Doctor Who: reinvention from Eccleston to Whittaker
In part 2, Chris examines Doctor Who's frequent reinventions and hunts for clues as to what may be in store for series 11...
Read the first part of this exploration of Doctor Who’s frequent turning points, from Troughton to McGann, here.
“Give me a day like this!”
Almost a decade after Paul McGann had settled into the TARDIS, and in the wake of more failed film pitches, charity spoofs and an assortment of animated content for the BBC’s flourishing website, Doctor Who was on its way back on TV. At the helm was Russell T. Davies, a veteran writer and long-time Who fan, serving as both executive producer and chief writer – a first for the series, which had traditionally used a dedicated script editor to handle the stories themselves.
Working with fellow producers Julie Gardner and Phil Collinson, Davies made the most sweeping changes to the programme’s format since the end of the Pertwee era. The show was to return to 45-minute episodes that were either one or two-parters – a far cry from the lengthy serials that often took weeks to play out in their entirety. Though the audience had no way of knowing this at first, each of these standalone stories would obscure a larger mystery, dropping names and clues designed to stoke internet speculation in the run up to the season finale.
While seemingly separate, in truth these new adventures carried contained a great number of character arcs. Companions in the show’s “classic run”, as it had come to be known, were often willing and able to hop into the TARDIS for months or years at a time without worrying whether they were being missed back home. Rose Tyler, companion to Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, couldn’t have been more different – she had a Mum, she had a jealous boyfriend, and the series took pains to explore the chaos and heartbreak that the Doctor wrought with his promises of seeing the universe.
Some fans were less than impressed with this new focus on domesticity, lamenting the amount of time the Doctor seemed to spend hanging around council estates – a complaint not entirely without merit, given that every episode of Eccleston’s single series was set either on or in orbit of Earth at some point in its history. It was a dynamic that persisted across all of the companions Davies oversaw; a modern-day London family, distrustful of the Doctor but ultimately becoming embroiled in his adventures.
Equally controversial, especially during the Ninth Doctor’s brief turn, was the show’s tendency to draw from pop-culture and light entertainment. Rose herself was played by popstar Billie Piper, and her debut season saw other shows like The Weakest Link, What Not to Wear and Big Brother not just referenced but worked directly into the storylines. This was now a world of metafiction, where the Doctor could catch up on alien invasions via BBC news, or even EastEnders, although these moments became less frequent as the programme found its own feet.
The debut of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor marked another high-profile change to the Doctor Who format – that of the Christmas Special, a festive treat more often reserved for comedy programmes and one that would ironically become the show’s only predictable timeslot. With the “13+1” template in place, the show was to leave well enough alone through Tennant’s time in the TARDIS, pulling in record numbers while Davies turned his attention to the Doctor’s larger universe…
“It’s vast, and complicated, and ridiculous.”
By 2008, Doctor Who-mania seemed in no danger of dying down. The Christmas Specials were attracting audiences that rivalled Tom Baker’s era – even with DVRs and iPlayer conspiring to erode live viewing figures – and the programme had branched out in a number of new directions. Most significant of these were its two spin-off shows, Torchwood and The Sarah-Jane Adventures, though there were also plenty of webisodes and specials to keep the TARDIS in people’s hearts and minds year-round.
Building the show into an international success had proven nothing short of exhausting for those involved, however, and so plans were already in motion to refresh and replace the production team. Following Davies as showrunner would be Steven Moffat, who had already penned several award winning scripts for the show and had extensive production experience. After some consideration, David Tennant also elected to hand control of the TARDIS over to his successor.
Far from being a reinvention to stave off waning popularity, steps needed to be taken to ensure that this latest changing of the guard in no way dampened the show’s continued success. To that end, a farewell year of Specials starring Tennant were planned that would give Moffat and his team time to prepare for their first full season and its mysterious new Doctor.
Along with a new title sequence, logo and a TARDIS interior fit for the HD era, Matt Smith imbued his new Doctor with a boyish innocence that masked the grief of a far older man, and his adventures were filmed almost as fairy tales. Council estates were – mostly – nowhere to be seen, and with the significant exception of River Song, neither were the old familiar faces. As the spin-offs wound down, the Eleventh Doctor found himself with a new extended family that included Sontarans and Silurians – not forgetting companion Amy Pond, of course.
To begin with, the show stuck closely to the “13+1” format that Davies and his crew had cemented, focusing Smith’s debut season around a central mystery to be explored in the final two-parter. On the occasions the show did experiment, the results were mixed – fans appreciated the addition of Rory as a full-time companion once he’d finished repeatedly dying, but were less enthused about a new range of lumpy, multi-coloured Daleks. Increasingly, there were also concerns that Moffat’s love of “timey-wimey” storytelling could make the show hard to follow, and that his convoluted conclusions weren’t always satisfying.
Of the three seasons that Matt Smith starred in, only his first ended up airing as a single, unbroken run. Rumours began to swirl of production problems as the 2011 season was split into two halves, airing both in the spring and autumn of that year. Next year’s schedule would be even bleaker for fans, with just five regular episodes (and the Christmas Special) transmitting in 2012 and the rest held over into 2013.
Publically the BBC stood firm, reassuring viewings that the show’s anniversary year would by no means be “light” on Doctor Who. Furthermore, when the time-delayed figures were consolidated, the show’s viewing figures remained relatively consistent despite its scheduling woes. The fans, it seemed, were determined to stand by the Doctor throughout these troubled times, at least for now.
“Where I stand is where I fall.”
