Is Superman & Lois testing the waters for Doctor Who’s return to Saturday nights?
Family fantasy adventure just before Strictly... is the BBC trying to tell us something?
This weekend, in a prime slot just before the wildly popular Strictly Come Dancing, BBC One is airing a family-friendly fantasy adventure series – no, you've not time-travelled back to 2006, the arrival of Superman & Lois on these shores really is reviving a programming slot previously occupied by the likes of Merlin, Robin Hood and, of course, Doctor Who, in years past.
Few would've expected this – most fans patiently awaiting for the new series starring Tyler Hoechlin as the Man of Steel to find a UK broadcaster (the series premiered back in February in the US) would've been expecting it to join its CW stablemates on Sky, with E4 (which airs Batwoman) and Netflix (home to Black Lightning) as outside possibilities.
Instead, the BBC is taking a big swing, airing a US-produced series in a primetime weekend slot. It's an unusual move the likes of which hasn't been seen for many a year – besides recalling the family fantasy craze of the mid-Noughties, it also harks back fittingly enough to the 1990s and Saturday night showings of the Dean Cain/Teri Hatcher-starring Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.
The question is, why is the BBC looking to revive the family fantasy Saturday teatime slot?
It's possible, of course, that the Beeb was simply impressed by Superman & Lois and recalled the success it'd had airing similar shows in that Saturday slot in years gone by. Possibly it might also have worked the other way around, with the broadcaster looking to resurrect an idea that had served it well for almost a decade – from Doctor Who's comeback in 2005 up until the cancellation of Atlantis in 2015 – and then selecting Superman & Lois as a suitable candidate for the relaunch.
But could there be more to it? Certainly, it's an interesting time right now for Doctor Who – the show which made a success of science-fiction on early Saturday evenings from the early 1960s up until the 1980s and then again in the mid-2000s, reviving the slot and proving its value after it had previously fallen out of fashion.
Since October 2018, when Chris Chibnall took on the showrunner gig, Doctor Who has aired in a similar slot on Sunday nights instead – but interestingly, it was apparently the BBC who asked for the shift. "We were talking about how you refresh it, how you change it up... and one of the things was, 'Let's put everything on the table,' and that includes the night it goes out," executive producer Matt Strevens told Digital Spy at the time. "But it was very much a decision taken by the upper echelons of the BBC and the schedulers – 'the high-ups' as we call them! But when they approached us – Chris and I – and said they'd like to maybe move it to Sunday night, we thought that was an absolutely brilliant idea."
Three years on of course and Chibnall is on his way out, with this Sunday's finale of his Doctor Who: Flux mini-series and then three specials to air prior to his official departure in October 2022. Picking the baton back up is Russell T Davies, the man who back in 2005 not only proved that Doctor Who could appeal to a modern audience but that it could do so in its old time-slot.
It's clear that the show returning to Saturday nights meant a great deal to Davies – in a 2005 interview given to The Guardian, he reflected on being asked to take charge of the revival: "I worried they meant a cheap pastiche version, or an ironic version, but it was the real deal - Saturday night, proper budgets. All those things you think you'd have to fight for. Astonishing."
Might it be that Davies is willing to fight for Saturday nights again? What's more, he knows how to produce a version of the show that works for Saturday nights, which is arguably different than one which fits neatly into a Sunday evening slot. Back in 2008, Julie Gardner – then-head of drama at BBC Wales and now returning to Doctor Who alongside Davies as part of production company Bad Wolf – said of developing Merlin for Saturday evenings, "I learned so much about the 7pm slot from Russell T Davies' Doctor Who scripts and from his approach as an executive producer to that particular slot. Russell's been a huge supporter of Merlin. He immediately saw its potential and proved invaluable in early discussions about how to shape the series for Saturday night."
It's obvious too that as head writer/executive producer on Doctor Who going forward, Davies won't be satisfied with merely keeping the cogs turning – he'll want to reinvent, to reshape the series for contemporary viewers, just as he did 16 years ago. Piers Wenger, Head of BBC Drama, has indeed spoken of Davies as a "man with a vision" for the new Doctor Who and while it's too early to know the full extent of what that means, we already know that significant change is afoot – not only is Bad Wolf taking over creative control of the show from the BBC, but it'll also be housing Doctor Who at Cardiff's Bad Wolf Studios (home to His Dark Materials and A Discovery of Witches) after a decade-and-a-half spent at Roath Lock (where Casualty is also filmed).
With all this as background, it's hard not to wonder if BBC One acquired Superman & Lois and scheduled it for Saturday evenings to test the waters, allowing audiences to warm up to the idea of this type of show airing in this type of slot again before Doctor Who makes its triumphant return to its old stomping grounds in 2023. Certainly, we'll be keeping an eye on how Supes performs in the ratings.
Superman & Lois begins Saturday (4th Dec) at 5:40pm on BBC One, with the entire first season also available on BBC iPlayer after the first episode has aired. Doctor Who continues on Sunday at 6:20pm on BBC One. Visit our Sci-fi hub for more news and features, or find something to watch with our TV Guide.