Even as a child, there are moments in fiction that you recognize. I vividly remember watching the final episode of Doctor Who, and in particular the closing shot of Ace and the Doctor walking off into the sunset. Even though I hadn't been told that the series was finished, something about that told me that it was over. Later on I'd discover that a combination of a drop in ratings, internal politics at the BBC, and a growing sense that the series had outstayed its welcome had sealed its fate, but for now, all I knew was that it was over.
Sixteen years later I'm delighted to see how wrong I was.
Not only has the series continued in over a hundred novels, three different strands of audio dramas, three spin-offs, the seemingly unstoppable Doctor Who Magazine, and the work of countless fans, but it's also made a triumphant return to television. At time of writing, the series is confirmed for at least two more seasons, has survived the departure of a lead actor, is scheduled to start broadcasting in America this spring, and looks set to remain on air for the foreseeable future.
The question is: Why? What's changed in the sixteen years since I watched the final episode? Why is the series a success now when it was viewed as a failure sixteen years ago?
To answer that question, it's necessary to look at how the format of the series was altered, the narrative changes that were made, how the problem of its decades of prior continuity was addressed, and how the choice of lead actors and writers affected the final product.
The format of the series was the first and most obvious change. Doctor Who had been a cultural phenomenon for over thirty years when the new series launched and was carrying all the baggage that entailed. Its initial run consisted almost entirely of twenty-five minute episodes, and the vast majority of stories were spread over three to six episodes. While this put the onus on the viewers tuning in every week, it also meant that stories could appear padded to make their length and were continually forced to finish with a cliff-hanger that would, in turn, take up the first two minutes of the next episode.
The format for the new series couldn't be more different. Episodes have been extended to forty-five minutes, seasons cut to thirteen episodes, and the approach to story structure completely reexamined. Instead of the constant serialization, there were three two-part stories in the new series, spaced between seven stand-alone episodes. This is a crucial change, meaning that over half the season consisted of viewer-friendly, single-part stories that could hook the audience and keep them without the artificial jeopardy of a cliff-hanger.
This format also marks another crucial difference. By making the leap to forty-five minute episodes the series not only has room to breathe but is also marketable as a genuine drama series. The twenty-five minute format remains traditionally one for children's drama and sitcoms—by moving away from it, Doctor Who could finally be viewed as a drama series in its own right. The fact that it's remained in a Saturday night timeslot in Britain and still been a ratings winner bears this out.
However, this change in format also went hand in hand with the adoption of one of the most influential narrative techniques of the last decade: the story arc. It was pioneered in genre television by J. Michael Straczynski's Babylon 5, a five-year-long series which was plotted at three separate levels. Each episode had its own internal story; these combined to tell a season-long story, and the five seasons combined to form what Straczynski described as a "televisual novel."
It's both a daring and tremendously difficult format to use, with the writers and producers forced to constantly walk the line between making the series accessible to new viewers and rewarding the viewers who've been with it from the start. If this balancing act can be achieved, however, the rewards are staggering. This is borne out by the number of genre shows in particular that use story arcs, ranging from Babylon 5 itself to more recent outings such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, Invasion, and the re-worked Battlestar Galactica.
With Lost and Galactica in particular proving to be huge successes, the story arc has become an accepted part of American genre television; as a result, the producers of Doctor Who almost inevitably had to employ one. In doing so, they not only acknowledged the changes made in the genre but also the changes that had to be made to Doctor Who to make it marketable to a modern audience.
Doctor Who has, largely because of the manner in which it was used, adopted the story arc to great effect. The series focused not only on the Doctor and his companion Rose, but introduced her mother and boyfriend as continuing characters. This enabled the series to break new ground and explore the effect that travelling with the Doctor has on companions and their families. While some criticised the series for trying to balance its more fantastic elements with something more domestic, the overall effect was to enhance the series' longstanding love of Earth as a location (after all, it is the cheapest place to film) and to give the characters the appearance of far more complex motivations than previously possible. This in turn maked the series more accessible, with the visits to Rose's family acting as another entry point for new viewers.
