Why We Should Learn to Stop Worrying, and Embrace the Potential Doctor Who Movie

PrintE-mail Written by J. R. Southall

Doctor Who fans, you’ve gotta love ’em.

Faced with potentially the best news the series has had since the announcement of its return in 2003, what was their first reaction? Panic.

It was ‘announced’ yesterday (on the Daily Variety news website) that David Yates, director of the ultra-successful last four films in the massively popular Harry Potter film franchise, is currently in negotiations to start work on a Doctor Who movie. Among other things, Yates told Variety, “It needs quite a radical transformation to take it into the bigger arena,” and, “Russell T. Davies and then Steven Moffat have done their own transformations, which were fantastic, but we have to put that aside and start from scratch.”

You can see why fans of the successful TV series might be a little apprehensive. And yet a few moments’ pause for thought will surely present a different picture.

For one thing, David Yates is hardly the worst man to be behind such a venture. Not only does he have those Harry Potter films under his belt (the entire second half of the franchise, and one that has become even more successful under his directorship), but his pre-Potter CV is pretty impressive, too. David Yates was the man behind such intelligent and thought-provoking series as The Way We Live Now, Sex Traffic and The Girl in the Cafe. State of Play, which he directed from a script by Paul Abbott, is one of the finest things ever broadcast on British television. There’s absolutely no indication that Yates would wish to ‘dumb down’ a brand that already thrives on its reputation for intelligence.

And Yates’ ‘partner in crime’ on the Doctor Who project is Jane Tranter, now head of the Los Angeles-based BBC Worldwide Productions, but formerly Controller of Drama Commissioning at the BBC, a position that saw her ultimately responsible for the green-lighting of such series as Waking the Dead, Bleak House, Spooks, and the afore-mentioned State of Play. Tranter was also the executive who brought Russell T Davies to the corporation, overseeing Doctor Who’s return to the screen.

It is an easy assumption to make that between these two, a lot of respect will be paid to the idea of Doctor Who, and neither of them is likely to want to risk making a mess of a potential franchise that could be as lucrative for British enterprise as the Harry Potter series was. Now that the Harry Potter film series is over, in fact, Doctor Who might be seen as its natural successor in the cinematic arena. The notion of Doctor Who films achieving domestic returns in excess of £10m – let alone what the global grosses might be – is certainly not one to strike fear into the heart. And yet the Harry Potter franchise has seen returns of nearly $8 billion across its eight films...

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The fans who are panicking are almost certainly thinking of things rather closer to home. The effect on the television series, the possibility of the movie becoming a ‘turkey’, the continuity aspects.

Should fans be worried about these things, though? Certainly with David Yates behind the camera, it’s unlikely that a potential Doctor Who movie would fail. It’s worth remembering that Doctor Who isn’t a ‘cult’ show with a niche audience, after all, and that something as populist and popular as Who – existing very much in a prime time, Saturday night/Christmas evening slot – is always going to be a natural target for a big-screen, mainstream makeover. If the television version can attract audiences comprising maybe as much as a fifth of the population in its country of origin, there will be no shortage of interest in a cinema version of the character. Yates and Tranter would really have their work cut out to make a disaster of this particular franchise.

So what of the knock-on effect on the television show, which is after all the reason why we’re fans of Doctor Who?

In all honesty, there really doesn’t need to be one – except perhaps in increased viewing figures, and maybe a more impressive product, given how the makers of Doctor Who will presumably be under greater public scrutiny than before. Who knows, the BBC might even find the wherewithal to expand the show’s budget... And a successful movie franchise will only have a knock-on effect on the television series in terms of securing its longevity. If the movie is successful, more and more people will want to come to the television version as an alternative to what they’ve seen at the pictures (the Harry Potter films didn’t drive readers away from the books, rather they drove the book sales through the roof – and Doctor Who the television series stands to benefit from a similar upsurge in viewers), and the BBC aren’t crazy enough either to damage the parent show’s independence, or less still reduce the volume of production. The two versions can quite happily sit side by side, with fans of either becoming fans of both, in a mutually supportive atmosphere.

Remember, this proposed movie will be entirely independent of the television version. Those whose initial reaction to the news was that production on the TV series would be closed down to accommodate the film couldn’t be more wrong. There is no need for this to happen, and indeed it would be extremely counter-productive. Doctor Who on television is a strong and thriving – and very much established – brand, and is the perfect advertisement for a big screen alternative, and a movie would have the same effect on the series. The environment in to which a movie adaptation of a highly popular television series would be born would be one of mutual beneficiality.

