Russell T Davies on Returning to Doctor Who

In a first for the 60-year-old franchise, Doctor Who is set for a global release this week, with the new season arriving simultaneously on the BBC in the U.K. and Disney+ in the rest of the world. Produced by Bad Wolf with BBC Studios, there’s a lot new about the latest season of the sci-fi hit. Beyond its new global streaming home, the Doctor has a new face; the 15th incarnation of the beloved time traveler is played by Sex Education alum Ncuti Gatwa. There’s a new companion, too, with Millie Gibson joining the cast as the Doctor’s travel partner. New villains await, along with some old favorites, as Russell T Davies returns to helm the franchise he successfully rebooted in 2005, remaining as showrunner through 2010. TV Drama caught up with Davies to discuss his lifelong fondness for the show, the importance of bringing in new audiences and continuing to entertain longtime fans.

TV DRAMA: The last time we spoke was just before the release of It’s a Sin. I recall asking if you’d ever return to fantasy and science fiction.
DAVIES: And I went, No, no, I never will! [Laughs]

TV DRAMA: Why did you want to come back to Doctor Who? And why now?
DAVIES: The irony is that these conversations started during the It’s a Sin time. I was literally lying to you! I’ve been asked that question a lot over the years. Bear in mind, when I was asked that, someone else was running Doctor Who, so the last thing they want to hear is the ghost at the door, rattling the chains, saying, I’m back! They’d call the Ghostbusters to get rid of me! It would genuinely have been professionally rude to have said, Hello, I’m here! So, I had to keep it quiet; it was only fair. Why now? I’ve always loved it. I’ve been thinking about this show since I could think. It was my first memory of television. It’s been in my head since I was 3 years old. When I was 11, I was drawing cartoon strips about this show. When I wrote Queer as Folk in 1999, which revolutionized the depiction of gay men on television—never mind that, I put a Doctor Who fan in there! [Laughs] It was really important to me. And then I brought [the show] back in 2005. I never stopped thinking about it. Unbeknownst to me, the BBC in 2021, during It’s a Sin, was already looking at the property and thinking, Let’s move this forward to the next stage. Let’s look at those international streamers. What if it stepped up in production, visuals, style and broadcast to become a show that drops internationally? I loved that ambition. I already thought that was what Doctor Who should be. So it was a great meeting of minds. I guess they thought they were coming onto the Zoom to persuade me. I required absolutely no persuasion! I broke my agent’s heart by saying yes on the spot! [Laughs] I couldn’t say yes faster. I believed in it. That was the beginning of the process before Disney came on board. Then I became the person pitching to Amazon, Netflix, Disney—everyone. And I loved that process. I went out there to sell Doctor Who. I knew I could do it. I know the show well enough.

TV DRAMA: The world has changed dramatically since you brought the show back in 2005. What were some of the things you had to keep in mind for the new season that will arrive on Disney+ across the globe?
DAVIES: I’m not here to reinvent the wheel. The show brings a lot of love from the old days, and no one loves the old days more than me. I’m not here to chuck away the companions or set it all on Mars and make the Doctor a professor with a pet beetle or something! The fundamentals of the show are the same, but the difference is it’s 2024. Diversity is the name of the game now. I don’t mean that in a trivial, superficial way. It’s a very important thing, and I’d like to think I’ve been part of increasing the importance of diversity on television in the other shows I’ve done. I’m a passionate believer in it. I could have done better in the past, but I have done better than a lot of people in the past, and I hope I’ll do better in the future, not just in terms of race but also in terms of disabled actors and more working-class actors, stronger parts for women, for all forms of sexual identity. Sometimes, I think I sound like a preacher in the town square, but I’ve seen the results on-screen. You can see it now with Ncuti Gatwa. You could see it in It’s a Sin, which was a blazing, astonishing cast of such joy and glory that I’ve ever been lucky enough to be attached to. I properly believe in this. It has worth and weight; it’s important. It brings in new audiences; that’s very important. It’s no good to keep relying on the people who have been watching Doctor Who for decades. I’m sad for people who don’t watch Doctor Who. I genuinely have pain in my heart that they can’t share the show’s joy, madness, sheer exuberance and exhilaration. It’s enormous fun. I want more people to be part of it. You widen the audience, the stories become richer, the talent becomes richer, the pictures become richer; it’s just a lovely process. This isn’t just Doctor Who; this is all of television. We’re seeing great things. The past few years have been extraordinary. It could always be better, of course. It’s astonishing how you can still sit down at 9 o’clock and watch very straightforward and, dare I say it, straight, white productions, but nonetheless, the compass has shifted to an extraordinary degree.

