Saturday 7 December 2019

Pat Stacey: Why is there no Doctor Who Christmas or New Year special from BBC this year?

The Doctor won't see you this Christmas

Bradley Walsh as Graham, Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, Mandip Gill as Yaz and Tosin Cole as Ryan in Doctor Who (Alan Clarke/PA)
Bradley Walsh as Graham, Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, Mandip Gill as Yaz and Tosin Cole as Ryan in Doctor Who (Alan Clarke/PA)

Pat Stacey

If there’s one thing on television that screams Christmas, it’s the arrival of a new trailer for Doctor Who. Or rather, it used to up until last year.

A Doctor Who special had been a staple of BBC1’s Christmas Day line-up every year since the successful relaunch of the long-dormant series in 2005. Last year, however, the BBC broke with tradition and broadcast it on New Year’s Day instead.

Far from signalling a lack of confidence in the series, the change seemed to be a way of announcing that this was a bold new era for one of the BBC’s most treasured franchises.

The most radical change of all, of course, was the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor in the series’ 55-year history. However, the innovations didn’t end there.

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The BBC and new show runner Chris Chibnall, who took over from Stephen Moffat, gambled on moving Doctor Who from its Saturday evening slot, which it had occupied since the relaunch, to Sunday.

These changes, plus the use for the first time of anamorphic widescreen lenses to give the series a more cinematic look (especially when watched on a large-screen TV), were all part of a conscious effort to shake up Doctor Who, which was perceived as having grown stale.

During Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor, the scripts were often so tangled up in the character’s complex mythology that it became a turn-off for many viewers.

The viewing figures were in sharp decline. One episode drew an on-the-night audience in the UK of only 2.87 million – a dismal figure and an all-time low for the revived series. Even after viewers who watched on catch-up on the BBC iPlayer were factored in, the final figure was a still miserable 4.73 million.

It didn’t help that the programme was being moved around different time slots from one week to the next to accommodate Strictly Come Dancing, something about which Capaldi publicly voiced his annoyance.

The cruel irony is that Capaldi’s third and final season in the role was his best. These episodes, which eschewed enervating multi-part stories in favour of back-to-basics stand alone adventures, were smart, crisp, entertaining and, in a few cases, satisfyingly creepy – something Doctor Who hadn’t been in quite a while.

A big factor was also the sparkling chemistry between Capaldi and Pearl Mackie as his companion Bill Potts. It brought out a warmth in his portrayal that hadn’t always been evident. It’s just a pity this all happened too late to make any difference.

The casting of Jodie Whittaker drew the inevitable online whining from the same pathetic manboy-fanboy idiots who took to IMDB to rubbish the all-female remake of Ghostbusters.

However, misogynistic predictions that casting a woman as the Doctor would kill the series stone dead have thankfully been way wide of the mark.

The ratings have actually jumped by a couple of million since Whittaker took over, and deservedly so. She’s marvellous in the role, even if some of the scripts she was given to work with felt a little underpowered (the one involving a ridiculous-looking, metal-munching alien is best forgotten).

Given this, it’s slightly surprising that the BBC has decided to forgo a Doctor Who Christmas or New Year special altogether this year. The latest trailer dropped on Friday, announcing the series will be returning “early in 2020”.

It’s a suitably action-packed minute, featuring some new monsters, favourite old foes the Cybermen and high-profile guest stars Stephen Fry, Lenny Henry and former ER star Goran Visnjic.

For all that, though, Doctor Who has always had an in-built weakness: the lack of any real jeopardy. No matter how dire the situation, you know the Doctor will always save the day at the last moment. Even immortal Time Lords can’t get away with that indefinitely.

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