Friday, November 22, 2013

Doctor Who: 2002

After episode 696 (Doctor Who): "Screen Test"
First published in Doctor Who Magazine #315 (3 April 2002)
<< back to 2001
Daryl Joyce's artwork for my
Doctor Who Magazine feature
In 2002, I had my first work of Doctor Who fiction published - a short story, "The Switching" in which the Master escapes from prison by swapping bodies with the Doctor. I also had my first article published in Doctor Who Magazine - and it made the cover, no less.

Thanks to current editor Tom Spilsbury for permission to post it in full. Thanks to then editor Clayton Hickman for heroic patience in dealing with this very green hack. And thanks to Daryl Joyce for the amazing artwork.

Screen Test

A new Doctor Who movie! Cor, that'd be good, wouldn't it? In the first of a two-part feature, Simon Guerrier examines the show's previous big screen dabbling. And frets, frankly...


Too broad and too deep for the small screen? Hardly! For years, the official statement from the BBC has been the same: Doctor Who is not being made on television because it's 'being developed as a film'. Anthony Hopkins is hotly tipped to be the new Doctor Who! Pamela Anderson will join him in the TARDIS! The script could well be written by Russell T Davies! And the special effects will rival Hollywood!

So, why the fuss? What does a film do, and why would you want to inflict it on a sweet little television programme like Doctor Who?

For one thing, a film is more of an 'event' than a standard television programme. Television channels fill the schedules on public holidays with films as a special treat for viewers, something 'better' than everyday programming. Films are right up there there with new episodes of Only Fools and Horses and extra-length, especially angsty editions of EastEnders as far as Christmas highlights are concerned. Films are something to get excited about. They're more glamorous. They tell a big story and, more often than not, they need a big budget to tell it. Films are, let's face it, still perceived as something rather exciting.

So, if the BBC want to reintroduce Doctor Who in a high-profile way, reminding the general public of what they've been missing all these years, it's only natural that they'd rather bring it back as a film than a television show, right? Even if that film is a 'television movie', it's still more 'exciting', more of a 'special event' than a single installment of a serial. In fact, many television dramas begin with a feature-length pilot to draw in an audience and get them to commit to the continuing series. Making a film version of a television show means money: more money for location filming than a budget for television drama can offer, more money for effects, more money for casting, more money for everything.

DWM #315 (2002)
You'd think, then, that a film would automatically be better and more successful. The TV series write large. But is Doctor Who really suited to the big screen? The show has been there before, of course: there were two films released in the cinema by Aaru in the mid 1960s. There have also been two feature-length special television films: a 90-minute anniversary special, The Five Doctors, in 1983 and a television movie in 1996 starring Paul McGann. The Five Doctors is a special case, though - made by the same production team as produced the television series, in a gap between seasons, and following a season that had been four episodes short. Many fans lump it in with Season Twenty anyway, rather than seeing it as a stand-alone project. They view it as a four-parter that's had its cliffhangers removed.

And that's just four films out of no end of could-have-beens. There had been hopes for a third Dalek movie in the late 1960s; Tom Baker was involved in trying to make Doctor Who Meets Scratchman during the 1970s; and the late 1980s and 1990s seemed rife with aborted projects. So many, in fact, that Jean-Marc Lofficier even wrote a programme guide about them!

But for a show that ran for so many years on TV, four(ish) films isn't that fantastic a track record. And it's a shame, because the television series proved massively successful. It may have been taken off the air in 1989 for low ratings and perceived lack of public interest, yet today it continues to be held in fond regard by the general public. It is featured in the top tens of no end of nostalgia shows and makes front page news whenever a new candidate for the role of the Doctor is proposed. And anyway, you're reading the official magazine, so of course you know the show's super.

But not the films, it's seems. "A lot of people forget that there's been two movies," said Roberta Tovey, the film incarnation of Susan, in a 1993 interview. And "Paul McGann doesn't count" was the decree of Vince, the Doctor Who fan in hit Channel 4 drama Queer as Folk. Published critiques of Doctor Who, both professional and semi-professional, pretty much ignore the films altogether. According to the 2001 Radio Times Guide to Science Fiction, the first Dalek movie lacks the "bite and inventiveness that set the landmark series apart." Why? Why couldn't the Dalek films achieve the same lasting success as the television series? Yes, the films have their fans, but not fans with the same kind of lifetime commitment that the television version managed. Surely there are some lessons that can be learned?

