Doctor Who in the 2020s and beyond: lockdowns, Ncuti Gatwa, and things to come

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This latest celebration of Doctor Who’s 60th-anniversary focuses on Jodie Whittaker and Jo Martin’s Doctors, Russell T Davies’ return, and our hopes for Ncuti Gatwa’s era…

NB: This feature contains spoilers for the 2023 Doctor Who specials The Star Beast, Wild Blue Yonder, and The Giggle.

Many fans hold that Doctor Who is the best idea for a TV series ever conceived. Now 60 years old, the BBC’s flagship sci-fi programme may not have always lived up to that, but over the last six decades, it’s a show that has had at least as many incarnations as its title character. As the show begins a brand-new era, we reflect on the 2020s so far and look to the future…

Part Seven: The 2020s (So Far!)

“That’s the only sad thing… I wanna know what happens next!”

The 2020s aren’t ranking high on anybody’s list of all-time favourite decades, but they’ve been a surprisingly good time to be a Doctor Who fan. As the vast back catalogue pops up on various streaming services and the current show finally evolves into a fully-fledged franchise for the franchise age, there’s more assurance that the show will keep going right now than at any point in its history.

That said, it’s come out of a period in which the show has been immersed in its own continuity, up to and including the recent 60th-anniversary miniseries.

Leading off her debut series, Whittaker’s Doctor became a more paranoid figure in the wake of revelations about their untold history, first alluded to by Sacha Dhawan’s traumatised and vindictive Master and then proven by Jo Martin’s gun-toting Fugitive Doctor, a forgotten incarnation a la John Hurt’s War Doctor.

Later, Ncuti Gatwa was announced as the next Doctor under returning showrunner Russell T Davies, but in a surprise twist, the fan-favourite TARDIS team of David Tennant and Catherine Tate also came back for three specials.

Everyone involved may be older and wiser, but the cyclical nature of the episodes so far would be more troubling if we didn’t know a clean break was coming. Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor will pick up his new companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) at Christmas and then it’s off to a new series in 2024, on BBC One and iPlayer in the UK and on Disney+ internationally.

As things stand, we’ll probably be talking about current Doctor Who when the 70th anniversary comes around, but have the show’s two “endings” in two years done enough to tie everything off satisfactorily?

Locked down (2020 – 2022)

There’s an unintended bit of irony late on in series 12’s The Haunting Of Villa Diodati where the Doctor offers to drop her companions off home “back in 2020” rather than taking them to fight in the last battle between humanity and the Cybermen in the far-future. Yaz, Graham, and Ryan bravely stay the course, but on balance, we’d probably pick the Cyber-Wars too.

Fortunately for Doctor Who, a new series and another hour-long Dalek special were already in the can by the end of 2019, and series 12 began on New Year’s Day 2020 with the Spyfall two-parter. And right off the bat, this story signals that the standalone, callback-lite first Whittaker season was a one-off.

Chibnall opens the series by touting guest stars Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry while actually building a classic Master reveal for Dhawan. Shorn of all that lovely complicated character development that Missy got, the Master kicks off the series’ 2007 Who revival movement.

This peaks in Fugitive Of The Judoon, which not only features the titular rhino mercenaries and the return of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), but also a Human Nature-style Chameleon Arched incarnation of the Doctor played by Jo Martin.

Coming at the exact midpoint of the 31 episodes Whittaker and Chibnall planned to make together, Fugitive Of The Judoon’s myriad twists and revelations are planned to a tee, but the episode hardly hangs together as a story once you know about the twists. The Fugitive Doctor makes a startling entrance, but then gets the Paul McGann treatment, with later appearances restricted to cameos and Big Finish audio-play spin-offs – seemingly by design this time.

Last time, we mentioned the investigative procedural format of the Thirteenth Doctor’s adventures, but here, the addition of a season-spanning mystery flummoxes it. In another RTD throwback, Chibnall kills everyone on Gallifrey again, not as a way of removing the show’s baggage, but to provide an empty stage for an exposition-palooza in the series finale, The Timeless Children.

Essentially, 2.47 billion kids get nuked – no takebacks this time – to create an empty stage for Dhawan’s Master to heap more trivia on Doctor Who. The global warming parable in Orphan 55 is small fries compared to the magnitude of such global fridging. In and of itself, the Timeless Child plot is never fully explained, but it’s still overexplained enough to further congest the show as a whole.

