The image above is entitled Gallifrey from Mount Perdition and is by Lupus Deus Est. It is used in accordance with their Creative Commons license.
A couple of weeks ago, Matt Smith announced that he will be departing as the eleventh Doctor after three seasons. The Christmas special coming up at the end of this year will reportedly see him regenerate into the as-yet-uncast twelfth Doctor (who may be a woman!). Earlier this week, while filming a movie in Detroit, Matt Smith recorded this heartfelt thank you to his colleagues and the fans.
You're welcome, Matt! You're most welcome!
It has been a while since I've really been in the thick of fandom. I've stayed at my old haunts (DWIN and its magazine Enlightenment), but I've long left the newsgroups and the forums. There's just not enough hours in the day to keep up, these days. But I have heard some of the fan discussions on Twitter and on Facebook, and I'm reminded of a sad fact: that some fans really have a streak of pessimism in them.
Quite often you will find that there are no stronger critics of a television show than its own fans, and I myself have been a poster child of this. Fans care deeply for the programs they love, and so they take the time to sift through the minutae, and that gives many of them the ability to assess what worked and what didn't and why things worked as they did. The dark side of that, in my opinion, is that fans care deeply for a show because of a set of conditions that spoke to them most personally when they became fans of the show. I mean, what makes a viewer of House a fan of House? I entered into that program because I was intrigued by some of the writing and the fact that Hugh Flipping Laurie was playing a grizzled medical doctor with a mostly flawless American accent. I became a fan when I immersed myself in the chemistry between the regulars (especially House and Wilson), and I saw some of the reasons for House being the damaged character that he was.
And I fell out of being a fan of House when the show stopped being about House's attempts to become a better person and just became an excuse for House to remain a surly dick (pardon my language). And it's remarkable seeing how much my aversion to the later episodes of House detracted from my appreciation of the best episodes of House, like his Bacherlor-like search for a new back-up medical team. If I'd had my way, the series of House would have ended with the two-hour premier to Season Six, after he checks himself into a mental hospital, makes a breakthrough in his character, and is allowed to walk out a better person. Similarly, I once called The X-Files the best television show currently in production, but I've little desire to watch the classic Mulder and Scully episodes anymore because of how the show died a long, slow death through an eighth and ninth season that, in my opinion, should never have existed.
I don't have to go very far on Twitter to hear a lot of criticism over the direction that Steven Moffat has taken Doctor Who, nor the handwringing over how said direction threatens the future of the program. Some of that criticism and hand-wringing has tipped over the edge to flaming and doomsaying. I don't fault these fans for this. For one thing, it's not new. I remember the late 1980s and the early 1990s, and I think that my ability to craft a credible political argument on this blog and in the columns I write was honed by the hours I spent arguing with upset fans over why the series or the spin-off books weren't as terrible as they believed it to be.
For another thing: look at how my opinions of House and The X-Files soured because both shows moved beyond the conditions that made me a fan of those programs. I invested a lot in the appreciation of these shows, and it hurt to see that investment be for nought. These fans are having that same reaction to the changes happening in Doctor Who, and so I understand and sympathize with the fact that the thing they once loved isn't what they recognized it to be back in the day.
Of course, the caveat is that things always change. Indeed, my problem with House and The X-Files is that the producers struggled so hard not to change things that both series stopped moving forward in interesting directions (a critical thing that made me a fan of said series) and started going around in circles. Everything changes to some degree. It's a key element of life and, without it, we would stagnate and die. The secret to Doctor Who's longevity has been its ability to embrace change, allowing us to have a portable hero ready to drop into any story the writers care to throw at us, in a universe that, should it ever get too crowded with continuity, can be rebooted, or set aside while new avenues of the universe are explored.
This may not be what some fans signed up for, and I can understand how frustrated or angry it would make them feel if the program they invested so much time and energy into no longer lived up to their expectations. I do think, however, that we could tone down the doomsaying, however.
Some fans are alarmed over how the production of Doctor Who appears to be slowing down. Eighteen months separate the beginnings of season six and season seven, and it looks like eighteen months may separate the beginnings of season seven and season eight. This is particularly galling during the fiftieth anniversary of the program, especially after we were promised "more episodes than before". Some fans are fretting that this is a sign the BBC is growing dissatisfied with the ratings the program has received, and they've used this to blame showrunner Steven Moffat and his new style. Some have suggested that Matt Smith's departure is a sign the actor is unhappy with how things are in the back office.
Here's where I get a little less understanding and tell these fans to take a chill pill. Doctor Who's ratings regularly beat out their timeslot among the cable channels in Canada and the United States. More importantly, the program remains among the most-watched and most recorded within the United Kingdom, with many episodes comfortably in the top twenty within the week. This may be a bit of a comedown from the Russell T. Davies era when the program often found itself in the top ten (and, at one point, number one), but let me emphasize this: the program remains comfortably within the top twenty! I can count the number of times the classic series was in the top twenty on my fingertips, and that's over its twenty-six year history.
It is in the nature of fandom to be pessimistic, and to be sensitive to changes that disrupt the elements which made said fans to fall in love in the first place. Again, I appreciate that. However, I think that, in spite of how well the program continues to do, we need to be prepared for the fact that we can't count on the Doctor Who revival being around and producing new episodes for too much longer.
I'm not talking about the fact that, with the search on for the twelfth Doctor, we're now perhaps six years away from having to think up an excuse for how the Doctor can regenerate from body #13 to body #14 (and if you think the in-canon limit of twelve regenerations to a Time Lord is going to stop said writers, think again). I'm not even talking about the doom and gloom of ratings -- the fact is, shows with pretty decent ratings are not immune from cancellation.
It's just that the time is long past for shows to run on indefinitely. Outside of soap operas, Doctor Who's original 26 straight season run was utterly remarkable and likely unrepeatable. Even Star Trek eventually gave up the television ghost to be rebooted as a J.J. Abrams movie franchise. Many successful shows last no more than seven seasons, and some are being wound down after just five (case in point, Warehouse 13 will only return for a six episode mini-series next year, so that fans can say good-bye). The fact that production is slowing down on Doctor Who indicates that the BBC is finding it hard to keep up the budget of the program, and soon it will become more lucrative to give the show a rest and rely on revenues from stacks of DVD releases, iTunes downloads and the occasional one-off movie.
When this moment comes, and it will, it will still be a blow. For some fans, it will be as hard a blow as the one felt when Doctor Who ended its original twenty-six year run, breaking its sense of immortality. What will we do, then?
For me, it will be repeats. It will be fan fiction. It will be spin-offs. It will be the same things that kept me a fan of Doctor Who during those fourteen years when the program was dormant. It won't be the same anticipation I got when I'd await each new episode, but it would still be a comforting echo. And for fans upset at how different the show is now compared to when they got on board, I have the same advice: reruns are your friend and comfort, if you give them a chance.
Because I do catch the urge, occasionally, to go back to the fourth season of House and rewatch those episodes, in spite of my aversion to what the program became in its seventh and eighth seasons. And maybe, just maybe, I can forgive The X-Files for living too long. It's not like I have much choice. There is much we can do if we put our minds to it, but we cannot stop time. We can, however, remember what made something so good, we gave our heart to it. We can celebrate those memories. And we can keep looking for something new.