These recurring characters were joined by a recurring motif: the phrase "Bad Wolf." Introduced with such subtlety that it only became apparent after the first few episodes, the phrase was used again and again in different stories, contexts, and time periods. "Bad Wolf" also opened the door to an arena that Doctor Who had been unable to use during its initial run: the Internet.
With the exception of an abortive attempt to launch a version of the ninth doctor online at Scream of Shalka, the series had never really embraced the Internet in an official capacity. That changed under the control of producer Russell T. Davies, a man whose impact on the show is felt at every level, which will be discussed in more detail later on. In the series' approach to the Internet he took a clear cue from The Blair Witch Project and how the producers used its website to enhance the original film. In that instance, the website was instrumental in putting the film forward as a "true" story, and the information it contained threw new light on many of the central ideas in the film.
Davies adapted this approach and used the series' web presence to enhance the weekly episodes and to provide clues to what was to come. This led to two of the websites developed for the show actually appearing in it. The best example of these is Who is Doctor Who?, a site that tracks the Doctor's numerous appearances through history. It's taken over by Mickey, Rose's boyfriend, and becomes a companion to the series. As each episode was broadcast, Mickey would discover some information pertinent to that episode and put it online. It was a very subtle piece of promotion, especially as the authors took great pains to remember that Mickey didn't know everything that had gone on. The end result is a near perfect faux conspiracy site, complete with rampant speculation and personal opinion. However, it also provided a real sense of depth to the show, anchoring it in the present and for the first time giving the impression of its characters actually traveling somewhere (or somewhen) else.
Crucially, it also gave some background to Mickey, his increasingly embittered view of Rose's adventures through time becoming more and more evident in what he's writing. This exploration of the effect that traveling with the Doctor has on those who are left behind is one of the central ideas of the new series and it's neatly put forward here.
Who is Doctor Who? was joined by several other sites as the series progressed, most notably UNIT. A UN-based military force dedicated to containing the unknown, UNIT was one of the most popular elements of the original series and following its appearance in the new series, the UNIT website went live at U.N.I.T. Just as Who is Doctor Who? is a pitch-perfect copy of a conspiracy site, the UNIT website is a near-perfect recruiting site for potential UNIT soldiers. It lists some of the organization's past achievements, emphasizes the elite nature of its forces, and, tongue firmly in cheek, mentions several events from the original series.
However, the final website put up proved to be the most important. The Bad Wolf site at Bad Wolf Blaidd Drwg—who is bad wolf? what is bad wolf? doesn't quite exist in the same universe as the series, instead providing a listing of all the "Bad Wolf" sightings to date and numerous theories about what the phrase meant. Bad Wolf was a last stop for viewers coming late to the series, a means of getting up to date on the story arc and enabling them to enjoy the final two episodes.
By using the web as a means of drawing the viewer into the series, Davies and the production company managed to make the series seem both far closer and far more open to its viewers. There was rampant speculation for weeks about the exact nature of "Bad Wolf" (the phrase began turning up as real graffiti in several places) and Who is Doctor Who? in particular was swamped with visitors after every episode. Viewers were suddenly more than just passive observers; the websites were handing them the tools to try and solve the puzzle at the heart of the series. In this way, the web presence of the series evolved into something closer to the web game produced for Steven Spielberg's A.I., a means of interrogating the story as much as following it.
It seems certain that this use of the web will continue for the second series. The Christmas special led to another website, Guinevere One Project, this time covering the launch of England's first probe to Mars complete with press releases and a countdown to the probe's expected arrival time in Mars orbit. The site also reveals that the probe was built by the British Rocket Group, directly linking it to the Quatermass stories that are viewed by many as inspiring Doctor Who.
While this change in narrative approach and newfound enthusiasm for the web helped the series no end, it was still faced with a problem. With decades of established continuity and eight previous actors in the role, the producers were faced with a choice between servicing the established continuity and fan base or striking a balance between that and bringing in new viewers.
To follow the original series slavishly would have raised two major problems. First, the final years of the series and how it was closed down remain a sore point between the BBC and the fan community. To this day, the BBC contends that the series didn't get high enough ratings, while the fan community maintains it was never given the opportunity to get them. It's worth noting that animosity remains so high on this issue that when Michael Grade, one of the executives responsible for the original series' cancellation, returned to the BBC, the fan community reacted with outright hostility and only calmed down when it became clear Grade had no control over the series in his new position.
