52 years from its first airing and Doctor Who continues to attract fans. It remains the most popular science fiction series airing on TV today. Millions of people around the world watch the new episodes, read the comics and novels, listen to the audios, and attend conventions.
Not all is well in Whoville. Let’s take a look at the series as a whole and see where it is in 2015.
Television: Series nine has started and the ratings have, frankly, been terrible. Part of this is the Rugby World Cup, which has often been airing directly against the series. Now the powers that be at the BBC have known for ages that the RWC was coming. This is not just some surprise massive sports event (though that would be kind of interesting). They could have scheduled Doctor Who so it wasn’t running right up against it, but they didn’t. When it comes to watching an event live, pretty much no sports fan will DVR the sport and watch the drama live; they’ll do it the other way around.
Now it is true that the BBC do track when people watch via time shift, like through a DVR, but even with those numbers added in, we’re still in a situation where the ratings are significantly lower than they were just three years ago.
There are reasons for this beyond the RWC. First off, audiences, especially younger ones, want the new. They tend to be fickle. Very few shows maintain really high numbers over an extended period of time.
But secondly, one cannot help but acknowledge that Doctor Who just isn’t very good anymore. The season premiere was quite decent, but episode three was fairly meh and episode four was better than that, but not great. There hasn’t been a truly excellent episode since the Tenth Doctor’s era. Oh, there have been good ones, and certainly great specials like “The Day of the Doctor”, but nothing at all on the order of the best of Tennant’s era.
I mean, just look at last season. Several ok episodes (“Into the Dalek”, “Mummy on the Orient Express”, the season finale), one really good, solid episode (“Time Heist”), and then several others that varied from merely bad (“Deep Breath”), to outright terrible and insulting to the audience (“Kill the Moon”, “In the Forest of the Night”).
Compare this with season four, which gave us “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”, “Midnight”, “The Doctor’s Daughter”, “Turn Left”, and a season finale that, yes, was a bit bloated, but still quite good. Compare this with any series from the Ninth or Tenth Doctor’s era and there’s a distinct lack of quality. Hell, even up against the Smith era it’s just not there. The best episodes from series eight aren’t nearly as good as the best from the previous seasons, and the worst are at “Love and Monsters”-level terrible.
It doesn’t help that the Doctor isn’t very likable anymore. Now, to be fair, that’s not something I blame Capaldi for, and previous Doctor, such as the First and Sixth, were also quite unlikable at first. But in the case of the First Doctor things changed quickly, and in the case of the Sixth, well…he got carrot juice.
No, I blame the writers for this, and for the overall decline in episode quality. And I therefore must also blame the captain of this Whovian Titanic, Steven Moffat.
I’m not a Moffat-hater. The guy can and does do some really amazing work. All the truly excellent episodes of the Ninth and Tenth Doctor’s era were written by him. He also cast Smith and Capaldi as Doctors, and while I don’t much care for the Twelfth Doctor, I do like Capaldi quite a bit as an actor.
But Moffat is one of those writers who clearly needs someone standing over his shoulder saying, “Steven. Are you sure this is a good idea?” He’s not alone in this. George Lucas and, yes, previous showrunner Russell T Davies both have the same problem. They’re all gifted and creative people, but really need someone around who can veto their less-than-excellent tendencies.
Ultimately Moffat bears responsibility for the current state of the series, and I think it’s time for him to go. Not because he’s bad, but because he’s very clearly burned-out at this point. He’s still doing Sherlock, is now planning a Who spinoff called Class, because the world needs Buffy with Daleks, and he’s become too much of a lightning rod for fans. Frankly, old series fans like me are starting to get a certain familiar feeling about him. It’s time for him to declare victory and go home.
That’s not what’s going to happen, at least not immediately. He’s already signed on for series ten (which means we’re getting one, so there is that), which means we have him for at least 2016. But it would be nice if he would just retire before then, or at the very least not stick around for series eleven. Move on.
In summary, the new series isn’t doing well, and there is little chance of recovery before 2017. That said, it’s unlikely that the BBC will cancel it, but I do expect the budget to get cut. That might end up being a good thing, because maybe it will force the series to concentrate on story and not spectacle.
