IS Doctor Who in Trouble? Or a Brand just in Transition and otherwise Rude State of Health + Happiness?
Let’s speculate and make some gratuitous suggestions. Why? Because EVERYONE is doing that now and lots of YouTubers are getting ‘exclusive’ and ‘sources close’ style news nuggets. Heck, even Radio Times issued a denial of a rumour that Chris Chibnall (show-runner) and Jodie Whittaker (the current Doctor) are about to quit. Fine, except that..nobody had heard or circulated that rumour widely..until the denial was issued..by Radio Times itself: a magazine supposedly with official industry backing / connections? All a BIT odd /suspect.
So what IS happening? Frankly, my guess is as good as yours. You never know until you know. As in, short of official confirmations from the BBC press releases / other media? There is nothing concrete to report. A new series remains in production and Chibnall is still at the helm and Jodie still the lead. Why MIGHT that be changing / have changed, already? Why MIGHT people be speculating, proactively, as though willing it to happen? Well…
‘Change my Dear! And not a Moment Too Soon!’
Doctor Who shares much in common with James Bond. Sure, one is a spy, the other an alien time traveller. But both are British brands, highly prized and cherished and their timeless longevity is somewhat illusory because they both thrive on speculation about change. Relentless click-bait articles ‘IS THIS THE NEXT..’ etc. ‘SHOULD THE NEXT DOCTOR /007 BE..’ and so on. People LIKE this sort of debate and illusion of news. If that weren’t the case then online content would not do such a steady business in provocative /speculative headlines.
But it’s also, to some extent, innate to the brand. It has been established, since the first regeneration of the Doctor, that this is indeed a show that can change lead actor and writer/producer every few years and with that, other incidental details (logo, tone of theme tune, genre emphases, demographic targets etc).
It therefore follows that, from the moment one takes on the role of the Doctor or the ‘show-runner’, questions as to length of tenure and dates of departure will follow, inevitably. Sometimes, it’s pure gossip / filler in the absence of news. Other times? There is indeed something in the air.
Notice that Colin Baker was unceremoniously regenerated, without a farewell story, back in 1987, after much back and forth at the BBC in attempts to either revitalise or destroy the show once and for all.
Then, in 1989: though never officially ‘axed’, things were put on hold, indefinitely, with a superb monologue from Sylvester McCoy (penned by Andrew Cartmel) edited in to cover that potentially looming Dr Who deficit.
Matt Smith’s departure in 2013 came rather suddenly and prematurely, too. By contrast: there was an entire year of fanfare for the ever so slightly melodramatic regeneration of David Tennant.
In short? When the show is at its peak power, you know, yonks in advance, of impending change and it is woven into the scripts for the episodes building to a changing of the guard. When they DON’T want you to know, it’s because there is trouble at (pebble) mill: with mixed messages, denials and quasi support almost certainly spelling a certain doom that at best manifests as hiatus and at worst foreshadows and inevitable axe.
Given the current lack of clarity in message and floods of rumour? It is not surprising that fandom is assuming change is afoot.
Things MUST Change, In any Event. But it’s GOT to be RIGHT!
As the Dr Who story, Logopolis showed: entropy is inevitable. Decay, endings. But they can be managed, too! You can prepare for, minimise, even manipulate change, on your terms, without ever needlessly or prematurely catalysing disruption. Trick is to be alert and take occasional, calculated risks. Bringing back the show in 2005 was a massive risk but one that paid off because it was written with heart and wit and soul under Russell T Davies’ management. Losing (the brilliant, btw) Christopher Eccleston as the lead actor after one season was a shock and yet also an opportunity to test and evolve the brand.
Enter David Tennant. Tennant + Davies was a glory era: not only matching but arguably exceeding the mythological magic and marketing power of the Tom Baker years.
