As of 2017, venerable British sci-fi series Doctor Who has been around for over 53 years. It’s now considered a cultural institution, and one of the UK’s most popular exports. Not bad for a show that started out in 1963. With the current continuation of the show going into its 10th season, it’s past time to shake up the format a little. After a decade of being bogged down with increasingly complex storylines and timey-wimey shenanigans, here’s why Doctor Who needs to let go of serial storytelling and become an anthology series.
Anthologies are perennially popular.
Look at the current television landscape. In this era of Peak TV, where dozens upon dozens of quality scripted shows are all vying for your valuable eyeballs, anthology series stand apart. American Horror Story proves that you can create a sustainable show based on just a premise and a recurring cast of seasoned actors. Fargo proves that you can tell a complete story in one season and yet continue the show across multiple seasons with only tentative connections between them. The UK coming-of-age drama Skins switched casts completely every couple of seasons so that the focus could be on as many different characters and as many types of teen-focused stories as possible, and it became a proving ground for a bunch of up-and-coming British actors.
And let’s not forget the most famous science fiction anthology series of all time: The Twilight Zone. Each episode was an opportunity to feature an entirely new setting with entirely new characters, and audiences were just expected to accept this new paradigm and roll with it. One episode would be about a boy with psychic powers, another about a monster trying to take down an airplane, and yet another about aliens invading suburban America.
Now, let’s step back a moment and think about Doctor Who. One episode might be about visiting a Viking village, the next episode might be about a futuristic underwater base, and another about an adventure on an alien planet.
Doctor Who was always an anthology series at its heart.
It's already canon.
No, really. It is. Sure, the television series is the thing that most people will focus on, but Doctor Who also has a well-established Expanded Media Universe that excels in telling lots of different stories featuring all the Doctors. During “The Wilderness Years,” the era between the cancellation of the show in 1989 and the re-emergence of it in 2005, Doctor Who novels saw a surge in popularity. It was, after all, the only place where fans could get new Doctor Who stories. The novels featured adventures starring all the Doctors and also fleshed out some of the Doctor’s mysterious backstory. Doctor Who novelists like Paul Cornell have gone on to write for the television series as well as Doctor Who comics, and a Doctor Who short story writer/fan named Steven Moffat became kind of a big deal later on too.
(Showrunner, folks. He became Doctor Who’s showrunner. The show’s connections with its own expanded universe run deep and wide.)
In 1999, a company called Big Finish received the license to produce Doctor Who audio dramas in the vein of old-time radio serials. These dramas feature most of the original actors from the show reprising their roles. With the tag line: “Classic Doctors, Brand-New Adventures,” Big Finish has so far released over 200 different stories in its Main Range, some of them sequels or at least connected with previous televised adventures. Basically, Big Finish is already making a Doctor Who anthology series. Plus, co-executive producer at Big Finish -- and current voice of the Daleks -- Nicholas Briggs has stated that everything his company has released is considered canon.
Doctor Who comics have been published by Marvel UK and IDW, and currently Titan Comics has a line that spans all modern Doctors as well as some of the classic Doctor incarnations, with more promised on the way. The comics fill in gaps that the show leaves between seasons. For example, during David Tennant’s time as the Doctor, the show established that he traveled for a time without any long-term companions. The Tenth Doctor comic uses that gap to explain that the Doctor met a young Latina artist from Brooklyn named Gabby Gonzalez and, for a short while, they traveled together.
In other words, an anthology series that’s not bound by the constraints of a standard television show is free to explore diversity.
An anthology series would encourage diversity.
At the beginning of this year, current Doctor -- and Scottish silver fox -- Peter Capaldi announced that the 2017 Christmas Special would mark his last appearance as the character. Immediately, there was passionate discussion about casting for the new Doctor and, in particular, casting for diversity. Of course, it’s past time for the Doctor to be something other than male, cis, and white. That’s a given. The Doctor should be more representative of the show’s current audience, which is much more diverse now than it has ever been. The show is a global phenomenon. Don’t believe me? Doctor Who’s 50th-anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” was simulcast in 94 different countries back in 2013. Guinness officially named it the largest ever simulcast of a single TV drama.
