If you want to date your argument from Press Gang then the story of Doctor Who’s return begins a few months before its final season. But Steven Moffat didn’t bring Doctor Who back, and indeed has said in interviews that he could never have done what Russell T Davies did with the series without having seen Davies do it first. In that case, then, the return of Doctor Who begins about two years after its cancellation, in November of 1991, with the debut of Russell T Davies’s first created television series Dark Season.
Dark Season is a straightforward show - a bit of a nostalgic throwback. It features a trio of schoolchildren investigating sci-fi mysteries going on around their school. The plot is split into two three-episode runs, with the fifth episode cliffhanger suddenly revealing that the villain of the second story is in league with the villain of the first story. Our main character is Marcie, whose conceit is that she more or less recognizes that she’s in a sci-fi television show and so plays for the right set of conventions instead of bumbling about trying to figure out things that the audience had ages ago. Aside from being entertaining, this also means that Davies can pick up the pace nicely. Finally, it’s obligatory to mention that Dark Season features a very early role for Kate Winslet, who is famous for stuff.
The fashion these days appears to be to suggest that Dark Season is not, as it initially appears, a direct heir to Doctor Who. This is absolute rubbish. Dark Season is as flagrant a Doctor Who descendent as has ever been descended, so much so that it’s tempting, albeit inaccurate, to call it a clone. The script could be trivially adapted into a Doctor Who story to fit into Season Twenty-Five or Twenty-Six. Marcie, the lead protagonist, is channeling Sylvester McCoy throughout her performance to a degree that is downright creepy given that she’s playing a pre-teen girl, prone to cryptic mutterings mixed with solid humor. You’d barely need to change her dialogue to have her work as the Doctor. Combining the roles of Reet and Tom into a single companion would have been somewhat trickier, but even there you’re not looking at much - spin one off into Ace, and keep the other as a temporary companion to give the Doctor and Ace a way into the events at the school and you have a pair of linked three-parters.
Which begs the question of why the party line is that Dark Season isn’t a Doctor Who . To some extent the answer is one of saving Davies from a genuinely unwarranted reductive summary of his career. If his first show is a Doctor Who knockoff and his eventual crowning glory in television is bringing Doctor Who back then the rest of his career gets reduced to, well, the stuff he did when he wasn’t doing Doctor Who. Which is terribly unfair to a host of genuinely important and quality television that Davies wrote and created.
But Davies’ pat answer, that it wasn’t inspired by Doctor Who although he obviously watched a lot of Doctor Who and was influenced by it, is rubbish. Davies, as savvy a viewer of television as has ever existed and as massive a Doctor Who fan as has ever existed, didn’t realize that he was writing Doctor Who? When he’d submitted a script to Cartmel not four years earlier? Yes, Dark Season has a considerably more mundane quality than his Cartmel-submission, which was basically a primitive version of The Long Game, but given that Cartmel’s rejection included the suggestion that he write something more worldly than his futuristic news space station, this isn’t exactly a strange shock either.
So yes, Dark Season is clearly derivative of Doctor Who. But what follows from that? Certainly not, in any reasonable sense, a reductionist approach to Davies’ career. So his early work pushed in the direction of what is, clearly, his dream job. This should be obvious and uncontroversial, and it’s only our tendency to favor overly neat and tidy narratives that makes this a potentially hazardous observation. And were I writing for an audience I have less regard for than mine, I might share that caution. But I’m not, and I won’t.
For one thing, doing so obscures the way in which Dark Season does show a way forward for Doctor Who. The first thing we should note, and this is something we’ve talked about in the general case before, is that Davies figures out how to speed Doctor Who up tremendously. Marcie acts Doctor-like, yes, but the explicit reason she’s able to be Doctor like is that she’s watched a lot of television. This means that she’s not just the most capable person on the screen, she’s capable precisely because she recognizes the genre of her own show. (Indeed, at one point, while making an escape through a ventilation duct, Marcie complains, “marvelous, I’m a cliche.”)
One effect of this is that Dark Season is able to move along at a truly impressive clip simply because it doesn’t have to waste any time with getting its characters to learn how to behave. Marcie simply acts like the plucky girl protagonist of a children’s sci-fi series set in a school. The key thing about this is that the audience, who also knows the conventions of all of this, is moving at the same speed as the protagonist. Exposition happens at almost precisely the speed the audience needs it. And so despite being two three-part stories, each half of Dark Season has about as much event a four-parter.
And in addition to moving at a really satisfying clip, Dark Season is funny. The meta-referential humor of things like the “marvelous, I’m a cliche” line is entertaining. Dark Season is consistently clever and fun like this. And while the Doctor has gotten occasional bits of humor out of this approach in the past, it’s nothing like the consistency with which Davies plays that card with Marcie. And so it can hardly be called a surprise when, fourteen years later, Davies introduced the Doctor with considerably more awareness of his own genre tropes, and has the show going at a much faster pace than it ever did before.
The other thing that’s misleading about the observation that Dark Season is heavily Doctor Who inspired is that it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. Two years after doing Dark Season Davies did another children’s series called Century Falls. Century Falls is a much darker piece of work than Dark Season, focusing on a girl named Tess who moves into the village of Century Falls and discovers a bunch of ancient secrets and evil cultists and the like.
