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May 27, 2008

"Is there a place for Doctor Who on TV in the next decade?"

279The first modern issue of Doctor Who Magazine I read was issue 279 dated 30 June 1999.  I’d recently seen the (sadly now closed) exhibition in Llangollen  and cheered by news from the sales clerk that there was to be a new series I decided to see what I’d been missing.  On the cover was a really amusing picture of Tom Baker riding a push bike and a CD about that so-called new series – actually what turned out to be the often excellent audio dramas from Big Finish.

Inside there was what’s now considered a rather prescient round table interview (on the occasion of the release of The Phantom Menace of all things) with fans who were then working as writers or story editors in the television industry, in which they were asked what should happen in the unlikely event that a new version of the series would be launched.  What’s rather exciting in hindsight are the six men that then editor Gary Gillatt chose to interview, five of whom would go on to write for the new series, four of them in its opening season.  Two of the interviewees would also go on to be show runners.

The odd one out is Lance Parkin, who despite writing some of the most respected spin-off novels and audios and the chronology Ahistory has yet to write for the television series (which is frankly bizarre since his work has clearly influenced it some degree).  Of the rest, Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss and Gareth Roberts have all given us episodes and in the middle of them are Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat!  Predictably Davies has most to say for himself and makes a lot of sense to the point that I even quoted him from here in a college essay.  Much of his opinions of what should be done did come to pass – an Earth-centric approach with more emotion-led stories and death at every corner.

‘What is Doctor Who?’

With the change in regime, Moffat’s contributions have perhaps become more important since they could give an indication as to the future direction of the series.  Fans have already begun speculating about the extent to which he’ll make changes come 2010 and how his approach will differ from that of Davies.  I think it’ll be less major than some suspect – the format’s unlikely to differ too radically and it would be strange if Davies didn’t decide that he wanted to keep writing the odd episode.   Much of what Moffat says in this interview is in tune with Davies, in fact.  He sits out the first question (see the title to this post) but is the only one to offer an answer at to whether it can continue as a regular weekly series (something which was by no means certain in 1999): 

“Well we have to ask the fundamental question ‘What is Doctor Who?’  What demand does it supply?  What audience does it serve?  Now, a few of you might not like what I’m going to say next.  Grip the arms of your chair, grind your teeth and wrap your head around this … Doctor Who is a children’s programme.  No ifs.  No buts.  Definitely!”

"Doctor Who is a children’s programme.  No ifs.  No buts.  Definitely!"

To Moffat it’s the best kids programme ever made but that fans have become rather loopy about having to deal with its non-adult nature by pretending it was made for an older age group and then disregarding out of hand any era that didn’t conform to that view.  It’s really a children’s show which adults “happen to love”:

“But ‘Ah!’ I hear some sobbing imploring, ‘a large percentage of the Who audience were adults!’ Well therein lies Doctor Who’s special place on television.  It was the handover show.  It bridges the gap between the kids shows of the afternoon and the adult shows to come.  Its perfectly judge of ‘safe’ horror for the kids (the monsters) and great jokes for adults (the monsters) allows the schedule to run seamlessly from afternoon to evening.”

The landscape of television’s changed somewhat since this interview.  Children are watching soap operas in ever greater numbers and which are sometimes even more violent than Doctor Who ever is, even now.  But that idea of it being the crossover show still stands and despite his feelings about the target audience, that’s something that is sure to continue on Moffat’s managership.  He agrees that it should be broadcast in the BBC:  “The truth is, if someone cracks the right was to resurrect this show, I very much doubt the BBC will allow anyone else to broadcast it.” So it won’t be heading to Sky any time soon, then. 

On the question of an ongoing storyline, all agree that if there is an arc it shouldn’t overpower the weekly stories and just be there underneath, perhaps coming to a head at the close of the season.  “I don’t think we should assume too easily that change is necessary” says Moffat “The thing about Doctor Who is that it was perfectly designed to be what it was.  I wouldn’t want to make grand changes to the format, because that format was really, really good.  I’d just want to ensure that the approach was right and targeted on the right audience.”  Story arcs were a feature of the old show, albeit in a rather more diffuse manner and often were simply a reason to try new things rather than to keep the audience on the edge of their seat as happens now.  Which will Steven go for?

“I don’t think we should assume too easily that change is necessary”

The subject of what should be kept in the series, Davies and Moffat are also largely in agreement, at least in relation to chucking out as much continuity as possible, particularly the existence of Gallifrey.  “I don’t care where the Doctor came from or why he travels around the universe” Moffat explains, “I just want him out of those TARDIS doors and having adventures.  Us kids want Narnia, not the wardrobe.”  He returns to the subject of the target audience again: “Children are no respecters of reputation and are bored by tradition, so keeping faith with the past they never knew means nothing.  They want, and are entitled to, their own hero and their own show.” 

Cleverly, the new series was a continuation and a reimagining but what’s interesting is that some kids are exploring the past of the show and actually rather like me in 1999 discovering a whole wealth of mythology which has been introduced slowly over the past four years.  One of the seismic shifts has apparently been the appearance of Peter Davison in Time Crash with the character appearing in the kid-friendly Doctor Who Adventures magazine and sales of fifth Doctor related stories increasing – which is a great turn around from what was initially apparently a depression in sales for merchandise related to the classic series.  I wonder what they made of Timeflight.

Perhaps the most fascinating answer from Moffat is in regard to who the lead actor should be:

    “Although I loved Peter Davison and Paul McGann – probably the two best actors in the role – I don’t think young, dashing Doctors are right at all.  The Doctor should always be a but more Picard and less Kirk.  He should be forty-plus and weird looking – the kind of wacky grandfather that kids know on sight to be secretly one of them.  I thought Rowan (Atkinson) was perfect, if a little on the young side, because kids have always loved him…”

"I loved Peter Davison and Paul McGann – probably the two best actors in the role"

Given that both Davison and McGann have added some age and are both still relatively famous could either return to the role.  It could be easily explained, a slip in time perhaps, and would have the advantage of giving an in-story reason for the Doctor to go beyond the well established thirteen possible incarnations.  But would the BBC go for an older actor in the role these days given the impression Tennant’s made in the role?

At the end Gary asks for any final thoughts: 

“The way you’d know you’d got it right would be if the 11 year-olds all jumped up and down and said it was the best show ever and all the sadder Doctor Who fans muttered that it was no longer serious adult drama like it was when they were 11.” 

Which is exactly what’s happened.  For those of us still delirious with excitement there are probably dozens who don’t considered it to be their show anymore which is of course their loss.  As Russell T says at the very bottom of the article:  “God help anyone in charge of bringing it back – what a responsibility!” Oh irony – but now that he’s moving on, it’s good to know, judging by this interview at least, the show is in safe hands.


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