Intriguingly, the announcement of a UK launch of BritBox – ITV and the BBC’s joint “Best of British archive TV” streaming service – also promised that the new service would carry some original programming. What’s the betting, then, that a BBC bigwig is already pondering, ‘Hmmmm, what if premiered the next season season of Doctor Who on BritBox? That would really ramp up subscriptions!’?
Cue indignant outrage from fans! We already pay our licence fee, why should we have to pay again to see our favourite show?
The simple answer to that is: fans don’t own the show. The BBC does. They can cancel it. They can rest it for a year. They can sell the rights to make it to an independent company. Bottom line is, free-to-air Doctor Who has always been a privilege not a right, no matter what the fan outcry. Here in the UK we have to pay extra to view other cult favourites – Game Of Thrones, The Walking Dead, American Gods– so why should UK Doctor Who have a sense of entitlement?
Of course, there’s nothing to indicate yet that the “original programming” on BritBox will even be drama. BritBox bosses could be planning cheap-to-produce comedy quizzes, reality TV or magazine shows. But a drama with a built-in fanbase would obviously be a larger draw, and the majority of the archive content appears to be drama. And with the US version of BritBox – which launched in 2017 – hosting the largest collection of vintage Doctor Who episodes available for streaming anywhere in the world and advertising itself “the exclusive streaming home of classic Doctor Who” (Netflix, Hulu and Amazon having all lost rights to host the series) – Doctor Who is clearly an important ingredient in the fledgling service’s mix.
The BBC could also look at the success of another sci-fi franchise launched in the ’60s that has recently started premiering on a streaming service. While Star Trek may be divided about the artistic qualities of the latest iteration of the show, the debut of Star Trek: Discovery saw downloads of the CBS All-Access app double in the US. Surely Doctor Who could pull off a similar feat for BritBox?
There are many good reasons why the BBC wouldn’t want to move Doctor Who onto a niche service. It is, after all, still one of the corporation’s powerhouse dramas in the ratings. Ignore tabloid reports and online fan arguments about the ratings plummeting; in a landscape of dwindling viewing figures over all the terrestrial channels, the latest series with Jodie Whittaker was still regularly in the Top Ten shows of the week. It remains a show that can create a buzz on social media, and the tabloids are happy to write stories about it, positive or negative. Why would the BBC want to shove a show with such penetration into the zeitgeist into a streaming ghetto. There’s the danger it’ll become a show that reaches no further than its core audience and one of the joys of Doctor Who has been how its constant reinvention allows it to reach new audiences.
However, there could be one significant advantage to Doctor Who moving to a subscription channel. Last year former Who showrunner Steven Moffat admitted that, on a BBC budget, the show struggled to compete with the big sci-fi series on subscription services such as Netflix, Amazon and HBO.
“My memory of Doctor Who is very much a piece of cardboard that he is standing behind,” he told Sitcom Geeks. “That’s the big challenge of Doctor Who now… running the risk of looking as cheap now as it did then, compared to what the rest of TV is doing… Television didn’t used to look the way it looks now. When we watch now, we watch something that’s quite often better than cinema. Have you seen the recent Game Of Thrones? I haven’t seen anything in the cinema that matches their battle scenes.”
Sadly, he’s spot on. The directors and cinematographers for the most recent series made valiant efforts to give the episodes a certain sheen, but there’s little denying that the production values were nowhere near the level of Discovery or Thrones. You can argue as much as like that story is the most important thing, but general audiences these days expect a level of visual sophistication in their sci-fi and fantasy that Who is patently not achieving. The best script in the world can be fatally undermined by dodgy CGI, threadbare sets or overfamiliar locations. Like it or not, spectacle is an important aspect of visual sci-fi. And because of the BBC regulations, the Beeb cannot plough money from Who merchandise directly back into the show.
So while a lot of other current TV sci-fi is looking cinematic, the Jodie Whitaker series of Doctor Who looked little more impressive than Doctor Who did when it returned in 2005. It had some moments of powerful storytelling, but it rarely made you go, “Wow.”
If Doctor Who moved to BritBox, there’s an opportunity for the BBC to pump way more budget into the show as a flagship original piece of programming for the new service. Ironically, while the majority of shows on US subscription services have significantly fewer viewers than Doctor Who, they have bigger budgets – because that’s what the subscription TV business model allows for.
Increasing the “blockbuster” quotient doesn’t mean dumbing down or ejecting current showrunner Chris Chibnall’s love of stories with a a social conscience. It does mean they could be told in a much more epic way. And audiences love their sci-fi and fantasy to be epic. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for more intimate stories like Midnight (eight people stuck in a shuttle) but audiences would soon tire of bottle episodes week in, week out.
Doctor Who could premiere on BritBox with episodes following a week later on BBC One. That way we get the best of both worlds, and for fans who don’t want to subscribe, it’s not much of a wait. No longer than we have to wait to watch some US cult shows.
Perhaps, though, a more likely alternative for BritBox that utilises the Who fanbase would be a spin-off. Hands up who wants to see Torchwood season five? Or a Paternoster Gang series? Or The Adventures of Clara and Ashildr? The irony being that the spin-off could end up looking slicker and glossier than the series that spawned them.