What next for Saturday night UK family drama?

From Primeval to Merlin and Atlantis, Doctor Who's return spawned a host of Saturday teatime dramas that have since disappeared. What next?

It’s Saturday night. BBC 1 is showing Doctor Who. It does this a lot, generally speaking, and has done on and off (sometimes very off) for over fifty years. When the show returned in 2005 it brought with it the realisation that there was a huge family audience un-catered for on Saturday nights, and unfortunately Doctor Who was only on air for a quarter of the year, so it couldn’t do it all by itself.

ITV quickly realised it needed to attract that audience too, and while it had gameshows that dominated the schedules it didn’t have anything like Buck Rogers In The 25th Century or The A Team to put up against the BBC this time. And time was of the essence: new shows had to be developed quickly in response to a sudden and hitherto unsuspected demand, whereas Doctor Who was developed slowly and honed specifically for its slot.

The resulting shows, unsurprisingly, varied in success and quality, but none of them will be on the air when Doctor Who next broadcasts. Even with the weight of history behind it, Doctor Who’s continued existence – never mind success – is clearly a remarkable feat.

There have been some moderate successes in response to Doctor Who, and though there’s been some love poured into their continuation (Tim Haines’ attempts to keep making Primeval, for example), they haven’t got the head start of affection that a continuation or a reboot has.

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It’s surprising that ITV’s scheduling of Thunderbirds Are Go! on Saturday evenings was a one-off, then, as that’s a timeslot that really could have capitalised on the cross-generational appeal. Once Atlantis finishes in May there’ll only be Doctor Who left.

The first show to join Doctor Who was 2006’s Robin Hood, mooted as a possible drama prior to Doctor Who’s broadcast but not confirmed until after that first series’ success. Robin Hood may have lasted longer had its cast not been so upwardly mobile. Lucy Griffiths, David Harewood, Lara Pulver, Harry Lloyd and Richard Armitage (the heir apparent to Colin Firth levels of smouldering) are more familiar faces than they were at the show’s start. Its other trump card, though, was Keith Allen’s none-more-Keith-Allen turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham.

As it was, with lead actor Jonas Armstrong’s departure announced a year before broadcast, viewing figures for Series 3 were significantly lower than before, and after discussions about a possible fourth series the show was cancelled.

Still, Robin Hood had demonstrated that there was an audience for new takes on legendary tales, as long as the show could keep its cast together.

Merlin managed a five series run with its main cast largely intact. A Merlin-based drama had been kicking around the BBC for a while, with Chris Chibnall’s Camelot one possibility (it was eventually made for US network Starz). After Doctor Who, the Arthurian series became a likely candidate for sharing that timeslot.

Unlike that of Robin HoodMerlin‘s third series rallied in the ratings, and its average audience increased for the fourth. Also – without wanting to start a .gif war on Tumblr – it gained a more active fandom than Robin Hood, and despite denials from the writers, it definitely provided more tempting ship-bait. It also had the benefit of magic in its universe, giving it a broader canvas than Robin Hood, as well as more interesting relationships between its characters. Five series on the same channel it started on is impressive going, as is choosing to end the show on a high.

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It wasn’t surprising that the some of the same people – Johnny Capps, Julian Murphy and Howard Overman – tried to do something similar with Atlantis, but it was inevitably difficult to repeat the success. After five series, Merlin’s detractors had noticed its tropes and formula, and so when a new series came along with a similar style it felt as if the programme makers hadn’t learned a lesson from ending Merlin at its peak: get out before the viewers get bored.

Continuing with effectively more of the same in a different location was never going to cut it for long, especially in a direct replacement. Atlantis, in its first series, was simply weaker than Merlin, and failed to grip enough of its large opening audience. Despite an improvement in its second series, the show was axed.

At the time of writing, the BBC has not announced a replacement for Atlantis. Perhaps it’ll be an original idea (well, combination of ideas) with a lead from an under-represented group, but history teaches that it’ll be some white guy doing slow-motion flips while dressed as Aladdin. Or possibly there won’t be a replacement. CBBC’s Wolfblood, BBC Three’s Tatau and distinctly non-teatime drama Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell notwithstanding, anything with a Fantasy tinge to it this year appears to be coming from ITV.

An adaptation of Beowulf is currently being filmed, but we don’t know yet if it will be aimed at a family audience or play later on the schedules. Its creative team have worked on shows ranging from Wallander to Strikeback to Primeval, but it seems to have been a reaction to Game Of Thrones by ITV rather than Merlin and Atlantis. Adaptations of Jekyll And Hyde and Frankenstein (the latter starring Sean Bean) have also been announced. Those of you with memories of Demons – ITV’s last family orientated fantasy drama – may be hoping the channel has learned its lesson. Demons was from the same creative team as Merlin and Atlantis, who aren’t attached to any of the new roster, but history suggests they should stick to shows that begin with ‘M’.

Most of these ideas are based on existing stories, which is obviously an ongoing trend in TV and film at the moment, which brings with it an inflexibility, a built-in set of limitations adding up to an inherently finite storyline. The only original idea put onto our screens in a family viewing slot during the last decade is Primeval: it incorporates monsters, adventure and time travel, but also includes an ensemble cast of original characters. There are limitations, sure, but not as many as if they’d chosen to do a version of, say, The Lost World.

It means the show has lasted for five series across different channels and financial backers, and that casting changes haven’t made the same impact they have on Robin Hood. The show’s called Primeval, not Nick Cutter Isn’t Really Moving On With His Life. It can keep going when the show’s lead leaves without having to resort to regeneration, but also has enough leeway for the show to change more seamlessly. While it never quite pulled in the same viewers as Merlin, it was an ITV show that the makers of Doctor Who respected and admired, and that its originality remains something of an anomaly in the recent spate of family dramas is bewildering.

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After the last ten years of Doctor Who, then, there are two shows that stand out as successes. Managing to combine longevity with a loyal fanbase and lasting beyond their initial dips, Merlin and Primeval may seem tiny in comparison to Doctor Who, but in the current TV climate getting to five series is an impressive feat. It’s a shame that nothing has really been built on these successes, that family TV has failed to evolve any further. Adrian Hodges, the co-creator of Primeval, was until recently the head writer on the BBC’s The Musketeers series, which could plausibly have been a family drama, but has been scheduled away from that slot.

Doctor Who is not as influential as it was when it was novel, back in 2005. Now Game Of Thrones looms larger as an influence, Fantasy and Science Fiction feel darker, and that’s reflected in the subtle move away from PG/12 rated shows into 12/15 ratings, nearer the watershed and away from family friendly slots.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if ITV’s new shows reflected this trend, leaving Doctor Who as the last show standing. Ask any parent who watched Thunderbirds Are Go! with their children, though, and they’ll tell you there’s still an audience out there.

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