For the vast majority of the target audience, the Thirteenth Doctor might be their first. So, the idea that the first Doctor we saw on telly is not The First Doctor is only an inherently dramatic one if you’ve actually been watching since 1963. And let’s face it, if every middle-aged “Not My Doctor” ultra who comments that they’ve been watching since the show started actually did, An Unearthly Child would have had higher viewing figures than the Moon landing.

(Rumours persist that the real reason the first serial isn’t on iPlayer is because Russell T Davies has inserted a clip of a Silent ordering us all to go outside and touch grass from time to time.)

You can certainly do dramatic things with the idea, but what the show goes for is two finales in a row where the Doctor looks at everything that’s happened and decides it doesn’t matter.

The Timeless Children was broadcast on 1st March 2020 and later that month, COVID-19 lockdown measures legally came into force in the UK. Whittaker famously filmed a video in-character as the Doctor to reassure young fans (and some of us older ones too) but behind the scenes, restrictions on TV productions spelled serious trouble for the next series of Doctor Who.

In one of several very good “exit interview” podcasts he’s done in 2023, Chibnall told Radio Free Skaro:

‘There was a week where it was not going to be made […] because the BBC was just like […] where’s the money coming from? How are we going to do this? Is it too difficult? And it literally went down to the wire of like, yeah, there was an hour on one day when it’s like, it was done. And yeah, we had to do — there are certain things I had to do to get that season made. Because they couldn’t find a way to do it.’

Giving credit where it’s due, Chibnall is the modern showrunner who produced Doctor Who in a time when producing Doctor Who should have been impossible. We could easily have not seen anything at all in 2021 or 2022, but instead we got the lavish and bombastic Flux series, the first season-long serial since 1986’s The Trial Of A Time Lord, followed by three climactic specials.

We learn that the Doctor has been tugging the thread of her unknown origin, but it threatens to unravel the universe when the mysterious Flux event causes ructions across time and space. Enemies like the Sontarans, the Weeping Angels, and the Grand Serpent jumping at the chance to capitalise on the carnage, with the Doctor, Yaz, and their allies caught in the middle.

The use of lots of the same characters and monsters across six episodes simplified production, but the universe-spanning stakes still up the ante. Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole both departed at the end of the previous special, and so, John Bishop was added as new companion Dan Lewis. As I said last time, “for the dads” casting here means dad representation, this time spiking what otherwise would have been Doctor Who’s first-ever all-female TARDIS team.

Bishop leads a dazzling array of guest stars, including Kevin McNally, Jacob Anderson, Thaddea Graham, Craig Parkinson, Jonathan Watson, and Steve Oram. The series is entirely written by Chibnall except for Maxine Alderton’s co-writing work on the exemplary Village Of The Angels, marking the first proper appearance of the new series’ most popular villains since 2013.

Whatever its flaws, Flux puts itself over as event TV, even if appointment viewing is no longer seems within reach for linear broadcasting.

Like the later seasons of Torchwood, it goes for a subtitle rather than “series 13”, and it effectively stretches the peak “aargh” of a finale across a whole season. The sprawling story doesn’t stick the landing, but it’s surely the most fun you can have without watching another, better season of Doctor Who.

Comparatively, the 2022 specials are a mixed bag.

Eve Of The Daleks is a jolly action-thriller and the best of Chibnall’s Dalek hootenannies. Legend Of The Sea Devils is a bafflingly perfunctory folly. And The Power Of The Doctor turns the fan service up past Thirteen as Whittaker bows out fighting the Master, the Cybermen, and the Daleks with the help of umpteen returning guest stars and regulars.

But to underline how uncertain the show’s future was at this point, the news of Davies’ return to the show and further series being commissioned only came during the filming of the final special, which was originally to climax with an open-ended regeneration scene.

In a Q&A session at the Gallifrey One convention in February 2022, producer Matt Strevens told fans: ‘We did not know there would be another series of Doctor Who. […] My utter relief was, we didn’t break it, and Jodie gets to regenerate!’

Into the Whoniverse (2023 – ????)

Doctor Who: The Church On Ruby Road

I’m not here to stroke anyone’s confirmation bias, so let’s put that last quote in context. Where RTD started on a US-style 13-episode run every year from 2005 to 2008, inflation and frozen licence fees and changing television models have made new Doctor Who episodes fewer and further between ever since.

The average of ten episodes every 18 months would have held for Whittaker’s third run in different circumstances, but six episodes and three specials is a significant improvement on nothing at all. And The Power Of The Doctor was designed as a finale, not because Chibnall’s progressive-but-actually-quite-conservative approach had failed or otherwise alienated audiences, but because it was no longer viable for the BBC to make the show without a co-production partner.