It must be said, adapting any format to film is contentious. And 'adapting' is the important word here. You couldn't just take a successful TV story - Pertwee favourite The Daemons, say - re-film the original script and stick it on at your local multiplex. There would be a million-and-one cuts to make, actors to cast and factors to 're-imagine' (to begrudgingly use modern parlance). Oh, and you'd have to bung the Daleks in it, of course.

Recently, two different series of best-selling novels made the leap to the big screen. There is some argument about whether The Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone are as dynamic, rich and epic an experience as the books that inspired them. What can't be argued is how successful the films have proven. Adaptation of a story from one format to another is always going to mean things get changed. Sometimes for practical reasons (The Fellowship of the Ring would have been an even longer film if they'd included the character of Tom Bombadil from the book), and sometimes just as a matter of personal judgement (Tom Bombadil's a rubbish character anyway!).

The first two Doctor Who movies, Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1966), are adaptations of two of the most influential serials from the early days of the television show. The Daleks secured the longevity of Doctor Who, and they massively influenced the direction the show would take. It soon put away its educational aspirations, and concentrated on the Doctor helping gangs of rebels to fight off invading monsters. The films were released at a time of 'Dalekmania', and were just part of a massive marketing exploitation of the robot monsters' popularity. They remain such an integral part of the show that any Doctor Who film simply has to include them: Terrance Dicks insisted they got a cameo in The Five Doctors, and Philip Segal had them (out-of-shot, admittedly) at the start of the TV Movie. Doctor Who Meets Scratchman was set to be a gripping tale about Vincent Price and an army of killer scarecrows terrorising the English countryside [see DWM 296], but the production team still sought a deal with Terry Nation to get the Daleks in the picture. Perhaps they'd have been running the pub?


The 1960s Dalek films were part of a tradition in British cinema at the time. The British film industry had been losing audiences because of competition from television, and the adaptations of the Dalek stories followed the success of Hammer's The Quatermass X-periment. This, too, was an adaptation of a BBC television serial, and had proved that exploiting the narratives television had to offer was one way to draw the punters back to the big screen. And what the films do is very simple: they take a story that has been very successful on the small screen, and retell it in a way that could never be envisioned on anything but a big screen. From the trailer for Dr Who and the Daleks, you can clearly see how, in the UK at least, the films pushed the idea of better, bigger, more exciting Daleks. "Now you can see them in colour on the big screen - closer than ever before," it proclaims. Indeed, the film's design is far more sumptuous than anything the BBC could have afforded. Skaro is bigger, bolder and brighter, - nothing is left to the viewers' imaginations.

That doesn't necessarily mean that what we see makes sense. For instance, why do the Daleks decorate their city with colourful drapes and lava lamps? They aren't consistent with what we know of their characters. It's that 'bigger is better' attitude again, making everything on screen look as sumptuous as possible. On the flipside, there's no realism - no attempt to lend credibility to what's going on. It's got to be said that big budget effects sequences often get in the way of the sense. Why do the events of the TV Movie happen? Why does the Master do what he does? Chiefly, it's to ensure there's a motorbike chase, plus a lot of time spent in the lavishly redecorated TARDIS. In The Five Doctors, the Cybermen are supposedly banned  from the Death Zone because they 'play too well'. But is there one single shred of evidence of that on screen? No, they're there just as Raston robot-fodder. Not that one could argue that the television series always made sense itself ...

Aaru's license from the Beeb meant the TARDIS could look like a police box and that they could use Ray Cusick's smashing designs for the Daleks; but the license didn't include the use of Peter Brachacki's TARDIS interior. As a result, the controls that Dr Who (that's the name of the character Peter Cushing plays) gets to push are wild and whizzy, but they're just not the same. The console is at the heart of Brachacki's design, the thinking being that one man could operate the controls if they were grouped around a central point. One man could arguably operate Dr Who's movie TARDIS, but he'd likely fall over a three-bar fire, get covered in mercury and throttle himself with wires if he had to do anything complicated! The console is such a recognisable constituent of the TARDIS, that both The Five Doctors and the 1996 TV Movie follow their opening credits by lingering over a newly-refurbished and extra-specially spangley version. And as it happens, from the outset, both these later films also assume we know that the great big console room fits inside the little police box.

