Inside the making of the first-ever Doctor Who holiday special
Executive producer Russell T Davies recalls how he, David Tennant, and Billie Piper kicked off an enduring holiday-season tradition.
On the evening of Dec. 25, 2005, almost 10 million Brits sat down to watch the first-ever Doctor Who special Christmas episode, "The Christmas Invasion" — and an enduring holiday-season tradition was born.
"By the second year, it was being called 'the traditional Doctor Who Christmas special,'" recalls Russell T Davies, then the executive producer of the show, which had returned to TV earlier in the year following a lengthy hiatus.
A lot has changed in the intervening 15 years. The 2005 show starred Billie Piper and David Tennant, the latter in his first proper outing as the titular Time Lord, after taking over from Christopher Eccleston at the end of the revived series' first season. This year's special holiday season episode, "Revolution of the Daleks," premiering Jan. 1 on BBC America, features Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, alongside fellow regular cast members Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, and Bradley Walsh, plus guest stars John Barrowman, Dame Harriet Walter, Chris Noth, and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. These days, Chris Chibnall is the Doctor Who showrunner, Davies having moved on from Who-ville over a decade ago. But the man who brought the show back and created the Doctor Who Christmas special will be tuning in on New Year's Day.
"Oh God, yes," he tells EW. "I can't wait for this year. "It's the Daleks again, it's Jodie Whittaker. I am very excited. I can't wait!"
Below, Davis talks about writing the first-ever Doctor Who holiday special, why Tennant doesn't wear a onesie on the TARDIS, and his upcoming HBO Max show.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This may not be the most professional way to start an interview, but I rewatched the 2005 special yesterday and I just cried pretty much all the way through it. My girlfriend, who is less of a Whovian than me, kept saying, "Why are you crying? This isn't even sad!"
RUSSELL T DAVIES: I love that, I love that. I love a good emotional reaction to Doctor Who. No one loves Doctor Who more than me, and I couldn't be happier with its return. Even to this day, I'm so happy with it.
How did the idea of doing a Christmas special come about?
The first incarnation did not really do Christmas specials. Well, way back in 1965, there was an episode of Doctor Who transmitted on Christmas Day where the Doctor actually turns to camera and says, "A merry Christmas, everyone," which still freaks the fans out to this day. Because you start to question what's canon and what isn't.
For us, it was the BBC who asked for it. We brought back Doctor Who in 2005. I was so unaware of the possibility of a Christmas episode that I did a Christmas episode in our first series, where the Doctor meets Charles Dickens, and it's Christmas Day, and it's snowing, and there are ghosts. So that's actually secretly the first Christmas special, it just didn't go out at Christmas. So we launched the first series of Doctor Who in 2005, it was such a success that the BBC turned around to me and said, "Let's have a Christmas special." They ordered two more series and two more Christmas specials all in one breath. Which was wonderful, but I just saw my life disappear. [Laughs] I was like, oh God, someone's just slammed the prison door shut! But I couldn't have been happier. I mean, it's very different in America. They don't show lots of big programs on Christmas Day itself, do they? Here, on Christmas Day, those are the highest ratings of all, because those are when the big shows play. So it wasn't just a Christmas special, it was a guaranteed slot on Christmas Day itself, at 7 p.m., and that is literally the heart of the schedule for the entire year. It was like being given the greatest gift in British television you could possible ask for. So we had to raise the stakes! We had to deliver a great big blockbuster and entertain everyone!
You were also introducing a new Doctor.
Yes, yes. As a selling point for a Christmas special, it couldn't have been better. What a gift to put into my hands, come and meet the new Doctor! And David Tennant turned out to be one of the most successful Doctors of all time. So it was actually a great rush of energy. And it was nice. The series had ended on a cliffhanger of a new Doctor arriving, and so I could answer that cliffhanger on Christmas Day. So it guaranteed that some viewers would come with it. But think the Christmas episode [has] to bring in all viewers, not just the fans. Everyone should be watching that one.
In the episode, David Tennant's Doctor asks, "Who am I?" What was your approach with regard to writing his Time Lord?
Well, just to exhibit all the skills and power and passion of the Doctor. I mean, it's a very cheeky trick in the episode that he stays offstage for about 40 minutes. I thought that if there was too much of him in he first 10 minutes, people could see the new Doctor and then wander away and go and have their Christmas dinner. I was very much aware that I had to keep people hooked, so I actually hold him off for 4o minutes, and then in the final 20 minutes he does absolutely everything that any Doctor has ever done before. He's dazzling verbally, he's dazzling physically, he has a sword fight, he wins the sword fight, he brings down a prime minister with six words. He's funny, he's dramatic, he's everything. He's absolutely everything in 20 minutes flat. It's like the finest audition piece in the world — not for David, he's already got the part, but it's like he's auditioning for the great British public, to say, "Come and like me." And I think it did! I think it worked! Aha!
He does get his hand cut off. Did you get any notes or complaints about that?
[Laughs] Oh, none, none. None at all. I mean, it was bloodless. Every episode I ever did of Doctor Who was bloodless, because it's a family show, it's 7 o'clock at night, you've literally got 4-year-olds watching Doctor Who, so that's an absolute policy of mine — not of the BBC's, of mine. No, no one complained, I don't think. The show was having so much fun at that point. And you've seen hands chopped off. It's deliberately referencing The Empire Strikes Back. And you watch it grow back! What a nerve! [Laughs]
You also introduce the new Doctor's wardrobe. What was the thinking behind that look?
In the modern series, it was the first time you'd ever seen another room in the TARDIS, because we'd never had enough money. We always meant to have doors leading off into other spaces inside, which over the years we got, we slowly built that into the show, but that was kind of a little Christmas Day present to the fans. A lot of those costumes hanging up are clothes from the old show, I mean going back to the '60s. Yo can see Steven Taylor's jumper hanging up there, and Steven Taylor was a 1965 companion of the very first Doctor. So we had little gifts to those long-term fans who love that sort of detail. And I'm one of those people.
The main thing was for David to be happy, because it had to be costume that he was going to stay in night and day. We varied it — sometimes we'd put him in a tuxedo, sometimes we'd put him in a blue version of that suit — but really it was what he wanted. Obviously, we had to like it too. If he'd said he wanted to do the whole thing in onesie, we might have had some notes. But for a handsome man to be in a tight suit, looking so good, there was no question that that costume worked. We loved it.
Where did the idea for the episode's alien villains, the Sycorax, come from?
I wanted a race of big alien invaders. It was as simple as that. [Laughs] In science-fiction stories, the spaceships and the creatures are often made of metal. Having done a first series with Daleks and spaceships and space stations, I kind of wanted a more physical feel to them, with faces made out of bone, living inside rock, but still immensely powerful with immensely powerful technology. It was just a different take.
In the ensuing years, did you always have the upcoming Christmas special in the back of your mind?
Yes, every year was planning ahead for the Christmas special. I loved it. I tell you, I am a great television watcher. All my life, Christmas Day has been the biggest day for television in Britain. And so, just to get up that day in the morning and know we had a show on that night was a genuine thrill. Professionally and personally, it meant so much to me. I loved it. I loved that slot more than anything.
What have you been working on recently?
I've got a new show, which will be on HBO Max. It's called It's a Sin. I'm very, very proud of it. Very proud. It's sort of [about] AIDS in the 1980s, but it's the story of life being lived during that pandemic. All shot before this pandemic, so it's all done and dusted. But it's full of life. It's not just about death, it's about the lives being led, the wonderful lives that we lost. I'm very proud of that.