For a television show with as long and varied a history as Doctor Who, it is no surprise, as we saw in my previous article for Major Spoilers, that bad decisions get made, often for the right reasons.
However, the fact that Doctor Who is still a thriving enterprise, inspiring legions of fans and viewers the world over, is testament to the fact that more often than not, the decisions of the production team have been the right ones. Today’s Top 5 looks at the best decisions production teams have made down the decades, decisions that have helped secure the show’s place in your viewing schedule.
I’m keen to hear what you think are some of the best ideas and choices producers and script editors and showrunners have made. Tell me all about it in the comments section below.
When a lead actor resigns, or is sacked, production teams can and do hire replacements. These days, with large ensemble casts, the ability to swap out someone who is ostensibly the lead is much easier to do. David Caruso was the lead in NYPD Blue until he wasn’t, departing four episodes into the second season. It was far from a crippling blow, as the hundreds of later episodes attest.
But what to do when your lead actor is a bona fide lead actor, whose character’s name features in the titles? What do you do with that actor when, due to age and declining health, they’ve begun to lose their grip on the role?
Well, you thank your lucky stars the television show is science fiction, and the lead character an alien. Doctor Who producer at the time, John Wiles, had a testy relationship with William Hartnell. Recognizing that Hartnell’s deteriorating health (he would die of a heart condition in 1975, and after Doctor Who, never again had any serious, long term acting work), Wiles pushed to have Hartnell replaced. In two instances, Wiles worked to ensure this occurred. The Celestial Toymaker sees the Doctor invisible for part of the story. On his return to visibility, Wiles intended a new actor to appear, taking over the role. When that was kyboshed, Wiles attempted to do the same with The Savages, a later serial. That failure was part of the reason Wiles soon resigned.
But Hartnell did eventually see the writing on the wall, and agreed to go. Regenerating at the end of the fourth part of ‘The Tenth Planet’ (you can also see the regeneration in the more recent story ‘Twice Upon a Time’, where the production team merges the modern day footage of David Bradley playing the First Doctor, with the footage from 1966), Hartnell was replaced by Patrick Troughton.
So why is this the top production decision? Because without it, Doctor Who wouldn’t have had the longevity it currently enjoys. With an in fiction reason to replace the lead actor every so often, it enables not only the character to be renewed, but also the production as well. Jon Pertwee dominated the role as the Third Doctor, but by the end of his run, the signs of exhaustion were more or less clear. Within the space of four episodes, Tom Baker made not only the series his own, but captured the imagination of that same generation of viewers who adored Pertwee. Sure, actors have resigned, sacked or been forced to go (apparently the latter has happened more than people realize), but allowing the fiction of the series to capitalize on this inevitability has given the show its defining strength, not to mention some of its finest stories.
Casting Jodie Whitaker
Talk about casting a woman to play the Doctor has long been fodder for UK tabloid newspapers, since at least the 1980s, when producer John Nathan Turner floated the possibility after Tom Baker announced his departure. Neither Russell T Davies, nor Steven Moffat were prepared to make the leap, though their writing for women in a range of Doctor Who fiction demonstrates their ability to convincingly depict strong, active women.
The decision by Chris Chibnall, an uber Doctor Who fan who first broke wide with the three series of Broadchurch, to cast a woman was one he had from the moment he signed the contract to run Doctor Who. Indeed, it was his primary condition in taking on the job.
There’s a raucous crowd of people purporting to be fans of the show who lambasted Chibnall for his decision. Nonsense arguments that it would deprive boys of a male hero to look up to ignore the fact that television characters should never be a child’s hero, as well as kids generally having plenty of males in their lives to model the themselves on.
Casting Jodie Whitaker changes everything, and yet, changed almost nothing. The everything part is pretty obvious – no longer will the sole role of the female co-lead in the show be to wear a short skirt and ask the Doctor what’s happening. Not that that was credible with the revived series, but Whitaker’s appointment puts the nail in the coffin of that approach forever. Now, the series can choose future leads from the broadest pool of talent available, without forever closing out women from the role.
In terms of changing almost nothing, Whitaker’s ascension to the role demonstrated that in the hands of decent actor, the character of the Doctor is the character of the Doctor, regardless of gender. The Doctor will always be strong and eccentric and principled and a hero to everyone, regardless of gender. Whitaker’s approach to the role is the same as everyone else who has been hired for the job – be the hero, but curmudgeonly, be brilliant and generally fantastic.
Finally casting a woman, this far into this new century, is something of a minor scandal. The backlash, such as it was, was overblown and swiftly dissipated, once the reality of Whitaker in the job appeared on our screens. As I said above, Chibnall’s brave, indeed, sensible decision, means that long into the future, the best actor for the role will be chosen, not just the best male for the role. Women have long been second class citizens, and continue in many regards to be so. But if casting a woman knocks another brick loose and allows a little more sunshine and opportunity in, then more strength to Chibnall and his team. And given that wall has been breached, casting a person of color is clearly only a matter of time.
Appointing David Tennant as the Doctor
Casting Christopher Eccleston 2004 to play the lead in the revival of Doctor Who was a masterstroke, silencing any notion that Doctor Who was a lightweight program designed for nerds and children. Renowned for his dramatic skills, Eccleston was the man for the role, at that time.
