It's tempting to read a lot into the confirmation yesterday that the BBC won't be running the seventh season of Doctor Who throughout 2012, but instead splitting the season between 2012 and 2013, which also happens to be the show's 50th anniversary. For example: Is Doctor Who in trouble, somehow?
It's true, the ratings have taken a slight tumble in the UK since the end of Russell T. Davies' run as showrunner, and the show has moved in a different, potentially more offputting direction that both makes it more child-friendly (Come on, "The Eleventh Hour" was a perfect kids' show) and far, far less child-friendly (Killing off the Doctor and not saying "It's all okay" after forty-five minutes? Kidnapping children and characters dying onscreen?) - a problem for the BBC, who have centered their entire Saturday evening schedule around the "family favorite." But does the delay in the seventh season suggest that a retooling is about to happen?
More likely, it's an attempt on the part of the BBC to try and get the show back under control, behind the scenes. Not only has the series just lost one of its head producers - Executive Producer Piers Wenger not only leaves the series, but the BBC entirely, to become senior commissioning editor of Film4 in September, it was revealed last month - but there have been rumors that this year's change in format to a split-season with built-in three month gap was the result of trying to deal with deadline problems that had plagued the show's fifth season... Something that may not have been too successful, according to some.
In a report denied by the BBC at the time, British magazine Private Eye laid the blame for the show's misfortunes firmly at Wenger and co-EP Beth Willis' feet:
Show insiders blame much of the chaos on the decision taken by Wenger and his fellow executive producer Beth Willis last year to dispense with the services of producers Tracie Simpson and Peter Bennett, both of whom had worked on the programme since 2005. The pair were subsequently invited to return but declined... Showrunner and lead writer Steven Moffat has become expert at papering over the cracks, re-ordering episodes and finding creative reasons for spectacular monsters and CGI creations to be given as little screen-time as possible to save cash.
(In response, Moffat tweeted "Private Eye seems like such fun, until it's YOUR friends they're spreading nasty, inaccurate gossip about. How horrible.")
Shifting the season across the two years also frees Moffat up to concentrate on Sherlock, his other series - Nowhere near as much of a moneymaker as Who, but arguably even more critically acclaimed, and definitely almost as enjoyable - which lessens the pain of the loss somewhat, but I can't help but worry that the change could ruin Moffat's three-year plan for the show; not only will we jump to three and a half years to get the whole story out of the way (with a prospective nine month gap between seasons six and seven, in fact), but the standalone Christmas episode for 2012 will now find itself coming in the middle of what is likely to be a continuity-heavy season, judging by the previous couple.
Also, will the shift of the seventh season affect the show's 50th anniversary plans? Will there be the beginning of an eighth season in 2013 as well, or extra episodes of some description? With Doctor Who, the BBC has a genuine example of a classic television show that deserves respect not only for the size of its fanbase, but also its accomplishments. For it to suddenly seem endangered just as it's about to become one of the few shows to reach a half-century - It must be the first sci-fi show to reach that landmark, surely? - isn't just sad, or worrying: It's a potential embarrassment that the BBC should move to deal with as quickly as possible.