Doctor Who: is it actually realistic to expect a new series every 12 months?
The next series is currently being prepared to shoot later this year, and a special is in the works – so why are fans so upset about waiting a little longer?
Recently, Doctor Who fans heard the one thing they dread more than anything in the world – the news that they might have to wait a while before seeing more Doctor Who.
Speaking at the Gallifrey One convention in Los Angeles, series producer Tracie Simpson intimated that the next series of the BBC sci-fi drama would film later this year for an autumn 2021 airdate.
Online, many fans responded with horror at the prospect of 18 months without a full series of Who (though a special is planned during that period), with many of the tweets directly blaming production staff for taking too long and risking losing viewers.
Without singling anyone out in particular, one fan summed up the uproar pretty well in a single tweet.
Clearly, Doctor Who fans are passionate about the show, and want to see it onscreen as much as possible. That’s a good thing. But there’s definitely no call for anybody to get angry or personally berate people for doing their jobs – and frankly, I’m not sure whether anyone expecting Who to return anytime sooner than this was being entirely realistic.
Because the truth is that Doctor Who isn’t really like any other show on television when it comes to production. Excluding two-part stories, every single episode requires a new guest cast, new costumes, new props, new filming locations and – barring any use of the TARDIS – entirely new sets, essentially rebooting the entire thing every week.
When I spoke to Chris Chibnall late last year he revealed that he hadn’t had a single week off since taking over the series, only managing some time away shortly before our interview. Presumably the story was similar for other members of the production team, while the cast – Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh – were back beginning a second 10-month shoot just a couple of weeks after the 2019’s New Year’s special aired on BBC One.
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“For everyone who works on Doctor Who, it occupies all their waking hours,” Chibnall told me.
“And that's probably a thing you've heard across the decades from everybody who's always worked on the show. It's very full on, because we do a thing that no other show does, certainly on British television.
“It's a big movie every week. So you've got new guest cast, new sets, new monsters... everything is new every week except these four people, and this one set that you might use for one minute every episode.
“The undertaking is just enormous,” he continued, “and you always want to make sure that you're bettering the production levels that you've set and other people have set.”
People aren’t shirking here, or taking long, sun-dappled trips around the Mediterranean. It’s a complicated, time-consuming show to make, and preproduction alone on every episode must be so much more involved than on almost any other TV series.
Just look at Line of Duty, a series that makes (in pretty standard British TV style) around 6sixepisodes a series using roughly the same group of actors, standing sets (with some new locations depending on the episode) and costumes.
Line of Duty, making fewer episodes within simpler constraints, had a two-year gap between its fourth and fifth series. Between the last series and the one currently shooting, there’s liable to be another 18 months. Where’s the outrage? The claims that the show is doomed? They’re nowhere.
None of this is intended to cast aspersions at the makers of Line of Duty, of course, who are making a brilliant programme at the rate that best brings it to life. But it’s a sign of how entitled some fans have become that any sign of Doctor Who approaching a similar release pattern is seen as a great betrayal.
Of course, the elephant in the room here, which many fans have noted, is that Doctor Who did once deliver masses of episodes on an annual basis. During the stewardship of showrunner Russell T Davies, the show delivered 14 episodes a year for four years, which has set a standard in many fans’ minds ever since as to what they should expect.
But this output was a one-off. In Davies’ co-written book (with Benjamin Cook) The Writer’s Tale he describes the stress and pressure he was under working at this rate while also overseeing spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, and his successor Steven Moffat ended up splitting the sixth and seventh series into two parts to help manage the workload, returning for a full 2014 series before taking Who off air entirely in 2016 (save a Christmas special).
When you think about it, the golden age of annual, 14-episode Doctor Who hasn’t really existed for over a decade, so it’s not entirely fair to hold the Whittaker/Chibnall era to that same standard. Arguably in large parts thanks to the Who revival, sci-fi TV has also developed massively over the last decade and a half, to the extent that it possibly does take a little longer to build sets, craft props and create CGI to a screen-worthy standard than it did in the Noughties. Would we really want to rush and get an inferior product just to satisfy our own impatience?
Look, as a Doctor Who fan I’m as keen as anyone to have Doctor Who on TV as much as possible. But nothing has actually stopped. The team down in Roath Lock in Cardiff are already at work on future episodes, a festive special is apparently coming later this year (either at Christmas or on New Year’s Day, you would assume) and before you know it the Doctor and the TARDIS will be back in action.
As with many things in this brilliant, complicated series, it’s just a matter of time.
Doctor Who on BBC One at 7:10pm on Sundays