Doctor Who: Stormy Teacups

PrintE-mail Written by J.R. Southall Wednesday, 15 June 2011

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Tom Spilsbury, Doctor Who Magazine editor, recently withdrew his patronage from popular internet forum Gallifrey Base. He had been a regular visitor, fielding questions and generally chatting to the regulars there. However, just lately things had been getting a little tempestuous, and citing the actions of the moderators (or one in particular, I believe) who had failed to quell an argument before it raged out of hand – and then came down rather heavy-handedly afterwards – Mr Spilsbury bid Gallifrey Base adieu and decided to keep his opinions to Facebook and Twitter (although no doubt he still visits). Which might not seem particularly relevant to what’s been going on in the wider world of Doctor Who lately, in which several slightly bigger rows have broken out, but it’s all symptomatic of the same thing.

Doctor Who is not like any other programme on television.

There are cult shows – especially in America – where a smaller audience take a larger interest in the day-to-day workings of the programme. The interest here provoked tends to be in the storylines, and the writers and showrunners of such programmes as Babylon 5 and The X-Files often come under intense scrutiny amongst the kind of fans who these days tend to hang around on forums very much like Doctor Who’s Gallifrey Base. But this is very much a niche interest market, and quirks of scheduling (such as the cancellation and subsequent recommissioning of Babylon 5’s fifth season) don’t tend to get splashed across the redtops.

There are soaps – particularly in the UK – where a larger audience are exposed to a lot of high profile media attention. But the interest here tends to be in the characters (and the private lives of the actors who play them), and very few of the people who scan the tabloids for news of the latest storyline would even know which writers and producers were behind it.

There are very few programmes in which the wider public are invited to participate in the behind-the-scenes activities of those who make the show, in quite the way that Doctor Who fans are. Doctor Who Confidential regularly gets audiences comprising more than 10% of the people who watch the parent programme, and during Russell T Davies’ tenure in particular, the showrunner himself was a fairly frequent visitor to the sofas of chat shows across the schedules. We’ve reached a point (arguably we reached it in the mid-1980s, when John Nathan Turner was at his most visible promoting the programme, meanwhile it was suffering its most troubled period) whereby the making of Doctor Who, which shares a certain flavour of plotting with those cult American shows (especially in its current incarnation), has become a scrum of media activity akin to that which surrounds the likes of Corrie and Eastenders. And it’s not the actors the tabloid editors are interested in (although there’s a lot of mileage to be had debating when the Doctors and companions might move on, or who it will be that will replace them), but the people who write the programme, and the people who produce it.

Doctor Who isn’t really like The X-Files or Coronation Street at all. The X-Files was a hit with only a certain demographic (although it’s arguable that The X-Files actually broke that demographic and went 'overground', thus paving the way for such future cross-genre successes as Heroes and Lost), but Doctor Who – as borne out by its viewing figures here in the UK, the market which produces it – is the very example of television for everyone; it has an audience which encompasses grandparents and grandchildren, housewives and geeks, manual shift-workers and teachers. When there’s news in the world of Doctor Who, it’s news that makes its way out into the wider world. Doctor Who trends on Yahoo and Twitter every Saturday night, during the transmission period.

Unlike as with the soaps (the only other non-Reality TV programmes that generate the audiences and interest that Doctor Who does), it’s not the characters that grab our interest. Soap producers will quite frequently 'spoil' storylines (or pre-promote them), because they know it isn’t what happens that’s necessarily why people watch – but how the characters react to those plotlines, what effects on them the stories will have. But Doctor Who relies upon its storylines – it’s “Wow” moments, as Steven Moffat might call them – to a greater degree than it does its characters (who are mostly only around for an episode, two at the most), and so the balance between protecting the surprises and generating interest in their imminence becomes a tricky equilibrium to maintain. We’re back to Tom Spilsbury – and the first of this season’s Doctor Who media storms.

