Wednesday 22 November 2017

It won't be the Daleks that get Doctor Who, it'll be the writing

Doctor Who stars Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman return in the new series
Doctor Who stars Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman return in the new series

DOCTOR Who is in trouble.

 It might not appear that way if you concentrate solely on the numbers on the BBC’s balance sheet, which shows that the series is swiping up roughly €81 million a year in overseas sales.

And that’s without factoring in all the other stuff associated with the programme: the toys, the books, the annuals, the magazines, the radio dramas, the webisodes, the kiddies’ clothing. It just goes on and on.

It’s the biggest, fattest, most fertile cash cow the BBC owns, even more profitable than Top Gear — which might not be quite so profitable in the future with Chris Evans behind the steering wheel.

It’s no longer just a mere television series; it’s become a global phenomenon. The first episode of a new season is considered such a huge event, fans around the world are happy to pay in to a cinema to see something they could just as easily watch in the comfort of their own homes.

The lovable nerds in The Big Bang Theory, the most popular sitcom in the world at the moment, let’s not forget, name-check Doctor Who on a regular basis. Meanwhile, the Christmas Day specials — several of which haven’t been particularly special at all, if truth be told — are regarded as the shiniest bauble hanging on the Beeb’s tree.

That honour used to belong to Only Fools and Horses, and before that The Morecambe and Wise Show, but now the corporation builds its entire festive schedule around the adventures of a 2,000-year-old time lord who has two hearts and gets around the universe in a time machine that looks a defunct police call box.


Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi wants to see some of his musical heroes in the TARDIS
Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi wants to see some of his musical heroes in the TARDIS

It’s been one hell of an interstellar journey for something that began half-a-century ago as an educational programme for children, was unceremoniously dumped from television in 1989 (the ratings were terrible and then BBC boss Michael Grade hated the series) and endured one failed revival (a middling 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann and co-produced by Universal), before being resurrected to great acclaim in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston as the new Doctor.

But it’s the figures that aren’t on the balance sheet that matter: the ratings. A recent episode of Doctor Who was watched by fewer than four million people, the smallest UK audience it’s recorded since the relaunch 10 years ago. Four million is still a considerable number, but it’s a worrying slump nonetheless for a series that, up until the end of the Matt Smith era, could confidently expect to pull in between six and seven million viewers on a Saturday evening, with two million or so more catching up with it on the BBC iPlayer.

When the audience for Ripper Street dipped below the four-mill mark, the BBC axed it. Doctor Who is most probably safe from cancellation for now, but for how long more can it ride its lucky streak? Reaction to last year’s run of episodes, the first to star Peter Capaldi, was distinctly mixed, while the actor is rumoured to be feeling the strain of a punishing filming schedule. Don’t be surprised if he becomes the rebooted version’s second shortest-serving Doctor after Eccleston, signed up for a single season.

For some of us, however, the fundamental problem with Doctor Who at the moment is not the star but the writing. The scripts, and particularly the ones written by showrunner Steven Moffat, are so deeply mired in the character’s lore and mythology, they’re frequently impenetrable to all but the most fervent fanboys.

Neither the Daleks nor the Cybermen have been able to vanquish the Doctor. Moffat, however, risks doing just that.

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