Friday, July 17, 2009

Davies on atheism, American TV, and five decades of Doctor Who


Consider the crushing dearth of fun in the Star Wars prequels, and you'll have an idea of the success rate in reviving beloved sci-fi franchises. But, when Queer as Folk creator Russell T Davies (he added the "T" to his name, no punctuation) resurrected Doctor Who for the BBC in 2005, his sharp, funny take on the iconic time-traveler (played now by David Tennant) met with great acclaim. It soon spun off Torchwood, a show about a modern team of alien-fighters captained by the enigmatic, possibly immortal, certainly bisexual Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). Torchwood's third season airs as a five-night miniseries starting July 20 at 9 pm, while the one-hour Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead premieres July 26 at 8, both on BBC America. Both shows come out as DVDs on July 28. Davies, on the phone from Los Angeles, talked with me about atheism, American TV, and five decades of Doctor Who.

Why hasTorchwood been such a hit, while earlier attempts to launch Doctor Who in the states failed?
I wish I knew. I think there's a little bit of resistance to Doctor Who in America, because there's such an ancient history of the show. They either think it's a repeat from the '70s or that they have to have watched it all the way from the '70s to follow what's going on, which isn't true of the modern show at all. You can pick it up from scratch. We were able to make Doctor Who work in Britain partly by trading off that nostalgia, but also by rejecting it and getting a brand new audience in.

From what I can gather — I haven't been to many conventions and I don't really go online and read fan stuff because that way lies madness — the sexuality of Torchwood seems to get quite a buzz. I certainly knew from Queer as Folk that gay male stories attract a lot of women viewers. There's a side of that in Torchwood, and Captain Jack having a relationship with the second-in-command. There's a bit of a buzz about that. I don't mean in a prurient way. There's just a fun lightness and enjoyment of it.

How much of what we see inTorchwood about the randomness of existence is your worldview?
A lot. The only way I can write — whether that's good or bad — is to put my worldview into everything. I have to challenge that worldview from time to time, but in terms of the atheism of the show, I find that very powerful. When you come to episode five of this year's Torchwood, you'll really see my worldview coming out very strongly and in a very dark way. It's about how thin life is, how we've got a nice, Western world of comforts, hot water, television, phones, and food, and we think we're much more civilized than the rest of the world but actually that could just snap tomorrow.

Why is it that secret agencies in American movies likeMen In Blackhave billion-dollar budgets, while Torchwood has five employees?
I think you've hit something there. Maybe that's why an American would find the show interesting. There's a fundamental difference between British and American television, it seems to me. This is a great generalization, but as a whole, American television is aspirational, where British television looks towards the working class. If you're on British television, you're more likely to have lead characters who are unemployed or shop workers. Maybe on American television, they're more likely to be running the shop. I admire American television for being aspirational. There's a slight guilt and complex and persecution culture in Britain about moving away from it. In British television, our evening soap operas are all entirely working class, and that's been the dominant voice for 40 years. We're stuck with it. We need to move on. It shouldn't be the only voice. There's a huge contingent of British writers who'll say you sold out and betrayed the whole profession of writing by not writing about the working class, which I find extraordinary and laughable. Nevertheless, perhaps that's where Torchwood's interest comes from. They're a strange little bunch of people living in a sewer.

Doctor Who has been around since 1963. Is there a giant board used to keep track of all the continuity?
The great thing is that there isn't and never has been. That's the most extraordinary part of the history of Doctor Who. Every three or four years, the production team would change. Every few years, the doctor would change. So we'd have this fantastically ramshackle, jammed-together continuity. As a long-term dyed-in-the-wool Doctor Who fan, I'm the historian; I know every single episode ever made. And I love all that, and I'm very respectful towards it, but I have to say, I'd throw all that out for the sake of a good idea

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