The Dalek films, you see, start the story again from scratch, explain everything as if it's entirely new. Doctor Who was less than two years old on television when the first of them was released, so the series had nothing like the established history it does now. The Five Doctors and the TV Movie both feature past television Doctors to underline that they're a continuation of the old show, and Lofficier's The Nth Doctor guide includes notes on how most of the 1990s film proposals attempted to fit into - and expand upon - what had gone before. The Dalek films didn't rely on pre-knowledge of the television series to tell the story, even if they used it to market the films in the UK. The origins of the characters are retold, the adventure begun again. It's been made especially accessible to those who might have missed or never even heard of the programme. And it isn't the television programme. Very consciously, it does things differently.

For a kick-off, the two Dalek films eschew Ron Grainer's legendary theme tune. Both films use orchestral music, which is a much more recognisable and earthly sound than that which introduced the television show. The first film's slow, jazzy rhythm suggests mystery and anticipation, while Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD has a much more upbeat, exciting tempo, suggesting action and adventure. The second film also has a 'comic' but exciting pre-title sequence, which precipitates our involvement in the engaging score. Neither theme tune, however, has the alien and frightening quality of the television version. Interestingly, the TV Movie used Ron Grainer's original, but arranged it using orchestral, recognisable, 'earthly' instruments.


Right from the beginning, the Dalek films positively glory in doing things beyond the TV series' means. Colour television at the time was almost unheard of, but colour here is just one factor in the great sense of the spectacular which the films have. In Dr Who and the Daleks, there are breathtaking establishing shots of the strange landscape of Skaro; special effects allowing us to see alien mountains and alien moons. The second film prominently features a terrific Dalek ship - convincing model effects that outstrip the 'paper plate on a string' offered by the BBC.

But while the films may laud it over television's weaknesses, the authors of the seminal academic work Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text argue that the television medium itself is essential to the early progress of Doctor Who. For one thing, in dialogue from the very first episode, television is used to explain the TARDIS' interior being bigger than its exterior. As the Doctor says, an enormous building fits into a sitting room when that building is shown on television. The Unfolding Text argues that "television's own discourse of the world made intimate and instantaneous" is used to avoid the need for a "plausible scientific explanation."

The films don't use the television model, and bluff a "plausible scientific explanation" instead: "In electro-kinetic theory, space expands to accommodate the time necessary to encompass its dimensions." There is an equally silly explanation for the TARDIS in the second film. None of the explanations - including the television one - are really 'scientific' at all. But while the television series offers a simple parallel to explain away the conceit, the Dalek films legitimise their fantastic prop with technobabble. They use big words they think will wow the audience, just as they use big images and effects. Similarly, the TV Movie refers to the TARDIS 'cloaking device' - a technobabble quotation lifted directly from Star Trek.

But more importantly, reckons The Unfolding Text, when the series began, the television Doctor represented a new age of television drama. He's not a standard hero, whose values and codes are obvious from the start: he's a strange and dangerous man of mystery. In the television episodes, there was time for dialogue, for characters to disagree and argue their course of action. The films do not have that luxury. In the television serials, the Daleks are opposed by a diverse range of characters: the Doctor and his companions, aided by assorted Thal, mutant and human representatives - despite the arguments and differences amongst these allies. In the films, In the films,the few who disagree with Dr Who are usually persuaded or conveniently die. The values he fights for are not discussed or debated on screen. He's not dangerous or mysterious and, as the Sunday Telegraph of the time put it, is "a pale shadow of the TV grouch."

No, he's much more straightforward a hero, like the The Eagle's comic strip pilot of the future, Dan Dare. According to The Unfolding Text, the TV Doctor is "an alien, an outsider". Dare, meanwhile, was "always an insider, with the code of honour and refusal to lie that was the mark of the English ruling 'Public School' culture."

