‘New New’ Doctor Who: Brand Regeneration?

April 19, 2010
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Writing in his BFI TV Classics book on Doctor Who, critic Kim Newman observes that the triumphant success of the show’s 2005 reinvention might yet cast a long shadow, with the series coming under pressure to stay the same for a long time to come. Doctor Who‘s continuation under a new showrunner, Steven Moffat, along with eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and fresh companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) very much reminds me of what I’ll call Newman’s Dictum.

Doctor Who starts over every now and then, re-casting its leads and unfolding anew. But since 2005 there’s always been a thread of continuity: Billie Piper bridging the 2005-6 series, and David Tennant remaining in post until recently. As such, 2010 poses a key threat to the brand, and to its ‘flagship drama’ status in the UK – what if a new Doctor, companion, and exec-producer team represents too much change for audiences to take? What if, this time round, British Doctor Who fans – i.e. the UK’s mass audience – don’t recognise post-Tennant, post-Davies Who as the show they’ve come to love?

Moffat’s reign therefore begins, as Kim Newman foresaw, by channelling Russell T. Davies. The new production team have poached furiously from the old, taking bits of visual continuity – beginning with a view from space before plunging down to Earth – as well as Moffat generating pastiche Davies-style dialogue, e.g. the alien Atraxi being addressed as “you lot”, one of Davies’ writerly tics. And narratively, this is still very much the Whoniverse of the Shadow Proclamation (first name-checked in Christopher Eccleston’s debut story) and of planet Earth as “defended” (set out in David Tennant’s opening story). We might be shown all previous Doctors, but this episode is strongly weighted towards recent textual memory.

‘The Eleventh Hour’ feels the need to reassure child viewers who have grown up with the Tennant era that it’s still OK to love Doctor Who; they don’t have to let go of the habit. Where Rose Tyler represented the show’s desired new fans within its diegesis, Amy Pond represents what are by now older fans of the BBC Wales’ version, cautioning them to keep on believing for the next twenty minutes, or longer, and never to out-grow the Doctor’s appeal. But it addresses this anxiety – that the already won-over UK audience may become deserters – by embracing a regenerative difference/similarity that’s weighted towards sameness. The title sequence is re-created, but reworks the 2005-onwards version; the theme tune is remixed, but in a way that again most strongly cites the 2005-onwards version. Fans may already be picking over the ‘dark fairytale Who‘ promised in advance publicity, but reading-for-change as an interpretative community misses the branding mark of this regeneration somewhat. This incarnation feels like a Greatest Hits package from the off. It’s a smacking great irony: a re-brand and a re-launch that daren’t actually regenerate.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved Matt Smith, and Karen Gillan, and Moffat’s rabid one-liners, and Murray Gold’s soundtrack, and the giant-eye aliens, and Amy as a creative fangirl par excellence making her Doctor dolls and drawing her TARDIS pictures…

But at the same time, the show feels like Doctor Who perfectly impersonating an image of its own established brand identity under Russell T. Davies  – and I’m not sure it’s ever felt quite that way before. Not for me, anyway. Something not widely remarked upon is how the “bad alien” in ‘The Eleventh Hour’ is defeated. It becomes a perfect impersonation of itself. Perhaps that narrative resolution is the most ‘meta’ moment in a screenplay jostling with potential candidates, because I can’t help wondering whether Doctor Who just became its own dream-made-reality Prisoner Zero. Not hyperreal, but hyperfictional: dreamt in its own established brand image.

And if so, that may tell us something interesting about the possibility of wide-ranging textual change under contemporary systems of TV branding and franchising. Conceptualised as a blockbuster TV brand – as it is now in the UK – Doctor Who seemingly can’t do regeneration anymore, or can’t be allowed to. Its surfaces are altered, upgraded, upscaled; there’s a shiny new HD-friendly TARDIS inside and out, but the real game is all about reassuring viewers that things remain substantially the same. Set up a story arc (“Silence will fall”); plan episodes to coincide with major cultural events (‘The Beast Below’ falling on the first Saturday of the UK’s general election campaign) so as to boost publicity; carry on from where you left off in the move from ep one to ep two; follow a present-day opener with futuristic and then historical tales. In all this, the Moffat era shows clear signs of studiously imitating the Davies’ masterplan – and of self-consciously borrowing what worked in 2005.

