|Wilf reacts to the news that Claire Bloom is playing the Rani.|
It’s December 25th, 2009. Rage Against the Machine are at number one with “Killing in the Name,” a feat of countercultural rebellion cooked up by people who got tired of the crown of the Christmas #1 being dominated year after year by The X Factor and who thus decided to try to send a different single to number one. Also in the charts are Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, Rihanna, Journey, Cheryl Cole, the Black Eyed Peas, and X Factor winner Joe McElderry.
In news, since The Gift made its bow, the Treaty of Lisbon has come into force, Terry Wogan has presented his final breakfast show, and polling in advance of the 2010 general election has shown the Conservatives with various degrees of leads. Also, David Tennant has been all over every talk show imaginable doing a farewell tour as the Doctor, as Christmas marks the first episode of his two-part departure, The End of Time. After all the festivities have died down, long after the episode has aired, it is possible to go and download the podcast commentary from the BBC and to watch the episode again, immediately, with DVD-style commentary. You still can, though it’s harder to do these days.
The commentary consists of Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner, at 8:30 in the morning on December 11th, 2009 doing a straight shot of recording commentary for this and The End of Time Part 2 while simultaneously answering phones and checking e-mails as part of their new normal workday in Los Angeles, where they were in effect sent by the BBC after finishing Doctor Who with the mandate “make us some high profile co-productions, starting with Torchwood.”
As with most commentaries featuring Davies and Gardner, it is in many ways an extended pat on the back for itself. They are quick to highlight how “marvelous” things are. But equally, they’re not wrong. Their first example, Bernard Cribbins, really is marvelous. But there is a subtler dynamic beneath the surface: Gardner and Davies both praise Cribbins enthusiastically, but then Davies digresses to point out that the street he’s walking down is one they’ve used in every other Christmas special. Gardner sits quietly, and then calmly declares that she wants to go back to talking about Bernard Cribbins, obviously finding the obsessive detail spotting involved in Davies’s fannish observation (which is firmly in the same tradition as any number of other fannish practices – “spot the recycled location/set/prop” is a positively august fan tradition) rather spectacularly less than interesting. It’s not quite a prickly moment, but it’s only one step away from it. And then a moment later the two of them are geeking out ecstatically over the nature of Bernard Cribbins’s acting skill and precisely what it is that he’s so good at.
In under a minute of commentary the entire sweep of the Gardner/Davies partnership becomes clear. And this is a significant thing. It is traditional for fandom to talk about “the Davies era.” Indeed, it’s understandable. We inherited a certain vocabulary of eras from the classic series. The first and most obvious is, of course, by Doctor, which has the handy effect of giving every era a clear-cut debut story, and several of them a clear-cut finale as well. But this obscures important creative shifts: the truth is that it matters that Spearhead from Space was made with the same production team as The War Games (and really the same production team as The Invasion) and that the next few stories featured Barry Letts taking over a season already in progress before settling in with Terror of the Autons and the rest of Season Eight as the point where he finally put his stamp on the program. That’s a far more useful way of understanding a shift in the series than by noting that the role of the Doctor was recast.
And within the classic series production teams were in effect a two-person job. You had the script editor and the producer. The producer’s job was to manage the actual business of getting the show made, and the script editor’s job was to ensure that the producer had scripts. Typically this meant that the process of getting ideas for the series was a complex one, involving the producer, script editor, and whoever is actually writing a given script. But the division of labor was still fairly clear: the script editor went over every script and gave a given era a distinctive “voice,” while the producer was responsible for the visual aesthetic, casting, et cetera. This leads to certain mishmashes of eras – the Dicks era versus the Letts era, for instance, or the Williams era and its failure to keep a consistent script editor.
But in the modern era these roles have changed in a significant way. Now there’s an executive producer whose job includes overseeing scripts, to the point of blocking out a season and then giving commissions to specific writers, but whose job also includes many of the roles that went to the producer under the classic series setup. And there’s a second (and sometimes third) executive producer who focuses entirely on the practicalities of getting the series made. This leads fandom to be prone to collapsing eras of the new series entirely into a single auteur. The Moffat era doesn’t help with this – the fact that he’s now produced Doctor Who with three distinct producing partners means that, like the Williams era in terms of script editors or the Lloyd-Bryant-Sherwin era in terms of producers, the individuals tend to fade out of the equation slightly. There’s something subtly different about the Skinner era and the Wegner/Willis era, and the two specials following Skinner being erased from Doctor Who are different yet again, but it’s hard to pick that out from Moffat’s clear interest in changing things from season to season and the replacement of the Ponds with Clara. And that means that we talk a lot about “the Davies era” as though it’s his. When in reality the so-called Davies era is the Davies/Gardner era.