The atmosphere remains so highly charged between the two sides that any attempt to follow the original directly would have been judged to impossible standards. To make matters worse, the changes in format, special effects technology, and budget would have made a smooth transition between the original and the new series almost impossible.
Second, the series' own success actually worked against a direct continuation of the original. So much material had been produced based on Paul McGann's version—including two multi-novel stories dealing with a civil war amongst the Time Lords and an amnesiac Doctor spending a century on Earth—that any acknowledgement of his incarnation would have swamped any attempt to tell a story in its own right. As a result, the series' vast, intricate continuity not only kept it alive but actively encouraged the producers of the new series to strike new ground.
This new ground took the form of a reinvention of sorts for the series. Where the previous incarnations had existed within a constant, healthy, if somewhat ramshackle, shared universe, the new series chose to draw a line under that for both viewers and character.
First to go was the Doctor's home world, an event which formed the cornerstone of Christopher Eccleston's performance as the 9th doctor, and provided early hints of where the "Bad Wolf" story arc would lead. As the series went by, more and more hints were dropped about what role the Doctor had played in the conflict that had destroyed his world and, in doing so, the difference between this incarnation and the others became apparent. This Doctor had made mistakes, was constantly on the move, constantly running to catch up, and this enhanced the tone of the series beautifully. There was a real feeling of things being different and new—not necessarily in a good way.
This was further driven home by the way in which established elements of the series were used, best shown by episode five, "Dalek." Here, the Tardis (the Doctor's time/space machine) arrives in a museum of alien artifacts recovered from crash sites on Earth. The prize exhibit is an iconic Doctor Who monster, the Dalek. Arguably the most recognizable of the series' villains, the Daleks were mutants encased in robotic battle suits, a nihilistic, savagely violent race intent on exterminating all non-Dalek life. The episode, written by Rob Shearman, is a beautifully constructed piece, acknowledging the past of the Daleks without recapping it. It's also a superb character study, driving home not only exactly how much damage even a single Dalek can do but also emphasizing exactly how alien the Doctor himself is. This is a Doctor with no past and no home, a man who throws himself maniacally into every day of his life because only in doing so can he blot out the memories of what he's been forced to do.
"Dalek" in particular shows Eccleston embracing the darker elements of the character in a way none of his predecessors were allowed to. The character has always had a dark, almost fatalistic element to him, and previous actors have explored it, but never to this level. Of the earlier doctors, only the black humor of Tom Baker's portrayal or the ruthlessness of Sylvester McCoy's come close to what Eccleston achieves here. His Doctor is, for the first time, a genuinely alien figure, a man with different values from ours and a different way of looking at the world. He's an element of chaos, a figure revered in some places and feared in others. Through Eccleston, we see that for the first time.
For all the success he enjoyed in the role, Eccleston only stayed with the show for one season. Leaving because he was worried about being typecast, Eccleston gave one of the strongest seasons in the show's history, which will prove to be a benchmark for seasons to come. With that in mind, it's interesting to note the similarities between him and his replacement, David Tennant.
Both men have worked for Davies before (Eccleston in The Second Coming and Tennant in Casanova), both men are relatively young, and both are known for portraying characters who are both eccentric and deeply intelligent. As a result, there's a real sense of continuity between the two portrayals. Tennant's Doctor is happier than Eccleston's but for the first time is actively threatening. He swings from engaging in a pitched swordfight for the fate of Earth to staring down the English government without missing a beat and is, if anything, more frightening without a sword in his hand.
While Tennant's Doctor showcases the offhand humor and wit that the actor is best known for, it's interesting to note that the darkness of Eccleston's performance is also present—it will be fascinating to see where Tennant takes the character with that in mind.
