Doctor Who: How Quickly Can the Show Change?

If Doctor Who is capable of anything, it's change. Andrew looks over the show's history at the many times it's swung from one direction to another...

Doctor Who TARDIS
Photo: BBC

It’s rare for someone to like all of Doctor Who. A fan may find some of it to have the occasional redeeming feature, but just doesn’t find it entertaining as a whole. On occasion, a run of stories isn’t what they want from Doctor Who. Fortunately the show has a solution to this: Doctor Who changes.

This has been said often enough that it feels like background noise but it’s worth stressing. Different people have made Doctor Who up as they went along, responding to different contexts as best they can. It’s unlikely you’re going to enjoy all of it, but on the bright side, the show always has been and will be different.

Depending on the role played by the BBC, the transition between production teams can be uneven. The change from producer Philip Hinchcliffe to Graham Williams in 1977 wasn’t helped by the BBC’s edicts severely limiting what the show could be, and it took a whole series for Williams to come up with a version of Doctor Who that could consistently work within those constraints. Likewise, when Andrew Cartmel was brought in late in the day for Season 24, the BBC had only told producer John Nathan-Turner the series was going ahead at short notice (with similar requests for the show to be simultaneously less grim and not as silly, leaving a tiny middle ground in which to operate).

Tom Baker as the Doctor

Script Editor Cartmel inherited a more favourable situation than, say, Douglas Adams did under Graham Williams. There were fewer strikes, the BBC was losing interest in the programme, and the producer was happy to just let him shape the show. Also, and no offence meant to Sylvester McCoy, but Cartmel didn’t have to fit Doctor Who around the foghorn of charisma that is Tom Baker.

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Consider ‘Time and the Rani’ – Pip and Jane Baker (may they rest in a slumber of concord and amity) were commissioned to write it before Cartmel was hired, because Nathan-Turner knew they could write something quickly. They were the last vestige of the previous version of the show, and you can see a clear divide in the concerns of ‘Time and the Rani’ and the rest of Season 24, and from there the rest of the McCoy era.

Time and the Rani shares the CBBC tone of the rest of Season 24, but otherwise it’s an adventure yarn about an amoral scientist on an alien planet. The rest of the series’ stories are grounded in some real-world concern, but still cut from similar pulpy froth. This is Doctor Who mashing up genres, something it hadn’t done consistently since the mid-Seventies. Season 25 abandoned this approach and moved back towards adventure stories, but added enough substance and depth to be an improvement. Only ‘Silver Nemesis’, where the substance of the story is the show’s own mythology, really falls flat.

Season 26, the final series of the original run, integrates these approaches: genre mashups aiming for depth and complexity, grounded by focussing on the companion from present-day Earth. The CBBC tone of Season 24 is one of several styles, and stories continue to address the show’s mythology in more interesting ways (the interrogation of British history and attitudes, for example, and the line in ‘The Curse of Fenric’ about the Doctor not knowing what’s happened to his family). In three short series Doctor Who has gone from the kind of show that, on a bad day, produced ‘Timelash’ to one where a bad day produces ‘Battlefield’. Furthermore, it’s developed with to a point where it can be favourably compared with Russell T. Davies’ approach for 2005’s relaunch.

That is Doctor Who changing slowly. It’s capable of even more rapid change than that, such as the shifts between Seasons 7 and 8 and 17 and 18.  

While Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks made most of Season 7, the Earthbound approach and longer story lengths were the work of outgoing producer Derrick Sherwin. This approach borrowed heavily from ‘Quatermass’, and the new production team were keen to change things for their first full series. As a result Season 8 has more and shorter stories, a change in companion from a scientist to a novice, and moves away from the dominant gritty tone in the last series. Season 8 mixes things up with an increasing cosiness and occasional bouts of psychedelia interrupting the action by HAVOC. Season 7 acts as a buffer, so the distance between the Sixties and Seventies isn’t as jarring as it could have been.

Season 17, and the end of Graham Williams’ tenure as producer, had been the victim of strikes and low budgets, but was also fighting a tonal battle as Douglas Adams tried to blend comedy, science-fiction tropes and ideas-based drama. Adams could clearly write things with weight to them, but for a variety of reasons, his tenure is more commonly represented by Graham Crowden hamming up a villain role.

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Matt Smith as The Doctor

Season 18 had obvious cosmetic differences, but under Christopher Bidmead there was a different approach that took a few stories to kick in, with Bidmead finding out as Adams had that there weren’t many writers around who could deliver what he wanted. What he wanted was ostensibly harder science fiction, but from his stories we see a barrage of fantastical and fairy tale imagery explained in terms like ‘Charged Vacuum Emboitment’ to convey more authority than ‘wormhole’ or ‘dimensional tear’.

There’s another obvious sense of change from ‘The End of Time to ‘The Eleventh Hour‘, but this is partly due to hindsight. With Doctor Who now embracing long-form storytelling, it wasn’t until ‘The Big Bangwhere the difference in approach solidified: yes time-travel is used in the storytelling, the Doctor is approached differently, but most notably the companion gets a happy ending. Nonetheless ‘The Eleventh Hourfelt different on broadcast, but there was a sizeable gap between it and ‘The End of Time’.

The Ark in Space‘, on the other hand, was on the week after ‘Robot’. Having finished the familiar romp around the Home Counties with UNIT, the Doctor heads off into the future with Sarah-Jane Smith and new companion Harry Sullivan to find an abandoned space station. We know something is wrong but are left in the dark as the regulars investigate the new setting. This isn’t unheard of in Doctor Who, indeed the idea of a space ark isn’t new either, but it then diverges from the show’s past drastically.

We’ve seen these stakes before in Doctor Who but rarely at this intensity. The scene where a recorded speech plays, from the days just before humanity fled Earth into space, and a man being converted into an alien cries because he remembers what that meant and how close hope is to being lost, is one of the most harrowing scenes in Doctor Who, even with the bubble wrap hands.

Doctor Who Ark in Space bubble wrap

In fact, the effects are worth considering when contrasting tone between ‘Robot’ and ‘The Ark in Space’. Compare the Robot flailing in distress as it kills its creator to a man realising that he might have doomed his entire species. Both good ideas, but so much more emotional weight is brought to bear on the second one, and that’s why the horror is so much more effective in ‘Ark in Space’.

That Doctor Who can change is commonly stated, but for the viewer it can change the kind of show it is over the course of one episode. If you’re not getting along with it for whatever reason your immediate reaction will be irritation, but this will pass. Doctor Who is being made up by people as they go along, which is one of the greatest and most frustrating things about it.

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