RUSSELL T DAVIES' RETURN
On the 24th September 2021 it was announced that Russell T Davies, the writer responsible for bringing Doctor Who into the new age from 2005-2010, would be returning to helm the long running BBC TV show from its 60th Anniversary and beyond. Although the speculation about what a return to the series for Russell T Davies could look like began immediately, Who fans and Film Focus Online writers Alex and Niamh decided to, instead, reminisce on their favourite episodes of his era of the show which is still universally adored over ten years on from his final episode.
Written by Alex Gilston & Niamh Brook
Series 1 of New the Doctor Who aired in 2005 and Russell T Davies brought in Christopher Eccleston to play the eponymous Doctor, and Billie Piper to play companion Rose Tyler.
Alex’s Pick: The End of the World
After episode one being set on earth with an extraterrestrial threat in the autons, that take the form of familiar shop window dummies, it was time for RTD to flex his off world chops in episode two. Taking us to Platform 5, a space station above the earth, we quickly find out that aliens from across the galaxy have gathered to witness the heat death of Earth five billion years in the future. This is one of the most beautiful episodes of the first series for so many reasons, Rose being a fish out of water and her witnessing the end of everything she's ever known is so layered, and the scene when she speaks to Jackie on the phone is satisfyingly emotional considering it was only the second episode. The rogues gallery of aliens, the face of boe, the moxx of balhoon, and Cassandra, are all still recognisable to this day, the scene when they are being introduced is a good bit of fun amongst the drama of the episode. This was also the start of one of the strongest aspects of the series of Doctor Who under RTD, its massive interconnectivity. This would be the first sighting of Platform 5 that would be the stage for the Doctor’s final showdown against the Daleks in the finale of the series. Finally, who doesn’t love Britney Spears needle drop? As Cassandra put so beautifully “a traditional ballad”
Niamh’s Pick: Aliens of London
Now, I know what you’re thinking, of all the stellar season one episodes to choose from- Rose, The Doctor Dances, Dalek and Father’s Day, why on earth have I chosen the one with farting aliens? Well, dear reader, I chose Aliens of London as, for me, it sums up everything a Doctor Who episode should be. Utterly bonkers, wonderfully silly and gorgeously camp whilst also including great character moments, an intriguing mystery and a brilliant new threat. The image of the Slitheen unzipping their foreheads (what an utterly strange thing to write), the noise and the lighting as they do so, have stayed utterly vivid in my mind since my first watch back when I was five. The little space pig, squealing in fear running through a hospital is a moment of utterly bizarre insanity quickly cut short with The Doctor’s grief when a soldier shoots it dead. A sci-fi political drama matched with an obscene amount of fart jokes, Aliens of London, is an episode that appeals to all ages watching and with all of the insanity that ensues, paved the way for the quality we expect from the show. I should also mention, Aliens of London, introduced fans to one of the show’s most iconic characters: Harriet Jones (MP for Flydale North and Former Prime Minister)
Series 2 saw David Tennant take over the role of the Doctor, after Eccleston’s short but sweet tenure came to an end, with Billie Piper making her final full series appearance as Rose Tyler.
Alex’s Pick: Love and Monsters
Probably considered one of the most controversial Doctor Who episodes of the 21st century, Love and Monsters saw the start of a Doctor-lite trend of episodes across the next few series. This episode also saw the first and only fan made baddie, the Abzorbaloff played delectably by Bolton funny man Peter Kay, make an appearance in the show. This episode dared to ask the question: Can an episode of Doctor Who without the Doctor be in any way interesting or good? And I say the answer to that is yes and yes. Some of the best episodes of Doctor Who tend to be the most human ones, and what an episode without the Doctor offers is a deep dive into the human condition through all the different characters. Admittedly the final scene gets a bit uncanny valley with Elton’s girlfriend being a face in a slab of concrete. “We even have a bit of love life” was enough to send irksome chills down anyone's spine. But at the end of it more of the episode lands than it doesn’t if only to see how alien life on earth affects humans without the Doctor’s interference.
Niamh’s Pick: The Girl in the Fireplace
Perhaps the most romantic in the show’s run, The Girl in the Fireplace, is a perfect blend of science fiction and period drama. Telling the story of Madame de Pompadour’s life as a courtesan in the 1800’s French court, The Girl in the Fireplace is a wonderful examination into the effects of time travel told from the perspective of the person on the slower path. The episode is rich with the 10th Doctor’s charismatic charm and leans into the romance between the time lord and the aristocrat. Balanced alongside the romance, is a wonderful demonstration of David Tennant’s comedic talents with some incredible comedy woven into the narrative to balance the pace and keep younger viewers invested. Whilst the episode somewhat side-lines companions Rose and Mickey, The Girl and the Fireplace is a wonderful utilisation of its genre, creating an episode that is equal parts hilarious and heart-breaking.
