Planetary Radio • May 08, 2024

TARDIS Talk: Space, Time, and “Doctor Who” with Russell T. Davies

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Russell davies portrait

Russell T. Davies

Showrunner for Doctor Who

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

Sarah al ahmed headshot

Sarah Al-Ahmed

Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society

Also in this episode:

  • Heidi Jacobs
  • Robert Johannessen
  • Mayson Howell
  • Ben Holland
  • Brian Uiga
  • Christian Basel, The Legend of the Traveling TARDIS podcast (Host)
  • Reverend Amagon (Tom Kosak), The Legend of the Traveling TARDIS podcast
  • KevoReally, The Legend of the Traveling TARDIS podcast and "X is For Show" (YouTube)
  • Nick Smith, The Legend of the Traveling TARDIS podcast, Nick Smith Films
  • Kandyman (Mark Robinson), The Legend of the Traveling TARDIS podcast

This week on Planetary Radio, we celebrate the longest-running science fiction show in history, “Doctor Who.” We explore how this iconic series has influenced the scientific community and look forward to the new season of the show with Russell T. Davies, the past and present showrunner of “Doctor Who.” Then, space fans from around the world share how the show has impacted their lives and space careers. We close out with Bruce Betts, our chief scientist, as we discuss what we would do with a time machine in What's Up.

Russell T. Davies portrait
Russell T. Davies portrait Russell T. Davies is the past and present showrunner for Doctor Who, the longest-running science fiction TV series. This image shows Russell in front of the TARDIS, a fictional time-traveling ship used by the Doctor to adventure through the universe.Image: Disney / BBC
The 15th Doctor and Ruby Sunday
The 15th Doctor and Ruby Sunday This image from Doctor Who shows The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) in the TARDIS.Image: Disney / BBC

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Sarah Al-Ahmed: We're celebrating the longest-running science fiction show in history, Doctor Who, this week on Planetary Radio. I'm Sarah Al-Ahmed of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. Today we're going to dive into the TARDIS to celebrate 60 remarkable years of Doctor. Who, from its premiere in 1963 to its latest adventure that airs later this week. We'll explore how this iconic series has captured the imaginations of millions and influenced the scientific community. Our guest today is Russell T. Davies, the past and present showrunner of Doctor Who. Then space fans from around the world share how this show impacted their lives. Stick around for the end as I share some of the places I'd go in time and space with Bruce Betts, our Chief Scientist in What's Up? Whether you're a lifelong Whovian or just a curious science fiction fan, thanks for being with us. If you love Planetary Radio and want to stay informed about the latest space discoveries, make sure you hit that subscribe button on your favorite podcasting platform. By subscribing, you'll never miss an episode filled with new and awe-inspiring ways to know the cosmos and our place within it. A few months ago, the Planetary Society's member community lit up when Doctor. Who released its 60th anniversary trilogy. As a longtime Whovian myself, it was a joy to talk to other space fans about the show, but one conversation stood out. One of our young Planetary Society members named Heidi Jacobs showed particular enthusiasm and that sparked me on my journey to create this episode. We'll hear from Heidi and other space fans later in this episode, but I'd like to thank her and her parents for helping to make this happen. It's difficult to explain 60 years of a show in a few moments, but at its core, Doctor. Who is a show about a human presenting extraterrestrial named the Doctor who travels through the universe in a time machine. This machine is called the TARDIS, which stands for time and relative dimension in space. The Doctor comes from a planet called Gallifrey, the home world of the Time Lords, but Earth is the Doctor's chosen home. This character can go anywhere in the cosmos, from the dawn of time to the darkest moments at the heat death of the universe. The show takes viewers to moments in the history of humanity and out to the most distant worlds, which makes it a very powerful tool for inspiring children and adults alike, to think more deeply about our place in the universe. The Doctor has had many incarnations over the history of the show. When grievously injured, instead of passing away, the character regenerates into a new person who retains memories and some core attributes. This tactic has allowed the show to persist and change over the last 60 years. It just swaps out the actors and creates whole new generations of fans. Over the history of the show, there have been 15 doctors, but that depends on how you count them. The latest Doctor whose season premieres this Friday, May 10th is portrayed by Ncuti Gatwa. There have also been many Doctor Who spin-off series, including Torchwood, which ran from 2006 to 2011. Of course, the doctors don't embark on these adventures alone. They choose companions, fortunate humans and sometimes aliens who get to step into the TARDIS and journey to witness some of the most significant moments in the universe. Whether on Earth or visiting the far reaches of space and time, these companions add unique perspective to the Doctor's travels, showing us the reactions of everyday people as they confront the vastness and complexity of the cosmos. Along the way they encounter a multitude of species, some new friends and powerful enemies. The Doctor's archnemesis is the Time Lord called the Master, whom we'll talk a little bit about in our conversation. There are also many iconic enemies, most notably the Daleks. Even if you're not a fan of the show, you've probably seen jokes about them going, "Exterminate, exterminate," all throughout science fiction. While Doctor Who is a science fiction show, I wouldn't call it hard science. It weaves in elements of fantasy, myth, history and archeology in ways that allow the writing team to take the show literally anywhere they please. Despite its moments of scientific inaccuracy, the whimsy and wonder of the show have inspired scientists and space fans the world over. Our guest today is Russell T. Davies, the showrunner for Doctor Who. Russell played a pivotal role in the show's revival and modern success. He served as the showrunner and chief writer from 2005 to 2010 when the BBC relaunched it after a 16-year hiatus, excluding the TV movie from 1996, of course. He's returned as showrunner once more as we look forward to a new era of the show, which begins streaming this Friday, May 10th at 7:00 PM Eastern time on Disney+, where available and at the same time on May 11th at midnight on BBC iPlayer in the UK. It is so wonderful to have you on Planetary Radio.

