There was a day in the late 90s when I saw a box of Star Trek coffee for sale. It hit me at that moment that Star Trek merchandising was out of control. Television series after television series, too many new items to buy, it was hard to keep up. Being a Star Trek fan had become complicated. This was the first sign of over saturation that eventually played a part in the Star Trek franchise suffering is first cancellation. It was time for the Enterprise to take a rest. When it returned in 2009, it was different and not every old school fan was happy with the changes. But there’s no denying the box office results. The time off had done the old girl some good. This leads me to question whether the time has come for Doctor Who to take a similar break.
The signs are all there. Doctor Who merchandise is everywhere. From blankets to night lights (yes, I have one, don’t judge), you can now get anything Doctor Who related. Gone are the days of just being thankful for a magazine on the shelf. Doctor Who has become main stream and I wonder if that may ultimately be a bad thing.
There’s no denying that the Doctor Who franchise is to British television sci-fi history what Star Trek is to American television history. They are two very different shows and, on the surface, appear to have followed a different path. However, peel back the outer layers and it’s very easy to see the roads traveled are not as different as they initially seem.
Doctor Who aired its first episode on November 23, 1963. Outside of a brief hiatus, it ran uninterrupted until the BBC cancelled it in 1989. It survived seven different lead actors, countless supporting cast and production staff changes. Yet, the show remained essentially unchanged in the first 26 years. Star Trek didn’t air its first episode until Sept. 8, 1966. It had a much shorter run of 79 episodes before it was cancelled in 1969. Yet both were groundbreaking and earned a cult following.
And then came the wilderness years. Both shows survived cancellation because their cult audience lived off the constant repeats of both shows. Conventions would see fans gather to discuss their favorite episodes and buy memorabilia before waiting in line for an autograph from their favorite star. After 1989, Doctor Who lived on with VHS releases of old episodes, fan-made productions and original novels that allowed the beloved Doctor to battle old foes and encounter new ones. There were even original audio stories. The monthly magazine continued to be published for the still ravenous fan base. It was no different for Star Trek with the Bantam books in the 70s, action figures and nightly reruns. Merchandise was hard to find but the fans never gave up hope of a return.
For Doctor Who, there was a brief return in 1996 with the Paul McGann television movie…then darkness followed once more. Star Trek fans were teased with movies as the franchise struggled with staying in the public eye. A full revival was needed. For Doctor Who, the revival came in 2005 with a return to television. Yes, the faces were new and the budget was bigger but the rich history remained intact. For Star Trek, it was Star Trek: The Next Generation that brought it all back to life. Kirk and Spock were gone, but it was still the Enterprise and the universe was still there, Klingons and Romulans included.
Just as Star Trek eventually oversaturated their fan base, Doctor Who may be in jeopardy of the same. We’ve run through three spin-off series (Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Chronicles and K-9), a constant barrage of audio productions and novels, not to mention having everything from the past at our digital fingertips. Yet, with the recent announcement that Peter Capaldi will be the new 12th Doctor, the fan base is on the verge of splitting. Old school fans are excited about an older actor in the lead role. However, younger fans are immediately wondering why they couldn’t have stayed with someone younger and sexier.
The one key advantage Doctor Who has is that it spaces out the new episodes. It leaves fans wanting more. Yet, with everything else out there, Whovians are never without something to watch or read or listen to. It will be interesting to see if Capaldi pushes the franchise forward or if the younger fan base, who has never really embraced the older and more quaint episodes, decide it’s time to move on. If that happens, the BBC may very well decide a take break. And as we’ve seen with Star Trek, that isn’t always a bad thing.
For this fan, I embrace both the old and new. To me, a William Hartnell Doctor Who episode is just as fun as watching Matt Smith. I can enjoy Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto for what they offer in the same way I never grow tired of watching Shatner and Nimoy. I just wonder whether we really need to be able to wear our Tom Baker scarf socks while drinking a cup of Federation Supremo gourmet coffee. Meanwhile, please pass the jelly babies.