Sunday, 1 November 2009
Dr Who: here's to the future...
The 21st century reboot of Dr Who is, I think all right-thinking people would agree, a pretty remarkable thing. One of the most consistemntly remarkable things about it is the way that, after nearly five years back on our screens, it hasn't started to wear out its welcome yet. The audience isn't getting bored, they aren't drifting away, they're as enraptured and engaged by the series as they were when it exploded back onto BBC Tv in March 2005. Series three and four, in particular, have seen average viewing figures climbing steadily and the most recent Christmas episodes have pulled in an astonishing 13 million viewers. Much of this is down to the show's brilliant publicity machine and the way it's been (and is being) stage-managed by Russell T Davies and his crew. 2009 has been a prime exmaple of how the show has kept a bubbling presence in the nation's consciousness even when it's only aired one episode so far this year.
The Dr Who internet fan community (largely represented by self-important little fan forums which take themselves a bit too seriously) has spouted a lot of old rubbish about 2009 being a 'gap' year. Of course it's not a gap year - Dr Who has been on the telly and will be on the telly again this year. No, the show's been on reduced duties in 2009 for all sorts of reasons - one of which is precisely so the audience doesn't get sick of the series rolling around year after year like The X Factor or the dancing thing. But Dr Who is never far away from the nation's hearts even when it isn't broadcasting; all year we've had little teasers of what's to come, photos and features in the press about the new cast, the filming of Tennant's last few stories, photos from the set of the new series. The public knows the show is out there even if it isn't on screen regularly at the moment.
Which brings me to the events of the last seven days when Dr Who has found its profile at its heighest since last Christmas and the is-he/isn't-he furore over 'The Next Doctor'. This week has seen David Tennant making his much-awaited guest appearance in two glorious episodes of 'The Sarah Jane Adventures' (more of which later this week on Stuff), cleverly timed to coincide with the Press launch for the next of this year's special Who episodes 'The Waters of Mars' (now confirmed for broadcast at 7pm on BBC1 on Sunday 15th November) and the resulting Press coverage both in print on-line (all of it effusive and extravagenty-positive) along with reports of Steven Moffat's address to the Cheltenham Screenwriters' Festival where be 'bigged-up' 11th Doctor Matt Smith and gave some tantalisingly-vague hints about what audiences can expect next year has made everyone sit up[ and takle notice and realise theyv'e actualkly missed the Doctor this year. Which, I suspect, has rather been the point of the 'reduced duties' year and all this sudden rush of publicity.
It's all clever stuff, beautifully-orchestrated and meticulously planned; hard not to wish the BBC could take these or similar techniques and deploy them for more of its output - these days new dramas and comedies slip into the schedule unannoucned and with little fanfare and are left to sink or swim on their own merits, the audience expected to seek them out rather than being constantly reminded of their existence. Sadly at this time of year the BBC is pretty much fixated on its Saturday night dance-a-thon and anything else takes its own chances. But meanwhile, as we anxiously await the end of an era for Dr Who - and having seen Tennant light up the screen again in 'Sarah Jane' this week, it's fair to say I'm dreading his departure more than ever, frankly - it won't do any harm to look over the horizon, into 2010 and wodner what the fickle finger of fate (and a potentially-fickle Tennant-loyal audience) might have in store for Dr Who series 5.
If it's not too inane a question to ask of a series about a time travller, what does the future hold for Dr Who? Are the glory days about to end? Will Tennant's fans - and that's pretty much everyone - turn awayu from the series when he leaves? Will they boycott the new boy before he's even met his new companion? I have no idea but at least we can look at what we know about what's to come and, ultimastely,. let's hope that Dr Whho's audience (who must be pretty smart to be watching this show in the first place) are smart enough not to let the exit of the most popular star the show's ever had sour them against the series for the future.
We've been here before, of course. In a sense this is a dilemma the show has faced ever since William Hartnell morphed into Patrick Troughton back in 1966. The idea of recasting the Doctor was forced on the show's then-production team by the fact that the ailing Hartnell had to bow out due to the poressures of the show's near year-long filming schedule. Recasting the star of a high profile TV show is pretty small beer these days but back in 1966 it was pretty much unheard of. But by casting the hugerly-=talented actor to portray a vastly-different sort of Doctor, the show pulled it off and forged on triumphantly for three more years. In 1970, teetering on the edge of cancellation in the face of declining viewer interest, the show did it again and surged into the 1970s in colour with Jon Pertwee dandifying the role for five successful years. In 1974 Tom Baker took over, becoming the lognest-running and, until recently, the most successful Doctor in the show's history. So successful was he that his successors - Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester Mccoy - never really stood a chance and the series finally slid off screen with a whiumper and tiny audiences in 1989. More recently we've seen the series relaunched in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston as a dour, tougher version of the Time lord, all leather-jackets and big boots. The series was a massive hit all voer again from the outset - but the week after transmission of 'Rose', the first episode - news leaked that Eccelston had already quit the series and would be replaced for the already commissioned second and third series. Davies and his team maintained that this was always the plan, that Eccleston was always a one-year deal and the idea was to totally surprise the audience by killing him off and regenerating him at the end of the series. Other rumours suggest that Eccleston wasn't happy with some of the material and people he was working with and found the schedule too gruelling so unexpectedly quite - the truth is we'll very probably never know the real truth. However, before long relatively-unkown Scottish actor David Tennant was announced as Eccleston's replacement - amidst mumuring that there was no way this bloke could be as good, it was all voer, the show was finished before it had really had a chance to find its stride.
