Saturday, November 23, 2013

Doctor Who: 2003

After episode 696 (Doctor Who): the announcement that the show was coming back
Friday, 26 September 2003
<< back to 2002
Nicholas Courtney, Mark Gatiss,
David Warner and David Tennant
in Doctor Who in 2003.
Imagine: a Doctor we never knew about before, one played by an acting legend, in a story with David Tennant and Lethbridge-Stewart - all to celebrate the show's anniversary.

Sympathy for the Devil was part of Big Finish's effort to mark Doctor Who's 40th birthday. It was recorded on 23 March 2003 and released in June - months before the announcement on 26 September that the show would be returning to TV.

Yet despite the surface similarities to whatever might happen in The Day of the Doctor this evening, that audio story is from another age. As the whole BBC marks the anniversary this weekend, and crowds fill events round the country, I find myself dwelling on what it was like before the show came back.

Doctor Who was not highly thought of. In April 2002, a studio audience agreed with former BBC boss Michael Grade to consign the series to Room 101. It wasn't just the general public putting the boot in, but sci-fi fans, too:
"In short, Doctor Who exists as science fiction's imbecile, its rudimentary intelligence a somewhat tragic counterpoint to its often brilliant and salient parent."
Peter Wright, “The Shared World of Doctor Who: from the New Adventures to the Regeneration”, Foundation – The International Review of Science Fiction #75 (Spring 1999), pp. 78-96.
Wright's paper was about the Doctor Who books - the ones aimed at adult readers. Even so, and whether or not his views have changed since, I can't imagine an editor today would let that statement go unchallenged.

(I assumed the then features editor would have overseen it, but Farah Mendlesohn assures me it was peer reviewed: "Oh good, not me or Edward! I spent my own childhood glued to the programme. But I've always had low tastes.")

At the time, Foundation's then editor, Edward James, asked me to respond (I'd just completed a Masters in sci-fi under him at the time), and I singled out that "imbecile" statement:
“I've experienced too much terrible sf to be content with that, though maybe it's inevitable, as a fanboy, that I think the differences between sf and Doctor Who less pertinent than their similarities. Sometimes the stories are really, excruciatingly awful. Sometimes they are so startlingly good that people who 'don't normally like that sort of thing' can be wholly captivated. On the whole though, like sf, they are okay enough to keep bothering with. And the thing about unfulfilled potential is that you live in hope.”
Me, letter to Foundation – The International Review of Science Fiction #77 (Autumn 1999), p. 94.
My po-faced response makes me cringe now, not least because my defence is merely that the books were "okay enough", accepting from the outset that the show was not very good before trying to justify why I still liked it.

I spent a lot of time apologising for liking Doctor Who. In the years up to 2005 the Dr would tell people at parties that I was a Doctor Who fan. I'd then spend the rest of the evening stuck in the same spot, defending my position in the face of sheer disbelief and ghoulish interest. When the show came back and it was no longer so weird to like it, the Dr got cross that she couldn't always find me.

I wasn't the only one to feel the need to explain. Last night, a whole special edition of The Culture Show was devoted to celebrating Doctor Who, presented by my chum Matthew Sweet. But on 17 March 2005, just before Doctor Who returned, Matthew was a lot more cagey about his devotion:
“For years now, men like me have been forced to walk in the shadows, to hide our true natures, to lie to our partners about those videos and magazines, to identify each other with secret coded references to The Talons of Weng-Chiang... But all that may be about to change...”
Matthew Sweet, preview of Doctor Who on The Culture Show, 17 March 2005.
It's a funny, insightful piece, worth watching again to see how much things have changed.

Next episode: 2004

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