Thursday, November 28, 2013

Doctor Who: 2007

Episode 733: Blink
First broadcast: 7.10 pm on Saturday 9 June 2007
<< back to 2006

The Doctor explains in Blink
Blink is something special in Doctor Who. For some it's the best ever episode, for others it's the one to show someone who's never seen the show before and ensure they're hooked.

I don't think the latter is quite right. A bit like City of Death (1979), part of the brilliance of Blink is how it plays with expectations and clich├ęs, and the usual form of Doctor Who. If we know Doctor Who, it's more rewarding. That's why it helps that it's some way into the run - it wouldn't work earlier on in Season 3; it wouldn't work in Season 1.

(Much better, I think, for a novice to begin with season opener Smith and Jones, but surely a novice ought to start from Rose.)

The wheeze is to show what happens when the Doctor isn't around to stop the monsters - an idea used again to great effect in the following year's Turn Left. Instead, here it's up to two ordinary people - Sally and Larry - to work their way through the clues.

Since they're not familiar with the format of Doctor Who like we are, we're often a few steps ahead of them. We know to be worried as they walk into danger. We know to shout at the screen. Our own knowledge of the series makes the episode more scary.

But, on first viewing, even we are lost in the intricacies of the plot. A story like this depends on a sort of contract between writer and viewer. We agree to accept the strange, confusing world we've been landed in on the promise that it will be explained. In fact, we're given all the clues we need to solve the mystery - we just don't realise it yet.

The best example of that is right at the end, when it seems the Doctor has abandoned Sally and Larry, the TARDIS dematerialising round them, leaving them to the mercy of the Angels. It's heart-stopping stuff, the Doctor seemingly callous, Sally and Larry with no chance of escape...

But, once the solution is presented, it seems to desperately, wretchedly simple. We realise it's clearly been signposted all the way through the episode. Of course that's how to get out it.

My chum James Goss once described the six episodes (including Blink) that Steven Moffat wrote for Russell T Davies as,
"perfect puzzle boxes, full of heart and drama but also where every single bit of the mystery is in place like clockwork."
That "heart and drama" is exactly right. The Doctor and Martha appear in just three scenes of Blink but we get a great sense of their relationship. I can readily imagine a whole episode - or series - of them stranded in the 1960s, an exasperated Martha forced to take a day-job to support his building contraptions that might help them get home.

Best of all is how concisely the complex plot is spelled out in simple terms. So much of Doctor Who is exposition, building worlds and politics and problems from little more than words. There are tricks to getting through it - the Doctor says it at great speed, or peppers it with odd asides full of jokes and weird mental images, or the companion shares some of the burden.

Blink does a trick with exposition that still utterly thrills me. It's so simple, so quick, so what a real person would say. The Doctor holds up an all-important gadget, vital to him solving the problem at the heart of the episode. And explains:
"It goes ding when there's stuff."
Next episode: 2008 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Doctor Who: 2006

Episode 713: School Reunion
First broadcast 7.20 pm on Saturday 29 April 2006
<< back to 2005

Rose and Sarah Jane
School Reunion
School Reunion is the only episode of Doctor Who to have made me shed tears. I know a few burly, tough chums who were also left in pieces because of what happens to K-9, but that's not the bit that affected me.

It's a brilliant episode, perfectly playing to two audiences at once. For younger viewers, there's evil teachers, jokes about chips and an awkward kid who becomes a hero by rebelling at school. For older viewers, it's about the awful longing to recapture the past, the fact that we can't go back and that none of us are getting any younger. By bringing back former companion Sarah Jane Smith, the series lets Rose (and us) know that she's not the first girl in the TARDIS - and, implicitly, that she won't be the last, so neatly laying the ground for her departure at the end of this season.

At the time of broadcast, I'd just got back from a holiday and the next big event in my diary was my 30th birthday. That milestone had quite crept up on me. Plus, while I'd been away a member of my family had taken a sudden turn for the worse.

So the following scene, perfectly played by Lis Sladen, seemed harrowingly, bleakly true. I blogged at the time hot it got in my head. Looking back now, with Sladen gone, it is all the more haunting.
FINCH:
Think of it, Doctor. With the Paradigm solved, reality becomes clay in our hands. We can shape the universe and improve it.

DOCTOR:
Oh yeah? The whole of creation with the face of Mister Finch? Call me old fashioned, but I like things as they are.

FINCH:
You act like such a radical, and yet all you want to do is preserve the old order? Think of the changes that could be made if this power was used for good.

DOCTOR:
What, by someone like you?

FINCH:
No, someone like you. The Paradigm gives us power, but you could give us wisdom. Become a God at my side. Imagine what you could do. Think of the civilisations you could save. Perganon, Assinta. Your own people, Doctor, standing tall. The Time Lords reborn.

