Russell T Davies interviewed
A few weeks back, we visited Cardiff to speak to Who supremo Russell T Davies (we like that phrase, cos it reminds us of “Zarbi Supremo”). The choicest cuts from the interview can be found in the six-page Who feature in our latest issue (SFX155, in the shops now). You can also find more of Russell’s words of wisdom in our SFX Collection Doctor Who special, which goes on sale on 28 March.
However, Russell talked to us for a good two hours, which means we still have a good 5000 words of transcript offcuts left over. So we thought we’d share it with you lot, for free. Ain’t we good to you? Say “thank you” nicely.
After two successful seasons, is there an expectation on you now to raise your game?
“Not really, no – no-one ever tells you that. I mean, they love it – the BBC loves it. Noone’s saying ‘Change this’ or ‘Do that’ or ‘We need more of this’ or ‘We need more audience’.
“We get bits of research done and there’s all sorts of interesting figures – like, we probably have our lowest viewing figures in Northern Ireland, which is interesting. But no-one turns round and says, ‘Put some Irish characters in!’ or something like that. It’s interesting, a focus group thing arrived in the office yesterday and someone said ‘Have you seen it?’ and they were describing it to me. And it was all very nice stuff, but I was sitting there thinking ‘I’m not actually listening to this!’ And [executive producer] Julie Gardner wouldn’t, [producer] Phil Collinson wouldn’t, and we
wouldn’t tell any of the writers – it’s not the sort of thing we do.
“So it’s just carrying on, really. Obviously, it’s scary with Billie gone. Obviously, it’s a huge change. We did brilliantly at Christmas without Billie and we’re very confident in it, but that’s probably our biggest challenge – that’s probably the way everyone’s gonna talk about it and write about it.”
But is there a little creative voice inside your head, saying “Raise your game”?
“Not really. You sort of do that with every script. You just sit with every script saying, ‘Let’s make this better, let’s make this as good as it can possibly be’. You tend to work just in terms of story. Although there is a certain amount of raising your game just because naturally that’s the process of work. You must do that with every issue of SFX, you say ‘Let’s do this, let’s do that’. You’re not sitting there saying, ‘Let’s raise our game!’ You’re saying, ‘How do we make this better?’ It’s a different phrase, sounds like the same thing, but it’s actually very different.
“There are some innovations this year that are technical, like when we have matte paintings. I love putting matte paintings in scripts, because [FX company] The Mill do it so beautiful. They’ve got this slightly new technology this year which is called two and a half D – I don’t know if that’s its real name. Instead of 3D it’s two and a half D! So the matte paintings are astonishing this year because there’s a fair amount of movement in them. So a shot of a planet or an outer space setting or Elizabethan England moves slightly. It’s quite brilliant. When we go to The Globe theatre in episode two, they’ve done a top shot of The Globe which looks like a CGI model shot, but the camera’s moving over all the houses and over The Globe and there’s little people on the streets running. So things like that are raising your game as you go along. And everyone’s getting used to writing it… but then, when they get used to writing it then you want to kick them up the arse and say, ‘Take it a bit further’. So, normal work really. I think the important thing to say is that no-one in charge ever says, ‘You’ve got to make that better now.’”
Does making Doctor Who feel like one long marathon? Or is it a sprint every season?
“No, it is a marathon – it’s non-stop really. The whole series has felt more like climbing uphill this year because we’re heading to this big climax. Last year we did the big climax in the middle, because we did all those four Cybermen episodes in the middle – which actually was a nightmare to get done at the time. I remember coming out of the tone meetings, we had people bleeding from the eyes – it was just huge! But actually it was brilliant psychologically because once you’d done those four Graeme Harper episodes although there were still five more episodes to make they were there, they were written, and it all sort of made sense… so it was slightly easier. This year we were saying, ‘Why does it feel tougher going into the New Year this year?’ It’s because we’ve got the big climax to come. It’s huge, and it’s special effects galore and acting galore – so we’re not relaxing yet. Last year we sort of ended on ‘Love and Monsters’, which was easily filmable – that was an easy shoot comparatively, just one monster and all set in the present day. But now we’re building up to this huge obstacle in the last two episodes, so it feels like… not an uphill struggle, cos that makes it sound like it’s bad, but its like there’s a prize to be reached at the end! Whereas last year that beach scene at the end of ‘Doomsday’ was it, and that was in the can and it was sitting there. So you always felt like, ‘No matter what goes wrong, we’ve got that ready to show’. So this year it does feel harder, but in a good way – like good work. Over the next six weeks we’ve got a lot of filming to be done. It’s all gotta be on schedule and we’ve got to hit those moments and afford those moments, and stuff like that. But that’s good! So yes, it is, it’s a constant marathon for everyone really. And people go on to Torchwood and they go on to Sarah Jane, so no-one really stops!”
