So we’re entering peak silly season for Doctor Who. The new Doctor has been cast and tomorrow it is going to be announced on the BBC straight after the Wimbledon men’s final. There are a huge amount of fans currently losing their shit about at least one aspect of these events, usually several. If there is one phrase I am tired of hearing every time the role is recast it is, “I wish it could be a surprise.”
Now I will preface this by saying that I personally would have no objection to a snap regeneration from out of nowhere but here’s the thing. It isn’t about me. If you’re a fan reading this then it isn’t about you either. I know that’s a bitter pill to swallow but it is also the truth. With regards to the marketing and publicity of Doctor Who we are the least important demographic for the simple reason that we’re going to tune in regardless. We buy T-shirts and merchandise, we cosplay, we go to conventions and attend panels that break down aspects of each new series. We make and listen to podcasts that discuss thematic resonance of scripts and make connections to stories made in the 70s. We do all of these things and they are wonderful things, but the fact that we do them also guarantees that we will be watching the show regardless of time slot, viewing hour or leading actor. Fans are not the prime target of the show’s marketing and nor should they be. That would be ridiculous.
When announcing a change in main cast member it is doing two things. It is reassuring people that the show they like is still continuing despite the departure of the lead actor, but mainly it is about creating buzz about the replacement. What will they bring to the role? How will they interact with the existing characters? What will it be like seeing that person in the familiar surroundings? So when Kris Marshall was announced as replacing Ben Miller in Death in Paradise it created some hype for the show. People talked about it and possibly asked those questions. Then Marshall decided to leave and was himself replaced by Ardle O’Hanlon and again there was much publicity made of it. O’Hanlon, like Marshall before him, appeared on chat shows and in magazines discussing what it is like to take on the job. I promise you that at no point did any fans of Death in Paradise say “Why did they have to announce it? Why couldn’t it just be a surprise?”.
We Doctor Who fans can be such strange beasts. We somehow manage to resent the general public for enjoying the show casually while at the same time wringing our hands with worry over the viewing figures. We want the show to be popular but only with the ‘right’ sort of people. Anyone who watches soap operas or popular entertainment shows like Britain’s Got Talent is somehow unworthy of the show we enjoy, and any time Doctor Who is perceived as being populist in some way it is looked down upon. That the BBC is making a special announcement for the identity of the new lead actor at a time when they know that they’re going to have high ratings is actually annoying a lot of us. It’s being dismissed as stupid and over-the-top. How short a memory some of us have. In the 80s Tom Baker’s departure was on the Six O’clock News. It was deemed an event of such national significance that it needed to be announced to the entire nation with no warning at all, regardless of whether it had any personal meaning to them or not. Peter Davison’s casting was also announced on the Six O’clock News and he said that when his picture came on screen during a news report his home received phone calls from friends worried that he’d died. It should be gratifying to fans that the casting of a new Doctor is now considered to have such significance by the BBC that the news is no longer a big enough platform for it. Instead they regularly seek out events that will have high ratings to make sure that the news reaches the highest amount of people. Why isn’t this a good thing?
Doctor Who fans are, at heart, parochial. We like our communities on a smaller scale that we can handle. Any time the show is dragged out on front of the nation to be discussed we’re a little embarrassed. Not because of the show itself but because fandom is our little community and greater exposure to the ‘Not We’ makes us uncomfortable. It’s the national equivalent of being asked to stand up in front of the rest of the school during an assembly. Suddenly everyone is staring at you and what you were comfortable doing suddenly seems silly because everyone is watching you.
That’s the real reason many of us want the regeneration to be a surprise because if it’s a surprise then it’ll feel like it’s just us watching it. Because we like to think that the 3.5 million or so people who have been watching the show when broadcast are all enjoying it in the same way that we are. Having that personal connection to it and hanging on whatever happens next. We don’t like to think that any of that 3.5 million might be watching casually, that they might never have heard of, never mind seen, a Mondasian Cyberman before that night. We don’t like to think that the show’s ratings might depend on casual fans tuning in because that would mean that there aren’t enough dedicated fans to keep the show going on its own. If that’s the case the show is going to have to keep casting well known actors in guest roles and publicise that fact to get people watching, it’s going to keep letting major plot twists go public to get people watching like it’s Eastenders or some other dreary popular show that gets high ratings. That there are going to be people who aren’t enjoying the show the way that we enjoy the show. People will be watching the show who don’t care about it as much as we do.
So what? Why should it matter? It doesn’t. Just like it doesn’t matter how people watch and enjoy Death in Paradise. Clearly the BBC thinks that Doctor Who is more important to them than Death in Paradise, that it has a higher international profile than Death in Paradise and that more people are interested in hearing this news. That’s a good thing isn’t it? If Death in Paradise were getting all this attention from the BBC while Doctor Who was ignored we’d be annoyed wouldn’t we?
Ultimately we need to accept that Doctor Who is a high profile TV show and as such is going to be publicised exactly like every other high profile TV show. The BBC cannot, nor should they, alter their approach simply because a percentage of the people watching it are, honestly, a bit odd in how we like to consume our TV. We aren’t the ones being marketed to and that’s fine.
Frankly there are times when I wish fandom could approach the show like it were Death in Paradise. It’s just so much calmer.