Audio Stories: Big Finish has had a banner year. First off, they have, at this stage, released eleven of their planned thirteen main range titles for the year. This includes the 200th story, which tied into the end of The Eighth Doctor Adventures, which was a nice surprise. Further they concluded the Dark Eyes series, which…hasn’t been great, honestly. But it ended well. Also, the Fourth Doctor series continued strongly, with eight new stories featuring him and Leela.
The spinoff series also continued to be quite excellent, with new Jago and Litefoot, new Iris, more Gallifrey, and other amazingly neat things to enjoy.
The big news for the year? Well, until recently it would have been the recasting. They’ve recast Ben, Barbara and the Third Doctor. All of this was not without controversy, but with the first story featuring the new Ben and the Third Doctor box set both out, I can say that it was a good move. The new actors are quite good in their roles.
That would have been the big news had it not been overtaken by another piece of news that also ended up not being the big news. That other piece was “The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure”, which finally gave ole Sixie a proper regeneration story. It was rather odd in patches, but overall excellent, and really gave Colin Baker a chance to shine.
But, ok, the big news is Big Finish finally getting to wade into the shallow end of the new series. First off we got an announcement about an upcoming UNIT series, starring Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart. Then we got an announcement about Torchwood audios.
Then things got a bit crazy. Big Finish announced the arrival of River Song, who would appear alongside the Eighth Doctor in the upcoming “Doom Coalition” series. We also got announcements about a Churchill audio series starring Ian McNeice and a box set featuring old series Doctors up against new series villains, including the Sycorax, the Judoon and the Weeping Angels (and I’m really puzzled as to how they’ll work out in audio format).
The really big announcement happened just the other day, when Big Finish told the world they’d signed on John Hurt to do a series of War Doctor audios, and a prequel story featuring the Eighth Doctor in the early days of the Time War.
In summary: Big Finish continues to churn out the best Doctor Who, with some excellent old series stuff, and the promise of some really good new series products. Even if the new series goes to shit completely on TV, we’ll still have Big Finish to fall back on.
Paper Media: I’m less familiar with the paper media (books, comics), than I should be. That said, I understand that sales of both are quite good currently, and that Paul Cornell’s series, “The Four Doctors”, is being quite well-received. Further, we got the above-referenced Big Bang Generation, which features not only the Twelfth Doctor (minus Clara, who while better this season, still isn’t very good), but also features Bernice Summerfield and the Legion crew. Hooray! Further, for the audio book fans out there, you can get not only this story, but the original novel Human Nature in audio book form read by Lisa Bowerman. Nice!
In summary: yeah, the show’s doing fine in printed form.
Toys and games: Character Options has returned, at least somewhat, to the five inch figure format (though oddly, labeled as “5.5 inch”, and visibly a bit larger than previous figures). They’ve released new versions of the Twelfth Doctor, the Curator, and Missy, with more to come. This pleases me, as the 3.75 inch figures were just bad.
Even better, Lego managed to acquire the rights to do at least a couple of Doctor Who sets. The current ones are just collector’s sets, but should be quite neat. With luck, it will result in more sets down the line.
Concurrent with that, they’ve also released a game called Lego Dimensions, which is a “toys-to-life” video game that’s sure to put a serious dent in ones wallet. Among other licensed franchises, it also features a Doctor Who level with the base game, and another level coming out in November. They’re paying much attention to detail with it, and it should be lovely.
in summary: All is well among the toys and games, and hopefully will get even better!
Overall Summary: I don’t think we can deny that the series is, at least on TV, going through a rough patch. But with 35+ seasons, that’s to be expected. The show has weathered worse, and we’re at least not likely to end up with a cancellation anytime soon.
But if we ignore the TV series, the state of the show in general is quite strong. The novels, audios, toys, and video games all continue to be of very high quality, and the sort of thing that would make a fan in 1990…well, you can use your imagination for how happy and excited they’d be.
So if the TV series never recovers, at least we collectively have the rest to fall back on. And if it does recover, well, happy days are here again!