Sounds knackering. Do you ever get a stitch?
“No I don’t really, no. I was ill, though – I had this bronchitis for about six weeks in November, and that was a fucker cos I just didn’t have the time! And people filled in and strangely they coped without me. Why didn’t they just stop? I can’t understand how they carried on! But that was a fucker for me, just because there is no time to get ill. I mean, I wasn’t lying in a bed for six weeks but it felt like six weeks of being below par. But that happens doesn’t it? It happens in every job. But even though I was coughing away I could still and type actually – so it doesn’t kill you in the end. That was the closest I’ve come to a stitch.”
What do Freema and the character of Martha bring to the show?
“It’s simply the new energy of having someone new. There’s a whole different slant to the relationship in having unrequited love – which is so not laboured, it’s there as little moments.
“It’s a chance to explore the whole mythology from scratch, which is always good for the series. That’s an interesting thing in pacing out the new series: when does he tell her that he’s the last of his kind? And how do you get something new out of that? And I’m so pleased with that moment; David’s just absolutely beautiful with it. I won’t tell you where it is, but it’s not straight away; it’s a gradual reveal. And not revealing it leads the Doctor into all sorts of interesting situations. So she gives you a chance to use the mythology and to highlight it again from scratch. Rebooting is always a brilliant thing in that sense.
“And she gives a lot of Freema, that’s the greatest strength, as Billie brought an awful lot of Billie to Rose. Y’know, we’re so lucky with these women, because in nine months filming she never had a bad day, never had an off day – which you’re entitled to with nine months filming. You’re entitled to storm about the set one day and say, ‘I’m tired!’ and things like that, and she fucking loves it! So she brings a lot to it. And then you watch the rushes every day and then other writers come in and see what she’s doing, so it’s nice and interactive. She just brings an energy to it that’s very Freema.
“Martha’s got a career, and there’s a sense that the Doctor’s interrupted her life. With Rose you felt like the Doctor made her life. With Martha it’s more like she was interrupted. There’s a family, and the family’s got all sorts of ongoing situations in it as well. And the Doctor interrupts… and of course she loves him and goes with him, but she has got that to go back to.”
Do you still get a thrill when you type the words “interior TARDIS”?
“I love it. It’s surprising how little we use it. It’s still sitting there like the biggest set in the world, and it’s still the first thing we cut. We cut a huge scene at the start of episode four, a great big long scene in the TARDIS right at the top, lovely stuff with the two of them talking. And then you watch it and you think, ‘Nah, just land in New York – get on with it, for god’s sake!’”
… not just the TARDIS, but the sense that this whole world of icons is your playground?
“I suppose. It doesn’t feel like you’re playing with them though, it feels like you’re genuinely using them. I think when you start to play with them, that’s when the TARDIS suddenly becomes an iconic column or a sedan chair – I think you can play too much with them. It’s like Martha saying [of the TARDIS], ‘It’s made of wood!’ I think that’s treating it with respect, because that’s a genuine, natural response.”
Is there ever a conflict between the fan part of you and the professional writer?
“No. I thought there might be at the beginning, but no, it’s like my writer’s voice is much stronger than being fannish in any sort of way. It’s funny, because there are so many things that I used to think were just fannish things that actually turn out to be very important to the programme. Simple things like Radio Times covers. We used to sit and count them and collect them. Now you’re here as an executive producer of the show it’s fucking vital to get a Radio Times cover! All the stuff the fans used to worry about is true of the marketplace. That is a mark of prestige from the BBC, and they’re so brilliant to us. But that working relationship we’ve got with them is hard-won, and it’s a lot of work for a lot of people. But it’s worth it. So it’s funny that – you find yourself niggling over things that I would have thought were just the preserve of fandom, but are actually genuinely important to the show. But not with your writing particularly.”
