Doctor Who has earned a place in history with its longevity and the breadth of the show's amazing creative imagination. And a big reason why the world is still delighted by the exploits of the dotty British time traveler is because Doctor Who has constantly renewed itself, jettisoning everything except the basic concept of an alien in a time-traveling Police Box.
So yes, we're totally thrilled by the reports that David Yates, director of four Harry Potter films, could be bringing Doctor Who to the big screen, making a fairly clean break from the show's current continuity.
Top image: Joe Roberts via Deviant Art
First things first: Even though Yates was quoted in Variety saying he's developing Doctor Who with the BBC's Jane Tranter, there's actually nothing official yet. As BBC America tweeted a while ago:
A Doctor Who feature film remains in development w/ BBC Worldwide Productions in LA. As of yet no script, cast or production crew in place.
And if every film that was ever in development had made it to the screen, we'd still be geeking out over the merits of Nic Cage as Superman, or Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune.
Edited to add: I meant to say here, that there are certainly a million question marks remaining. Literally all we know is that Yates told Variety he's working on it, and he wants to strip the concept down to its essentials.
That said, Yates is probably the right director to bring Doctor Who to the big screen — and there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that his approach, of starting afresh, is the correct one. It's the approach that has the best chance of bringing in a huge new audience who have never heard of David Tennant or Matt Smith — which is what a movie version would have to do, to be worthwhile. And it's the approach most in keeping with Doctor Who at its best.
What it boils down to is this: As a Doctor Who fan, I don't want Doctor Who to be made for fans. I want Doctor Who to be for everybody.
I actually get very nervous when I feel as though my favorite movies, TV shows and comics are pandering to me personally — it feels as though some of the freshness and invention has gone out of them. Whenever a long-running series becomes obsessed with its own continuity or minutiae, that's usually a sign of creative bankruptcy. (See: Doctor Who, circa 1983-1985.)
Blasphemy is life, reverence is death
Within reason, a certain amount of blasphemy and selective amnesia is what keeps a venerable character from showing his/her age. (That doesn't mean you should cast Garrett Hedlund as Kaneda, though.)
Two attempts were made to bring Doctor Who back to television after its death in 1989. The first featured a gratuitous extended cameo by former Doctor Sylvester McCoy, and insanely boring discussions of the show's history and the nature of Gallifreyan technology and society, along with absolutely no characters that anybody could connect with. The second version had virtually no references to the show's past, in its early episodes, and instead it concentrated on making Rose Tyler a relatable viewpoint character. Over time, we learned the Doctor's backstory — but it wasn't the backstory fans already knew, and there was no mention of the Eye of Harmony or whatnot. The first attempt failed, the second succeeded.
(Meanwhile, there were also the terrible-but-cute Peter Cushing movies in the 1960s. To the extent that those films failed, it was because they didn't seem to take the material seriously, and took weird liberties. They seem to have been made by people who thought that "made for children" is the same as "crappy." Actually, the second one was quite good, despite some of the baggage it was stuck with.)
DC Comics has probably way overused the "reboot" button at this point, and it's no longer as cool a notion as it once was — but reinventions by John Byrne and Frank Miller, among others, are a big part of why we still care about Batman and Superman so much. The characters are timeless, but they get layers of crud attached to them over time, and they occasionally need a bath. It's true that Hollywood is probably too obsessed with the idea of "rebooting" characters at this point — but it can be done well, or it can be done badly.
And whoever takes over after Steven Moffat leaves Doctor Who is going to have to start over, as much as possible. Moffat's complex soap opera will be swept aside. The new showrunner will have to run away from River Song and Amy Pond and Dorium Maldovar — just as Moffat has avoided using Rose Tyler and Donna Noble in his stories, apart from one brief glimpse.
Doctor Who is bigger than any one set of characters or plot devices. Just as Doctor Who is bigger than any of its fans or creators.
