Many had tried to revive Doctor Who, but it was Russell T. Davies who did so.
Davies brought many changes to the franchise. The most obvious were structural: his show would be an hour-long broadcast (with about 45 minutes of material), modeled after American dramas. Each episode would have its own title, even when they continued from one another, rather than following the original show’s format of titling episodes as merely parts of longer stories. Most of the new episodes would be single-episode stories, with a few two-part stories per season (and, arguably, one three-part story). These episodic seasons would each be united as a whole, however, by both the cast (either the Doctor or his main companion changed each season) and by a continuing narrative thread, woven through the episodes and culminating in a multi-part extravaganza of a season finale. And just to make things even more dramatic, he planned all along to have the Doctor regenerate at the end of the first season, which also allowed Davies to introduce new viewers to the concept.
Davies decided to only slowly roll out the Doctor’s famous villains, so as not to overwhelm new viewers. Thus, the Daleks appeared in his first season, the Cybermen in the second, and the Master in the third. (The far less popular Sontarans returned in the fourth, as well as the Dalek leader Davros.)
Davies also fundamentally changed the nature of the Doctor. The Doctor’s persona had changed considerably, between incarnations, from his stern beginnings to his sillier personalities in the 1980s. Davies’s Doctors both were men who could alternate between serious and whimsical. But more than ever before, they expressed a profound joy at their own adventures and a sometimes bubbling love of humanity, foibles and all. Now more than ever, the Doctor expressed the viewer’s own wonder at these fantastic adventures through time and space.
But perhaps no change was more meaningful than the way Davies reconsidered the role of the Doctor’s companions. Originally begun as audience identification figures, companions frequently came and went on the original show, often with abrupt goodbyes or none at all. Davies returned to the idea of the companion as an audience identification figure, consistently having them marvel at their adventures long after their introductory episode.
But he also gave them interior space and real personalities like ever before. While past companions often showed loyalty and affection for the Doctor, a romantic subtext often lay beneath the surface. Davies brought this to the fore, reflecting the reality of companions who adventure through space and time due to a single, powerful man. But Davies’ companions also feared abandonment, and the possibility that they might be someday left behind, their best years impossibly behind them, lurks throughout his tenure.
In truth, this was only part of an increased concern, on Davies’s part, with real-world social implications. Any sci-fi series, especially set in the present day, must deal with the problem of consequences, in which society may deform due to the presence of elements such as extraterrestrials or sophisticated technology. The original series had largely avoided this: the British government (and its agency UNIT) certainly knew of many alien species and invasions, but the public remained blissfully unaware. In the revived series, alien invasions became increasingly publicly recognized. And some of Davies’s best work (such as “Love & Monsters”) addressed how the Doctor’s presence had in fact changed culture in subtler ways.
The Davies era is also the first in which Doctor Who finally had a successful spin-off — and not one but two. Torchwood (the name is an anagram for “Doctor Who”) debuted in late 2006, after the extraterrestrial-handling agency was used in the revived Doctor Who‘s second series. The series, which might be loosely considered a more mature version of The X-Files, carried the Doctor Who universe into more explicit content than ever before. Just over two months later, The Sarah Jane Adventures debuted in a special, with a regular series following later in 2007. It took the franchise in the opposite direction, offering kid-friendly fare starring fans’ favorite companion from the Doctor’s history.
Following the fourth series, which concluded in mid-2008, Doctor Who went on hiatus. In lieu of a new series, Davies would offer three specials, in addition to the usual Christmas specials for 2008 and 2009. These would be used to wrap up his tenure, as well as that of the Tenth Doctor. During this period, Torchwood also shifted formats; after two series, it returned in the form of a five-episode mini-series, airing daily. The Sarah Jane Adventures continued normally. Davies would describe his experience, particularly on the Torchwood mini-series, as having solidified his own preference for the mini-series over episodic television.
Davies then handed control of Doctor Who to Steven Moffat, who had written several of the most beloved episodes under Davies’s tenure. Moffat’s debut, with a new Doctor, would receive unprecedented international attention. (I still recall sitting at Starbucks, outside St. Louis, listening in astonishment to teenage girls discussing Moffat’s new Doctor and arguing over whether his first season constituted a new show entirely — a rather fine point about a British sci-fi series.) Moffat would take the show in a different direction, focusing on long-running mysteries, but he would keep virtually all of the changes Davies had brought to the show (except general awareness of extraterrestrials). His success owed much to the groundwork Davies had laid, both structurally and in terms of the attention the Davies era had increasingly won.
While Doctor Who was certainly beloved, the success of Davies’s relaunched series was hardly assured, even in Britain. By the time Davies left, Doctor Who had become something of a critical darling, had spawned a franchise for the first time in the show’s long history, and had achieved a fanbase in the United States like never before. He indisputably left the franchise better than he found it, and all subsequent interpretations of the Doctor would, to one extent or another, be in his shadow.
In the following table, all episodes are roughly 45 minutes in length, unless otherwise specified. Regular episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures, which uniformly broke stories over two roughly 25-minute episodes, have been combined to make a single listing for each story, making each comparable with an episode of Doctor Who or Torchwood.