British telly treasure Doctor Who has been spooking kids and creating life-long Whovians for six decades now. This month, the BBC is marking the occasion by resurrecting recent fan faves, plus an all-new Sonic Screwdriver-wielder… It’s the show’s connection to Wales, however, that Billy Edwards has chosen to focus on in this retrospective.
Doctor Who and the nation of Wales have a special relationship that continues to flourish in the programme’s 60th year. In its first few decades, money and time were often too tight to venture beyond Broadcasting House, yet when the series was recommissioned in the early 00s following a 16-year gap, it was now the perfect vehicle for the BBC’s desire to produce more drama beyond London.
Drawing on key locations in the city and across Wales for filming, with Swansea-born writer and producer Russell T Davies in the showrunner seat, it encouraged today’s thriving Welsh television production industry, which now encompasses programmes as varied as Casualty, His Dark Materials and Sex Education.
The screening of three special Doctor Who episodes this month sees Davies back piloting the controls after 13 years. Also returning are David Tennant, as the 14th Doctor, and Catherine Tate, as Donna Noble. The mystery of why the Doctor has ‘degenerated’ is yet to be answered, but the villainous Toymaker – wreaking havoc for the first time since 1966, and played here by Neil Patrick Harris – is involved.
Sex Education actor Ncuti Gatwa will however succeed Tennant for this year’s Doctor Who Christmas episode. A great actor, and a shrewd piece of casting to court the younger generation disinterested in terrestrial television: who better to challenge the streaming bigwigs than one of their biggest stars?
With the programme’s new era, production has moved in the Bay from Roath Lock Studios to the much larger Bad Wolf Studios nearby. Doctor Who is now produced by this company, mostly beyond the BBC, which has made it considerably easier to be on the receiving end of investment, international streaming deals, and film-adjacent budgets. Expect bigger tech, bigger cameras, and bigger names – even Ryan Gosling is often rumoured by touts to have revealed his fandom to co-star Gatwa on the set of Barbie.
This new era is also especially important, as the latest was sometimes in a precarious position. Though at first riding high with excitement for Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor in 2018, the programme was soon marred on rocky ground due to COVID and deeply divisive storylines concerning the Doctor’s history. With Davies – “someone who knows it looking after it” – steering the ship once again, he’ll hopefully avoid another rest period, yet there’s no guarantee it’ll make a safe landing. The world’s television landscape, after all, has changed considerably since 2010, the year of Davies’ last episode. Still, he’s shared his excitement over the “genuinely great plan” by the BBC for “a whole big new future”.
Intriguingly, Doctor Who will be hosted on and promoted by Disney+ in all regions beyond the UK, an important bolster to a global brand against such harsh streaming competition. Sony Pictures Television, keen to contribute to Cardiff’s standing in the entertainment industry, is also involved, having acquired a majority stake in Bad Wolf last year. Many fans hope new spinoff series will supplement the flagship programme, as Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures have done previously.
Doctor Who Unleashed, a new BBC Three behind-the-scenes programme presented by Newsbeat presenter Steffan Powell, has already been announced. Still more impressively, every available episode of its 60-year history is now streamable on BBC iPlayer – an unparalleled feat that has taken years of secretive dedication, with subtitles, audio description, and sign language provided for the first time too.
So what can be expected from the new series? Little has been revealed, but clues can be gleaned from the 60th anniversary concert which took place in Cardiff Bay’s Wales Millennium Centre at the end of September (and which is now available on BBC Sounds). “You’ve seen a lot of Ncuti,” promised Davies; “you can tell a lot from him,” and it can be inferred from their themes that the new Doctor is bombastic and energetic like their actor.
Yet, there is an air of sadness around his new companion, Ruby Sunday, played by Coronation Street’s Millie Gibson and her piano waltz. Russell has continually served up thought-provoking television since his original stint: most notable is the multi-award-winning It’s A Sin from 2021, an emotional drama following a group of young, gay friends in London during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. It’s likely we can expect more challenging drama, political satire, and morality plays in his second tenure. His passion is still evident: “It never goes. Of course, I think about new Doctor Who stories all the time.”
Filming on Gatwa’s first series finished after seven months this summer and may have likely already recommenced for his second series after a two-month break. It sounds like a tough schedule, but it’s a sign the programme’s producers see the value in regularity. Eight episodes and a Christmas special a year is an attractive prospect for everyone involved, especially considering there hasn’t been a single untampered series in the past three years. With the TARDIS now back in our skies for good, when there’s alien adversaries plotting their invasions of Wales, let’s hope we can count on Doctor Who to thwart them long into the future…
Doctor Who’s 2023 specials will screen on Sat 25 Nov, Sat 2 Dec and Sat 9 Dec (BBC One)
words BILLY EDWARDS