Doctor Who is Dying (And The BBC Are To Blame)

Where We’ve Been

I adore Doctor Who with all of my heart and I have done for the past 15 years. It has become my comfort show, always there for me even when I feel like nobody is. I’ve seen a lot of people criticising the show in my time, both fairly and unfairly, but I’ve never really discussed my own opinions on it beyond that I like it. I rarely stray from the positive vibes that I’m attempting to put out into the world but I feel like, in this case, I can make an exception. Before we begin, I’d like to state that a large part of this is theory built upon what we know, and a fair amount of scepticism. I pray that I’m wrong, but this thought has been circling my head for some time now and I feel like it’s worth putting to page.

I think the BBC is trying to kill Doctor Who… Again.

First, a little history. From 1974 to 1984, the show was at the height of its popularity. Both Tom Baker and Pete Davidson, who played the 4th and 5th Doctor respectively, were popular with viewers before Colin Baker took over as the 6th Doctor. This is where the issues began. Baker is a wonderful actor, however his portrayal of the titular Time Lord was filled with spite and malice. This, coupled with what many saw as an increase in violence, supposedly made studio executives very nervous. After his second series, which aired in early 1985, the BBC put the show on an 18 month hiatus before returning in late 1986 with a single story airing over 14 episodes titled Trial of a Time Lord. It was not received well, and in 1987, after Baker’s 31 episode run, Sylvester McCoy began his tenure as the 7th Doctor which lasted for 42 episodes. At the time of the show’s cancellation in 1989, the head of BBC Series was Peter Creegan and the controller for BBC1 was Micheal Grade. They both hated the show, with Grade being responsible for the 18 month hiatus, feeling like the show was cheap and old fashioned. After being relegated to varying timeslots week after week, citing falling ratings, Doctor Who was put on hiatus with the BBC promising it would return soon. It would return for a TV Movie in 1996 before entering a hiatus once more.

In 2005 the show officially returned, with Russel T. Davies at the helm and, for one series, Christopher Eccleston as The Doctor, before the role was taken over by David Tennant. It’s no secret that once they left in 2010 the show’s popularity declined, and whilst Stephen Moffat was showrunner these ratings remained fairly low. However when Chris Chibnall took over in 2017, the ratings began hitting an all time low, although I don’t think this is entirely his fault. One of my largest issues with the show is the increasingly large scale series finales, which peaked under Russel T. Davies, and which felt a little forced under Stephen Moffat. Both showrunners very last episodes felt like the could serve as an ending to the show itself, especially Moffat’s which includes the First Doctor, making it feel like the show has ‘come full circle’. This episode, titled Twice Upon A Time, aired in 2017 and I have my suspicions that the BBC considered cancelling the show at this point. Moffat had given it an ending and the viewing figures were at an all time low. Even if they cancelled it, there would still be all of the merchandising and overseas sales to make a profit on, which I suspect is where the bulk of money relating to the show comes from anyway. However, the 60th anniversary was only 6 years away. I speculate that the BBC chose to prolong the death of the show in order to air a 60th anniversary episode, because the 50th anniversary episode pulled in the most viewers the show has ever had (10million in the UK alone).

2017 was an interesting year in other areas of the BBC, namely leadership. Since 2007, the body in charge of the corporation was the BBC Trust whose sole aim was to act in the interest of the licence-fee payers. Much of the BBC’s money comes from the fee of £145.50 per year that they charged at the time people to view programmes live. This changed slightly in late 2016 (whilst people behind the scenes were attempting to dissolve the Trust) when the law changed, meaning that access to the BBC’s on-demand service also required a TV Licence. In 2017, the BBC Trust was replaced by the BBC Board, which comprised of various people, including former Conservative politicians and bankers. I’m not getting into politics, but Conservatives are not known for being progressive, unlike Doctor Who which has always been progressive. The revived series in particular has given us several queer characters (one of whom got their own spin-off show) and people of colour (two of whom entered the TARDIS as a companion).

Enter Jodie Whittaker. I don’t deal with change very well, and having a female Doctor was a significant change so I was initially hesitant. However, I soon grew to love her iteration of the character, despite some lacklustre writing. Many bigots claimed that her casting was “THE BBC GONE WOKE” and that they were “PANDERING TO THE SJWS” which is an unacceptable view to have. Fans of the show had been calling for a female Doctor for a couple of iterations by this point, and I feel like casting Jodie was, in some small part, allowed by the BBC to keep the fans of the show happy. It might have worked on me had they not completely under-utilised her.

