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It's him behind 'Doctor Who'

Under Russell T. Davies, the popularity of the British time-traveling sci-fi show has soared. But if you're a fan, be forewarned: He doesn't want your feedback.

February 03, 2008|Alison Pollet | Special to The Times

CARDIFF, WALES — It was a damp and windy afternoon in Cardiff, and Russell T. Davies had a cold. Also, he had been crying. He had just watched the latest cut of a new "Doctor Who" episode, and one scene really moved him. "I'm going to look really stupid," he later admitted to worrying. "But it was so beautiful, I was bloody crying."

Davies has had a long-founded emotional investment in "Doctor Who," Britain's beloved science-fiction series about a mysterious time-traveler and his companions. A veteran TV writer who honed his skills in children's programming and soap operas, Davies grew up watching and adoring "Doctor Who" -- it began airing in 1963, the same year he was born. Characters from his breakout dramatic series, "Queer as Folk" (1999), about gay men living in Manchester, inherited Davies' earnest affections, sometimes using obsessive knowledge of "Doctor Who" to gauge potential partners' romantic compatibility. (This approach does, in one episode, backfire miserably.)

In 2003, the BBC approached Davies to revamp "Doctor Who," and under his leadership, the show's success has ballooned. It survived what could have been a massive blow when after the first season it lost its lead, Christopher Eccleston. He was succeeded by David Tennant, who has since become a high-profile star here; he will play Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company later this year. An audience of 13.31 million watched "The 2007 Doctor Who Christmas Special" (with guest star Kylie Minogue) -- a lot of people for a small country.

Licensed "Doctor Who" merchandise crowds the shelves at Boots and Borders. Eight-year-old boys in gray flannel school uniforms huddle at bus stops furtively trafficking in the show's trading cards. "Doctor Who" appears -- at least to a displaced foreigner -- to be the most visible of Britain's current pop culture commodities. Having been sold to 40 territories worldwide, it is also among its most exportable; in the U.S., it airs on BBC America and the Sci Fi Channel.

Even Davies sometimes finds it overwhelming. "Put the 'Doctor Who' stuff away!" is how he said he sometimes feels. "It's weird, isn't it? You see that logo everywhere." He paused for a moment, and continued. "It's the time of our lives."

When filming, Davies works from a spartan flat overlooking Cardiff Bay and Roald Dahl Plass, the centerpiece of the set for "Torchwood," one of the two "Doctor Who" spinoffs. The second season of "Torchwood," about high-level investigators fighting evil in an alien-infested time rift (also known as present-day Cardiff), had its U.S. premiere on Jan. 26. (BBC America airs "Torchwood" and the third season of "Doctor Who" on Saturday nights.)

There are no writers rooms on the shows. "This country simply couldn't afford that system," Davies said. "We pay people per script, but within that we try to make it collegiate -- as much as one can."

"Doctor Who's" second spinoff is "The Sarah Jane Adventures," a kids show that airs at an earlier time on the BBC and on the kids digital channel, the CBBC. All three shows swap cast members and villains. (" 'Sarah Jane' inherited some of our 'Doctor Who' monsters," Davies said. "We can't afford new prosthetics.")

They also share an increasingly complicated mythology. It falls to Davies "to keep balancing how much continuity there is, how many stand-alone elements there are." Ever mindful of the shows' "mainstream audience" (meaning, not just sci-fi enthusiasts) and put off by "exclusivity" in general, he said he is reticent of creating overly inclusive stories dependent on viewers' in-depth knowledge of ornate histories.

This job is made easier by Davies' policy of ignoring the voices of those most vigilant. "I think we're an unusual science-fiction franchise in taking a very big step back from fandom and having nothing to do with them. . . . Every program on the BBC has a message board on the website. I forbid it to happen on 'Doctor Who.' I'm sorry to say this, all the science fiction producers making stuff in America, they are way too engaged with their fandom. They all need to step back."

Spanning generations

What's striking about the "Doctor Who" franchise is the wide age range it not only speaks to but also seeks out. When Davies embarked on "The Sarah Jane Adventures," about an investigator and her 14-and-younger companions, he sought to tell younger stories without neutering them. There's death and despair, he said, but less violence and more fun. Also, Davies added, with a laugh, "more hugs." (It will be broadcast on the Sci Fi Channel beginning in April.)

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