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Should the Doctor’s mortality be sacrosanct?

October 15, 2010

A little bit of me died when I read Emily Barr’s Guardian piece revealing how the BBC had ditched the idea that the Doctor’s lifespan of twelve regenerations. It means the Doctor can go on for ever now. Surely that’s a good thing, isn’t it? A few days on, I’m still grappling with the idea.

Schedules, overnights and profits have won over editorial. Execs are pounding their fists on the table (insert your own shameless cliche at this point). ‘This programme is popular. So lets make more of them. Let’s keep on making more of them. Let’s never stop making more of them.’

So I'm immortal now, am I? Er, thanks.

Blaming the business types for the decision to extend Doctor Who’s longevity by making the central character immortal is all too easy.

In the media world, the ‘them and us’ feeling is still rife despite the efforts of most liberal thinking, well-balanced individuals leading us into ‘the third way’ of web, tv and radio experts all working together in some rare kind of Utopian reality. Cynics and well-adjusted individuals outside of the media industry may also join in a chorus of “they’ve just got no idea, have they?” too.

Inherent in such a passive aggressive response as this is one of the challenges a TV programme like Doctor Who increasingly has to grapple with however.

Doctor Who’s current popularity is rooted in TV history. Here is a programme which bridges generations. Parents who who watched it when they were kids, now marvel at their own children’s enjoyment of the programme. It’s the kind of TV which enables the distribution of unconditional family love across generations. Doctor Who is public service in so many different ways.

For those who don’t have children, won’t have children and who – by extension – continue to keep their inner child alive and well, there’s the potential opportunity to carry the torch. They’re the fans of the show who combined their aspirations to work in the media with their love of the programme. They were the ones who maintained the Doctor’s existence when the BBC axed it in the late eighties to pour money into EastEnders. The Doctor rose up figuratively speaking in the Big Finish audio dramas after his tragic exit from the TV screens. Those producers were keepers of the flame. And one their key selling points was that they were fans themselves. They secured their core audience before they’d committed anything to tape.

Some of those same fans now occupy roles in the production of the TV series. It’s that key element which maintains the delicate link between fans of the old series and the new. If there’s a little bit of us – a little bit of the old series – still in existence in the present production then all is well. Those hardcore fans will still continue to advocate the new series. The PR ecosystem is maintained.  That in turn annotates the deep love for the programme – the slightly darker side of fandom. Long term fans of the series feel like they ‘own’ regardless of the BBC owning the trademark and now producing it for TV.

It’s that sense of ownership – real for many, yet preposterous if held up in a court of law – which makes the decision to do away with the Doctor’s mortality a difficult thing to swallow. In one fell swoop, ties are cut with the past. Late night imaginings of wannabee creatives indulging in their own plotlines, planning their own shots and dreaming about their own ‘final Doctor’ are now redundant. The jeopardy inherent in the entire proposition has been thrown away. Discarded. Deemed irrelevant and unworkable. Doctor Who could go on for as long as Last of the Summer Wine. It has no end … potentially. Defenders of the faith wince and suddenly become aware of a distinct shortness of breath.

Old Cybermen were said to be 'shocked' to learn of the Doctor's immortality

The flip side is that for TV execs working in a considerably more competitive world, not being hemmed in by impending death of a show the pressure can be put back on the writers for more plotlines rather than having to come up with another blockbuster idea for a vehicle. But its a double-edged sword and in choosing the blunt side are us pedants being forced to grab sharp side instead? To be suicidally brutal about this, is there contempt in the decision?

It depends to what extent as a viewer you crave a present day realisation of the yesteryear joy you as a fan derived from the programme. The reality is that Matt Smith and future actors (or) actresses will never meet that expectation. Things will never be as good as they used to be. Fact.

And, by bemoaning the loss of his mortality are we denying future youngsters the opportunity the same joy we had as youngsters ourselves? Any member of Doctor Who officialdom finding themselves having to defend the decision will surely rely on the justification.

For the record, it’s a sincere one too. After all, what was the BBC to do exactly? By sticking to the Doctor’s 12 regeneration limit, you’re committing yourself to only a couple of actors more to play the role and the series’ certain death at the end. The jeopardy which tugs at every fans heart-strings is exactly the same thing which causes schedulers migraine. It’s a considerably more competitive media world than it was in Doctor Who’s first 25 years.

But the decision has implications for people who come up with ideas.

To remain true to its core fan base – the fan base which could be argued to have brought it back – there needs to be a convincing explanation of the passing comment made by the Doctor about his lifespan in the spin-off series Sarah Jane Adventures. If that explanation isn’t clever and engaging it won’t fuel future imaginations.

And if that happens the Doctor will live on in the same kind of hell Lord Borusa did at the end of The Five Doctors (see this video left for the clincher in The Five Doctors from the mid-eighties). In that story Borusa – Lord President of Gallifrey, the Time Lords home planet – sent the Doctor in all his incarnations to overcome battles so that Borusa could claim the grand prize – immortality. In claiming it Borusa learnt exactly what it meant: “To lose is to win and he who wins shall lose”.

Who wants to be immortal? The challenge ahead is to show the advantages.

  1. Neil DG permalink

    “To remain true to its core fan base – the fan base which could be argued to have brought it back – there needs to be a convincing explanation of the passing comment made by the Doctor about his lifespan in the spin-off series Sarah Jane Adventures. If that explanation isn’t clever and engaging it won’t fuel future imaginations”

    Have you seen the episode where this is mentioned yet? I haven’t, but my understanding from someone who has seen it (while avoiding telling me spoilers) is that it may not actually be quite what we think.

  2. Graham Chjestney permalink

    I did often wonder how they would get around that particular problem.
    Not 100% sure about it myself but I’m sure I will enjoy the ride as long as I can.

    • Well, maybe if what Neil DG’s comment turns out to make the original Guardian piece not what I thought it was then it will be a needless worry Graham. Which does rather mean I have to watch SJA.

  3. I’ve assumed, since the series came back with no mention, ever, of the regeneration limit, that at some point they’d hand-wave it away with the idea that the cycle was extended indefinitely during the Time War – I imagine some of the Time Lords were burning through 12 regenerations pretty quickly then. The Five Doctors establishes that the Time Lords could offer the Master a new cycle of regenerations, and that the limit was artificially imposed, so all the groundwork was done…

    • It’s almost like you’re a writer on the series Adam .. you’re so *OK* with everything. 😉

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