Why Doctor Who’s next series could end up being the most innovative yet

The latest rumours suggest Jodie Whittaker could be leaving after a short series and a couple of extra specials – but what other changes could the BBC make to the usual format?

Jodie Whittaker Mandip Gill

We’re still a way out from the BBC debut of Doctor Who series 13, the long-awaited (and pandemic-produced) collection of episodes rumoured to be Jodie Whittaker’s swansong as the Doctor, and the rumour mill is already in full swing about what we can expect from the TARDIS team’s new adventures.

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Officially, all we know is that the series will have eight episodes (instead of the usual 10 + 1 special from recent years) and that John Bishop is joining Whittaker and Mandip Gill as new companion Dan – but plenty of set leaks and rumours have hinted at stories involving Weeping Angels, Sontarans, Daleks and more, with settings ranging from the Crimean war to other planets.

And now the latest reports are suggested another interesting twist in the tale, with the Mirror suggesting that at least one of these eight episodes will be a special airing in 2022, marking Whittaker’s final entry in the Who canon – and though the BBC isn’t commenting on this rumour, it has got us thinking about the interesting new twists on the normal format that Doctor Who series 13 could bring us.

Because frankly, this is already looking like the most unusual Doctor Who series since its revival in 2005. While the number of episodes has gradually crept down since the Russell T Davies era (which usually had about 14 episodes a year) this eight-episode season will be the shortest for a while – and if rumours of it including one or more specials are true, the main run could be even shorter than we think.

For argument’s sake, what if that eight episode tally does include two specials – possibly Jodie Whittaker’s first Christmas special, followed by a New Year’s Day episode that could feature her regeneration. Finally ending Whittaker’s run with the Christmas adventure she’d been denied could be a nice nod to fans, while also aping the two-episode punch of David Tennant’s Christmas/New Year exit in 2009/10. And it also might explain the Mirror’s reports of a special airing in 2022, which does seem like a long wait for one final episode… unless there’d already been one just a week before on the 25th December.

Of course, this double special idea would mean a six-episode main series, and while fans might balk at so short a visit to the Whoniverse, it could also offer some interesting storytelling opportunities.

For example, if you had a six-episode Doctor Who series you could almost treat it more like the extended serials of old, telling one long linked story in a way that would be less feasible in 10 or more episodes. Of course, Doctor Who is always partially serialised – there have been arcs in almost every modern Who series – but making a six-part story, possibly visiting different times and places in a race against time to halt some unknown foe, could be an exciting way to make the best of a reduced episode count.

Who knows? Maybe we could see an entirely showrunner-led series, with Chris Chibnall writing an entire six-episode run himself before moving onto the specials. Or maybe he could just oversee it, with key deputies from previous series returning to pick up a couple of episodes here and there. Personally, we’d love to see what Vinay Patel (Fugitive of the Judoon, Demons of the Punjab) could do with a Sontaran episode, while Maxine Alderton (The Haunting of Villa Diodati) seems like a shoo-in for the rumoured Halloween Weeping Angels episode.

It’s also entirely possible that even with six or seven episodes only, they could just deliver a regular Doctor Who series, of sorts – after all, Matt Smith did a couple of half-series of similar lengths during his time in the TARDIS – but somehow, it’s hard to imagine Chibnall letting the chance slip to do something a little different. And of course, it’s also worth noting that some significant anniversaries coming up could also influence the direction of this next series of Doctor Who.

First up (not chronologically, but for the purposes of this article), the oft-pondered 60th anniversary of Doctor Who is in 2023. Given how close Jodie Whittaker’s rumoured departure is to that seminal date, it’s hard to imagine her leaving just a year before what could be another grand celebration of the show’s history, so it could be that the upcoming series (and its specials) will be teeing up this anniversary adventure (assuming another special is made – to be fair, 60 years isn’t as momentous an anniversary as 50).

On the flipside, if Whittaker was to exit in January 2022, it’d be almost two years between then and the 60th anniversary (which will be in November 2023) – so perhaps hanging on for the sake of one special wouldn’t interest her anyway.

Jodie Whittaker TARDIS

And a 2022 exit doesn’t mean Whittaker’s Doctor still couldn’t commemorate a significant anniversary. It’s worth noting that October 2022 will mark 100 years of the BBC as an organisation, and while no plans from the broadcaster have been announced it seems likely that the Beeb will currently be setting up a raft of coverage that could pay tribute to its greatest hits over the years.

With that in mind, is it so out of the question that Doctor Who – which has been a part of the BBC for over half its life – could be set up for some kind of centenary episode? Maybe the “2022 special” rumour actually ties into this, with Whittaker’s final episode set to be a massive look back over the history of Who, while simultaneously tying into the story of the broadcaster that brought it to life.

And who knows? Maybe a few other Doctors could be tempted back alongside her, making for a proper send-off that year, followed by the arrival of a brand-new Doctor for the 60th anniversary. It’s just a theory, but it’s the kind of off-the-wall stuff that I could see the Who team going for as they try to break out of the same old patterns.

Overall, the next series of Doctor Who – and its attendant special or specials – looks set to change the way Who stories are told on TV in a major way, and whether that means some major specials and serialisation or just a Christmas special for Jodie Whittaker, I’ll be excited to see how it all pans out.

Rumours might come to pass, theories could be realised or it could all turn out to be a crock of nonsense, with a series completely full of surprises. When it comes to Doctor Who, it wouldn’t be the first time…

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Doctor Who returns to BBC One later this year. Want something else to watch? Check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide.