Jul
2010

The Drama of It All

Many “Doctor Who” fans have embraced the title of “cult” TV show, but former “Doctor Who” executive producer Russell T. Davies says in his book, “The Writer’s Tale,” the show is more than just a science fiction show. I agree, and would argue that the newer series of “Doctor Who” should be considered a drama that’s based in sci-fi.

Strip away the outer sci-fi shell and here’s what you have: a very smart man, who travels around and helps people in need. He never carries a gun, but fights evil with his intelligence. From time to time he gets himself, and his friends, in tough situations, but they always seem to find a way out. He inspires the people around him to live better lives and appreciate life. At its core, that‘s “Doctor Who.”

The writers use the device of science fiction to weave their tales of drama. Add back in the sci-fi: The Doctor is from the planet Gallifrey, and he travels through time and space in a ship that’s bigger on the inside. The Doctor is the last of his kind. His home has been lost to a long and bitter war, what could be more real then that?

In an interview with the BBC’s radio 4 show “Front Row” former executive producer, Russell T. Davies, explained how they approach the series in modern times.

“It’s treated as real, every time you come to a great big science fiction moment you say what would you really be feeling, what really happens.”

Russell’s past TV credits have only been drama. “Doctor Who” was his first science fiction type show, but in his book “The Writers Tale,” he says he sees “Doctor Who” as drama that uses the setting of science fiction. Which he approached as a drama, not a sci-fi show, his other most notable TV credits include, “Queer as Folk” and “Bob and Rose.” Both focus on the lives of gay men living in England. It was his life long love of “Doctor Who” that helped bring the show back from the dead in 2005.

“Doctor Who” first aired in England on November 22, 1963. Due to the assassination of President Kennedy, the show flew under the radar. The BBC tried it again a week later. It was presented as a “tea time” children’s show, “but not being produced by the children’s department, which caused a certain amount of aggravation within the BBC.” Verity Lambert, the show’s very first producer, talked about how the show came to be in the documentary “Doctor Who at The BBC.” Verity goes on to say the BBC wanted the show to have an element of education. When the characters would travel back in time, there was a little history lesson buried in the background of the plot.

The show lasted 26 seasons and was cancelled in 1989. BBC One, the BBC’s drama department, brought the show back in 2005. Under new direction and a polished “feature film” look. Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner served as executive producers and show runners.

Some would argue the special effects in the show would detract from my reasoning. Neil Harris of “Doctor Who Magazine” recently wrote an article called “Special? Effective?”

He asks the question “are special effects such a crucial part of Doctor Who?” Neil cites a recent poll the magazine did where the top favorites were episodes featuring little to no special effects. The highest ranked story was called “Blink.” The plot involves stone angles called “The Weeping Angels,” they are motionless stone when you are looking at them, but if you turn away, or even blink, they attack. They are gentle killers, in the blink of an eye, you are randomly sent back in time where you live out your days. Only one special effect was used in the entire episode. Neil goes on to cite many of “Doctor Who’s” emotional scenes, or dramatic moments, built around the tension of the plot. Will our hero die? Will his friends survive the situation they have gotten into?

It’s that tension that keeps us coming back for more. It’s the drama of having to say goodbye to the woman The Doctor loves. She lived through their latest adventure, but became trapped in a parallel world. Unable to get to her, The Doctor does find a way to communicate with her one last time. As Rose stands on a beach, crying out her love for him, he can’t even bring himself to tell Rose how much he loves her.

The Writer's Tale by Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook

In “The Writer’s Tale,” Russell said of that scene: “(if your emotional) if you’re, empathizing, you’re feeling it, there’s an echo of every loss you’ve ever had in that. If it’s successful then it’s saying something about you, about the world.”

Yes, we can scoff at things like “parallel worlds” or “Weeping Angels,” but it’s great fun and even better dramatic television. As head writer, we would see The Doctor through Russell’s eyes. That often meant loads of fun, but also the effect of one man’s actions. Running from his past, never standing still long enough to reflect. Davies wrote The Doctor as a lonely man, who had no place to call home. He would have friend’s come and go, but in the end he was alone.

The character has an ability to regenerate when he is near death. Even within that, Russell’s writing shows us just how devastating this ability can be. In the episode “The End of Time: Part 1” The Doctor knows he is to regenerate soon and says: “it feels like dying. Everything I am, dies. Some new man goes sauntering away, and I’m dead.” Sure enough the time came and the regeneration occurred. As the tenth incarnation of “The Doctor” turned into the 11th, his final words were “I don’t want to go.” It was a very emotional scene, a death scene. For fans of the show, it really was like a close friend had died.

