The Future of Doctor Who
By Paul Scoones
Even as we raise our glasses in toast to 25 years of Doctor Who, it is entering another period of change. It could well be that a couple of years from now the show could have changed dramatically. Whether this will be for better or worse remains to be seen. There are those who say it cannot get any worse.
Although yet to be confirmed there is the possibility that Season 27 will be tendered out to an outside production company as part of a new BBC policy. Season 26 will be made by the Beeb, and the big news concerning that season is that it will feature another producer. The most controversial of all Doctor Who producers, John Nathan-Turner, has finally decided to leave after the completion of Season 25. Each successive Doctor Who producer has put their own distinctive mark on the show straight away, so it would not be unreasonable to expect some radical changes for Season 26. I, for one, am cautiously optimistic.
Colin Baker has been labelled as the shortest Doctor in terms of the number of episodes made, but he looks set to lose this dubious distinction. The 1980's have seen a three-year trend for each Doctor - a trend observed for Davison, Baker, and now McCoy is set to follow suit. McCoy recently announced his intention to leave after completing three seasons, and a declining number of episodes per year will mean that he will have clocked up a total number of 42, two less than Baker, who suffered from a 'missing' season caused by the 1985/6 hiatus. A number of fans, myself included, are rather dissatisfied with McCoy's interpretation of the role, so unless his remaining seasons display a distinct improvement I, for one, will not be too disappointed to see him go.
So 1990 will prove to be a very exciting year with the arrival of an eighth Doctor, a producer with a year's experience behind them, and a possibility of a re-vamped budget and independent production company. Essentially the show revolves around the figure of the Doctor, so the logical conclusion of this is that an actor needs to be cast who can, through a strong acting part, lend a stability and direction to the show as a whole. The Doctor needs to be identifiable in the role and strongly charismatic. He (and my personal opinion is that the Doctor needs to be male in order as not to alienate the audience), must be prepared to stay four seasons or more to become firmly established; the argument about being typecast does not hold out when you look at the success of the two longest serving Doctors, Pertwee and Tom Baker. A Doctor with strong sense of morality, compassion and unselfishness is needed, and he must display an intelligence equalled only by the most formidable of his enemies and the most sophisticated of allies. He must be recognisably wise, and respectable and dignified in his manner, and furthermore must never take life if he possibly prevent it, nor do or say stupid or inconsistent things.
Here I have outlined the character of the Doctor in his ideal form - the first five incarnations of the Doctor were the closest to this, and the eighth must return to the standard if the Doctor is to endure.
In addition the stories must become more sophisticated, both in concept and visual presentation. Drama needs to displace comedy, and the stories need to be interesting, original, mature, sometimes pertinent and always exciting and enjoyable. The viewer should be made to think at times in order to get the full enjoyment, but at the same time not alienate the younger audience. This was achieved in the Letts, Hinchcliffe and early Nathan-Turner era. A strong sense of continuity must once again develop in the show, and if this means setting down some firm guidelines for writers, such as Letts and Dicks attempted to do in their era, then so be it. The regular east above all must be written for consistently - few writers seem to have understood Turlough for instance. Villains and situations must not be gimmicky, corny, hammy, cliched or juvenile in concept or realisation. Moreover the entire cast must be made to act in a manner befitting a show made by the BBC Drama Dept; Doctor Who is not a children's show, although many would like to think so, it seems. Topflight writers and directors must be encouraged to work on the show and, although this would prove difficult given the show's current juvenile reputation, one impressively excellent show will act as an advertisement to attract the talent the show desperately needs. Doctor Who has suffered as being treated as a training ground for writers and directors alike; again this attitude must change. Script- writers of the caliber of Robert Holmes, Christopher Bailey and Steve Gallagher, to name but three, must be found and commissioned to write intelligent, genuinely dramatic scripts, and directors should be fresh and innovative in their technique, not the 'four-square' variety Doctor Who usually gets served. In the matter of directors I would nominate the British television directors Brian Parker, Alastair Reid and Peter Hammond. These three gentlemen did some absolutely superb work for 'Inspector Morse' which screened here in July.
Nathan-Turner's policy of 'big-name' casting must go if the show is to be taken seriously once more. Having people like Ken Dodd make brief appearance did nothing for the show, and only serves to give the press something to write about, and in doing so, attempt to boost the ratings. The casting criteria cannot and must not be 'big-name', but an ability and willingness to act with a complete degree of skill and conviction in the assigned role.