By 2007/8? The then tenth Doctor was his own institution and an almost messianic glow surrounded the character and the series’ethos. Matters helped by music whose chords were divinely choral and rousing (Murray Gold). There was an infectious sense of interest: this was event television and whilst educational and moral motifs matched the family demographic, there was an equal sense of fun, adventure, soap operatic street cred and sex appeal (notably, c/o Billie Piper).
That era ended prematurely. Davies had said all he needed to, it seemed and Steven Moffat was eager to take over. Tennant left at the same time. But the handling of transition was still a MASSIVE misfire. The show NEEDED resting as it was. They’d had a 4 year run and proven the key elements could survive and thrive in the new market. Nobody wanted the series axed or lost just because the guard might be changing. Except that the same personnel could probably have stayed on, but for a misplaced belief that there had to be a series, every year.
Relentless repetition of formula or too radical a reinvention would spell doom. This was one time, circa 09-10 when the BBC could have safely taken the show off the air for a year or two..whilst preserving the brand via specials? Worked in 2009. The relentless machine’s wheels had to keep turning, though and that, sadly, began the brand’s burn out that we now experience in the Chibnall era.
The Moffat era fleeted between extremes of excellence and the execrable. There was a promising start: 2010-11, which featured pacy, intriguing, clever and glossy stories. Ultimately, though: the ‘Moff’ regime was neither as organically emotional and sexy as the peak 2005-8 years nor as cleverly self contained as Moffat’s own plots from his previous stories had promised.
2012-17 Doctor Who is a bland mishmash of tonal illiteracy, living in the shadow of better days that ended before their time. Moffat is still the best plotsmith in the series’ history, though.
As for the actors who followed Tennant?
Matt Smith was absolutely fine: a great actor and physical presence. Indeed, Matt is now a film star and arguably has greater clout than even Tennant enjoys. Peter Capaldi could have been great had he been allowed to play the Doctor as a kind of grumpy though benign take on his Malcolm Tucker without the swearing. Instead they had him playing an electric guitar and overplaying the ‘AM I GOOD?’ motif. Shame.
But the problem remained and indeed, remains, today: David Tennant IS Doctor Who. And vice versa. This is painfully obvious in the way that dear Jodie Whittaker (current Doctor) has clearly been directed to play some sort of Tennant tribute act? I could be imagining that; but the problem is NOT her gender or talent. It’s simply that the role was never truly vacated or reinvented.
The BBC should, on day one, simply have allowed their leading man to go off and do other things with bigger breaks between series and specials. Occasional re/degeneration gimmicks aside though, the Dr Who role should have remained Tennant’s, indefinitely. Similar deals have been brokered before: notably John Thaw with ITV /Inspector Morse. Just do it again? Heck, I even suggested to ITV that they cast Tennant AS a young Morse back in ’08! What an interesting ‘endeavour’ that would have been. but I digress..
Change this time, for Dr Who, might mean going back, to go forward. Park a money truck outside Tennant’s house. Make him an offer he simply cannot refuse. And yes, by all means make THAT movie version as well / instead: throwing in the mooted John Barrowman /Billie Piper, too. But DON’T reduce this to a 60th anniversary cameo, either.
The Writing’s on the Wall
Chris Chibnall probably DOES have to go. Sorry. Why? Because if enough people are saying he might be going..and a substantial part of an otherwise dedicated fandom are actively seeking said departure..then it’s probably time to go? Quite why he was promoted so far is a mystery. Yes, Broadchurch did well, sure! But that series’ success was, dare I say it, due, in large part to the dream team of Olivia Colman and yes..him again..David Tennant.
If you take out Colman and Tennant? Broadchurch becomes an elongated, even rather dull and derivative Police procedural. Sorry,#2! Chibnall was not a sci-fi writer of note, either. Yes, he had written some episodes of Dr Who in the Moffat /Davies eras. Yes, he was a ‘fan’ all the way back to the John Nathan Turner years. But so what? That does not, in itself, make one an ideal show-runner unless they have some radical vision for the show’s regeneration. And no, casting a woman, relocating the schedule to Sunday nights and emphasising social ‘issues’ over plot and character does not ‘cut it’. Sorry, #3!
