Should Doctor Who be sold to Netflix? Why not? Who doesn’t love Netflix? Everyone’s favourite online streaming service makes some great shows. Look me in the eye and tell me Stranger Things isn’t one the best TV shows of our time. Tell me The Crown is rubbish. That’s right, you can’t. So you’d agree that Doctor Who should be sold to Netflix, then?
Okay, maybe not. But it’s an argument worth having, and, even if there are no immediate plans to sell Doctor Who to Netflix, it’s not a completely far-fetched prospect that the BBC might cancel Doctor Who and leave it to be picked up by Netflix or Amazon or Hulu. There’s a volume of precedent for Netflix taking over shows from TV networks that didn’t want them anymore: see Designated Survivor, Lucifer, Black Mirror and Arrested Development. Although Netflix technically didn’t “take it over”, one that I’m particularly anticipating is the upcoming live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender remake announced this week.
So there’s always the possibility that Netflix might pick up the BBC’s flagship sci-fi programme, even if it is a remote possibility (at least from this side of Series 11). For the fun of exploring a hypothetical, though, I thought it might be interesting to examine the pros and cons of a possible future where the BBC has sold Doctor Who to Netflix.
Pro: Selling Doctor Who might save it
Hard as it is to believe, TV networks do actually run out of money sometimes. They sometimes have to cancel big, popular shows because they’re too expensive to make. Most of the time, if a network is making a popular show, it’s making enough revenue from the show to keep it running. But the BBC is in a special position because it’s a public broadcaster which relies on public funding for much of its revenue, and also runs a diverse catalogue of TV and radio channels, a digital operation and worldwide channels, many of which are net revenue-consuming operations (rather than revenue-producing), eating up revenue from projects like Doctor Who that would otherwise keep all, or a good deal of the considerable revenue they produce for themselves.
In addition, in a political environment where the government is cutting funding of public services like the BBC, it would be surprising if the BBC wasn’t finding it increasingly difficult to make Doctor Who to a consistent standard. Sure, if the BBC was looking for fat to trim, Doctor Who definitely wouldn’t be one of the first things to go — but it’s by no means a far-fetched possibility that the BBC would find itself forced to cancel Doctor Who as an unfortunate casualty of public belt-tightening.
There’s also the very real possibility that the BBC would simply can Doctor Who because of ratings under-performance. That’s an even more likely scenario than the BBC cancelling Doctor Who because of financial difficulties. I’ll withhold judgment on exactly how likely a prospect that is until I’ve seen Series 11, but, as I said recently, Series 11 could be the series that makes or breaks Doctor Who for the foreseeable future.
In either case, a Netflix takeover could be the stroke of grace that delivers Doctor Who from being axed for a second time.
Pro: Doctor Who would get a bigger budget
The BBC has a great deal of money, but it’s money that’s spread very thinly over a large number of operations. As a result Doctor Who has never really been funded to the extent a fantastical show of Who’s ambitions demands. Even in the early years of New Who, the Doctor was still pottering around in quarries, running around disused warehouses and fighting toilet-plunger-wielding pepper pots. Doctor Who has looked and felt much more premium in recent seasons, but with more money to splash it could be so much better.
If Netflix were to take over Doctor Who, its budget would immediately increase significantly. Netflix has the money to make Doctor Who as a premium, big-budget sci-fi production on the scale of Stranger Things or The Crown or, apparently, the upcoming Avatar live-action adaptation (which certainly won’t be cheap). If Netflix were to snap up a high-profile, mass cult show like Doctor Who, you can be sure it would give it the lion’s share of its original content funding. Netflix ain’t going to miss the opportunity to milk something with the huge profile of Doctor Who for all it can, or at least make a solid attempt at it.
Pro: Doctor Who would be less preoccupied with politics
I would put this one in the “pro” column, at least. Whenever Doctor Who writers have something to say about their favourite political issue of the day, they never really make much of an effort to restrain themselves. The tendency of Who writers using their commissions as a platform for political commentary has heightened over the Capaldi era in particular. I’m grimly anticipating the inevitable Brexit episode in Series 11 (the long-awaited return of Peladon anyone?).
I’m not saying that Doctor Who should necessarily avoid politics. Doctor Who can, and has done political comment very successfully: Season 7 of the classic series stands out as an exemplar of this. And Who has always dabbled in politics to some extent. But when writers are primarily using their scripts to grandstand very tiresomely about politics rather than make good Doctor Who stories as frequently as they are now, it does just get a bit boring.
There’s no guarantee that if Netflix were to take over Doctor Who it would be any less tiresomely political than it is under the BBC, but I think, as the BBC is a public broadcaster that reports on politics as a news outlet, is affected by political decisions, and receives tax revenue, it feels that it has more freedom and obligation to comment on politics than would a private undertaking that has to keep a much closer eye on its profit margin.
There’s also the fact that Netflix would be seen to be a trustee of Doctor Who, a long-running show which is considered a British national institution, rather than its proprietor. In these circumstances Netflix is always going to be more closely scrutinised than the BBC for its running of Who, and would probably be accused of hijacking Doctor Who for its own agenda if it were to air excessively political episodes.