When Eccleston departed and while fandom and the tabloids lathered up in a frenzy of speculation, the production team approached David Tennant. Tennant is a long term fan of the show and jumped at the opportunity to fulfil a lifelong dream. Primarily a television actor, Tennant also trod the boards playing Hamlet several times, including memorably alongside Patrick Stewart. He has also had some movie work, especially in the remake of the 80s horror, Fright Night.
Tennant’s ascension to the role marked the beginning of a hugely popular period for the show. The ratings were like nothing seen since the late 1970s (and even then, the commercial rival to the BBC had to go on strike to drive the show’s ratings towards 20 million viewers). David Tennant, and, by extension, Doctor Who, was everywhere – television, newspapers and radio. The ratings climbed and climbed, the fans and reviewers loved Tennant, and the show had the cachet and credibility it had long deserved, but had never really been able to attract.
Indeed, when David Tennant announced his resignation, during an interview to the nation on live television, it marked the apogee of the public and the media’s love affair with the show. Tennant’s more human portrayal made the character much more relatable than Eccleston’s nuanced performance as a damaged Time Lord trying to put the pieces back together. Tennant’s affinity for humor, his wide, easy smile, made him instantly likeable. Show runner Russel T Davies’ decision to ‘soapify’ the series by injecting heavy hints of romance between the Doctor and his companion, Rose (Billie Piper) made what had once been a forgotten television series with a devoted nerd following, into something men and women, of all ages, could relate to.
Broadly put, with the massive popularity and public appeal David Tennant’s hiring to the role created, the head of steam the series built up has allowed it to navigate this far on the television schedules, a full fifteen years after his casting. Fans of Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whitaker should know that without Tennant, there’s a fair argument to be made that those actors would never have been cast on a show that would’ve, once again, been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Introducing the Master
Before 1971, Doctor Who as a television series had, mostly, relied on faceless monsters and human villains to entertain the audience. Sure, villains such as Mavic Chen (The Daleks’ Masterplan) and Tobias Vaughn (The Invasion) were made more memorable by the quality of the performance, but they were still recognizably human madmen, and in the end, easy for the Doctor to dispatch.
However, new producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks decided that along with the new, ‘Doctor-in-exile’ set up they had inherited, that the Doctor, along with a recurring supporting cast (the members of UNIT), needed a recurring villain. Someone who would be the Doctor’s equal, whose villainy would highlight the Doctor’s heroic tendencies, and whose machinations would imperil the Doctor week after week.
Cue, the Master. And cue, Roger Delgado. Immediately, in his opening story ‘The Terror of the Autons’, Delgado, with his saturnine looks, ruthlessness and charisma established himself as an equal to the Doctor. Indeed, as Letts and Dicks discussed numerous times down the years, the Doctor was Sherlock Holmes, to the Master’s Moriarty. In that course of that year, the Master would appear again and again, and while thwarted each time, proved himself a supremely entertaining adversary.
So, why is the decision to create a rival equal to the Doctor’s abilities worth a place here? Not only because it works, but that it makes sense. It allowed future production teams to create charismatic villains for the Doctor to face off against, instead of generic monsters. The success of the early Tom Baker era is surely down to the new production team taking its cue from its predecessors and crafting worthy villains that could take it up to the Doctor. Without the Master, there is no Magnus Greel, or Morbius, no Sutekh and certainly no Davros. As the Master was a character with recognizable foibles and desires, so this new breed of villainous characters had enough about them for the audience to identify with, deepening the drama and peril for the Doctor.
The Time War
It is something of an understatement that Doctor Who, over its history, has built up a considerable body of continuity. This canon, as it were, has evolved and changed over time, but not only that, it has built up and up and up until it became a towering edifice when the series came to an end in 1989. Recurring characters, recurring villains, a broad backstory for the Time Lords, references to previous adventures, flashbacks during regenerations, indeed, the hiring of an unpaid continuity advisor during the early 1980s in the shape of DC Comics collector Ian Levine, were all examples of a production that was rapidly eating its tail.
During the long years the series was off the television, a lot of fans argued that Doctor Who, if it should return, should shuck all that continuity. If only that were true – the licensed tie-in fiction that Virgin Books produced during much of the 1990s, and latterly BBC Books when it took back the rights, were all steeped in building further on established Doctor Who continuity. Indeed, the 1996 TV Movie can only really be understood if you know who the Daleks and the Master are, and the ins and outs of regeneration.
Well, Russell T Davies had a different view. When Doctor Who returned to the television in 2005, the show was literally as follows – a man, travelling in time and space in blue London Police Box. Indeed, the Doctor didn’t even dress like previous Doctor’s – a t-shirt under a black leather jacket and black pants replaced the customary faux Victorian/Edwardian regalia. This was Doctor Who for the 21st century, and not the fusty 1970s.
And this approach, which sought to embrace new viewers instead of alienating them, worked a treat. The show became an instant success, more interested in telling strong drama stories than inspecting the entrails of Time Lord history. In fact, Davies’ decision to wipe it all away via the cataclysmic Time War, proved a masterstroke. The Doctor, as he was way back in 1963, was once again an aimless traveler in time and space.
The decision later to start bringing elements of the show’s past back was a not a failure of nerve, but a recognition that having taken the viewers into their confidence, the production team could now begin again to examine the show’s fictional history, this time with the ability to do it as an equal partner with the viewer. The ratings and acclaim that followed is further testimony to Davies’ vision and smarts.