has been transcended by outstanding actors who knew what kind of ship they were piloting even though Davies didn’t.  I’ve said before that the curiously enigmatic relationship between Doctor Chris and Rose — obviously deep, but equally obviously not a conventional romance — was one of my favourite things about New Series One.  It’s pretty disillusioning now to find that I was completely wrong and that the Doctor was merely In Lurve all along.

On the positive side, it’s a pleasant surprise to find that RTD is an excellent cartoonist, and the book is sprinkled with examples of his work, mostly sketches of ideas for Doctor Who.  Here’s one that he did of himself at work:

Anyway, it’s time I got to the core of this post, which was originally going to be very short.  Here is is — a pair of brief excepts from two of RTD’s emails in the book:

“I do worry about being surrounded by yes-men.  You’re right, it happens.  […]  I don’t think it’s happened to me yet.  In the end, just as good writers are hard to find, so are good script editors, good producers and good execs.  When you find good people like Julie and Phil, their sheer talent cancels out the risk of them yes-ing.  I suppose the danger is not RTD And The Yes-Men, but a triumverate of people who are so similar that contrary opinions don’t get a look-in.”

— Russell T. Davies, 28 April, 2007.  (p. 96)

And:

“I’ll tell you what pisses me off most of all […]  It’s those internet message boards.  The forums.  […]  That bastard internet voice gets into writers’ heads and destabilises them massively.  […]  I read that stuff and it doesn’t stop me, not ever.  I’ve got quite high-flown and fancy beliefs about art that maybe put it all into perspective.  Principally: it is not a democracy.  Creating something is not a democracy.  The people have no say.  The artist does.  It doesn’t matter what the people witter on about […] I think it’s right that they are excluded.  […]  It can mess writers up when they read that endlessly critical voice.  It’s completely, completely destructive.  I cannot see one iota of it that’s helpful.”

— Russell T. Davies, 6 May 2007.  (pp. 104-105)

Yes, Russell; there is indeed a danger of yes-men.  Because as you so clearly explain here, you ignore criticism; either that, or it makes you furious.  No wonder your underlings don’t say anything when you do something dumb.  No wonder that executive producer Julie Gardner and producer Phil Collinson, when asked “what is it that they like least about your writing?” (p. 96), “wouldn’t answer it”.  Cook goes on, in that email to say “That’s the drawback, I suppose, of being at the top of your game.  Who’s going to challenge you?  Who can you rely on to be brutally honest with you?  Who’ll stop you from going too far?  Anyone?  No-one?”.  And of course the answer is that no-one does — certainly not Julie and Phil, whose true answer to the question above must surely be “Most of your plots don’t make much actual sense”.

Of course all this is moot now that RTD’s time at the helm of Doctor Who is over.  But we can hope that Steven Moffat has a little more humility, and is prepared to take a little time to see what intelligent things are being said about his show on the net.  Of course Davies is right that there is no merit in criticism of the OMG Worst Episode Evah!!!1! variety.  But to treat, for example, Andrew Rilstone’s thoughtful dissection of the middle of Series 2 as being on a par with that is, well, just misguided.  One might say undiscriminating; or even arrogant.

Actually the takeaway message here is that everyone who cares about Doctor Who should leave this blog immediately and go read what Rilstone has to say.  He’s a brilliant writer, and I use that adjective not just as a general term of approval but in the specific sense of “scintillating”.  His affection for Doctor Who runs deep — even his harshest critiques are delivered more in sorrow than in anger — and he routinely has insights that leave me saying “yes, yes, that’s exactly it!”.  Even when I disagree with him (which is pretty often) his writing is still well worth reading.  [For those of you (like me) who prefer real, solid books implemented in hardware, his writing on Doctor Who is collected in The Viewer’s Tale, which was available on lulu.com the last time I looked, but has mysteriously disappeared.]

10 responses to “The Madness of Russell T. Davies, part 1: criticism

  1. missdisplaced

    I enjoyed reading RTD’s book The Writer’s Tale and at least it helped me to understand what some of the thought process was behind some of the shows. I was amazed at the pressure and stress RTD put on himself. I do think Russell is a multi-talented guy who sometimes got himself into trouble as what happened with his whole Doctor in Love scenario.

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  4. About the yes-men thing:

    I don’t think RTD is contradicting himself there. In the first instance, he is talking about people from his team. They are part of the creative process, part of the effort behind the art of which he refers.

    In the second instance, he is talking about people outside of that circle, which he argues has no place in the creative process.

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