Influence Is Bliss, episode two: Russell T. Davies

How do you know when you’re watching something written by TV writer, showrunner extraordinaire and all-round genius Russell T. Davies? You’re probably crying.

Russell T. Davies

Russell T. Davies

And by the way, those tears probably started in laughter. Which happened in the middle of a thrilling action sequence in which the characters you LOVE are thrown into high stakes peril, and have to use extreme cleverness to save themselves from a situation that somehow blends terrifying concepts with overwhelming heart, soul and emotion.

That’s just an average scene for Davies, because he is the master of the human heart. When he REALLY wants to mess with you, it’s just devastating.

Davies is best known for his tremendous resurrection of the longest running sci-fi show in TV history, DOCTOR WHO (it first aired in 1953!). This tale of a time-traveling Time Lord known only as The Doctor who journeyed through the universe in a TARDIS (a time machine in the form of a blue police box), usually in the company of one or two humans who were looking for adventure, was originally a much-beloved, yet quaint, show on the BBC. It was known for its charm, inventiveness, futuristic electronic scores and less-than-stellar special effects. Sadly, over time, ever more ridiculous storylines resulted in the show being axed in the eighties, seemingly never to return (with a brief exception in the form of a TV movie that popped up in 1996).

The TARDIS. There's a reason why it looks like that.

The TARDIS. There’s a reason why it looks like that.

However, Davies, who, despite his roots in the gritty, everyday dramas of everyday people, was a huge sci-fi fan, and a fan of the show, rescued it from its cancellation wasteland in 2005 and rebooted it into a glossy global phenomenon.

How did he do it?

With brilliant writing. With feelings. With, as the ultra-smart and Scottish late night talk show host Craig Ferguson describes it, a healthy dose of “intellect and romance.” Because no one does feelings quite like Davies. His stories and scripts are overflowing with heart and emotion. And they’re extraordinarily clever too. But it’s not the cleverness that keeps us there: it’s the people. Davies’ background in writing astonishingly great dramas about “everyday” people was key to the success of this most fantastical of shows. Davies knows how to give us the shortcut right into a character’s soul, and make us feel what they feel. Although the show is called DOCTOR WHO — and although Davies did reimagine the Doctor as intelligent, bold, and very funny, as well as being a dangerous and charismatic hero-figure — he was the first to truly realize that the heart of the show (one of them at least) should be the human companions that accompanied this alien Time Lord. Because they were our stand-ins. Our view into the conceptually mind-bending experience of actually traveling through time.

The Doctor (on the left) and friend

The Doctor (on the left) and something REALLY SCARY on the other side of the wall

Davies was rebooting a sci-fi show and making it fresh and “now.” He could have focused on spaceships, spectacle, action. Instead, to begin this new journey, he crafted a beautiful hour of television that showed us how a girl with dreams plucks up the courage to try and chase them. And so his first episode, the one that relaunched the show, was simply titled Rose, after the girl who decides to give up her life on Earth to follow the Doctor into the stars.

Rose Tyler, played so perfectly by Billie Piper

Rose Tyler, played so perfectly by Billie Piper

Rose Tyler is an ordinary, working class girl, living a regular life, living with her mother in a tiny flat, working in the local department store, just trying to get by. But she dreams of so much more than that. When she gets chased by mannequins possessed by an evil alien lifeforce, has to deal with her store blowing up, and, in one brilliant scene, fails to notice that her boyfriend’s monosyllabic responses are not due to his disinterest but the fact that he is a replica created by the aliens, Rose realizes that life doesn’t have to be ordinary, or even safe. She chooses the thrill of the unknown, and accepts the Doctor’s offer (once he’s saved the day), to journey with him. The smile on Rose’s face as she runs into the TARDIS is one of the emotional high points of the entire show.

Davies understands what it is to dream of something more than what you have, and how you can become something extraordinary when you’re in the most challenging of situations. His characters, his writing, resonate so powerfully. As writers often like to say on Twitter, his writing has ALL THE FEELS.

