Early this week the news that all Torchwood fans had been hoping and waiting for – for nearly a year now – came as the BBC announced that the Doctor Who spin-off series would be returning for a fourth season.
The series of Torchwood is being produced in collaboration with BBC Wales, BBC Worldwide and American broadcaster Starz and will take on an “international” scale. It seems fitting therefore with the announcement of Torchwood’s return that we take a look at the career of its creator, Russell T Davies, as we make him an ATV Icon.
Russell T Davies career in television started in the 1980s when he worked as a floor manger and production assistant at the BBC before taking the BBC’s in-house directors course. Barry Letts, who had produced Doctor Who between 1970 and 1974 and later returned as executive producer in 1980, was one of many to teach on the directing course. Following this he m,oved to the BBC’s Children Department producing Why Don’t You and later scripted shows such as Chucklevision and Breakfast Serials. His work in the Children’s Department for the BBC lead to him being commissioned to write a six-part science fiction based series for CBBC. The six-part series was influenced by Doctor Who, Davies being a fan of the series, and there were several sly nods to the series – which had only ended two years before in 1989 – included within the six-part serial.
The drama, Dark Season, comprised of two three-part stories that were loosely linked. It was set in a school where teenagers begin to suspect something sinister is going on when free laptops are handed out to the other children – in the second story an archaeological dig on the school grounds gets their attention. Amongst the cast of Dark Season was a young Kate Winslet in an early acting role – the actress would, of course, go on to find fame in Hollywood. Also amongst the cast were Brigit Forsyth and Jacqueline Pearce – of Blakes 7 fame. The series was directed by Colin Cant who had helmed episodes of Grange Hill, Moondial, Juliet Bravo and Crown Court and would later, in the 1990s, return to work with Davies again on Century Falls. Dark Season proved to be a success for the BBC and initially a second season was considered but ultimately never materialised although a novelisation of the series was released.
In 1992 Davies moved from the BBC to Granada Television writing for the successful CITV series Children’s Ward – Grange Hill in a hospital. One of the episodes written by Davies won a BAFTA. The series was a breeding ground for future talent not just in front of the camera but also behind with writers such as Paul Abbott and Key Mellor also contributing towards the series. Actor wise future stars such as Will Mellor, Tina O’Brien, Jane Danson, Ralf Little and Tim Vincent all appeared in Children’s Ward. The series ran on ITV between 1989 and 2000 when it was sadly axed – its heyday long since over.
Davies switch to Granada also meant he slowly started to work his way into adult television contributing towards the crime quiz-show Cluedo, based on the popular board game of the same name, and later on the Granada soap Families. Davies later went on to create the short-lived late-night soap, Revelations. The little remembered bonkers soap starred Paul Shelley, Judy Loe, Sue Holderness and Emma Roberts and ran between 1994 and 1995.
It is mostly forgotten now by television audiences because of its late-night slot which meant many viewers were unaware it was even on. Revelations was one of a number of short-lived soaps produced in the 1990s by various broadcasters as they hoped to recapture the success of EastEnders, Brookside and its counter-parts. Other examples of short-lived soaps in the 1990s include Family Pride, Quayside, London Bridge and Castles. Following his work on Families and Revelations Davies moved onto work at Coronation Street where he scripted the spin-off video, Viva Las Vegas.
In 1997 Davies launched a new series for ITV, period drama The Grand. The drama was set in a 1920s Manchester Hotel and because of behind-the-scenes issues Davies ended up scripting all 18 episodes of the drama himself. The 18 episodes were spread across two seasons broadcast in 1997 and 1998 and were popular with audiences. The series, often compared to The Duchess of Duke Street or Upstairs Downstairs, starred Mark McGann, Julia St John, Susan Hampshire and Stephen Moyer – now starring in HBO vampire drama True Blood. The series, similar in premise to Crossroads in that it’s set in a hotel and revolves around the staff and guests, was another example of Davies fine script writing proving he could carry a series on his own. It also another breeding ground for future talent as other actors to go onto bigger things include Jane Danson, Amanda Mealing, Daniel Casey and Lucy Davis.
During the 1990s Doctor Who was off the air after being cancelled by the BBC in 1989 because of low ratings in its final years. However, the series lived on in the form of new novels released by Virgin Publishing in two strands – The New Adventures and The Missing Adventures. The Virgin range of books featured many writers, such as Paul Cornell, Gary Russell and Andrew Cartmel, who were established within the Doctor Who world. As a fan of the series Davies leapt at the chance to write for the Virgin novels and in 1996 his New Adventures novel, Damaged Goods, was released. It was Davies first official contribution towards the world of Doctor Who and little at the time did anyone release that within the next ten years Doctor Who would be back on-screen thanks to the writer.
