Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Where Doctor Who could go from here

 So, it's official: Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall are leaving next year. After five years, but only three seasons, we'll have a new Doctor and a new showrunner. It's about par for the course for a Doctor, and Chibnall has stayed in charge for about as long as Russell T. Davies, albeit with far fewer episodes under his watch. It's confirmed that we'll have a single serialised story next year (originally announced as eight episodes, now apparently reduced to six), followed by three specials next year which will see the big changeover.

I'm sorry to see Whittaker go. She's not my favourite incarnation, by any means, but there have been moments of brilliance from her. Her first episode showed so much promise, but since then I haven't felt she's really had a fair crack of the whip. She's still not had her "I am the Doctor" moment where everyone stops doubting her. Chibnall... well, I was very concerned when he was appointed showrunner, but was willing to be proved wrong. He's managed that, to an extent. Certainly, there's been some great stuff these last two seasons, and it's not hit the depths I was worried it would under Chibnall (except "Orphan 55," which was appalling), but it's never held together the way even the weaker seasons under RTD or Moffat did. 

Who we have as showrunner next is completely up in the air. Pete McTighe seems to be the popular choice, and he could be very good, but I'm unsure what to expect from him. Mark Gatiss is a possibility; he's been "too busy" to write for the show lately, apparently, but might be tempted to act as showrunner. It would doubtless be a very old-fashioned take on the series. J. Michael Straczynski has put his name forward, which is interesting. He didn't get anywhere when he did the same for Star Trek, but his timing was bad (the Abrams movie was on the horizon), and while I'm no big fan of Babylon 5, I'd love to have him on the strength of his work on The Real Ghostbusters. The biggest barrier is probably his being American. Funny to read people bitching about Chibnall's "woke agenda" and also championing JMS. If they think it's going to be less woke under him, they should watch Sense8 and rethink their stance.

We should probably get someone British but not another white bloke. The Britishness of the series is a big part of its appeal overseas, but we need to mix it up - get some different perspectives. As for the Doctor, I imagine we'll have a non-white actor at last, although I think it's likely they'll have a man in the role. Having the lead be a POC and a woman would be too big a step for the BBC to risk, I suspect. But then, who knows?

Every fan, of course, has their own foolproof plan for how to revamp the series. While we're all doubtless miles off what we'll get, here are a few ideas for how things could progress.

The serial approach

I was thinking of writing an article on my view that a more serialised approach to the series was the way to go... and then they announced Series 13 will be a single serial. This seems eminently sensible. While there have been serialised elements in the series since 2005, it's still been largely standalone stories of one or two episodes that sometimes cross-reference. Television, particularly streaming exclusive programmes, has embraced the serialised format that encourages binge-watching. American Horror StoryStranger ThingsStar Trek: Picard and the Marvel series all take advantage of this. 

Individual episodes can be simple chapters of the story, or individualised instalments that add up to a greater whole. The serial doesn't have to be long; Loki ran to only six episodes in its first season, and was essentially a version of Doctor Who with a budget. There's two ways to go with this: a single serial per season, as with the above examples, or a series of serials each year, more like the old Doctor Who model. Oddly, slipping back to the older model, with more episodes of shorter runtime, might be the best option, allowing the budget to be stretched effectively but making a significant impact. Each serial could even be made available all at once, rather than the once-a-week model that is starting to become old hat.

The TV movie approach

At the other extreme, we could have something akin to 2022's promised set-up, with a few feature length specials per year. Sherlock did something similar, but reduced its footprint by bringing each run of three out in a two-to-three-week period. Spreading the movies over the year could make Doctor Who more of an event series, with ninety minute, self-contained adventures with a big budget spend. An expanded universe of support series, such as we had back in the RTD days with Torchwood and SJA, could maintain interest between releases.

The sidestep approach

Plenty of people have been calling out for Jo Martin to be cast as the Fourteenth Doctor, and its easy to see why: she made a huge impression during her brief appearance in "Fugitive of the Judoon," presenting a completely different way to do a female Doctor and, it pains me to say, rather overshadowing Whittaker. However, I feel many fans' reasons for wanting this is so that it would retcon the Timeless Child reveal by removing the implication that Martin is a pre-Hartnell Doctor. Unlike some, I'm a fan of this new element of the show's mythology (although the execution was rather flawed), feeling that it opens up all sorts of new avenues for the series to explore. That doesn't mean we can't have Martin back as the star of the show, though. Rather than regenerate the Thirteenth Doctor straight away, we could step back in time for a couple of years and explore the Fugitive Doctor's adventures as she works to undermine the Division. Again, though, would the BBC risk a black woman headlining their show, given the vicious reaction so many fans have had to the more diverse series so far.

The anthology approach

Every time a Doctor leaves, some fans start clamouring for their favourite actor to come back to the role. David Tennant's hardcore fans insist the series can only survive with him back in the role; others think it's beyond time that Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor has a proper series. This smacks of backwards-looking self-sabotage. The series needs to move forward to survive, not get mired in the past. And yet... one way it could work is a spell of one-off serials or series, each with a different lead actor. Whether they were in the main continuity of the series, or slipping into alternate realities, this could give earlier Doctors the chance to come back for a brief spell, and for big name guest actors to take a turn at the role without committing to a long-term contract, as with John Hurt's star turn in the fiftieth anniversary special. 2023 could star Jo Martin, 2024 Paul McGann, 2025 someone entirely new.

The ensemble approach

We're used to the series focusing on the Doctor, with a companion or two or three, and maybe the occasional Doctor-lite episode centred on a different character. It doesn't have to remain this way, though. Many sci-fi and fantasy series have large ensemble casts, with no clear lead, or a lead that shares the limelight. Many viewers feel the three companion set-up of the last two series was a mistake, and while many episodes have struggled to find enough for all the characters to do, this hasn't always been the case ("Praxeus" sticks in my mind as an episode that managed the various characters successfully). The larger ensemble shows tend to work around this difficulty by having longer runs and focusing on a couple of characters per episode, with the others running background duty or or even disappearing for a week or two. For my money, DC's Legends of Tomorrow might be the best template for this approach to Doctor Who: a relentlessly fun and very silly time travel series with characters from throughout time and space. Doctor Who could use new or established characters this way to manage a long season of varied adventures.

The reboot approach

Having built up almost sixty years of (often contradictory) continuity, it could be argues that it's time to wipe the slate clean with Doctor Who. The opportunity to start afresh, cherry picking the best elements of the previous adventures but jettisoning anything unwieldy or unappealing could make the show more palatable for new viewers. The showrunners could even go for an "Ultimate Doctor Who" style series that goes back to the programme's roots, retelling the earliest stories in a more modern style. 

On the other hand, this just seems unnecessary. Doctor Who is a series that essentially reboots itself every few years anyway, without ever actually cutting off the past altogether. Anything the current showrunner wants to ignore is happily forgotten, leaving them with decades of material still to draw on if they want, while recasting the lead and restyling the show. Still, dropping all references to the past, at least to begin with, could make the show fresher and less alienating. The weight of the series' past continuity has becomes overwhelming in recent years. That doesn't mean that the past has to be overwritten, though, simply that it can be left alone for a few years. 

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