Can David Tennant’s return to Doctor Who usher in another golden age?

Russell T. Davies’ return to Doctor Who as showrunner is the kind of Hail Mary thrown out by a franchise dangerously close to drowning. He left at the top of his game, handing the keys to Steven Moffat, who built up the show to a frenzied peak during Matt Smith’s run. The show broke viewing figures in 2012, and also finally broke through as a bona fide phenomenon in America thanks to a heavily marketed partnership with BBC America. While RTD (as he’s known by fans) saw further success with critically acclaimed shows like A Very English Scandal and It’s A Sin, Chris Chibnall’s tenure at Doctor Who was much less successful, and the show reportedly came close to being canceled as Jodie Whittaker’s run as the first female Doctor was poorly critically reviewed, and saw ratings go into free-fall.

That was when I imagine RTD went into Supernanny mode. In my head he tells the BBC, “You guys are in a crisis, I’m on my way.” The news that he would be coming back to the show in time for the 60th anniversary made many fans who had dropped off in past years perk up and begin to pay attention again — including me. I may have begun watching the show as a teenager during the Eleventh Doctor’s first series in 2010, but Davies’ run from 2005 to 2010 is forever the era of my heart. So it feels particularly notable that he’s bringing David Tennant and Catherine Tate with him, as the Fourteenth Doctor and crowd favorite companion Donna Noble. Nostalgia is being used as a shameless marketing tactic, but it’s doubtful anyone will complain when longtime fans are being catered to so directly.

As anticipation for this comeback grows, fans are wondering what to expect from the era being dubbed “RTD2.” Davies’ first era defined what Doctor Who could be in the new millennium. Could it possibly strike the same chord again as it did when we were young? And what exactly was that chord, for that matter?

The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) opening the doors to the TARDIS and smiling a bit. Image: BBC

When Davies relaunched the show in 2005, it was after nearly two decades of hiatus, during which Doctor Who had become consigned to the dustbin of — well, not history, but fan conventions and spinoff comics. It was RTD’s vision that helped the show regain its popularity and influence.

In his doorstopper book, The Writer’s Tale, Davies describes in exhaustive detail the process of scripting, filming, and releasing Doctor Who. In over 600 pages of late-night email conversations with Doctor Who Magazine staff writer Benjamin Cook, picking up in 2007 as he begins to write Series 4, he goes in deep on his creative philosophies, methods, and ideals.

“​​Truth, in writing, is the only important thing,” he told Cook, when asked about his writing process. “That’s what it’s for. The whole time, every day, all these pages, all my life, means sitting here looking for something — some line, some insight, some microsecond — that makes me think: yes. Yes, that’s true. That’s real. I recognize that. I know it.”

That humanistic approach defined his era of the show, and set up NuWho (as fans call it) on the whole as a show that would have, as its heart, the personal.

The world that RTD depicted in his first run on Doctor Who was our world, plus. Harried mothers, bad boyfriends, everyday heroes and cowards. His career origins in children’s television and soap opera writing meant that he began with character, and built from there. His worldbuilding was great, and showed off his true love of the show’s mythology, but that came second to the people who inhabited his worlds. From the hymn-singing drivers of “Gridlock” to the fearful medical students of “Smith and Jones;” from the worried family of “Turn Left” to the comical tourists of “Voyage of the Damned,” RTD’s characters weren’t always serious or realistic, but they were believable.

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Many of the villains of the first series, starring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, had suffered in some way — some due to the horrors of the Time War that had also destroyed the Doctor’s people. Others, like the evil skin-flap Cassandra, were one-dimensional (literally) in their first appearance, only to go on to reveal hidden depths in a later episode. Cassandra’s tragic death in series 2’s opener “New Earth” is a perfect example of Davies’ sentimental sensibilities, and provide a contrast for his broad, often bawdy sense of humor, as exhibited by the laugh-out-loud body-swapping interplay between Cassandra and Rose in that same episode.

Because of Davies’ generosity of spirit as a writer, fans were able to perhaps more easily imagine themselves as a Rose or Martha than the chosen-one-esque “Girl Who Waited” Amy Pond or the effortlessly chic “Impossible Girl” Clara Oswald of Moffat’s era.

With its everyday heroes and sympathetic villains, RTD’s era of Doctor Who set the stage for the kind of expansive fan involvement which led to an explosion of Doctor Who fandom online for a new generation. Fans who had been a little too young for LiveJournal flocked to Tumblr, where they could easily share the gifs, graphics, memes, and artwork that became the hallmarks of a new visual fandom culture.

It was this platform, combined with the openness of RTD’s vision of the world of Doctor Who, which allowed fans to so easily picture that world expanding to include others that they were obsessed with at the time — leading to the rise of that iconic fandom phenomenon: Superwholock.