In 1999 the drama that Davies was to become most famous for – up to that point – was the Channel Four series Queer as Folk. It followed the lives of three gay men in Manchester’s Gay District and proved hugely controversial for its depiction of underage gay sex, drug taking and “explicit” gay sex – explicit at the time. Nothing like Queer as Folk had ever been broadcast on British television before and although homosexuality had been decriminalised in the UK since the 1960s it was still considered somewhat of a taboo topic for television.
While there had been gay characters featured in soaps during the 1980s and 1990s there mere presence was enough to ensure the wrath of some tabloids with EastEnders being dubbed “EastBenders” when it featured a gay plot in the 1980s. Because of the “taboo” nature of homosexuality even in the 1990s soaps that featured such storylines did so gently and didn’t go into graphic detail – Queer as Folk threw away that rule book. Queer as Folk stuck its two fingers up at the press and depicted gay life in Manchester very graphically. In the first episode alone gay sex scenes featured prominently.
Although there was a negative press reaction towards the drama it still proved to be a ratings success for Channel Four. While there was an inevitable backlash against a drama featuring gay men as central characters it still proved to interest audiences and was a ratings success for Channel Four, much to the dismay of some “Christian” viewers. The series starred Craig Kelly, Aidan Gillen and Charlie Hunnam with supporting actors include Jason Merrells, Denise Black, Anthony Cotton and Peter O’Brien. The influence of Doctor Who was also very present in the series as the character of Vince (Craig Kelly) was a huge fan of the series and was seen, in some episodes, watching episodes of Doctor Who.
The success of Queer as Folk lead Channel Four to order a second series but it was decided the sequel would be shortened to two episodes and tied up the series – it was also more serious in tone and somewhat less popular than the first series. A spin-off series was proposed and Davies storylined ideas for it but Channel Four later pulled the plug.
An American version of Queer as Folk later emerged initially reusing the storylines of its British counter-part before quickly spinning off in its own direction. Notable differences between the two versions include the character of Mickey (Hal Sparks) being a comic book fan instead of Doctor Who – as the science fiction series wasn’t as well known in America. Other changes include the character of Justin (Randy Harrison) being 17 instead of 15 like Nathan (Charlie Hunnam). The American version also featured a lesbian couple much more prominently in the storylines than the original series. Queer as Folk in American ran for an impressive five seasons and never really received the backlash faced by its British counter-part.
Fans of the original series have criticised the remake for being more soapy than the original series, which was far more gritty, and for heavy use of “good looking” actors and an over-reliance on sex scenes to pad episodes. However, one of the high points of the American series has to be, without a doubt, Sharon Gless as Debbie – a huge fan favourite.
In 2002 another gay-themed series followed from Davies but this time on ITV and featuring Alan Davies and Lesley Sharpe. Bob & Rose was a drama about a gay man who falls in love with a woman. It proved to be somewhat controversial amongst gay audiences who felt the series merely proved what some outspoken “critics!” of homosexuality often argued – that gay men haven’t met the right woman yet. The idea that a gay man could suddenly turn straight angered some gay viewers and the series was not as successful as Queer as Folk – a second series was not ordered. In 2003 Davies had another drama on ITV – The Second Coming. The drama was originally offered to Channel Four and later the BBC before it found a home on ITV. The critically acclaimed drama starred Christopher Eccleston and Lesley Sharp. Davies also created the ITV sitcom Mine All Mine and the critically acclaimed BBC drama Casanova around this time as well.
In 2003 it was finally announced that Doctor Who would be returning to television screens. The series had been off-air since 1989 but for an American co-produced television movie in 1996 starring Paul McGann. The movie was produced by the BBC and Fox and it was hoped that a new series starring Paul McGann would follow. While it was successful in the UK, over 9 million viewers, it was a ratings flop in America and Fox declined to continue with the project. Doctor Who became stuck in development hell as BBC Films attempted to develop a cinema version meaning no television series could be developed.
In 1999 Davies was approached by the BBC to revive Doctor Who but the project didn’t develop because of BBC Films. In 2003 Controller of BBC One Lorraine Heggessey managed to persuade BBC Films to abandon their project clearing the way for a new television series. The BBC once again approached Davies who agreed to take on the mammoth task of reviving Doctor Who for the 21st century. In 2003, the 40th anniversary of the series, it was announced to the country that Doctor Who would be back – in 2005.