So, yes, Doctor Who is a big deal around the world, and the show has a responsibility to reflect that. To its credit -- and the credit of the series’ new showrunner, Chris Chibnal -- when it came time to announce who would be handed the keys to the TARDIS, they chose Jodie Whittaker, a woman, for the role.
While Whitaker’s casting is a step forward for the show, it isn’t the only way to approach the issue of more diverse casting for the Doctor. After all, casting a white woman when you would normally cast a white man doesn't solve diversity for everyone else. You still have a responsibility to represent the vast other types of people who populate the world (or the galaxy). The solution, the one true answer, has been staring at us right in the face all this time. It lies in the expanded universe that hardcore fans enjoy. Doctor Who can embrace further diversity by becoming an anthology series. The show has had 50-odd years of background story. Now it should be free to explore ideas beyond its established norms.
Imagine a Doctor Who series that’s more in line with The Twilight Zone. You’ve got the established idea: The Doctor is a time-traveling alien. And that’s it. There’s no need to be tangled up in complex storylines which span multiple seasons. There’s no requirement for the plot and cast to stick around beyond a single episode. The Doctor could have a new face every episode, and that’s perfectly all right. The Doctor could be a white woman one week, a POC the next, or even ... wait for it … a WOC too! Why did the Doctor regenerate? Doesn’t matter. The Doctor doesn’t get bogged down by details, so the audience shouldn’t either.
Let’s have Doctors who speak in languages other than English. Let’s have episodes set in countries and cultures throughout the world. Let’s show that Doctor Who is truly about the best of humanity, and let’s have humanity be represented by all of us, not just a select few.
An anthology series could even bring back older Doctors for new televised adventures, which has been on many fans’ wishlists after the cameo appearance of Fourth Doctor Tom Baker in “The Day of the Doctor” caused a huge surge of love for the Doctors who came before. Doctor Who is a show about change and making things better than how you found them. It’s past time the show really did that for the world.
The show could finally focus on other characters’ stories.
One frustrating thing about Doctor Who is not knowing what happens to those the Doctor leaves behind: the companions who left the TARDIS and the countless number of people the Doctor has personally saved the lives of over the course of his adventures. Yes, there are the various Doctor Who spin-offs that continue some of their stories, but not all of them. What about an episode that shows us Martha Jones and Mickey Smith and their own adventures battling alien invaders? What about an episode that catches us up on what Jenny, the Doctor’s cloned daughter, has been up to since she flew off in that spaceship? What about an episode set on Gallifrey? What about an episode with Rose Tyler in that alternate universe? What about an episode or two about Clara Oswald and Lady Me and their own adventures in their diner-shaped TARDIS? What about actual closure for Donna Noble after that bizarre memory wipe her storyline ended with that irks me to this day? What about Donna remembering that she’s saved the world multiple times and she’s not only the best temp in Chiswick but a hero in her own right?
I still want justice for Donna, obviously.
There are obviously a lot of people the Doctor’s helped over the years, and while they don’t all warrant the same degree of focus that Jack Harkness or Sarah Jane Smith did in their respective spin-offs, those other characters still deserve a revisit. Suffice it to say that an anthology series would free up the show to do stories just for that.
The show needs to remain innovative.
One of Doctor Who’s first innovations came out of necessity. William Hartnell, the venerated First Doctor, had a health decline that put the future of the show in jeopardy. Rather than cancel the popular series because its lead actor could not continue, the idea that the Doctor can go through a “renewal” (it wasn’t called “regeneration” back then) turned into one of the most enduring and unique parts of the show. Yes, actors have been recast in shows before, but it was extremely unusual for that change to be acknowledged in the show. Patrick Troughton became the show's Second Doctor, and that change created a legacy that continues to this very day.
Doctor Who should continue to be at the forefront of televised sci-fi. With the exception of Black Mirror on Netflix, there really isn’t another decent science fiction anthology series like Twilight Zone. Doctor Who could change all that. The show has the history, both in-character and behind the scenes, of allowing change to drive it. Becoming an anthology series would allow for even more innovation and the telling of a wider range of stories than Doctor Who is known for.
And if the Doctor becomes more diverse in the process, then that can only be a good thing.
No, not just a good thing. The best thing.