3 years, 2 months ago
It is strange in some ways to realize that Doctor Who Confidential has been going on this whole time. It’s not, after all, like anybody watched it. I mean, a few people did, but it was only ever available in the UK, and, well, how to put this nicely… it’s not like it was ever very good. It was fun enough in its first year when it was only a half-hour long and focused as much on the series’ history as on the making of the new series, but the decision to expand it to a forty-five minute format just as they were properly running out of nostalgia trips was, to say the least, puzzling. Instead Doctor Who Confidential became a sort of generic making of show.
But even given that, there are some problems. The making of Doctor Who is indeed interesting, but it’s not necessarily ten-and-a-half hours of interesting for every single year of production. There are only so many times poor Danny Hargreaves can demonstrate styrofoam debris and air cannons while maintaining any sort of semblance of keeping things fresh, and only so many compelling scenes that can be wrung out of Ailsa Berk teaching people in monster costumes how to do the correct funny walk for this week’s episode. As a result, by the end Doctor Who Confidential had become a sort of hodgepodge of strange things, such as the mildly infamous “Karen Gillian drives a car episode,” in which a significant amount of the episode was turned over to, well, Karen Gillian driving a car. But equally, it’s why there exists a montage of the women playing the Weeping Angels dancing to Lady Gaga, which is self-evidently a thing that should exist. (And to their credit, they did montages for both “Bad Romance” and “Poker Face,” which is good, as picking which song would make the better choice is nearly impossible.)
But let’s pull back the lens a little and look at what Doctor Who Confidential is, or at least, was. First and foremost it was a program on BBC Three, a channel that exists specifically to pull a “younger” audience. It’s going slightly too far to say that Confidential was a children’s program, but it was, with its ostentatious use of pop music and position on BBC Three, clearly meant as a program for teenage fans of the series. In this regard, it fits into a long tradition of Doctor Who being a program with a very, very well-documented production. There’s a generation of people working on Doctor Who who point to the Terrance Dicks/Malcolm Hulke book The Making of Doctor Who as a huge and seminal influence on their being interested in television. Hell, Peter Capaldi became interested in television in part because of things like Barry Letts responding to fan letters by sending him scripts and his interview with Bernard Lodge for a fanzine. So it seems almost certain that there will be another generation who learned how television was made and became fascinated with it because they saw Doctor Who getting made every week on Confidential. I feel like you can basically end the argument there, honestly. “It inspired a generation of people to make art.” I mean, I’m not sure Doctor Who itself can be defended quite that succinctly and effectively.
But at the end of the 2011 series, Doctor Who Confidential was cancelled. In some ways, this is understandable - as suggested, the series had become, to say the least, a bit tired, and had probably taught what it had to teach about how television was made. In others, however, it’s somewhat silly. Doctor Who Confidential was, to be frank, a cheap program to make, consisting of a camera crew documenting production and a day’s voice recording for a B-list celebrity to provide the narration. Given the need to have behind the scenes features for the DVDs anyway, Confidential was the closest thing to a free hour of television programming as existed in the world, which is probably why there’ve been quasi-versions of it for both Season Seven and Season Eight.
But its disappearance fits into a larger and significant narrative within Doctor Who over the Moffat era, which is a new sort of continual crisis. Admittedly, within fandom Doctor Who has been on the brink of cancellation more or less every second since Rose started transmission, before which it was not on the brink of cancellation but rather doomed to failure from the start. And to be fair, it’s easy in hindsight to understate just how tricky the Davies to Moffat transition was, and how easily it could have gone completely wrong. Which is to say, being concerned that the show might not survive the Moffat era did, at least for a little while, make sense. Especially when the ratings sagged rather dramatically at the end of Season Five, an incident that, while not clear evidence of a problem, was genuinely worrisome. So the cancellation of Confidential felt at the time like a part of that - yet another disaster being heaped upon the program.
Let’s, then, try to untangle this, at least a little bit. I should note that this is, by its nature, history written very close to the time. It’s also not something I’ve spent hours meticulously sourcing. There are already and will someday be more excellent primary sources on the making of Doctor Who that will, no doubt, complicate and expand on this account. Nevertheless, this is an attempt to piece through the narrative of the Moffat era as it played out in public and to make some sense of it, based largely on the perceptions of someone who’s made a point of following the story for the past few years as though he expected to have to write about it someday.