Russell T. Davies: Thank you. Thank you, that's great. Thank you for the [inaudible 00:05:04]. Thank you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Doctor Who has shaped my life in so many ways. It helped me-

Russell T. Davies: Seriously?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... find my life partner. It's helped me find so many of my friends and I've heard in both my case and in many of my friends in the space community, that this show helped shape their careers and led them on the path towards space science.

Russell T. Davies: Oh, that's interesting because in my experience, that's something I've heard more about Star Trek. I've heard that said a lot. We love Star Trek with all our hearts, and I'm particularly a fan of the new Star Trek. I love the Discovery onwards. I've become a fan, but you tend to hear that and also, I think in Britain, there's not as much of a space industry [inaudible 00:05:40] on the jobs [inaudible 00:05:41]. I'm sorry to those who do find out, but I'm amazed and I'm delighted. I'm really pleased. Thank you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, it's wonderful because Star Trek also had a deep impact on my life, right? But Doctor Who has been the longest running science fiction show in the history of history.

Russell T. Davies: Exactly.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: This is one of those things that's had a deep impact on people and I'm sad to hear that you haven't heard from people personally, how much this has influenced their space careers because I've encountered so many people for which that is true.

Russell T. Davies: I'm genuinely, in fairness, I don't think I meet people who have space careers. I think that's my problem-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, I have to go ask the people at ESA.

Russell T. Davies: I know, I'm coming, I'm... This party of yours. It's like, I'm just really thrilled to hear this. I'm going to pass that onto the team as well. It's great to hear.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I actually had a wonderful moment in college. I went into my cosmology professor's class and up in the corner of the blackboard he'd drawn a tiny TARDIS and I'd actually never watched the show at that point and he pointed to it and he said, "If you don't know what this is, I'm going to be referring to it a lot as we explore the breadth of time and space. If you don't know about it, please come over to my place. We'll be having a Doctor Who watch party," and that was actually your first season as showrunner around Doctor Who that I watched-

Russell T. Davies: No way, what a fine teacher. He should win all the awards. Oh, I love that. And how did you meet... Is that how you met your partner? You said you met your partner through Doctor Who?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Later on. He showed up to my graduation party dressed as the Doctor, the 10th doctor in [inaudible 00:07:03]. Instant love.

Russell T. Davies: That's amazing.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: How do you feel that the Doctor's adventures in the TARDIS allow people to really kind of understand the scale of space and time in a way that other shows, perhaps even Star Trek, aren't able to do?

Russell T. Davies: I think it's so lovely to hear. It's genuinely not something I've considered that much. What I tend to find just to counter that is that what I get, well, we certainly get Britain, is people who work in television because of Doctor Who, and that's because slightly different issue, I know, it's that we've always believed in having a massive amount of behind the scenes stuff, even before the BTS stuff became popular. [inaudible 00:07:40] way back in history, 1973, they published a book called The Making of Doctor Who. I was 10 in 1973 and this book described studios and rehearsals, and what a script editor does and the fact that actors are blocked and then filmed by cameras, which was revelatory to me and Doctor Who's always continued that tradition. So now, my version of what you're saying is I tend to sit in edit suites and directors will come in and they will say, "Oh my God, I'm a fan of Doctor Who. Oh my God, I started out watching this. Oh my God, I watch you in behind the scenes stuff." So that's brilliant. But I do love that. In my experience, I tend to get told off by space and science people because we have quite a willful [inaudible 00:08:24] approach to scientific matters, which I love and I'm not here to apologize for that, and you can line up and fight me. I'll arm wrestle you if you want, but the very fundamental premise of the show is that it has a box that's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, that can travel anywhere in time and space. It's clearly never really worried about real world physics right from the very start, except I actually think the opposite. I think the true physicist and the true scientist doesn't look at that and say, "That's impossible." I think the true scientist looks at that and says, "How does that work? How could we get there?" And you know that. I'm preaching to the choir here, but I think there's a great [inaudible 00:09:04] and wildness and boldness of imagination to Doctor Who that I hope make some people sit forward and say, "How can [inaudible 00:09:11]. When I invent my time machine, it'll be like that."

Sarah Al-Ahmed: If only, I hope. It's very much in my brain akin to and cosmos, Carl Sagan's, Spaceship of the Imagination-

Russell T. Davies: Yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And the fact that it doesn't go perfectly hard science fiction, the fact that it allows you to do these fantasy elements, particularly as we go into this next season.

Russell T. Davies: Yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: In some ways, makes it a lot more accessible, I feel and it's kind of like a gateway into the harder science.

Russell T. Davies: Yes. I think once you get into that stratosphere of taking science and myth, there are places where all of this meets, and I think if you start drawing light and saying, "This doesn't work, you can't do this, this won't meet," then I don't think you're on the right path.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Every year I actually go to the biggest Doctor Who convention in the world, Gallifrey One here in LA.

Russell T. Davies: Oh, Gallifrey One, yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Because the LA area is so full of space industry, you have people from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, people that work on these space missions just roving in groups there together, which is really lovely to see.

Russell T. Davies: Wow. This is delightful, dear. This is eye-opening. It's wonderful, really pleased. I'm really delighted.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: But because of this kind of timey wimeyness of the show, you're able to do things, go to moments in space and time that I haven't personally seen in other shows and for me, some of them that were most impactful were these moments with the beginning and the end of our planet. As an example, the ninth doctor, when he takes his companion Rose Tyler on their first time adventure, the first thing he does is take her to see the end of the Earth.

Russell T. Davies: Yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: How do you choose these moments? Do you start with the Doctor and the companion's mental state and then find a moment in space that you think might connect with that or do you have a master list of all the moments in space-time that you want to talk about?

