They’re a crucial part of being a Doctor Who fan. And. It’s. Happening. Again.
But how does the latest pause in broadcast weigh up?
IT’S ONE YEAR SINCE DOCTOR WHO SERIES 9 BEGAN IN A HAZE OF ODDLY PITCHED PUBLICITY. You remember: low on any mention of Davros even though that scheming despot revealed his face before the first episode’s titles rolled and high on “same old, same old – just the Doctor and Clara Oswald in the TARDIS”. A riveting campaign.
Still, it was a whistle-stop series that ninth one. Multi-part stories had taken a lengthy break between Series 6 and 8, but they roared back in 2015. Constant two-parters and linked single-parters meant broadcast weeks flew by like a mid-western café-TARDIS in the vortex. That was compounded by the 12th Doctor’s second run, like Series 8 before it, making a mere 12 parts as opposed to the 13 instalments the show enjoyed for the first seven years of its renaissance. So, we were getting less Who and it was pelting by quicker than ever. That much was clear. But a year on, having a good look around, there’s no not a flash of a scarf, fez or velvet jacket in sight. The Doctor’s not in.
In late winter the 13th episode of 2015, the obligatory Christmas Special, was posthumously revelled to be the last episode of Doctor Who we’d see for a whole year. A whole year we were already a year into. There was to be a pause, a year off, a hiatus. It’s the kind of announcement that Doctor Who fans thrive on. Because they’re used to it. All the better that last year’s Christmas special wasn’t a full pelt classic, but a rather linear one-joke story of nothing much at all. What better to spend a year without Doctor Who, while countless other genre shows over the Atlantic churn out full seasons of over 20 episodes with little perspiration, than rewatching The Husbands of River Song. Doctor Who will return in spring 2017, likely the Easter weekend in April.
But in that spirit of pure, niggled injustice, itself celebrating a 30th anniversary this year while the one year anniversary of Series 9 goes unmarked, Jokerside pays tribute to Who’s years of utter Doctor-less misery.
Jokerside’s definitive ranking of Doctor Who hiatuses
NUMBER 5 (Joint): 4 June 2011 to 11 August 2011
AKA When Nobody Noticed
Caused by: The 11th Doctor and the Ponds
It was the first sign of a horrid and virulent infection…
How we survived: Well, who noticed? It was just a couple of months. And it’s perfectly normal behaviour to split a series of 13 episodes into two batches and stage mid-series finales and premieres that impressively rendered the whole River Song story arc all the more difficult to follow.
In fact, it was the first sign of a horrid and virulent infection. This most insidious of acts led us inexorably on to Series 7 which dared split itself over two years when already saddled with mid-season companion changes and the misguided restriction to single-part ‘blockbuster’ episodes. But worst of all, that split shifted the show to… Autumn. Who in its natural habitat you might think. Rolling onto Saturday as the nights as drew in. Only it didn’t work out like that. And all the time the execs quietly hoped that shift meant that… No-one would notice we’d lost a year of Who. As of 2017 we reach the 10th series in the 12th year of is revival thanks to this middle-aged crisis.
Yes, it all started with that trip to the States and the astronaut in the lake. As strong as that first half of Series Six is (pirates excluded), very little about it makes sense.
NUMBER 5 (Joint): 25 December 2008 to 1 January 2010
AKA: The Specials Hiatus
Caused by: The 10th Doctor (and behind the arras, Hamlet)
Insidious and far more intelligent
How we survived: Again, who noticed? Well, everyone. Because while this was less insidious and far more intelligent than the later series splits, it unavoidably resulted in just five hours of Doctor Who in little over a year, the vast majority of it stuffed into autumn 2009. The only thing we could reasonably expect is that the promise of loner specials couldn’t quite live up to their promise at all. And so it proved. That strange year did have one essential function however: giving us an extra year of David Tennant. And it’s a template that’s stuck, unless Peter Capaldi chooses to break it. Matt Smith followed tenant and inarguably left the show one year too early. Barring accidents, it’s difficult to think that any modern Doctor won’t throw in the time-towel after three seasons and a break of some kind. Although those Specials were by far the neatest solution.
NUMBER 4: 27 May 1996 to 26 March 2005
AKA: The Years of No Cigar
Caused by: The 8th Doctor
The spirit of hope during the secret hiatus that really shouldn’t have been
How we survived: Sheer determination, scampering after the damp but smoking thread of hope. Truth be told, every Whovian was ready to accept an American series to exactly the same degree they were prepared to dreaded it. And that wasn’t just the concept art of Spider Daleks and the realisation of whatever the Oncoming Storm you can hear chanting “Exterminate” on Skaro at the start of 1996 TV Movie. The rather catastrophic release of the TV movie saw the promise stutter to something worse than cancellation: apathetic brushing away. On that side of the Atlantic that is. While in the UK, the TV movie, for all its controversial moments (kiss! Master! Half-human!) rose above simply killing one Doctor and not letting another one live.