Getting the Daleks and the Cybermen together in an episode – that’s surely something you wanted to see as a fan?
“That’s a great example, because you think that’s fanwank sort of stuff, and then when you come to it… Before that episode went out, when we showed that first Cyberman two-parter, friends of mine who are teachers were saying that kids were playing Daleks vs Cybermen in the yard anyway! Once they’d met the Daleks and they’d met the Cybermen it was a very obvious thing for eight year olds to do, to put them together in the schoolyard. So again, that’s not just fannish.”
It’s such a really obvious idea you wonder why they never did it before in the old show!
“Equally, they were probably wise in the old days, weren’t they? The luxury of having a single camera shoot is that we can make things look good. Imagine if three Daleks came through on a three-wall set and three Cybermen came through and spoke to each other! They were probably right back then.”
It’s common knowledge now that you polish most of the other writers’ scripts. What do you change?
“Most of the polishing – which is not on Stephen Moffat or Matthew Graham’s scripts, or Stephen Greenhorn’s this year, because they just don’t need it – is because action adventure is very, very hard to write, and there’s simply no experience of it in this country. Go to LA and they’re all working on Galactica and all of those shows. It’s a proper job in America. There’s no call for it here. What you learn on Doctor Who you will probably not carry on to any other job you ever do, because most stuff is people sitting in offices and pubs and bedrooms and just… life. Even cop shows only have a certain amount of car chases and things like that. Whereas we run for about 25 minutes. So writing that is very hard to do, and I’m just getting well versed in that. I’m still cracking it myself though, still thinking of new things to do. It’s pacing mostly, and dialogue. I’m good at dialogue. Give me a script and I can zhuzzh up the dialogue. And sometimes it’s fitting in with production parameters. Helen Raynor did episodes four and five [of season three], and with the end of episode five, we were about to start pre-prepoduction and – bless her – it was just impossibly expensive. Her original ending of episode five would have had the streets of New York in the 1930s being over-run, and I said, ‘We can do many things, but you need to contain this.’ And I know how to contain something, so that’s what I did.”
Why doesn’t the TARDIS visit more alien planets?
“It’s fascinating, this area. I get letters saying, ‘You can go to a forest, you can do this…’ Actually I’m not sure that you can… I don’t watch things like Stargate closely and I laugh when I look and they’re in the same forest again. And I’m not knocking the programme: there’s nothing else they can do. They’ve got a format where they have to go through the portal to an alien planet every week.”
“On our most expensive episodes we might get, I dunno… 200 effects. Most of them, you don’t get that many. And [visiting an alien planet] you’d eat up half those effects in normal conversation. If it’s normal dialogue with you and me talking, with something in the background, then you’ve eaten them up just intercutting, because every shot counts as an effects shot. If I was having a conversation with you on an alien planet and there’s gonna be a city in the background, and my close-up is one shot, it’s not then free to come back to my shot. It cuts to you, cuts back to me, and when you come back to me that’s a new effects shot. Every director comes in saying ‘But that’s the same effects shot! It’s Russell talking with a city behind him – we’ve done that once, we’ve established that!’ No, it’s a new effects shot because I’m moving, I’m talking, I have to be keyed in differently against green screen.
“So that’s the problem. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’ve got a city in 3D, now we can use it ten million times.’ No, every single shot counts, and we pay a fixed price for every single shot. So you cannot sustain it for long. If they’re on an alien planet then very quickly they have to get underground, or into the city. Yes, now and again we’ve done a bit of it, and there are certain shots of alien cities and things like that, but we’re just very careful with it. We’ll do a bit. There are gonna be people talking on alien planets and you will see alien cities in the background, but it’s written so that it’s limited. You have to write around it and be careful counting every shot. Obviously, I like things related back to Earth and to humanity, but it’s very clearly a cost-cutting measure that a lot of our adventures are on Earth. I don’t ever want to sound like we’re short of money though, because we’re very well funded, very well looked after.”