Russell T. Davies: I look for extremity, in a way. I look for headlines. [inaudible 00:10:57]. We would all love to see the Earth in 500,000 years time. That would be fascinating. Doesn't quite grab you though, does it? It's like to see the end of the Earth in five billion years time is fascinating and that was episode two. That was back when Doctor Who was coming back as a brand new show for generations that hadn't seen it before properly and where we didn't know if it would work or not. So in that first year, every episode is fighting for a headline. Every episode is punchy. Every episode is saying, "This is extraordinary." So therefore, the end of the Earth was kind of the biggest thing I could possibly do. And also the fact that that's real. It's like this will happen. Everything we are, at the end of that episode it stands [inaudible 00:11:41]. They go back to 21st century Earth and they stand on a busy shopping street and they look up and say, "[inaudible 00:11:46] all of this is gone. The concrete, even the sky." He looks up at the sky and I think it's good for us to remember that. I think it's good for us to know our place in the world, but see how important today is and that's the point of that, is you could do a hopeless version of that scene. You could do a version that says, "What's the point of anything? We're all dust in the end." But I would always want Doctor Who to do the opposite. I'm always very aware that it draws a very young audience and especially that episode just before, there's a very pivotal speech just before you see the end of the world on the episode. As they step out the TARDIS and he says, "The human race," the doctor says, "The human race has always imagined you're going to die. You're going to die by floods or poison or heat waves or disease and actually maybe the opposite is possible, maybe you survive." So actually, a story about the end of the world is actually about this saying that the human race has persisted for five billion years and I love that. There's an episode later on [inaudible 00:12:49] just at the end of the universe and there's still a human race and that's a much darker, that one. And the human race is heading in towards a terrible trap, but nonetheless, the Doctor in that says... Someone, Arthur, I think, says we evolved in all these trillions of years and the Doctor says, "Yes. The human race has evolved. The clouds of gas and data and all sorts of [inaudible 00:13:10], but actually now you've come back to your basic form, which is this humanoid form, and there we are at the end of the universe still slugging it out." This is a convoluted way of saying I want that optimism because there's a young audience watching and I think, my goodness me, it's let alone certainly in 2005, even most now, a thousand more times more now, you worry about the mental health of young people. It's one of our greatest terrors. I've meet a lot of young people. I met a lot of students in this job. Gosh, I worry about the state of their mental health quite truly, deeply, profoundly. I always want the program to be doing the opposite, to be a siren call. So it says actually, things can get better. Actually, we could survive. I think we'll find our way through this.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I encounter that a lot, especially as a science communicator, when people-

Russell T. Davies: Do you?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... really kind of grasp the scale and breadth of the universe and then you look at where we lie within that picture. In a lot of cases, it makes people feel hopeless or insignificant and I think that's something very special about Doctor Who specifically, that in the scale of all of that, the Doctor reiterates time and again, and you even do it in the second episode of this upcoming season-

Russell T. Davies: Yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... that every life is precious, even the Doctor's enemies.

Russell T. Davies: We did a spin-off called Torchwood in which-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah.

Russell T. Davies: ... we did a show called Torchwood: Children of Earth, which is one of the bleakest things ever made.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That was pretty bleak.

Russell T. Davies: Possibly closer to my own take on the world. But in the first episode of that, there was a chance I went out at 9:00 in Britain, dropped as an adult drama and there's a character in that who says... So it's part of the Doctor Who universe which has [inaudible 00:14:46] been regularly invaded by aliens. It's an [inaudible 00:14:48] which is now aware of alien life and a character sits down and that sort says actually suicide rates have tripled because a lot of people now think they're tiny, that they used to have some faith or they used to have a belief of being human and being important and now, the existence of alien life has just reduced that and they think they are just nothing. And I loved directing that. I think there's a terrible take on things, but I can't help thinking, "My God. The day the aliens make contact, wow. The psychological repercussions of that will be so fast. Self-destruction that will be unleashed on that day." I dread to think that's another drama. That's another drama one day. Oh my God.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh, yeah. This cosmic awe as a kind of double-edged sword.

Russell T. Davies: Yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: In the event that we find life in the universe, which is something that our organization is so passionate about, I feel like it would make me feel connected to all of time and space, but for many others, it would drive them into places of deep sadness.

Russell T. Davies: Yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I think that's something that's so special about this kind of dichotomy between the Doctor and the Master in the way that they interpret this.

Russell T. Davies: Yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: There's this moment where the Master is a very young person, the Master being the archnemesis of the Doctor, looks into the untempered schism and basically falls into madness and just believes that-

Russell T. Davies: For the rest of his life, yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... nothing is important. None of these people are important.

Russell T. Davies: Forgive me, I should know The Planetary Society better. You believe in life and other [inaudible 00:16:15]?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I mean statistically speaking, I would sooner eat my hair than think that life isn't out there in the universe. It's quite likely that we might find life even in our own solar system when we were about to launch the Europa Clipper mission later this year to go explore the water world around Jupiter and try to find life. We're at the beginning of this journey, but I am-

Russell T. Davies: Sure, statistically, I agree.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We can't say for sure yet, but I'm truly hoping we will find them in our lifetime, if we're mentally prepared for it. But because of the fact that the Master is kind of portrayed this way, it does kind of point out that people as they go out into space, might end up in this space of psychological instability. And what is this show trying to tell us about what we should be aware of as people confront the depths of space or as we send people eventually on crewed missions to other worlds?

Russell T. Davies: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think it's always saying, have faith in each other. God, I love [inaudible 00:17:13], which is set on a planet over the edge of a black hole. We're just [inaudible 00:17:18]-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That episode was one my favorites.