Let’s start with Confidential, as that’s the nominal topic of this post and the simplest to explain, since it fits squarely into a larger narrative, which is that the BBC has, over the last few years, toggled back into its “on the defensive” position and away from the “ambitious and beloved cultural institution” position it enjoyed over the course of New Labour, and which was heavily responsible for Doctor Who coming back in the first place. Under the coalition, the BBC faced a license fee freeze and a lack of governmental support. And it hasn’t exactly helped itself with things like Jimmy Saville. And that’s just public perception, and not the real and material problem of massive budget problems. So the axing of Confidential is probably best read in terms of the fact that, less than two years later, the BBC announced the axing of BBC Three as a whole. Given this, Occam’s Razor does rather suggest that the easiest explanation for Confidential’s demise is simply the collapse of the media ecosystem in which it existed.
A second aspect of this comes up in the overall shape of the BBC. On the one hand, Doctor Who is borderline essential to the BBC because it is one of a handful of programs that brings in far more money than it costs. On the other hand, there’s a public perception that comes up periodically that accuses the BBC of favoring “trash” like Doctor Who instead of worthy and important dramas. This is, of course, a complete load of horseshit, but the BBC being the BBC means that it’s quick to cover its ass regardless of whether there’s an actual problem. So when there’s a round of budget cuts, Doctor Who has to get hit somewhere, because otherwise the BBC is showing favoritism and spending money on Doctor Who that could be spent on some four episode costume drama about the Earl of Balfour or something. So Doctor Who Confidential had to go for the same reason that Day of the Doctor had to be funded by removing an episode from Season Eight and Season Nine: to make sure Doctor Who was publicly seen to be sacrificed for other priorities.
But unfortunately, this coincided with a period of behind the scenes turmoil that, in hindsight, was only to be expected when the television power couple of Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner broke up, which fed into the paranoid fandom view of Doctor Who being on the brink of disaster perpetually. The first major incident in this was the report in Private Eye in the immediate aftermath of A Good Man Goes to War that suggested that 2012 was going to be another year of specials in the vein of 2009, and suggesting behind the scenes drama involving co-executive producers Piers Wenger and Beth Willis.
As with most things in Private Eye, there’s a clear connection to the truth here. Indeed, there was a gap around Season Seven that had the practical effect of there not being as many new episodes of Doctor Who in either 2012 or 2013 as there had been in 2010 or 2011, a fact we’ll discuss in a moment. And both Wenger and Willis departed the show after Season Six. One can infer some deeper BBC politics involved - it’s notable that Wenger was put in as a more or less explicit replacement for Julie Gardner, performing the same double duty of executive producing shows and working as Head of Drama for BBC Wales. When Wenger moved on from the BBC, his replacement as Head of Drama at BBC Wales, Faith Penhale, did not perform this outsized role except for the special circumstances of Day of the Doctor, another issue we’ll discuss shortly. So there were clearly larger political forces in play involving drama production at BBC Wales. Regardless, it’s worth noting that Moffat publicly stood by his co-executive producers, blasting the Private Eye article and making clear that he had enjoyed working with them. And it is true that production got stressfully tight at the end of Season Six, hence some of the wobbliness in both Let’s Kill Hitler and The Wedding of River Song.
More bluntly, it’s worth looking at the particulars of Private Eye and these leaks. The BBC is, after all, a large organization. Large enough that it’s impossible that there are not embittered employees with axes to grind who would be more than happy to gab on background to a magazine like Private Eye with the knowledge that it will cause headaches for whoever they’re pissed at. Put another way, if you make the assumption that there’s backbiting and drama going on behind the scenes at the BBC, you’re correct, and have been since 1922. But Doctor Who is a supremely easy target for that sort of drama precisely because it’s a tremendously popular and will thus get column inches, and, perhaps more importantly, because it has a bunch of paranoid lunatics as fans.
