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Why Doctor Who Is Regenerating on Disney+

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Photo: Disney+

The beauty of Doctor Who being a series about regeneration — and okay, fine, also an eccentric alien who flies through space and time in a blue police box — is that it has regular opportunities to reinvent itself: new Doctor, new companion, and a whole new generation of potential fans. But its latest regeneration, which kicks off tonight, may be its biggest yet: as a Disney+ show.

As the storied British franchise emerges from one of the most divisive and unpopular periods in its six-decade history, it’s ushering in Ncuti Gatwa’s 15th Doctor era, overseen by the popular showrunner Russell T. Davies, who previously rebooted the show for the modern era back in 2005. Positioned as a “soft reboot,” which kicked off with last year’s trio of 60th-anniversary specials, this new era is drawing on Davies’s previous success (as well as the brief return of one of the most popular iterations of the Doctor) to breathe life back into the franchise. But it’s Gatwa who will ultimately define the new era as the show’s first Black and openly queer permanent lead.

That’s the great thing about Doctor Who: It’s always evolving. If you want to keep a show on the air for 60 years, you’ve got to adapt to the times. And with this most recent evolution streaming internationally on Disney+, it’s poised to reach a whole new global audience. Here’s some background for those looking to jump into the latest iteration of the TARDIS.

Why did the show need a soft reboot?

The previous three seasons (or series as they’re called outside the U.S.) of Doctor Who were what might charitably be called unpopular, representing a drastic decline in quality from the previous eras of Davies and Steven Moffat. Chris Chibnall, writer of the hit ITV show Broadchurch, took over as showrunner in 2017 and brought in new writers and directors in an attempt to give the show a fresh look and feel, which included casting Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, the first woman to take on the show’s title role. Whittaker is a fantastic actress, but the writing let her down consistently, and the hiring of comedians-not-actors Bradley Walsh and John Bishop as her companions did little to improve the quality. Chibnall’s tenure had the feel of a show whose scripts never developed beyond the first-draft status, something he admitted happened at least once.

The show’s reputation was bruised by the Chibnall years, which account for seven of the ten worst-rated episodes on IMDb. The Chibnall era concluded with a six-part special known as “The Flux,” in which half the universe is destroyed but it’s not really clear how or why. It was a confusing, messy end befitting a confusing, messy era.

And Russell T. Davies is going to fix this?

That’s certainly the idea. A big draw of the 60th-anniversary specials was that they reunited Davies with David Tennant, who played the Tenth Doctor during Davies’s previous reboot and returned as the 14th Doctor for the specials (more on that below). Davies’s first tenure began in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor but really took off a year later when the skinny, gawky, soon-to-be sex symbol Tennant took over. Ecclestone was a popular lead, but Tennant brought a complexity, humanity, and huge range of emotions that complemented Davies’s writing. To fans, Davies is essentially a safe pair of hands for the series to return to: He knows how to write great Doctors and he knows how to write an enthralling arc. There’s faith that if anyone can set Doctor Who back to rights, it’s him.

Steven Moffat is another name to watch, as he took over for Davies in 2009 and oversaw the extremely popular Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi eras. Moffat is writing an episode for the new season, too, and his one-offs in the first Davies era were some of the most exceptional episodes in the show’s history: “Blink” is well worth a watch and is one episode from the first RTD era you can watch without needing to know a thing.

Okay, but Tennant isn’t the Doctor anymore, right? What’s going on there?

All of this “new Doctor” stuff comes back to the concept of regeneration, which the Doctor can do when critically injured or dying. It’s basically just a way for the character to continue with a new face and personality (and actor), and it’s the key reason the show has been able to stick around since 1963. When Tennant’s 14th Doctor regenerated in the third 60th-anniversary special, he “bi-generated” into two separate people. One of these was Tennant, the other Gatwa. Gatwa being the first openly queer, Black actor to play the Doctor permanently is a reflection of both Doctor Who’s more inclusive casting in recent years and the fact that the Doctor’s regenerated physical form isn’t bound by race, gender, or sexuality.

The specials finished with Tennant’s Doctor staying on Earth to overcome the trauma of his past, while Gatwa’s Doctor gets to fly around the universe with a cool new sidekick named Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson). It’s them who we’ll join when the new season kicks off.

What should we expect from Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor?

Based on the comic chops he’s displayed in Netflix’s Sex Education, Barbie (in which he played Artist Ken), and last year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special — the 15th Doctor’s first full adventure and the origin story for his new companion, Ruby — Gatwa’s portrayal of the Doctor is going to be far more fun and carefree than some of his predecessors and a bit sexier, too. The character has been bogged down by trauma and tragedy in recent seasons, but the clean break and soft reboot will enable him to return to what he’s really known as: a fun-loving, energetic, even silly man (or woman) who travels around the universe in a blue police box.

Got it. Sounds fun! So what does Disney’s involvement mean for the future of the show?

Put simply: more money. Like many British institutions, the BBC, which has been Doctor Who’s home since 1963, is currently struggling with funding cuts and has been decommissioning shows across the board. While Doctor Who has one of the network’s bigger audiences, it also represents one of the larger outlays in terms of cost. The involvement from Disney and Sony (the latter of which owns a stake in the show’s production company, Bad Wolf) means more money for both the show’s production budget and marketing and hopefully an uptick in quality. (The Disney era, which began with the anniversary specials, has already pulled in hires of big American names such as Neil Patrick Harris, Jonathan Groff, and Jinkx Monsoon.)

It also means the show airs worldwide exclusively on Disney+ and will only remain on the BBC for those watching in the U.K. This has led to the BBC’s controversial decision to push the show’s airtime to midnight in order to accommodate a prime-time slot for Disney+’s U.S. viewers. Fans in the U.K. are unimpressed, though largely accepting that this probably had to happen for the show to survive.

Disney’s involvement may also mean new spinoffs. Previous Doctor Who seasons, as well as earlier spinoffs Torchwood (2006–11) and The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007–11), are not currently part of the Disney+ distribution deal, so if this new season is a success, the streamer may wish to commission its own new shows. Like many legendary sci-fi franchises, Doctor Who’s potential for spinoffs are practically endless, as are the possibilities for Disney to make money from it.

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George Fallon , 2024-05-10 20:01:26

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