Should the Torch Be Passed?

In a posting on TrekBBS’s Science Fiction forum V’Ger asked (with spelling and punctuation corrected), “[U]nless the [new Doctor Who] series plans to do a flashback with McGann regenerating down the line [into the Christopher Eccleston Doctor] (Perhaps a Doctor team-up?), how should the eighth Doctor bow out, say, in a novel or audio drama?”

Why is a regeneration story necessary? There were many voices decrying the lack of a regeneration scene at the beginning of “The Scream of the Shalka,” the animated Doctor Who adventure produced by BBCi last year starring Richard E. Grant as the Doctor. A regeneration scene wasn’t necessary for that story, though. Why can’t the Doctor begin a story well-established? Why is a passing of the torch from one incarnation to another necessary? That’s just the problem–it’s not necessary. Watch any random story–say, The Ark in Space to pull one off my DVD shelves–and it doesn’t matter at all whether or not there were Doctors prior to whichever Doctor is in the story, Tom Baker in the case of The Ark in Space. So, unless there’s a dramatic reason to justify a regeneration story–such as a changing of the actor in the role–the fact that the Doctor can change his appearance doesn’t matter at all.

Is the lead Doctor Who actor changing? V’Ger writes, “McGann never got a real shot at a TV series, but seems to have made up for it with the audio dramas.” Despite those audios, do they justify a regeneration story? Is McGann who the common viewer would think of when they sit down to watch the first episode of Eccleston’s series? No, the dramas do not. McGann’s Enemy Within was broadcast eight years ago, and the viewers sitting down to watch the debut of Eccleston as the Doctor may not even be familiar with it. Indeed, their knowledge of Doctor Who may be extremely limited. It is in the BBC’s best interest not to draw attention to the vast history of Doctor Who so as not to turn off the casual viewers finding Doctor Who for the first time.

From all indications the first episode of Eccleston’s Doctor Who will begin with him as the Doctor with perhaps many years since his regeneration. A regeneration story from McGann to Eccleston would appeal not to the casual viewer but to the dedicated fans. The passing of the torch from one to the other would cement how the new series connects to the old. The casual fans don’t read the books, don’t buy the audios. The dedicated audience who want the regeneration story read the books and buy the audios. Assuming that BBC Books, the publishers of the Doctor Who novels, or Big Finish Productions, the producers of Doctor Who full-cast audio dramas, have the permission to regenerate the Doctor, would dramatizing the regeneration from McGann to Eccleston in either of those format be a good idea?

Unfortunately, no.

The reason comes down to the nature of media-based science-fiction. Doctor Who ended its broadcast in 1989, and except for two hours in 1996 there’s been nothing but the comics, the audio dramas, the Virgin and BBC novel lines, and these have been, for the most part, consistent among one another in the development of the Doctor. But Doctor Who today is where Star Trek was in 1986 or Star Wars in 1998–the film adventures had ended but were about to resume and the activity in the franchise were in the licensed media–books and comics. The first four Star Trek films didn’t outright contradict the novels, but the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation called into question many of the assumptions that fandom had made. The Star Wars novels and comics brought many old fans back into that franchise (myself included–were it not for Heir to the Empire my love affair with Star Wars might have petered out years ago), but with one word Star Wars: The Phantom Menace could have contradicted dozens of novels if Coruscant were given a different name.

More fans will watch Eccleston’s Doctor Who than will buy one of the novels. Many more. More fans will watch Eccleston’s Doctor Who than will buy one of Big Finish’s audio plays. Many, many more. The BBC, to garner the largest possible audience, needs to tell the best stories they can with the new Doctor Who, and that will mean ignoring the prose and aural history of Doctor Who that has been built in the past fifteen years. That will mean that even if BBC Books or Big Finish tell the tale of the regeneration from Paul McGann to Christopher Ecclestone, there may well come a time when that story needs to be told on-screen and in, perhaps, a very different manner.

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