Do you think that two or three years down the line it’ll be possible to do more of that kind of thing, because the technology’s developed?
“I suppose so, but you’re at the TV end of the technology, which is
never gonna buy the most cutting edge stuff. The other day Will from The Mill was saying, ‘Oh, there’s this technology now that lipsynchs perfectly’. And lipsynch on a CGI monster is a nightmare, cos it’s so expensive. Cassandra is the only one we’ve ever done properly – and she could hardly move! The effect is very, very expensive, so most of our other CGI monsters just growled and things like that. Now there’s software that can film the actor and can lipsynch it. It was all very exciting! And then he phones up saying, ‘Yes, but it’ll cost £100,000 pounds’, and we simply haven’t got the £100,000 spare – we’ve got a billion other things we can spend it on. So at the top end of Hollywood they’ve got machines that can do that infinitely. But price-wise, you’ve just gotta wait.”
“But it does get better. And actually we have now got one CGI creature towards the end that has got a good few lines of dialogue. Although we’ll have to cut around it, and we’ll have to cut to other people sometimes when it’s talking. But it’s getting better. Two years ago Will would have been saying, ‘That’s absolutely impossible’ unless you spend all your money on it, like we did with Casssandra. Now we can do that, and other things, like that two and a half D thing I was describing.”
Is it tough to keep the Doctor Who brand consistent?
“It’s not tough, it’s just constant work. You try and keep an eye on everything, but there’s some things I don’t know. I picked up the last Doctor Who Magazine and it said “Paul Magrs’s Tenth Doctor novel is gonna be called The Wicked Bungalow”. And I sent an email saying, ‘No it isn’t!’. And I love Paul Magrs, he’s a great novelist – I know how clever and ironic Paul Magrs is. But if you’re a Times journalist who wants to have a pop at BBC merchandise – which is an article that’s dying to be written any day now, we’re very lucky we haven’t had one of those yet – and you went into Waterstones and you walked past a book called The Wicked Bungalow demanding £5.99 of your kid’s money, that’s genuinely damaging the brand. Not the content of the book, because I know how clever that will be. But you could write that article, you could write 800 words on that in a second, saying, ‘What’s the BBC doing taking our children’s cash? They’ve even released a book called The Wicked Bungalow!
“I think it’s the best range of toys I’ve ever seen. I think they’re marvellous those toys – especially for TV tie-ins, and they’ve got that sense of humour of the show. All of that is very closely looked after: the books and Doctor Who Magazine, and Doctor Who Adventures and Battles In Time. The only thing I’ve given up now is that I used to keep an eye on the comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine and [script editor] Gary Russell’s handling that now, just because my workload is a bit big.
“So yeah, it’s looking after it in the way that a Hollywood studio looks after Harry Potter. It’s that important to do, to keep the consistency. It’s like when you were a kid you used to buy those famous old Doctor Who annuals that were so mad, and disconcerting, and you wouldn’t sit there on Christmas Day going, ‘Hurray! What a marvellous annual!’ I mean, they were mad! You wanted pages full of Daleks and Cybermen and secrets of the TARDIS and things like that. And I don’t think the annual was good enough this year, to be honest – they had a //reprinted// comic strip in. This year they’re not going to get away with that I hope, we’ve been sending off memos. It was a lovely piece of work and it made the headlines cos it outsold The Beano; nonetheless – not good enough. The annual was good, but it could get better. So you give notes on things like that, although they don’t always listen to you.
“There’s always little mistakes. They run the DVD covers past us, and with the holographic cover of the series two box set, you see that as an email, as a clean illustration, it looks brilliant. You walk into HMV on the day that it’s released and it’s cloudy, because it’s a hologram. Stuff like that, you’re kicking yourself saying, ‘Why didn’t I think of that? Those lenticular covers are cloudy and it doesn’t stand out from a distance!’ So it’s always one step forward, two steps back. But at least we’re monitoring that. At least you have got the executive producers of the programme walking into HMV and saying, ‘Oh look, that doesn’t work, so we’ll try again next year’. “Everyone’s worked very hard on what is a unique property to the BBC. They’ve never done anything like this – not with this amount of books and peripheral activity and the online stuff, and the animation: it’s absolutely unique. And it’s working cos… Julie Gardner is now head of commissioning for BBC drama, she’s the busiest woman on planet Earth, and that was her on the phone earlier saying, ‘On Friday we’re gonna nail down various bits of merchandise, and bits of spin-off stuff’. She doesn’t let anything escape her – she’s absolutely amazing, never lets it go. And she’s doing that on 27 programmes at the same time! But she loves her Doctor Who. Genuinely loves it.”