But there’s the rub; the movie would be an alternative to the television series. There are a lot of people who like their Doctor Who to make sense, to add up to a cohesive whole. The kind of people who will jump through hoops attempting to delineate the continuity that allows for two, mutually exclusive versions of Human Nature to exist, for instance. This movie will not be for them. Yates’ assertion that the movie would need to “start from scratch” is proof of that.

But what exactly does “start from scratch” really mean? And how much of a departure might “a radical transformation” really be?

In truth, so far away from having a writer attached, let alone a script, it’s completely impossible to say. But if you read Yates’ remarks in context, rather than through the reactionary eyes of a died-in-the-wool fan-head, they’re perhaps not quite as sinister and exaggerated as some people are assuming. For one thing, Yates’ claim that the movie would need to “start from scratch” was said in the context of the post-2005 series; in other words, the movie will not be a direct continuation of the themes that have dominated the last seven years of Doctor Who. This movie Doctor might well still be the ‘Last of the Time Lords’, but the movie won’t be about him being so, just as it won’t revolve around the Falling Silence or the cracks in time. And that’s a good thing. Even the television version of Doctor Who effectively ‘reboots’ itself from time to time – particularly when it gets a new showrunner or producer, but actually more often than that: during the early years of the show, practically every single story began with something of a reboot. That’s the beauty of Doctor Who; it has a central idea at its absolute core – that of the wandering stranger who arrives and rights wrongs, before disappearing again – but just about anything else is fair game. It’s famously the go-anywhere, do-anything series, and there’s no reason why a potential movie would want to tie itself into knots adhering to current continuity and mythology.

Further than that, people are worried that the movie will be a complete reboot, with an entirely ‘virgin’ Doctor beginning his adventures afresh as if the television series had never happened. And truth be told, they’re probably right.

I don’t have a single problem with that.

The reason we enjoy Doctor Who is surely not because of the specific continuity (which goodness knows, the television series has itself overwritten often enough, whenever it has felt the need to do so), but because we like the story of a ‘madman with a box’ turning up here, there and everywhere – and every when – and righting wrongs, before disappearing again. Just because the movie ‘Doctor’ is not the television ‘Doctor’ doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy a new take on the same idea. Let’s be honest, nobody’s going to throw out the baby and the bathwater; movie executives (especially ones like Jane Tranter, with a vested interest in both formats) are savvy enough to know that when you adapt a franchise, you keep the bits that work. This movie Doctor will not be a human Doctor, as Peter Cushing was back in 1965 (and to be honest, I loved that portrayal of an alternative Doctor Who), but he will travel through time and space in a big blue box, bigger inside than out (after all, that’s one of Doctor Who’s most genius ideas, and one of the cruxes of its success), righting wrongs and disappearing again; everything else is secondary.

In fact, one of the great things about this movie, should it happen, is that we’ll be able to enjoy it in isolation, free from the trappings of the television series, and with no worries about how everything will make sense, to concern us. It will have its own internal continuity, and we’ll be able to watch it from a perspective of Doctor Who as a blank slate – just as we did back in 1963, and almost as we did in 2005, come to that.

A movie couldn’t have anything to do with the television series anyway, of course. Films spend somewhere in the region of about three years from script to screen (certainly the bigger budget ones, as this would be, do), and there’s no way such a project could tie in to casting and continuity decisions that are being made on the television programme on a year-by-year basis. Even if the movie were to go into production now, with Matt Smith in place as the star, there’s very little chance he’d still be playing the role on the television at such time as the film might be released (let alone afford the time to act in both). No, an entirely independent existence is a necessity of the production itself, as well as something to be welcomed. The casting of a current or past Doctor actor would be retrograde in the extreme, limiting the movie’s ambition and potential before the cameras had even begun rolling. So David Tennant is rather unlikely, too.

Speaking of casting though, I have had one thought...

Having already practised for the part of a Time Lord in the television version, and having spoken fondly of the experience, and especially having worked with David Yates on a number of extremely well-received projects before, I’d like to suggest that John Simm as a good bet for the part of the Doctor. Simm might be relatively unknown as a film actor, but in this instance that’s a good thing. A Doctor Who film might well play on a more widely-recognised actor for the villain (as the 1996 TV Movie did, of course), and it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility for someone of the stature of Johnny Depp (after all, this film will be budgeted high and will be casting to match) to appear as, perhaps, the Master... I can see such a movie having a guest cast with a high recognition factor (just like the Harry Potter films), while casting someone talented but unstarry as its lead.

If not John Simm, maybe David Morrissey...

Or Bill Nighy...

A radical transformation” is a phrase a lot of people will have worries about. This is Doctor Who after all, and we wouldn’t want to see any radical transformations in Doctor Who...