SARAH:
Doctor, don't listen to him.

FINCH:
And you could be with him throughout eternity. Young, fresh, never wither, never age, never die. Their lives are so fleeting. So many goodbyes. How lonely you must be, Doctor. Join us.

DOCTOR:
I could save everyone.

FINCH:
Yes.

DOCTOR:
I could stop the war.

SARAH:
No. The universe has to move forward. Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness or love. Whether it's a world, or a relationship, everything has its time. And everything ends.

Toby Whithouse, Doctor Who: School Reunion (2006).
A very young 10th Doctor,
staring into the abyss.

Next episode: 2007

Monday, November 25, 2013

Doctor Who: 2005

Episode 697: Rose
First broadcast 7 pm, Saturday 26 March 2005
<< back to 2004

Rose enters the TARDIS for the first time
It's a brilliant scene. Rose and her new friend the Doctor are being chased by a monster. They're stuck in a back yard and the gates are locked. But the Doctor doesn't seem worried, he just strides into a tall blue box. Rose, baffled, follows him into the police box and stops short - just inside the doors. We don't see what she's seen. Then she runs back out again, and runs around the outside of the police box, checking it's not a trick. She runs back inside and the camera pulls back, the music swells, and we see the vast interior, the new TARDIS control room.

It's a brilliant scene but totally ruined by the trailers and publicity pictures released the week before broadcast showing the new TARDIS set.

Publicity is tricky: how much do you show to grab an audience but not spoil the surprises? As Gary Gillatt said of Day of the Doctor this weekend:

Wise words from Gary Gillatt
Perhaps that could only work a show that's already established a popular following, and Rose needed all the attention it could get. That original trailer for the return of Doctor Who is amazing, too. But how much better would the experience of watching Rose for the first time have been if we'd not known what the TARDIS interior looked like until Rose did?

I know the answer to that, because I first watched Rose more than two weeks before it was broadcast, before the TARDIS set had been seen. An early cut of the episode had found its way on to the internet, which I had manfully not downloaded (partly due to it being wrong, mostly due to be not knowing how). But then an evil friend I won't name handed me a copy burned onto a disc, and I was too weak to resist. On Wednesday 9 March, the Dr and I watched it together. Here's what I wrote at the time...
"I just loved it ... [The Dr] watched it too (though she was more excited by the prospect of new episodes of 24, and she's keener on Casanova than she is on Droo). She said she'd not hesitate to dump her boyfriend for the bloke with the time machine, so she could go see the Parthenon ...

The TARDIS looks great; a nice mix of stuff. There's a certain Jules Verne-ness to it, but also various Dr Who elements. The time rotor is from the TV movie, the interior doors from the Cushing films, etc. I love the inclusiveness of that. It's all Dr Who....

In fact, the TV movie has several influences: the rollicking TARDIS-in-vortex shots, the swirl of air when the TARDIS dematerialises... More importantly, that sense of the 'epic'. Old Dr Who was often up-close and intimate, with the Radiophonic Workshop famously speaking of 'inner turmoil'. The TV movie was much more 'Da daaa!' and orchestral. The use of human voices is part of that, but there's also the stings as scenes change. Does that make sense?

Talking to [another friend who'd seen it] last night, we agreed the direction is a bit flat. I loved the Doctor shouting 'leg it' to Rose, but when they're racing from the Autons in that first scene together, or across Dalek Bridge in Westminster, you don't really get a sense of urgency. They're running, yes, but not for their lives. Peter Davison is still best at Urgent Running. Also, as has been said, that spotting-the-transmitter needed one less frame...

[In the broadcast episode, there was indeed one less shot of the Doctor's bafflement before recognising the London Eye.]

But there are some nicely iconic moments: the wedding-dressed Autons, Mickey's head coming off, even the wheelie bin. I think it's a really funny idea, a wheelie bin eating someone. And is Billie's line about breast implants a nod to SynthespiansTM? I hope so.

I like the silliness. I really like the silliness. I will not repeat my views on the difference between stupidity and silliness ...

Rose getting into the car with Mickey and not knowing he's an Auton is cool. We know something is up, even though she doesn't. That's suspense. But it also means we believe in the Doctor before she does.

We get a staggering amount on information: the war, the Nestenes, the TARDIS (the disguise!), the Doctor, the sonic screwdriver, time travel, aliens, diplomacy... And Rose has got family and a life! Bloody hell, she's really got a life back home that matters. It means something. It's still boggling just how much of a departure that is.

Shame that Clive's stash of Who stuff didn't include pictures of Other Doctors - even in a spot-them-if-you-can-in-the-background way. I assumed, too, that all those pictures of the Doctor in the past are from his future. (I like the idea, for example, that he and Rose can visit Krakatoa now, and she'll know he washes up on Sumatra.)

