Sherlock and Doctor Who: beware of fans influencing the TV they love

Agree? Disagree? Both of the above?

Doctor Whoby Mark Lawson

Doctor Who and Sherlock are linked by inspiration – Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss write for both – and by impact: the shows were awarded the prime seasonal drama slots on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day respectively. But those special editions also demonstrated another connection between them: these series are significantly redefining the relationship between television programmes and fans.

For most of the history of TV drama, fans have been on the outside looking in. New episodes or series were released by the creators for consumption by the audience, whose only possible effect on the product was to raise or lower the ratings figures that might influence whether a new series was commissioned. More recently, websites and social media have changed beyond recognition the way in which a show is watched, through preview, real-time and review discussion between viewers. But again, this had relatively little impact on the product, apart from recent cases such as Arrested Development and Ripper Street, in which digital petitions won a streamed reprieve for a franchise cancelled by a network.

Both the 25 December Doctor Who episode and the 1 January Sherlock were, without actually being interactive, crucially responsive to fan reaction. Written by Steven Moffat, The Time of the Doctor included a plot twist that granted the Time Lord another dozen physical regenerations, thus resolving (at least in the minds of the producers) the problem, much discussed on fan sites, that according to the rules originally set down, the Doctor was permitted only 12 embodiments.

And, writing The Empty Hearse, the first Sherlock of the 2014 run, Mark Gatiss seemed even more blog-aware. A running gag in the script utilised and satirised the wild and sometimes lurid online speculation in the real world about the circumstances in which the detective had apparently been able to fake his death in a rooftop fall at the end of the second series in 2012. Two lengthy sequences proved to be fan fantasies dreamed up by characters within the drama who were as obsessed with the fate of Sherlock as are viewers on the outside. These internal theories included elements (the medical effects of squash balls, an alleged homoerotic charge between Holmes and Moriarty) that have been aired in external fan fiction.

This sense that the characters are able to see through the screen into our world – in the way that a figure in a stage play will sometimes break the fourth wall and talk to the audience – was employed in different ways and for contrasting reasons. In the case of Doctor Who, Moffat intervened to settle the issue of the protagonist’s longevity, which, for obsessive viewers, would have become an elephant in the writers’ room, with all episodes of the Capaldi reign being viewed and discussed by some through the prism of whether he was or was not the final Doctor.

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