Classic Doctor Who Explored Planets, Modern Doctor Who Explores People

What’s the difference between NuWho and the original show? It used to be about a weird hero going on adventures with their friends. Post-2005, the weird hero and their friends became the adventure.

David Tennant in Doctor Who The Power of the Doctor
Photo: BBC Studios

The original run of Doctor Who ran from 1963 – 1989, with the 1996 TV Movie usually affixed to this like a congealed nasal emission on a mighty nose. This is often referred to as ′Classic Who′ (a phrase I try to avoid because it′s hard not to sound like Alan Partridge).

Modern or ′NuWho′ refers to the revived version of the show that′s been going since 2005. It will continue with a run of three special episodes to celebrate the show′s 60th anniversary followed by the 14th full series of the revived run. These are both lengthy runs by any standards, which obviously makes unifying ′Classic′ and ′Nu′ Who into singular entities slightly reductive, but let’s press on.

The most obvious difference between Classic and NuWho is that they focus on different things within the same broad format, for various reasons but chiefly relating to the show′s sheer longevity. Both runs change and respond to the world around them, and as a result of different writers and creators being involved. They both consist of multiple takes on the flexible format of an alien travelling around having adventures with their friends.

That′s been pretty consistent throughout, but it′s also vague in terms of telling you what an episode might actually be like. It allows for a lot of diversity of approach: within this format, Doctor Who can focus on its characters or on the place they find themselves in, on the monsters or on the science. It can be action-orientated or more thoughtful and idea-driven.

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Consider 1966′s ′The Ark′, and ′Dinosaurs on a Spaceship′ from 2012. Both involve the Doctor and his friends exploring a spaceship with unexpected animals onboard, discovering something has gone wrong and then having to save the day. In the latter, we have the introduction of companion Rory′s Dad Brian, who will become an important character that series and whose relationship with his son is a key source of drama. In the former, we have companion Dodo′s first adventure on the TARDIS, but her main contribution to the story is having a cold, which leads to an impressive twist but tells us nothing about Dodo other than ′she can get colds′. Back then, the locations and monsters were the thing.

The Doctor’s Personal Legacy

For the majority of Classic Who, the Doctor is not in possession of the same sort of personal legacy as in NuWho, where he′s a semi-legendary figure at times. Showrunner Russell T. Davies’ concept of The Time War fought by Gallifrey’s Time Lords and the Daleks, removes a lot of continuity baggage by narrowing the gap between old viewers and new, and giving the Doctor stature as the only survivor of a huge, semi-mythical conflict.

It’s logical that, due to the sheer number of adventures they’ve had and the things they’ve done, the Doctor has increasingly become a cornerstone of the universe. The Doctor has been noticed, and unsurprisingly, stories have built up around them (as seen in ′Forest of the Dead′, where the Doctor uses the accumulated weight of stories about him as a threat).

This personal legacy is even beginning to develop by the final few classic series, where there′s a build-up of mythology surrounding the character that continues on into the novelisations (most notably Ben Aaronovitch′s superlative ′Remembrance of the Daleks′ book). There’s an unspoken aspect of the Seventh Doctor’s personality where he suddenly starts taking out his opponents more actively because, presumably, he’s fed up arriving somewhere hoping for fun only to find atrocities and death everywhere.

Prior to this, for Doctors One – Six, he′s mostly just this guy, y′know?

Relationships and Loved Ones

The post-2005 series is much more interested in the characters′ relationships, the real-world impact of their travels and effects on loved ones than the Classic Series. Family wasn′t really a consideration in Classic Who. We rarely saw a companion talk to friends or family who hadn′t experienced an adventure, trying to explain or allude to their adventures in a social context.

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While Steven Moffat′s companions had the least interaction with their genetic family, they still have relationships that connect them to the everyday (Amy has Rory, who does join her in the TARDIS but also has his feet more firmly on the ground; Clara has Danny Pink, Bill has her foster mother). These characters all act as a restraint or anchor, for good or bad. When Fourth and Fifth Doctor companion Tegan asks to stay with her grandfather in 1984’s ′The Awakening′, we don′t actually know anything about their relationship. He′s simply been a way to get us into the story.