Tom took a lot of flak (but from a very small number of people) earlier this year, by revealing on the cover of Doctor Who Magazine that one of the four regulars would 'die' in the opening episode. Of course, as a story, it was a non-runner as it stood: the world was well aware that the Doctor, Rory, Amy and River would survive to appear in further episodes; the question that Doctor Who Magazine (and by extension, Steven Moffat, who joined in the fun once the media interest was sparked; the tabloids are well known for devouring DWM and stalking the forums in the search for a good Who-related headline) was posing was, 'Can this be true?' and if so, 'How can it be True, and how will the plot be able to accommodate this Truth?' People accused Tom of spoiling their enjoyment of the opening instalment of the series (although the BBC subsequently went one further, by actually releasing pictures of the Doctor beginning a regeneration, on the very day of the episode’s broadcast), which kind of missed the point: the Doctor Who Magazine cover-line was no different to the 'Next Time' throw-forward at the end of an episode, in that it gave nothing away (not really; not when you consider the reasons why the information was released in the first place), while simultaneously showing just enough to spark people’s interest. The fact that it became a debating point, and that Steven Moffat was then asked publicly for further comments, only serves to prove how shrewd a move it was. No doubt there will have been people watching The Impossible Astronaut that week, desperate for an answer to the puzzle, who might otherwise have been too scared by the hare to bother.

But there’s the rub: the media love a good Doctor Who-related headline (after all, Doctor Who sells, and sells big these days), but with the programme-makers increasingly becoming public figures (JNT and RTD were flamboyant characters, only too eager to sell the show to the public; Steven Moffat’s a dour Scot – and a rather shy one at that – but he’s having to learn to live with the fame-stroke-notoriety) and the storylines – in a way that only sf/fantasy can – often lacking the kind of human interest angle that a news editor requires, the stories that the tabloid hacks are looking to tell have less and less to do with what we see on screen, and more and more to do with those who put it there. Every tabloid loves a disaster. Good news is no news, as they say.

So we’ve reached a point where the redtops (as well as the agencies for news on the internet, whose competition is just as fierce but whose timeframes are infinitesimally smaller and quicker) are looking for Doctor Who to fail, or signs that it might be about to. Any kind of rift between the producers and writers (or better yet, producers and actors) will do. Steven Moffat gave them a gift: he moaned – in public – about a Fan.

Yes, that’s Fan, as in Fan Singular. Following the Premiere of this year’s opening story, one intelligent soul dashed home to write up the entire plot and post it online. The irony was that the newspapers heeded Moffat’s wish to keep the storyline itself under wraps pending the transmission, and it was one of the programme’s fans who let the cat out of the bag. With an even greater irony, the press then got just the kind of story they would have wanted, handed to them on a plate – all it took was some judicious editing of Moffat’s actual words (in which he berated this Fan Singular for spoiling the show for others), and a hyperbolic story about how ungrateful the show’s producers were being to the very people who were employing them in the first place – the viewers, the fans – was born. It even made it to the BBC’s Newsround, whereby children were made to feel that the Writer envisioned it that the Fans were doing the show wrong.

A very teacup-sized storm. As much as Steven Moffat is having to learn to live with the limelight Russell T Davies bequeathed him along with the show, so he’s also having to learn to live with the misrepresentation that goes with it. The sad thing is that this kind of story then lends itself to being discussed and repeated ad nauseum on the very forums which Moffat also used to frequent, all the while engendering more bad feeling among the people who enjoy the show, against the people who actually make the show these people so enjoy.

For what it’s worth, it’s a tricky act to balance, deciding just how much of a story’s secrets should be revealed in advance, just how much is required to tease an audience into watching, and it’s an act that Moffat hasn’t quite mastered yet. But it’s a learning curve, and he’s getting there – although the usual lack of any “facts” as such in his DWM 'Production Notes' column is quite telling. Russell T Davies almost always threw some facts in there, albeit in a very jokey fashion that often meant you never knew quite how much you were learning or just how relevant it might later prove to be.

Which brings us to this week’s storm-in-a-teacup.

Following on from the Dalek will-they-won’t-they (okay, so the Daleks get a rest for a series; it’s happened many a time before, and Moffat’s quotes from the pre-series DWM interview – repeated in the Radio Times [an organ that seems to court controversy for the sake of it these days, being as they were responsible for another such fuss out of next to nothing concerning Midsomer Murders recently] – only seemed to suggest that what many fans had been calling for anyway – a breather for Doctor Who’s most iconic foe, while the programme-makers try and find a new way of returning them to their rightful place in the Whoniverse following on from their less-than-graceful regeneration in Series Five – would be exactly what they were going to get), we now have fans getting in a state regarding the show’s future. Will there be Doctor Who next year, or won’t there?