Because the truth is that the ugly morass of Doctor Who fandom skewered so perfectly in Love and Monsters is and always has still been around. There are gobs of people who once had a much bigger role in Doctor Who than they do now that people give a shit about the show, but who still have a few insider sources and are perfectly willing to mouth off in semi-private and spread rumors with little consideration for where they’re coming from. To give real and concrete examples of where gossip in Doctor Who comes from, it turned out recently that one of the major sources of rumors about the theorized massive haul of missing episodes that The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear may or may not be the beginning of was Adrian Rigelsford, the scam artist best known in Doctor Who for somehow convincing people that his pitched 30th Anniversary story The Dark Dimension was ever plausibly going to get made, and best known everywhere else for fabricating an interview with Stanley Kubrick and going to jail for stealing photos from the Daily Mail. And back in 2011, it turned out that one of the people spreading an anonymous letter from someone working on Doctor Who about how horribly it was all going behind the scenes was Ian Levine. Given this, it’s hardly a surprise that people put two and two together and got 1985.
If nothing else, though, we now have enough years of hindsight to recognize that the world was not actually ending in 2011, and that while there clearly was behind the scenes drama at the BBC, it wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary. Except for the matter of the delayed production. It is here I must become relatively emphatic, because this has been a fairly reliably source of criticism of the series, and it is, quite frankly, appalling. First of all, let’s consider the basic production schedule as it existed for the first four seasons of Doctor Who, and as it was recreated for the first two Moffat seasons. Fourteen episodes a year is a lot for an hour-long British drama. It’s especially a lot for one with as many special effects requirements as Doctor Who. One need only look at The Writer’s Tale to see just how brutal a schedule it was, and to realize that it was only possible because Russell T Davies is not actually a human being but a nicotine golem with a propensity for writing. And it nearly killed him. That Moffat could not keep the schedule of writing six Doctor Whos a year, producing another eight, and then running an entire second show with a ninety minute script for him to write and that seems to have demanded more of his focus than either Torchwood or Sarah Jane Adventures ever did of Davies is, quite simply, not unreasonable, and anyone who considers it grounds to criticize Moffat for not working hard enough should shut the fuck up unless they have experience doing multiple pieces of creative work to multiple immensely pressing deadlines, and even if they do, they should probably recognize that there are some unique and added complexities when that creative work involves a massive production team and dealing with the aforementioned BBC politics. Even if Moffat were capable of the brutal work schedule that Davies kept up for four years, demanding that the price of executive producing Doctor Who is that you don’t get to see your kids ever is the sort of thing that explains why Doctor Who fandom is full of backbiting gossips for whom nothing is more important than their egomania.
(And if you’re about to make some sort of point about how he should have dropped Sherlock if the workload was too high, please just stop. Or go to GallifreyBase. You’ll fit right in.)
Which is to say, yes, of course the BBC, when faced with the in-no-way-a-problem of having two massive hit shows that share an executive producer, were happy to figure out how to schedule said shows such that their golden goose didn’t drop dead of a heart attack or, worse, move to ITV.
Equally, it does appear to be the case that production on Season Seven was… fraught. The main piece of gossip was once again revealed by Private Eye in the lead-up to the 50th, when the new co-executive producer, Caroline Skinner, abruptly resigned following reports of a screaming match that included Steven Moffat shouting that “you are erased from Doctor Who.” This may well be true, although one suspects that the choice of quotes is based more on the slight ridiculousness of the line than on its nuanced and careful representation of the conflict. One ought not judge a shouting match from one out of context quote in Private Eye. Equally, however, there is not what you would call the sense that Moffat and Skinner ever got along particularly well. The degree to which this is a particularly significant thing is roughly nil - people don’t get along all the time, and about the worst you can say that any friction between Moffat and Skinner caused was a slightly sub-par season of Doctor Who. It’s not particularly interesting unless you’re fascinated with the minutiae of Doctor Who production, which, admittedly, we basically all are here.
For what it’s worth, things appear much happier behind the scenes right now. But, of course, that’s all stuff we’re not covering on TARDIS Eruditorum. So for now it’s worth simply noting that the next stretch of Doctor Who was not made under particularly happy circumstances, with rumors dogging the program, stress levels at a high, and a somewhat unpleasant behind the scenes environment. None of this is new for the series, and it’s not even as though harmonious behind the scenes environments are necessary for the series to be good and classic. Just ask the Hartnell era, which was made under phenomenally grueling conditions. All the same, the public narrative of Doctor Who’s production is part of what Doctor Who is, and that this was a cloud that hung over all of the remaining seventeen episodes of the Matt Smith era - one whose most visible and easily identifiable feature was the sense of lost status that came in Doctor Who Confidential being viewed as no longer worth producing.
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