As hard as it may be to admit, Doctor Who has been struggling for quite some time now. A lot of people like to point the blame solely at Chris Chibnall when discussing its fall from grace. While Chibnall’s overall failure to write compelling narratives or realise a coherent vision for the series has certainly fast-tracked the show’s demise, I think the scope of the problem stretches somewhat further than the current head writer. Chibnall isn’t good at writing science fiction, yet even if he were, I think Doctor Who needs something much more than just competent writing at this moment in time. Good scripts are certainly vital of course, but what’s more, a radical overhaul is urgently needed.
Like cinema, television is a tough landscape to write for, mainly because it’s a medium that continuously reshapes itself in a remarkably short space of time. The same is true for cinema of course. If you want a good example of this, watch an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), M*A*S*H (1972-1983), Friends (1994-2003) and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-present). Look at how remarkably dissimilar the tone, humour, subject matter, directing and performance differ from one another. Despite each show airing not long after the previous went off the air, each show feels as though they were produced in parallel universes where taste and creativity operate on contrasting plains.
The rapidity in which television mutates is perhaps one of the reasons why television shows tend to feel dated after a surprisingly short period of time. The pace in which the medium changes can best be examined by looking at long running mega hits, which often start to feel dated after five or six seasons have aired. There are some exceptions to this rule however, and some programmes do manage to find ways of reinventing themselves every couple of years to remain relevant within the public consciousness. Soap operas are usually very good at doing this, shifting their production values, subject matter and pacing to remain up-to-date with the latest audience demands. In addition to soap operas, there have also been a number of dramas that have been able to transition with the times too.
Doctor Who is one of such shows. Nearly six-decades after its first episode aired, the hit BBC science fiction series still remains a cultural juggernaut to this very day. Aside from slipping into obscurity for the best part of a decade during the 90s, here is a show that has managed to fight off the threat of insignificance for well over half a century; fighting off the inventible flow of ageing while it’s many competitors continue to rust with time. One of the reasons for such longevity is down to its ability to shape-shift. Change is baked into the very DNA of the premise. An immortal alien with the ability to cheat death by changing their face when mortally wounded travels through time and space in an impossible vessel is a concept so cobbled together and alchemic in nature, there’s simply no other way to tell such a story without rewriting the rulebook at every opportunity. The ability to rebuild and reinvent itself to operate within the cultural landscape surrounding it isn’t merely a secret the BBC ascertain back in 1963, it’s the whole point of the show.
Regeneration of show’s lead cast is often the first place our mind wander to when we consider Doctor Who’s relationship to change. This of course does play a large part in keeping the show alive longer than most. After all, if it relied on the same lead to pilot the series, the BBC would have had to wrap everything up following William Hartnell’s passing on 23rd April 1975. In addition to the frequent recasting of its lead character, there is another frequent form of substitute lurking beneath the surface of the programme that allows it to morph with the times.
The departure and replacement of creative teams working behind-the-scenes allows for a reinvention stemming far beyond a fresh new face piloting the Tardis every couple of years. Writers, performers, directors, producers, show runners, script editors, composers, costume departments, editors and visual effects teams come and go as the years pass. Doctor Who’s grip has been so influential when it comes to the imaginations of those who fall in love with it, many who grew up with, or found themselves fixated with the premise found themselves pursuing a career as a direct result of this series. While not all of these will go on to work on Doctor Who, this creates a gigantic demand of talent wanting to work on the show, many of whom have been educated and trained to produce content for the time period in which they began studying their craft. Therefore, as the years progress, new generations of talent with a love for Doctor Who and a toolbox of skills for creating contemporary television replace the forerunners of years since past.
Instead of seeing Doctor Who as a continuous serial, it’s perhaps best to understand it as a series of independent shows, connected by a lose continuity, a shared premise and recognisable theme-tune that stretched the brand over numerous decades. If you pop on an episode of Doctor Who from 1963, then watch a story that aired in 1973 immediately thereafter, the tone, style and overall shape of each viewing feels as though you’re watching an entirely different show. Because in many ways, you are. Likewise, if you then pop on an episode from 1983, it’s as though a third completely different science fiction show has been thrown into the mix. While all three episodes may call themselves Doctor Who, in truth, all of them have been cobbled together by three totally independent production teams; all of whom have been trained to work within three dissimilar eras of television.