And this is important to realize. Especially because, as the podcast commentary demonstrates vividly, the Davies/Gardner partnership is a vibrant, dynamic partnership where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s Bowie and Eno, or Lennon and McCartney, or, if you insist on staying within the realm of Doctor Who, Hinchcliffe and Holmes: two people, each of whom have a clear creative vision of their own, whose collaboration is as a result visibly more than the sum of its parts.
On the one hand this stems out of something that is immediately obvious if you listen to any commentary featuring the two of them, this one included: they get on like a house on fire. Davies and Gardner are clearly incredibly good friends. Indeed, here it becomes necessary to draw some critical lines. We are, after all, talking about real people. That’s in some ways what’s so oddly compelling about their commentary – the fact that it tangibly is two people on a working morning hurriedly getting one last bit of work done on a series that wasn’t even theirs anymore. (At the time the commentary was being recorded, the actual Doctor Who production team was off in Croatia doing location work for The Vampires of Venice – indeed, at one point Davies makes a comment to Gardner about how he wishes they’d done Croatia.) There’s a realness to it – the commentary is apparently being recorded by Julian Howarth, who worked on Doctor Who, who is also Gardner’s partner – indeed, she was pregnant at the time this was recorded. There’s a clear slice of domestic life here that’s an entertaining contrast with Gardner’s self-description in Eccleston-era interviews of basically living in a Cardiff flat she never unpacked because she’d just go home from producing Doctor Who to watch House such that she was functionally just living in television 24/7. (And again, the parallels with Davies, whose isolated and workaholic tendencies are also well documented, are clear.) It’s also clear that they have a strangely shared background – they talk about the cafe in which the big Wilf/Doctor scene at the halfway point of the episode was shot, and how it’s an iconic, old cafe in Swansea, both of them clearly having childhood memories bound up in the place.
But from the perspective of a critic taking in all of this, they are in the end characters no different from the Doctor or Donna. There’s an almost irresistible urge to project onto them. The degree of closeness that the brutal triple production schedule of Doctor Who, Torchwood, and The Sarah Jane Adventures inflicted makes their closeness almost impossible to look away from. Were they fictional characters, everyone would ship them. And if you did, you’d get something not entirely unlike Bob and Rose. Taken in light of this, the coincidence of Gardner’s domestic life arising just as the punishing Doctor Who schedule finally lets up feels almost like a breakup, especially with the hindsight knowledge that Davies’s partner would have a health crisis not long after their relocation to Los Angeles, resulting in Davies returning to the UK instead of continuing his creative partnership with Gardner.
And yet here on the commentary it is easy to see just how easy and fluid that partnership was. Davies and Gardner talk about how Davies pushed for better snow effects on the Ood Sphere, and Gardner ended up being the line producer on that shoot, and how she was worried it would rain and ruin the whole thing. Davies asks, bemused, what would have happened if it had rained, and Gardner calmly says she would have kept shooting and he’d have had to deal with it. And, laughing, Davies says that he’d have just rolled with it and written a line about how “a thaw has come to the Ood Sphere,” incorporating that into the sense of universal malaise that the scenes are meant to auger anyway.
And it speaks volumes; it really does. The balance of perfectionism – everyone working their asses off to get a slightly better snowy planet for no reason other than trying to make the show a little bit better – and seat-of-the-pants pragmatism that they embody tells you almost everything you need to know about how the past five years of Doctor Who came to exist. The idea that the show could be thought of as Davies’s becomes absurd in the face of it. Yes, he wrote the scripts (and Gardner peppers him with questions about how he handled the particular and strange tone of a dark and apocalyptic Christmas episode, clearly respecting his specific skill at writing; this leads to the great line on her part, after she asks him a particularly tough question, “what a great question. I like putting you on the spot. On my sofa.” Seriously, if they were fictional, you’d ship them.), but even there, there’s a clear synergy between them – they’re both thinking actively about how this episode is going to fit in within the Christmas lineup.
