Doctor Who’s been struggling as of late. Its ratings have slumped, it’s been criticised as overly political – even “propaganda” by some, and with the season finale of Series 12 (The Timeless Children), has received MAJOR backlash from even the more diehard of Whovians.
Most amazingly, is the amount of scorn levelled at showrunner Chris Chibnall, who’s been judged as “destroying decades-old history,” and “disrespecting the legacy of William Hartnell.”
The question is, what went wrong, and how can other franchises avoid a similar fate?
KNOW YOUR FRANCHISE PHILOSOPHY
“Doctor Who? That’s just the point, nobody knows precisely who he is, this mysterious exile from another and a distant future whose adventures begin today. But this much is known: he has a ship that can travel through space and time – although, owing to a defect in his instruments, he can never be sure when and where his ‘landings’ may take place.” – Radio Times, November 21st 1963.
All great franchises need a core philosophy, something that unites a fandom and serves as the bedrock for its storyworld. This is especially important for multi-platform franchises, as that philosophy needs to endure across media.
I believe this Radio Times review of the first ever episode of Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child best encapsulates the core philosophy of Doctor Who: they’re an alien wanderer who travels through time and space – simple and effective.
Sure, as time went on the franchise would develop, it would be revealed that he was referred to as a “Time Lord” and was from a planet called Gallifrey, there were other aliens out there like the Daleks and Cybermen, and their species can “regenerate” – essentially giving the character a new actor, costume, and personality. It’s this last part that meant the series could endure for decades with essentially the same character and continuity and was established as early as 1966.
Yet, we’ve reached a point in the decades-long run when fans are outraged, posting YouTube videos about how current showrunner Chris Chibnall has disgraced the decades-long legacy of Doctor Who, how anything after Peter Capaldi (the 12th Doctor) isn’t canon, and how their “Done with it,” and how “Doctor Who is Dead!!!”
This isn’t just conjecture or a few angry Whovians. Looking at the ratings, there is a big slump. The season 12 finale drew in only 4.6 million viewers, and an average of 5.3 million viewers in consolidated figures – including downloads, streaming, and live airing.
That’s the lowest since its 2005 revival, and a far cry away from the 2008 peak of 8 million average viewers with the final episodes of Russel T. Davies. Now we have one of the companions leave amidst the poor response, and a drastically polarising Rotten Tomatoes score between the audience and critics.
So what went wrong?
JUMPING THE CYBERMAN
The Timeless Children is an episode that has already gone down in infamy with Doctor Who fans.
The Doctor isn’t technically a time lord – kinda. A little girl fell through a vortex and was discovered by a scientist (tecteun). She experimented on the child and saw it could regenerate – changing appearance, gender, and overcome death. It was essentially immortal.
The Scientist experimented to discover how the child could regenerate, and eventually repurposed their DNA to give herself, and others, the ability to regenerate; founding Time Lord society.
But most importantly … that child was The Doctor, and there are supposedly countless pre-William Hartnell doctors out there, and her memory was just erased.
… this hasn’t gone down well at all – being heralded as a “Last Jedi Moment” for the franchise.
There were talks back in the 80s of doing something similar. There was a plan for the Doctor to be something called “The Other” – a sort of founding, special Time Lord … I think? It didn’t really go anywhere.
Many are outraged at this canonical change to the franchise’s decades-long history. A common word I saw thrown around the internet was that was “disrespectful” to William Hartnell, the series, and the fans.
Hartnell is no longer the First Doctor – not by a long shot, and fundamentally contradicts the franchise philosophy. The Doctor is no longer some mysterious alien travelling the universe for fun and adventure, they’re now the most vital aspect of Time Lord civilisation and the lynchpin in their history. The philosophy and history of the show has been ignored by this single showrunner – and that’s why fans are upset.
This raises a ton of plot issues too. Why did Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor need more regenerations? Why was Ruth’s Tardis shaped like a Police Box? How does River Song come to be when it was previously confirmed that exposure to the Time Vortex gives you the ability to regenerate? Why did Clara not uncover any of this when she jumped into the Doctor’s Timeline? Why would a young girl of colour, turn into a young Asian girl, an Asian boy, and a Black boy early on, before deciding to be a White guy for the next 1000+ years? Why did all the Time Lords just treat the doctor like he was just “some other guy” instead of revering him as a god or genesis to their race???