The Day of the Doctor, the show’s excellent 50th anniversary special, provided the welcome ratings bump Doctor Who had been looking for, and the appointment of Peter Capaldi to the role of the Twelfth Doctor appeared to usher in a welcome period of stability at the cost of one episode per season. With a fresh lick of paint here and there, the programme seemed to be back on its feet from a production standpoint, although it failed to settle in a regular timeslot for long.
It was all the more surprising, therefore, when the BBC brusquely announced that there would be no full series in 2016, citing Steven Moffat’s work commitments to Sherlock. Scuttlebutt and gossip were the order of the day, at least until Moffat confirmed that he’d be stepping down after one final run of episodes to air in 2017, to be replaced by Chris Chibnall – former Torchwood showrunner and scribe of hit ITV drama Broadchurch. Almost a full year later, Peter Capaldi confirmed that the tenth year of the show’s revival would likewise be his last.
With another turnover looming on the horizon, Doctor Who’s return to screens after a year-long absence couldn’t help but feel muted and wistful, despite the additional of new companion Bill, returning alien fusspot Nardole and regular appearances by the superlative Michelle Gomez as Missy. David Tennant’s regeneration had been teased throughout the 2009 specials as an event of significance, something he needed to fight or to flee. Capaldi’s Doctor, by contrast, seemed to be marching towards his extinction with grim acceptance. A sense of exhaustion, deliberately or not, hung over the episodes, viewing figures for which were now at their lowest ebb since the show’s return.
And then, at the end of it all, came that smile.
Even now, there’s a lot we don’t know about the Doctor Who we’ll be settling down to watch this autumn. We do have clues, though, and we can perhaps draw some parallels between what’s to be and what has been before.
We can begin with the stories themselves, where Chris Chibnall has reportedly adopted the use of a writer’s room. If this is anything like the American approach, we can expect that the diverse group of writers assembled will have gotten together as a group, “breaking” stories together before splitting away to work on the individual scripts – though it’s likely that Chibnall will still polish and tweak the results.
That doesn’t necessarily mean there’ll be a stronger narrative thread or more serialisation than we’ve seen previously, but with three companions to juggle it should definitely help cement their personalities and relationships across the episodes. This considered cooperation might also hint at a different type of season arc – one that evolves characters and themes, rather than a “mystery box” plot like the nature of Torchwood or the identity of Mr. Saxon.
As we’ve seen, three regular companions vying for screen time can suit a calmer, less bombastic Doctor like Peter Davison – but Jodie Whittaker has already described her incarnation as lively and energetic. Perhaps, then, we should expect something more akin to a four-strong gang of mates, rather than the Doctor and three companions, breathlessly exploring the world together? It would be a far cry from the teacher-and-student role established between the Twelfth Doctor and Bill Potts, and suit the Doctor’s request for “new best friends” in the recent trailer.
We do know that we’re getting ten slightly longer episodes and the now traditional extended premiere, not to mention a Christmas Episode. It seems unlikely that the season itself will do anything as radical as trap the Doctor on Earth a-la Jon Pertwee, as we’ve already been teased with a new TARDIS interior. It’s a safe bet we won’t get a peek inside until the end of the first episode, though…
The new team have spoken of their desire to return to the show’s first remit: to educate and entertain, which has garnered some speculation that we might return to the pure historical for the first time in half a century. A trip back in time early in the season seems almost certain, and if it’s handled properly, it could be a way for the Doctor to tackle her new identity – and how people react to her gender – through the lens of history, not ignoring the change entirely but leaving the discussion quite literally in the past once it’s over.
While fans have wanted more adventures set on distant planets since the show’s return, it seems doubtful that we’ll be leaving the Earth behind entirely. When Doctor Who’s production was confined to a studio or the local quarry, it arguably made more sense to pretend they were on Metebelis 3 rather than, say, Croydon City Centre. There was no frame of reference, after all. Now that so many episodes are shot on location, the practicalities of making television all-but-guarantees we’ll continue to pop back to Blighty on a regular basis. Given that some of the show’s most popular episodes – Dalek Invasion of Earth, City of Death, Blink – have been set just down the road, though, this isn’t necessary a terrible weight for the show to bear. Besides, we’ve seen at least one alien sky so far…
Delving deeper into the realm of speculation, we can look back to Chibnall’s previous work on Doctor Who and Torchwood and note a certain trend towards, well, death. In particular, the deaths of regular characters. Rory snuffed it for the first time in the episode Cold Blood at the hands of the Silurians, as did Owen and Tosh in the Torchwood episode Exit Wounds. Given that Steven Moffat was occasionally criticised for “un-killing” his companions over the years, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that, perhaps, not all of the Doctor’s new friends will make it through the year.
But who might be doing the killing? After they came close to skipping the revival entirely, the Daleks have made yearly appearances, fuelling fandom’s belief that the BBC are compelled to use them or lose them. This pattern has led to some pretty incongruous appearances, most recently a single scene of the Doctor and Bill aboard a Dalek ship written to air during the show’s 2016 hiatus – and yet, when quizzed at Comic-Con, the cast guardedly declared that with mere days of filming left, they’d yet to cross paths with the malevolent mutants.
Might the BBC be brave enough to give up the Daleks, possibly forever? If the past fifty years has shown us anything, it’s that when it comes to Doctor Who, sacrificing the show’s most enduring elements can sometimes be the key to its survival.
So here’s to change, and renewal, and to the hope that a show loved by so many can continue to surprise us.
Doctor Who series 11 starts on BBC One on Sunday the 7th of October.