The last time the BBC announced a major, mid-commission hiatus for Doctor Who, it provoked misshapen hellion Ian Levine into concocting the full, K-Tel-does-Band-Aid horror of 1985’s ‘Doctor In Distress’ single. A forgotten chorus of showbiz footnotes serenaded us with “eighteen months is too long to wait, bring back the Doctor, don’t hesitate!”, though I still prefer the alternative lyric set sent into Doctor Who Magazine at the time by a young fan from Formby, featuring the haunting verse “Mary Whitehouse criticised, because the show was too violent in her eyes; it’s now a national institution, and should be part of the Constitution!”
Thirty-one years down the line, we sit facing a repeat of that mid-eighties broadcast gap, and the only thing stopping said Liverpudlian lyricist from penning a followup record is that his name is Chris Chibnall and he’s far too busy preparing to take over as the new Doctor Who showrunner.
Unsurprisingly, the news doesn’t seem to have been particularly well-received, especially amongst those fans recently impressed by the sprawling, reference-heavy curtain calls that characterised the 2015 series. I myself disagree with the premature air of all this petulant impatience, and personally think that delaying Series Ten to the spring of 2017 may prove to be one of the best things ever to happen to the show. Why? Well, to fully explain my feelings it may be pertinent for us to take a short detour into the CV of Chris Tarrant.
I recently took to fondly reminiscing about what it was like to first watch Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in 1998. The most unlikely candidate for a national obsession instantly becoming the most vital, exciting, must-watch programme on television, a true institution, you and everybody you know watching and loving it unconditionally. It’s entirely possible that you forgot that this ever happened. I wouldn’t blame you, because when I fast-forwarded those memories on by just ten years – I recalled the desperately sad echo of a TV show lying ignored, unloved and, after a painfully slow fall, succumbing to the axe and an ignoble end.
Back to now, and no small amount has been written and said about the drastically falling audience figures for new Doctor Who’s ninth run. From pure, doomed panic about how the dropping figures surely foretell an imminent cancellation, right through to desperate, number-crunching spin-doctoring to prove that, well, yeah, maybe the ratings are exactly the same as 2008 as long as you add repeats, iPlayer, catchup, America, DVD, Netflix, illegal downloading, and people who have no intention of watching it but would probably enjoy it if they did, possibly. It’s undeniable that this ratings vacuum is a cause for concern, but it’s merely a single symptom of a much more frightening problem, one which if left unsolved threatens to restage Millionaire’s fall from grace. To get to the bottom of it involves more than discussing just scheduling or time slots, and a big clue to what’s really going on has actually been right in front of our noses since the Autumn.
On the 1st October 2015, the BBC announced the commissioning of Class, a new Doctor Who spinoff written by Patrick Ness, produced for the iPlayer-only “II!” incarnation of the moribund BBC Three. Details were scant but we got enough information to speculate about it, enough information to confidently look forward to it, enough information for some hype to start building about it. Except that this was four months ago, and as far as I can tell, none of that has happened. Sure, all the online news and cult outlets diligently posted their little rewrites of the press releases, the information was released as well as it could be. It was all out there. And there, perhaps surprisingly, was where it stayed.
Even the forums and website comments sections – a festival of frenetic, splenetic keyboard-mashing at any other time – were conspicuously quiet on the matter. The announcement posted on the Radio Times website (a high-traffic clickbait farm with a heavy cult focus and a good gauge of general online ‘buzz’) has across these four months received a grand total of five comments underneath it. The potential conclusion then is troubling – never mind the general public, have even Doctor Who fans stopped caring about Doctor Who anymore?
I remember well the announcements of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. I remember David Tennant’s leaving announcement at the NTAs, and the speculation prior to Matt Smith’s casting. I remember the internet exploding because one small JPEG of Davros had leaked online a few days before The Stolen Earth aired, and the unbridled excitement when one murky screengrab of Timothy Dalton in Time Lord garb escaped from Tennant’s wrap party video onto all the major news sites. Damaged buses. Radio Times cover spoilers. Bad Wolf. Vote Saxon. The Macra. Is Simon Pegg playing the Master? Is Audrey Tautou playing Joan Of Arc? Is Woody Allen playing Albert Einstein? Are ABBA writing a Torchwood musical? Why do people keep putting an extra ‘e’ on the end of Christopher Eccleston?
