Tomorrow night at around seven o’clock, 10million Britons will find themselves at a loss. For the last 13 weeks they have been eager bit-part players in a national obsession: watching Doctor Who. Now they must wait five months for their next glimpse of the Doctor in this year’s Christmas special. After that, however, Doctor Who won’t be returning for a full series until 2010.
Understandably, many of the Doctor’s fans are miffed. Serial dramas with ratings as stellar as Doctor Who’s (9.8million tuned in last Saturday) aren’t usually allowed to take sabbaticals. You might think that Julie Gardner, Head of Drama for BBC Wales, which makes the show, would be aghast at 2009’s Who hiatus. In fact she sounds elated.
“Isn’t it a marvellous thing?” Gardner says. “Our main motivation for giving Doctor Who a break is that we want the audience to remember how much they love it. Come 2010, we want people to be cheering its return.”
Thankfully, hardcore Whovians won’t have to spend the whole of 2009 immersed in DVD box-sets. Doctor Who will be back, but only sporadically.Will David Tennant returned for 2010?
“Aside from Series Five, which will have a full 13 episodes and transmit in 2010, we are making four one-hour specials. The first, which we’ve already filmed, will go out this Christmas. The next will go out the following Easter. The other specials have yet to be scheduled, although one will definitely be on at Christmas 2009.”
Russell T Davies, Doctor Who’s executive producer and the show’s driving creative force, will be at the helm for all four specials. Davies will write two of them himself, and co-write the others. Gardner believes that the reduction in output won’t only whet the audience’s appetite; it will reinvigorate the franchise. Not least because the exhausted writers and production team have a chance to recharge their batteries.
“It’s been a very intense four years,” she says. “Making 13 episodes of Doctor Who is a year-long job. We film from July to March. In between March and July we’re in post-production. For Journey’s End, the final episode of Series Four, we delivered the finished programme to the BBC the Wednesday before transmission. That’s how close to the wire it is.”
Such a demanding schedule risks squeezing the zest and ingenuity out of the show, and the BBC wants to keep it alive long into the next decade. “When Russell T Davies brought Doctor Who back there was huge audience expectation,” says Gardner. “The reduced schedule for 2009 acknowledges the fact that the show should continue not just for another one or two years, but for another five or 10. It needs to be nurtured, loved and looked after.”
The plots of the forthcoming specials are still under the tightest of wraps. This year’s Christmas episode, reportedly entitled The Return of the Cybermen, will see David Tennant’s Doctor materialising in Victorian England. According to paparazzi photos taken during filming, the episode’s guest stars include David Morrissey and Dervla Kirwan. Beyond that, says Gardner, the “possibilities are endless”. Characters and storylines brought to the fore at the end of the recent series won’t necessarily be picked up again next year. “Our main concern is to find the most rewarding story [for each special]. You have to think about where you want to push the Doctor next: that’s the most important thing.”
What of the Doctor himself? Rumours abound that David Tennant, the Doctor for the previous three series, is to step down. David Morrissey (13/8), John Simm (5/1) and Robert Carlyle (6/1) are the bookies’ favourites to replace him. Further down the odds come James Nesbitt (12/1), Stephen Fry (18/1) and, erm, Ricky Gervais (80/1).
Although it has been reported that Tennant has already made his decision and informed the BBC, Gardner says she doesn’t know whether he will still be the Doctor when the fifth series airs in 2010. However, his stint as a Time Lord is far from over. “I can confirm that David Tennant will be coming back after his run playing Hamlet [for the RSC] to film the four specials. Beyond that I don’t know. What I do know is that David still loves Doctor Who, does great work on the show and is very happy doing it.” One person who definitely will be standing down after the specials is Russell T Davies. Steven Moffat, who has written outstanding Who episodes including 2007’s Blink, will succeed Davies as lead writer and executive producer for Series Five. He will be joined by fellow executive producer Piers Wenger. Next year, Wenger will also take over from Gardner as the Head of Drama at BBC Wales.
A series of Doctor Who without the ebullient involvement of Davies seems almost unthinkable. Will he still be at work behind the scenes, offering advice and expertise? “Absolutely not,” says Gardner. “Russell won’t want to hang around. Piers and Steven deserve the freedom that Russell and I had when we came to Doctor Who. Steven has written some extraordinary episodes over the past four years, and he’ll be allowed to bring his own sensibility to the show.”
Doctor Who sounds in safe hands. But what are his fans to do with their Saturday evenings in the meantime? An exhausted Gardner says that she, for one, will “probably be sleeping”. Come the autumn, however, she may have another prime-time ace up her sleeve.
“At the moment I’m working on a big new BBC1 drama serial. While the Doctor’s away, I’m waiting for Merlin to take over my Saturday nights.”