Image Credit: James Ashworth
Image Description: A sonic clutched in a raised fist
William Shaw’s opinion on the new production arrangements of Doctor Who
Perhaps the most famous line in the history of Doctor Who fanzine writing is Jan Vincent-Rudzki’s plaintive question regarding The Deadly Assassin: “WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?” These days, the answer is depressingly clear: it’s been privatised.
And look, I hate to be a party pooper. The announcement that Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner are returning to Doctor Who is intriguing and exciting, especially to a child of the late 2000s. I have no doubt the eventual show will be funny and strange and deeply human, in all the ways the original BBC Wales show was. And frankly, it’s easy to be grateful that the writer of It’s a Sin and A Very English Scandal is condescending to do this ridiculous kids’ show once again, even if Years and Years shows he’s still very much the flawed genius of Voyage of the Damned and The End of Time. But there’s an important snag here, and one that goes beyond the banal fanboy disappointment of not getting to see a fourth creative visionary unleashed on the show. For the first time since 1996, the BBC will not be the only ones producing Doctor Who for television. If you care about public service broadcasting, that should worry you.
Again, there are some qualifications to be made. A Bad Wolf-produced series is a more attractive prospect than a Netflix- or Amazon-produced one — or, indeed, than a Universal-produced one was back in the 90s. Davies’ status as, essentially, a contractor rather than a BBC employee will likely enable him to skirt impartiality rules in his statements outside the programme itself. He certainly hasn’t held back his opinions, from his full-throated defence of trans rights to his branding of the former UK culture secretary and tiresome ‘culture warrior’ Nadine Dorries as “an idiot”. It’s hard to dislike and hardly suggestive of a soulless studio hack. If Doctor Who is to be produced by a private company, this is, perhaps, the best company to do it.
To even say that, however, is to admit defeat. The employment of Bad Wolf to produce Doctor Who is still a handing over of a public service to the private sector. Hell, it’s a handing over to Sony, with reports the company had bought a majority stake in Bad Wolf emerging shortly after the announcement that Davies and Gardner would be producing Doctor Who again, and since being confirmed. As journalist Alex Moreland has pointed out, there is a possibility of Sony Pictures itself being swallowed by an even larger corporation at some point following in the wake of Disney acquiring 21st Century Fox. As we’ve seen in the film and television landscape more broadly, this corporate consolidation results in fewer, blander, and ultimately less rewarding projects. It’s especially galling to see a series which has almost always been produced with public money getting mired in the Hollywood machine, a microcosm of the neoliberal tendency to sell off assets created for the common good. Or, as critic Jack Graham provocatively put it, “Russell T. Davies is to Doctor Who what Richard Branson is to the NHS.”
Of course, this process started a long time ago. The private sector has been involved in Doctor Who almost from the beginning, whether it was Amicus Productions on the Peter Cushing Dalek films or Frederick Muller Ltd printing the first Doctor Who novelisations. Anyone reading this article is doubtless familiar with the commercial Doctor Who content emanating from Penguin Random House, Big Finish, Titan Comics, and others. But in 2018, this entire miniature ‘Doctor Who industry’ was consolidated under BBC Studios, the commercial subsidiary of the corporation which produces what few programmes have not yet been outsourced.
Yet while commercial Doctor Who content has effectively always been with us, it has become noticeably more cynical since 2018. The embarrassing flow-chart extravaganza of Time Lord Victorious was a naked attempt to sell Doctor Who books, comics, toys, audios and more to any fan who had the temerity to buy things from only one of these categories, barely bothering to create a narrative hook for itself beyond that. Doctor Who: Worlds Apart, the NFT card game covered excellently in these pages by Sam Flower, is even more disgusting; a flagrant cash grab built on an environmentally destructive technology which didn’t even launch as a game before trying to sell virtual cards costing hundreds of pounds to children. Doctor Who, a series created to inform, educate, and entertain, now seemingly exists to make money. The outsourcing of the parent show is just the point at which the private sector infestation becomes total.
Private sector involvement does not reliably improve public services, nor does it create efficiency. In 2018, the National Audit Office found that privately financing public projects can be up to 40% more expensive than publicly funding them outright, making private finance initiatives worse value for money as well as less transparent. At the time, Jeremy Corbyn stated: “We need our public services provided by public employees with a public service ethos and a strong public oversight.” This principle applies just as much to public service broadcasting as it does to the building of schools. The precise details of Bad Wolf’s contract with the BBC are not publicly available, but it would hardly be surprising if it ends up being more expensive in the long run than BBC Studios continuing to produce in-house. Moreover, the very decision to re-hire Davies and Gardner shows the kind of conservatism one might expect from a commercial channel; an attempt to recapture something that worked beforerather than to do something new. Is this what the BBC is for? Is this what we want Doctor Who to be?
A better Doctor Who is possible, but not without overhauling the BBC as it currently exists. A solid forty years of neoliberal reforms are not easily done away with, especially with a hard-right Conservative government that the BBC is openly expected to have to appease. But the sheer ‘Brand Power’ which makes Doctor Who such a juicy target for private investment may also make it an effective pressure point for those who wish to see the BBC reformed. There is a degree of abstraction involved in economic arguments in favour of national ownership; selling off your children’s favourite show cuts to the quick. Those of us who believe in public service broadcasting may have found our rallying cry. We’d better be quick; the bad wolves are already at the door. Shout it louder than a Dalek’s cry: “renationalise Doctor Who!”
All opinions stated in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Tides of Time or the Oxford Doctor Who Society.
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