The Eighth Doctor would rise and rise, first thanks to the BBC’s realisation that they could produce their own expanded universe books (sadly, at the cost of Virgin’s New Adventures) and then the arrival of Big Finish’s expanded universe on audio, which proved the concept of McGann’s superb performance while ushering in a crop of writers and creators who would grace the series revival.
Yes, the Eighth Doctor is important – the spirit of hope during the secret hiatus that really shouldn’t have been. And then wonderfully, come the show’s 50th anniversary he was justly rewarded with a long mooted regeneration in 2013’s Night of the Doctor. The Eighth Doctor is hope on many levels, and wouldn’t another outing in some kind of Two Doctors adventure be an even better ongoing tribute?
NUMBER 3: 30 March 1985 to 6 September 1986
AKA The Pre-Trial
Caused by: The 6th Doctor and Peri
This was the first. The original. Hiatus-prime.
How we survived: In scandal. This was the worst right? This was the first. The original. Hiatus-prime. But no, it can’t be, because the show was saved, ready for cancellation a few years on. It was a significant break in service, letting the series slip from its usual slot, on the back of combined 45 minute episodes and scheduling shift. And this was all less than a decade on from the glorious ratings high of the late 1970s. But despite the reduced episode count, the lesser domination of the show and the rise in production trickery that the show would require to struggle on to the end of the decade, there was a saving grace. Confronted with 18 moths, albeit with little communication and a shelved series of stories, script editor Eric Saward and prize writer Robert Holmes hatched the show’s highest moment of self-parody. Why not use the predicament itself. The BBC and external social conservative forces had put the show on trial, mainly in the tabloid press, so why not put the Doctor on trial? The resulting Season 23, The Trial of the Time Lord was a triumph, despite a fading conclusion that sadly proved not to be Robert Homes’ swansong. The Sixth Doctor would have an ignoble exit early in the next series as the show strung the multicoloured clown out to dry (although he would later exceed the Eighth Doctor’s success on Big Finish audios). This was the hiatus that was a warning shot. And the show pretty much took the mick out of it. While that reaction may have led a few thin lips to stretch to a broader smile when the axe fully fell a few years later: Quite right too.
NUMBER 2: 6 December 1989 to 27 May 1996
AKA The Dark Years
Caused by: The 7th Doctor and Ace
Doctor Who ate itself all over again…
How we survived: This is where Doctor Who was made. Well, the Doctor Who we have today. It has to come up this ranking, but hiatus is a light term. It was a cancellation, after 26 years the BBC abandoned the show with quite detectable contempt. It was less than two years before they commissioned Eldorado. It’s easy to ridicule the decision, because on the face of it it’s ridiculous. But everything must end and there’s no doubt that the steady cuts and unsurprising falling ratings of the 1980s made the decision easy. Just as other science fiction properties had fallen and resurrected before, it’s the break that led to the short hope of 1996, to the Eighth Doctor and then the glorious resurgence of 2005. And true to form, when Russell T Davies brought the show back, he channelled the show’s legacy as he turned the 1989 cancellation into the Great Time War. Doctor Who ate itself all over again. And that first series pulled together the greats of the expansive Big Finish universe, the adult tales of The New Adventures, and the parody of The Curse of Fatal Death – all components of the Who myth that couldn’t have existed without that cruel axe in 1989. So this hiatus is utterly, undeniably the sculptor of everything Who has become in the 21st century. And for that reason, conversely, why it’s the most forgivable hiatus.
Those few thousand supporters of the show, who struggled through the early 1990s through DWM, Classic Comic reprints, the third party novels, DWAS membership and VHS releases. It’s all character building for the show that refuses to die, but has frequently failed to celebrate an anniversary on time.
NUMBER 1: 25 December 2015 to 25 December 2016
AKA: The False Dawn
Caused by: The 12th Doctor and Clara
The mere mention of an 18-month hiatus may strike fear into the Cloister Wraiths themselves… Would Robert Holmes have a field day with this.
How we survived: Well this is it, just kicking off right now. And so there’s an immediate spoiler: This is quite possibly the least worse worst Who hiatus of all time. And so it wins the top spot. Because it’s all so blandly bizarre. There’s a showrunner change coming up, the promise of new companions and the contractual sword of Damocles hanging over the future of the Twelfth Doctor post-2017… So the best advice: Don’t think about it!
Let’s just put up with it. I mean, apart from the distinct lack of Doctor Who happening right now we can just ignore it until it goes away… Right?