Where We Are

Sine Doctor Who‘s revival in 2005, the standard amount of episodes per series has been 13. This has decreased to 10 episodes per series under Chibnall, with Series 11 airing in late 2018 and Series 12 airing at the beginning of 2020. It was also relegated to the notorious Sunday night slot which nobody pays attention to. It feels as if the BBC were trying to make the series as difficult to watch as possible, and feels eerily similar to how the show was treated in the 1980s. Alongside this, it feels like the BBC has not made a real effort to market the show. During the RTD era, and into the Moffat era, we were treated to entire pull-outs in the Radio Times with synopsis for each episode and the guest star of the week. There were extra episodes online, on the Red Button and during Children in Need. Doctor Who Adventures magazine began its very popular syndication, as did spin-off shows like Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Class. At the height of the show’s popularity was the 50th anniversary in 2013.

The 50th anniversary episode, titled The Day of The Doctor, featured the 11th and 10th incarnations alongside the newly introduced War Doctor played by the late, great Sir John Hurt. It was centred around fighting a Zygon army in the present whilst simultaneously ending the Last Great Time War in the past. No expense was spared and the episode aired simultaneously in 93 countries on TV and in cinemas. It brought in 12.8 million British viewers, 2.4 million American viewers and $10.2million at the worldwide box office. The prologue episode, Night of the Doctor featured the return of Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor whilst the tie-in parody The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot featured Peter Davidson, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (Doctors 5,6, & 7) bemoaning how they weren’t asked back for the special itself. Even Tom Baker, the 4th Doctor, who was 79 at the time made a cameo in the anniversary episode. The collective gasp in my local cinema from fans remains a cherished highlight. It’s difficult to convey to anybody who wasn’t there but it was an outstandingly large deal. If the 60th is anywhere near as large, the BBC should consider themselves lucky.

San Diego Comic-Con 2021

The world has been at a standstill for over a year, and there hasn’t been a new episode of Doctor Who since March 2020. That’s 17 months. However there is hope of some new information in the form of a Doctor Who panel at SDCC 2021 which, due to the global pandemic, has been pre-recorded and will go live on Comic-Con’s official YouTube channel. This panel will feature Chris Chibnall, Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill and John Bishop as well as a mystery special guest. It will be the first time that John has had a chance to speak about his character Dan, who will be new to the 13th series and whose last name has not been revealed, which in turn led to some theories about former companions he could be related to. This is on us, the fans, for becoming too convinced by our own theories. What isn’t on us is how hyped we were for the special guest. The official Doctor Who accounts had hyped it up for several weeks, making it clear that this person was a big deal. Perhaps it was Jo Martin (The Fugitive Doctor), Sacha Dhawan (The Master), David Tennant (The 10th Doctor) or a companion of Doctors’ Past. This special guest was the most hype I have seen from the fanbase and the most marketing that I have seen from the BBC, in quite some time. There was a lot of enthusiasm going into this panel.

What we learned was that the special guest was actor/songwriter Jacob Anderson who will be playing the new role of Vinder. I’m not familiar with his work, but he was in Game of Thrones, so I know that this will have excited a group of people. However a large portion of the fanbase were understandably disappointed that all of the hype had been for a new character. This does not excuse the people who sent Jacob angry messages and death threats. I can’t believe that fandoms are still having to have this discussion in 2021, but harassing a celebrity for a decision you disagree with is unacceptable behaviour especially when it is not the fault of the celebrity. From the interview he gave, he seems genuinely passionate about the role and is delighted to be a part of Doctor Who after being a fan for many years. I wish him nothing but the best.

We also learned that Dan’s full name is Dan Lewis. As far as I can tell, this surname holds no bearing in the history of the show so I have no idea why this information wasn’t presented with John Bishop’s announcement. Next we were provided with some information about Series 13, and it seems interesting to me. Given the pandemic, a full series run (of 10 episodes) was out of the question but a series of 8 episodes had been commissioned which was great news. This was better than getting no Doctor Who at all. During the panel, Chris Chibnall announced that the series would only be 6 episodes long which is 2 episodes shorter than he had previously said it would be, but it’s better than no Doctor Who at all. Then he informed us that this series would be one story split into 6 chapters. I’m not adverse to this idea, and I think it’s a really interesting way to shake things up, but it’s difficult not to compare it to Trial of a Time Lord especially when the show’s run is already so comparable to the first time it was cancelled.