His era of Doctor Who ran from 2005 through 2009, and it was extraordinary. It’s up there with the best of TV sci-fi like BUFFY, FIREFLY, STAR TREK, BSG, FRINGE, and Davies’ own WHO spin-off, TORCHWOOD. Davies wrote a book about running DOCTOR WHO, called The Writer’s Tale. If you are writer of any kind, a storyteller of any sort, a fan of the show, a fan of sci-fi, a fan of TV, an aspiring showrunner, or just interested in how stories are told, you need to read this book. It’s one of the greatest books about writing, about stories, about TV, ever written. You can see the detailed evolution of stories from initial idea to treatment to draft to shooting script. It’s fascinating, and it shows you above all how important character is.

It doesn’t hurt that Davies is a genius sci-fi writer, able to spin incredible ideas together and create deep and detailed worlds, often one after another to fulfill the hungry demands of a long-running episodic TV show. And he subtly layers in long-running arcs that build to insane crescendos like a boss.

But whatever he is writing, however fantastical the setting, Davies’ primary concern is always the character, and how to make us feel.

And boy, does he make us feel.

Writing is our TARDIS

Why do we write?

It’s a question writers often get asked, and probably one we think about all the time anyway. There are a lot of answers to that question; as readers and fans you’ve no doubt seen a lot of them. It’s something writers love to talk about, and we always love reading and hearing what our favorite writers have to say on that subject.

Most of the time, for us, we write because we don’t know how not to. We just can’t not write. Whether it’s sitting at the desktop or laptop, putting notes down in a phone, or using actual pen and paper by scribbling in one of our several thousand notebooks, or grabbing the first thing we can find (ripped open envelope, back of an already used post-it, margin of a magazine… back of our hands even)… inspiration and ideas strike constantly.

It happens all the time, and everywhere.

Out walking, sitting on a train, having a coffee, when the lights are out and just before falling asleep, watching TV, watching a movie. Being a writer means being on call to the beautiful muse, 24/7.

There are other reasons too: writing keeps us sane, helps us make sense of the world (and of ourselves)… but perhaps most importantly of all, we just love it.

We love it so much.

It’s an absolute blast, writing and being a writer. At its best, it feels like being in Pink Floyd or Muse and playing a guitar solo in a stadium full of screaming fans.

Just another Wednesday night, sitting on the sofa with the laptop

At least, it feels that way. Except, here’s the thing: when you’re a writer, there’s usually no one else there. That stadium is empty, most of the time. The truth is, being a writer is very much a “loneliness of the long distance runner” kind of activity. You’re running through an unforgiving landscape with no idea where the end of the race is going to be. But if you want to get there, you have to just keep running.

…or just keep swimming.

There’s really only one way to sustain that kind of existence: you have to love the crap out of it.

And we so do.

One of the most thrilling things in the world for anyone is possibility; but for a writer, the absolute most thrilling thing needs to be making possibilities become real, tangible, actual. You’re architect and craftsman, designer and builder. Yes, you have to be made of steel sometimes; you have to have an absolutely endless appetite for creating, for that thrill of coming up with something new… and for putting in the hours, weeks, months and maybe years to see it through.

And then, maybe, to spend that much time again getting rejected.

What?! Yeah, ‘fraid so.

So you have to really love it, because if you are in that phase of sending your work to others (agents, competitions, managers, other writers) and not hearing what you wanted to hear, you still need to be coming up with the next thing, and the next, and the next. Your desire needs to be immense, indestructible. Just like Celine says, your heart must go on (no, we can’t believe we went there either). You have to be utterly and hopelessly in love with this thing. Because it will hurt. It will be dark, sometimes. But you know, that’s okay, if you love it. That’s okay, if the sheer act of putting words on paper or on screen makes you feel like you’re Dave Grohl blasting out a Foo Fighters song at the Grammys.

Rocking out son

That absolute blast, that thrill of possibility and exploration is what drives us. The open road, the open sky… the open universe. We love launching ourselves into new worlds. It’s like being explorers, or mountain climbers. There’s a lot that goes into it, but the feeling when you discover that miraculous new world, or see that incredible view from the summit, is the most wonderful thing. We want it, over and over again. We’ll always want it.

Basically, being a writer is like having your own TARDIS.

This is what it’s like in our heads

You get to travel in time and space and see wonderful, mind-blowing things. Dreams that surprise you, scare you, change you. Every time you open a new Word doc (or Final Draft, or even just a blank piece of paper), it’s like the TARDIS has landed, and just like the Doctor, you have no idea what’s on the other side of that door. But you can’t wait to throw that door open and throw yourself into whatever adventure awaits.