While the mere mention of an 18-month hiatus may strike fear into the Cloister Wraiths themselves, this one’s got everything going for it to sneak under the radar compared to the original tabloid slogging in 1985. This time there’s no evil BBC exec with a hand on the Time Scoop. There’s no foreign hand of investment holding every purse string, every green note staring around wildy, wondering why the Hell they every thought anyone would ‘understand’ the show in the mid-1990s.
There are as many distractions as there are reasons not to worry. The show’s coming back after all, and the BBC was clear about its reasons. We’re at the tail-end of a summer of sport, and unexpected UK politics, that even managed to push the unstoppable charge of Poldark back to near-autumn. It’s also fair to say that the BBC is in a far more straitened place than the corporation that returned Who to its greatest success in 2005. It’s also subject to more concessions, thanks to the government’s ongoing onslaught that earlier this month led to a new draft Royal Charter. While that may not prove as -controversial as it could have, as many commercial rivals would want it, it will continue to turn the screw on the BBC’s production regime and trigger further restructuring as the corporation spins in-house.
The Rio Olympics have pushed a great number of quality shows to the dam reservoir of the end of the year, leaving a televisual feast that happily obscures Who’s absence just as it does the standard increase of summer repeats. And that’s a good excuse to avert the disaster that met Who last year autumn. Because of course, there was another reason. It was only a matter of time until those gleaming viewing figures that echoed the glorious peak of the Tom Baker era slipped nearer the ratings that typified its late-1980s slide to cancellation.
Rightly, there was some indignation over the show’s viewing figures come the close of 2015: they were horrifying. While it’s true that consolidated figures which better capture rapidly changing viewing habits of television audiences leave overnights a wee bit redundant, Series 9’s figures were still woeful. The launch marketing certainly didn’t help, sure, especially as the show that had long slipped from its spring home emerged into an autumn stuffed with The X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and the final series of Downton Abbey… That schedulers let Series 9 creep toward the watershed and hover there didn’t help much either.
Series 9 recorded the worst ratings in the modern era, a stark contrast to the generally high critical praise he received (indeed, it’s the best overall season of Moffat’s tenure). Quite unfairly, The Satan Pit from the show’s second series had long held a miserable record –the refreshed show’s lowest rating, a grubby 6.08million. Until 2015 that is. Seven episodes of the ninth series ranked lower than that, with a new record rather inevitably set by Mark Gatiss’ rather bodged found footage experiment Sleep No More. Hopefully that record of 5.61 million will last a great deal longer.
The sorry state of overnight ratings was made all the worse as this was the series that realised Russell T Davies’ hope that two-parters could be edited together for Sunday afternoon scheduling. 11 years on it happened! Well at first. Funnily enough, The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar weren’t the best choice for that. Sheesh… Low ratings during the Capaldi tenure had already seen viewing figures for the traditional repeat slot drop so low it was quietly retired. A quietly dignified move once the decision had been made to move the third BBC network online.
Rather to his surprise by the sounds of the statement that greeted the news, record-breaking Who writer and producer Steven Moffat has another series in him, a devised swansong (that probably won’t but possibly might have more River Song). By delaying this Series 10 to 2017, it not only gives Moffat time to complete his obligations to Sherlock Series 4 for the Beeb, but also time for incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall to sign off his greatest hour with Series 3 of Broadchurch. And no doubt, some crucial extra time to solve that pressing Capaldi conundrum. Oh, and come up with some dazzling storylines. That last bit can’t be underrated. Moffat’s showrunner debut, 2010’s sublime The Eleventh Hour, was the clear result of his decades pawing over ideas for a regeneration story.
So in all, everything considered, ITV win, BBC win, the showrunners win.
And hopefully, the fans win just a little bit later.
And isn’t that just terrible? Maybe it was time for a light lay-off. Perhaps the BBC had sound reasoning in pausing the show and letting everything cool off. Perhaps it will prove a preventative cure to avert another ‘1989’. The proof may well be in the next series’ marketing. Moffat’s been quite contrite about the mistakes made during 2015’s promotion. We’ll probably see the response around Christmas.
But it’s all too bloody neat for a hiatus isn’t it? Too explainable? To the point of indolent acceptance. Just what is this British acceptance of fallow years? And most importantly, hauling this current loss to the top of the pile, just imagine the field day that Robert Holmes could have had with this inferred give and take.
Thinking back to his underrated classic, The Sun Makers… “These ‘taxes’, they are like sacrifices to tribal gods?” ”Well,” replies the Doctor, “roughly speaking, but paying taxes is more painful.”
For further anniversary reading, why not look to 2015 when Jokerside celebrated 10 years of New Who by seeing how that compares to the first decade of the Classic Series. Gloves off…
MORE FURTHER READING: For a closer look at the last 11 years of Doctor Who’s glorious return the New Series Whovember awaits.
And for hours spent in the company of Doctor Who Series Nine do take a look at Jokeriside’s special collection of long reads accompanying every story.