However, back in 2020, Russell T Davies had dropped the BBC an email.

Doctor Who Magazine assistant editor Emily Cook had organised a series of very popular Twitter watchalongs of New Who episodes past, usually with the people who made them tweeting along or contributing new minisodes and content. Perhaps the peak of this was the April 2020 watchalong of The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, which had Davies, David Tennant, and Catherine Tate onboard.

According to RTD, the stars so enjoyed revisiting the episodes that they started to get nostalgic about making a proper comeback in their group chat, and the former showrunner duly passed this information onto the BBC. It later turned out BBC Drama were very interested in bringing back Tennant and Tate, but also wanted to gauge Davies’ interest in coming back to run future series of Doctor Who under whatever co-production deal was struck.

Much to fans’ bewilderment and excitement, Davies’ return to Doctor Who was confirmed in September 2021. Starting with the 60th-anniversary specials, the show was set as a co-production between the BBC and former Who producers Julie Gardner and Jane Tranter’s production company, Bad Wolf – “I create myself”, indeed!

Since then, Disney has also taken an interest in the show. Doctor Who now streams on Disney+ internationally, simultaneous with the UK transmission on BBC One and iPlayer. This is important for the show’s global profile because a long-standing Netflix deal lapsed somewhere around the end of Peter Capaldi’s second series. Many fans outside of the UK have reported not knowing where to catch up conveniently, so this move fixes that, in addition to significantly boosting the budget.

Of the Disney deal, RTD recently told SFX Magazine: ‘At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, but I really, really mean this – they were going to do this to the show anyway and I genuinely thought, “It needs looking after”.’

And on the streaming side of things, Davies’ first big move was to make the informal “Whoniverse” label into an official brand, complete with Marvel-style ident, and bring as much of the show’s back-catalogue as possible into one place for UK viewers. While BritBox and ITVX Premium made the classic series available to subscribers, the iPlayer offering also makes everything since 2005 accessible to anyone with a TV licence and an Internet connection.

So, for one reason or another, the last two years have been a very exciting time to be a Doctor Who fan. Overlapping with the radio silence of the Chibnall era, there’s been announcements about new “RTD2” episodes seemingly every week, keeping the show in the pop-culture conversation even when it was on air less frequently than it had since before the revival.

We’re going to avoid anything spoilery here, but no engaged fan can fail to notice that they’re incredibly far ahead with production. Filming on the recently broadcast specials began all the way back in June 2022, and with a Christmas special due on BBC One in the next fortnight, the 2024 festive offering is currently in front of the cameras. The first series featuring Ncuti Gatwa as the Fifteenth Doctor has already wrapped.

Let’s dig into those specials though – filming snaps might have tipped people off that David Tennant was playing a different incarnation of the Doctor this time, but it came as a surprise to most viewers when Jodie Whittaker regenerated into him and not Gatwa at the end of The Power Of The Doctor.

More than a year later, the first special, The Star Beast, didn’t give any answers for thism but scratched the itch for a mid-2000s nostalgic revival. The story has the ring of a bucket-list episode for Davies, who wanted to adapt the Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons comic story first time around but felt the budget and VFX weren’t up to the required standard yet.

Conversely, Wild Blue Yonder seems more like an idea for a COVID-safe production than anything aired in the previous two years – a bottle episode with only two actors on screen for the most part.

On top of Tennant adapting his Fourteenth Doctor performance to a character who has since been Matt Smith, Capaldi, and Whittaker, the episode gives him and Tate a real acting workout as both the heroes and villains of the piece. If nothing else, it’s reassuring that the Disney money will be directed into character-led showcases as well as action-packed extravaganzas.

Speaking of which, The Giggle does the typical RTD-sized finale bonanza in double-quick time. You could easily imagine the 2009 version of this cliffhangering with the Doctor and Donna surrounded by Stookie puppets in 1925 while the Toymaker blasts off to conquer the future the following week. Instead, this wraps up in a single, fast, funny, breathless 61-minute instalment.

Led by Neil Patrick Harris’s spectacular guest-villain performance, the show revives a 1960s villain to straddle more fantastical material, right up to the very untraditional nature of the traditional multi-Doctor team-up at the climax. Speculation is already rife about what “bi-generation” means in the age of Disney+, but without wishing to seem incurious, it doesn’t matter any more than the episode we just watched.

That was ultimately true of the Timeless Child mythos too, but true to the twist, this can be two things – a potential setup for a streaming-show multiverse and, more satisfactorily, a way of putting the show since 2005 to bed, in the persona of its most popular Doctor.