Doctor Who’s ability to evolve and adapt to the times is perhaps best demonstrated during the March 2005 revival. After remaining off the air for 16 years – with exception to a 1995 one-off telefilm – the BBC opted to resurrect the long dormant series after many years of failed attempts. At the heart of this revival was a man named Russel T Davies. One of the reasons why the 2005 revival was such a staggering success was down to the fact that Davies understood that in order for the show to become relevant again, the foundations of the original series was no longer suitable. Davies therefore went about tearing down and rebuilding it from the ground up. Aside from the basic premise and the iconic theme tune, everything else from the first 40-years of its lifecycle was jettisoned. A completely new model would need to be applied in order for Doctor Who to work again; one that had already been tried and tested elsewhere.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an American television drama that aired between the years 1997 and 2003. During the years it was on the air, the show grew into something of a cultural phenomenon. Not only did a substantial fanbase grow out of the Joss Whedon produced hit, it was also considered by some to be the series that helped television ascend into its golden age. Academics, writers and producers looked to the show for inspiration, considering it to be the winning formula for the age in which it was produced.
Seeing as the revived era Doctor Who began production a year after its final episode aired, Davies saw Buffy’s style and structure as an important template that could be used to propel the show into the 21st century. Davies decision to reconstruct his version of Doctor Who using the same structures and aesthetics as Buffy proved to be a huge success. The rusty old science fiction series that had been assigned to the televisual history books quicky found itself front and centre of the cultural zeitgeist. He hadn’t simply given the show a new lick of paint, he’d given it an entirely new identity that made it one of the biggest things on television in Britain at the time of its release.
Davies’ model was so successful, that by the time he finally decided to call it a day in January 2010, his successors saw little need to reinvent the wheel he’d already reinvented for them. Once Steven Moffat took over as show runner in March 2010, Davies’ model remained more or less completely intact. Series five followed a near-identical style and structure to the four years that preceded it. Although Moffat chose to tinker with the formula here and there over the years followed on from series five’s release – most notably by breaking several series up into smaller parts and removing two parters from the lineup – the overall template never really changed all that much.
Although maintaining Davies’ winning formula didn’t affect the show too much during Moffat’s tenure as show runner – especially the first half – as the year passed, rot gradually started setting in. The problem was, television was moving on. What worked during the late 90s and early 00s was beginning to feel dated, and if Doctor Who was going to remain at the juggernaut at the centre of this medium, it needed to make sure it remained ahead of its competition.
Except it didn’t do this, and as the years, progressed, the show slipped from being the best thing on television, to the not so best. Not only was Doctor Who failing to stand in as the benchmark for other science fiction dramas to follow, it wasn’t even taking any inspiration from any of the competition that was beating it to the number one slot. Of course the decline didn’t happen immediately overnight. In fact despite it having to perform in the shadow of contemporary mega hits such as Game of Thrones (2011-2019) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013), the series still managed to maintain its relevance. Day of the Doctor, the 50th anniversary episode that aired on November 23rd 2013 is perhaps one such moment when the show successfully managed to propel itself back into the number one slot. The 75-minute special teamed Matt Smith and David Tennant’s 10th and 11th Doctors up alongside a retroactively cast war Doctor, played by the late John Hurt. The episode was broadcast in 94 countries simultaneously, earning it a Guinness World Record for the world’s largest ever simulcast television drama event to date. The episode was a ratings and critical success, catapulting the series back into the glory days of the David Tennent years. It was even around this time period that the show started to grow from a domestic to an international success. The release of series five overseas allowed Doctor Who to become a cultural phenomena in the US.
Even in the years following the 50th anniversary special – when criticism for the series started to become a lot less kind – the show still managed to maintain a grip on pop culture to a sizeable degree. Even as the viewing figures dipped and opinion toward the show grew increasingly negative, popularity was still eagerly expressed in the form of blog posts, twitter discussions, YouTube video essays, Comic Con conventions and audience-grabbing announcements of the next Doctor. Despite the shift in popular opinion steadily taking hod, Doctor Who was still adored across the globe it would seem.