To be fair to Chibnall, the rot set in under Steven Moffat. He managed to unbalance the Russell T Davies era’s genuine sense of fair representation of race/class/gender and sexuality. Everything became heavy handed and over-laboured. Plots were clever but the characters and their associated line patterns of prurience became adolescent, didactic lectures and tiresome, verging on the offensive.
Moffat gave us lesbian lizards! Amy Pond was ‘ready to pop’. Jane Austen was a ‘great kisser’? Elizabeth I was basically..well..the same as in BlackAdder 2, only not as funny or sexy. And there was an over-apologetic narrative against masculinity, it seemed. Fine, except that’s at odds, entirely with Moffat’s previous form. He’s the man who once wrote a sitcom episode revolving entirely around why a woman’s remote control never keeps its batteries (clue: it’s coz they use them for…haaahhhaaa…yes..that). So mature! Right on! Progressive! No.
Compare that to the elegant clarity and progressive purity of Captain Jack as character construct, played by John Barrowman. Adventurer! Dashing space pirate! Complex romantic hero. He just happens to like boys and girls..the end..back to the plot and the fun. THAT is inclusion, right THERE. Davies era ‘Who’ got it. Later Moffat and now Chibnall regimes..um..just..don’t.
Chibnall just picked up that politically correct ‘WOKE’ ball and ran with it, even further. Hence entire episodes riffing on already tired political themes, preaching verging on indoctrination and all at the expense of sci-fi fun that could still have remained inclusive and hopeful, as it had been from 2005-10 and indeed, during the original series run of ’63-89.
The format was mucked about, as was length of season and position in the year. Split seasons? Saturday moved to Sunday? A pointless NEW YEAR’S DAY special rather than a Christmas Day slot? Why bother at all? It was change for change’s sake. Just needlessly confusing.
We cannot blame writers and show-runners for everything. Course not. Chibnall genuinely loves the show and did make some daring structural changes. Moffat was overworked by a Sherlock obsessed BBC, a victim of his own success. Eager to please and be seen as on message, ‘The Moff’ still had and indeed has glimmers of plot-smith genius in him. His Dracula will no doubt hit big.
The ideal? Somehow get Moffat AND Russell T Davies back. They can still groom successors and recruit collaborators. Gareth Roberts, Robert Shearman, Marc Platt, Mark Corden et al? I’m available, too.
Alone, they are weakened by their own excesses (Moffat overdoes plot yet cannot cook a character; Davies descends to the mawkish on occasion, veering on kitchen sink /soap operatics).
But TOGETHER: you have the PERFECT blend. Kinda like Good Neighbours? 😉 Seriously though: they DO work!
Socially aware yet NOT patronising or tokenistic, cool, street-smart yet still somehow imaginative, inclusive, idealistic and uplifting. Wrapped in a visual style that is glossy, alluring, rich, spectacular and yet still somehow BBC, English in its feel /scope. CF: Girl in the Fireplace: THAT is your gold standard. Right THERE!
THAT is what has been missing now for too long from Doctor Who. Bring THAT back, maybe via a few specials or that proposed movie..harness that magical quality, somehow re-trapping lightening in a bottle? And BINGO! You have your Doctor back, indefinitely. AND all the merchandising and educational staples that go alongside that train: historical figures, moral messages and of course EPIC crossover events.
Cue: Yeti, Autons, Daleks, Cybermen, Silurians, the Master and Gallifrey, with some past Doctors and companions showing up for good measure. All via some smaller, more mature/intimate/challenging stories that present new motifs, magic, mysteries and menaces to be confronted in our modern idiom. It CAN be done, just not in the 13 episode series arc indulgences of yore. Boxset friendly. Streaming ready.