It’s all to do with an announcement that wasn’t, sort of. The BBC, you see, aren’t quite used to the level of information a Doctor Who Fan requires, in order to stay happy and balanced.

With most programmes, it’s a matter of course that a new series will be commissioned if the current one is performing well, and those that make it are happy to continue doing so. It’s very rare that there’s an announcement of such a commission, save for maybe a quiet press release that’s unlikely to be picked up by the press anyway. Most people who watch these shows do so on a casual enough basis that if the programme were to be discontinued, it’s unlikely that they’d even notice – much less take note of how long the gaps between series are. To take an example: the third series of Spooks didn’t begin broadcasting until fourteen months after Series Two had completed its run, and yet it’s highly unlikely that anyone except perhaps the most avid 'Spookophile' will have even noticed the gap was so long. And almost every year, there’s speculation (again, in the Radio Times) that this series will likely be the last – and yet they keep on making it, and they keep on showing it. Robin Hood ceased to be made after its third series, and no one batted an eyelid; it wasn’t as if the BBC were busy promoting it as the 'Glorious Final Series'. They transmitted the episodes and that was that – and okay, there was perhaps a little fuss concerning what happened onscreen for a week or so afterwards, but people just started watching other things.

But we’re used to something different with Doctor Who – we have our own magazine for one thing (and a proper, in depth one too – not like these glossy but thin publications that appear briefly like mayflies when other series get popular quickly), and beyond that, we have a population that seems to care what happens, both onscreen and off. But we also have something else with Doctor Who: a sense of ownership. Maybe it’s because we partly fund its creation (through the licence fee, of course), and maybe it’s because of the series’ long and fairly chequered history (it’s almost like a family member, that’s been around for so long, we’re used to its ups and downs – and miss it when it’s not around, but are always waiting for it to disappear again when it is). But largely it’s because it involves us on so many more levels than your average television show or film series. We care about the characters, we care about the plotlines, we care about the programme-makers. We care enough to watch a making-of show that has a running time equivalent to the episodes themselves. And we want to know – we insist upon knowing, by and large – what plans are in store for the series, both on that screen and off it. Mostly, we want to know that its future is safe – and when exactly it will be around.

'The Gap Year' in 2009 was widely promoted, and was seen as a function of the handover between Doctors and showrunners. A gauntlet was passed (well, two gauntlets were passed), and the year with no series (just the three/four episodes, in fact) was a sacrifice we happily made in order to ensure the succession was successful. Part of the reason we were happy to endure 'The Gap Year' was because we were made ready to expect it so far in advance.

But how far in advance is the right amount of warning?

Steven Moffat (and the BBC themselves) have admitted to already having made plans for 2013, Doctor Who’s Golden Anniversary Year. What those plans are, we’re not privy to, but something is on the cards, be in no doubt. And yet as we speak, even though the gears must be grinding into motion as regards Doctor Who’s next production term, we’re still several months away from the conclusion of this year’s run of episodes. If the plan is to take another 'Gap Year' in 2012, in order that the highest level of production can be maintained – and the highest level of publicity can be met – for a spectacular year in 2013, then surely we shouldn’t expect to be told about it prior to the conclusion of 2011’s Doctor Who?

The problem was an ambiguously-worded press release and an inconclusive tweet. Steven Moffat’s announcement of “14 eps + Matt DEFINITELY was a little jump of the gun. Those fourteen episodes, it subsequently transpired, were not all intended for a 2012 transmission (in fact, Moffat’s tweet might not even refer to fourteen episodes with Matt Smith in them; it could just as easily be that he’s in the first – hence “Matt DEFINITELY” – and none of the others). So now we have speculation run rife that Doctor Who is once again on its downers: the BBC won’t come clean about what’s going to happen when (apparently, according to some rumourers, there won’t be any Doctor Who produced during 2012 at all – the suggestion being that these newly-announced episodes will take in the 2013 anniversary themselves; which means the BBC are going to have to get a move on if they want those fourteen episodes in the can by Christmas), and the amount of tweets and mentions-in-passing only seem to contradict one another.