Then came the trailer. I’ve seen a large amount of defence, but I’ve mostly seen it being criticised as not giving us enough information and I agree with the latter take. If you enjoyed the trailer, I’m happy for you—if not a little envious—and for your excitement, but I personally didn’t feel like the trailer gave us enough. The trailer itself was 40 seconds long and showed us shots of the core cast either standing around or running. There was one shot of an aerial chase and a couple of shots of locations, but no monsters and no release date. I saw someone online claim that fans who didn’t like the trailer have been spoiled by the long, exciting movie trailers that we get currently, but I think that’s wrong. I personally am not a fan of current movie trailers, but setting them aside, let’s compare the Series 13 trailer to trailers from series’ past. Since 2005, each trailer for a new series has featured the monsters and locations we are going to see, as well as a returning character if there is one (it’s usually a Dalek). These trailers all run at around 1 minute in length but still pack in plenty of frames for fans of the show to dissect. This is true for the first trailer for every new series since 2005, except for Series 11 which really emphasised how new everything was. There was a return to form for the Series 12 trailer, which featured 5 individual monsters. I’ve seen some say that if you’ve paid attention to production then you already know what monsters are going to be in Series 13 so they don’t need to put them in trailers. The majority of people have not seen these set leaks, but let’s say for the sake of argument that they had: it would then make no sense for the BBC to continue hiding this information from the public. This happened before during filming for Series 4, when it was let slip that Rose Tyler would be returning, so she got inserted into the trailer.

Every time an initial trailer for a new series has been released, there are usually 3 months before the series actually airs. However it would have been nice, given how little we know about Series 13, to be given an air date at the very least. I wouldn’t class it as essential, but as a courtesy. It’s returning in “late 2021” but, by looking at past trailers, I think it’s safe to assume that the series will begin airing near the end of October. This is nearly 18 months, which puts it equal will the longest official hiatus the show has ever had, but I suppose I can wait several months and find out what the series is about when it airs. I’m going to be honest, I was upset after the panel but what happened next was much worse

Where we Continue To Be

It had been 3 days since the panel and I was in Glasgow, en route to a family wedding. It had been a really nice day with plenty of shopping and I took the opportunity while queuing in a shop to check Twitter. There it was, at the top of my news feed. Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker are leaving Doctor Who in 2022 with 3 specials, including a feature length finale, airing that year. I had been contemplating writing this piece over the past couple of months but this is what finally pushed me over the edge into writing it.

Firstly, I have to wonder why the announcement was made 3 days after a Comic-Con panel, which are designed for announcements like this. This panel was supposed to be about the future of Doctor Who so perhaps they should have informed us about the biggest change coming to the show. Furthermore, I wonder why this announcement was made at all. Jodie and Chris still have a series and some specials left to go, and I feel like this announcement really undercuts that. We should be focussing on them and the stories they are trying to tell, but instead the public discussion has turned to who will be replacing them. To put it bluntly, this move feels disrespectful to everybody currently working on the show. The person I feel who is being disrespected most by this move is Jodie, who over 4 years, will have received just 31 episodes. By the way, that’s exactly the same amount as Colin Baker. They both deserved a chance at more. In an interview to the press, Chibnall stated that he and Jodie had made a pact of “3 years and out” but that sounds like it should be 3 full series.

The biggest question left hanging over us is what happens to Doctor Who now. Who will be the new showrunner and Doctor? What will Series 14 and the 60th anniversary look like? Is Tasmin Cole staying for another series as Yaz? And, more pertinently to this piece, what would I like to see going forward?

Where We’re Going

When it comes to casting the next Doctor, I don’t think there’s a single option where the BBC pleases everyone. If they cast a man, it makes it look like casting a woman in the role was a mistake, but if they cast another woman they will continue to be blasted by people who think the show is too woke. Ideally, I want another woman as The Doctor and it should probably be a person of colour. Due to the lore of the Fugitive Doctor, I think that casting Jo Martin is out of the question (unfortunately), but maybe Lydia West (It’s A Sin) or another rising star. I don’t think The Doctor should be played by somebody with Hollywood level fame because Doctor Who isn’t just another role. It should be of huge importance to whoever gets the lead and should open doors for them. The actor/actress should also be British, because the show is quintessentially British. I also think they should have theatre experience, because this is a theatrical show and The Doctor is a theatrical character. A trans woman would be really cool, and a continuation of the progressive stance the show has always had, but I suspect the BBC are too cowardly and nobody would willingly throw themselves so openly to the transphobic wolves.

