Thursday, November 05, 2015

Doctor Who and the Dropped Bollock

Date line: April 2023: London
In October, Doctor Who will be celebrating its 60th anniversary and Fox, which owns the franchise, has hinted at some of the things lined up to commemorate this momentous occasion.
Current showrunner, Andi Peters - former CBBC presenter, who replaced Neil Gaiman when the BBC sold the rights when viewing figures dropped below 2 million, has announced Fern Cotton as the 15th Doctor with Tiny Tempah as her sidekick.

Okay... This is as likely as Jeremy Clarkson voting Labour and Britain winning Eurovision, again. But...

Doctor Who is struggling. Five years ago the franchise rivalled Clarkson’s Top Gear in terms of lucrative saleability and while it still does, in its country of origin it is facing an uncertain future.

The current season is pulling in about 4.5million viewers, compared with 11 million at its peak and an average of 7.5 in recent years. Critics try to be magnanimous while simultaneously ripping thin stories and anally-retentive nods to die-hard fans, much of which goes over the heads of average viewers, but not enough – causing confusion, bemusement and bewilderment in equal measure; if the viewer is actually paying that much attention to it.

There is an argument that has simmered for decades in the USA about the real reason networks and cable stations preferred dramas to be no less than 5 and no more than 7 seasons to make money through syndication. The actual reason seems disappointingly banal and almost unrealistic in 2015 – it was easier to sell as a finite package with a specific number of episodes, allowing cable and syndicate channels to easily schedule re-runs within a 12 month window. In 1989, when I read this ‘reason’ the world was much different than it is now and the model, at the time, was Star Trek: The Next Generation, which the last time I bothered to look was the most successful syndicated television series of all time and for a while in the 2000s was playing somewhere in the world every second of the day.

Over the years people have argued that quality usually dipped after 7 seasons; the ‘soap opera’ factor kicked in and it stopped being a finite-ongoing story, but many series were in their death throes by the time season 7 came along. 

There is also the belief that very few TV series sustain an audience for more than 7 series and only extraordinarily well-patronised series can keep their audiences – Supernatural, now in its 11th season and apparently still going strong, is a good example. Most great TV is extremely finite, knowing that brilliant drama is like a firework. Therefore it never outstays its welcome.

Doctor Who is one of those weird exceptions to just about every rule in syndication and TV’s rulebook, because it has this unique ability to reinvent itself as the same TV series every time we get a new doctor. It is genius; a completely brilliant TV concept that by its very nature is unique because nothing can copy the concept without being accused of copying the TV show. There might have been 13 different versions of the Doctor since 1963, but he’s been the same character for all 52 years, he just wore a different face and everyone was open and almost blasé about it. We call it regeneration.

When Christopher Ecclestone became the Doctor there was something so visceral about it, so different, post-modern, almost deconstructualist about his portrayal, you excused some pretty poor production because of the standard of the acting, the lack of wobbly sets and its very ‘urban’ feel. It had winner written all over it.

Russell T Davies was a Doctor Who fan and therefore, in many ways, it – the show - just picked up where it left off and the first and probably most major ball was dropped. If you’re reinventing something for a new audience, you should only keep all the nods to the past as plot devices for future stories. The Doctor has met the Autons before – but instead of taking it for granted that 75% of your audience hasn’t ever seen DW before so hasn’t a clue about them or their origins and, more importantly how the Doctor knows them, they presumed that DW legend was simply passed down in the DNA and 9 year olds wouldn’t be just a little bit puzzled, even if they are aware that this was a TV series when their dad was the same age – they could have told a story in flashback, later in the run, with maybe another actor playing a different version of the Doctor – familiar enough to the die-hard fans, but new to those who don’t want to sit through years of drek just to know what a Sontaran is. You establish he was someone else as well.

Yes. What I’m suggesting is they should have started like it was the beginning and treated the majority of the audience age group the show was aimed at like it was a new show and not an updated version. Where else in the world would you expect an entirely new audience to come into a show 40 years after it started and know the history or even understand references to it?

The 40th Anniversary bollocks – not the three Doctors special, but the lead up to the regeneration. Dropped ball #2. Here was a chance to start all over again, win a new audience and keep the older new audience happy, and maybe caring about the Whovians. Whatever Jenna Coleman’s Clara is, there was a moment in the series, during the last days of Matt Smith’s reign, where she became one with the Doctor’s time-line and was responsible for him taking the specific Tardis he took back when the Doctor was William Hartnell. All of this was necessary to prevent Richard E Grant from erasing the Doctor from history or something like that, but... they could have had a younger version of William Hartnell – a Peter Capaldi – and Clara takes him from Galifrey and becomes, for the benefit of continuity, his daughter, or granddaughter. They start again in an old yard in the early 1960s when a suitor of Clara’s follows her home from school – where she teaches rather than is a pupil – and Doctor Who begins again. They could even have used the old episodes as templates while updating and using their newer 21st century creations. Introduce the villains to a new audience; be retro or completely redesign – the slate should have been cleaned.

It’s a time travel show, what would be more perfect than creating a situation where you got to relive your life over again without knowing you’d done it, but having a companion who knows everything?

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