Each one of these changes was brought about under the control of the new producer, Russell T. Davies. A long time fan of the series, Davies is best known in England for Queer as Folk, an utterly up-front, often explicit and extremely funny look at the gay scene on Manchester's Canal Street. However, he has also been involved in other highly successful series, most notably the excellent The Second Coming, dealing with the arrival of a new messiah in contemporary Manchester. Chistopher Eccleston's performance in that series contains clear echoes of his work on Doctor Who, and he was Davies's first choice when casting began.
When his name was announced, it was as much a statement of intent from Davies as it was a casting choice. Eccleston made his name playing a relentless CID officer on the crime series Cracker, and is best known for roles in films such as Gone in 60 Seconds and Elizabeth. His performances are uniformly intelligent and intense and his presence in a series which, prior to its return, was regarded as something of a joke was an early clue to the approach Davies was taking.
Where Eccleston's casting was viewed with a combination of appreciation and surprise, the casting of Billie Piper as his companion, Rose, was greeted with outright derision. Best known for her teenaged pop career in England, Piper had distinguished herself in several roles for the BBC prior to the series and seemed, at the time, to be a piece of casting forced on Davies by the network.
While the central casting was unusual, the choice of writers for the show was nothing short of astonishing. In addition to himself, Davies hired writers such as Stephen Moffat, Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, and Rob Shearman. With a track record that took in ground-breaking comedies such as Coupling and The League of Gentlemen, as well as the highly successful range of Doctor Who audio dramas, the writers were a combination of new talent and established series drama veterans.
This combination of old and new, expected and unexpected, could be viewed as Davies's manifesto for the series—and it's paid dividends. Eccleston's driven, funny, strangely tragic take on the character was both utterly at odds with his previous work and utterly in keeping with the show, while Piper's Rose was a world away from the previous approaches the series had taken to female companions.
Infamous in its early days for having female characters do little more than scream, faint, and rush headlong into abject peril, the series had gone some way towards changing that view with the character of Ace, introduced in the final years of its original run. Played by Sophie Aldred, Ace was a driven—and at times violent—young woman with a troubled past. Many of the original series' best stories focused on her, and she's widely regarded as one of the best elements of the original run. However, there is a strong case for saying that Ace was defined as much by what she wasn't (the weak, imperiled female companions) as what she was.
In contrast to this, Piper's Rose was the one thing that no companion prior to her had been: normal. She worked in a department store, lived in a block of flats with her mum, and had a boyfriend. She was normal and as a result, grounded, giving the character, and the series far more immediacy. Rose is the definition of the conventional and as a result makes the perfect hook for the viewer. She reacts the way we would react, bringing the fantastic elements of the series into far sharper focus.
Where Davies really came into his own, however, was the character of Captain Jack Harkness. Played by John Barrowman, Captain Jack appeared, at first glance, to be a fairly standard Doctor Who character. The series has a long, proud tradition of likeable rogues and given that Captain Jack is first introduced trying to swindle the Doctor and Rose, he appears to fall into that category.
However, it quickly became apparent that Jack was a real marker of how the series had changed. Jack is the first openly bisexual character the series has ever featured, his exchanges with both the Doctor and Rose crackling with flirtation and energy. It's never overstated—it's simply how Jack is and the series never shies away from it. This culminates in the final time he speaks to the Doctor and Rose in season one, a funny, deeply moving scene that finishes with Jack kissing them both goodbye. Jack remains one of the series' high points and it's no surprise that Torchwood, the spin-off debuting later this year, features him as the main character.
The first season of the new series was a resounding success. The scripts were varied and uniformly strong, ranging from the Victorian horror of Mark Gatiss's "The Unquiet Dead" to Stephen Moffat's superlative two-parter "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances." Eccleston, Piper, and Barrowman all turned in fantastic performances, as did the supporting cast, and the series benefited massively from the change in format. A second season was quickly announced, as was a third, and even the departure of Eccleston couldn't put a dent in what quickly proved to be the TV success of the year.
The reasons for this success run deeper than changes in format or actor. The sixteen years off-screen meant that the series could be approached in a fresh way, the production line approach of previous seasons not only abandoned but forgotten. In this way, the series could be treated as something new while still acknowledging its past, as well as playing off the best elements of the nostalgia fans still felt for it. To put it another way, the one thing that saved Doctor Who is the one thing the series was always truly about: time.