TV

Russell T Davies on returning to Doctor Who, queer representation and 'maddest' episodes yet

Showrunner Russell T Davies is back, along with a few familiar faces. Ahead of three 60th anniversary specials, he told The Big Issue how his entire life has been shaped by the show

Russell T Davies

Russell T Davies. Image: BBC

Russell T Davies is beaming. And his voice is booming. Always an effervescent joy of a human, and never a quiet one, this is next-level RTD. Why? Because he’s just handed in his latest masterpiece – another new episode. And it’s breaking yet more new ground for Doctor Who

“If I sound a bit hyper, it’s because I just this morning delivered a Doctor Who script that will be on air in May 2025,” says Davies. “And it’s brand new. It does things we’ve never done before. The writing really pushed me. It’s such a mad episode, I had to deliver it with a diagram explaining what’s going on! I’ve never had to do that in my entire life before.” 

While the rest of us look back to celebrate 60 years of Doctor Who, its showrunner, back at the helm after 13 years away, is always looking to the future. 

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“If you’re eight years old, you want brand-new news that belongs to you. Something that will enter your mind and stay there until you are 60,” says Davies, who himself turned 60 in April, 210 days before Doctor Who.

David Tennant as the 14th Doctor in Doctor Who
David Tennant is back in the Tardis, and Russell T Davies is back in control of Doctor Who. Image: BBC Studios / Bad Wolf / Disney

“That’s my only slight reservation about Doctor Who turning 60. It’s like, never mind the birthday, let’s have the party! We want to dance.” 

Russell T Davies keeps these new viewers in mind – even as he delivers scripts that also appeal to the ravenous Doctor Who fandom.

“I think of that kid who’s wondering what’s on TV,” he continues. “Maybe they like that David Tennant and think, ‘Let’s have a look.’ And that’s who will be on a hologrammatic, three-dimensional Zoom call like this one in 60 years’ time, talking about Doctor Who.” 

He pauses and grins. “By which time there will be no need for The Big Issue. Because of course our wonderful government will have housed everyone…” a huge bellow of laughter “…You see what a great science fiction writer I am?!”

The return of Davies to Doctor Who was a second coming no one saw coming. Least of all Davies himself. David Tennant coming back to play the 14th Doctor – not rebooting his iconic 10th Doctor, despite sharing a face and a lot of history – and Catherine Tate returning as Donna Noble for the first time since 2010 was even more of a shock.  

It came about, Davies says, because of lockdown tweet-alongs, during which fans would watch as a community, with Tate and Tennant making rare forays into the world of social media to join them.

“Catherine is never online and barely understands it. And David’s not online either – partly because he would be eaten alive,” laughs Davies.  

Yet they loved it. And these events – lifelines for so many – sparked an idea in Tate.  

“She said she’d forgotten how much fun it was and how she would love to revisit it,” Davies says. “I didn’t take it particularly seriously. I thought that was a nice thing people say. But then she spoke to David and when she contacted me again, said, ‘We both want to do it.’ At that point, I thought: Oh! This is serious. And I told the BBC.” 

Doctor Who 60th Anniversary Special with The Doctor (David Tennant), Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) and Sylvia Noble (Jacqueline King). Image: BBC/Alistair Heap

Let’s take a moment to imagine the reaction. Two stars of the BBC’s best-loved sci-fi series want to return – alongside the showrunner who revived Doctor Who so successfully in 2005 and is in the best writing form of his life? What a proposition… 

“I was quite naive,” Davies continues. “I just sent an email saying, ‘Is this of any interest?’ When I look back, I can imagine an explosion on the desk. That email must have ricocheted around 57 offices. David Tennant, Catherine Tate and, dare I say it, Russell T Davies want to come back to Doctor Who!  

“And it happened to coincide with the BBC having big plans, wanting to supersize it – this whole new future where it’s also a Disney+ streamer worldwide with a bigger budget. That was not my plan. I would not have thought that was possible. But I’m delighted it’s there.

“So they sprung that trap on me and I took the bait. And I agree with their plan, I think that’s important to say. Because Doctor Who is worth supersizing. It deserves more money. People deserve to see this on their screens.” 

Davies is a man with a fairytale in every fingertip. He has imagination pouring from every pore. Ideas come rushing out of him in a conversation on Zoom, so one can only imagine the scenes at a Doctor Who ideas meeting.  

There could be no better person to be in charge of a supersized, big budget Doctor Who, which will remain on the BBC in the UK, but air globally on Disney+. And no one better to front the celebration of 60 years of the show.

Because what Russell T Davies always delivers as a writer – even in recent scripts containing the horrors of the Aids crisis in It’s a Sin or the terrifyingly realistic slide into political populist extremism in Years and Years – are words of love and joy and hope. Words that showcase the best of humanity. And have we ever needed that more? 