The facts are a bit thin: BBC1 Controller Danny Cohen has said that there will not be a 'full series' of Doctor Who in 2012. Everything else that’s been spreading across the internet has come out of that (including the suggestion that 2012 will be another 'Specials-only Gap Year'; it might well be the case that Series Seven will be split along the lines of Series Six, except this time transmitting Autumn 2012 and Spring 2013, with another full thirteen-episode series in the Autumn building up to the anniversary in November); the truth is that the BBC aren’t used to having to make this kind of announcement (especially with transmission of the current run of episodes so far from being complete), and also that they and Steven Moffat aren’t ready yet, to make us aware of what those anniversary plans are. Whatever the plan is for 2013, it seems that the 2012 run of episodes is being tied into it, whether for production reasons or otherwise. It’s not impossible that they simply intend the anniversary crop of Doctor Who to be the most bumper since 1968, when the series ran virtually the whole year round. Certainly Cohen’s suggestion that Moffat was lightening his duties on Doctor Who to concentrate on Sherlock was a joke (however much you might have heard people moaning otherwise elsewhere); with Martin Freeman off to New Zealand with Peter Jackson for the forseeable future, it’s extremely unlikely there’ll even be any more Sherlock for some considerable time (if at all) – and you won’t hear that in a BBC press announcement.

The upshot is this: for all the rumour-mongering, the speculation and the debate, for once, we’re going to have to sit back and wait for the truth to emerge in the fullness of time – just as we would have to were it Merlin or The Bill whose fate we were anticipating. Doctor Who is just about as popular as it ever has been - certainly since its 2005 regeneration, and certainly when you factor in i-player on top of the already extremely healthy viewing figures – and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. The BBC are more than happy with it, they’re delighted. What we’re seeing now is the opposite of what happened a quarter of a century ago: this isn’t the BBC quietly dropping our favourite show, it’s the BBC quietly trying to make it as good, and as popular, as it can possibly be. They’re protecting their sacred cow; only being the BBC, they’re doing it as clumsily and as publicly as we’ve become used to. We don’t need to worry.

As for Tom Spilsbury, and Doctor Who Magazine, he hit upon an apparently very satisfying solution to his own problem. As the editor of DWM, he’s pretty much the interface between the programme and its public (with a readership of 35,000 or thereabouts, he’s talking to 4 or 5% of the programme’s audience, which mightn’t sound a lot but is pretty substantial in the terms we’re talking), and as such, his magazine and his public face are always going to have to be in recognition of that. But on Twitter, he’s started two accounts: one for the magazine itself, in which the tweets are cheerful and fact-filled, and always on a positive note. And one for himself, in which he can tweet his frustrations to his heart’s content (Steven Moffat’s occasionally chosen to vent himself this way too; sadly humour isn’t something that too readily comes across in 140 characters, so in his case it might well be a double-edged sword).

But these people are human too, you know, just like you and me (and so is Danny Cohen, I hasten to add), and they’ve got an awful lot of people to try and satisfy. They’re never going to make everyone happy all of the time, but they’re doing their best. Not just in the face of production problems, and not just in the face of the regular dilemmas that crop up on a day-to-day basis when you’re running a magazine or a television show. These two men are under the most intense scrutiny in every professional decision they make (Moffat far more so than Spilsbury, admittedly, but each to a far higher degree than you or I probably ever will be), and that’s hardly the healthiest environment in which to work. The fact that both Doctor Who Magazine and the programme itself are in about the rudest health they could possibly be, is testament to the fact that these guys love their jobs, they love what they’re working on and what they’re achieving – and in a way, no matter how rude or how intrusive or how plain wrong the occasional fan might sometimes be, they love us too, because we are the same as them – and what they do, they do for us because we aren’t them and they have taken on that role on our behalf.

We shouldn’t criticise unnecessarily, we shouldn’t spread rumour without the facts, and we shouldn’t put these men in positions whereby there isn’t a 'right thing' that they can do or say. We should sit back and enjoy the ride. Just like we did when we were children.

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