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11 December 2018

Taking a year off is not unusual for a British TV series – but it’s still bad for Doctor Who

The assumption that a show would return predictably every single year is another American import.

By James Cooray Smith

Within moments of the conclusion of Doctor Who’s series finale on Sunday, the programme’s official Twitter feed thrust its audience, if not its characters, into a new scrap entirely – by confirming rumours that the series would, bar a New Year’s Day 2019 special made as part of 2018’s run, not return until the beginning of 2020, at the earliest.

Response on the internet was mixed. Some fans were furious. That’s understandable: if you like Doctor Who, you want there to be more Doctor Who. Many of those fans blamed current showrunner Chris Chibnall, whose still nascent period in charge has already seen a reduction in episode count, from 13 to 11, and the abandoning of the show’s long tradition of a Christmas Day episode.

Others took the attitude that Doctor Who has, in its revived 21st century incarnation, taken time out before. Chibnall’s predecessors Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat had also each overseen years where only a handful of special episodes were transmitted. (Of course, neither did so after only producing only a single series.)

It was also suggested that, if a long gap is what is needed to get the next series right, then it was all to the good. That point, oddly, came roughly equally from people who didn’t like the most recent series very much, and would like to see it improved upon, and from those who have thought it the best in years and would like to see that quality maintained.

This also makes sense. Doctor Who is vastly more difficult to make than almost any other British television series. The programme changes location, and often genre, from week to week, carrying over very few cast members, locations or sets. This constant variety is both part of its appeal and a production nightmare, and can’t really be dodged.

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So the show presents unique challenges, even before you consider that series of Doctor Who are still longer than those of most British television programmes. I’ve spoken to experienced, award-winning television producers who have never worked on the show, and who baulk at the idea. “It would be like making ten to 12 small features back to back, each overlapping with those either side,” said one, looking pale. Given this, it’s perhaps to be expected that Doctor Who won’t be on in any quantity every year – although in the 14 years the series has run this century, all but five have seen more than 12 episodes transmitted, and two of those saw more than 10.

Underling much of this debate was an assumption: that television programmes have historically returned as a matter of course at the same time of every year – but that, in the brave new world of catch and streaming, this pattern was a thing of the past, as archaic as some assert linear TV itself to be. 

The argument is, essentially, that lots of television programmes now take years off, or make series of variable length, or change their position in the schedules, or all three. The only real difference between Doctor Who and other series is that fans of other series don’t go on the internet to rage about the programme’s absence when it’s announced – or that if they do it doesn’t get gleefully reported in the tabloid press.

It doesn’t take much knowledge of recent television scheduling to know that there is truth in this. Despite being one of ITV’s major brands, Endeavour skipped 2015 without its production team being assailed by members of the official Inspector Morse society. The oft-ignored ratings hit Waking the Dead skipped both 2004 and 2010 during its more than a decade on air. BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders, which began in 2013, was absent in 2015 and this year and will return in 2019. The same channel’s Line of Duty started in 2012, and has so far skipped 2013, 2015 and 2018.

Perhaps the most telling example, though, is Chris Chibnall’s previous series Broadchurch, which ran in alternate years; while the Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood, had a full calendar year between the two series made while he was its executive producer.

In that context, Doctor Who being off air for 12 or 13 months instead of nine doesn’t seem like so big a deal. It’s the spirit of the times, part of the evolution of television.

The only problem with this thesis – and it’s quite a big one – is that it misunderstands entirely the history of British television. Instead, it rests on a slightly reductive reading of the history of American network television.

US network television has, or perhaps had, a fairly remorseless logic. Shows were supported by advertising, and lived and died by the advertising they sold. Those that failed were quickly culled, and if a series failed to come back in the next television season, you weren’t going to see it again, unless enough episodes had been made for it be profitable enough to repeat in syndication.

This is a slight caricature, but it has more truth in it than not, even despite the relatively recent changes to the way the networks do business forced by competition from newer networks, first run cable channels and streaming services. British television, though, has never been like that. Series have come and gone, skipping years and moving around the schedules, since at least the early 1960s. ITV’s brilliant detective series Public Eye, currently being repeated on Talking Pictures TV, managed seven series in 11 years, starting in 1965. Callan, at the time the most popular programme on television – and the declared favourite of prime minister Harold Wilson – made four series between 1967 and 1972. BBC sitcom perennial Dad’s Army skipped 1971 and 1976 apart from Christmas specials. The examples are endless, but my personal favourite – because it seems like it has to be wrong, but definitely isn’t, is Open All Hours. That ran for a pilot and four series between 1973 and 1985.

Another result of this constant irregularity is that a very popular programme could manage to produce two series in 12 months. If a programme that started early in the year was doing incredibly well, another series could be fitted in before Christmas. This happened once to 20th century Doctor Who (in 1975); but the two series of Dad’s Army in 1969, of Sorry! in 1982 and of Ever Decreasing Circles in 1984 serve to make the point.

It wasn’t just Dad’s Army that did both. The Sweeney had two series in 1975 and skipped 1977 before its final series in 1978, in part because the cast were working on films of the series.

While such ideas are considered innovative in American TV, they have long been a part of British telly. This reflects its nature as a version of the medium where programme concepts and scripts are historically owned by writers rather television stations; one not enslaved to the remorseless grid of a “fall season” that needs to fill a certain amount of air time because the baseball season has stopped, and the requirement to make that air time pay in the short term above any and all other considerations.

Case closed, then? A year without Doctor Who is no big deal? Well, not really, no. There is one very good reason why Doctor Who going away for a full 12 months, whether or not that constitutes a full calendar year or not, is a bad thing. A year is a very long time when you’re a child. When Doctor Who takes a year off, a whole mini generation of kids go through peak “getting into Doctor Who age” without seeing it, and those that are already invested in it lose momentum and move onto other things.

This is inarguable, and is reflected in the falls in sales of Doctor Who ancillary material, such as the official Doctor Who Magazine, during periods when the parent show is off the air for more than a few months. It might be said that neither the BBC nor anyone else should be concerned with the sales of Doctor Who products, but the corporation depends on its big brands for income in such straitened times, and such things are an excellent indicator of the ebb and flow of any series’ appeal.

Like anything to do with something as long lived as Doctor Who, there are easy parallels. In 1982, the series bounced back from a controversial casting decision some questioned (although Peter Davison was too young, rather than too female). And the equally controversial move from the series’ traditional Saturday slot was made to ringing critical and ratings success and in the ratings. The first Davison series saw Doctor Who routinely hitting 10m viewers for the first time that decade. Perhaps more importantly, the series also failed to dip below eight million at any point for the first time since 1977. Creatively renewed, and with buoyant ratings, the series was on a high.

But the decision to transmit 1982’s Doctor Who twice weekly, rather than once a week, meant not only that the series covered the shortest number of weeks a series of Doctor Who ever had – and was then followed by one of the longest gaps between new episodes of Doctor Who in the programme’s history. By the time the series returned in 1983, the bubble had deflated. That year, Doctor Who could never reach 8m viewers, and despite repeated relaunches it would not be watched by 10m people again in the twentieth century.

By the time Doctor Who, Yaz, Ryan and Graham come back the year after next, there is a danger that the audience it’s really for will no longer be there it. The children of 2018 should be allowed to keep an appointment with their Doctor.

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