There are counterexamples of course, Classic Who isn′t emotionless. There are some great and consistently well-written characters. Many Classic companions start off well-written and distinct with strong relationships formed between them and the Doctor (and other companions) before lapsing into generic companion tropes. Equally, NuWho is not without its companions and characters who remind you that they′re fictional creations at the whims of the story, and not real people.

To take the reaction to Fourth and Fifth Doctor companion Adric′s death in season 19’s ‘Earthshock’ (1982) as an example though, it played out over just two scenes before never being mentioned again. Conversely, series 11 companion Graham still wants revenge for his wife’s Grace′s death despite getting a fair whack of closure the week before. We′re talking in generalisations here. It’s not that Classic Who has no characters with interiority or strongly defined relationships, it′s more that the show didn’t focus on them.

Budgets, Run-Times and Multi-Part Stories

The different focuses over the course of the show are down to the interests of creatives making it, audience expectations, and the changing ways television is made.

It isn’t merely that TV changed over the sixteen years that Doctor Who was off-air, increasingly adopting the language of cinema, it’s that NuWho had a bigger budget. Multi-Camera setups, as employed by the Classic Series, are chiefly used for things like sitcoms with a live-audience or soap operas. The idea is to perform the scene once – barring mistakes – but record it simultaneously from different angles. This is cheaper and less time consuming than single-camera setups where multiple takes of the same scene are performed with footage of each speaking part, mid-shots and anything else the Director deems necessary. It’s more like recorded theatre.

Doctor Who was, for most of its original run, made as 25-minute episodes. In Season 21 ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ was edited into two 45-minute episodes but was written and filmed as four 25-minute instalments. Season 22 saw the episodes being written and filmed as 45-minute episodes (bringing the episode length more in line with contemporary BBC dramas) but these were two – three episodes long.

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Post-2005 episodes were 45 minutes long, mostly self-contained stories with a few multi-episode stories, with pre-credit sequences and a faster pace. Structurally, today’s two-parters are similar to their 1980s counterparts – the Doctor and companion explore a location and are usually confronted by the antagonist around the cliffhanger – but the faster pace of the more recent episodes mean more has happened by this point. We can have a whole story in the time it takes the Doctor and Peri to even reach Tranquil Repose in ‘Revelation of the Daleks’. Doctor Who now doesn’t have the format to support the cast exploring a new location uneasily for 25 minutes, so that aspect has been reduced.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both the multi-part longform stories and the more serialised faster-paced single episode stories, but the latter was an obvious choice. In 2005, no existing drama series had 25 minute episodes. In 1989, Doctor Who was the only show in its timeslot that lasted 25 minutes (and, if you want an example of changing TV landscapes, the day the 26th season of Doctor Who started had a two-hour 20-minute broadcast of the Trades Union Congress debates in the afternoon). Why did Doctor Who have this unusual episode length?

Because the gap in the 1963 Saturday night schedules was 25 minutes long, and also with a view to overseas sales; it would allow broadcasters to add in advert breaks to take the running time up to 30 minutes. This could explain why the 25-minute format had longevity, if it had this positive built in. After the 45-minute episodes in the 1980s, the return to 25-minute episodes only came about because the BBC had promised the public more episodes when the series returned, and technically Season 23 had 14 episodes to Season 22’s 13. However, due to the lack of faith the BBC had in the series at that time the episodes were returned to 25 minutes, massively reducing the amount of Doctor Who being made.

How Doctor Who is made and structured has changed because TV has changed, and in ways that has knock-on effects on the type of stories the show is interested in. How it will reshape itself around its increased budget and new international streaming home on Disney+ for series 14 remains to be seen, but fundamentally, it will still be the same programme it’s been since 1963 with an unaltered central premise: A travelling alien. Friends. Adventure.

Doctor Who returns in November for three 60th anniversary specials.