What is perhaps most clear, however, is that both of them are ruthless perfectionists. They talk several times about some of the more ludicrous things that have been fixed in post-production on the series. Some are at least understandable – the original idea for the Vinvocci was apparently to have the prosthetic blend into a human face, but it looked rubbish, resulting in the Mill coloring them green in every shot. Perfectionist, but at least an effects shot one understands. The CGI effect to make the Nobles’ turkey look cooked after the set department used a raw turkey, reasoning about what time of day it would be if the Queen’s speech is on is, on the other hand, a strong candidate for the weirdest bit of CGI ever, not just in terms of how strange a partially CGI turkey is in its own right, but in terms of the sheer level of obsessiveness involved in spending money to fix something like that.
But this points at a broader ethic. Davies admits at one point in The Writer’s Tale that he has zero sympathy for anyone when it comes to making sure the show is good – he says something along the lines of how he’d make someone work at their dying grandmother’s bedside if it would improve the show. And from all accounts that’s basically true – as nice and friendly a person as Davies is, he’s also absolutely uncompromising when it comes to trying to improve the show. One suspects that he would readily sell several of his own family members to improve the show if necessary.
And, likewise, that Gardner would happily plow the proceeds into buying a few more effects shots from the Mill. The degree to which Gardner repeatedly went to bat for the program and tied it into a much larger narrative within the BBC about revitalizing regional production and turning BBC Cymru Wales into a drama powerhouse is an absolutely vital part of the narrative of the so-called Davies era. The degree to which Gardner’s attentiveness and indeed obsessiveness kept the show running is unspeakably huge.
For all the pissing and moaning that certain quarters of fandom do about not getting the amount of Doctor Who that they are apparently owed by some nebulous god who metes out the precise quantities of sci-fi shows that are given in a year, the fact of the matter is that fourteen episodes of the size and complexity of Doctor Who’s is an absolutely ludicrous production task to do every year. The fact that under Steven Moffat the show has not quite been capable of it is not, on the whole, a surprise. And while much of this is put down to the differences between Moffat and Davies, a more likely candidate presents itself: the Moffat era has never had someone like Julie Gardner working to get it made. This is largely because there is nobody like Julie Gardner. The Doctor Who that existed from 2005-2010 was only possible because of her, and, more broadly, her creative partnership with Davies.
But equally, there are clear differences between them. It’s not as simple as “Davies is a Doctor Who fan while Gardner is just making some good television,” but that gets at it. Of course Davies is the one who casually notes the reuse of locations from Revenge of the Cybermen while Gardner sits patiently. But there’s a larger sense of difference between them. Davies is often filling in details that were omitted from the script, carefully laying out the extended script logic of things, and at times chiding himself for not making things clearer like the fact that the Doctor’s failure to come straight away at the end of The Waters of Mars means that he’s stuck chasing the plot because the Master has already come back, whereas if he’d come straight away he’d be ahead of the game. Gardner, meanwhile, is utterly unconcerned with this sort of detail; for her, the sense of the Doctor confronting fate carries the plot logic and makes it work without explanation.
They have these little disagreements throughout the commentary as well. Davies talks about how they put John Simm in a wig for his resurrection sequence because it wouldn’t make sense for him to come back with the blonde hair he sports for the rest of the story; Gardner doesn’t care and thinks it would have been fine to have the resurrection “shock his hair white.” (Davies laughs and calls her power-mad for thinking she could get away with it.) Davies frets about how the docklands shoot where the Master eats a burger looks weird, and how it doesn’t make sense for there to be a burger van there; Gardner is more enamoured with it because it just looks neat. Gardner, on the other hand, doesn’t think the whole “skull effect” on the Master works, whereas Davies is apparently quite taken with it.
Just as their points of issues and disagreement differ, though, so does what fascinates them in the episode. Davies is clearly interested in writing something prickly about class and money. He had in mind a small scale version of Tennant’s regeneration that would be in many ways another version of the Voyage of the Damned/Midnight/Planet of the Dead story – people trapped on a vehicle, in which the Doctor would sacrifice his life repairing an engine leaking radiation in order to save a perfectly ordinary family, raging with the same entitlement he eventually shows towards Wilf. And that’s all over this. The scene with Tommo and Ginger talking about how Obama’s plan to end the recession isn’t actually going to help them speaks volumes, and it’s significant that they’re who the former Prime Minister drops in on and eats. Similarly, although it fades into the background of the story, the detail that Naismith grabs the Master to give his daughter immortality as a birthday present, or the gloriously ludicrous shot of Naismith and his daughter sitting on thrones clinking their glasses speaks volumes about what Davies is interested in here. And, of course, there is his careful obsession with the plot logic: the details and explanations of things.