But all joking aside, David Yates is once again using ‘film-speak’ rather than ‘fan-speak’, and what he means by “a radical transformation” is almost undoubtedly somewhat different to what we will take it to mean – and note particularly how he also describes the versions overseen by Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat as “transformations”; in other words, we’re over-exaggerating what he means by the expression. He’s simply talking about the regeneration of the material that would be necessary to put a series that’s used to time and budgetary constraints – and therefore has its scope, its ambition, restricted as a result – up on the big screen, where the only limiting factor is the artist’s imagination. Doctor Who will be, if anything, broadened and deepened as a widescreen experience – which sounds crazy, given how much capacity for breadth and depth it has as a thirteen-weeks-a-year phenomenon, but a movie will find new ways to approach the material, new ways to tell the story, and we should welcome these as yet more strings to Doctor Who’s bow, more weapons in its armoury. Doctor Who can only grow as the result of expanding into a new medium.

One complaint I heard – and I’m sure this is a common grumble – is that two versions of Doctor Who running in parallel would be confusing for people, and unnecessary. But I think this complaint gives people far too little credit; watching two stories consecutively but concurrently is just what we do when we watch television, every hour of every day of our lives. It’s easy to switch between modes as you transfer from one programme to another, and it’s not as if the film is going to be part of a series whereby you would need to remember the events of one episode to the next.

And let’s face it, with various CSIs and X-Factors – and King Arthurs and Sherlock Holmes – all running in parallel, it’s very easy for the mythical ‘casual viewer’ to distinguish between which version of any particular franchise they’re experiencing. Star Trek had three different versions of the television series running one after another in parallel with the films during the 1990s and 2000s (and a new movie has since more or less rebooted the whole lot), and nobody has found that too difficult to handle. In fact, it’s long been said that Doctor Who (the character) is fast becoming a kind of modern folk hero, to rival Sherlock Holmes and James Bond (and King Arthur, maybe), so the extension of the idea into a series of non-specifically (to the original) related films is only taking that notion to its logical next step. You could say the character is outgrowing his origins. There’ll be books and CDs next. How brilliant.

Of course, the movie might not ever happen. There are plenty of fans who still think it won’t, remembering the countless times – mostly during the 1990s – that news stories surfaced about prospective Doctor Who films that ultimately never came to anything. But Doctor Who fans sometimes have long and selective memories that fail to take into account external criteria. The abortive attempts to bring Doctor Who to the big screen towards the end of JNT’s run as producer and for some time thereafter, came during a period when the show was suffering flagging ratings, eventual cancellation and intense public apathy. And none of these projects had a director as successful as David Yates at their helm (the version that claimed Spielberg’s backing made it into production, eventually).

A better analogy for fans might be the Dr. Who and the Daleks movie of 1965, born into a time when the first television version of Doctor Who was still young, and still popular. Dr. Who and the Daleks might have been a cheap and cheerful British knock-off, quickly made and cashing in on the success of the programme and its most iconic creation, but ultimately it was successful enough to father a sequel, and both films are rather fondly remembered now. And this entirely without any adverse effect on either the production or the reception of the television programme.

The visual entertainment landscape of 2011 is somewhat different. It takes considerably longer to bring a film to the screen these days, but more thought – and significantly more money – will be spent on the forthcoming Doctor Who movie than was expended on either of the Cushing pieces. It will have the weight of an entirely different establishment behind it, masterminding its release to ensure that failure is not a possibility. The Doctor Who movie will push the brand’s success to new levels of popularity, and the television version can only benefit as a result. Far from damning the resurgent TV series to an early grave, the movie is more likely to give it a shot in the arm that will see it in production for many, many more years to come.

But the movie is not for the Doctor Who fans. We are just a fraction of the demographic it will be aiming for. So it isn’t going to pander to our needs and wishes, and it isn’t going to be the extension of the television series many of us would like it to be. It will be something new, something a little different, and something entirely of itself. And I can’t wait. The idea of having my favourite series running concurrently as a film franchise is a dream come true. Two Doctor Whos running around the universe, righting wrongs, disappearing again ... why would anybody want to argue with that?

I just hope it’s as good as I want it to be...

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0 #2 J. R. Southall 2011-11-17 14:24
Maybe the perfect time to do that would be as a McGann TV Movie special, during the summer of anniversary year 2013.

Tweet the Grand Moff Steven and see what he has to say...
+1 #1 Robin Pierce 2011-11-17 10:12
I may be a lonely little voice in the wilderness, but I'm still harbouring hope for an animated or CGI feature telling the story of the Time War, bridging the gap betweem the TV movie and the rebirth of the series. (And yes, I certainly WILL keep going on about this until I get what I want, damn it, mutter, mutter)

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