Doctor Who has a bright future of potential spin-offs
Russell T Davies once wished for a shared universe of Doctor Who spin-offs - but now he's back in charge, is this plan already in motion?
Before he was revealed as the returning showrunner in September 2021, Russell T Davies pondered Doctor Who’s future with Paul Kirkley (sometimes of this parish).
"There should be a Doctor Who channel now,” he told Waitrose Magazine. “You look at those Disney announcements, of all those new Star Wars and Marvel shows, you think, we should be sitting here announcing The Nyssa Adventures or The Return of Donna Noble, and you should have the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors together in a 10-part series. Genuinely."
Did Russell know then, in January 2021, that he’d be handed back the keys to the TV show he helped relaunch back in 2005? Have his plans for RTD2 been hiding in plain sight all this time? Eight months on from that September news bomb, we know Donna Noble is indeed back, alongside the Tenth Doctor, Wilf, Sylvia and hubby Shaun Temple.
How many episodes are the class of 2008 back for, though? Is it one special? Is it three? Might it even be a limited series of its own? Don’t expect clarification anytime soon, as one thing RTD is brilliant at is teasing his audience. All that talk of spinoffs, though... is there anything in that?
Doctor Who has a patchy history with offshoots. Disregarding the Dalek TV series that Terry Nation valiantly tried to launch in America in the 1960s, the first actual show to be spun off from Who was 1981’s K9 and Company. Producer John Nathan-Turner clearly intended this 50-minute special, which buddied up Doctor Who’s shooty dog thing with one-time companion Sarah Jane Smith, to kickstart a full series, only episode 2 never came.
It would take another 25 years before Doctor Who’s first long-run spinoff, the adult-skewed Torchwood. The next year, The Sarah Jane Adventures debuted, and RTD’s master plan was clear. There was Sarah Jane over on CBBC for the kiddies, Torchwood on BBC Three for the older teens and grown-ups, and BBC One’s Doctor Who sitting comfortably in the middle.
Sadly, both programmes failed to survive for long after RTD’s exit from the mother show. Sarah-Jane was put to bed in 2011 after its star Elisabeth Sladen sadly died from cancer, while Torchwood bowed out the same year with Miracle Day, an ambitious, if flawed, co-production between the BBC and Starz in America.
The only small-screen spinoff to launch during Steven Moffat’s stewardship was the late and unlamented Class, a Patrick Ness-authored, Buffy-aping teen show centred around the remonikered Coal Hill Academy in East London.
Class may have been canned after just eight episodes, but, like Torchwood, it had an afterlife of sorts over at Big Finish, the company that has, since 1999, been producing official audio-only Doctor Who dramas.
If you look at what Disney is doing with its Marvel and Star Wars titles, as well as what Paramount is executing with Star Trek, that is creating a tapestry of shows and movies, often with characters and narratives that bleed into each other – well, Big Finish has been doing this for yonks.
Outside of its centrepiece range, there have been spinoffs featuring Jago and Litefoot, the Paternoster Gang, the War Doctor, the Counter-Measures team, the Doctor’s daughter, Lady Christina de Souza, UNIT and River Song, and that’s before we’ve even got to its soon-to-launch runs for Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor and Sacha Dhawan’s Master.
Is this model, or a more modest version of it anyway, similar to what Russell has mapped out for television Who? He may have been joshing when he posited The Nyssa Adventures but can we expect any off-shoots featuring characters from the ‘63-’89 era? We know two (at least!) legacy companions that are back for Jodie Whittaker's farewell this autumn, and maybe, just maybe, that episode will act as a backdoor pilot for a standalone series... Tegan & Ace: Defenders of the Earth maybe? What about Ian Chesterton: OAP at Large or Jo Grant Investigates? CSI: Pease Pottage, anyone?
We’ve endured some agonisingly long waits between seasons these past years. How boss would it have been to have those months filled with a glut of series and specials set in the Whoniverse? Heck, they don’t even need to be tethered to the continuity of the TV show. Have a bottle episode featuring Paul McGann’s Doctor set before he regenerated on Karn. Bring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas back for a six-part event series set during season 10. Make that Matt Smith TV movie to show us what he got up to on Trenzalore.
Fans hate waiting, we’re not built for it. Trekkies in the US might have shed a tear when Discovery season 4 signed off on 17th March, but hey, there was little time for blubbing, because Strange New Worlds was little under two months away. Likewise, if you’re an MCU junkie disappointed that Moon Knight is over, don’t be, because there’s Ms Marvel and She-Hulk on the horizon. Sad that The Book of Boba Fett is done? Cheer up, here’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, and have some Andor while you’re at it.
Russell T Davies and the BBC clearly want Doctor Who to tickle that cultural G-spot like it did in the late '00s. Compared to its sci-fi stablemates, Doctor Who’s status as a brand without a family of inter-connected series around it has looked rather archaic of late.
Russell has surely been hired as much for his business and marketing nous as for his hotshot skills at the keyboard. He knows that for Doctor Who to be relevant again it needs an ecosystem of shows of various shapes and sizes to pack some muscle onto that faltering brand.
Course, we’re not just talking about the small screen here. The BBC Sounds-produced Redacted has shown how Doctor Who can be bent into new, exciting shapes after 59 years as a (mostly) TV-only programme.
There’s room for all manner of Who in this brave new broadcasting world – podcast stories, animated Who (Paramount has recently targeted younger audiences with Star Trek: Prodigy), one-shot movies, limited run serials, series with multi-season arcs… Something for every corner of Doctor Who’s fanbase.
And who knows? Maybe there’s a planning document somewhere in the depths of Bad Wolf with ‘The Nyssa Adventures’ scrawled on the front. Anybody know what Sarah Sutton’s plans are for the rest of the year?
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