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Russell and Steven: Looking at the Relationship Between The Two Doctor Who Showrunners

Having caught some snippets of Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat wandering around the new console room, talking about what makes a good Doctor Who episode, I was once again reminded just how important Mr. Moffat is to the once, current, and future showrunner. Even between these two typing titans, Moffat dominated the conversation. You can tell that, though they’re both uber-fans, Russell defers to Steven. 

When the show came back in 2005, RTD was staring down at 13 episodes, and he would be doing the majority of the heavy lifting. Everything was untried and nerves were on edge because there was no guarantee that the new show would survive after coming back, let alone be popular. He was going to bring in a few writers, give them prompts, assemble the series.

One of the first calls he made was to Moffat, warning him that, for the task ahead, he’d be leaning on him for two episodes, because RTD could only do so much. Over the next few years, the two would constantly be talking in one form or another, with Russell leaning on Steven to come in and write stories that would become instant classics. Then, of course, Moffat took over the show for the next 8 years, 2010 through 2017, producing and writing some of the most memorable and popular Who ever. 

While many have been wary of some of the bizarre decisions RTD has made in the Disney era so far, the impression has been given that Russell does what he wants, when he wants, no matter what anyone else says, and if you don’t like it, tough. It’s Russell’s show, it’s his way or the highway! And yet…

After he orchestrated the deal between the BBC, Bad Wolf/Sony, and Disney, and obtained creative control as part of that deal, Moffat was the first friend/writer/peer he called to discuss plans. Perhaps Russell is out of control on some stuff, but he does ask for help. He seems to lean pretty heavily on Steven. His guidance, his opinion. 

Russell recently related a story about the new opening titles (which are brilliant — maybe the absolute best ever), and said that originally, there was a point where, amongst all the zooming through clouds, the TARDIS doors would open and David Tennant and Catherine Tate would be waving at camera. He showed Moffat the sequence and Steven said flatly and in no uncertain terms, “Wonderful! Get rid of the open door gag.” And even though Russell liked it, he got rid of it. It was the right call, and it showed that Russell trusts Moffat’s instincts implicitly.

That’s important, and it illustrates that, for all the talk of ego, Russell can and will do the right thing at times. At the very least, he will listen to input, and I don’t think there’s anyone who he listens to or respects more than Moffat. And this is shown again and again. The first ep this season with a guest writer? Boom by Moffat. The unprecedented notion of handing over writing duties to someone not the showrunner for a Christmas special? Here comes Moffat.

And Moffat’s on board knowing all of Russell’s secret plans, probably long term plans — you name it. Hopefully, Steven’s given Russell the right constructive criticism along the way, but just the fact that they are so close, that’s he’s there for the big guy, is nice. 

Moffat’s said in the past that coming in to do a story once a year during RTD’s first time as showrunner was the best job ever, because he could come in, do the ep, then leave without being swallowed up by showrunning duties. It was the best of all possible worlds. He loved being showrunner too, but it also came with headaches. It was just easier being a guest writer. Which is why many were surprised recently when Moffat said that the upcoming 2024 Christmas special might be his last. Perhaps he just wants to go out on a high note. I, for one, am just glad he’s back now and this coming Christmas.

It’s also nice that Moffat has had trouble letting go of Who. I applaud his inability to leave us! If we had even one writer who knew the ins and outs of writing Doctor Who and could consistently deliver as well as Steven Moffat, it’d be a different story. But we really don’t. There seems to be a couple that show promise, but nobody has stepped in and blown people away the way that Moffat’s done in the past. 

I often speak highly of Jamie Mathieson and thought he’d be the next Moffat. But then I remember that I’ve only seen his stories through the script editing lens of Moffat. Mathieson without the Moff? Who knows? I enjoyed Chibnall’s contributions through Moffat, but without Steven showrunning Chris Chibnall, I’ve seen the difference, and no thanks.

Full disclosure. Right now, I’m not as confident in Russell as I used to be. I think it has everything to do with the circumstances of his return. By the end of his first run on the show, he was badly burnt out after an exhausting five years. He never came back to write for the show under the next two showrunners. But… He loved the show all his life and he knew that it, and the BBC were in danger on a couple fronts. 

For years, Russell had spoken about what should and must happen to ensure Doctor Who’s survival, the importance of a streaming partner, and stepping up to create a Whoniverse, in line with other storied franchises like Marvel, Star Trek, and Star Wars. Fortuitously, he’s part of Bad Wolf, who’s owned by Sony, who’s partnered with Disney. So, he made it happen.

But the concern now is how much of this is simply feeling obligated to saving his favourite show, and how much is genuine excitement just to be writing and creating for it again. Difficult to know. And although Russell will be the ongoing architect of the Whoniverse for a number of years to come, at some point, he will have to more fully attend to the bigger picture, possibly place someone on Who to act as the hands-on showrunner who reports to him. 

20 years on, there’s more grey on top and showrunning hasn’t gotten any easier — although he has cut down the size of the seasons greatly. And who knows, the mere act of starting everything up again may have re-energized him, if he even needed the boost. 

And if that fails, he’s got Steven on speed dial. 

Rick Lundeen

Russell and Steven: Looking at the Relationship Between The Two Doctor Who Showrunners

by Rick Lundeen time to read: 5 min
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