Screenshots of Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles), Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant)
The pillars of Superwholock: Dean Winchester from Supernatural, Sherlock Holmes from BBC’s Sherlock, and the Doctor from Doctor Who
Graphic: Emily Heller, Zosha Millman/Polygon | Images: BBC and The CW

Many people, including myself, joined Tumblr in order to discuss Doctor Who, and to fangirl over the Tenth Doctor, who had by the end of his run become a bona fide fandom sex symbol. I remember the first blog I followed on Tumblr in 2010 was called davidtennantseyebrows — one of dozens of popular blogs devoted to each of his beloved body parts. The reason Sherlock and Supernatural made it into the tripartite canon was simply because they were the most popular on Tumblr at the same time as Doctor Who’s peak around 2012, and each had an easy overlap with Doctor Who. Supernatural and Doctor Who had fighting monsters in common, and Doctor Who and Sherlock shared British origins and a showrunner in Steven Moffat. A Superwholock blog might have had as their “main” or favorite one out of the three shows, but post content relating to all three.

It quickly became an aesthetic affiliation which a fangirl (usually a girl) could easily define themselves by in order to attract fellow fans — and in fact, still do. Over on TikTok, former Superwholock are posting slideshows of their Tumblr days alongside updates of where they are now, like a Manhattan barista who once had a TARDIS birthday cake. Exclamations of solidarity and “I miss those days” fill the comment sections. In the constant battle of cringe and cool online, Superwholockianism is in a state of semi-reclamation. To identify as a former Superwholock is to admit to having, at one point, possessed an earnest enthusiasm so large and unruly that it spilled over the boundaries of one franchise to encompass multiple fictional worlds.

The visual signifiers of Superwholock, the posters and themed cakes and cringey Hot Topic T-shirts, are what gets remembered; but do we remember how the idea of the crossover made us feel? The possibilities were overwhelmingly awesome. Sherlock in the TARDIS! The Doctor in the Impala! Imagine! Superwholockers’ famous lengthy crossover URLs and obnoxious gif threads stood in for a truly immense depth of passion. Fans drew connections between the shows and vividly imagined them with elaborate fanvids. We just felt so much: like three smaller waves, combining when they meet to form one of a larger amplitude. That kind of enthusiasm does have a childish element, we can recognize as much now — but it was also maybe more than we’ve felt for any single franchise since then.

The news of RTD’s return stoked a long-buried fire in fans who remember feeling this way. The Doctor would be the first to say you can’t change the past, but you can always try again, and do it differently, and better. Davies had always had a huge blockbuster vision for the show. But with the new partnership between the Bad Wolf production company, the BBC, and Disney, he’s now being given a bigger budget, which comes with more freedom to let his imagination run wild, not only on the flagship show itself but across a potential spread of franchised spinoffs.

One of the things that charmed watchers of RTD’s first go-round was the scrappy low-budget aspect. Reading The Writer’s Tale, one gets a sense of the immense technical and bureaucratic difficulties involved in dealing with these restrictions. Still, Davies’ talent as a writer and showrunner meant that he usually could rise above, and produce something even more incredible out of necessity. Restrictions can force the grounding of the show in emotional truth, which doesn’t cost anything extra. Some of the run’s all-time best episodes, like the single-set stunner “Midnight, came about because of on-set budget constraints; and cheesy, bad practical effects are part Doctor Who’s eternal charm, and have been since 1963.

But the show is certainly no longer the inexpensive cultish reboot it was when RTD’s first era premiered. His upcoming 60th anniversary specials look to be incredibly cinematic and slick, surpassing even his first exit, the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration special event “The End of Time.” That was a big-budget, cinematic swing, which took a chance and just managed to stick the landing — can he repeat the feat? And, having done so, can he bring the show back down to Earth? So much depends on his ability to pull it off: bring back old viewers, charm new ones, give David Tennant’s Fourteenth Doctor a satisfying beginning and end, introduce Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor, and most importantly prove that Disney’s investment was the right choice. It’s certainly not guaranteed — after all, sometimes things that are expensive are worse.

In The Writer’s Tale, Davies says, “Writing isn’t just a job that stops at six-thirty. (Well, bad writers can do that.) It’s a mad, sexy, sad, scary, obsessive, ruthless, joyful, and utterly, utterly personal thing. There’s not the writer and then me; there’s just me. All of my life connects to the writing. All of it.” One can only hope that above all else it’s this fundamental passion, which is what helped his debut era of Doctor Who define what fandom felt and looked like to a generation of teenagers, remains the driving force behind what’s to come.

Doctor Who’s first anniversary special, “The Star Beast” will air on Disney Plus on Nov. 25. New specials will come out on Saturdays until Dec. 9.