This leads me to a perplexing thought: if Doctor Who, back in 1963, had been industrially conceptualised as a ‘brand’ and a ‘franchise’, then it never would have lasted until today, because it would never have been free to chaotically and brilliantly tumble through wholescale reinventions. The ‘brand’ problem is that it guarantees consistency, but has to simultaneously promise periodic re-invention so as not to ‘become tired’. The product of this commodified self-contradiction is superficial change and substantial sameness. Or spin-off shows/new franchise entries as a different mode of TV drama continuation.

But regeneration as a ‘brand re-launch’ proves not to be too much, or even very much, regeneration at all. Perhaps time (and wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff) may yet prove Newman’s Dictum wrong; perhaps Doctor Who will be permitted to change radically once again. Who knows… but the fan in me will wait and see, of course. Here I am already, bags packed, sitting in my back garden. Waiting. And dreaming.


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7 Responses to “ ‘New New’ Doctor Who: Brand Regeneration? ”

  1. Sean C. Duncan on April 19, 2010 at 6:53 AM

    I generally agree with your take on this particular episode, but find myself a little perplexed about what would constitute the show’s “regeneration.”

    First, you state “Doctor Who seemingly can’t do regeneration anymore, or can’t be allowed to.” — well, I don’t see any reason to believe either the assumption that there’s ever been wholescale reinvention of the series (other than perhaps the McGann movie and the beginning of the Davies era) or that this show isn’t doing that, albeit slowly like it’s been done before. Narratively, the show from 1963-1989 rarely changed — certainly the Hinchcliffe era had more gothic horror than other eras, the purely historicals pretty much ended after Hartnell, the changes in the episode format were less a creative choice and more a scheduling necessity, etc.

    After The Eleventh Hour, I see plenty of small changes that hint at big changes coming down the road. For the first time I’m aware of, the Doctor’s visited a companion at multiple times in her life, very quickly (a la Girl in the FIreplace) — Moffat’s referred to this as Amy “knowing the Doctor longer than he’s known himself” in the new regeneration, and there are rumors that this might be expanded further in the future with more time jumps in Amy’s life. Leadworth, too, is a novel locale (at least compared to Davies’s tiresome overuse of London), and includes a supporting cast of characters that might resemble the Mickey/Rose dynamic on first glance, but the wedding’s a new twist. But the biggest issue is one raised in Victory of the Daleks that I won’t spoil for non-torrenting American readers here; suffice it to say, Amy’s revelation about what she does and doesn’t know hints that large elements of the Davies era might be slowly dismantled over the series. Certainly The Victory of the Daleks indicates that Moffat’s not shying away from significantly reinventing the series’ major villains, either, something that hasn’t been done in quite a while.

    So, I question your assertion that since Doctor Who historically hasn’t been thought of as a franchise, its “regenerations” were perhaps less measured than this. And perhaps that’s true for chunks of the B&W era and any episode Robert Holmes wrote. I see it somewhat differently, however, as the switch from the Williams to the JNT era — the final series of Tom Baker’s run — was entirely about changing the tone and mood of Doctor Who, getting rid of companions, bringing back a recurring villain, and introducing three new youthful companions (not to mention the radically different credit sequence). I see the first Matt Smith series as doing something similar, bridging what Doctor Who was in the previous years to what it will be rather slowly, and reshaping the franchise both visually and narratively to be something new and different to provide obvious new product tie-in opportunities.

    Which is, to my mind, the beauty of Doctor Who; it often changes and looks different, but it’s always been the same fundamental show, regardless of if the Doctor says “you lot” or refers to his TARDIS as a “Type 40.” What excites me about the current series is that while the core of the series may remain the same (and should remain the same), there are a growing number of hints that Moffat’s got something truly new he’s working toward up his sleeve.

  2. Liz Ellcessor on April 19, 2010 at 9:17 AM

    Matt, I think you and Sean are both onto something – that perhaps in aiming for the “same Doctor” the Matt Smith season is (so far) relying heavily on its immediate predecessor.

    But, though the Doctor Who franchise element is certainly important, I think we should also consider that the 2005-present series is much more heavily serialized and character-driven than earlier iterations of the show. Thus, there’s much more emphasis on showing the Doctor’s consistencies, and that he has a history that affects his behavior – the Tennant era isn’t forgotten, because this Doctor just ended those experiences. And, the constant alien attacks on Earth are now something that should be in global memory.