Whereas being an 'outsider' is what often drives the early TV episodes, 'respectability' is crucial to the ethos of the Dalek films. In the second film, Dr Who dutifully aids the policeman, Tom, by taking him back in time to avert a bank robbery we have already witnessed. It's all very amusing and heart-warming, I'm sure, but the television series never used the notion of time travel so glibly. The morality of changing history was always dealt with much more problematically - not least because if the Doctor can later travel back in time and change the way events occurred, there's never going to be any genuine sense of conflict in his adventures. Dr Who ignores such complex issues to assist the police and do his duty as a 'responsible citizen.'

The first film is also about maintaining a 'stiff upper lip'. The Thals must overcome fear of war and of the Daleks. Iam must overcome his cowardice. As Alan Barnes said back in DWM's Spring Special, "it is [Ian's] only act of true bravery which causes the ultimate destruction of the Daleks."

Actor Barrie Ingham, who played Alydon in Dr Who and the Daleks, recalls that The Daily Worker called the first film, "a rather Blimpish and militaristic sort of thing, in which pacifists were actually persuaded to become warlike." The dictionary definition of 'Blimpish' is "stupidly complacent and reactionary." The two films show the same rather naive and simplified attack on the un-British as can be seen in early British World War Two films. In his 1974 book, Films and the Second World War, Roger Manvell identifies films with the "unrealistic tendency to regard Hitler as an absurdity" until the full horrors of war lead to pictures with "a far grimmer sense of actuality." As he goes on, "[The British] were determined, initially at least, to remain cultured and gentlemanly in the face of an enemy whom they despised as uncouth - not in fact a gentleman at all."

Certainly, the Daleks are demonised for their unBritishness. They lack the gentlemanly credentials of Dr Who and his companions: they do not speak 'properly' (with the enunciated accents of the rest of the cast), and lack politeness. Ian's joke, "Excuse me, Mr Dalek, would you care to move on to this cape?" parodies their lack of manners. The Daleks are also voyeurs, watching their human captives and manipulating what they overhear. It's all terribly improper!


If the films change the Doctor's values and character, they also affect the reasons he stands against the Daleks; the oppositions being more clear cut. The Daleks are diametrically opposed to whatever values Dr Who (and his followers) represent: they are intolerant not tolerant, inhuman not human, scientific not natural (or agricultural), hierarchic not communitive, hard not soft, the 'new' not the 'old', unwelcoming not polite, collective not individual, hating not compassionate, paranoid not trusting.

It's worth making the point that one of the main reasons for the success and longevity of the Daleks is their simplicity. Without us getting too clever for ourselves, the academic Jonathan Bignell, in his book Media Studies - An Introduction, argues that "situation comedies exaggerate characters' social codes of behaviour so that they become excessive, inappropriate and therefore comic." The excitement that the Daleks conjure is something similar, except that their exaggerated behaviour make the Daleks frightening, not funny; the identification of these traits connotes horror and fear. And yet, because the exaggerated traits are still recognisable traits, and ones that the audience can identify with, the Daleks' terror is memorable and effective. They may be simplistic, but we know why they do what they do.

On big screen and small, the Daleks are ciphers rather than characters - but in the two Dalek films, so are all the other characters. The television show quickly learned that Daleks are boring conversationalists, so gave other characters interesting lines. Humans working for the Daleks, or with the Daleks, or who created the Daleks in the first place, have the vocal range to argue the ethics of their position. But in the films, everyone's a cipher. None of the characters are interesting, they're all bland stereotypes. We are offered very little as to what Dalek culture and life are actually like, but that's no different from what we can glean about the Thals, or human society in 2150 AD.

There are very simple and basic parameters to the cultures we are shown in the films, and the landscapes are very small. There is occasional reference to other places, but really we see very little of these future worlds, this despite the number of special effects 'glass shots' and other wizardry to show off the alien landscapes. In the first film, we see only Dr Who's contemporary house, and then the area within and surrounding the Dalek City. In the second, we have a contemporary London street, and then London and Bedford of the 22nd Century. It's a very small, unrepresentative area. There is no interest in making the future worlds complex or layered in any way. Rather, the emphasis is on having exciting-looking locations for Dr Who and his friends to have their adventures in.

