Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Timing

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doctorwho-mattsmith-creditsA couple of weeks ago we had the Great Day of Whovian Crisis, when an article in the June 10 edition of the satirical Private Eye magazine said that Doctor Who was about to be forced into its second year-long hiatus in just over three years in 2012 because of a series of behind-the-scenes problems, which had already led to two producers being dismissed and executive producer Piers Wenger quitting to go to Film4. The reported decision by BBC Wales had apparently “horrified” the BBC chiefs back in London who rely on the show for its Saturday evening scheduling.

The Private Eye article’s credibility was somewhat undermined by its insistence that the split-structure of season 6 was down to “poor budget control and scheduling”: considering how far in advance this split was announced and how much the structure of season 6’s writing depended on this mid-point cliffhanger there’s no way that the split suddenly appeared because of production problems. Hopefully that means the article’s concerns about the second batch of season 6 being ready before Christmas are equally far off the mark.

But the BBC did little to help the situation on that day – Tuesday June 7, a day that will live in Who infamy. Considering they are one of the biggest media corporations in the world, it’s amazing how poor the BBC can be at communications at times: everyone was apparently at meetings or (literally) out to lunch and not available for comment while the story roared around the Internet that day. Initially the BBC even said it wasn’t about to make any announcement about it at all, but finally they were bounced into conceding – via Twitter of all things – that “#DoctorWho is returning. Fourteen new episodes have been commissioned with Matt Smith as The Doctor.”

Hurrah, crisis over, we all thought. Except that instead of getting clearer over the intervening time, the situation seems to have actually been getting mirkier.

The main point seems to be concerning when those 14 episodes (a full 13-part series and a Christmas special) will air. The initial announcement was taken to imply that a full season would indeed air in 2012, refuting the Private Eye article’s claims; then further word trickled out that only “most” would air next year. Then it became “a good chunk” and “a significant number”. Then it was “some episodes” and then just “starting in 2012.” And in the background you could still hear PR reps crossing their fingers and mouthing ‘hopefully’. Far from confirming a 2012 season, we were starting to see it slide away without even the prospect of some specials to tide us over with, as happened in 2009. Even Steven Moffat himself told SFX magazine that “I don’t know” when season 7 would air, although he went on to add in typically playful fashion: “If I did know, I wouldn’t tell you. When I do know, what I know will change, so I won’t really know then either. Then it will change again, so I still won’t really know. And if, secretly, I’d really known all along, I’d still be telling you I don’t know.”

As it has gone on, it seems increasingly inconceivable that Doctor Who will return for season 7 at Easter in 2012. This time last year we were hearing about Moffat finishing the script for “A Christmas Carol” and filming getting underway; this year at the same time we’re not hearing about any of that, but instead seeing news stories about Matt Smith looking at acting opportunities in Los Angeles and Arthur Darvill appearing at The Globe in Faustus and using the unfortunate language of being happy to be “moving on” from Doctor Who, suggesting he was fully done with the show.

The best we can hope for is that season 7 will be now shown in the Autumn, probably in two parts split over Christmas. And when I say “best we can hope for”, I would actually describe an Autumn slot as precisely that, the best for the show. I’m no fan of the current scheduling trying to squeeze it in between Easter and mid-summer as we’ve seen since the show’s return in 2005. The lighter, warmer evenings prove a considerable distraction to the viewing public and hence suppress the rating figures once we get into May and June. It’s been made worse by the timing of the show on the evening – Doctor Who just can’t be properly scary on a bright Saturday evening at 6pm. It should be shown on properly dark, spooky evenings with the rain lashing at the windows and the wind howling through the trees so that the family can huddle together and get properly frightened.

More troubling has been some of the rather public falling-out that has been going on surrounding the news. A week after the confused handling of the original announcement, BBC1 controller Danny Cohen told a media conference that it was all down to Steven Moffat, who “needs enough time to get that done and then start work on the next series of Doctor Who … Steven Moffat is the creative driving force behind Doctor Who. He also, rather magically at the same time, created and got to air Sherlock. So we have to get that balance right.” He went on to say that “There’s only so many hours a day he can be awake,” adding: “The man has to sleep and eat, and he’s got a family.”

These were meant to be light-hearted remarks to soothe over the situation, but in fact they just added fuel to the fire. Moffat was not amused by being fingered as the reason for the series’ delays and icily tweeted that “The scheduling of Dr Who has got NOTHING to do with Sherlock.” It may be reading too much into 140 character missives, but Moffat’s tone since then in other tweets and interviews has been on a decidedly grumpy side: Moffat seemed particularly unhappy with the way that BBC News online covered the story, starting with the headline “Sherlock success will hit Doctor Who, says BBC One boss.” When Neil Gaiman asked Moffat on Twitter, “Er… is it my imagination or are you being shafted by BBC online news?”, Moffat’s response was “It’s not your imagination. Unbelievable, unacceptable.”

Moffat is understandably worried about being left with the blame. In a way it’s his own fault for being too insatiably industrious to ever be satisfied with just working on one series for an extended period: his creativity needs more diverse outlets than just 24/7 Time Lords. But we all know how working on Doctor Who consumed Russell T Davies’ life for five whole years and nearly gave him a physical and mental breakdown at times (just have a read of the excellent The Writers Tale book for the details); so how can Moffat manage to step into RTD’s shoes and on top of that create, develop and run another of the BBC’s flagship shows at the same time and expect to be able to survive and get away with it with sanity intact?

But it’s also curious that the BBC would see a new show consisting of just three feature episodes as somehow ranking alongside what’s supposed to be one of the BBC’s most important shows. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been a Holmes fan almost as long as a Who fan, and I absolutely adore what Moffat and Mark Gatiss have done reimagining the character for the 21st century. But for all its Baftas, that first season was both short and uneven: Moffat’s opener was utterly stellar, but the middle story about Chinese Tongs was hokey and confused; the final episode was back on form but the portrayal of Moriarty and the final face-off between him and Holmes met with a mixed reception. (For the record: I loved them both.)

Nor can I see the show having a fraction of the staying power of Doctor Who: the second mini-season of Sherlock will apparently feature “Adler, Hounds and Reichenbach” which is pretty much all the remaining highlights of the Conan Doyle canon; a third season reviving Sherlock from his presumed demise at the Falls would doubtless follow, but after that the series has probably done all it can and come to a natural end. (And again for the record: I’m all for “short” television series which know when to leave the stage and not hang around just to churn out series after series. Not that I’d mention Last of the Summer Wine in a Cloister Bell blog guest post.)

So it seems strange that the BBC should put Sherlock ahead of its longest running success in such a cavalier fashion. The Corporation does indeed seem at risk of dropping the Doctor Who ball bigtime, just when the show seemed to be at its peak, merely because it has an in-bred snooty preference for 19th century literary classics over modern day science fiction. It happened before to the classic Who: history repeats itself, it seems. And the BBC’s history with one of its most important signature properties has never been easy or straightforward at the best of times. In fact it seems eternally one step away from a mess and a crisis at any given time, and things are proving no different in the 21st century.

Let’s not forget that we’re coming up on a hugely significant year for Doctor Who: 2013 will be the 50th anniversary of the show’s creation in 1963 and a marketing opportunity beyond compare in modern television. Surely they can’t fumble that? And yet with over half of season 7 slipping over into 2013 already, where does that leave the plans for the shape of the rest of the show’s golden jubilee year?

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