November 23, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of “Doctor Who” on the BBC. Before I go on, think about that for a moment. The show is 50 years old and is possibly more popular now than ever. It’s a far different situation than 1989 when the show was canceled, leading to a 16 year gap in production (barring the 1996 TV movie that introduced the Eighth Doctor). For the last several weeks, we’ve been getting teases leading up to the 50th Anniversary Special, “The Day of the Doctor,” and the TV movie about the creation of the show, "An Adventure in Space and Time."
My complaint, since you knew I was going to have one, is that the TWO YEARS leading up to this event have been distressingly light on new Doctor Who episodes. According to The Guardian, in 2011, Doctor Who was the biggest selling BBC series internationally, and its value as a franchise had jumped 49% from the previous year. Other shows, such as “Sherlock” and “Top Gear” are also big exports, but “Doctor Who” benefits from merchandising more than these other shows. I can’t order action figures of Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond (I totally would, if they were available, though), but my son has a TARDIS playset along with 30-40 figures. These sorts of ancillary revenue can be huge. Ask George Lucas.
So with the show growing in popularity around the world and bringing in tons of cash, what does the BBC do? Slash production basically in half! Season Six of the new series (or possibly Season Thirty-Two, if you’ve been counting since the beginning) and the 2011 Christmas special, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” aired, we have only had 14 new episodes. I blamed the BBC above, but in all honesty, I don’t know who is responsible for this. Is it the BBC, or the show’s production team? No clue. The upshot, though, is that we’ve had one season’s worth of episodes stretched out over the last two years, the two years leading up to the show’s 50th Anniversary.
This lack of new episodes has hurt the BBC. According to their own 2012/2013 Annual Report, sales were down 14% partially due to the decreased number of Doctor Who episodes. Beyond that, though, I wonder how the relative lack of new material is affecting Doctor Who’s popularity with the show’s audience, particularly children.
Now the diehard fans will always be there. They maintained their love of the show through the dark years from 1989 to the 2005 revival. Newer fans, though, may lose interest and move onto other things. I hoping the build-up to the 50th Anniversary Special on November 23rd isn’t too late to draw back in any viewers who may have strayed.
It does feel like the 50th Anniversary hype started late, though. The most recent season ended with not so much a cliffhanger, but a huge tease for the special. That was back in May. Since then there have been Doctor Who-related events in the news (Matt Smith’s announcement that he was leaving, the naming of Peter Capaldi as the next Doctor, the discovery of nine lost Second Doctor episodes), but these have not seemed like an orchestrated campaign leading to the 50th Anniversary Special.
Compare that to 2009. In the Fall of 2008, David Tennant announced that he would be leaving the show. Already we knew that 2009 would consist of a handful of specials rather than a full season because Tennant was spending several months performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company. After his announcement, each of the specials in 2009 became an event leading up to the Tenth Doctor’s departure at the end of the year (New Year’s Day 2010, technically). Then we had new episodes with the Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith, starting just over 3 months later.
I’m not suggesting that Doctor Who needs to be on all of the time or move to a US-style 22 episode season. I think that would be disastrous to the show’s quality, and I imagine that the show is very expensive to produce. We’ve come a long way from the days when some of the aliens looked like something the production designers cobbled together from things found in their grandparents’ attic. Instead, a return to 13 episode plus a Christmas Special style seasons that we had from 2005-2011 (Excepting, of course, the 2009 Year of Specials) would be fine. Rumors are that is what is going to happen. Showrunner Steven Moffat has reportedly said that there will be at least 13 episodes in 2014. Unfortunately, the other part of that rumor is that the episodes won’t begin airing until the Fall of 2014, many long months after this year’s Christmas special. That will be just over three years since the end of Season Six in May 2011, during which time we will have only had a total of 17 new episodes. That averages out to less than six a year,
I know I should stop whining. Outside of US network TV, these gaps are becoming the norm. “Sherlock” fans, of which I am most definitely one, will have dealt with a two year break since the end of Season Two and its major cliffhanger by the time Season Three begins in January 2014. “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Mad Men” have all had long gaps between their seasons (or between halves of their season) at points in their runs. So if we don’t get the new episodes of Doctor Who until next Fall, I’ll just be happy to have them.
But if we could push that up to say…April, I’d be ever so happy. Pretty please with sonic screwdrivers on top?
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