BBC Roundtable: Russel T. Davis & Euros Lyn

Thu, August 13th, 2009 at 11:58am PDT

TV/Film
Shaun Manning, Staff Writer

SPOILER WARNING: This interview contains spoilers for “Torchwood: Children of Earth.”

"Torchwood: Children of Earth" airs on BBC America

This weekend at Comic-Con International in San Diego, CBR took part in BBC America's series of roundtable interviews with “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood: Children of Earth” writer and producer Russell T. Davies and director Euros Lyn, as well as a second session with outgoing “Doctor Who” star David Tennant and producer Julie Gardner. These interviews took place in advance of the Sunday panels celebrating the American broadcast and DVD release of the new “Torchwood” miniseries and the first of five specials that compose Tennant's last hurrah on “Doctor Who.” We now bring you the “Torchwood”-heavy discussion with Davies and Lyn, with Davies and Gardner chatting about “Doctor Who” later this week.

Though some outlets are reporting that “Torchwood” has been picked up for a fourth series, Davies was not able to offer much information on what it would entail. “None of us have had a chance to get together. I'm in America, the BBC bosses are sitting there both in London and in Cardiff. So there have been no discussions,” the writer said. “I can't say for certain that there will be a fourth series, but I think it's very, very likely. We are in the middle of a recession. But ratings were phenomenal on British television, it shocked us all. And it's done very well on BBC America, as well. So things are very, very hopeful. I'm not worried about where to pick it up from. I absolutely know how to do that. It's my job to think up new stories and new characters and things like that. It reached a big ending, but what we do then is start again. Like life! It just carries on. That was big heavy stuff for you to direct, wasn't it?”

Lyn talked about the show's strengths. “It's an intense conclusion to the series, but I think that's one of the brilliant things about 'Torchwood' -- it's got the flexibility to be able to be funny and camp and kind of full of adventure, and then in the next breath deal with such angsty things as life and death, sacrifice, morality,” he said. “It's an amazing show to direct for those reasons.”

Asked if Davies takes joy in torturing his characters, the writer said that, properly considered, the characters' feelings don't play into the creative process. “People talk about writers falling in love with their characters. It's a way non-writers talk about writing,” Davies said. “'Ooh, you love that character,' or 'that's a Mary Sue character.' It's not remotely like that when you're writing. You feel very passionately about it, but the actual writing process is completely removed from that. I look at that language and have no idea what's being talked about. So there's no torture just as there's no love. It's just good, disciplined storytelling.

“Bear in mind,” Davies continued, “British television is paid for by public money, it's paid for by a license fee -- it's not paid for by advertising. It's all paid for by the public in what is essentially a television tax. And I like working with the BBC because I think it raises your standards. You're literally spending people's money in front of them, you have to make the best possible program. It's not about what I want nor what Euros might, you just want to make the best possible program.”

Davies described Lyn’s direction as vital to the success of “Torchwood: Children of Earth,” as was having the series run on five consecutive nights rather than the more usual weekly schedule. “Knowing how television stations change their mind -- because, over the course of conceiving of it to transmission, every boss changed jobs; every head of Genre had gone -- literally, right from the beginning, I said, 'I will only do this if you absolutely guarantee to me it will be transmitted right, and that you won't change your mind after we've written,” Davies said. “A couple people did try. As staff changed, they said, 'Oh, maybe we'll do it every Friday.' I said, you absolutely cannot do that because it is written to go out [five nights in a row]. I don't think we actually say if it's a Monday or Friday on screen, but the story literally goes Monday to Friday. Which worked.”

The innovative schedule was nevertheless something that made Davies more than a little nervous. “The week before transmission in Britain, I was more scared about that transmission than anything. Because if we blow this, if I'm wrong, we'll have damaged five nights on BBC One,” the writer confessed. “That's a lot of damage to a major, major station. Because no one ever knows what works and what doesn't. I think it'll work, I hope it'll work, but we can't guarantee it.”

Lyn added, “It's a risk because it's a sci-fi show we took from BBC Three, with its cult audience, to BBC Two and then to BBC One, and to try and pitch it to a populist audience with some brave sexual content, with some brave moral content. It was a big ask.”

“It's not an obvious show, is it?” Davies agreed. “There's nothing like that on British television in prime time.”

The writer noted that “Doctor Who” has been successful in prime time, but that it “exists in its own charmed world.” “So to play ['Torchwood'] at 9:00, the success is one of the great surprises of my professional life,” Davies said. “I thought it was good, I was proud of it, but I already had my martyr's cross ready to wear to Comic-Con and say 'nobody appreciates how good it was!' Then suddenly it worked, which was literally every day was astonishing. I would get those ratings figures and I was amazed. You can't tell, you just can't tell.”