    Early Doctor Who was a largely episodic show, which allowed for the kinds of unexpectedness of plot and complete overhauls in regenerations – grounding it in characters, and thus eras, has made that less plausible.

    • Sean C. Duncan on April 19, 2010 at 9:54 AM

      A couple other things to note:

      The complete overhauls in each regeneration’s style were rarely immediate, clean breaks with the previous incarnations of the Doctor (with Troughton/Pertwee being a notable exception). It took a series or two before the Tom Baker/Louise Jameson combo got into its classic stride, it took a bit before McCoy began to gain his footing (and then, uh, get cancelled, and they tried to really plan out the Baker/Davison switch ahead of time), etc. I suspect it will be a bit before Matt Smith’s Doctor Who era starts to feel significantly different from the Eccleston/Tennant era.

      This is, I’m assuming, somewhat intentional and probably natural for this franchise. The first set of episodes were written before they’d cast the Doctor and got a good sense of Smith (and what his youth might bring to the role), and so they have to rely on the previous approaches to characterizing the Doctor. Additionally, I do look at Moffatt as being a kind of Robert Holmes for the Davies era — he created a great amount of the characterization, mythology (especially related to the 51st century, picking up from Talons of Weng-Chiang), and dialogue bits (“wibbly wobbly timey wimey”) that made the Davies era work. Many of the similarities between Moffatt’s first few episodes and the previous era are because Moffatt was the best, most memorable contributor to the previous era.

      I just hope he can manage the longer-form stuff — Jekyll was similarly promising, but ended with a truly terrible final episode, rivaling “The Last of the Time Lords” and “Journey’s End” for overindulgent crappiness. I’m fine with Moffatt marking the Doctor Who franchise as being the same as the successful one that just preceded his, but by the end of the series he’d better improve on his predecessor’s failures.

  3. Matt Hills on April 19, 2010 at 12:52 PM

    @ Sean — I wrote this piece specifically in response to ‘The Eleventh Hour’. I agree that in light of the next two episodes, the Moffat era may be developing, or even unfolding, in directions that begin to stand out more clearly from Russell T. Davies’s work. But even here – the character of Amy being granted further narrative agency – Moffat is arguably building on the logic of ‘nu Who’ rather than marking out a radical regeneration. Likewise, his treatment of major vilains seems less radical when you recall that in every appearance of the Daleks between 2005-9 they were tweaked, ie design variants were premiered (linked to merhandising). Again, many of the production choices of the new team look like intensifications of the show’s prior incarnation.

    And I would argue that the move from Williams to JNT was far more radical a change in tone than anything yet seen in this production hand-over. Had there been a sense of brand consistency, and franchise identity, in the early 80s then I suspect JNT would have found himself with far less scope to reinvent.

    Likewise, the Troughton/Pertwee regeneration also ushers in far more radical format changes, as you note. Again, I’d raise the question of whether such considerable reformatting would even be floated as an idea now. And this is sort of what I’m driving at in my piece: Who has changed far more radically in tone and basic narrative premise in the past than seems to be permissible, or even industrially thinkable, right now. If that is so, what may account for this? My suggestion is that it is, at least in part, a logic of programme branding.

    The way in which Amy is introduced is somewhat novel, though, I agree with you. But this still seems to recap prior production logics: Rose was introduced to build and ‘interpellate’ the female audience (she diegetically displaces ‘male fan’ Clive), and young Amelia hails the child audience more directly than at any time since 2005. Each companion appears fairly directly conceptualised as a production ‘solution’ to targeting an audience segment who, it is feared, may fail to embrace the show. Clearly Moffat is telling new stories, in new ways, but I’m suggesting that this diegetic shift is nevertheless underpinned by shared production discourses and logics.

    I guess I’m interested in opposing what I’d see as a common (though by no means universal) fan reading of the series, where ‘newness’ is assumed to automatically emerge through a change in production personnel, and through new titles/theme/TARDIS/villains. Rather than reading-for-difference — something also reinforced in promotional paratexts, as I note — I’m primarily interested here in reading the brand critically and somewhat *against* the grain of its discursive logic of ‘refreshment’. I’d like to see Steven Moffat improve on Russell T. Davies’s work too, but Moffat seems rather in thrall to its success and its story-arc formatting at present. Time will tell!

    • Sean C. Duncan on April 19, 2010 at 1:31 PM

      Great points!