The problem is, the show itself was becoming less and less exciting as each series aired. From 2014 onward, general opinion was beginning to become less positive as each year passed. Excitement for upcoming episodes fizzled out, and even when exciting new announcements were made – such as the casting of the show’s first ever female Doctor – the overall buzz of a brave new era piloted by fresh new talent wasn’t enough to keep people feeling optimistic. The change that had been crucial to Doctor Who’s rejuvenation was there, only this time, something seemed to be missing. These new faces weren’t bringing anything revolutionary to the table, relying on the foundation Davies had rebuild back in 2005. Sure, they’d repainted a couple of rooms and decorated the main entrance with some sparkly new trinkets, only they weren’t doing all that much about the rot setting in. This magical, charming, impossible show that had regenerated into something endlessly dazzling back in the days of 2005 was feeling a little dry. Like dear Harriet Jones, people were starting to think Doctor Who was looking a little tired.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes to modern television isn’t so much the shift in style from that of 2005, but more how we consume television today. The rise of Netflix and Disney+ has skyrocketed the demand for content, not to mention the ways in which we consume it. The introduction to the most recent Marvel and Star Wars shows have elevated this demand to an unprecedented level. Not only were we now entering an era where television shows like The Mandalorian (2019-present), Loki (2021-present) and Wandavision (2021) were offering TV projects with visuals competing alongside cinematic releases, we were also finding ourselves in a world where vast fantastical spaces now play out over a grand strand of various canvases. 13 standalone stories airing once a year with a vague story arc stringing it all together no longer felt bold enough when it came to the scope of a television project. Instead, audiences were becoming use to the idea of narratives overlapping and interlocking as they unfolded.
This put shows such as Doctor Who in an extremely difficult position, especially when they don’t have the same budget or resources available to realise such an ambition on the same material level that Disney+ can. Except the multifarious and interconnected model Disney+ use on Lucasfilm and Marvel project was kind of trialed by Davies on Doctor Who long before the Hollywood heavy weights started using it. In fact, it’s perhaps fair to say Davies was one of the first people to pioneer the model considered to be standard in today’s world.
Following on from the 2006 series of Doctor Who, the BBC released a spin-off called Torchwood (2006-2011). The show took place in modern day-Cardiff, following directly after the events of series two’s final and incorporating a number of plots and characters that had already been established in the mother show. Most notably, ninth Doctor companion Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) transpired to be the leading man piloting this series. Torchwood’s debut series – funnily enough ran by current Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall – proved to be a massive success, so much so that Davies bridged the gap between series one and two of this spin-off by having its protagonist feature in the 2007 series final of Doctor Who.
While all this was playing out, Davies had also commissioned a second spin-off titled The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007-2011), featuring classic Doctor Who companion, Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen). While Torchwood served as a more adult oriented version of the Doctor Who, The Sarah Jane Adventures served as something of a polar opposite to this, targeting a younger audience on CBBC. The show ran until Elizabeth Sladen’s passing in 2011, and like Torchwood, proved to be a huge success with audiences
By the time 2008 came around, Davies penned what can now be considered a trial run of Marvel’s Avengers (2012). Four years before Disney had made interconnected narratives a mainstream thing, Doctor Who’s fourth series in the revived run saw all the previous story arcs and spin-off shows culminate in a bombastic final episode. At the time, all this served as a semi-swan song for Davies, who was a year and a half away from leaving the show. Today, it looks more like a bold attempt at innovating a model of story telling that wouldn’t be seen in television again for the beset part of a decade.
In an interview carried out at the start of 2021, released when Doctor Who’s future felt far from optimistic (Chibnall’s departure was yet to be announced), Davies comment on how the formula he experimented with during his time as showrunner should probably be the bedrock for the series in today’s age, especially considering how its direct competition is now using it as standard practice. The interview at the time seemed like a former showrunner voicing his opinions on a programme he no longer had a stake in. Today, it feels more like a manifesto for his return.
On the surface, it may have appeared as though Davies was implying the 2005-2010 iteration of the series which he’d put together was the definitive version pivotal to its future. Except on closer inspection, this doesn’t seem to be what he was implying at all. Instead, what Davies was doing in this interview was recognising Doctor Who’s place within the modern televisual landscape whilst identifying what its direct competition is; Marvel and Lucasfilm. He’s not saying they need to look and feel like Star Wars or MCU, he’s saying Doctor Who needs to be as ambitious as them in terms of its scope. Perhaps this is a truth the BBC didn’t want to recognise, particularly considering how much such a truth raises the stakes in terms of what needs to be done in order to make the programme a cultural juggernaut again. Nevertheless, if the show wants to be the biggest sci-fi/fantasy series on the market, it has some pretty colossal competition on its hands that it needs to take on.
