Doctor Who

The Disney-Fication of Doctor Who is Already Weird

Disney is definitely not a passive partner in this to judge by the logo.
Disney is definitely not a passive partner in this to judge by the logo. Screencap from the 60th Anniversary trailer
It’s been a little over a year since Disney acquired the rights to Doctor Who, and frankly, it’s already gotten a little weird.

First, some back story. Disney tried acquiring the complete rights to all things Doctor Who back in the 1980s. This was a period where The Mouse was losing badly in the animation industry and was thinking of jettisoning the entire cartoon development side of the business. Focusing on live action offerings was considered a better bet, and Doctor Who had already built a fanbase in America thanks to airings on PBS.

Meanwhile across the pond, the BBC looked ready to be done with Doctor Who all together. BBC1 controller Michael Grade seemed to absolutely detest the show, finding it silly and outdated. Despite decent ratings, the show would end in 1987.

Disney planned to install a Doctor Who attraction at Tomorrowland, where they would announce a new incarnation to be seen in an upcoming film. BBC ultimately decided not to sell, and Star Wars would land at the park instead.

Fast forward to 2022, and Disney announces they acquired the international distribution rights to “new” Doctor Who. Outside of the United Kingdom and Ireland, The Mouse will host access to all episodes produced going forward. While not necessarily in creative management, it put Disney in control of how Doctor Who was going to be viewed in 150 countries, including the United States market.

The exact details of and level of Disney’s influence on the show are unknown, but it’s definitely “a lot.” The Mouse is highly speculated to be the reason the next season will be rebranded Season 1. Until now, “Season 1” was the designation of the first run of serials starting in 1963, with “Series 1” referring to the 2005 reboot starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper.

It’s almost like Disney is pushing for a second revival, hoping to recapture the magic (and popularity) of 2005. The 60th Anniversary will kick off with a trio of specials starring David Tennant as The Doctor and Catherine Tate as companion Donna Noble. Tennant, inarguably the most popular of the post-2005 Doctors, returned to the role unexpectedly at the end of Series 13, where the Thirteenth Doctor regenerated into Tennant as a new, Fourteenth Doctor.

The move was met with elation by fans, but also confusion and anger. Resetting the role to Tennant, who played the Tenth Doctor for four years, right after the first woman to take the role seemed like a step backwards meant to placate fans who accused the show of going “woke.” The return of Russell T Davies, who helmed the show from 2005 to 2010, further indicated that Doctor Who was looking to erase the last several seasons from the public mind.

Essentially, the trio of specials for the anniversary will serve as a new version of the 1996 television film starring Paul McGann, a brief flirt with the old before establishing the new. The 2023 Christmas special starring Fifteenth Doctor Ncuti Gatwa will be the new “Rose,” a whole new direction unencumbered by the previous history. It’s an interesting way for Disney to rebrand the show starting from scratch, while keeping some of the most popular parts of the old show there for continuity’s sake. Certainly, most new fans find the idea of catching up on 18 (or 60) years of television daunting.

On the other hand, Disney seems completely uninterested in making the previous versions of the show watchable. BBC recently released the entire run of the classic show for the first time on their iPlayer service, but Disney won’t be hosting any of the adventures starring William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, or Sylvester McCoy. Likewise, Series 1 through 13 won’t be on Disney+ either. Fans will have to buy from Amazon or stream on Max for those.

The move is strange when you consider what the service has done with Marvel. Most Marvel shows and movies made outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are available on Disney+. It’s not a perfect curation of all things Marvel on the screen, but it’s a lot.

The Disney version of Doctor Who is one where the new series is meant to be the only series. Maybe if it takes off well, The Mouse will allow some of the older material under their banner. After all, Doctor Who always starts cannibalizing its previous successes eventually when it runs into trouble.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Doctor Who began swallowing its own tail regularly in the last four seasons. Multi-Doctor stories went from a once in a decade phenomenon to something trotted out regularly. Touching as all the cameos in “The Power of The Doctor,” the final episode starring Jodie Whittaker, were, they made Doctor Who’s past feel like a crutch for weak plotting.

On the other hand, maybe Disney isn’t done with the old just yet. There are rumors that Disney wants Doctor Who to become an expanded universe like it has with Star Wars and Marvel. Possible spin-offs based on the Eighth Doctor or The Doctor’s longtime allies UNIT have been mentioned. Maybe Disney just wants to narrow the pipeline for Doctor Who before making it bigger than ever.

Either way, this is going to be weird.

The Star Beast, the first of the Doctor Who 60th Anniversary specials, will debut on Disney+ on Saturday, Nov. 25.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner