Would a break be good for Doctor Who?

Feature Alastair Stewart 23 May 2014 - 07:00

Alastair wonders whether a hiatus would be beneficial to the much-loved Doctor Who...

Right, let’s get it out the way: I love Doctor Who. But is it becoming jaded?

Revived in 2005, the show has become a globetrotting ratings hit for the BBC and a (restored) staple of Saturday night television. The affection is not ironic, and only partially sentimental, for the writing and the budget reflect a drama fit for the modern audience. Older aficionados may tune in to contrast old and new but, ultimately, a new generation of fans have become smitten. Gone is the singular memory of scarves and tawdry sets. Meet The Doctor with more awards than regenerations.

The success is largely owed to the show’s necromancer, former Executive Producer Russell T. Davies and the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant. Never before in the show's history have two men invested as much of themselves in their role and character. The result: a supercharged, Byronic Timelord, who quixotically relishes life in all its forms.

Even the 2009 departure of the duo could not dent the public’s appetite for a mad man in a blue box. The later ‘coupling’ of Stephen Moffat as Executive Producer with the beautifully idiosyncratic Matt Smith saw regeneration 2.1, and the show finally achieving mainstream international success.

Whereas the likes of Top Gear (comparable to Who in ratings and net worth to the BBC) will, eventually, succumb to the age of the show if not the presenters (sorry lads, but…) Doctor Who is predicated on a cycle of rebirth. It has achieved recognition beyond the wildest ambitions of its creators 50 years ago and surprised many with its mainstream success since 2005. Indeed, if fervent speculation on casting in the tabloids is a barometer of success, Who trumps all.

So if the show can’t peak with age, has it plateaued with its own success?

Classic Doctor Who

It’s clear now that in the end the ‘classic’ series (1963-89) suffered not from its popularity dwindling among fans, but monotony in the format.

Production costs became a constricting framework that limited the ambitions and ideas of new writers, actors and producers. Limited BBC budgets, the long-standing joke, were now the long-running eye sore distracting away from attempted reforms. The anachronistic 25 minute serial format did nothing but drag out any attempt at a new tempo. Look no further than the criminally under-appreciated take of Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor as a case in point.

Indeed, the most telling fact of all is that the earliest black and white serials seem more sophisticated next to the later series which were far below the production quality of comparative Sci-Fi shows of the day. Execution could not match ambition because the perennial quality of the show – change – was not being realised. The final hiatus (rather than cancellation) was an inevitability until the show could, aptly, move with the times.

The revived series may one day suffer the reverse fate. In nine consecutive years Doctor Who has owed much of its success to the impressive selection of actors to take on the lead role. With a standard 45 minute running time and high production costs, the show’s differential is the leading men who have distinguished it as a quirky cult classic. Emotion and intensity have trumped the cliffhanger and cardboard TARDIS.

But there are few places left to go and the show is running out of successes and surprises for its now not so new audience.

The Time Of The Doctor, the show’s 800th episode, felt like an appropriate place to call a second hiatus. A fitting finale for Smith and a significant step forward in the arc of the Doctor as a whole, the episode rounded off the success of the 50th special, The Day Of The Doctor, by proving Who had mastered self-reference without being trapped by the panoply of its own past.

The aged and dying Doctor, out of regenerations and resembling William Hartnell, was a powerful reminder that this character is the same one first seen 50 years ago. It is a remarkably sweet accomplishment for young families and fans to recognise the First Doctor after so many decades.  

Yet the magic surrounding regeneration has left. Smith dying and his closing lines were a tender goodbye, but there was no surprise as with Eccleston to Tennant, or the same sense of loss as with Tennant into Smith (which took most people a bottle of Jack Daniels and a handkerchief to get past).

While the gift of the second regeneration cycle was spectacular FX, the process had already become too anticipated. Arguably the last really sincere ‘death’ moment came not in Doctor Who, but The Sarah Jane Adventures when the Doctor discussed with former companion Jo Grant his travels in the run up to his last regeneration. The revelation that he visited all of his previous companions and was “so proud” of them, was a tender and sweeping act of continuity.

If properly unleashed, Peter Capaldi has the range and experience to take the Twelfth Doctor in a direction not touched upon yet. His years afford an opportunity to see a Doctor that isn’t brow beaten or war damaged, but simply wise to the Universe. After a series of young men playing an old man, it will be a curious thing to see an older actor acting young(ish).

But we must tread carefully – the show is running out of places to go and it must be conscious that it’s already a year older than most television series last. For all the excitement surrounding Peter Capaldi’s selection as The Doctor, the production team must ensure that they do not let the show slip into such a tired position that their next choice of Doctor is governed by the need to desperately improve ratings. Quality would inevitably suffer.

Taking a break is much better than waiting for the end. Born in the late 1980s, I’m of the generation that survived on Crime Traveller and Star Trek and missed out entirely on Doctor Who - an omission later rectified.

I will happily eat my words when season eight begins and lives up to its promise of rebooting the reboot. I likewise enjoy the thought that, one day, fans of the tenth reboot laugh at the notion that in 2014 we had Doctor Who in anything other than 3D movies with all 27 Doctors.

But, to quote River Song: “You can’t run forever. And nobody knows it like the Doctor.”

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