Gardner, for her part, doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass. For her what is interesting is the visual spectacle. Gardner has an extended discussion about her distaste for tinsel and how it doesn’t work on television – one that makes it clear that she is very much the sort of person who has, over a life in television, thought about tinsel a lot. What also jumps out is how many things that fandom usually credits (or more often blames) Davies for are clearly things that Gardner pulls for. She’s the one enthusiastically declaring how sexy she finds the Master and the Doctor together – so much so that there’s a truly hilarious moment in the commentary for Part Two in which she says how she wishes the Master had looked back at the Doctor one last time before disappearing with the Time Lords and Davies absolutely loses it laughing and accusing her being “ham on cheese.” It’s also, notably, Gardner who is most emphatic in her view that Claire Bloom’s character is the Doctor’s mother. Quite aside from whether any of this constitutes a good idea, all of it clearly comes in a large part because of Gardner’s presence.
More broadly, there’s a clear focus on the visual aesthetic and production values in what she ends up talking about. It’s not that she doesn’t love Doctor Who: she clearly does. But her love of it is as a well-made, interesting show. Perhaps the most telling moment of the entire commentary is at the end, when Davies attempts to hype up the return of the Time Lords and all the mysteries entailed in it, and Gardner wants to focus on how much screen presence Timothy Dalton has. Davies enthusiastically says “look, look” at the Time Lords; Gardner comments on the burning fires outside the Time Lord chamber.
This last point is in some ways the most significant. There are several versions of rumors that go around suggesting that the idea was at one point that Doctor Who would come to an end when Davies left. Tat Wood, in About Time, suggests that this was Davies’s wish, although this is hard to square away with anything Davies has ever said – it appears to be the case that he was positively chomping at the bit to get to watch Doctor Who that he wasn’t making. (Indeed, he apparently eventually delegated the job of approving the Doctor Who Magazine comics to Gary Russell in part so that he could at least have some new Doctor Who in a given month.) The other rumor that goes around is that Gardner, during the stretch of Series Three where Davies was ill and not actually doing much on the program, began making plans to wind it down, but that Davies, when he came back, vetoed it.
This seems altogether more likely, and gets at something that is truly strange about The End of Time, which is that it’s not the last episode of Doctor Who. It is, after all, more than a little strange for such an auteur-identified program to continue after the departure of its auteurs. Doctor Who, for all its success, was still in effect a show created by Russell T Davies out of the ashes of a long-cancelled cult series. The idea that it would outlast him was in many regards unthinkable, save for his absolute determination that it do so. Certainly Gardner, his production partner, was not intrinsically enthused about it. For all that she put into the show, it was a job. Parting of the Ways used the recasting of its lead character as one last spectacular trick in a season of television that was all about showing the breadth of tricks available to it. But The End of Time is, by any reasonable measure, a series finale: the last bit of Doctor Who there should ever be.
This is, of course, necessary context for reading its most controversial part, the extended “Doctor’s Reward” at the end of the episode, in which the Doctor, fatally wounded and in the early stages of regeneration, proceeds to visit all of his companions at arguably tedious length. Certainly it is a bizarre sequence within the context of a show that is not being cancelled, and is wildly out of proportion to what any other Doctor has ever gotten for a regeneration. And yet when The End of Time is looked at as the series finale that, by all rights, it should have been the sequence at least makes some kind of sense. Were the Doctor actually to die, or were the series to simply shuffle off stage into the wilderness again it would be seen as a maudlin and sentimental but largely sane and understandable bit of wrapping things up. Plenty of shows go nostalgic in their final twenty minutes.
And more to the point, nothing like this had ever happened to Doctor Who, or indeed to any show: a massive hit continues with none of its cast or major creative team after a massive epic ending with the main character’s death. The decision to structure The End of Time like a series finale that happens to go on for an extra minute with a strange young chap complaining that he’s not ginger is understandable. It marks a precedent that is perhaps a mixed bag – we are left to understand eras in a much more auteur-based sense, with executive producers now seemingly given license to treat each iteration of the show as a discrete show with a series premiere and finale. But given the fact that The End of Time easily could have been a series finale, its conclusion is, in this regard, understandable.
In this regard, at least.