After last night’s Doctor Who, the clamor for a spin-off series starring Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax the Sontaran has resumed.
We met these characters in the sixth season in “A Good Man Goes to War.” Vastra is a Silurian who was awoken from her aeons-long slumber in Victorian London and set herself up a consulting detective agency. Jenny is Vastra’s maid and lover. Strax comes from the future where he was punished by the Doctor for the crimes of his clone batch and forced to give up his warrior ways and become a nurse. Vastra is prim and formal. Jenny is snarky and a badass with a sword. Strax is dogmatically loyal but dim. (He claims it’s brain damage from being revived from death. However, it appears that he’s really just dim.) Together, from their base of operations on Paternoster Row, they fight crime in the 1890s.
Last night’s episode, “The Crimson Horror,” marked their third appearance on screen, and I believe that we’re going to see them again in two weeks. (I say “on screen” deliberately; there are several YouTube shorts with one or all of the characters, and there is also Justin Richards’ novella Devil in the Smoke about them and their adventures.)
Fans have seen these characters multiple times. Dan Starkey as Strax is a riot. (Strax’s interpretation of Christmas carols is awesome, and Strax’s Q&A with schoolchildren is hilarious.) Vastra and Jenny are an intriguing team. So, spin-off?
Five years ago, the Doctor Who family had three shows on the air — the mothership Doctor Who, the adult-oriented Torchwood, and the kid-friendly The Sarah Jane Adventures. Today, there’s only Doctor Who. Torchwood ran aground on American cable, and the Lis Sladen passed away. It seems like there’s a gap, that the audience can and will support more Doctor Who product.
But what to fill that gap?
One possibility that both Alex Kingston (River Song) and John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness) have brought up is a River Song/Captain Jack spin-off. I don’t know if it’s viable for a series — both actors are in demand and are working constantly — but a series of occasional one-off films would be fab. I do know that I would watch the hell out of that. 🙂
Another possibility, this one mooted by fandom rather than by the actors or anyone connected to the series, as I mentioned at the top, is a Madame Vastra series.
Would it work? Is it viable?
I’m not sure.
I’m not opposed to a spin-off with the Paternoster gang, but I don’t see the point, and I think a lot of it would depend on the audience it was aimed at. The BBC would have hard questions for Madame Vastra. How does this enhance the Doctor Who brand? How does this fit with the rest of the BBC? How does this appeal to the mainstream audience? For that matter, who is this series’ audience? Is it aimed at the Sarah Jane audience? Or is it aimed at the Torchwood audience? What audience does it serve that isn’t being served now? How you answer those questions will determine what kind of series you’ll get and whether or not it will work. With Strax you can go younger and goofy. With Vastra and Jenny you can go older and darker. But you have to decide, and because there’s not actually a series on the table we can only make vague guesses and assumptions about what Madame Vastra Investigates would be.
From a fannish perspective, I can think of a half-dozen things that could be done with the concept. Here’s a big one — is the Torchwood of the era aware of Madame Vastra’s activities? Does the Captain Jack of that era ever cross paths with the Paternoster Gang? (If you want to get really fannish, there’s an amnesiac eighth Doctor living in that era, too. What if that Doctor was the Doctor who saved Vastra originally? Hmm, there’s an idea…) The problem is, once I get through the fannish ideas, what I’m left with is Sherlock Holmes or Sexton Blake but with different characters in Doctor Who-like stories, and my interest in the idea flags somewhat. To some extent, that’s down to the characters themselves; I like them, but I like them as supporting characters, though I will say that Justin Richards did good work in making them stand alone in The Devil in the Smoke. But also, one of the problems I have with Doctor Who spin-offs is that they often feel like Doctor Who stories written without the Doctor. Torchwood and Sarah Jane were at their best when they were doing things that Doctor Who couldn’t do. Madame Vastra Investigates would need to find those things as well, otherwise it’s just Doctor Who in the 1890s without the Doctor.
The production issues are actually easier to solve than the narrative issues. For a period piece, it could be done fairly economically. For one thing, it could be filmed in Dublin on Ripper Street‘s sets; the backlot exists, the wardrobe exists, so the BBC could use them and get more mileage out of the Ripper Street investment. For another thing, I think BBC America would be far more interested in Madame Vastra than BBC1 would be; it’s a niche idea aimed at Doctor Who fans that would also fit their “Supernatural Saturdays,” so they might be interested in financing some of the series through a coproduction deal. But then you run into another problem — who would run this series? Moffat would have to hand it off to someone else; he simply doesn’t have the time, and his fandoms would be in open revolt if he tried and his other two series (Doctor Who, Sherlock) had longer hiatuses as a result of his workload on this new series. Mark Gatiss would be a good choice (see his novel, The Vesuvius Club), but does he have the time and would he want to? Since Moffat can’t and if Gatiss won’t, then who? No, I don’t know either.
Through all of this, I’ve been raising objections to the idea of Madame Vastra Investigates. Unfortunately, I don’t have any good arguments for the series. The characters are cool, yes. Done well it would be fun, yes. There’s room for more Doctor Who-esque product in the market, yes. But those three for arguments aren’t enough to greenlight a series.
To sum up, Madame Vastra Investigates could be done, but there are a lot of hurdles that need to be crossed and a lot of questions that need to be answered before it would ever happen.
I’m sure that we’ll have another Doctor Who spin-off on our televisions. It may be Madame Vastra. It may be something we’ve never, ever considered. The audience can support multiple series. There simply needs to be the will on the part of the producers and the BBC for it to happen.