The worst thing that could possibly happen to a Doctor Who fan is for the show to be cancelled again. Or for it to be broadcast again. Depends who you ask, really.
Despite the advent of the 15th Doctor and the anticipation that brings, there are nagging doubts abroad concerning the show’s future. And that’s fair enough, really. Some fans are just naturally pessimistic, some remember previous crushed hopes around Doctor Who’s wilderness years, and some just look at the state of TV streaming and feel that pessimism is a fairly realistic outlook. It’s also not unreasonable to be concerned that David Tennant is kicking around somewhere, especially given that it was raised by the host during Gatwa’s recent appearance on The Graham Norton Show.
Then there are the folk who simply don’t like Russell T Davies’ writing on Doctor Who. A previous line of comfort for anyone not keen on a particular showrunner has always been: ‘Never mind, there’ll be another one along in a few years’.
The question is: ‘Will there?’ The list of plausible showrunners is short, as discovered when Chris Chibnall’s replacement was sought. The BBC wants someone who has a track record with decent-sized, popular productions (and who wants to dedicate most of their life to Doctor Who). There isn’t a huge list of names, and three of them have already done the job. We can’t just go in cycles of Davies > Moffat > Chibnall until one of them dies. We need people ready and willing to showrun and, what’s more, to not be afraid to do things differently.
Which is where spin-offs come in.
Doctor Who Spin-Offs: A Potted History
Doctor Who has a patchy history of televised spin-offs (there are books and audio adventures a-plenty, but it would be naïve to suggest the writers and editors of those are ready for a TV showrunning role). Firstly, in the Sixties, Dalek creator Terry Nation went to America to try to launch a spin-off focussed on everyone’s favourite Nazi cyborgs, based on concepts from ‘The Dalek Master Plan’ (1965-1966). This never got off the ground (though books and comics did, and there was even a proposed audio series featuring the movie Doctor Peter Cushing). Brief consideration was given to a spin-off featuring the characters Jago and Litefoot (from 1977’s ‘The Talons of Weng-Chieng’), but it wasn’t until 1981 that a spin-off adventure finally arrived on television.
‘K9 and Company’ had Elisabeth Sladen return as former companion Sarah-Jane Smith, after producer John Nathan-Turner had tried to bring her back to Doctor Who. Sladen turned him down, but Nathan-Turner needed somewhere to put the popular robot dog K9 and so the child-friendly adventures of the two were suggested. A pilot episode was broadcast and got more viewers than the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors. However, the new controller of BBC One at the time – Alan Hart – was apparently not a fan, and a series was never made. It’s currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer and Britbox in the UK.
A long, long while later: Torchwood happened in 2006. Initially tonally jarring but absolutely incredible in patches, it focussed on a paranormal investigation group based in Cardiff led by Captain Jack Harkness (who had been introduced in the 2005 Doctor Who series). Oscillating wildly between incredible camp and genuine pathos, it contains moments that have to be seen to be believed (mostly deliberately). You could be watching a powerful and harrowing science-fiction procedural, or some of the bleakest and most-potent satire ever broadcast, or you could end up with a pterodactyl fighting a bikini-clad cyborg covered in barbecue sauce. Torchwood contained multitudes.
After working out some of the problems with its first episode, The Sarah Jane Adventures began broadcasting on CBBC in 2007. It worked out a tone and identity much more quickly and successfully than Torchwood, and while being primarily aimed at children it was something with cross-generational appeal. Featuring guest appearances from David Tennant, Matt Smith and Nicholas Courtney, the series ended in 2011 following the death of Elisabeth Sladen. Torchwood, meanwhile, went on hiatus after its fourth series as Russell T Davies lessened his television commitments for a few years due to personal matters.
Steven Moffat took over as Doctor Who showrunner in 2010, and discussed spin-off ideas, but it wasn’t until 2016’s Class that one of them came to fruition. A loose idea of a school-set spin-off was thrown around by Moffat and producer Brian Minchin, and it was put to writer Patrick Ness (at that stage best known as the author of the ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy). Ness ran with it, and created something brutal and impassioned, with aspects of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that completely failed to find an audience in its timeslot (the scheduling was not kind). Something of an anomaly within Doctor Who, Class is promising for what it is, but what it is felt jarring to many viewers who were not expecting regular characters getting their legs cut off or heads crushed in such close proximity to the main show’s mythology.
There was also an animated Dalek series broadcast on YouTube in 2020 as part of the multimedia spin-off series ‘The Time Lord Victorious’, but Class was the last TV spin-off.
You’d be forgiven, then, for looking at this strange group of shows and wondering ‘How the flip is this going to save Doctor Who then?’
