David Yates, the director of the last four Harry Potter features, announced his intentions to develop a film version of Doctor Who. Cinematic adaptations of ongoing television series are usually set in the world of the show with the same cast (South Park, X-Files, the Simpsons, etc.) but Yates intends to do a complete reboot, set in its own universe.
This brings to mind the approach of film adaptations of ongoing monthly comic books, in which decades of stories with no end in sight are culled into a two-hour feature and a bunch of sequels, to be released at the same time. I think a Doctor Who movie series could work the same way, fashioning elements of the show into a different format. But there will be some significant structural differences.
If Yates and company had chosen to do films in the world of the show, they could rely on the TV series to fill in any blanks. Now, the first movie will have set the tone for the rest of a series where part of the appeal is that anything can happen, and one episode can be completely different from the next.
The concept of Doctor Who is perfect as a television show. In every serial, the Doctor and his companion(s) can have adventures in an entirely different setting. Every few years, the sidekicks depart (usually replaced the next episode) and the Doctor regenerates, a process that allows another actor to play the role. The regeneration angle could allow the film series to continue for as long as the original. Presumably, the actors for the movies will be better known than those cast in recurring roles for the TV show.
Since the 2005 relaunch, the show has a formula with the introduction of each companion. There’s one adventure in the present, in which the Doctor meets the companion, and they decide to journey through time and space. That’s followed by an adventure in the future and an adventure in the past. A film will likely have to compress all of those beats into one storyline, as the Tardis isn’t as impressive if they just spend the majority of the first movie in one time period, and that time-travel element would have to be demonstrated during a two hour feature.
As a result the Producers might want to save the biggest villains (the Daleks, the Master and the Cybermen) for the sequels. The first one’s going to be busy enough, especially if they want an explanation for why the Tardis always resembles a police box from the 1960s and why the Doctor got his name, aspects of the show that are taken for granted. Once the set-up is out of the way, each sequel could be set primarily in one time and place.
The companion’s arc raises some other long-term questions for the screenwriters. How long will the supporting characters be meant to stick around? Would there be a new movie arc with the introduction of each new companion?
The show generally introduces original enemies and allies every season, which suggests another concern for any potential screenwriters. Should the movies introduce new characters, or just feature film versions of old characters? For example, will the doctor’s companion be someone entirely new or someone else playing Sarah Jane? Could there be a film version of Sharez Jak, or would there be a villain created entirely for the movies?
You could argue that rehashing decades of old characters isn’t the appropriate way to adapt a series that is consistently innovative. But if you’re going to do new aliens, villains and companions, what’s the point to not tying the films to the world of the original Doctor? Wouldn’t the point of a film adaptation be to use characters and concepts that have already been successful?
The iterations of the Doctor have all been unique, which raises another question. How would the actor in the film play the role differently than if he had been cast in the TV show? He’d have to take into account the probability that someone else will take over their role, with a persona that may be as different from his interpretation of the role as Patrick Troughton’s take on the Doctor was from William Hartnell’s. He would also be more free to incorporate elements of earlier performances.
There are some significant storytelling opportunities with a film reboot. This can be a Doctor who hasn’t fought the Daleks, the Cybermen or the Weeping Angels. He hasn’t been involved in the affairs of mankind for the last few decades, so it’ll all be new to him. There is a lot of potential in that, and it would further distinguish the films from the TV show.
In a series about time travel, they could play around with the idea that the Doctor will interact with humanity’s past in his future. So there would be references to the Doctor in pivotal moments from human history, and he wouldn’t know anything about that, as he had just arrived to Earth. So a possible arc that can’t be done in the show any more could involve his decision to step into that role, and become the already-legendary figure.
I love the show, but I wouldn’t mind a parallel film series. The movies can do stuff the show can’t do, with a much higher budget and the ability to feature the Doctor before he became an institution. Meanwhile, the TV series will always have longer character arcs, more nuanced performances (as the Doctor and his companions will have a much higher screen-time) and greater variety in the subject matter. The two could coexist, just as the Batman comics co-exist with Christopher Nolan’s take on that franchise, and the Spider-Man comics will co-exist with Marc Webb’s reinvention.