With an extended break before Series 10, it’s a good time to consider what else might be worth watching in the long interval before Peter Capaldi takes the controls of the TARDIS again for Steven Moffat’s swansong season. But if you’re a fan of British genre television the bad news is that there aren’t a whole lot of options when it comes to series designed to fill the Doctor Who-shaped gap in the schedules created by the decision not to screen the next series until 2017.
Doctor Who was such a huge hit on its 2005 return that it swiftly spawned a wave of other shows which, although not exactly imitators, were clearly designed to tap in to the newly rediscovered appetite among the viewing public for family-friendly dramas featuring adventure, fantasy and sci-fi. The BBC1 Saturday evening Doctor Who slot has been filled at times when the programme was off-air with shows which have met with success levels which could be termed healthy (Merlin, 5 series, 2008-12), disappointing (Atlantis, 2 series, 2013-15) and somewhere in between (Robin Hood, 3 series, 2006-09).
ITV, enviously eyeing their great rival’s ratings appeal to the early-evening drama audience, have sought to grab themselves a slice of whatever it was they were eating in the Cardiff production office by having a go making some similarly fantastical fare. Demons (2009), now best-remembered for Philip Glenister’s extraordinary American accent, was an attempt that misfired, but the channel unearthed a hit when they made Primeval (5 series, 2007-11). The dinosaurs-bursting-through-anomalies format may have been limiting but it proved popular and was durable enough to survive a number changes of personnel.
But these are not happy times for Britain’s mainstream broadcasters when it comes to finding that elusive drama format which will appeal to family audiences at the weekend. Atlantis, created by the same team as Merlin, couldn’t match the success of its predecessor and won’t be returning. ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde, overseen by Charlie Higson, attracted considerable publicity when some viewers complained that the mix of violence, unsettling transformations and scary monsters made it unsuitable for children. Any controversy didn’t translate into higher viewing figures though, and ITV has announced the show’s cancellation, even though a clearly disappointed Higson said he had plenty of ideas for a second series.
Beowulf – Return to the Shieldlands, a fantasy series loosely based on the Anglo-Saxon poem, had been heralded in some quarters as a British Game of Thrones but has failed to garner either positive reviews of substantial numbers of viewers. Its week-on-week fall in the ratings since it debuted in early January looks likely to ensure it goes the same way as Jekyll and Hyde.
It’s notable that most of the series mentioned above are based on existing stories even if, in the case of Atlantis for example, the programme content bore very little resemblance to the legend it was based on. Whilst it’s understandable that executives like to have a recognisable premise at the heart of a new show to help give audiences a guide as to what they can expect when they tune in, the fact that these recent efforts have failed does point to the limitations of this approach. Maybe viewers are crying out for something new? It’s difficult to make that an entirely convincing argument when so many of the most popular films in recent years have been blockbuster sequels and superhero adaptations, but it would surely be worth a try to give a gifted creative team the freedom to come up with something genuinely fresh.
The one undoubted success in new British genre television in the past year has been Channel 4’s Humans, the series set in an unsettling near-future where flawless android replicas can be bought as domestic slaves. Although aimed at a post-watershed rather than a family audience, the show proved that a strong central idea realised by a talented creative team can translate into critical and popular acclaim.
The BBC don’t seem to have any imminent plans for early evening weekend drama to fill the gap left by Doctor Who. An adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is in the works, to be produced by Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner’s Bad Wolf and New Line Cinema, though there’s no word yet as to the likely scheduling. It may be that more book adaptations would bring broadcasters that elusive success they clearly strive for. Best-seller charts are packed with hit novels aimed at young adults and older children. Charlie Higson is a successful author who has written many of these himself and there will surely be executives at ITV regretting that they didn’t ask him to bring one of his own books to the screen rather than Jekyll and Hyde.
So what does the current state of genre TV mean for Doctor Who? There certainly doesn’t seem to be any lack of faith in the programme at the BBC. The recent announcement about the change of showrunner made it clear that the corporation feels it has a long future in spite of the recent series’ fall in ratings. While the main focus of said news was on the departure of Steven Moffat and the appointment of Chris Chibnall, we did, at least, have two further series confirmed, something which, a few years ago, would’ve seemed like a good cause for celebration.
The news that there’s to be another spin-off series, Class, set in Coal Hill School didn’t exactly meet the warmest of receptions but it did at least demonstrate that commissioners still have confidence in the parent show’s ability to sprinkle its magic onto other stories set in the same universe. And, perhaps most importantly, Doctor Who can bear any numbers of changes in cast and production team, constantly reinventing itself thanks to the ingenious format which has served it so well. It’s a mix that, as recent events have demonstrated, is hugely difficult to recreate – even with some of the brightest minds involved.
What do you think? What kind of series would you like to see while Doctor Who is off the screen? Let us know!