Russell T. Davies: That's absolutely one of my... Do you know I think that's my favorite of all time? I love that one. Every time I catch that on repeat, I can't turn away. I think I will just watch it for five minutes and then 45 minutes later, I'm still there watching the whole day. I love that one and that has a great crew, where you might want to put Gods or you might want to about science or you might want to put faith. It's like they have each other. [inaudible 00:17:42]. It's a very, very, very humanist show in the end, and it very often has lonely outposts of humans or people, and I believe [inaudible 00:17:52], like I said, extremes. They're all practically inside a black hole at the end of the universe, the end of the Earth, and there's always people there. And some of them might be [inaudible 00:18:00], some of them might be liars, some of them might be... have problems, but actually they have each other and it's a message. The message of the show is, as you can rely on each other that the Doctor will meet these people and they'll be inspired by the Doctor. It is absolutely fundamentally an optimistic show. And even the Torchwood wasn't because that's more for... It's just that child audience for Doctor Who. It's not only for children, absolutely not. But there was a significant child audience, especially Britain, a very, very significant. And I think they are forever being told that the world is coming to an end and we must have an opposite narrative. We must have a story that says it's going to be fine.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: The show is honestly so much about those everyday heroes. I'm thinking specifically about that episode at The Waters of Mars, all those people together on Mars in the first human colony off of Earth in this space, the way they have to rely on each other and the sacrifices that they're willing to make in order to further humanity.

Russell T. Davies: I mean, that's a very tough story, that is [inaudible 00:18:59]. And the moment of her death playing a video of her children left back at [inaudible 00:19:03]. Wow. That's like the devil's in me that day. I've got to say. I was going for it in that one, but that's the part you push to get as hard as it can possibly get, and the events of that stop the Doctor taking the wrong path in life. He's on the verge of becoming this arrogant Time Lord, victorious for Adelaide's sacrifice, means that he doesn't become that. Yeah. That was four years, five years into the show. It just kind of proves that you have to keep pushing, if tougher the more you're pushing, but it's a very resilient show. It keeps pushing back, it keeps surviving, it keeps going back to basics and keeps being optimistic, and I'm pleased about that.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, and no matter how many doctors, no matter how many iterations, no matter how many companions we get in, that's the core that it keeps coming back to and-

Russell T. Davies: Well, you've seen the first three episodes of the new series?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yes.

Russell T. Davies: Are you getting that [inaudible 00:19:56]? Are you getting that optimism, that buzz because-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. The optimism is definitely there. And I mean, Ncuti Gatwa, what a choice. The vibrance, just the energy, the love that he shows in that role. I'm really looking forward to seeing how he evolves in it over the next episodes. I cannot tell you how excited I am to see the rest of the season.

Russell T. Davies: He will deliver. But that's it actually. I wanted to come back and it's hard work be joyous. It's actually easier to be tragic. It's very interesting that after five years on Doctor Who, I ended up writing the Waters of Mars, which is as dark as a drama can possibly get, ends in a suicide. And actually, to come back to it now is to look at shooting to say, "Let's have fun. Let's shine. Let's shine onto the screen. That's a great big smile of yours. Let's be joyous. Let's be happy. Even in the worst situations, let's find a joke." [inaudible 00:20:45] that's so brilliantly [inaudible 00:20:48]. I'm delighted you're getting that [inaudible 00:20:50] because that's what I set out to do.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: But also, I mean given the hardships that the Doctor has faced, in some cases it's very strange to watch. I'm thinking about the 50th anniversary episode, that juxtaposition of the way that Matt Smith's Doctor, the 11th doctor just kind of seems to be very bright and cheery all the time, but here you have the 10th doctor confronting him. You don't even remember how many children on Gallifrey were killed. Sometimes it feels like a belligerent optimism in its own way, almost its own form of mental illness and an inability to witness your own sadness.

Russell T. Davies: It's a hard one. It's very hard one. That's very true. It's the battle we're all in. It's like we can all sit and it's very easy to sit and despair about the state of the world and actually, it's much harder to fight. God knows, the climate scientists fight to find ways to stop what we're doing now. Maybe one day they'll be revered as heroes, but not yet. Right now they're fighting to be believed, but surely, surely the time will come. Surely.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I mean, what we've seen within the scientific community, within the space community is that, when we are presented these true challenges, these deep challenges and we're given the resources to confront it, we are able to rise up to these challenges. So maybe that's why Doctor Who resonates with me so hard, that hope is truly important as we confront these issues because if you try to be depressed about it, that's not going to help you. But...

Russell T. Davies: Yeah, it'll win.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It'll win. You don't want to let the sadness win and that is what the Doctor does, just traveling ostensibly. He or she is traveling through time and space just to adventure, but everywhere the Doctor goes, they're confronted with these challenges and is willing to step into those places to be that force of hope and to be the person that guides people through hardship and trying to save the Earth over and over again.

Russell T. Davies: I love the way you described the Doctor. I hope there are people listening to this podcast who've never watched it because you made me want to. I love that. It's brilliant.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thank you.

Russell T. Davies: Yes, please. Come on. Come and watch.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I mean, honestly, the doctors face such difficulty. I mean, primarily I'm thinking about the destruction of Gallifrey, the home world of the Time Lords. Trying to confront that is so hard and then watching the way that the Doctor then turns to Earth-

Russell T. Davies: Yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... and becomes this protector. It reminds me deeply of our co-founder, Carl Sagan's book, the Pale Blue Dot. There's this passage where he says, to me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known, right?

Russell T. Davies: [inaudible 00:23:24].

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And the Doctor very much feels that way. And why is it that Earth, in particular, is something so precious to the Doctor that they would be willing to give their lives for it and continuously put themselves in that position to do so for us, meager earthlings?

