When we talk about Doctor Who, it’s hard to not feel that the last five years haven’t been the greatest for the show. Creatively it’s been all over the show, with even the most die-hard of fans struggling to keep track of Moffat’s bizarre (and sometimes forgotten) story arcs. The BBC seemingly aren’t interested in backing the show fully either, with attempts to reduce series numbers and shuffle the show awkwardly round the calendar. It’s no wonder that with the news that 2018’s series of Doctor Who being possibly delayed until late in the year, many fans are beginning to ask if its even worth following the show anymore.
The relationship between the BBC and Doctor Who has always been precarious. There’s numerous tales of BBC management starving the show of money throughout its original run, attempting to force the show off the air as it didn’t fit their mold and was expensive to produce. Yet the show limped on into the 1980’s – where it finally fell to these pressures and was ultimately forced off the air. Years later, the BBC needed big names to fill out its Saturday evening lineup. With ITV striking big with Pop Idol and X-Factor, the BBC decided to bring Doctor Who back into the fold.
This 2005 revival was everything it needed to be. Christopher Eccleston was the perfect anchor around which the show settled; exuding enough camp and grounded seriousness to make his turn as The Doctor memorable. His on-screen chemistry with Billie Piper hooked viewers and, while the quality of the writing in some parts of Series 1 left something to be desired, the show overcame this through sheer charm. When Eccleston abandoned the show after a year, David Tennant took the mantle and the show never really looked back. Under his tenure, the show became a cultural icon; Doctor Who was cool and it was one of the biggest television shows around. Spin-offs like Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures were natural extensions of this popularity. People wanted Doctor Who and they were willing to consume it however they could. By the time David Tennant announced his departure, the show was white-hot, selling merchandise like crazy and still pulling in the big ratings.
Then the BBC started messing around with it all.
The decision to stagger David Tennant’s final year as The Doctor across four episodes was arguably the first fumble the show made. The momentum that had pushed the show to the forefront of pop culture began to evaporate. It was deemed a necessary evil by the BBC – both as a cost cutting measure and so Tennant could return to the theater. The problem is this gave the BBC ideas for how the show should be run moving forward. Matt Smith’s Season 5 was a decent sophomore season, but it would also be the only season under him where he managed a full, uninterrupted 13 episode run.
With audience figures slowly dropping, the BBC attempted to curb the shows budget. The series, that typically ran for 13 episodes, were now being cut up and reduced as much as possible. Series 6 saw a huge break in the middle of the season, while Series 7 was split into two distinct halves and staggered across two years. It was a terrible idea and ultimately robbed the show of any momentum it had. Audiences lost interest and the viewing figures for the show have never recovered. The shows 50th Anniversary was used as an attempt to revitalize things; but with Matt Smith leaving, that didn’t last long.
Capaldi’s run has been OK but ask a casual television viewer about his tenure and you’ll likely be met with indifference. The reality is that Doctor Who hasn’t been doing so well, and the causes of this go all the way back to the BBC’s handling of the series. Their poor handling of the series and attempts to save money have bled the series dry, putting off fans and arguably damaging the show beyond repair. You’d think that with the show being such a money spinner for them, the BBC would gladly throw up the money to at least have a regular series on the go, but even now there’s heavy talk of 2018’s series being pushed back into the Fall period. That means that after a year of no Doctor Who series, there’ll be another 18 months before audiences get to see it regularly again. That’s insanity.
Without momentum, a television show is doomed to fail. Popularity is a fleeting mistress and if handled poorly, even the greatest shows can sink like stones. One of the reasons CBS’s Big Bang Theory continues to pull big audiences isn’t because of the shows quality (Which has hilariously nose-dived consistently over the last 6 years) but because audiences are familiar with the schedule. CBS don’t cut the order of the series or mess around with the shows format. Audiences know what to expect, and it creates repeat viewings. Compare this to the likes of Hannibal, which critically were hugely successful but was forever being moved around the schedules. Audiences didn’t have a hope of following the show unless they went out their way to do so – and most won’t.
With Doctor Who, the decision to move the show around the schedules ultimately hurts the show. Sometimes it airs at 5:30pm in the afternoon, yet sometimes the tone shifts completely as it moves closer to the watershed. Audiences are thrown for a loop – and it puts kids off if the show airs too late – those same kids who the BBC is marketing toys and games too. It’s a weird position for such a well known show to be in, and underlines just how confusing the BBC line on the entire thing has been. Which leads me to the other problem; Moffat.
Quite why the BBC has allowed Moffat to turn Doctor Who into a such stylized serial I’ll never understand. Where the earlier series were characterized by pop culture references and fairly easy to follow story arcs, Moffat’s tenure as show runner has created all kinds of problems – from inconsistent tone to the show runner himself being unavailable as he balances Sherlock and Doctor Who. Perhaps though its the quality of his writing that has really let the entire show down. Series 7 was widely panned for its poor quality of episodes, while Series 8 attracted similar ire from the wider fan base. Even his most famous input into the fandom, River Song, has become a convoluted mess of threads.
Honestly it might have been better for everyone all around if Moffat had bowed out of Doctor Who earlier, allowing someone else to take on the burden while he worked on Sherlock. As it stands, this bizarre balancing act has robbed the show of the sense of fun it once possessed. There are great episodes, don’t get me wrong, but there’s no buzz around the show.
Maybe it’s time for the BBC to just come clean, and give the show another break. With Series 10 marching down the line towards us, it’s probably the first time I’ve not been excited for a new run of Doctor Who episodes. With Capaldi stepping aside and so much change about to land – maybe the BBC should really itself if its willing to commit to a consistent and well thought out Doctor Who? If it isn’t, maybe it would be best to leave it alone for a while. Let audiences miss it enough that they can bring it back.