Watching Eccleston's episodes now it's easier to sit and wodner what might have been. How might he have developed the role in a second batch of episodes, basking in the glow of the success of the first run and extra rush of confidence it would have given him? We'll never know, of course, and fortunately, when tennant came on board iat Christmas 2005 we all stropped really caring. Thsi enw guy was good - he looked as if he was born to play this role. Lighter and efecter and more at home with the wackier side of Dr Who, tennant took the fledgling success and dragged the series to new heights across his three full series. More than that, in his geek-chic crumpled suit, overcoat and red Converse trainers get-up, he seemed to typify and embody an 'everyman' quality about the Doctor. Here's a man like you and me, a man on the street - but what things he can do, what secrets he has, what places he's seen.
Open, likable,w arm and witty - and even a bit dark on occasion - Tennant's Doctor was more welcoming than Eccleston's and as a result he enticed a bigger and, it seems, more passionmate audience. There's an element of rock star in Tennant's public personna too, evidenced by the hysterial screaming when he attends awards ceremonies and public events. I don't think that ever happened to Jon Pertwee, bless him.
So Tennant has imbedded himself into the nation's Dr Who psyche. He is Dr Who. There's no-one else. This is the biggest hurdle Matt Smith has to face as he prepares to take over and make his (brief) screen debut on New Year's Day (when Tennant's finale is expected to screen). For a part of Dr Who's audience now sppears to be there because of Tennant as much as for Dr Who itself; hhow many of them will honestly wealk away when he's gone, no longer interested in the series and its new direction? How many of them just won't give Matt Smith a chance and won't want to?
Matt Smith has to hit the ground running. I suspect many viewers will tune in to his first episode just to see what he's like and satisfy themselves that they were right, that no-one can follow Tennant. So Matt has to do it all in his first episode, to grab the new audience with his new characterisationm, his new energy, his new style. Where Tennant captivated his audience - certainly a large female audience, too - by his style and sex appeal - Smith, twelve years younger and undeniably more awkward and angular-looking - will have a tougher job keeping the ladies on board. Moffat, not unexpectedly, says Smith's the best Doctor so far (well he would, wouldn't he?) and has, encouragingly, spoken of the fact that there's an 'ancient' quality in his performance which belies his youthfulness and, hopefully, will ward off some of the fan accusations that, with young, elfin-faced Karen Gillen on board as a younger companion figure, the series is being more deliberately skewed towards a younger audience than before. But in that all-important first episode, regeneration tramua aside, Smith needs to make the audience like him and want to spend time withn him fr thirteen or fourteen weeks every year. And to an extent, of coruse, that's also the job of the stories...
So the stories? What do we get? What do we know? Not a great deal. There's internet scuttlebutt a plenty out there and there have been some high profile location shoots in and around Cardiff (most recently in Llandaff village where Smith and Gillen were working on the first episode of the series) as well as some more remote ones (the usual factories, industrial units and graveyards). Thgere are cosmetic changes to the series - the new logo's been released, the TARDIS exterior has had a bit of a facelift and so, apparently, has the interior. Those hoping for a clean break from the rpoevious era may be vexed to learn that several old elements of previous shows are back - a Dalek episode set in World War 2 has already been filmed (and a leaked piece of recorded dialogue of Smith pronouncing the word "Daaaaaleks" caused much hand-wringing and hair-tearing amongst the hardcore crowd) and Alex Kingston is back as River Song from Moffat's series four two-parter in episodes 4 and five of the new series. Familiar characters and monsters always help smoothe the transition from the old to the new and waverers may be tempted to stick around if there's a promise of some unresolved old mystery (who exactly is River Song?) being explained and the Daleks are always worth a look, even if the new series hasn't always served them all that well. Beyond this we don't really know a great deal; there's rumour a-plenty out there but much of it is unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable. Moffat, like Davies before him, is writing the lion's share of the first series episodes and it'll be interesting to see what sort of stories he tells when he's not just contruting a high-concept one-off, as he has done in the past. How will he handle your fairly bog-standard Dr Who runaround? Will the series keep the sense of fun it often had in some of Davies' more joyous episodes? But certainly the new production tema are keeping their secrets close to their chests at the moment - which is really as it should be with so much still to look forward to from the Tennant era.
Interesting times ahead then for Dr Who. This is undoubtedly the trickiest 'transition' it's ever faced as it loses its biggest-ever star and replaces him with a (fine) actor most of the audience have never seen before. So while none of us know what's ahead I think we know the show's in good creative hands with Moffat (and fellow writers like returnees Gareth Roberts, Mark Gatiss, Chris Chibnall) so the end product has the potential, I'm quite sure, be as good as anything we've had these last four or five years. The only imponderable is how the audience will react, whether they'll be willing to give Matt Smith a chance or whether their devotion to David T is just too great. It would be such a tragedy is the series, quite right a British institution again the way it was in the 1960s and 1970s, sees its future threatened - as it was in 1981, in retrospect - by the spectre of the success of the man who gave it its greatest success of all.
Stay tuned, as someone used to say...