What’s the best spin-off show?
Doctor Who is not just a British institution, but a global stalwart of science fiction. Beginning in 1963 before fading in 1989, only to be revived in 2005 and still going strong today, the show has become a pop culture phenomenon. The main show features the regenerating Time Lord traveling through space and time in the TARDIS, bringing companions, usually from different periods of Earth’s history, on perilous adventures.
With the show’s phenomenal popularity, it was only a matter of time before the spinoffs hit. The series has a vast expanded media universe, ranging from audio dramas to books, comics, and even the occasional video game. Along the way, there have also been a few spin-off TV series. Some were short-lived, while others lasted several seasons. Let’s dive into these shows before discussing the best Doctor Who spin off.
While there have been some very successful series based on the main show, there are also a few that either didn’t connect with audiences after one season or simply never took off. In total, there have been four live-action spinoffs based on the original series, all featuring former companions or key recurring characters from the main series.
The first attempt at a spin-off show was in 1981 and was called K9 and company. The premise was based on everyone’s favorite robot dog, K9, and his beloved companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). The show also saw Sarah Jane having her own mate, a young man called Ian who was studying computer science and math. Ian’s subjects of study were linked to the early rise in popularity of computers and would have potentially played an important role.
The first episode of the show was called “A Girl’s Best Friend” and was technically the first Doctor Who Universe’s Christmas special, largely taking place during the Christmas period. The plot centered around a strange supernatural cult surrounding the ancient Greek goddess Hecate, who turned out to be a masked woman. The first episode of the series was also the last, canceled before it could take off. However, he is often credited with being the model for future spinoffs. The Adventures of Sarah Jane.
The most recent spin-off adventure was a show called To classify. Released in 2016, the show has also branched out into audio dramas and books. This took place at Coal Hill Academy, a school that appeared throughout the main series. In fact, it appears in the very first episode – it’s the school that Susan attends and where her companions Barbara and Ian teach. The show followed the students of the school as they dealt with the distortion of time and space and the creatures that emerged from it. It was in the same spirit as buffy the vampire slayer and the recurring problems brought by Hellmouth, except that it was aimed at a younger audience. However, her poor performance saw the show canceled after one season.
Now is the time to discuss which two full-fledged spinoffs were the most popular and both of which could be ranked as the best spinoffs. The Adventures of Sarah Jane and Torchwood both ran for several seasons and both received positive reception from critics and fans. The shows couldn’t be more different. The Adventures of Sarah Jane was aimed at younger audiences, starring Sarah Jane Smith and K9. Meanwhile, Torchwood was very much aimed at mature audiences, featuring fan-favorite Captain Jack Harkness and his Torchwood crew dealing with Rift incursions.
The Adventures of Sarah Jane
The Adventures of Sarah Jane began in 2007 and ran until 2011. The series followed Sarah Jane’s encounter with the Tenth Doctor in the episode “School Reunion” of the second series of the Doctor Who the comeback. Sarah Jane is a very successful journalist and the mother of an adopted son, Luke, who also happens to be a very intelligent child created by the Bane. In the series, Luke and his friends join Sarah Jane and sometimes K9 on adventures battling aliens, while trying to balance school work and family life.
Although generally well-received, the show was uneven and featured several inconsistencies, primarily the appearance of K9. K9 had enjoyed a resurgence in popularity after “School Reunion,” and the companion robot was expected to be a regular fixture in the spin-off. However, writer Bob Baker retained the rights and owned K9, meaning the character’s appearances had to be regularly traded. This led to K9 only having sporadic appearances on the show, with the exception of Series 3 when he was a regular.
The show ended after the death of actress Elisabeth Sladen, sparking tributes, specials, the truncated Season 5 release, which was completed before Sladen’s death on April 19, 2011. While some wanted the show goes on, none of the cast or crew wanted to go on without her.
This brings us to Torchwood, the bolder adult spinoff that featured sex, drugs, and a whole lot more violence. He also showcased LGBTQ relationships and tackled heavier issues in his storylines. Torchwood (whose name is an anagram of Doctor Who) is a Cardiff-based semi-secret organization that is stationed on the Time Rift, which features prominently in the main show. Captain Jack Harkness leads the team, which included physician Owen Harper, scientist Toshiko Sato, support man Ianto Jones, and police officer Gwen Cooper, who stumble upon Torchwood and its activities.
The show immediately went strong on adult themes, with the first episode featuring an alien who survives by draining the lives of humans to the point of orgasm. It ran for four seasons, the fourth being a collaboration between the BBC and the Starz network in the United States. Torchwood hit hard with emotional punches, but its heavy adult themes were somewhat tamed by season three. The show ended in 2011, but the Torchwood stories have continued in audio adventures.
When it comes to which spinoff show is the best, it comes down to quality and consistency. Whereas The Adventures of Sarah Jane is a fun family adventure show focusing on a beloved companion, the show was uneven and changed direction and focus frequently. Distribution changes have also made it difficult to create attachments.
Torchwood wins this battle thanks to the consistency of its story and writing, as well as the series’ fundamental relationships. It’s easy to get heavily invested in the agents of Torchwood, each a unique individual with interesting, flawed stories to tell. The more adult approach also led to a wider range of topics explored. Torchwood could be resurrected today easily, as the organization’s characters and mythology are woven deep into the Doctor Who stimulus series. With how TV and streaming have changed over the past decade, it would be interesting to see what could be done with the premise now.
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