Ever since 2009, Davies has been adamant he has no intention to return to Doctor Who. In Benjamin Cook’s remarkable book The Writers Tale, Davies confesses that the BBC pushed for him to stay on for series five, fearing the departure of both he and David Tennant would send the show into a state of decline. Despite their pleas, Davies was adamant that he was done. During interviews following on from his departure, his stance was more or less always along the lines of he’s done telling Doctor Who stories. While this weeks’ announcement may well feel like a dramatic U-turn, his return may well hint at something much bigger and more exciting than this.
Despite being in the business for over three decades, Davies has managed to remain consistently relevant and up to scratch on television’s ever-changing landscape. He understands the medium he works for better than most. This is why following on from his time on Doctor Who, he’s continued to find success in mega hits such as Cucumber, Tofu & Banana (2015), Years and Years (2019) and It’s a Sin (2021). His continued success at masterfully crafting contemporarily relevant dramas, not to mention his frank description of Doctor Who’s place in 2021 is the result of a mind that remains a master of his craft. All of which seems to clarify his reason to return to Doctor Who over a decade after he called it a day.
Some may presume Davies’ return hints at the show attempting to regress back to an era that’s long since passed. While there is a chance such an awful thought may be true, it’s very unlikely. In fact, his return looks more likely to be hinting at the complete opposite of this. He’s not here to continue the version of Doctor Who he departed from in 2010, but to reboot the show from the ground up. Don’t expect a revival of the David Tennant era, expect a complete jettisoning and restructuring of everything we’ve familiarised ourselves with over the last 16 years.
Davies knows the show needs to change, he also knows the world it’s trying to work within has changed. He’s identified the competition and the sort of ambition it needs to adopt in order to work. While we don’t know for sure whether he’s constructing a vast Doctor Who universe that’s rife with spin-off shows, it’s probably fair to say he has a good idea on how to rebuild the franchise so it can at least take on the giants keeping it off the top spot. Whatever his vision for the second Russel T Davies era is, I’m betting it’s vast and radical.
For over a decade, the show has failed to reinvent itself because of its reluctance to depart from the Russel T Davies era. The irony now is, the only person who can liberate it from the trappings of its recent history is the man who created that resent history in the first place. After years of telling everyone he has no intention of returning, it looks as though his knowledge and understanding of the changing world – not to mention Doctor Who’s decline – has triggered a germ of an idea. That germ has been gestating and taking shape for quite some time now it would seem. With imminent departure of a current head writer who has struggled to do anything remotely meaningful during his time on the show, coinciding with a vision that’s sprung from the mind of a man who thought he was done with this franchise, a chance to save a dying beauty has been born.
As is probably evident by now, following Friday’s news that Russel T Davies will be running the show again from series 14 onward, I am beyond delighted. As already mentioned, Davies understands television drama better than most. He also knows how to write cracking television. Most importantly, he’s not the sort of writer to take on something for the hell of it. His return signals a brilliant talent with a vision waiting to be realised. After years of burnout and misfires, Doctor Who looks as though it’ll be falling back into a safe pair of hands once again. After so much fatigue and hopelessness felt toward this once-dazzling programme in recent times, the future of Doctor Who looks promising once again.
In addition to this, it’s nice to see so much positivity shared amongst fandom once again. While I’ve not had much good to say about Doctor Who since at least 2017, the general negativity felt by fandom across the globe hasn’t been something to relish in. I adore Doctor Who, and I hate the fact that I and others within this particular sphere walk away from most episodes these days with not much good to say about them. I’m not the sort of fan who likes to complain about shows I claim to love, nor do I love reading others validating my pessimistic outlook toward a series that holds such an important place in my heart. Therefore to see fans from various backgrounds and outlooks once again singing in joyous unison has ignited a feeling of warmth I haven’t felt for some time now.
Watch this space. Doctor Who is coming back baby, and it’s going to be fantastic!