Pro: New ideas, new style
And, of course, selling Doctor Who to a completely different platform would inevitably inject the much-needed dose of freshness I’ve been saying it desperately needs. Different writers and producers means fresh ideas, fresh styles and a fresh creative vision. Can you imagine Peter Morgan, creator of The Crown, showrunning Doctor Who? Admittedly, it might be terrible, but in any event it would be unique and very different from the Doctor Who we’re used to (and — admit it — a bit bored with).
To be sure, there’s no guarantee that Doctor Who would necessarily get a fresh lick of paint if it were picked up by Netflix. Netflix might prefer to bring over the incumbent team of writers and producers rather than hire an all-new staff, especially as Doctor Who is a show that — I would guess — is very difficult to step into and start making unless you’ve had experience making it before. But at the same time, if Netflix is picking Doctor Who up after it was cancelled, it’s not likely going to want to keep employing the people responsible for getting it cancelled.
What happened the last time Americans got involved in making Doctor Who
Con: Doctor Who would get a bigger budget
As much as a generous budget upsizing might make for a more premium, more polished and cinematic Doctor Who, I can also see a scenario where all of that might actually make for an inferior Who. That’s something that can be said about almost no other show, for the reason that Doctor Who has always been more than a bit naff, a bit camp, a bit self-consciously silly, and has always revelled in its conspicuous lack of budget. Toilet plunger wielding pepper pots, tinfoil Cybermen who like to croon “Excellent…”, robot dogs, Abzorbaloffs, bug-eyed Raxacoricofallapatorians: it’s all part of what makes Doctor Who what it is. Fans are unanimous that Abzorbaloff was an all-time nadir for Doctor Who, but I think we all, actually, quite like that Doctor Who is a show where something as utterly ridiculous as Abzorbaloff can run. There’s a good case for saying that something would be lost from Doctor Who if that wasn’t the case anymore.
Con: It would be Americanised
Arguably one of the biggest fears among Who fans about selling Doctor Who to Netflix or another (American) streaming service is that the show would lose something of its characteristic Britishness under the production of an American company. Remember the last time Americans made Doctor Who? It was really rubbish, and really American. Even if production of Doctor Who stays in Britain under an all-British team, there’s no saying that the American influence won’t work its way into the show to some extent. And there’s no saying that Who’s traditional bellicose cultural Britishness won’t be dialled back even by British writers and producers conscious that their paycheck comes from an American company and that the American share of the audience of a Netflix-made Doctor Who is inevitably going to enlarge significantly.
It’s hard to anticipate how far, exactly, Doctor Who’s Britishness would be compromised under Netflix, but I think it’s unavoidable to some extent. There are also some who would insist, on principle, that Doctor Who is a British national institution and therefore cannot be made by anyone other than the BBC. Doctor Who would not be Doctor Who if it were made by anyone other than the BBC, they say. I’m less convinced by this point of view, even if I agree that Who is a cultural icon that should stay British in character. But certainly, for many fans, Doctor Who being made by Americans would be a bad thing in principle.
Con: Netflix wouldn’t understand Doctor Who
There’s a degree of overlap between this point and the last, but they’re not quite the same. Because even if Doctor Who’s Britishness was preserved under Netflix production, Netflix could still just get Doctor Who wrong. This is where Netflix trying to make Doctor Who as a premium, cinematic, serious sci-fi show might fail (as much as I’d like to see someone try that). Netflix might try to make a big-budget, premium Doctor Who in the same vein as Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica, but in the process of doing so might lose sight of the fact that Doctor Who is, at heart, very much not a serious show, but, reflecting its intrinsic Britishness, a very self-consciously un-serious one.
There are other ways Netflix could misfire by making a version of Doctor Who that fundamentally misunderstands the show. It could, at the other extreme, make a Doctor Who that’s too soap operatic and humany-wumany. It could get the Doctor-Companion dynamic wrong. It could misconstrue the central themes of the show. It could pitch the show too aggressively at one sector of the audience (children, teenage fangirls, grown-up male Gallifrey Base-lurking über-fans) and neglect the others. All ways in which Netflix could cook up something that most fans would fail to recognise as the same show as the Doctor Who they know.
At present, the prospect of Doctor Who being sold to Netflix is pretty remote. There’s no immediate danger of the BBC cancelling Who or selling it off. If the remote became real, though, and Doctor Who did become the next Netflix Original™, there are clearly advantages and disadvantages to how that would play out. For my part, I want Doctor Who to stay in the BBC’s hands, where it belongs. But, at the same time, I think I’d be comfortable with the BBC selling Doctor Who to Netflix if it was forced to. Let me put it this way: I don’t want Doctor Who to be sold to Netflix if it can be avoided, but I’d be interested in watching a Netflix-made Who, and I recognise that Netflix proprietorship of the show might improve it in certain ways — most importantly, Netflix can give Doctor Who a much bigger budget than the BBC can.
What do you think? Is a Netflix-made Doctor Who heresy? Or do you want Doctor Who out of the BBC’s hands as fast as possible? What other pros and cons are there to Netflix taking over Doctor Who?