At midnight last night the BBC announced their plans for the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who. They will broadcast the “Day of the Doctor” special, the “Adventures in Time and Space” biopic and a remastered “Unearthly Child”, plus some other Who-related goodies across the network. Yet some fans are disgruntled. Like Oliver Twist, they want more. This year they had been expecting more real Who, more actual episodes. This raises the question: How many Doctor Who episodes do we deserve? What, if anything, are we entitled to? Maybe it is time to face head on, trunk and all, that elephant in the room: Why are there so few Doctor Who episodes on tv nowadays? This year we have had only eight new episodes. Yet at the end of the year we will get a double whammy of Whovian goodness. We are truly excited about the “Anniversary Special” and Matt Smith’s last hurrah at Christmas. So feelings are mixed. Let’s try and put things into perspective.
Back in the sixties Who was seemingly never off the air, with around forty episodes a year. In 1970 the episode count was reduced to twenty six. Fans probably didn’t mind, given the move to colour and brand new Doctor. In 1985 we had our first bitter taste of life without Doctor Who when Grade and Powell forced an eighteen month hiatus onto the show. When it came back in 1986, we were granted fourteen episodes. It felt like daylight robbery but we were just grateful to have Doctor Who back. But then in 1990 it didn’t come back. Nor in 1991 or 1992. That was it. We were told our beloved show was going to be outsourced and would only come back when a private company gave it the love, attention and budget it deserved. It was a blatant sop and all we would get was the one-off McGann TV movie in 1996.
When Doctor Who made its glorious return to our screens in 2005, the BBC produced thirteen episodes. That seemed a fair deal. A modern day episode is about twice as long as a classic one. It was as if we were back to the good old days of twenty six episodes and the Christmas episode was the icing on the cake. The main series was bolstered by the “Sarah Jane Adventures”, “Torchwood”, “Doctor Who Confidential” and “Totally Doctor Who”. The series felt invincible and we rode the Whovian gravy train until 2008. 2009 was the year of the “Specials”, in reality just four extended episodes, but we didn’t really mind. After all, a new production crew was coming on board and they needed time for a smooth handover. In 2010 there was a happy return to business as usual with a full thirteen episode season. Warning bells rang however in 2011 when a split season was announced. There would be seven episodes in the spring and then another six in the autumn. But why? Was it really for narrative reasons or to make the wait until the following autumn more bearable for fans? In 2012 we had just five episodes and by now the satellite shows, Sarah Jane, Torchwood and Confidential had all dematerialised into the vortex. The show no longer trailblazed the Saturday night schedules. It was just a blip of excitement one grey September.
One might argue that Doctor Who is a costly and time-consuming show to make in a world of cuts and austerity. But what about the revenue Doctor Who generates? When the show amasses millions of pounds in worldwide sales, why faff around with half seasons that you can’t sell until the other half has aired? Ex-producer Julie Gardner was once asked what she would do if her episode budget was slashed. She replied that she would make even more episodes to take advantage of economies of scale and she would set the series on Earth to reduce costs. Jon Pertwee’s UNIT days were one of the most watchable and audience friendly eras of the show’s history. Let’s do it again. Why not reintroduce a larger regular cast to take the workload off the main actor? “Turn Left” and “Blink” were wonderful, despite being “Doctor-lite”. Let characters like Captain Jack, the Brig, Sally Sparrow and Sarah Jane see some of the action!
“Doctor Who Magazine” asked for more episodes in Issue 461. Fans and forums too are all singing from the same song sheet. But do we actually deserve more? We don’t have a god-given right to episodes. However we pay the licence fee. We buy the merchandise. We promote the show on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter. Maybe our voices shouldn’t go unheard.
To conclude, I would cautiously reiterate “In Moff we trust”. I am sure the BBC know how to protect its hottest property. Yet I have a sneaking feeling that more “Doctor Who” would benefit us all. There would be more episodes for the fans to enjoy and more badly needed readies for the BBC’s coffers. I suspect Peter Capaldi will enjoy a full season next autumn, as a handful of episodes is not enough for a new Doctor to settle in. But afterwards, who knows? For the moment let us content ourselves with the small, but delicious bowl of Whovian gruel we have been served with so far, in the hope of better and more bountiful times to come.