When a TV show can make you feel that much emotion, how can it just be classified as science fiction? As William Zinsser points out in “On Writing Well,” some of the best writing is found in science. Then it can be argued that some of the best drama is found in science fiction. “Doctor Who” is simply the best there is. When you strip away all the science, its just good drama.

Jun
2010

Meeting a TV Legend

I wrote this in 2009 for my station’s TV review blog:

Russell T. Davies

Meeting a TV Legend

It was my last day in Cardiff, after a week in the UK, and I was taking one last walk by the waterfront. I was enjoying the perfect weather in my favorite city. I was sad to be leaving, but was even more depressed that I had not seen the one thing I had hoped for. I was heading back to the hotel when I saw what I had come to see: a surprisingly tall Englishman, reading his newspaper outside a coffee shop where I had eaten the day before. It was Russell T. Davies, the executive producer and creative genius behind my favorite show, Doctor Who.

I am obsessed with the show Doctor Who. I grew up watching the show on public television, falling in love with a character known only as, The Doctor.  The show is so special to me. When I was a little boy, we would go to my Grandmother’s house and watch Doctor Who every weekend. I even asked my grandmother to make me a 12 foot long scarf. As a kid, I had no idea it was from the early 70’s or that most of it wasn’t real. What I loved was simply that the little blue box was bigger on the inside.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the show, it’s about a time traveller from the planet Gallifrey, known only as The Doctor. He travels through time and space with his companions. The Doctor travels in what is called a TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimension In Space. It’s in the shape of an old English police box and its bigger on the inside. The show started back in the late 1960’s and came to an end in 1989 when the show was cancelled.

As I got older, I wanted to know more about the show and threw myself in whole- heartedly. As the years passed I started to drift away, occasionally going off to watch a DVD or an old VHS copy of the show. In 1996 there was a brief comeback for the show as a TV movie, but it didn’t take.

Fast forward to 2005, the show made a fresh and brilliant return. The show was given the budget it needed for what it always tried to be, plus, special effects had finally caught up with writers imagination. “Doctor Who” was back and better than ever. It was a show I could be proud of and not hide it as my little secret. My girlfriend was even a fan. So my obsession with the show exploded. I was going to incredible lengths to get anything “Doctor Who.” After all, “Doctor Who” was the reason I got into TV in the first place, inspiring me to want to get out there and make television.

It didn’t take long until I became very familiar with the show’s current production. There is a show called “Doctor Who Confidential,” where viewers are taken behind the scenes of each episode -great for a TV junkie. The show even has its own magazine (titled, “Doctor Who Magazine”). It is mostly through these sources that fans have become familiar with the name, Russell T. Davies.

Russell is the man behind the show’s reincarnation in 2005. His official titles are “Show Runner” and “Executive Producer.” He is also head writer on the show. He has his hand in every script and has written many of them solo. This man is Doctor Who.

He recently published a great book called “Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale,” co-written by Benjamin Cook, a writer for “Doctor Who Magazine.” The book follows Russell over the most recent series on the production of the show and examines the creative process. While he states this is not a text book on television, I feel you could easily teach a class around this work.

Needless to say the man is a genius and a brilliant talent, who I have admired for years and am so excited to have now met.

The show is produced by BBC Wales in Cardiff, England, and many of its scenes are filmed around the city. Being the geek that I am, I recently took my second vacation there. It’s a beautiful place, and if you know what to look for, you can find Doctor Who everywhere.

It was a fun week, but I had not seen any on-location production of the show. They were in studio all week, locked up tight. I was feeling depressed on our last day, not having had any direct Doctor contact (and not wanting to leave the beautiful location). I decided to go take a few last pictures when I turned around to to see my hero, Russell T. Davies. He was just sitting there quietly outside a cafe having his morning coffee and reading a paper (and, coincidentally, waiting for Benjamin Cook).

I caught my breath and walked over quietly saying “Russell?” He replied “Yes?” and I introduced myself and we had a lovely chat. He was very kind and gracious. Soon my brain caught up with my mouth and I began to fear I was talking gibberish, or about to begin gushing like a 12-year-old girl at a Jonas Brothers concert. I like to think, looking back, that I kept it together, but I suspect some of my geekdom may have seeped out. I did have enough common sense to walk away before I freaked out too much.

I ran back to the hotel, grabbed my girlfriend and another friend of ours and back we went. We got a few pictures and he autographed my copy of his book. He even included a little Dalek drawing.

While producing 207 over the last five years, I have met and talked to many celebrities and important people. None of them have meant as much to me as meeting this man. He is a legend in TV and brought the world back to one of the the best-loved shows in history. All I wanted to do was thank him for that and for introducing us to Cardiff, my favorite place in the world.

So Russell, thanks for taking a few moments out of your day to humor a TV geek from Maine. Maybe one day we will meet again and have a longer chat…
Maybe one day you can come to Maine?