Russell T. Davies: [inaudible 00:23:39] on Earth? Hard to feel this much about Mars. What we must get better at traveling this Earth, [inaudible 00:23:45] British program. A lot of problems tend to end up in London's backyard. And my predecessor Christian, much better explorer. He went to South Africa to meet Rosa Parks and he went to Aleppo, 12th century Aleppo. I must have [inaudible 00:23:59]... I'd gone back to my London [inaudible 00:24:00]. He says I'm much more interested in bringing the show back to Wales because I'm Welsh and you never see Wales, but it's steeped in our history. It's been from the Aztecs to World War II. The program fits strangely perfectly into the Victorian era because I think there's something of the old-fashioned explorer that Doctor Who, whether the male or female, just sort of that major adventuring and discovering that strata in society. So yes, it's adopted home. It's as simple as that. And recent stories are looking now at the fact that the Doctor is a foundling. He's recently been made a foundling in the story, which wasn't me. I didn't introduce that. Christian introduced that, but I've lept upon that as a gloriously emotional thing. So he's a foundling and it's his home. Let's face it, really. What's his home? The Earth.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And then using that to then connect with this new companion, who herself is adopted and helping other adopted children find their new homes. That's a beautiful connection and I feel like there's a lot to be explored there. And you've taken some interesting turns with the show that even just the destruction of Gallifrey alone, was a big moment that changed the entire canon of the Doctor. And yet with this legacy of the show, it's been going on for 60 years. Sometimes you have to take that chance and dive into something.

Russell T. Davies: Yeah, yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: People sometimes get upset about the canon changes, I understand. But where do you go next except to explore some new way to emotionally connect to this character?

Russell T. Davies: I know, I know, I know. They just found ways to translate those documents that describe how Plato spent his last evening in Pompeii. And I wonder if any Plato fans are upset because he was about to be [inaudible 00:25:38]. Because the newbies of law has come into existence, where someone somewhere is livid. [inaudible 00:25:46]. I imagined Plato, and so there's something that sets your teeth on edge when you see something different. It's like, that's why I'm always passionate about getting these more richer and more diverse images into childhood, whether it's religion, whether its sexuality, that's where education starts. I'm from a family of teachers, so forgive me for banging on about that, but-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Same.

Russell T. Davies: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's like, it's once when the child becomes wiser, then their reactions in adult life become better. That's simply a fact. And so on a much smaller level, when people have grown up with Doctor Who, they will get upset if what they're told about the Doctor Who [inaudible 00:26:23] is said to have changed and I get that. I completely get it. The person who would argue against is the Doctor. [inaudible 00:26:30] the one who'd say, "Open up your mind. Listen to this. This is a new thought. Welcome in. Embrace this. This could be richer. This could liven your life." Then that's great. And there's ways of pivoting things. I can quite understand that a phrase like the Timeless Child might leave you cold. The Timeless Child doesn't mean anything to me. I'm a foundling means an awful lot to me. So that's the way I'm playing it. It's like, I don't know who my mother is. I don't know who my father is. Ruby, I don't know who my mother is. I don't know who my father is. I'm in. I'm invested. So I think sometimes we get hung up on the science fiction from proper nouns, Timeless Child, Gallifrey, whereas if we talk about your childhood and your home planet, that makes sense. If you just look past proper nouns into what it means behind that, then it's really rich stuff.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I think that's actually part of the sticking power of this show. When I go to these conventions, clearly there are parts of the show that resonate more with any individual group. Your earliest work on Doctor Who is my era where I came in. So that's where I find my deepest passion and I rewatch it every single year and why we continue to do this. But I love going there and seeing the different generations of Doctor Who fans. You have the people in their Tom Baker era. You have the people that are the troops of women dressed as Jodie Whittaker as the 13th doctor running around in their long coats. And it is so beautiful to see that arc and particularly as we're in this new phase, where the show is kind of trying to showcase more diversity, more diverse perspectives, seeing the change in the demographics of people that are showing up at these conventions.

Russell T. Davies: Oh, that's interesting. Is that visible?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Absolutely lovely. It is visible. It is [inaudible 00:28:12]-

Russell T. Davies: Oh, lovely.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: You can see it in the audience. It's amazing.

Russell T. Davies: That's nice. That's really good to hear. Brilliant, brilliant.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And seeing it in the show as well. I mean, it's not just that we have Ncuti Gatwa as the first Black man in this role, but we have the reincarnations of the Doctor and the Master, both as women and also our first transgender companion. Seeing this all in the show together is something very beautiful and it's something we've been grappling with in the space community as well, just because we've been around so long. Necessarily, we've had to think more about how to be more diverse and inclusive and when we bring in more people, it is an asset to us, the perspectives we get, the discoveries we make, the ability to share more with other people.

Russell T. Davies: Just makes your life richer, doesn't it? In fact, I'm very proud of our disabled cast, which we're expanding and next year we've got some extraordinary episodes. We're really pushing that. In fact, I've worked a lot with the actress Ruth Madeley and that's made my life richer and better. And I've loved [inaudible 00:29:06] not just on screen as an actor, but as a friend. I remember the day before I met her [inaudible 00:29:12] years and years and I looked up online. I'm very tall. I'm 6'6", so I kind of looked up what's the best way for a tall person to greet someone in a wheelchair? I got to the age of 50 without having even look that up. That says a lot about the privilege of my life and it said, go down to the level of the wheelchair. So the moment I met her, I went down to the level of the wheelchair and she went, "What are you doing?" She just laughed at me and I was like, "But it says to do this online." She was [inaudible 00:29:39]. She was like that. Literally, she makes your life better in front of you, every single moment. I know she's a proper friend now, but what you learn, what you learn of is amazing.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Watching that episode, seeing the wheelchair accessibility ramp come out of the TARDIS, I burst into tears.