On writing the scene in the first episode of the new series where Martha sees the TARDIS for the first time:
“With that.. you don’t relax, but it’s just lovely, and somewhere in that scene I think she says – and the Doctor says – things that have never quite been said before.
“With Catherine Tate she saw the inside first and then went to the outside, and I love that, because she did exactly the same reaction of walking around the outside saying, ‘It can’t be that small!’ Because you would do that. Yes, you’re gonna repeat that moment, but that’s lovely because that is what you would do. So you can’t just be different for different’s sake. You would walk round the outside of that box – although noone ever used to do that! So you just think about it for long enough and there’ll be something new in there.
“There’s that moment of the Doctor saying ‘It stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space’, and I love that moment. And actually I think it’s only the second time he’s ever said it. He never had to say it to Jackie; he didn’t explain it to Donna properly either. So you look at that and you think, ‘It’s only the second time’, and if you’re eight years old you just soak that stuff in – it’s lovely.”
On why Martha isn’t all that radically different from Rose.
“You have to love where you’re going, cos otherwise there’s no point in being there – you wouldn’t travel with the Doctor.
“It worked for me. When Jo Grant became Sarah Jane Smith I was 11, I was the perfect age, and I didn’t blink. I certainly remember when Doctors changed you spent an episode not liking them, but I don’t ever remember doing that with companions, you like them because you wanted to be them. I think you wander off-beam once you start making them alien.”
On Martha’s relationship with the Doctor.
“There is a gradual, slow arc for her, that’s very diffferent to Rose’s. Rose was lucky: she had someone who reciprocrated, and they were like the golden couple together. How often do you get that? And it’s not huge, it’s all subtext.
“It makes me laugh when I get letters moaning about the romance of the two of them [the Doctor and Rose]. I think, ‘Where was that then?!’ If you distilled the romance it’s like two minutes of screen time over two years! It’s actually so subtly there. Yes, it’s talked about and it’s powerful, but did they stop ‘Tooth and Claw’ for a quick snog?”
On the “arc” of Martha and her family…
“It’s a nice story. It’s one of those very gradual arcs. You can always watch it each week from brand new, but we’ve tried some new things with it. These sort of gradual arcs aren’t particularly
prescribed at the beginning of the series. When I sit with [BBC Head of Fiction] Jane Tranter and describe all 13 episodes, I barely touch on them. This is what I start feeding in as we go along. With Stephen Greenhorn, who did episode six, the very last thing I did was say, ‘Would you just put one line in?’. Because episode six was actually written about fourth in order. And no-one knew exactly where it was gonna go until I handed in episode 13 – that’s what’s nice about it. I sat down with episode 13 and I sat there with the freedom to take it absolutely anywhere, we’d not said, ‘This is gonna happen’ or ‘That’s gonna happen’. And that’s a good thing. With Martha and her family anything can happen, and does. So it’s not too prescribed, and I can go back enough into previous episodes. There’s a dubbing line I’m going to put into episode eight that will just make it all slightly more continuous. But just very slightly, so if episode eight is your first episode, you don’t sit there going, ‘I can’t follow what’s going on!’ So it’s light.”
On whether the series will get “darker” in season three, now the Doctor has lost Rose:
“I sort of lightened it slightly. It’s inevitable from series one to series one to series three, they’re darker. That’s what happens – it happens on any show. Things get more involved in the continuity, in any show, with its continuity – with its characters, with their
relationships, they just darken. This Life did. Lawyers in a house shagging – brilliant, marvellous. By the end of series two they are knotted and fighting. And it’s very interesting that they chose to end it there, that they couldn’t bring those people back. Because, y’know, imagine trying to pick up the continuity of that for series three – it’d be a nightmare! So you’ve gotta beware of that. You’ve got to say: it’s like a new show, new series, new adventures. It’s different every week: that’s enough of a format to keep it going.”
