This Saturday sees the finale of Matt Smith’s second series as Doctor Who. Despite the character being seen to be definitively killed off during the series’ first episode, The Impossible Astronaut, there will be further stories to come, albeit not until autumn 2012.
But when the series returns, its companion BBC3 series, Doctor Who Confidential, will not be returning with it. After six series and several specials documenting the behind-the-scenes planning and execution that goes into producing one of British television’s most successful series, channel controller Zai Bennett has decided not to recommission the show.
Bennett is understood to be pursuing a strategy of focusing investment on original commissions in post-watershed time slots. Since taking over, he has decommissioned shows including Ideal, Hotter Than My Daughter, Coming of Age and long-running sitcom Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.
Speaking last month at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, Bennett said: “It’s about focusing my budget on 9pm and 10.30pm; those are the time slots that count. Budgets are tight, so we have to be sensible with the money we have.”
Unsurprisingly, Doctor Who fans across the internet have been a bit cross about this. Some of the more vocal ones are those who are always cross about something - often lamenting that this is not the Doctor Who of their childhood, when studio sets were flooded with light so that the multi-camera setups didn’t have to cope with remounting lighting rigs on every shot, when producers spent more time developing hideous outfits for the Doctor to wear than they did on characterisation for the show’s title character, when fans felt that little bit more special because they were the lion’s share of the (comparatively small) viewing audience.
What Confidential has done, and for which will always get full credit from TV Today, has been to pull back the curtain and show a new generation of enthusiastic, imaginative youngsters that there are careers in the creative arts that don’t revolve around being on camera, that for an actor to look good on set takes a huge amount of effort from a large number of people.
But after six years, there’s only so much “look how we blew things up this week” we can take. Executive producer Gillane Seaborne and her team have become expert at making silk purses out of the occasional sow’s ear, but especially this series, Confidential’s 45-minute running time has felt like it’s contained a huge amount of filler material. Seeing Karen Gillan - who has never had a driving lesson in her life - get behind the wheel of a racing car, while fellow companion Arthur Darvill swam with sharks may have made for entertaining television, but it was so far away of the show’s basic remit that one would need a TARDIS to reach it.
There have been some standout episodes, true - David Tennant presented and directed an episode interviewing the former Doctor Who fans who are now producing and writing the new series; his exploration of the ruins of Pompeii, or writer Helen Raynor’s look around a museum dedicated to Depression-era New York, took the historical fictions of the show and turned them into exciting, vibrant lessons in lives long gone.
Ultimately, though, Confidential had become more about filler than it had about fact. While it may be no more after this weekend’s finale, there will still be avenues to explore the breadth of television production techniques that Doctor Who demands. The show’s officially licensed monthly, Panini’s Doctor Who Magazine, has made an art of balancing the behind-the-camera interviews with the more photogenic actor interviews and episode reviews. Children’s shows like Blue Peter, which ever since the 1960s has presented behind-the-scenes shooting, previews of new monsters and the like, may find themselves with more access now that Confidential’s cameras aren’t rolling. And it wouldn’t surprise me if the Corporation’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, found some money in its budget to record new documentary segments for its DVD releases to replace the disc of pre-existing content that cut down episodes of Doctor Who Confidential provided (although, looking at the relatively small number of extras on the Series Five boxset, I may be being a little optimistic on that front…).
People may complain that the documentary series’ demise makes it harder to inspire young people to work behind the cameras in television. I’m not sure that’s true: certainly, the people working on Doctor Who today had no such programme to inspire them, and they seem to have done okay.