      I do wonder, though, whether Doctor Who even *needs* a radical regeneration at this point, only 4-ish years into the new run. Obviously, there are marketing reasons to change the surface elements of the series, sell more new Dalek toys and green bulbous sonic screwdrivers. But I haven’t seen much that has ever indicated that Moffat didn’t already love what Davies had done with the series — I remember reading/listening to him be downright effusive about the writing on “Smith & Jones,” for instance.

      That is, I’m just raising the possibility that while you’re exactly right that the changes and lack of changes feed into merchandising concerns, I’m not certain that their *genesis* was always the merchandising/franchising of Doctor Who. Or, at least, that Moffat saw things he liked about the series that would also sync well with new merchandising opportunities. I don’t buy for a second the “well, we’re changing lots of other things, so why not the Daleks, too!” line from this week’s Doctor Who Confidential, but do think it’s plausible that Moffat wouldn’t want a radical change, say like the UNIT years, because he and Wenger think Doctor Who works better in the traditional format of traveling anywhere, anytime.

      I personally would like to see more play with the scheduling of specific episodes — every season has started with an on-Earth, contemporary introduction story followed by a far-flung future episode, then back to the past to meet up with an iconic British figure (at least Churchill’s not a writer, eh?), then the obligatory two-parter, the Doctor-lite episode, another two-parter, and then three arc-y episodes to wrap it up. This format works pretty well, but it’s getting stale, and it’s a little disappointing that it doesn’t seem Moffat’s messing with that yet.

  4. Matt Hills on April 19, 2010 at 1:07 PM

    @ Liz – good point about series memory, and thus the need to ‘fit’ with what’s come before. This certainly has an impact on the referencing of the Tennant era, and on the recalling of recent narrative events. It may be the case that Moffat is gradually working towards a more distinct reboot or narrative reset, though this is, as yet, unclear. But the global memory of alien attacks, which genre-shifts Doctor Who away from horror inter-texts (the unnatural alien violating systems of cultural order) and towards SF inter-texts (aliens exist, and humanity is decentred) has posed problems of plausibility for ‘trad’ Who stories. Moffat has yet to indicate, I think, where his era stands on the ‘global memory’ question – if this is altered, perhaps it will be one of his more significant narrative shifts. But certainly the consistency of ‘new Who’ works against wholescale reinvention, I agree. Again, though, I’d see that character/narrative memory and consistency as linked to a logic of franchising/branding. I call it a ‘fanbrand’ in ‘Triumph of a Time Lord’ – a desire for consistency that’s over-determined, emerging both out of fan critiques of the old series’ inconsistencies, and out of contemporary industrial practices of branding.

  5. Derek Kompare on April 20, 2010 at 12:26 AM

    Thoughtful critical take on Moffat and Davies’ Doctor Who, Matt. I’m finishing my own post on the new series, though you’ve given me some more food for thought.

    One of the fascinating, and possibly unique (in degree, if not in kind) things about Doctor Who fandom has been its overdetermined, and ritualistically invoked constructions of the series’ past and future. I say this as an emphatically die-hard fan myself! I know of no other media fandom, for example, that could have produced anything as elaborate as the In Vision fanzine (1980s-2000s), or that could have kept Doctor Who Magazine going for over 30 years (half of which without any actual television Doctor Who in production!), or that filters every new Doctor, companion, story, and season through the lens of what came before (e.g., the almost unavoidable tendency of long-time fans to substitute past Doctors in their heads while taking in a new one). This fandom, as even this discussion thread indicates, enacts itself through continuous invocation, comparison, attribution, categorization, and so on. Given that Davies, Moffat, and many other key production personnel stem from exactly this fannish background, it’s not surprising that contemporary Doctor Who is in constant dialogue with itself. Like the rest of you, I’m hopeful that Moffat will gently break away from more of the Davies era trappings as the season, and his tenure, goes on.

    That said, I do agree that this tendency at the production level is compounded by the branding thrust of 21st century popular media. The BBC today would not abide by the sort of wholesale transition that happened between 1969 and 1970 (and again in 1971, arguably), nor between Seasons 17 and 18. At previous times, the show, and British television, simply functioned differently. In the context of the original times, and from the perspective of the BBC, it spent the 1960s as pleasantly distracting time-filler, the 1970s as popular institution, and the 1980s as a redundant vestige headed for extinction. The timing of the relaunch in the mid 2000s could not have been better for many reasons, but the industrial embrace of fannish consumption is certainly critical.