You can, of course, still look at other options (including the acceptance of some inevitable end to the show, perhaps, or a more sporadic output?). But at least end on a high, not a whimper. And somehow leave options open, whilst giving closure. That’s the beauty of a mini series or season of specials: they can grow into more of the same; buy time to explore new options; invite self contained experiments and /or let everyone do other things.
AND they can be processed /repackaged AS movies, either at the Cinema, via a joint streaming platform or straight to Blu-Ray if not ALL of the above. Win/win: optimal quality, minimal commitment/risk! And to Hell with continuity headaches; just call it an ‘Elseworlds’ style event, like they do with CW / DC properties such as Arrow and Flash (Barrowman a veteran of those, too).
You can SAVE the brand by at once producing more selective and diverse content, a shared universe of character and plot options, across varying formats. This need not be some brutal rejection of the Chibnall/Jodie era! Sacrificing a simple ‘series’ annually is a small price /sacrifice to pay for that bigger picture of possibilities.
Think Marvel, Star Wars et al. Also: the newly merged up Viacom/CBS Star Trek, with its multiple and co-existing, self contained yet connected series from DISCOVERY to PICARD. That! There! Apply that ambition and flexible creativity to the ingredients that define Doctor Who and propelled it back to glory a decade ago. Minor variations to avoid complacency in the viewers, fused to fidelity for the source material.
This development is in the show’s very DNA. 1996’s television film with Paul McGann was a one off yet created a new lease of life for the series that lasts today, even in Big Finish audio. Remember too: you have a ‘meta-crisis’ Doctor in a parallel dimension just waiting to have his own adventures: a perfect vehicle for Tennant/Piper as self contained one off whilst allowing for further iterations.
It’s also a complex character; darker, textured and in transition to reconcile his Timelord/human qualities so there is a ready made character arc, which gives Tennant plenty to do as an actor: keeping things challenging, fresh and interesting, whilst retaining that magic energy and joyous energy that defined his Doctor. This is logical. It is DESTINY! A FIXED POINT IN TIME: IT MUST HAPPEN! 😉
OH YES! MOLTO BENE! ALLONSY! 🙂
Just DON’T rush into some cut and paste ‘Neil Gaiman as show-runner and Michael Sheen as the Doctor’ laziness. That’s unimaginative panic and spells a mimetic stasis and creative paralysis; foreshadowing the show’s end rather than regeneration /salvation.
We NEED Doctor Who to be cool again and we need the writing to have variety, pace, style and sci-fi meets street cred organic charm again. It must feel reborn yet somehow familiar; daring and innovative but comfortingly safe. Cerebral and educative whilst remaining escapist sci-fi/fantasy, where the only limit is imagination (and yes, thereby using budgetary limitation to advantage).
There must be a sex appeal and humour to it, without ever compromising the family dynamic that defined the brand at its best. Current yet timeless: as at home when it was of the swinging sixties and shoulder padded eighties..to the mobile phone happy ‘naughties’..so today, must Dr Who adapt, blend in and thereby..stand out! Inclusive yet never tokenistic: welcoming, for all, to all, forever. An egalitarian, apolitical hope and moral optimism, whilst wrapped in a powerhouse of corporate gloss and allure.
Tennant IS that ethos: a personification of all that is hip and now, whilst remaining a classical actor and a man of moral conviction and modernity. His Doctor can return: bit older /wiser, sure but still with that magic relevance that appeals to every nerd whilst providing a genuinely romantic adventure hero for all. Written again by a Moffat/Davies writers’ room powerhouse? Marketed correctly with neither too little nor too saturated a content..and BINGO: One revived brand.
In short? Whilst times must be moved with (eg: it is probably time to inject an Amazon style collaboration /cash investment / brand upgrade), NEVER rule out taking minor steps back in order to truly move FORWARD!
DOCTOR WHO WILL RETURN. AND UNTIL CONFIRMED TO THE CONTRARY: assume it’s still the Jodie and Chris show 😉
James Murphy is a Timelord from Gallifrey.