What does ‘back to basics’ mean for Doctor Who?

Andrew examines what it really means for Capaldi era Doctor Who to be described as going 'back to basics'...

“It seems to me the episodes that we’re doing now seem more like classic Who. We’re going back to that style.”

So says Ben Wheatley in an interview with io9. The Capaldi era is being styled as a ‘Back to Basics’ approach (those words being used by Capaldi to describe his costume), with the Radio Times reporting ‘a clean slate’ of storylines for series eight, and a Doctor who – in the words of Steven Moffat – “is not apologising, he’s not flirting with you – that’s over.”

Do you have salt ready? Take a pinch. What does ‘Back to Basics’ mean, anyway, for a show that’s fifty years old and is built around regular upheaval? Is Capaldi going to kidnap some teachers in monochrome? Are there bases under siege? Shall we rip off Quatermass some more? Will there be twenty-five minute episodes? Are the BBC going to burn the master copies of the episodes once they’re done?

The series will be thirteen episodes long, including the Christmas Special, with no break in the middle. There is at least one two-part story confirmed and a present-day family as recurring characters. Structurally, we’re back at the template established under Russell T. Davies, and used by Moffat in his debut run of series five. This is, contextually, the basic Doctor Who is returning to.

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Since the show returned in 2005, this has been the format for the majority of its arcs, and of his three series so far, Moffat’s first is generally regarded as his most successful (certainly it’s Matt Smith’s favourite, the actor noting its relative clarity). Few were complaining about complexity in 2010, unlike later arcs, but it was noted that several strands weren’t resolved within one series. Three years later, most of them were resolved.

This approach is divisive, but as the last issue of Doctor Who Magazine mentioned that Steven Moffat has planned out series nine, we can’t rule out further lengthy plot tendrils (flittering past us in the dark as we lie awake, trying to read too much into the voice that said ‘Silence will fall’ in the TARDIS). Even if the show structure has returned to its more recent conventions, there will probably be one major series arc completed with a few leftovers at the end of series eight.

For all that the Radio Times mentions a clean slate, we’ve still got on-going strands such as Clara vs. The TARDIS and Gallifrey Falling No More to look forward to (with Moffat stating he was working on the former plot strand). With series nine being planned, there might well be two series’ worth of information to retain for the 2015 Christmas Special to make sense. So, Moffat fans: rejoice! It’s business as usual. Moffat haters: prep your DVD collections, it’s going to be a long one I’m afraid.

The plot arcs are one thing. If I were writing this in 1988 they wouldn’t get a mention. Fans had, at that point, asked new Script Editor Andrew Cartmel to watch Philip Hinchcliffe era stories, essentially to instruct him as to what they thought Doctor Who should be like. The Seventies (by which Doctor Who fans often mean 1970 – 1977) are the benchmark for many in terms of quality, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s early tenure being the most beloved part of the original run. Still, while these were processed by Cartmel, he didn’t simply try to replicate them. He couldn’t (lacking the budget, timeslot, leeway and inclination), and Moffat can’t today.

Even if the rumours and buzz coming from the BBC suggest the new series is reminiscent of the Pertwee era, it’s going to be filtered through Moffat’s storytelling, contemporary production methods, and different audience expectations. The Seventies are influential, but they aren’t going to be copied in their entirety. If they couldn’t (and wouldn’t) do so in 1988, they certainly aren’t likely to now.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever get something as amusingly unimportant as a major villain trying to stop the Magna Carta being signed. We’re not going to see the Master turn up mid-series for one episode and kidnap a circus to aid him in his evil schemes, or the Rani accidentally causing the First Defenestration of Prague, without it having some sort of ramification later in the series. That’s how things are structured now: The big hitters are finale villains.

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We might get something like The Daemons – an end-of-season finale from 1971 that would fit into the current format reasonably well – but it’s hard to imagine even that having the scale desired for a post-2005 series. Plus there are different attitudes to violence, gender and monsters now, which means – despite the show now occasionally veering into 12-certificate territory – we won’t have any of the PG-rated Hinchcliffe-era horror, no Kensington gore or Janus Thorns, and certainly no companions in leather leotards.

Unlike Hinchcliffe, Moffat is staying around long enough to change strategy mid-way through his run. It’s likely that he’s done with his contemporary fairy tale approach, his talk is of change. ‘The rhythm has to alter’, he’s said, which ties in with the full length run, but the adjectives he’s used have mainly been describing the new Doctor and not necessarily the overall tone: ‘rawer,’ ‘madder’, ‘fiercer’.

Story-wise, are we likely to be in for a shake-up? Are we going to get some Seventies classics reimagined? Contemporary issues via monster allegories? Series eight has an evil alien banker, so possibly. The UNIT family? We’re definitely getting Danny Pink and a recurring pupil, and at least one visit to Coal Hill School (maybe the Doctor will kidnap some teachers). Rumoured episode title Robots Of Sherwood has hints of The Android Invasion and Masque Of The Mandragora to it, with androids in period costume, but tonally you might expect it to be closer to The Androids Of Tara. This is the thing with back to basics, or even just saying ‘It’ll be more like the Seventies’. Doctor Who‘s basic is that it can do almost anything.

The Seventies, while including the towering peaks of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks’ era, and the Hinchcliffe/Holmes start to Tom Baker’s tenure, also includes Graham Williams’ influential time on the show. Realistically, the relatively light-hearted, high on imagination and low on budget approach is easier to replicate now than Hinchcliffe’s Grand Guignol, disfigured villains, and bursts of violence. Whimsy tends to get you into far less trouble than scarlet stomach wounds.

It’s not useful, therefore, to hope for a specific era of the show to return. To say it’s more like the Classic Series is open to vast amounts of interpretation, and potentially false hope. It will be, at best, an influence filtered through contemporary sensibilities and a different story length. ‘Back to Basics’ only guarantees a return to a 2010 series-structure.

Expect the words ‘harken back’ to appear in many a review, but do not expect the plot arcs, epic finales, temporal shenanigans, romance, gratuitously implausible science, sonic ex machina, and the occasional bout of incredibly uncomfortable sex-comedy to go away completely any time soon.

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