To be sure, Doctor Who is one of the most powerful and long-running sci-fi properties of all time, but if it’s going to maintain or even grow its popularity, the venerable time-traveling franchise is going to need to change in a big way.
A hardcore fan will tell you (quite correctly) that inherent change is already woven into the fabric of the show – specifically because the lead actor can become a different person and be accepted by fans almost instantly. Still, there’s a perception that the contemporary Who fandom isn’t what once was, or, at the very least, could stand to grow or even win back those David Tennant-era fans of the previous decade. With the 2017 season about to inherit a new showrunner in the form of Chris Chibnall, fans are divided: will Chibnall be someone who shakes up the status-quo, or will he be too similar to his predecessor; Steven Moffat? In 1984, Colin Baker (as the Doctor) said change had come and not a moment too soon!”
And while that story – “The Twin Dilemma” – is still considered one of the worst Doctor Who scripts of all time, the sentiment holds: change is again blowing in the solar wind, and Doctor Who has its work cut out for it. The show must unburden itself with its propensity for overly precise continuity stuff, specifically, the Time War.
At least from an American (or non-UK) perspective, it could be argued Doctor Who has always had an accessibility problem. Because the intimidating long-history of the show, and the serial nature in which it was initially broadcast, general audiences of the 70’s, 80s, and 90’s found it impenetrable. Part 4 of how many? The Key to Time, what? Wait, which number Doctor is this?
Thankfully, in 2005, Russell T. Davies’s relaunch of Doctor Who sidestepped much of the previous continuity by favoring a simplistic approach to the show. Even Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor dressed plainly: dark leatherish jacket, short, unfancy hair, simple shirts. In essence, the 2005 “reboot” of Doctor Who was – from a canon standpoint – accessible as hell.
But from 2005 until now, Doctor Who has only become more and more complex, effectively re-tangling a knot which was neatly undone with the notion of “The Time War.” In the early days of the new show, Christopher Eccleston, and then, David Tennants Doctor could mention the Time War,” and it provided an easy way to get around any previous continuity problems with the canon of the old show. We had everything we needed to know: the Daleks and the Time Lords had a massive inter-dimensional conflict which resulted in some planets being destroyed, some history being alerted, and, initially strongly implied that not only were all the Time Lords wiped-out, but also erased from existence.
Part of why this works is because the Doctor’s outrageous abilities and personality work best dramatically when new characters encountering him are unfamiliar with him, the amazing TARDIS, and the wealth of exciting time and space adventures they’re about to have. Although– and here’s Who’s real life twin dilemma – if the recurring characters don’t get-to-know the Doctor really well, then things would get boring and also inaccessible. But, that means the longer those companions are around, the more they insinuate themselves into the canon of the show.
By the end of the first season of New-Who Rose (Billie Piper) briefly becomes an all-powerful being of pure energy and “ends” the Time War. Nine seasons later, the most contemporary companion – Clara – was retroactively revealed to to be directly responsible for the direction of the Doctor’s entire life, from the very first moments he fled the planet Gallifrey, to talking the Doctor into making a different decision in regard to the Time War. And while fans can (and do) debate the relative goodness or badness of these plot decisions the impact is clear: everything has gotten a lot more complicated, again.
If Doctor Who were naturalistic fiction, the lead character would be regarded as a total creep, or at the very least, disturbed. He’s constantly making new BFFs, but those people’s lives are endlessly screwed up forever because of that friendship. From Rose, to Donna, to Clara, each companion represents a microcosm of “the Time War”: an event in the Doctor’s past which has scared him emotionally and which he was also partially responsible for. He’s a guy with PTSD from a giant war which he kind of caused and made worse, and drags other people into his misery.
But wait! I thought Doctor Who was a fun-loving zany TV show about a quirky hero who travels through time and space in a phone box? Exactly! What started out as a nifty plot device has made Doctor Who almost unduly heavy. The events of the Time War has colored all of the Doctor’s relationships throughout all nine seasons of the new run. And in addition to giving new-viewers a headache of confusion, it’s also made everything just too damn important. Saving one planet or one person isn’t enough anymore: the Doctor has to be fighting for the existence of all of time and space, all the time.
While it’s thrilling to see the Doctor take on such epics stakes on a weekly basis, the show is always at its most accessible and charming when their’s a nice contrast of earthbound personality. The Matt Smith era gave us the excellent roommate episodes “The Lodger,” and “Closing Time,” and the 1970’s Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was specifically stranded on Earth for nearly his entire run.
In the season 8 opener, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) told a clockwork robot adversary that he preferred being on the ground, to being in the sky, saying “I prefer it down there. Everything is huge. Every detail. Every moment. Every life.”It seems pretty unlikely that Chibnall or the new creative team would do something as radical as grounding the Doctor for an entire season, but what if they did?
Doctor Who is at its best when the concept is more commonplace. And if the show is going to make it into another decade of prosperity and popularity, the next set of adventures of the Doctor could stand to keep things a little more grounded.