Series 3 saw the introduction of Freema Agyemen as nurse Martha Jones, and the continuation of David Tennant as the Doctor.
Niamh’s Pick: Human Nature/The Family of Blood
A two-parter based on a Doctor Who novel of the same name, Human Nature and The Family of Blood asks the question, who would The Doctor be if he had lived a normal, human life? The answer, John Smith, a painfully average teacher (as average as David Tennant can manage) at an all-boys boarding school in pre-WW1 England. After a run-in with the family of blood, the doctor re-writes his genetic code, wipes his memories and leaves himself in the care of companion Martha Jones. The two-parter is an intimate examination of the beauty of normal life and how truly special it is to find the person you love. Through John Smith, we are invited to see the Doctor live a life he can never lead, and how devastating it can be to give it up. John is also used as an avenue to critique The Doctor’s somewhat brutal ethics and morals, travelling through time, never thinking about the lives he will change and the damage he causes those who surround him on his travels. Considering the show's tiny budget, these episodes have a wonderful cinematic quality to them with beautifully shot sequences and fantastic world-building, and even after countless re-watches, I still finish the two-parter with a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.
Alex’s Pick: Utopia
With series 3 being such a strong series in general, episodes like Gridlock, 42, and Blink could have all been my pick, but I’ve landed on the lead into the two part finale Utopia. The strength of these episodes comes back down to the best aspect of the RTD era and that's the overarching stories and the hints that are dropped throughout the first 10 episodes of the series which build up the hype for these episodes. Utopia brings in some major players seeing Captain Jack return to the main series for the first time since series 1 and Derek Jacobi as the extravagant Professor Yana. Captain Jack jumping onto the outside of the TARDIS takes the Doctor and his companions further than they’ve ever been, to the end of the universe. When this episode comes to a close and we find out that Professor Yana’s name harks back to the face of boe’s message from episode 3 of the series, “You are not alone”, and that he is in fact the Master was such a massive moment that played out amazingly, to see Derek Jacobi go from kind and sweet to undoubtedly evil within a second was on another level. His regeneration into John Simm was wonderfully done, and the Master then stealing the TARDIS to end the episode is one of the best cliffhangers of the era.
Series 4 of the show was David Tennant’s last full series in the titular role and saw the return of Christmas special character Donna Noble, played by Catherine Tate, as a full time companion.
Niamh’s Pick: Turn Left
Turn Left is not just one of the best ever episodes of Doctor Who, but one of the best episodes to ever air on the BBC, taking us to a parallel universe in which the 10th Doctor never met the feisty Donna Noble, a universe where she didn’t save his life, a universe without The Doctor. An episode where the titular time-lord has little screen time and focuses on my favourite ever companion, Donna Noble. In this universe, Donna must deal with the real-world consequences of an earth without The Doctor’s constant protection. Davies’ impeccable writing delves into how we as a society would deal with a broken world and it’s no surprise that without The Doctor’s protection, planet Earth simply crumbles. Telling the story through Donna’s perspective, Davies invites us into a bleak reality, with shockingly mature themes littered throughout that makes the episode a truly harrowing watch. Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins shine in the episode, continually managing to bring you joy during the darker moments. Turn Left is a must-watch, not just for fans of the show, but for anyone that wants a brilliantly entertaining, engaging and thought-provoking episode of television.
Alex’s Pick: The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End
It's true to say that these two episodes of Doctor Who walked so that Avengers: Endgame could run. A true culmination of the 4 full series of RTD’s era of Doctor Who, not only tying together series long plot lines but bringing in beloved characters from the era’s spin off shows, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. These episodes also saw the return of Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, and I challenge anyone to name a more emotional moment than the Doctor laying his eyes on Rose for the first time, only for a pesky Dalek to ruin it. I remember the wait between these two episodes being absolutely excruciating and I'm excited to hopefully experience this feeling again with RTD’s new episodes. Journey’s End is just a true crowd pleaser scattered with some ultimate fan service and some devastatingly emotional drama. Seeing every main character from the Russell T Davies era fly the TARDIS together in the end was nothing short of rapturous, and to this day still evokes a feeling of true joy. That happiness couldn't last forever though as the Doctor was forced to erase Donna’s memory of everything they’d ever done. Catherine Tate acts this moment out brilliantly and it’s utterly heartbreaking to watch, and the now immortalized scene of David Tennant standing out in the rain was yet another emotional blow for his incarnation of the Doctor, who was set to bow out to leave the way for a new era just a year later.
These episodes are just a taster of some of the gold that came out of the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who, and now he is returning off the back of making some of the most critically acclaimed tv dramas of the the past decade in Cucumber, Years and Years, and most recently It’s a Sin, it's going to be infinitely interesting to see what a present day RTD era of Doctor Who will look like.