And under Davies, the dramatic and emotional impetus is always going to outweigh the long-term gotcha. “Why did this face come back”, multiple characters ask of Tennant’s mug. The answer, as this hived-off incarnation retires to live with the Noble family, is simply Donna being what she says he needs all the way back in The Runaway Bride – someone to stop him.

Throughout these features, we’ve emphasised that Doctor Who is several different shows that get lumped together as one, and never more so than in 2005. But in The Giggle, RTD actually dramatises the break with the past and in so doing, puts a full stop on the programme’s second epoch. Although the show practically cannot end, the sense of an ending is a powerful component of these specials.

Imagine if from now on, there’s 1963 to 1989, 2005 to 2023, and then from the moment Ruby meets a man called the Doctor, we’re off to a fresh start. New Who is dead, long live New New Who – think of it less as “same as the Old New Who” and more like how Martin Campbell oversaw two James Bond reboots, directing both GoldenEye and Casino Royale.

It’s already been confirmed that the upcoming series of eight episodes will be billed as “season 1”, not “series 14”. Some things will stay the same – if the show is back on Saturdays, it’s a safe bet that the next series launch will be in the favoured Easter weekend slot in 2024. (UPDATE: It’s currently slated for May 2024.)

Doctor Who's nostalgic comfort watch status will never be in doubt and a couple of years ago, it was almost sealed that way. But in a decade where it’s almost stopped being a current TV show once or twice already, it’s reassuring to know, as characters like to say around anniversary time, its future is in safe hands.

One day, they will come back…

Rumours of RTD “de-canonising” the Timeless Child or the Flux were flouted by his first three episodes back in the showrunner’s seat. If anything, the Flux is better contextualised in these specials than it was in Flux. UNIT’s new scientific adviser Shirley Anne Bingham (Ruth Madeley) will certainly be back in episodes and spin-offs to come. The Meep and the Toymaker could both pop back any time, but they’ve both alluded to “the Boss”/”the One Who Waits”, so either way, the Fifteenth Doctor is gonna be busy.

And since bi-generation has given us a David Tennant Doctor that can come back at any age without the need for sticky plotting reasons, we’ll probably see the Fourteenth Doctor again in some form too.

Six more brilliant things about Doctor Who in the 2020s

1. During a tumultuous period, Jodie Whittaker is the best ambassador Doctor Who could ask for – dressing up in her cupboard to send fans a message, staying home when not working for the entire production run of Flux and the specials to avoid production shutdowns, and generally putting both hearts into it even when the scripts weren’t up to snuff. I’ve written at greater length elsewhere about all she brought to the role:

Read more: Doctor Who | Celebrating Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor

2. Perhaps the best idea to come out of the Timeless Child arc is the appearance of two Big Bads the Doctor doesn’t remember fighting before. Throughout Flux, Swarm (Sam Spruell) and Azure (Rochenda Sandall) are two of the best-executed Chibnall creations, from their unique looks to their scary, scintillating performances.

3. Of all the Doctor Who: Lockdown webcast extras, Farewell Sarah Jane is something truly special. Expanding on an idea from his original DWM eulogy to Elisabeth Sladen, Davies wrote a short story about the day everyone gets together for Sarah Jane’s funeral, which was performed by Big Finish cast member Jacob Dudman and various members of the Doctor Who and Sarah Jane Adventures cast. Sob!

4. The 60th-anniversary celebrations kicked off with Tales Of The TARDIS, an iPlayer-exclusive companion series to the big Whoniverse back-catalogue. Couching certain stories in a “Memory TARDIS” that enables beloved stars of Who past to return and reflect, while also foreshadowing how the Doctor sheds their angst and trauma in The Giggle.

5. One of the nice things about Doctor Who Unleashed’s reboot of the behind-the-scenes Confidential format is its showcase of the production team’s ongoing commitment to practical effects – the Meep animatronics in episode 1, the big fat hands in episode 2, and the literal puppety puppets in episode 3.

6. Whatever the bi-generative circumstances, Ncuti Gatwa’s debut scenes in The Giggle bode well for the future. Judging by set pictures and publicity photos from next year’s series, the Doctor will have a different outfit every week, but before he’s even pulled his trousers up, he’s firing on all cylinders. We can’t wait to see what’s next…

“OK, kid. I love you. Get out!” Feel free to share your favourite things about Doctor Who in the 2020s so far, or your predictions for the future, in the comments below.

Doctor Who: The Church On Ruby Road will air on Christmas Day at 5:55 p.m. GMT on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in the UK and Disney + internationally.

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