Interview with Russell T. Davies: The “T” Is for “Television”

From the backrooms of Manchester gay bars to the outer reaches of space and time, Russell T. Davies has taken TV viewers around the world on a breathtaking ride. He first hit everyone’s radar as the creator of the original Queer as Folk when it aired in the United Kingdom in 1999, and after concocting the similarly groundbreaking Bob & Rose (about a gay guy who falls in love with a woman) and The Second Coming, (about the return of the Messiah), Davies had the clout to do whatever he wanted, which turned out to be a revival of the venerable science-fiction series Doctor Who.

His 2005-2010 run with the Doctor was hugely popular with both old-school fans and new viewers, and the show’s success led to two Davies-created spinoffs: The Sarah Jane Adventures (which recently ended due to the untimely death of its star, Elisabeth Sladen) and Torchwood, about the time-traveling, omnisexual Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and a Cardiff-based agency investigating alien activity.

Currently based in Southern California, Davies spoke to by phone about how much he enjoyed transplanting Torchwood to Hollywood for the production of the new season, Torchwood: Miracle Day (premiering on Starz July 8), and about his own TV-watching habits.

AfterElton: I know you can’t get into it too much, but can you give us a hint of what we can look forward to with this new Torchwood story?
Russell T. Davies: Well, it’s a great big long, ten-hour story, and it’s worth pointing out that there’s an ending. It’s not one of those things where we tell you we’ll give you the solution in five years’ time, much as I love those types of shows. But we’re not doing that; it’s like a ten-hour miniseries, there’s a beginning and a middle and an end to it.

Obviously, you know the basic premise: One day, people in the world stop dying. Death stops. Death takes a holiday, big-time, permanently. And we’re all left with a health care system that stops up. Because the world kind of depends on people dying – food and hospitals and assistance sort of depend on the regular turnover of death, so when that stops, you see what happens to the whole of society. And that’s what Torchwood has got to tackle.

The marvelous thing about it is that it’s sort of this intangible problem – the drama of it, which is they’ve got to investigate this massive, invisible thing. But that all sounds a bit conceptual, though. The truth is there are chases, there are explosions, kisses, all sorts of things, many of them happening at the same time.

AE: So it’s the first time you’ve shot the show in the U.S. Did that all wind up being less different than you’d expected?
It’s slightly strange, because here we are, all separated by a common language, so it takes some getting used to. Everyone has slightly similar job titles with very similar functions, but not identical. There was one day where I needed the address of a cast member, and there were five people sitting in the office, and I thought, I don’t know who to ask! [laughs]

In Britain, I would have known immediately, but because it was different here, I wondered, “Who is the holder of the key?” But you know what? At the end of the day, there’s a script, there’s an actor, there’s a director, there’s a camera, so actually it is the same at the end.

AE: Have you designed the season for the new viewer of Torchwood?
Very much so, which I’ve always tried to do every single year with Torchwood because I won’t rest until everyone’s watching. [laughs] When the whole world is watching, then I can relax a bit and start in the middle of the story, but until then, I’m just going to keep doing this. We want to carry old viewers with us, but I always want new people to join us. So the joy of starting in a new country, a new channel, is that you actually have characters on screen asking the questions that you are wondering about.

So we have a CIA agent called Rex Matheson, played by Mekhi Phifer, and he actually goes, “What is Torchwood? How can I find out all about it? Who’s Captain Jack? Who’s Gwen Cooper?” And you also have his assistant, Esther, who’s played by Alexa Havins, and she does all the research – she goes and finds the history of Torchwood, which is mysteriously vanishing at the same time; there’s a virus that’s wiping all information about Torchwood off of computers. Someone’s trying to eradicate the word at the same time that our new heroes are out to investigate the word.

You actually get the process of that discovery – and there’s a joy in that discovery – onscreen as a viewer alongside the characters. And then of course the moment that they find out what Torchwood is, there’s trouble, and things start exploding, and everyone’s running and screaming, so you get the fun of that as well.

But at the same time, it’s worth saying, it’s not a reboot. We’ve started showing the first episode to people, and it’s been a very big reaction from people, saying we did the same show. It’s absolutely the same show; it’s hard to get across how much the same show it is, it just happens to be set in a different place. And we’re literally a continuation of the same people and the same events in the same world, just starting a new chapter in their lives.

AE: I know at one point there was discussion of this being Torchwood U.S., and there was the thought that it would be reboot or a remake.
Yeah, those were only online discussions; that was never with us. There was never going to be a version without Jack or without Gwen or without Kai [Owen] as Gwen’s husband Rhys. That was never true. I just wouldn’t have let that happen.

AE: You bring up the internet chatter about this show. And with almost everything now but especially with genre shows, there’s this sense where fans feel like they get a say in how their favorite series should progress. Do you pay any attention to that stuff?
Ignoring it sounds like a strenuous effort – I’m 48 years old, and I’m not on Twitter, I’m not even on Facebook, so I go online to book cinema tickets or order a book from Amazon, but I don’t take part in message boards or anything like that. Future generations will, our generation will pass away soon, but it’s just not the sort of thing I do. And as far as I’m concerned, we make it and then people comment on it, that’s the order. Lots of other shows will do it the other way around, and they’ll listen to fan comments, but that’s just not the way I work. I’ve got enough going on in my own head. But good luck to other shows who do it that way.

AE: So it was fun watching Barrowman entertaining everyone between takes, complete with pratfalls and Carol Channing impersonations. Has it been fun for all of you to have a new crew of folks who haven’t heard your stories yet?
I think actually Carol Channing’s been impersonating John Barrowman for a long while. [laughs] What you’re seeing there is John at his best, and he’s such a team leader, he unites our set in laughter, literally in song sometimes, and it makes the whole working atmosphere so much better. And he’s always done that – I know he’s done that in theater, he’s done that in Cardiff when we made the original Torchwood, he’s done that on Doctor Who, he’s simply a joy to be around.

And you know a film set is a tough place, you’re always behind time, you’re always behind with money, there’s never time to rehearse enough or move the camera enough, so someone like John is a lifesaver. I know how much Kai and Alexa love being with him; Bill Pullman just adored John. That’s why we take a show and move it 6,000 miles across the world, is because more people should share Barrowman! There’s a very dirty joke at the end of that, but I won’t make it. [laughs]

John Barrowman and Russell T. Davies

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