Russell T. Davies: Oh, I know.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And so many of my friends as well. We were all online talking to each other about just these little moments that truly make people feel seen and appreciated. That's very special about this show.

Russell T. Davies: Thank you. That's amazing. I'm so pleased. Thank you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Why do you think it's so important, particularly for science fiction and shows like Doctor Who, to really lean into these diverse perspectives?

Russell T. Davies: It's interesting, isn't it? It's like, I think all shows should. To be honest, I've been chasing my tail on many... A lot of my work is about a lot of my representation, of course, it's gay representation, gay male representation, which I've written about all [inaudible 00:30:30]. There's something about the science fiction genre, it means the wheels are off to begin with and it's a bit wilder and a bit badder. And so it's a bit odder if your representation... I could believe a room full of detectives that doesn't have a single Black person or a single disabled person because actually I could go find you that in 20 British cities right now because that's one of the problems, the shape of the world and if you were represented on screen, you should try harder. But nonetheless, don't tell me those spaces exist, but when it's a space station far future or it's a colony on a far-flung world, it's like really? What's your excuse now? And also it's creators, it's writers. Look at the fabulous representation of Star Trek: Discovery now being captained by Burnham. I adore you. I love her. My God, I want to meet her. Can you get me to meet her? I want to meet her. I love her.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I can do that. I have met her.

Russell T. Davies: Oh. Just think she's so... I'm two episodes behind now as well. Don't tell me. I'd love that. I love her. Anyway, so there's something about these shows that are futuristic. Simply use the word futuristic and you have to hope that future is better and therefore, we will show that better future on screen. Whereas that room full of detectives might take another 20 years to change and that's unfair on a lot of my friends who work in television. They were also changing those room full of detectives and making the world better and brighter as well. But in science fiction, it's kind of like, it's faster. It's more forward-looking, it's got to be. And also, it's the whole science fiction doesn't exist if it's not an analogy of the modern day. It exists to tell stories through metaphor of the modern day, so it's more busily looking at what the modern day is. Maybe I'm making this up. Maybe we're just better people.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: [inaudible 00:32:24] hoping. As time goes on-

Russell T. Davies: [inaudible 00:32:25].

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... and especially through these influences. We all learn to be kinder and treat each other with the fairness that we all deserve and cherish one another. And I love that about the Doctor, that the Doctor is always cherishing, especially the weird things about people, the things that other people might find different or scary. Those are the things that the Doctor cherishes and uplifts, and finds special and worth preserving.

Russell T. Davies: Absolutely. Even that first episode this year, he meets the Bogeyman and he's puzzled by the fact that he's scared and there's a reason why he's scared. It's transmitting at [inaudible 00:32:56] to scare him because he wouldn't be scared of a monster that... He'd say, "Hello Monster, who are you?" Yeah, I love... What an extraordinary character to write.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I was more personally terrified by the space babies, but that's a whole other thing.

Russell T. Davies: Not Eric, surely little Eric.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Eric was adorable. I love the episodes that it builds on its own mystery. I'm particularly thinking back to that episode where the Weeping Angels were first introduced, where Sally Sparrow is going through, trying one moment at a time, to piece together the mystery of what happened. Seeing all of that through the perspective of someone outside of the Doctor is fun-

Russell T. Davies: Yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... and mysterious, but these moments where the Doctor is someone who's traveled all the time in space, experienced aliens in the ends of worlds and all these things, and still comes out mystified is-

Russell T. Davies: But as he blinks into because it's like sometimes he knows too much. Essentially when I'm working with other writers [inaudible 00:33:49], who'll very often [inaudible 00:33:51] and say, "Oh, it's the banner X that they have such and such atmosphere." And I go, "Can you take that out? Can't he just walk up to the dog and where are we?" Oh, this is interesting. I'm much rather have it discovering things on the spot. It's much more fun than that.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, I'm so looking forward to this. I cannot, cannot wait to see what this next generation is going to be like and who these characters evolve into overtime. And I mean, I know this might just be me as a super fan, but I know I speak for so many people in the space community. Thank you for what you've done and for everyone who's worked on this show, over 60 years. I feel like it's done so much for the space community and if I'm the first person to say it to you-

Russell T. Davies: [inaudible 00:34:31].

Sarah Al-Ahmed: ... you hear it a million times later, we'll come over and we'll hang out with the people at the European Space Agency and talk to them because I'm sure they have the same story.

Russell T. Davies: Let's do that. I'm so delighted to hear that. That's really meant a lot to me and I'm going to pass that on to the rest of the team because you never know things like that. I genuinely thought that was exclusively a Star Trek because they're so proud of that. They talk about it a lot and I know some of those writers. I know those people are immensely proud of it. So I hadn't realized we were lucky enough to share that tradition and I'm thrilled. Thank you. It's so kind, so kind.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, at The Planetary Society, we're all about exploring worlds, searching for life and defending Earth. So in my headcanon, the Doctor is basically part of our space fam. Thank you so much.

Russell T. Davies: I'm going to declare that canon. He is a membership of society. That's a fact.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Love it. Thank you so much, Russell.

Russell T. Davies: Oh, thank you. I love that. I love that conversation. Thank you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It is with great pleasure that I announce The Planetary Society's decision to bestow honorary membership upon the Doctor in recognition of the Doctor's contributions to our understanding and appreciation of space. Russell, be on the lookout for the Doctor's official Planetary Society membership card, which will be arriving in your mailbox soon. We'll be right back after the short break.

