Doctor Who is one of the longest running sci-fi properties ever, and for that, I almost feel sorry for it. It's been around for so long, and imprinted itself so hard onto a public consciousness, that any attempt to evolve or grow beyond that would be deemed a betrayal of the show's image. The problem for Doctor Who is that its image is one defined by janky, yet somehow endearing production values.
Time moved on, budgets increased, and Doctor Who as a show started to look better. Even since the 2005 reboot, you can see an improvement in the fidelity of the effects. Unfortunately, Doctor Who never truly adopted its own look. Sure, it presents competent and even imaginative sci-fi worlds, but show a me an establishing shot from Doctor Who Seasons 5-8, and it would be unintelligible from most other fictional universes on a TV budget. Star Trek had this problem too, becoming so defined by looking bad that any improved replication of it seemed disingenuous and generic.
So why is New Who not as visually ambitious as it could be, and what could Season 9 do to change all that? Well, you could say that Doctor Who struggles to maintain a visual style simply because it has so many. A show where characters can go anywhere in time and space will have some stark differences in it's imagery, and it surely can't maintain one aesthetic for all those stubborn formalists watching. While that's a fine argument, a good show or film should make contrasts and imagery it's appeal, not something that bores the viewers.
If Doctor Who Season 9 is looking for inspiration, then it need look no further than last years hit blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy. The way Guardians of the Galaxy nails it's own look can be summed up entirely in this trailer.
Just look at the huge contrasts in colour and form, the way that every new image introduces something new for your brain to get used to, and the glee with which the film seems to present it's own world.
Now I'm not comparing Doctor Who and Guardians simply because they're both products of fun sci-fi. My point is that, on a visual level, one of these things does everything in its power to avoid mediocrity, while the other hits it head on, despite arguably having more chances to be visually interesting. Through colour and texture, Guardians of the Galaxy manages to look both alien and relatable, both far away and touchable. Perhaps due to the constraints of TV, Doctor Who is only able to draw off established imagery if and when it needs it. Episode is set in a castle? Done! Set on a space colony? Boom! What else you need?
Even when Doctor Who attempts to create more ambitious imagery, I can't see it as anything more than what Steven Moffat wanted to show, and what the BBC's effects teams were able to produce. Perhaps this is down to the constant flux of ideas that television operates within. A design for one planet might never be needed again, or have to be replaced with a design for a new monster, which itself might not be around for long. The TARDIS and the Doctor himself are the most visual compelling things in the show because they are the constants.
So what can Doctor Who Season 9 do to improve its look? Well it may be related to its very production. The toy-box method of storytelling (where different writers dip in and out of something created by a show runner) may well hinder the show's expressive capabilities. For Season 9 to truly grow and help Doctor Who achieve it's potential, perhaps a re-haul of its storytelling is in order.