… No doubt there’ll be more plot holes uncovered soon.
But this does supposedly mean that the Morbius Doctors are canon … not sure that was ever something anyone cared about, but OK.
As a response, the BBC issued this press release:
WHY FANS MATTER
Doctor Who’s taking on a foe more powerful than any Dalek, Cyberman, or renegade Time Lord – the ratings.
Fans are an important part of franchises. Whilst I agree no franchise should exclusively cater to them, they do matter when it comes to capitalising off of an IP and directly engaging with them. Although, I personally found the adventures with the David Tennant’s 10th Doctor feel like the most accessible and reached the broadest audience without too much bogging down in continuity.
Today, the relationship between fans and their media is more direct than ever before. Technology means we can stream a series anywhere, we can engage with it on social media, and we can turn to games, graphic novels, and apps easier than ever before. For a franchise to succeed, it needs to deliver on that fan engagement.
What’s happened here feels reminiscent of the Game of Thrones finale – ignoring characterisation, continuity, and plot points to deliver something that failed to satisfy fans. The response is also similar. It’s not misplaced outrage, it’s a feeling that a show failed to deliver on an investment instead of just “they changed it so I hate it.” Unlike Game of Thrones, Doctor Who is a fifty-year investment.
Fans put time, effort, and even money with the promise of a good experience that remains true to what’s come before. When it delivers, you feel like the showrunners didn’t respect your time and investment.
Of course, there are other issues that need to be addressed, before we can determine the best way to remedy this.
THE WEIRD WORLD OF THE BBC – A TAX-FUNDED GLOBAL FRANCHISE?
This is something I’ve seen more in the American response to the series, but it has raised questions about the state of state-run media in a global free market economy – a unique scenario for a franchise of this size.
Compared to studio franchises like Marvel, Harry Potter, The Purge, Mission Impossible … whatever, they are designed to get the maximum number of people to pay and watch. Money is on the line. If people like it, it gets more money. If they don’t, it gets less – simple economics.
But if Doctor Who “fails,” then there’s far less consequence, as it’s already being funded by the taxpayer – it’s already been renewed for another season despite more people tuning in for Antiques Roadshow at this point.
I personally wonder about the role money has on creativity. But it does put the BBC in a weird position. In theory, absolutely nobody needs to watch Doctor Who and they could still produce it as a sort of “national icon.”
It makes sense for a state-owned property to want to promote tolerance and diversity; which is far from a bad message. But that comes at the cost of a compelling, nuanced Sci-Fi series. After all, you couldn’t have a character ever challenge a positive message of inclusivity and social equality, could you?
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
As a franchise, the Doctor Who TV series is still the biggest tentpole for the franchise – with graphic novels, radio dramas, and merchandise all spinning off from it. Honestly, I find these spinoffs explore the series with much more nuance and complexity – specifically because they are made for Sci-Fi fans, and they’re designed to make money off that fanbase. I personally recommend the Big Finish audiobook series with Derek Jacobi reprising his role in “The War Master” and challenging the altruistic motives of a companion who only wanted to do good – far more layered than anything we’ve seen on television in the past five years.
In fact, I recommend looking into a number of these spinoff; even the ones with Jodie Whittaker’s controversial Thirteenth Doctor have more depth and charm than what she’s given to work with in the script.
The last time Doctor Who had ratings this low, it was during the 80s when the writing for Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor struggled to find an audience. The writing was more politicised, they had an unsubtle stand in for Margaret Thatcher in an episode, there were talks of revising the Doctor’s origins, and eventually it was cancelled.
But that cancellation gave it time to re-emerge as a mainstream success and find new life as a modern Sci-Fi television series, with a bigger budget, greater acting, greater writing, and the politics took a back seat to Sci-Fi tragedy, comedy, and story.
The Transmedia Wilderness gives me hope that this series can find a footing again. As for the controversial reveals of The Timeless Children, dumber stuff has been retconned before (the Doctor was also half-human at one point in the 1996 movie which was now just a “regeneration delirium”) so this can be chalked up to the Master lying, space hypnotism, a parallel timeline … whatever.
The important thing is that it’s never too late to redefine a character to win back the fans, and prioritise good, compelling, storytelling – after all, there’s infinite potential with a madman (or mad-woman) who travels through time and space.