This uniqueness also contributes to the ability of “Torchwood” to find its audience in America, perhaps to a greater degree than even “Doctor Who.” “I think because of its sexuality, it's got a buzz that other shows don't have,” Davies said. He agreed that American sci-fi does often include sex, including relationships and situations that display more progressive attitudes than the contemporary mainstream, but it's this mixed in with other factors that helps “Torchwood.”

“I think simply that in a lot of American shows you've got a lot of American people being American. ‘Torchwood’s’ an odd show in that it's set in Cardiff. In Britain, very few dramas are set in Wales,” Davies explained. “Very few dramas are set underneath a water tower beneath a sewer. And then we've got a sort of omnisexual lead character played by an out gay man. So it's got all these oddities to it that actually has made it very distinct.”

Asked if he was surprised by the variety of fan reactions to “Children of Earth,” Davies said he believed the negative internet reaction was “massively exaggerated.” “You know the campaign to send coffee to save Ianto's life -- do you know how many packets of coffee the BBC received? Nine,” Davies said. “So I think people writing online might sound like thousands of people; they are nine. We have proof in the office they are nine. So when you say 'lots of people hated it,' I challenge you to get them in this room. People are completely free to hate it, but actually I think you'll find they loved it.”

To this, director Euros Lyn added, “That pain that people feel, I can't say that's what we wanted to be felt but we wanted to tell a story about sacrifice and death and what moral cost Captain Jack has to pay for what ultimately is getting rid of 4-5-6. To not take them to that painful place would have sold them short.”

As to whether the next “Torchwood” series would be another five-part story or a longer season, Davies replied that it's “up for grabs.” “I think I should want to tell a continuous story again. I don't think it'll go back to 'monster of the week' after this, I think it's made a breakthrough,” the writer said. “Whether there will be five or whether the numbers would increase, or whether there are other formats of telling it.”

Davies noted that as it's moved up the ranks from BBC Three to Two to One, “Torchwood” “keeps changing shape--you can never tell what it's going to be.”

Asked if there would be new characters in a fourth series of “Torchwood” to replenish the crew's diminished ranks, Davies said new faces would certainly appear, though they may or may not turn out to be regular characters. “I think would be quite heartless if someone just stepped into Tosh's shoes, or if someone stepped into Ianto's shoes. Life's just not like that, is it?” he said. “It's like your dog dies, someone says, well, buy another dog. That's not what it's like, you can't just do that. It's a thing that happens on television, here's a new character to replace that old character, but I think we can keep it more real.”

As to whether the Doctor's supporting cast would continue beyond this transitional year, which sees Davies handing over the reins to Steven Moffat and David Tennant regenerating into Matt Smith, Davies said there was nothing to stop them appearing -- but it's not likely. “I don't know what Steven has planned, but to be honest I'd be surprised if they carried on,” Davies said. “Martha, Mickey, Handsome Jack, [Moffat's] got them there, he knows them. They're there if he wants to use them. But I can't help thinking he'll want to make his own. So I think it's probably time to say goodbye to a lot of those characters. But for all I know he could be phoning them up in Cardiff right now. I think the marvelous thing is to make no rules about it. We don't say, 'we should never do this.' Do whatever you want! It just depends on the story, it's all about story.”

On the subject of recurring characters on “Doctor Who,” Davies was asked why Rose Tyler, the Ninth and Tenth Doctors' first companion, was more special than those who came after. “I don't think she was meant to be more special than any of the others,” he said. “I think there's an iconography about [actress] Billie Piper. I would never prefer Rose to Martha or Donna when writing them. But she was enormously popular, every time I brought her back the ratings went up.”

“In that first series, she was the Doctor's equal,” Lyn said. “She was as interesting as him, which was a revelation.”

The next question focused on Davies' rules for science and technology in his scripts, especially as they pertain to the time jumping in “Doctor Who.” “Yes, that is a real problem for science fiction, when you can do anything or you think you can do anything. You've got to limit yourself, because otherwise stories are just strange and warped,” he said. “That's why the hardest ones to write are the futuristic ones, because suddenly you don't know how people are going to brush their teeth in the morning. You sort of keep a mind of what's in the air, but it's not a scientific treatise in the end. That's not at the top of the agenda, as you might have noticed.”

The interview session ended with the inevitable question about the regeneration scene that will transform the Tenth Doctor into the Eleventh. “We showed that scene to our composer the other day,” Davies said. Then, turning to Lyn, “How did he react?”

“He sobbed!” Lyn said.

After a round of laughter subsided, Davies concluded, “It's a roller coaster.”

Watch for CBR's roundtable interview with David Tennant and producer Julie Gardner later this week.

TAGS:  torchwood, doctor who, russel t. davies, euros lyn, bbc america

 
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