Nick: You mentioned that BBC Commissioner Jane Tranter once advised you to give the historical stories a kick up the arse after series one. Were there other things that you learned as the years went on – what worked, what didn’t?
Russell : “No, that was the only specific thing. There are always individual episodes… They never said pull back on the horror or anything like that. It was always about clarity. ‘Can you make that point clearer?’It’s funny when you look back, because it took the executives a while to settle into it. I remember on the very first series, when the TARDIS lands in ‘Dalek’, there’s a very odd bit of dialogue we put into that where the Doctor says he’s picked up a distress call. We put that in because Mal Young said ‘Isn’t that a bit of a coincidence that the TARDIS lands exactly where the last Dalek is?’ And you sit there thinking, ‘If you think that’s a coincidence, the whole show falls apart! But, you’re the boss, and if a line about a distress call makes you happy…’ Actually, why was that Dalek sending out a distress call? What a strange thing to do! But it just suited the story, at the time, and then the executives get used to it, so by the time we were into a second series that question stopped being asked. You wouldn’t believe it, but every writer who comes in to write their first script has the TARDIS answering a distress call! You just sit there going, ‘No, just have him land, why can’t he just land, walk out the door and go “Where am I?”’ Then he can hear a distress call. But it’s the most boring way to start a story. Unless all the stories next year start that way, in which case it’s marvelous.”
There was a clever thing in The Greatest Show In The Galaxy where a bit of junk mail comes into the TARDIS…
“And actually ‘The Empty Child’ starts with them chasing that Chula spaceship… If you do it in an exciting way, that’s not the Doctor answering a bleep, that’s the TARDIS rattling after a spaceship that falls into World War II. So there are ways of doing it that are really exciting. But not if it’s just bleep, bleep, bleep, oh I’d better go and stop the Hyperion going into a black hole and all that bollocks… So there were always questions. Jane Tranter literally loved the show. She worked on it as an AFM, and she watched it when she was a kid, and that’s not just a BBC exec doing their job, she genuinely is a proper fan. Her favourite story of all – this will go down well – is ‘Last Of The Time Lords’, and she will sit out in LA, having a cup of tea, and she will go off about ‘Last Of The Time Lords’ for a good 15 minutes… And I’ll want the conversation to move on. What are we doing tomorrow, for example! And she’ll go off about Martha doing her journey, and John Simm… She genuinely loves it, and that was such a powerful engine in getting the whole show made.”
Does it surprise you quite how much love there is for Doctor Who now?
“It’s kind of hard for me to see, in a way, because I’m at the centre of it, but I do get a sense of it when a man stops and shakes my hand out of the blue. It’s quite a unique programme in that sense. It’s great to see. Any taxi driver who asks ‘What do you work on?’ ‘Doctor Who’. And they know, and that’s really lovely. No, I can’t get my head around that really, and shouldn’t, in a way. I always want the programme to be bigger. Always. I want the audience to be bigger this Christmas. We’ve built it, literally built it. That’s one of the things that I’m proudest of. We could have started with that figure and been very happy in year one, but every series finale has gone up in viewing figures. We literally sit there and hammer them into place, and work like dogs. One of the great moments was ‘The Next Doctor’ getting 13 million, because to be honest, with ‘Voyage Of The Damned’ it’s got Kylie, it’s got the Titanic, you sort of think ‘We’ve got to do quite well with this one…’ And then, when Cybermen and David Morrissey get 13 million, you think blimey, this is working. That’s really lovely. But then you can’t relax. Who knows what will happen this Christmas?”
I think we can guess…
“But anything can happen! You can’t relax. That’s why we’re now sitting right on top of the publicity, we’re sitting in Los Angeles right on top of every release, every schedule. The amount of work that goes into the hype of it is massive. People are cynical about hype – they think it’s a terrible word, it’s an insult… But it works. If you get it right. If you hype something that’s rubbish then you’re f**ked and it’s your own fault. But when something’s lovely – and Doctor Who is truly lovely, and should be watched by millions of people – then actually the hype’s really important, and you’ve got to get it right, and you’ve got to hit everyone, you’ve got to get your message out there. So we will all traipse from BBC Breakfast to… I just did Radio Kerrang for half an hour! And here we are having a coffee… and it’s lovely, but it’s really vital, you know?”
I can’t believe this is the final time we’re doing it. Historic!
“I know. I should interview you. So what were your highlights of interviewing me, then? It was the Kate Bush letter, wasn’t it? No, it had to be when they phoned up about the Master’s beard… I loved that. And now he has got a bit of a beard, because he’s homeless, he’s unshaven, so finally you think ‘A bit of facial hair! At last!”
In your first year you seemed to use the Doctor as a catalyst who would motivate other people into doing heroic acts. Did that change?
“Ah, I think it’s always been the case, in a way, because that’s part of what Davros says when he catches up with him in ‘Journey’s End’… I was hooting when it came to that, composing those flashbacks of all the people who’d given their lives. It was such a long list! So it was always there. And actually it’s not finished that, yet. That ties into the Doctor needing a human companion with him, and you see the ultimate expression of that in ‘The Waters Of Mars’, what happens when he’s alone, why he needs someone to temper him, ground him, and stop his arrogance and power, the natural arrogance and power that a Time Lord should have, because they’re so powerful… It’s never gone away. I’ve always refrained from any character onscreen saying ‘He’s called the Doctor because he makes people better’. That’s a line of dialogue that would make me die. But sometimes it’s very true. It’s something I keep on saying to myself. I believe that statement. But it’s a terrible statement for a character to make. If the Doctor ever says it, god help us. Unless that happens next year in season five, in which case it’s marvelous. (laughs) It’s so hard to talk about what works and what doesn’t in case Steven goes and does it! But he’d make it work, anyway. I know he would.”
Every day’s Doctor Who day throughout December until the broadcast of "The End Of Time, Part One” on Christmas Day…
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