Where should Doctor Who go next?
Doctor Who survives on its ability to evolve, not just in face, but in structure. A few ideas on how the show once again regenerate are presented in this piece
Us Doctor Who fans, we do like to complain don’t me. No, not really. A small amount, certainly. But most, me included, just want what’s best for the show. Nothing pleases me more than knowing its audience is enjoying it as much as I am. But, unlike most shows, it doesn't just end when it runs out of its creative juices. It’s reborn… Regenerated; a new Doctor, new companions and new writers are semi-frequently brought on to give the show, and The Doctor her/himself a new lease of life. So the question I ask today: Where should Doctor Who go next?
This type of narrative is more and more becoming the norm throughout TV Sci Fi/Fantasy Drama. Your Game of Thrones, His Dark Materials, Star Trek Discover and more have adopted a point of telling one story across a series. Doctor Who regularly has an arc that can be seen in it’s episodic stories, but as of yet, it hasn’t truly employed a serialised style of storytelling.
I’d imagine this idea of telling one narrative thread across all episodes is daunting to Who. The selling point of the show is The Doctor (and friends) going from place to place having one to two episode adventures (post 2005). We have been led down arcs that play out consistently throughout multiple episodes; such as the likes of Utopia, The Sound of Drums and Last of the Timelords; these three episodes are a clear demonstration that this format can work. Utopia takes place in the far flung future, where the universe is all but instinct, but by the end of the episode, the story pivots back to 21st Century Earth with thrilling results. Serialised storytelling needn’t limit the scope of the story, needn't limit the locations and time periods visited, it merely provided a stronger narrative thread, which a modern audience crave. As Moffat proved in his era, singular stories can spread across time and space, but sometimes these felt rushed as they only had one or two episodes to do so, but extend this, and you give the story room to breath, and give the audience time to connect.
Another key component of Doctor Who is its companion. How do they fit into this function? Well, for starting of this serialised version of Who, make her/him part of the narrative. This could take any form, Doctor Who is limitless in his story ideas as it can be anywhere and anywhen. Modern Doctor Who always works at its best when it focuses on its key component, the companion. Just think of episodes like Listen, Turn Left, Partners in Crime; the world we follow the Doctor through is the eyes of the companion – there’s a true sense of their life outside of The Doctor, but it’s her/his appearance that throws all of that off kilter. The companion being used the compass to guide the direction the entire show takes has and always will be the shows greatest narrative creator.
The Doctor Who world has let loose with this idea before, Torchwood: Children of Earth fabulously utilised serialised storytelling. Of course, this was designed for a post-watershed audience, but the alien threat at the heart of the story, and the human reaction to it, was the core reason this show worked. We were given the time to understand the situation, be fully engrossed in the world, and attach to all of the characters.
Keep it current
No, I don’t mean stay in the 21st Century for this, but I do mean make sure the show addresses the world we exist in. Series 11 and 12 (Chris Chibnall, Jodie Whittaker) have made light of this, spreading messages of global warming, immigation, workers rights and mental health across their series, but as i’ve mentioned before, sometimes the main issue they have is the element of time. There’s no time to build to a culmination of what’s happening in the story. Orphan 55 (series 12) had a strong concept at its core but lacked the build up to the reveal that the planet that has been devastated was in fact Earth. That core idea could be great if you give the audience time so see how it happened. When considering this idea, Russell T Davies Years and Years (2019) is a great example of this. That potential to tap into our current fears and use them against us in a dramatic way is a staple of what Doctor Who does well, so using the world we have here and now against us has to be used effectively.
Strip it back
When Doctor Who returned in 2005, the show did something bold - it took Galifrey, and with it, The Doctor’s history, off the map. The show took the time to slowly reintroduce little bits of canon back into the show, but a clean slate is why it worked, and now, with 12 new series of history behind it, it’s starting to feel heavy again.
It did appear Chibnall was going to cut the fat off the show again by (spoilers) re-nuking Gallifrey. However, this now seems to be with the purpose of building a story around The Timeless Child and editing Who-Law, which he is free to do. I know, i know, a lot of fans get upset with the fundamentals of The Doctor’s beginnings (her/his canon) is tampered with, but sometimes these steps are a necessity to keep the show ahead of its audience. Maybe this storyline will end with the universe fundamentally changed and simplified, it’s just taking the long way round, I couldn't say at this point - but perhaps, in whatever and whoevers era comes next, the show needs to step away from Time Lord law, and The Doctor’s past with it, and give the show fresh new history, new ideas - approach The Doctor at a significantly different stage in her/his life; a world where Galifrey isn’t his most pressing issue. Who knows, maybe he could even forget it.
“Where are you from, Doctor?”
“I stopped asking that a long time ago.”
If you want him to be the wandering traveler, why not make him truly homeless… in time and in mind.
Time to stream
Another one not everybody is going to like. But it’s time. I’m wary of suggesting this, but selling or collabing with a streaming service might give Doctor Who the best way forward. In doing this move, selling to the likes of Netflix, Amazon, or HBO Max, you could be adding budget, audience, scope and casting opportunities to the show. It’s legacy could be it’s unique selling point, but you’re also offering the show a fresh start.
You could have a Marvel/Sony/Fox type of deal set up, whereby, if the character isn’t used for a certain amount of years the rights could slip back to the BBC, but either way, the BBC continues to have their brand on Doctor Who, it just loosens up budget issues and viewing figure interrogation week-on-week.
Similar to Apple TV or HBO Max’s model, the show could still be streamed on a week-by-week basis, thus avoiding serious spoilers, but allowing a more global reach. Honestly, despite your thoughts on this, it would unquestionably create press, a move such as this would be hard for media to resist, and marketing will unquestionably get a boost for a season or two.
Of course, all of the above are hypothetical and loosely thought out ideas, but judging the development of ‘television’ landscape right now, there has to be some change coming for the show. Doctor Who’s greatest asset is its ability to change form dependent on the time it’s in. The show has lived on its ability to drastically reinvent itself, and now that time has come again.