Spin-Offs = Future Showrunner Training Ground
It’s very simple. With a dearth of potential showrunners, the only way that can change is for there to be a structure in place to rapidly increase their number. By providing more rungs on the career ladder, Doctor Who spin-offs improve the odds of finding a future showrunner, quite possibly from outside the existing writers’ pool. It’s a testing ground, essentially, and one that increases the likelihood of the series’ longevity. Davies has previously spoken of his ambition for Doctor Who to have a MCU-style universe of stories, and it looks like some effort has been made on the most obvious candidate for a series. We’ll leave you with the lay of the land when it comes to potential spin-offs, but what’s perhaps more important than the extra stories we’ll get is who might end up writing them.
The Most Likely Spin-Off: UNIT
A UNIT spin-off. On top of existing characters like Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and Osgood, Davies added Ruth Madeley’s Shirley Bingham as the new Science Officer, brought Melanie Bush (Bonnie Langford) back to Doctor Who alongside new resident alien The Vlinx, and recruited Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble. This has the feeling of a regular ensemble cast. UNIT can essentially be in Doctor-less Doctor Who stories, and could be for a family audience. Given the likelihood of this spin-off, we should address writer Malcolm Hulke’s observation that with an Earth-based series you can only really do Alien Invasion and Mad Scientist stories. There are only so many spin-offs that can be set on Earth with a combo of sci-fi police and Doctor-less Doctor Who stories.
Rumoured Spin-Offs: Sea Devils & Villains
A Sea Devil spin off: this rumour had a brief flurry on Elon Musk’s Monument to Hubris (formerly Twitter), and a whole series featuring the popular jumping lizards either seems to be in pre-production, or is a decoy. Assuming the former, expect an expansion on Malcolm Hulke’s original stories: the potential for internal political conflict within a colony or an attempt for Sea Devils and humans to co-exist could drive the drama. Either way, in honour of Hulke’s time in the Communist Party, there should be a lot of meetings that don’t go anywhere.
Villains: an unnamed source told the Daily Mirror (probably face to face rather than by leaving a message on someone else’s answerphone) that there would be a series exploring what Doctor Who villains get up to when the Doctor isn’t around. The Sea Devils, Sontarans and Weeping Angels were mentioned. Quite what a Weeping Angels episode looks like is unclear (maybe it’s just 45 minutes of the viewer looking at an angel onscreen and becoming increasingly unnerved?). I would definitely watch an episode of the Master in front of a whiteboard coming up with a convoluted plan, and a Sontaran episode could look at their shapeshifting enemies the Rutans. There is scope for standalone stories within this framework, but it would be tricker to form a longer narrative out of them.
Possible: Companions, Past Doctors, and Young Davros
Companions: with Mel back at UNIT and Tegan and Ace involved in ‘The Power of the Doctor’, the possibility of a Sarah Jane Adventures-style show that brings former companions together would cover the younger audience: Ace makes sense for this role as she has that youthful explosive streak and potential conflict in being a maternal figure for a group of kids (given her fractious relationship with her own mother).
Past Doctors: whether animated to look as they did on television, or using bigenerated versions of the characters (as Tales from the TARDIS was implied to be using), a series of stories featuring surviving and willing Doctor/Companion actors is possible. The eternal buzz of excitement around more Paul McGann stories is present and correct. The questions around these stories would be about keeping the tone of their broadcast stories, going for a contemporary approach or a hybrid of the two.
Davros – The Early Years: this has been covered by Big Finish Audio, and covered well, but realistically some areas of Doctor Who that have spin-off potential are ones that are going to have been done in some form already (for example, the ‘Robots of Death’ spin-off ‘Kaldor City’ expands on the rich source material). This would take a well known character, the build-up to the creation of the Daleks (one of the most recognisable elements of the series) and a war setting, all of which have great storytelling potential.
Colony in Space: a regular story set-up in Doctor Who is the TARDIS crew arriving on a human colony that’s run into trouble. Why not have a story setup that sticks with one colony during one of the expansions into space that humanity occasionally dabbles in? Say, around the time of ‘The Ark in Space’ and ‘The Beast Below’? Occasional extra-terrestrial threats, struggles to survive, factionalism, that sort of thing. Kinda like the 2011 series Outcasts, but good.
Definitely Real Ones That We Haven’t Made Up:
What We Do in the Shadow Proclamation: A The Thick Of It style comedy focussing on the recurring organisation (as briefly featured in ‘The Stolen Earth’ and ‘The Magician’s Apprentice). Being a sort of UN-style group, and one whose operation is largely undefined, this does run the risk of being another space-police scenario, which is why it should instead focus on the people who work there and the impact their petty, venal bickering and power-struggles have. Focus in on the banal.
(A similar setup has been mooted with the Time Lords, and would also work – listen to Eddie Robson’s Yes Minister-style Gallifrey story ‘Time in Office’ for an example – but I didn’t have a terrible pun for that one).
Last Tango in Calufrax: Comedy-drama featuring some extremely doomed romance.
Rills, Tharils and Bellyaches: Two unlikely alien groups attempt to navigate life in early 90s Manchester
Ru Paul’s Crab Race: Drag Race but with Macra.
The Wire: Maureen Lipman attempts to take over a Baltimore Homicide Department.
Doctor Who is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK and on Disney+ around the world.