'Doctor Who' is primed to be bigger than ever. How Bad Wolf is helping lead the charge

Bad Wolf, the name of the production company founded by Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner, is a “Doctor Who” reference.

Before teaming up for this joint venture in 2015, the industry veterans had worked together for years in various roles at the BBC and BBC Worldwide. One of their earliest projects was the 2005 “Doctor Who” revival from showrunner Russell T Davies.

Those who’ve watched that first season will pick up on the reference — a message scattered throughout time and space to lead the show’s time-hopping heroes to a specific moment. For Tranter and Gardner, calling their company Bad Wolf was an acknowledgment that their professional journeys had always been leading up to its founding.

What the name wasn’t, however, was “an indication that we had set up Bad Wolf with the idea that we would ever be making ‘Doctor Who,’” says Tranter during a joint video call with Gardner. But “‘Doctor Who’ came along and it was unexpected [but] it’s a very welcome experience.”

“I’m still in shock years later,” added Gardner. “I had quite an emotional response because that had been a very special time.”

Launching Friday, the new season of “Doctor Who” continues the show’s transition into a new era with new lead actors and new ambitions marked by a streaming partnership with Disney+, where it will stream exclusively to a global audience. The series airs in the U.K. on BBC and is produced by Bad Wolf and BBC Studios Productions.

After an introductory adventure in last year’s Christmas special, Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson’s chapter as the Fifteenth Doctor and his companion Ruby Sunday, respectively, properly gets underway.

Despite their previous roles in bringing the long-dormant “Doctor Who” back to television screens with the revival, executive producers Tranter and Gardner as well as Davies, whose first stint as showrunner on the series ran from 2005 to 2010, don’t consider this homecoming as doing things “again.”

“I don’t talk about coming back because it’s a new show,” says Davies, a lifelong “Doctor Who” fan whose “first memory of life” is of the series. “I wanted the show to be bigger. I wanted to take the show forward. I wanted to be with a big streamer. I honestly believe in the show.”

Similarly, the “Doctor Who” team refers to this new season with Gatwa and Gibson as Season 1, despite it being the 14th season of the revival (the original ran from 1963 to 1989).

The British sci-fi series follows the Doctor, an alien Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who explores time and space using a time machine known as the TARDIS, which from the outside looks like a blue police box. Joining the Doctor on their adventures is usually a companion (sometimes more than one). The Doctor is known for the ability to regenerate and take on a new humanoid form in near-death situations.

“It’s just got an inexplicable charm and magic to it,” says Gatwa of the long-running show. “It satisfies our curiosity as humans as to what on earth could be out there. And because it’s a TV show, we get that adventure once a week [and] the show evolves with us.”

A staple of British pop culture, the family-friendly series is often passed down generationally as kids are introduced to it by the adults in their lives. Although a show with decades of backstory and lore could be intimidating for new viewers, regeneration helps keep “Doctor Who” accessible.

“Often with the regeneration of the Doctor comes a new era,” says Tranter. “What it means is that the show, by necessity, gets a kind of injection of freshness because the Doctor changes, the writers change, the showrunner changes, the producers change. I think that is a critical part of why the show has lasted for so long.”

That the Fifteenth Doctor emerged through a new mythical type of regeneration called bigeneration — which saw the Fourteenth Doctor split into two beings instead of transforming into a new form — is a clear signal that “Doctor Who” has entered into a new era.

For Tranter and Gardner, any chance to work with Davies was an opportunity they wouldn’t pass up. And working with him on a series they all love and shepherding it to this new phase “just felt right,” says Tranter. It was “everything Bad Wolf has been leading to.”

With a studio in Cardiff, Wales, Bad Wolf is known for its fantasy adaptations like HBO’s “His Dark Materials,” based on Philip Pullman’s trilogy of novels, and AMC’s “A Discovery of Witches,” based on a book trilogy by Deborah Harkness. Bad Wolf’s résumé also includes acclaimed limited drama series “The Night of,” dark comedy “I Hate Suzie” and workplace drama “Industry.”

“We have very eclectic tastes,” says Tranter. “We both like working on a small scale and we like working on a big scale.”

Davies admits that he doesn’t think he would have taken on showrunner responsibilities this season without Tranter and Gardner, pointing to their experience on shows with bigger budgets.