The only thing the Dalek films do want to tell us something about is Dr Who himself. The first film opens with Dr Who and his family sitting at home, reading quietly. He has a house, a very definite location. This is completely at odds with the perpetually wandering Doctor of the television series. In fact, it goes against the conscious effort to make the 'different' - unfixed and dislocated. This was set up in the very first episode, when Susan's school teachers decide to investigate her home life. Not only does Dr Who have a fixed home in London (well, I'm assuming his house doesn't roll along on wheels), but he is also human. And, just to make him even less 'different' and more familiar, he has a larger family than he did on television: a second granddaughter and a niece. Dr Who is always very kind to his companions, whereas the television Doctor could be difficult and rude. In the TV series, even the Doctor's companions are quick to question his actions. In the films, though, Barbara and Ian no longer serve the purpose of "educating the Doctor to maturity and responsibility" as they do on television. If anything, the film Dr Who is the teacher, encouraging his granddaughter's scientific curiosity, and enabling Ian to overcome his fears. He is, unlike his television predecessor, 'respectable'. He is not difficult and unreadable, but charming and predictable. Alan Barnes summed him perfectly in the aforementioned DWM Special: "He never behaves in a manner befitting anything less than a gentleman."

For all the preaching about good and evil we can identify in television Doctor Who, it is far more obvious in the films. Dr Who shares many of Dan Dare's polemic and assuring qualities. He is a traditional, conservative, human character, who takes us away on entertaining flights of fancy where the un-British are dealt with righteously and decisively. It is telling that our first sight of the film Dr Who has him happily reading The Eagle.


The television viewer is expected and encouraged to be 'active' in watching the Doctor's adventures: problematic and unpredictable characterisation means that he or she is often wrong-footed. The values and characters in the films are simplistic, meanwhile, are simplistic, uncomplicated, black-and-white. We are, therefore, less involved. The television episodes also encourage 'active' viewing in that their cliff-hanger endings affect our anticipation of where the story will go next and how it will be resolved.

A little while ago, this magazine looked closely at the structure of the classic four-part Doctor Who story [see The Adventure Game, DWMs 296 to 302]. A feature film is at least 90 minutes long, so maybe the same structuring applies? Actually, no. Editing four episodes into a 90-minute whole by lopping off the titles (and maybe a scene or two) interferes with the pacing. Watching the omnibus EastEnders on a Sunday, you ride over the week's cliffhangers, but you know full well where they are; every 25 minutes there's a sudden, awkward break in tension and involvement. By the same token, The Five Doctors doesn't break seamlessly into quarters, whatever the repeats schedulers might think. There isn't enough tension and involvement after each 25-minute segment for a suitably dramatic 'break'. The narrative just stops. The stories aren't made for that format. The picaresque nature of the television series, where the Doctor and his companions move from one dilemma to the next, suits the television medium.

For the television series, audiences need to be enthralled for 25 minutes at a time, so a number of sensational moments are required in each episode. This is far too disorderly a structure for the films, where the 'plot' is not seen in segments but as a whole. As a result, in the Dalek movies of the 1960s, many of the digressions from the 'essential' story are absent. The Daleks don't get to destroy London in the films, and there's no rough and tumble round the campfire between Susan and David. The internal duration of the films' adventures as experienced by Peter Cushing's Dr Who is thus both briefer and more orderly; he spends less time in 2150 AD, and fewer things happen to him. Even if part of a longer movie 'series' (as is Harry Potter), films are a single episode long, and losing the television episodes' cliffhanger endings changes Doctor Who hugely. The episodes end at moments of crisis, of narrative peak, so as to secure the audience's return for the next installment of the story. The best examples, as Sophie Aldred once said, leave us begging: "How on earth is the assistant gonna get out of this one?"

You don't just watch Doctor Who on the television like it's eye-candy, you have to get involved. You are encouraged to anticipate resolutions. It's not just the final freeze-frames that stay with you for a week; if you're wondering how the Doctor¹s granddaughter will escape this time, you'll relive the story so far in your mind, looking back for clues in the episode as a whole. She's all alone in a spooky dead forest on an alien world! And something is after her! Will the TARDIS crew escape from the Dalek city to save her? What is she going to do? Whether or not you come up with your own neat solution, you'll still want to find out what happens next and so will tune in to see the solution that gets played out. (The monster in the forest is actually a nice blond man who just wants to ask after Susan¹s health. Ahh!) Although film will have exciting narrative peaks, the resolution must come in the same sitting. In the first Dalek film, we find out that Alydon's both a nice guy and snappy dresser five minutes after Susan ventures into the forest - not a whole week later - which is a lot less enthralling.