Bill Nye: Greetings, Bill Nye here, CEO of The Planetary Society. When you support The Planetary Society, you support space exploration. That means you are directly involved in making phenomenal moments in space exploration a reality, and that's why I'm seeking your participation in our Beyond the Horizon: Every Member Campaign. We're in the final phase of our five-year plan and we are more than 85% of the way to our goal of raising vital funds that will expand our core mission and strengthen the society. This campaign is critical to our future as the world's leading citizen space advocacy organization. And with your help, we are supporting new science and technology. You will grow the society to make our collective voice on behalf of space advocacy even stronger across the globe. And we are connecting more people of all ages with the passion, beauty and joy of space exploration. Your gift of any amount today is an investment in the future and will help us usher in the next great era of space exploration. Let's go beyond the horizon. Let's make new discoveries. Let's keep going. Let's change the world.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: After realizing that Russell had yet to hear much from the space community about the ways that the show and his work had impacted us, I reached out to space fans to ask them to let us know how the show impacted their lives and their careers. Here are some of their stories, starting with Heidi Jacobs.

Heidi Jacobs: Hello, my name is Heidi Jacobs. I'm 14 years old and a proud Planetary Society member and a huge fan of Doctor Who. Doctor Who has definitely sparked a whole new level of interest in space. When I started watching Doctor Who, I was immediately hooked on the idea of time travel and travel between universes. It made me think a lot about the possibilities of what could be out there. And I keep finding myself pondering the vastness of space and wondering what other life exists. Watching the Time Lords explore the universes has helped me see that the universe is so much bigger than I ever could have imagined and that is just so fascinating to me. I love seeing how much the Doctor cares about all living things, how he would rather risk his own safety to save an alien species than see a creature suffer. I am so grateful for Doctor Who and for the curiosity it has sparked within me. Allons-y.

Robert Johannessen: I'm Robert Johannessen. And before I discovered Doctor Who, I was already into science and science fiction, especially time travel and space. Doctor Who must have further inspired my interests, the adventures, the exploration, the discoveries, fighting alien monsters anywhere, anytime in space-time, and I think the Doctor and the Doctor's companions and their amazing curiosity, they're figuring things out, solving problems, this appeals to scientists, past and present and future. That's pretty much what I wanted to say. Thank you.

Mayson Howell: My name is Mayson. Doctor Who is who inspired my love space. My uncles introduced me to the show. Ever since I watched it with its sprawling universe and fantastic stories, I've been obsessed with everything space. My life would be entirely different had Doctor Who had not been in it.

Ben Holland: My name is Ben [inaudible 00:39:27] Holland. I'm a law student from Essex, England. I'm a member of The Planetary Society and a long time Doctor Who fan. I've been a Doctor Who fan since childhood. Doctor Who, it's got so many interesting concepts in it. I remember the episode, Judoon on the Moon where David Tennant, he quoted space law at these Judoon. And that really stuck with me. Even now, my dissertation is in space or mostly because of that episode. And I'd just really like to thank everyone that's ever worked on Doctor Who for making mine and many other people's childhoods. So thank you.

Brian Uiga: My name is Brian Uiga. And when I was 14, I saw this amazing TV movie about a hero who travels through time in a library. It was called Doctor Who. I just picked up this great plastic replica of a tricorder from Star Trek. So I rushed out to buy my own sonic screwdriver, but there weren't any in the toy store. So before I could even drive, I got the Doctor Who technical manual and learned how to make my own sonic screwdriver out of PVC pipes and that little springy tube thing that holds a toilet paper roll, so it could pop up and down like the one in the movie. All these new skills led directly to my career as the lead designer for motion picture film scanners at Lasergraphics. My scanners are used by everyone from NASA and Los Alamos labs who document our path to the stars, to places like IMAX or Warner Brothers restoring the greatest films ever made. And it always makes me smile that whenever people watch something our customers have worked on, like Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Batman, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the world's first sci-fi blockbuster, A Trip to The Moon by Georges Méliès, that there's this little handmade sonic screwdriver in there, making it all possible. Sounds like the sort of thing Steven Moffat would write.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: The last person we just heard from, Brian Uiga, is also featured in an upcoming documentary called inDoctornated. It's a feature length film about three American fans who have been inspired by Doctor Who to make the world a better place. I'll leave you information about that on the webpage for this episode of Planetary Radio at I also received a message from the team from The Legend of the Traveling TARDIS, a Doctor Who themed podcast.

Tom: Hi, my name is Tom. I'm a big Doctor Who fan, big Star Trek fan, and everything that's space related.

KevoReally: I'm KevoReally and Russell T. Davies is my dad. Doctor Who has always inspired and encouraged a spirit of exploration, and it taught me to push boundaries and think not just about my world, but those beyond.

Nick Smith: Hi, I'm Nick. I've always enjoyed watching the Doctor explore the universe and save the universe using kindness and humanity. And he's encouraged me to do the same.

Kandyman: I'm the Kandyman. I'm from England. I love Doctor Who. The Doctor travels around the universe with just a screwdriver, fixing stuff, and we love the universe.

Christian Basel: My name is Christian Basel and I grew up with Tom Baker on PBS and inspired me so much that I started a podcast and we are, Legend of the Traveling TARDIS.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: The outpouring of love for the show that's been coming into my inbox over the last few days has been so heartwarming. I mentioned in my conversation with Russell that I attend the Gallifrey One Convention in Los Angeles every year. At the request of some Planetary Society members in our community, I'm looking into hosting a Planetary Society meetup and perhaps some panels at the next Gallifrey One Convention. That's going to be between February 14th and 16th in 2025. If you want to learn more about that, I'm going to be sharing information about that in our member community app when the time approaches. Thank you to everyone who sent in their messages. And of course, thanks to Russell, the BBC, Disney, and the Doctor. I'd also like to shout out my UC Berkeley Cosmology Professor, Adrian Lee and my favorite study buddy, Nama Drawer because they both got me into the show. Now, let's check in with our Chief Scientist, Dr. Bruce Betts for What's Up? Hey, Bruce.