There was intense press interest in Doctor Who and plenty of tabloid speculation as to what the new series would look like and who the new Doctor, and who companion, would be. Christopher Eccleston was cast as the 10th Doctor while former pop-star Billie Piper was cast in the role of Rose Tyler, the new companion. Filming for the new series of Doctor Who began in 2004 although it looked for a while as though the iconic Daleks would not feature in the series. However, in the end the BBC reached an agreement with the estate of Terry Nation, the Daleks creator, and the Metal monsters were back on for the first new series of Doctor Who.
Also amongst the cast of the new series were Noel Clarke, John Barrowman and Camille Coduri while it was announced that guest-stars for the new series would include Penelope Wilton, Zoe Wanamaker, Simon Callow, Annette Badland, Navin Chowdhry, Simon Pegg, Tamsin Gregg, Richard Wilson and Jo Joyner. The first new series of Doctor Who was a huge success and the BBC ordered two more after just the first episode had broadcast. It quickly emerged however that Christopher Eccleston would not be returning for future episodes and it was revealed that David Tennant would become the 10th Doctor.
The success of Doctor Who prompted the BBC to search for other “family dramas” for the Saturday evening slot with Robin Hood and Merlin following while rivals ITV soon caught on with Primeval and less successfully Demons. David Tennant proved to be a huge success as the 10th Doctor with audiences and critics loving his portrayal and after the second season Billie Piper bowed out to be replaced by Freema Agyeman and then Catherine Tate. The success of Doctor Who was proved when, in 2007, Kylie Minogue guest starred in the Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned. The success of Doctor Who also lead the BBC to commission two spin-offs; Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Torchwood was commissioned by the BBC originally for BBC Three and followed a small group of experts in Cardiff who fight the various menaces that threaten the series. The concept of Torchwood, a secret organising protecting the British Empire against alien threats, had been introduced during the second season of Doctor Who when it became the “story-arc” of the series. The spin-off saw John Barrowman reprise his role of Captain Jack Harkness and also featured Eve Myles, who had appeared as a different character in Doctor Who, Gareth David-Lloyd, Burn Gorman and Naoko Mori – who reprised her small role from Doctor Who. The series was described, when it was announced, as “The X Files meets This Life” and was an “adult” spin-off from Doctor Who featuring swearing, violence and sex.
The relationship between Captain Jack and Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) was popular with fans and was one of the elements to span the shows three seasons so far. The success of Torchwood lead the BBC to commissioned a second series – which aired on BBC Two – and saw actress Freema Agyeman crossover for three episodes. A third season was also commissioned and promoted to BBC One and the series underwent a format change shifting from “monster of the week” to a five-part story airing of consecutive nights.
Russell T Davies created Torchwood and wrote the opening episode along with further episodes, especially in its mini-series Children of Earth. Davies also created the CBBC spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures which stars Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith – a role she played in the original series of Doctor Who opposite Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. So far three seasons of the spin-off has aired and a fourth and fifth series have been ordered. Although a children’s drama the series has won praise for its writing, acting and story telling especially given the fact the series doesn’t patronise its viewers or talk down to them – a criticism aimed firmly at many children programmes today.
The series also attracts high ratings despite its early afternoon slot and over 1 million viewers regularly tune in for episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures. The Doctor Who franchise has become an important part of the BBC with Doctor Who and Torchwood selling especially well abroad and all three shows spin-off various pieces of merchandise.
The successful reviving of Doctor Who is down to Russell T Davies who kept the core elements of the show while updating the revitalising the format without damaging the shows heritage or reputation. A new generation of children are fans of the series, and its spin-offs, thanks to Davies and his cosmic balancing act. While, perhaps, not every story of Doctor Who since it was revived has been a success the mere fact that Doctor Who is on is due to Davies talent.
The original series of Doctor Who considered various spin-offs over the years and even attempted to launch one in 1981 with K-9 but the fact the series now has two hugely successful spin-offs is also down to Davies. Not only did he oversee the revival of Doctor Who on television but also its brand which now successful extends to include Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures – both of which continue to entertain audiences through their mix of humour, action and dramatic stories told from a human perceptive. Whatever the future holds for Torchwood and its fourth season we can be sure it’ll be dramatic, a lot of fun, full with twists, turns and shocks along the way and will probably make us cry too.