We can have the television show and the movies at the same time
At least, I don't see why it would be a problem. Most really successful characters exist across multiple platforms, sometimes with very different continuity. Superman is an obvious example. As someone pointed out in comments on our earlier article, for a brief shining moment we had a Terminator movie and a Terminator TV show, each with their own versions of John Connor's timeline.
In today's world, this is a crucial test of whether a character or universe has real staying power. The ability to appear in different platforms with different storylines is a sign of health. Nobody gets confused about how Gotham City Imposters fits with Arkham City, or how either fits with the Christopher Nolan Batman films.
In any case, the BBC show could continue on with its own explicit connection to the William Hartnell era, and a standalone film series would only strengthen interest in the TV show. Since this project is still in the super-early stages, by the time a movie comes out, Steven Moffat will probably be long gone, and someone else will be starting from scratch anyway.
This isn't Brett Ratner making a Doctor Who movie
Or Michael Bay. Or McG. Or or or... this is David Yates. We quite liked his Harry Potter films — we called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 the third best science fiction or fantasy movie of 2010. Image by Cristoval.
Yates has a lovely eye for action, and a knack for making set pieces from the books exciting on screen. When you read interviews with the Harry Potter actors, you always come away with a sense that Yates is good at letting actors work, without crowding them, especially when they're doing emotional scenes, of which there are a lot in the final Potter books. As Yates himself said, about filming Fred Weasley's death scene: "My job is to make them feel comfortable and secure and just to sort of whisper in their ear if I think they're trying too hard or if they're not quite tapping into something."
The worst thing that could happen would be Yates deciding he only wants to make historical dramas from now on. Coming on the heels of four successful Potter movies, the notion that Yates wants to invest his creative capital in Doctor Who is pretty exciting.
Sure, Yates could screw it up
I would have said that Ang Lee directing a Hulk movie had the potential to be the greatest thing in the history of film. And we all know how that turned out. We can all think of examples of great creators taking on a beloved property and running it into the ground.
And there are so, so many ways to screw up Doctor Who — like the 1996 TV movie, or the Cushing films. Or several seasons of the classic series. Even Douglas Adams, the closest thing to a creative deity to work on Doctor Who, managed to preside over some terrible stories.
If you read the book The Nth Doctor by Jean-Marc L'Officier, then you'll know that as bad as the 1996 TV movie was, there were many concepts that could have been infinitely worse. (We posted clips of actor Paul McGann auditioning with some of those dreadful scripts here.)
Just as Doctor Who's concept can lend itself to all sorts of brilliant storytelling in different genres, you can also use the show's basic concept to create an almost limitless variety of garbage.
Absolutely, there are crucial elements that should stay intact
How can you make Doctor Who without the robot dog? Or UNIT? Susan, his granddaughter, is a crucial part of the show's appeal! Oh, and don't forget Bessie, the Doctor's yellow roadster — he never goes anywhere without Bessie.
Actually, there are just a few things you'd absolutely need to keep, in a movie version. Including the Police Box, and the notion that it travels through time and is bigger on the inside. You don't need to include the Time Lords or even mention the name of the planet that the Doctor comes from — but suddenly retconning things so that the Doctor is from Skaro would be a mistake.
The Doctor should keep his weird sense of quasi-Britishness, which even the American TV movie preserved. The Doctor should be played by a British actor — but given that most American characters are played by British actors at this point, this seems likely in any case. The Doctor's ability to regenerate has become pretty fundamental to the character, as well — but that doesn't come up until your original lead actor's contract expires, which could be a decade.
The Bottom line
The best Doctor Who stories have one thing in common: you don't need to know anything about Doctor Who to appreciate them. Including Steven Moffat's own "Blink."
The core concept of Doctor Who is amazingly strong — it's just a madman traveling around in a blue box. Everything else can, and does, change or get ignored.
As the Doctor himself says, "I have been renewed... Without it, I couldn't survive."