“It’s the really close fan scrutiny of the series that will pick up on a dark moment like the Doctor killing all the Racnoss [in “The Runaway Bride”] and stuff like that. I don’t think if you’re ten years old – or you’re 50 years old and you’re a casual viewer – that that’s what you came out of ‘The Runaway Bride’ with. You’d come out with that last scene: ‘Oh, wasn’t it nice, it was Christmas and it was snowing and they saved the world!”
On not loading the scripts with too much exposition:
“There are certain things where I think, ‘I know how that’s all connected’. And if you wanted to sit me down at a convention or something and say, ‘What’s the relationship between those three things?’ I could spin it out, but you just don’t on screen. You don’t anyway, because you try to write it as a drama.
“It’s the same if you’re writing Queer As Folk or something. I don’t do those sort of things of writing lists of the backgrounds and backstories of characters, where they went to school, what they had for breakfast. You do have vague notions about characters in your head, like what sort of family they’re from and why they act like this, and something terrible that once happened to them, but if it doesn’t crop up in the dialogue naturally then you don’t say it. That’s true of any drama, so I think the same is true of Doctor Who.”
On episode three, “The Shakespeare Code”.
“The scale of that one is phenommenal. We went to The Globe and there’s a crowd replication shot of The Globe full of people: it looks like thousands of people, and it’s one of the best FX shots we’ve ever done, it’s amazing. It’s very funny. There’s monsters and chases and marvellous deaths to keep kids excited, but that is definitely funny. [Writer] Gareth Roberts has taken to that like a duck to water. It’s been a joy working with him and to give a writer like that a chance to write the stuff he’s been doing in Doctor Who novels and comic strips for years is just brlliant.”
On the Daleks:
“They are brilliant. They are evil in metal form. That’s why they’ve lasted for 40 odd years. I love the Daleks. I think the biggest risk we took was not redesigning them. Everyone was designing flying droids that had Dalek bumps on them and suckers sticking out of them that would buzz around, and you go, ‘It’s just not a Dalek’ – you know when you see bad toys of Daleks that have got the dome wrong, and you go, ‘That’s not a Dalek!’? And so we were so precise in saying, ‘It’s got to be exactly the same. They bulked it up a bit, but the relationship of one segment to another didn’t change at all, and that’s what made it work. And then you see it working again, and that was a surprise – seeing it work again with kids. It’s weird, isn’t it? It’s just a brilliant bit of design. They’re such a good idea. They’re just a classic, and they’re pure evil, and in a show like this that’s what you want.”
“I love writing Dalek dialogue – I love it! I think they’re so clever and sharp. And they’re not emotionless, they’re angry and xenophobic. It’s brilliant to write them. They can top anyone’s dialogue, like they did in that Cyberman scene [in “Doomsday”]”
On episodes seven and eight of the new series, based on Paul Cornell’s Doctor Who novel Human Nature:
“I read it years ago and loved it, and when we came to make it I didn’t read it again. [Script editor] Helen Raynor did go and read it so that someone was on track with the source material, but [producer] Julie Gardner hadn’t read it either and we said, ‘Let’s not, let’s just treat it as a script’.
“I remember in the novel the school turns to glass. Which is a brilliant image, and we could have afforded it – so it’s not a matter of cost. But actually I didn’t quite get that as part of the story. It’s a wonderful thing to read in a novel, but there’s no need for us to spend money on that.”
On episode ten, “Blink”, and Doctor Who’s casting:
“An actress called Carey Mulligan carries a lot of that. She was the young innocent one in Bleak House. She’s brilliant. People always go on about our ‘stunt casting’ with Catherine Tate, but no-one ever praises the young people that [casting director] Andy Pryor finds who are brand new. There’s this bloke called Travis Oliver in episode three who’s brilliant. Freema is the best example – she’s done a lot of work but is a brand new face in that sense. And no-one ever says, ‘Well done Andy’ for finding brand new talent like that.”
Interview by Nick Setchfield and Ian Berriman