There was a period of time when the internet seemed to be powered entirely by new Doctor Who discussion. When every (then-open) shop in every (then-healthy) high street was piled high with every colour of plastic tat bearing the familiar fiery badge of the ‘taxicab logo’. If the show wasn’t airing on BBC One it was being repeated on BBC Three, on cable, clipped on YouTube, and selling in the millions on DVD, and that’s before you count Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Doctor Who Confidential, Torchwood Declassified, The Sarah Jane Files, Totally Doctor Who, the animations, the DVD commentaries, the red button extras, the “Tardisodes”, the documentaries and special features, a Blue Peter feature every other week, David Tennant on literally every TV chat show, Doctor Who Magazine, Doctor Who Adventures, Torchwood Magazine, annuals, the glossy non-fiction books, a dozen novels a year, comics, audiobooks, Big Finish plays, the Character Options figures, the computer games, the websites, the forums, and the Cyber-Strawberry Frubes. Dalekmania looked like a passing fad in comparison; this was the New Golden Age Of Doctor Who and it would never die. Like the banks, the show was now officially Too Big To Fail. (And you know what happened to them.)
It was easy not to notice – a few less kids in Dalek T-shirts here, the disappearance of Confidential there. The fiftieth anniversary media juggernaut even managed to hold back the tide for a brief encore of glory. Yet it was clear what was and is still happening – the people of the United Kingdom, without ever really thinking about it or saying it out loud, just don’t think of Doctor Who as ‘special’ anymore.
It’s easy to blame any number of things – the general public not warming to Matt Smith in the same way as they did to the media-friendly Tennant, complicated years-long story arcs making the show fairly inaccessible to casual viewers, tougher competition on ITV – but the real answer is more straightforward. A wave of pure fatigue has affected the show’s entire homegrown audience, from the young children no longer playing Cybermen in the playground, to the families no longer watching it on Christmas Day, and it’s now visible to the naked eye by observing a critical mass of internet diehards uninterested in a major spinoff series.
Despite the revived series having only been running for eleven years compared to the twenty-six of the classic run (and three of those eleven have been ‘reduced output’ years), the necessity of the aforementioned onslaught of media saturation during the Davies era, vital in order re-establish the show in the first place, has burnt the fossil fuel of goodwill and public interest at such speed and volume that it’s arguably already at the point the show was in at the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy eras. No matter how great the episodes might be (and they were, you know), it’s so much a part of the wallpaper that no-one bothers to notice or appreciate it anymore, and as such it’s at its most vulnerable. It was never Coronation Street, The A-Team or Michael Grade that took Doctor Who off the screens thirty years ago; it was apathy, and we are dangling precariously close to a reprise.
How do you fix it then? How do you change the minds en masse of a nation bored of something they’ve seen enough of to take for granted? How do you avoid following Big Brother and The X Factor down the toilet of public interest? We could actually already have the solution in hand.
I don’t know if you remember reading about an experiment the BBC undertook last July dubbed the ‘Deprivation Test’, but here’s a recap if it passed you by. To gauge the perceived value of the licence fee, a cross-section of people were asked if they thought it was worth what they were paying, then had their access to BBC services completely withdrawn for two months. At the end, they had their privileges restored and were asked the same question again. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of those who thought the BBC was good value for money was significantly higher after the participants had been given the opportunity to contemplate how much they missed it.
This then is where my support for that oh-so-controversial hiatus comes in – I think there’s good reason to have faith that the sixteen-month dry spell mandated by BBC One could ultimately cure the widespread civil disinterest in Doctor Who through a simple prescription of cold turkey. After all, the drip-fed Sherlock certainly seems to keep its audiences hungry for more, and that’s a series that by the end of 2016 will have managed to progress its central narrative a whole half-hour forward over the space of three calendar years.
And so, though it might be a grind for some of us to sit tapping our watches for two Easters hence, it might just be the breathing space the Great British Public and the diehards alike need in order to welcome the old duffer back onto their boxes and back into their lives.
What do you think? Is ‘Doctor Who fatigue’ the elephant in the room? Could absence make the two hearts grow fonder?
Darrell Maclaine-Jones works in social care by day, and is a writer and musician by night. His words have appeared everywhere from fanzines to websites to BBC Radio Four, and he co-created and developed the popular podcast and website Talk About The Passion in 2007.
As a musician he has composed work for various radio and online ventures, including the “Newsfeed 24” web series for agency Telegraph Hill, and spent four years working with the band The Directors. He is currently involved in collaborative partnerships on both a major work of non-fiction and a baby.