Friday, November 01, 2013

Doctor Who: 1990

After episode 695 (Survival, part 3)
First broadcast: 10.15 pm on 21 November 1990
<< back to 1989
The Doctor and K-9 search out space
Search Out Science was an educational series for school children, broadcast (if I remember rightly) late at night for teachers to record on video and then use in classrooms. The final episode, Search Out Space, was a quiz about space stuff hosted by the Doctor. It's now available as an extra on the DVD of the Doctor Who story Survival.

I watch a fair bit of children's telly these days. It's not changed a great deal in the last 23 years, with there's the same mix of low-budget mayhem, earnest facts and entreaties to the audience to take an active part. In Search Out Space, Sylvester McCoy gamely larks about and keeps things lively while Ace, K-9 and an alien called Cedric spell out the science bits.

Ace at Jodrell Bank
It's not a particularly sophisticated programme. Someone's decided the Doctor will look more alien if he wears tinsel on his hat, and bright white spots have been painted on his umbrella so it will show up against the starry background. But I love seeing Ace sat on the dish of the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank. And for all it's silly, things like K-9 floating through space while discussing the properties of stars is something they did in The Sarah Jane Adventures.

A lot of the shortcomings of Search Out Space are just a question of tone. Compare this to Exploration Earth: The Time Machine where Tom Baker and Lis Sladen play the clunky educational content much more straight, or the more recent mini-episodes starring Matt Smith that have been written by school children. But there's something else.

It's odd that K-9 is in it. Yes, the robot dog had been very popular with children, but he'd not been in Doctor Who since 1983 – and then only in a single scene. Search Out Space uses the theme from spin-off series K-9 & Company, first broadcast in December 1981 and repeated only once, the following year. How old was the audience of Search Out Space meant to be? Had they even been born the last time K-9 was on telly? For young children especially, a few years is a glacial age.

Perhaps its odd that this children's programme used Doctor Who at all. Oh, I can see there's a link because Doctor Who was made for a family audience and is all about travelling in time and space, plus at the time Sylvester McCoy was a regular fixture on children's television. But how much did Doctor Who appeal to school children in 1990?

The BBC had stopped making the series, citing poor ratings. And just in terms of viewer recognition, the show hadn't been on since the previous year, there were no repeats, and what few Doctor Who videos existed at the time weren't ones with Sylvester's Doctor.

Search Out Space assumes we know who the Doctor is, and that the police box hanging about in the sky above Ealing is his spaceship. But it's not using Doctor Who because it's a current series, more that the Doctor's an easy shorthand for someone who knows about space. That's why he's paired with K-9 – and wears a long scarf in the scene in the snow. It's not current Doctor Who as the children watching will know it but a generic mish-mash of what the show's producers remember.

The children's quiz show Time Busters (1993-5) did something similar. Broadcast on Sunday mornings on BBC Two, teams of child contestants “travelled in time” on a double-decker bus and then competed in different tasks. The Doctor Who connection? Apart from travelling in time in a familiar London object, the show was hosted by Michael Troughton, in a style and costume not a million miles from his dad's as Doctor Who. But that was never made explicit – the kids wouldn't need to know; it might just raise a smile from their parents.

Doctor Who had become a character from history. Children might be assumed to recognise the character, his ship and even his robot dog. But it wasn't their show any more.

Next episode: 1991

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