As important as the main role is the role of showrunner, which has been Chris Chibnalls job for the last several years. Since Doctor Who came back, it has been run by fans of the show, and I think that this is a tradition that should continue. I also want somebody who is going to write the show as a spectacle instead of a TV Show. One of my largest issues with Chibnall is that Doctor Who felt like a run-of-the-mill TV show with drama and static cameras. The screen should be filled with enthusiasm in the acting, the words and the camerawork because The Doctors life is chaotic and messy. I’ve always had a slight issue with Doctor Who falling under the “BBC Drama” umbrella, despite it being a large and vague umbrella, because this show should be primarily science-fiction. This is a show that I was made fun of for watching because it was seen as weird, but I didn’t care because I loved it. The show should be proud of how weird it is.

I’d argue that there is a 3rd job we should be talking about and that is the role of composer. When the show was revived in 2005, it was alongside a phenomenal score by Murray Gold and the London Symphony Orchestra. The show did not rely on the score, but it elevated every single scene it was used in. It was what helped Doctor Who be great instead of good. Murray left in 2017, and his duties were passed on to Segun Akinola who is a well accomplished composer himself. However, his bass-heavy score feels like it’s just a score, and I feel like it’s missing the heart and “oomph” of the show. There was no announcement as to whether he is also leaving so, if he stays, I would like his music to convey whatever tone the show has next.

And what of the 60th? I think it’s a fair assumption that we’ll receive an anniversary episode, especially considering how popular the last one was. It may be helmed by whoever takes over as showrunner for Series 14 or by a former writer for the show, but I can’t settle on what form I want it to take. Many fans would like a multi-Doctor story, like we’ve had so many times before, but I’m not sold on that concept. It’s either going to be massive, with all 14 Doctors, or small with just 2, and I feel like a small scale one would work best. The thing is that these have both been done before, and within the last decade at that. My favourite option, before the announcement, was another TV Movie. The Doctor faces off against an old enemy that we haven’t seen since the classic series, such as the Time Meddling Monk, and is drastically injured in the process. She regenerates very early on, much like the original TV Movie, but (crucially) the marketing doesn’t spoil this. We’d know going in that The Doctor is going to regenerate, but we don’t know how soon. The majority of our plot is a brand new Doctor chasing down The Monk in a story like The Chase but more concise and exciting. I’d have liked that, and I think the fanbase would have too.

I think the main thing I want now is a TV Extravaganza Panel, similar to the one they did when Peter Capaldi was announced as the 12th Doctor (but not live in front of a studio audience). Get together as many people as possible from the 60 years this franchise has been going and have Christopher Ecclestone host it because he deserves to be highlighted. Just walk down memory lane, show off surviving props, allow for banter and just pour as much love into it as possible. None of us want to be thinking about this, but there will be members of cast and crew who won’t be around for the 70th anniversary. Tom Baker will be 99. I don’t even know if the show will still be on the air by then. There’s every chance that, if I’m right, it won’t make it far past the 60th. Whatever form the 60 anniversary takes, I want it to be full of the love and excitement that has allowed Doctor Who to survive for so long.

I adore this dumb little show and writing about it has been the most emotional that I’ve gotten in quite a while. It has led me to do research and listen to soundtracks and become more invested than I ever was. When I tell you that, based on theories and evidence, I think the BBC is attempting to kill the show, it fills me with nothing but sorrow. Even if they aren’t, I don’t think Doctor Who gets as much love as it used to. The fans are still here, and over the course of the pandemic we banded together in a way that we should all be proud of, but there is divisiveness. This kind of divisiveness exists in all fandoms, but to see it in this one hurts more. We’re all here for the same reason. We all like Doctor Who. Even with falling ratings, we’re all still here. I know that some of you have been here since the shows debut in 1963, since the high point of Baker’s era in the 1970s, since the return in 2005, and since our first female Doctor in 2017. Some of us have seen a lot, and some of us not so much, but we’re here because we fell in love with stories of a Time Lord travelling the stars. Even when the show ends, we will still be here and I think that’s beautiful.

How does this show end? I hope it ends the same way every episode over the last 60 years has ended. The Doctor steps into their TARDIS before disappearing into another adventure. The show can end, but The Doctor will always be out there.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

One thought on “Doctor Who is Dying (And The BBC Are To Blame)

  1. I don’t really agree that the BBC are “trying to kill Doctor Who” this isn’t the 80s, if they were trying to kill it they wouldn’t commission an extra special nor would they make sure it could film during a global pandemic, this show is incredibly important to the BBC – something Piers Wenger has said himself.

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