The Doctor's companions of late have left a lot to be desired. A greater degree of self-sufficiency is an obvious improvement, but also a charismatic and harmonious relationship with the Doctor. 'Female' does not, and should not, mean 'defenceless' when it comes to the Doctor's assistants, nor should they be interpreted as sex appeal either. Both treatments can potentially alienate elements of the viewing audience, and fails to make any in-roads towards an equality of the sexes. The 'Bond-girl' representation of Nicola Bryant was just plain offensive, with Nathan-Turner deliberately suppressing the fact that she was married, having a photo-call in a bikini (with Davison dressed as Bond, no less!!), and wearing skimpy outfits for her first few stories. Nor, however, should the companions be on an equal footing with the Doctor, as this alienates the audience who feels that they are left out of things, such as was the case with Romana. An essential facet of the Doctor's companion is the questioner - enabling him to impart elements of the plot to the audience through explaining something to his companion. Romana was a mistake because she undermined the Doctor's unique standing, and impeded on any attempts to convey the full depth of his intellect and experience. Tegan, Nyssa and Leela rank among the best companions the Doctor has had, to my mind.
In addition to all the above, the whole issue of budget should be reassessed. Ideally, of course, Doctor Who should get an increased amount of money per episode, especially considering the mint it makes on related products and overseas screenings. Unfortunately this is not currently fed back into the show. Given the unlikelihood that the situation will change drastically, the allocation of money per department should be looked into. Nathan-Turner has recently placed much emphasis on models and special effects in his productions, rather I suspect to the detriment of more needy areas of the show, such as the often painfully obvious sets and unconvincing men-in-rubber-suits. Better to avoid disproportional spending on models and special effects if possible because these are often very expensive to realise. In many cases it is cleverer and more inventive of the director to come up with a cheaper way of conveying the same element, such as a totally invisible monster rather than one depicted by an electronic outline. A good example is in Graham Harper's The Caves of Androzani - when do you ever see the gunrunners' ship arrive or leave Androzani, yet we know it does. I am not advocating a 'cheap-and-nasty' policy, far from it, but more sensible spending with a tight budget.
Music has also been detrimental to the show of late. It should be light and applicable to the action, harmonious with the acting and visual aspects, not jarred or obscured by over-use, such as was the case with Season 22. Some of the most tension-filled scenes in drama are effective when devoid of backing music.
Finally the BBC should not be making Doctor Who with the viewer ratings constantly on their minds. Produce an excellent show and the ratings will go up of their own accord, providing it's given a reasonable timeslot, and not used as cannon-fodder in a senseless ratings war, such as the decision to put it up against 'Coronation St'. Doctor Who must be made to appeal to adults as well as children. Intelligent stories, believable acting and thoughtful direction are the prime ingredients, all of which are in plentiful supply in other BBC and British drama productions, but not Doctor Who. As one of Britain's top drama exports it should be treated with more respect. I do not believe the mature approach will alienate children, but it will challenge them to think about what they are watching and learn from it, which should surely be the essential definition of television. I cannot abide with the people who see television as a sort of addictive, hypnotic resting device.
I know I'm an idealist, but I don't believe all is lost. Even if the show is taken off again there is still the potential for a fresh revival at a later date. I don't rule out the possibility of either, that my increasing dissatisfaction is due in part to my changing views as one gets older. I was 13 when I last watched the 18th season of Doctor Who and was overwhelmingly impressed by it - now I'm 20 and seeing it again, and it lacks much of the same impact from seven years ago. Having seen only a calculated 20% of the 1960's episodes, I don't like to comment on that era. I believe that the Letts / Dicks, Hinchcliffe / Holmes and Nathan-Turner / Bidmead and Saward up to the end of the Davison era, have turned out some Doctor Who stories that have gone a long way towards the ideal Doctor Who. But there has also been a large bulk of substandard stories in all three eras. 'Classic Doctor Who' must surely include Spearhead from Space, Inferno, The Daemons, The Ark in Space, Pyramids of Mars, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Warriors' Gate, Logopolis, Kinda, Black Orchid, Earthshock, Snakedance and The Caves of Androzani. It is surely a reflection of Nathan-Turner's current shows that there has not been anything worthy of note since that 1984 serial. The show is long overdue for a change.
By writing this article I have aired my views on Doctor Who in general. It would be of great interest to me to know what other fans think about this and of what I've written. I'm not obsessed with Doctor Who, and wouldn't go to the lengths some British fans have to save it from declining standards, but it does irritate me that a fascinating show with an incredibly versatile format should be mucked around with so much, and reduced to shallow, pale version of its former self. Perhaps then as we celebrate 25 years of Doctor Who we should wonder exactly what it is that we are celebrating, and ask ourselves if we can really continue to enjoy what it has become.
This item appeared in 25 Years of a Time Lord (January 1989).