Bruce Betts: Exterminate. Exterminate. Hey Sarah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Are you a Doctor Who fan?

Bruce Betts: I am, but I don't dare to put myself in the class of a true fan. I'm just a flaky fan, but I have enjoyed it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I've had this conversation with you in the past about how it's hard for you to get into a lot of science fiction because it either has to be really scientifically accurate or not. So you kind of prefer fantasy and things that go off the rails.

Bruce Betts: Right.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: So where does that put you with Doctor Who?

Bruce Betts: It's pretty off the rails. So I actually don't think too much when I watch it about the reality because it's so off the rails. Occasionally, there's something in space, but usually... I mean, these Time Lords, they're going through time. Everything's already just crazy. I mean, the TARDIS, that makes sense.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: If you had a TARDIS, if you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go?

Bruce Betts: I don't know. And when would you go?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: All right, this is a complicated one, right? Because there's the things in space that I'd like to go see, and then there are the moments in Earth's history that I'd really like to go see. I think space-wise, if I had a TARDIS, first off, I'd probably hit all of the major worlds in our solar system. But who doesn't want to go and hang out on Europas, looking out at Jupiter or go see the rings of Saturn? But I'd probably also go to see Mars and Venus when they had water on the surface. That would be really cool. And Earth's history, probably I'd go to see Galileo when he discovered the moons of Jupiter or the Harvard computers. They're some of my favorites. I think I'd go to meet Henrietta Swan Leavitt and tell her all about how her revelation about Cepheid variable stars and standard candles allowed us to see the scale of the universe and tell her how big it actually is. Or maybe I'd go back to meet Hypatia of Alexandria and save her right before she was about to be killed by the mob and take her back to the Library of Alexandria and its heyday before everything got destroyed. That'd be pretty cool.

Bruce Betts: You've given this a bit of consideration. I'm going to have to think about it. Can I turn in my assignment later today or next week? You broke my brain.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: All right, what's our random space fact this week?

Bruce Betts: Random space fact.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That was so sad. The tiniest most randomest, saddest space fact of all time.

Bruce Betts: It's brilliant. I'm sure you never realized that the number of different actors who have played the main doctor on Doctor Who, is the same right now as the number of moons we know at Neptune.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Really? That's wild. I bet there are so many more moons of Neptune that we just have no idea exist.

Bruce Betts: Yeah. No, that's why I phrased it that way. Yeah. Last I checked, Neptune was still holding at 14.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, that's a trip. And also, I guess it depends on how you count the doctors. There's like one doctor in between and the war doctor. I don't know how you-

Bruce Betts: You see I count-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Time travel.

Bruce Betts: I tried to use my words to be precise. Actors, not doctors, unique actors who played the main title, main role of the Doctor. I'm not sure quite how to phrase that, but there were many other doctors floating around and David Tennant did a couple of stints, but basically, you got 14 actors, 15 main doctors, as well as all your other doctors, which I'm sure you can tell me how many there have been. And there you go.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's awesome. Now I'm going to know that forever.

Bruce Betts: One of those numbers will change probably at some point.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Both of them.

Bruce Betts: But you know, I shared my biggest connection with Doctor Who-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh, yeah.

Bruce Betts: Being insulted by one of the doctors with another doctor and Seth MacFarlane.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I pulled out that audio clip. So I'm going to share that with people right after this because it is pretty hilarious. You want to tell us about it?

Bruce Betts: Yeah. It was Bob Picardo, the holographic doctor on Star Trek: Voyager, did The Planetary Post for quite a while with the Planetary Society videos. And I stood in for one of the ones where he was off being Joe actor, dude. And then I find out when the show gets edited together, I watch it and at the end of the show, he's hanging with Sylvester McCoy, the seventh doctor from Doctor Who, I believe. And they had a little festival talking about me and how great I was.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: You all count as doctors.

Bruce Betts: Yeah. Well, if you're going to play it, I won't ruin it. It's magical. I've been insulted by some of the biggest people in the business.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: All right, let's take this out.

Bruce Betts: All right, everybody. Go out there and look up at the night sky, and think about where you would go in time and space if you were able to putz around in the TARDIS. And thank you and good night.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: As promised, here's a short clip from our 2018 Planetary Post episode with Robert Picardo and Sylvester McCoy.

Robert Picardo: Well, Bruce, your performance was workmanlike, convincingly nerdy, but I would call it numb.

Sylvester McCoy: Yes, and what we want is phenomenal. I mean, yes, you are a doctor, but Doctor Who.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We've reached the end of this week's episode of Planetary Radio, but we'll be back next week with a peek behind the scenes at the Planetary Society's 2024 Day of Action. If you love our show, you can get Planetary Radio T-shirts at, along with lots of other cool spacey merchandise. Help others discover the passion, beauty and joy of space science and exploration by leaving a review and a rating on platforms like Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Your feedback not only brightens our day, but helps other curious minds find their place in space through Planetary Radio. You can also send us your space thoughts, questions, and poetry at our email at [email protected]. Or if you're a Planetary Society member, leave a comment in the Planetary Radio space in our member community app. This episode happened because of comments in our community. So if you have any requests, please don't hesitate to reach out. Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California and has made possible by our members all across space and time. You can join us and help us share the wibbly wobbly timey wimey joy of space exploration at Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Andrew Lucas is our audio editor. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. And until next week, allons-y and ad astra.