The world's longest-running sci-fi show has always fallen back on nostalgia, but, ten years on since its triumphant return, is that really still the best way to keep the show going?
For a programme with the concept of ‘change’ as a core value in its heart, it would seem strange that Doctor Who could be beset from fulfilling its potential by being reined in by its own history. But, even at what is arguably its creative peak, could the BBC’s most shining star be quietly threatened by unrelenting nostalgia?
Think back to 2005, when the seemingly impossible had been achieved and rejoicing fans were treated to promotional material for the forthcoming relaunch. Doctor Who was new again, in a way it hadn’t been for over forty years (with the debatable exception of 1996). And it wasn’t simply ‘new’, it was NEW!!! Showrunner Russell T Davies had gone to great lengths in his rebranding of the institution to promise that this show was as current, contemporary and cool as anything else on TV in the mid-noughties. Cladding the traditionally ‘posh dandy’ protagonist in a leather jacket and jeans, shaving his head and allowing actor Chris Eccleston to retain his “I’ll kick yer head in” Salford twang, while introducing new companion Rose Tyler in a jump-cut montage set to a thumping dance beat, ensured this was a new show for new viewers. Stalwarts of the classic series were of course invited, but politely asked to sit at the back and remain quiet. Hey, we kept the TARDIS design and the Daleks, what more do you want?
And yet, how did Davies really choose to usher Doctor Who into the twenty-first century? By essentially remaking a classic episode from 1970. If you want proof that fan-service was something of an obligation, even in a year when scooping up new viewers was Doctor Who’s mission statement, look no further than the series opener ‘Rose’. If you glance past the sprinting, skinhead Doctor, the pop music and the council estate sitcom fringe scenes, at its core ‘Rose’ is a complete retelling of Jon Pertwee’s debut story ‘Spearhead From Space’; fan-favourite aliens the Autons were the villain of choice, usurping the frames of shop-window dummies and smashing onto the streets of terrified London as they do so iconically in the older serial. The newly regenerated Doctor bursts out of his TARDIS into the path of a fresh-faced, sceptical young accomplice, tussles with the plastic invaders for a bit and ends up in a tangle with the slimy, tentacled Nestene Consciousness. All of these beats are true of the Pertwee classic, and this is how Davies – wisely – believed New Who should announce itself.
Obviously, this is permissible in the debut story of a programme that hadn’t really been on television in the last sixteen years (reassurance is as much a necessity as rebranding), but beyond such a remit, fan service is a tricky mistress. Too much of it can and will tarnish your story (See ‘The Stolen Earth’ and ‘Journey’s End’ from Series Four), while too little will disenfranchise a loyal audience who feel they need constant reminding that this is the same show that howled onto black and white screens half a century ago. While Series One of modern Who is unarguably the lightest on classic series references (the names of old companions, monsters and even planets are uttered in every other breath nowadays), it still ultimately held the hand of the past in its most important twists and turns. The pivotal moment, most heavily teased, was the return of the Daleks (or, rather, Dalek), and the two part finale, an intriguing, satirical tale of couch potato culture and the moralistic depths of reality TV worthy of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, was getting along just fine without nods to the past, yet still had to become a Daleks-invade-Earth story in its latter half to ensure continued audience interest. So much was its reliance on fan service, in fact, that the Dalek twist was spoiled in the ‘Next Time’ trail following the first part of the story. To date the only series finale not to focus on a classic monster is Series Six’s ‘The Wedding of River Song’, and even that had time for a Dalek and a phone call to the Brigadier.
It is difficult to argue that the show has moved on from this trend in the decade since its return. The writers remain at the beck and call of fans who demand back-references and in-jokes and will cry bloody murder if they don’t get them. A certain creed of fan will sit in excited silence just to hear the modern Doctor say “Metebelis 3." While these call-backs are pleasing enough, should they really be the main focus of a show whose very existence is enough of a selling point? The general importance of an episode seems to be assessed by whether or not it contains a classic monster, a returning companion or a visit to a familiar location. An episode concerning temporal rifts and pocket universes within a seemingly haunted mansion will never garner as much anticipation as an episode in which Cybermen pop out of the ground for yet another scuffle. Had Missy said “I’m a disgruntled Gallifreyan engineer who built the TARDIS you stole” instead of “I’m the Master” at the close of ‘Dark Water’, the cries of “anti-climax” would have been deafening. Furthermore, is there really any credibility to the argument that a Cyberman invasion story is more compelling than a story which existentially ponders what happens to our consciousness after we die?
This is not to decry the current run of Peter Capaldi-led episodes. As mentioned, the show may well currently be in its creative stride, and present showrunner Steven Moffat quite recently picked an interesting moment to demonstrate that there are still some monumental, grand ideas up its sleeve. 50th anniversary special ‘The Day of the Doctor’ was bold enough to, on a day when the show would have been well within its right to stop and look back at its life, present a dramatic upheaval in Doctor Who’s entire premise, introduce a controversial, ‘secret’ Doctor in place of any of the past incarnations to grace the screen over the years, and lay all of this out in a staggeringly effective adventure that was conspicuously light on past references (though there are far more than critics would have you believe). On any other day of the year, this would have been welcomed into continuity as one of the greatest ever episodes, but instead huge swathes of fandom bayed for Moffat’s blood. Surprise twists, consequential events and dizzying drama are not suitable replacements for past Doctors and frequent back-referencing, apparently.
Eight years ago, audiences were first terrified by New Who’s greatest monsters, the Weeping Angels. In fewer than ten years they have become as revered as the beasties that have been scaring kids for decades. Problematically, however, the monsters which originally served as a concept inherent to a very meticulously-plotted time travel story are now virtually a gimmick, who will willingly change everything about themselves just so they can appear again. Moffat envisioned them as a single-serving antagonist, yet the demands of fan-service allowed the Weeping Angels to outstay their welcome.
Doctor Who has a limitless premise and should be treated first and foremost as a high-concept anthology series, towing the line between imaginative science fiction and clever fantasy. Visitors from the past, such as the Daleks, Cybermen and Weeping Angels, should be rewards given sparingly (as they were during the critical heights of the Tom Baker years – the Daleks appeared but twice in his seven year stint) rather than frequent fallbacks, or the show will lose its reputation as something driven by ideas and not gimmicks. Every Dalek return diminishes the chances of original storytelling standing on its own two feet, of great writing and great central performances keeping the show afloat. But most damagingly of all, the TARDIS is being prevented from flying as deep into the unknown as it should be allowed to go. We’re all currently being teased and excited by the Series Nine hype machine, but the words most thrown around seem to be ‘Missy’, ‘Davros’, ‘Zygons’, ‘Osgood’; while the biggest draw of the imminent series' latest trailer is the mystery surrounding Maisie Williams' character (possibly - but not definitely - Susan). Where are the big ideas and new concepts? Perhaps it’s time to leave the old props in the storeroom and start thinking more about the future.
Doctor Who, starring Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, returns to BBC1 for series 9 on September 19th, 2015.