As we've seen, the translation from episodic installments to a single-episode film greatly changes the structure of the story being told. The first television Dalek story consisted of seven 25-minute episodes. The Dalek Invasion of Earth ran to six episodes. The introductions of the Doctor and his companions had been taken care of in a previous story, so the central characters and their relationships were already defined. The Dalek films are of 83 and 84 minutes duration respectively. Material from the television screenplays obviously had to be cut. On top of that, while these are ostensibly the same stories, the adaptations aren't slavishly adhering to the style and form of the original. The Dalek films 're-imagine' (sorry, that horrible George Lucas-y word again) the premise of the television series, making significant changes not only to the stories and characters, but also, perhaps as a result of these changes, to the ideologies, the kinds of values, expressed within them.

The films' representation of women is just one way we can reveal inherent ideologies. Only Dr Who's own grandchildren, Susan and Barbara, are active women. No Thal women take part in the offensive on the Daleks, beyond waving mirrors at them from the relative safety of the forest. In the second film, there is no Jenny, an important female character in the television version. The only substantial female characters in Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD are the avaricious old spinsters who betray Susan and Wyler. For future worlds, they are very chauvinistic.

But then Doctor Who has always had problems with its not-entirely-feminist agenda. Just look at how quickly the TV Movie's Grace Holloway moves from strong, independent surgeon to shrieking, wailing mess. In The Five Doctors, what do the girls do? Susan trips over and hurts her ankle. Tegan makes the tea. Sarah falls down a bit of a slope. Somehow it seems doubtful that Twiggy's character in Scratchman would have broken the mould substantially.


The Dalek films have their meanings arranged neatly and their audiences are passive, consuming the narratives without being encouraged to think too deeply about the images, themes and ideologies presented. The films are assuring, nostalgic and easily-digestible escapist entertainment. The plots and monsters may be what was on television (or near enough), and the writers involved may be the same people who brought the Daleks to life for the BBC, but what's been lost in the transition to the big screen is the ongoing drama. The Dalek films are bright and fun and entertaining, but they don't make us want to come back for more. They've crammed the exciting television serial into a one-off adventure, where all the problems are solved within one hour-and-a-half sitting, and where even the enigma of the title character has been answered in the opening scenes of the first film. No wonder the name 'Dr Who' doesn't get a mention in the title of the second film - while in the television show 'Who?' is a question, in the film it's simply the lead character's surname!

And that's why the Dalek films haven't enjoyed ongoing interest like the television series has - they don't actually encourage it. They're stand-alone stories, and all the questions they raise are answered in a single sitting. Moreover, Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD, with a different title sequence, theme music and character line-up to the first film, isn't even sold as a continuation of the 'serial' featured in Dr Who and the Daleks. This is odd, because Doctor Who works best as a series - which is why the format has transcended television to work successfully in a series of comic-strips, books, CDs and webcasts. It's about travel; moving from place to place, and story to story. It's the very antithesis of the 'precinct' show, where the same characters stand around on the same sets each week. Everything about the Doctor Who format - it's lead character, its episodic structure, the TARDIS, time travel - are about not being constrained in any given space. The Dalek films' mistake is to assume they can retell Doctor Who in a single installment.

So how do you make a film that's part of the ongoing adventure, but also a stand-alone episode? That's big and exciting and special, and yet recognisably part of the old? That shares the themes and values and iconography of what's gone before, but dares to do something new?

With great difficulty, as we shall see ...

[I'll post the second part of the feature another time.]

Next episode: 2003

1 comment:

Wm Keith said...

The Daleks movie is all about the social stigma of Susan's illegitimacy. Susan (the Roberta Tovey version) is clearly Barbara's secret daughter.

This chimes with the Daleks' refusal to acknowledge their humanity - symbolised by Susan's cape insulating the Daleks from their life-energy.

The very design of the Daleks - whisk and plunger - tells us of their "kitchen sink" origins.

The TV series may be Saturday night, but the Dalek movie is Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.