“I knew I was embarking on something massive, and I wanted to work with people I trust and love,” says Davies. “I also wanted to do it with people who will push me because I would rather die than hand in a bad script to Julie and Jane. … The thought of letting down my friends and making them work hard on something that doesn’t work would kill me. I knew they’d keep the standards high.”

But while Tranter and Gardner were previously involved with “Doctor Who,” their roles this time around are very different. When the revival launched, Tranter was the controller of drama commissioning at the BBC, a role on the more strategic, decisionmaking end. Now, because the series is shooting at Wolf Studios and she is on-site, Tranter is plugged in to the day-to-day production.

Gardner, on the other hand, was more in the trenches of the production during their first go-round as head of drama for BBC Wales. Now based in Los Angeles, she is navigating the challenges of being further away.

Their experience pitching and producing shows for both sides of the Atlantic has led to learning additional skills and “a new way of looking at the work,” says Gardner.

This has affirmed her belief that “‘Doctor Who’ will always be and must be a quintessentially British show,” she says, pointing to its eccentric humor. “It’s British, but it’s always been universal. It’s been universal in its themes. It’s been universal in how it tries to put an arm around the audience. It talks about big themes about humanity, about how we live — it’s British at its core, but it’s bigger than that.”

The goal, Gardner explains, is to retain this “Doctor Who” spirit while moving it forward.

Part of that meant figuring out who could be the right Doctor for the present. In 2022, the production announced that Gatwa, 31, would take on the mantle, making him the first Black actor in the role. A Scottish actor born in Rwanda, he was mostly cast in stage productions before landing a breakout role in Netflix’s “Sex Education.” And in his outings so far as the Fifteenth Doctor, Gatwa exudes a more mischievous, youthful energy.

“I thought, who do I want young viewers to look up to and to emulate in a tough world?” says Davies, who mentions how “we live in heavy times.” “I want people, of all ages, frankly, to turn from the news and to turn from whatever aggression there is online and to come to a nice, safe space, where we’ll have a good time.”

For Davies, “one of the good things about 2024” is that people are now more open to speaking up about their feelings. He teases that Gatwa’s Doctor will explore a full spectrum of emotions.

Joining the Fifteenth Doctor in his adventures is Ruby, played by Gibson, who impressed the Doctor with her bravery in the Christmas special. (Gibson’s previous credits include the long-running British soap opera “Coronation Street.”)

Gatwa describes the two characters as “besties” who are “very cheeky” and “cause mischief together.”

“I think what makes their dynamic and the relationship so special is they’re each other’s chosen family,” he says. “They both have the connection of being adopted, being foundlings, so there’s that emotional bond.”

At 18, Ruby is one of the Doctor’s youngest companions and is actually portrayed by a teenager (Gibson is 19). Gatwa admits that it wasn’t until Gibson was cast that all of the aspects of his Doctor clicked for him.

“Ruby’s very, very good at being positive in these crazy situations,” said Gibson, who grew up watching “Doctor Who” with her dad. “I think what’s really beautiful [in their relationship] is that Ruby actually challenges the Doctor and he kind of likes it.”

The mystery of Ruby’s past is something that will be explored over the course of the season. Davies says their adventures will include encounters with babies in space, meeting the Beatles in the 1960s, a visit to a war-torn alien world in the far future and even to a royal ball outside the city of Bath in England in the 1800s before facing “the greatest evil the Doctor has ever faced” in the finale.

Gibson, who says that the Doctor she grew up watching was Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, describes the companion as “a complex but beautiful role [because] they’re the eyes into the Doctor’s world.”

“The companion translates [the complex things the Doctor says] for everyone and asks all the right questions,” says Gibson. “They’re kind of like the heart [of the show], even though the Doctor has two.”

She also says the season is “full of absolute fire and themes that have never really been discussed before on a platform like Doctor Who.”

Davies admits his excitement and focus is on attracting new viewers to the series, especially now that it has a larger platform through the partnership with Disney, because he believes existing “Doctor Who” fans will come along for the ride.

“And I hope they have a brilliant time,” says Davies, who jokes that he is willing to go door to door to get new viewers to tune in.

But he’s not the only one hoping to attract a new audience.

“I want everyone in the world to know ‘Doctor Who’ and watch ‘Doctor Who,’” says Gardner. “The adventure, the hope, the optimism, the joy. … He’s curious about the world and that feels very unique to me.”

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