Like Dark Season, Century Falls has visible antecedents in past children’s television. Specifically, it’s a flagrant heir to Children of the Stones, with a similarly unnerving tone throughout and several of the same tropes. It’s not fair to call it a ripoff - nor is Dark Season a Doctor Who ripoff. Both shows are clearly inspired by their antecedents, but neither one of them is simply slavishly remaking them. They’re modern takes on their source material.
But this reveals a lot about Davies, specifically that there is a persistent sense of the old-fashioned in his work. He’s terribly innovative, but his innovations tend to be in the form of polishing up and improving past tropes. (This, more than anything, is the big difference between him and Moffat. Both of them are unrelentingly sentimental in how they write Doctor Who, but Moffat goes for big ideas and attempts to be clever and creative, whereas Davies goes for something much more old-fashioned and non-denominationally nostalgic. Or, to put it another way, Moffat would never come up with a character like Wilf, while Davies would never have come up with River Song.)
In some ways this stands in marked contrast to Doctor Who at the time. It’s a mistake to push the angle that Davies and Virgin are in some way at odds particularly hard - after all, Davies wrote for the Virgin line, and if you count “Continuity Error” then over three quarters of the episodes of the Davies era were written by people who contributed to the Virgin line. (And if you don’t you’re still at two-thirds) And he’s spoken with effusive praise about at least some of the things going on in the Virgin books. Pitting his vision of Doctor Who against Virgin’s is clearly a mistake.
But equally, Virgin has, as of this point in its run, been moving away from straightforward updatings of the past. That was the problem with Lucifer Rising - it was a very good flashy and modern take on a Pertwee-style space adventure that tried to focus on its metafictional commentary on the nature of Doctor Who and only half-succeeded. There are some older ones that are more traditional - particularly Timewyrm: Exodus and Timewyrm: Apocalypse, and there’s Nightshade, but for the most part the New Adventures have been moving actively away from this sort of approach.
Again, this isn’t a criticism. In the process it’s been coming up with all sorts of new approaches and perspectives on the series, and they’re things that are going to be absolutely central to Davies’s attempt to revive the series. And perhaps more to the point, when we come around to Davies’s actual contribution to the New Adventures, he’ll end up doing all manner of bracing new stuff. (But more on that later, and it goes against my point less than it initially looks like it might.)
But equally, there’s something to be said for the sort of thing that Davies is doing here. It might be useful here to drill a little deeper into the broad term “postmodernist” here, in fact, since part of what we’re seeing are two very different forms of “postmodern takes on Doctor Who.” Of course, to touch this with a ten foot pole we have to raise the question of what postmodernism is. Which I’ve probably done before, but I’ve been writing this blog for aeons now and I don’t remember everything I’ve said, and hey, maybe you’re a new reader and could use the review.
So, short form - postmodernism is, first of all, impossible to offer a single and concrete definition of. Second of all, postmodernism tends to play with swapping around the codes and systems governing things, or, at the very least, exposing them while still engaging in them. Doctor Who is often very postmodernist, since one of its basic tricks is “you thought you were doing this sort of story, but really you’re doing this sort of story” and has been ever since a more or less socially realist piece about some schoolteachers suddenly ended up in the stone age.
One take on postmodernism is what we might call the cynical style. In this approach things are taken apart to a large extent in order to show their flaws and contradictions. This isn’t done maliciously or nihilistically, but it’s distinctly a form of critique. Transit is an excellent example, with its insistence that the Doctor regards his companions as pets. That’s not done out of dislike of Doctor Who in the least - accusing Aaronovitch of that would be ludicrous, frankly. But it’s a reworking of the concepts of Doctor Who that is clearly a critique of it. As is Paul Cornell’s take on the Doctor in Love and War. Brilliant, yes. Based on a love of the character and the series, absolutely. But it’s still clearly a critique.
But there’s a second style embodied by Dark Season and even, although it’s hardly a light or funny story, Century Falls. In these the process of reassembling or exposing the conventions of the narrative isn’t done in order to critique them, but in the same spirit as a Spooner-style historical: as what we apparently call “romps” in Doctor Who. It’s a mode of postmodernism with its roots in camp and performativity - the sort of postmodernism that The Happiness Patrol springs out of. But if you recall, in our discussion of that story we found ourselves facing a dualism between the artifice of camp and the sincerity of more authentic engagements. But Davies, in serving up a character like Marcie, offers a way through this dualism: why be insincere in your love of the camp? Why not just straightforwardly embrace the fact that these are the things you love, and do them in a self-aware way that also demonstrates what’s fun about them? What’s not marvelous about being a cliche?
And the truth of the matter is that Doctor Who, in the New Adventures, has largely been too cautious for this. Even Gareth Roberts, who will eventually become more willing than just about anybody to embrace this sort of “yes, of course this is what I love about Doctor Who” approach to doing Doctor Who, has in his only attempt thus far held back and done something a bit more restrained and critique-based. The critiques it’s raised have both been interesting and productive. And there’s obvious love for the program throughout. But there’s also a nagging sense of guilt - a sense that loving Doctor Who has to be justified and apologized for instead of simply embraced. And as long as that’s in place, there’s no way the program is ever coming back. So even in 1993, it’s clear that Russell T. Davies is the closest thing on the block to someone who can bring Doctor Who back. After all, he loved Doctor Who unambiguously enough in 1991 to put a slightly reskinned version of it on television without a hint of irony but with a massive dollop of self-awareness. As of 1993, nobody else can claim anything like that.