“It’s quite amazing that there are no other leading figures in science fiction and fantasy and horror who don’t fight, who don’t punch, who don’t have weapons,” says Davies. “The Doctor stands alone. The Doctor and my uncle Tony, maybe. It’s quite astounding.

“You can look at Star Trek and there’s five other shows set on spaceships with funny crew members. Star Wars has spread out into a whole world of galactic experiences. But Doctor Who is still absolutely new. It is absolutely uncopied. And it has that strength and positivity to it, with this remarkable hero who has no job, no responsibilities, no taxes, no relationships, no mission. It is extraordinary.”

Russell T Davies recalls his introduction to the show and how it came to be so much a part of his identity, long before he worked on the series. If this new era, which should henceforth probably be known as RTD2, is indeed a surprise return, then perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Because Doctor Who has always been there, twisting in and around Davies’s own personal timeline, since the very beginning.

“I literally loved it as a child. I would complain if we were out shopping and didn’t get back home in time – I could list episodes that I missed because we went to the circus,” he says. “Of course, I’ve seen those episodes since.

“My life has tied itself very significantly with Doctor Who. The switch from Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker was when I went from primary to comprehensive school. And that’s a very big change in your life, just as it was a very big change for the Doctor.

“I would also associate this with being gay. Because my new school was 2,300 pupils, it was a cattle market, so it was tough, to be honest. You are going to sink or swim. I was not going to start kissing girls. I was not about to start playing football. So I discovered drama and started to write and draw things. 

Tom Baker as Doctor Who
Tom Baker as Doctor Who. Image: BBC

“As a young gay kid then, it was very much in your nature to shrink back into yourself. Sometimes I think that’s what made me a writer. Because I sat there at parties watching people as opposed to joining in.

“And there was Doctor Who. In that first year of Tom Baker, I felt it become not just a programme I watched, but one I loved. I started to buy the comics, get interested in the history. It was my move into fandom. All that time I could have been kissing girls! What can I say? Isn’t it funny?”

From early career success with Queer as Folk, to rebuilding Doctor Who in 2005, through his post-Doctor Who work on Cucumber, Tofu and Banana, Davies has always taken representation very seriously. Perhaps more than any other Doctor Who showrunner, he truly understands its importance.  

“I feel that responsibility,” says Davies. “I’m very aware that I’m a 60-year-old white man and far too much television is composed by 60-year-old white men,” he says. “Across my career I’ve tried. And I have wise people around me.

“Because I remember when I was young, we’d be playing in the street and my father would call us in if Margaret John was in an episode of Z Cars. She’d be the only Welsh woman you’d see on TV all year. 

“And as a gay man, I know that silence as well. I sat through the first 30 years of my life seeing very rare representation. God bless Verity Lambert. The Naked Civil Servant was a shaft of light shining into a dark world, showing us absolute joy.

“I’m not saying I have a history of oppression. Yet actually, I did live through an Aids crisis that took a disgracefully long time to be seen on screen. So I have seen what it’s like to be left out. And I’ve seen how lovely it is when the opposite happens. So if we can share that joy and spread it around, maybe I will sleep better.”

Davies brings all this history to bear for three explosive specials before Ncuti Gatwa becomes the 15th Doctor at Christmas – in a story typical of the big thinking that Davies brings to all his projects.

Casting Yasmin Finney from Heartstopper as Donna and Shaun’s daughter Rose – Doctor Who’s first trans character, and one whose identity and strength are so integral to the first special, is smart, shows he has his finger on the pulse of the best talent around, and that he is still fighting the good fight. Ruth Madeley – breakout star of Years and Years – is outstanding as Shirley Anne Bingham, the kick-ass UNIT commander with an awesome modified wheelchair who could be a mainstay of the series for years. 

Ruth Madeley and David Tennant in Doctor Who: The Star Beast
Ruth Madeley and David Tennant in The Star Beast. Image: Alistair Heap / Bad Wolf / BBC

In The Star Beast, Beep the Meep, voiced by Miriam Margolyes, originates from the comic books Davies first encountered as a child. While classic nemesis The Toymaker is revived and revamped, powerful and playful, the impish foe whose concept of fun is deadly dangerous brought to vivid new life by Neil Patrick Harris of Dougie Howser MD, It’s a Sin, and Tony Award-winning theatre fame and brilliance. 

So although Russell T Davies had no grand plan for returning to Doctor Who, he actually realised he had never really been away.  

“I’ve been a fan since I was three years old,” he says. “So I naturally think about Doctor Who all the time. I walk down a dark alley and imagine a monster hiding behind the bin. Or I look at a landscape and imagine it streaked by spaceships.

“I live by the sea in Swansea and go for a walk to Langland Bay almost every day. And I always imagine sea monsters. 

“That is how my mind is shaped because I’ve watched Doctor Who since I was born.” 

Doctor Who: The Star Beast is on BBC One and iPlayer on 25 November 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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