TV DRAMA: Talk about the casting process that led to Ncuti Gatwa becoming the next Doctor.
DAVIES: I do feel like I was the man lucky enough to be running Doctor Who in 2022 when Ncuti Gatwa decided to leave Sex Education. The Sex Education people themselves, having had a glorious time, decided to wrap up their show. Of course, we leapt. We auditioned lots of people, men and women, from all sorts of backgrounds. On that list was Ncuti Gatwa, who came in last. I’ll never forget it. He seized it; he owned it. He had one audition. You’d think we’d have a second for a part this big and a third. He had one audition, and everyone went, That’s it. I’m not sure that’s ever happened. Actually, it happened with David Tennant as well. But Ncuti was just astonishing on that day, coming in and delivering that script, he owned it from the first second.

TV DRAMA: There have been many companions over the years, sometimes more than one in each season. Tell us about what went into selecting Millie Gibson to play Ncuti’s travel partner, Ruby Sunday.
DAVIES: I love just one companion. I might change that in a few years because I love mixing it up. Jodie [Whittaker, who played the Thirteenth Doctor] had three companions at various points. I went back to my classic format, which is one Doctor, one companion. If the Doctor had been female, I would have cast a male companion. The Doctor is male, so I cast a female companion. I think it’s good to have balanced leads. It’s just healthy. And again, you’re looking for limitless actors. I’ve been watching Millie since she was 14. I’m a great viewer of a British soap opera called Coronation Street. I watched her grow up. I used to work on soap operas; I know their rhythms and how they work. You could tell the writers loved her because they kept giving her story after story. That’s a sign. It ended up in this extraordinary melee of stories in which her character was a heroin addict, holding her father hostage in a cellar with a gun for some reason, and at the same time winning regional hairdresser of the year! [Laughs] But what you saw was an actor handling it. She handled all those stories all together, and I thought she was very special. Then she announced she was leaving Coronation Street at 18. I liked that as well. I thought that was an unusual decision because she could have stayed on that show for life; they loved her, and they would have never killed her off. They wrote her out, but she just went on the run! A gangster’s daughter, like they do! We got her to audition. Her last episode of Coronation Street transmitted on a Friday night and she walked into our audition on Saturday morning. And again, I think that was just one audition. Ncuti was there. We saw the chemistry instantly. She’s a foundling, abandoned on a church doorstep in the snow at Christmas. She’s part of a fantastic adopted family; she loves her mum and grandmother but wants to set off to find her birth mother or father and find out who she is in life. The problem that foundlings have is there is no paperwork. What’s starting to happen is DNA tracing, and yet, mysteriously—or is it mysteriously?—there’s no trace of Ruby’s mother anywhere. The search and the reveal of Ruby’s mother becomes a story that, in the end, has fantastic twists. Honestly, I know I’m here to sell the show, but it has some of the best surprises I’ve ever come up with! Don’t try to read any spoilers or leaks because the final reveals in episodes seven and eight are stonking. That’s a British word. Astonishing! [Laughs]

TV DRAMA: Having a day-and-date global rollout helps those of us trying to avoid spoilers!
DAVIES: Absolutely! I love the global rollout. It deserves it. It’s a wonderful show. Life is better for having watched it. I really believe that. So, let’s share it with every country!

TV DRAMA: As a longtime fan, I do want to talk a bit about the extensive Doctor Who lore and how you determine which of the classic villains—Daleks, Weeping Angels, Cybermen and on—you want to bring back?
DAVIES: A new Doctor brings newness with him, so there are a lot of new enemies. It’s a balance. Over the next two years, you can expect to see one or two old faces come back, maybe in a different form and guise, but there’s that fanbase to satisfy as well. It makes it seem like a consistent, coherent universe. The Doctor would have enemies who regularly seek him out to kill him. There’s no sign of the Daleks yet. I’m holding them off. Jodie faced the Daleks every New Year’s Day in a chain of stories written by Chris Chibnall. It means a lot of Dalek action has taken place on-screen. We’ll give them a little rest. They are my favorites, so don’t worry; I’ll never give up on them. But it’s time to rest them for the moment.

TV DRAMA: Is there anything else you can tell us about the arc of this season?
DAVIES: It gets stronger as it goes. There are mysteries placed in there. Strange things are happening. Even from one episode, the internet is starting to piece together some mysteries. Maybe they are right. Perhaps it’s a great sleight of hand that we’re pulling. Or maybe they’re just really clever and have seen through all my cunning plans! [Laughs] That’s actually more likely. But there’s a greater viewership than just the fans. There will be kids coming to it as brand-new viewers and adults. They’ll start to piece things together. We’ll hear the Doctor mention things from his past and think, that’s interesting; things that he hasn’t talked about in decades that become relevant on-screen now. All of that richness has a point. It’s very tightly plotted. I’m very pleased with it.