The Doctor looking in the mirror is definitely for the first time - he doesn't know what he looks like, and the 'ears' gag (perfect for Eccles) is a steal from Robot. So, is this his regeneration story, but we've just come in mid-way through?

Not too worried about the 'vanillaness' of the episode [a complaint others had made]. It's pretty straightforward a beginning, but with plenty of room to move afterwards. I think J Morris once said that the TV movie didn't feel like a new beginning, but [in my opinion] Rose does. I want desperately to see more."
Next episode: 2006 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Doctor Who: 2004

After episode 696 (Doctor Who): the first day of filming on the new series
Sunday, 18 July 2004
<< back to 2003
Eccleston and the Space Pig
My feature for
Doctor Who Adventures #277
Hidden away in the archives of the official BBC Doctor Who website, there's a fun video of a press conference with Christopher Eccleston from just before the new series was broadcast. One question is about his first day of filming.
"My first day, I chased a brilliant actor of restricted height called Jimmy Vee dressed as a pig dressed as a spaceman... I had to chase him up and down a corridor."
I adore the space pig. It's brief time in Doctor Who is a perfect example of the show as written by Russell T Davies - daft, funny, exciting, scary and moving all in one quick scene. I badgered the poor then editor of Doctor Who Adventures, Natalie Barnes, to let me run a feature on the space pig and she finally relented. (She also gave kind permission to post it here.)

But I also know exactly where I was when the scene was filmed. On Sunday, 18 July 2004, Big Finish held a party to celebrate five years of new audio adventures for old Doctor Who. I'd written a few short stories for them and was busy writing my first audio play, so got to go along - the first posh drinks I was ever invited to as a writer.

Before I was lost to the miasma of free fizz, I met actors Lisa Bowerman and Stephen Fewell for the first time, who I'd late be boss of on the Benny plays. And a young actor I'd seen on the telly said "Thanks, mate" to me. It was David Tennant.

Next episode: 2005

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

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...

One

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?

Two

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.

Three

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!

Four

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.

Five

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.

Six

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

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Doctor Who: 2001

After episode 696 (Doctor Who): Storm Warning
Released January 2001
<< back to 2000

The Big Finish Doctors face The Light at the End
Big Finish Productions Ltd began releasing new audio adventures for old Doctors Who in 1999. To begin with, they were new stories for the fifth, sixth and seventh Doctors. But late in 2000 they announced that Paul McGann's eighth Doctor would be joining them. As this fanzine article I wrote at the time shows, I was quite excited:

Lee Sullivan's preview for
Storm Warning in
Doctor Who Magazine
"During the 1990s, Doctor Who was, essentially, an ongoing series of books. Five TV specials – variously ersatz, variously not quite right – and as many new audio new adventures are nothing to just short of 200 full length, original novels (mostly) doing new and exciting things with the character and range. For Century 21, it looks like the Doctor is more an audio thang. The BBC’s Radio Collection is beefing up the old stuff they can’t put out on video, Radio 4 is promising a heavyweight, star-studded new series [Death Comes To Time] and Big Finish do enough 25 minute instalments of Doctor Who for every week of the year, as well as new Benny and Dalek spin-offs.

And audio Who will dictate to other-media Who. Big Finish’s Season 27 will knock on all the different Doctor-eight’s we’ve come to know; the BBC Books one, the Doctor Who Magazine model, the Mills-and-Boon-rogue who gets his oats in fan fiction. Finally he’s back... and about for more than 65 minutes, of which (as that Lance Parkin pointed out in the fanzine Matrix some years ago) most is the Doctor doing an uncharacteristic, post-regeneration thing.

None of the Doctors can be summed up by their first story, and only Hartnell ever is. And McGann, of course. But then there’s a reason for that. Five bloody years after the TV movie, we’re getting to the point Lance predicted – where the Doctor being written is a construct of McGann’s performance, his strengths and tendencies; rather than of generic Doctor traits and bits of Marwood in Withnail & I.Weirdly, in the last 18 months they’ve cribbed from The Curse of Fatal Death. Having ‘I’ll explain later...’ in the eighth Doctor books (and on several occasions, like it’s McGann’s catchphrase now) is like Jonny Morris fleshing out [fourth Doctor book] Festival of Death with the Doctor wearing celery.

My original artwork for this article.
It’ll take some time – the first books and comic strips in progress from January 2001 will just maybe get odd extra lines, flourishes added so they’re more McGann; tweaks that shoe the star of these crazy space adventures in his direction. It’s the epics we’ll read in the last days of ’01, moving on up to ’02 where the very structures and sorts of stories being told are structured around this essentially new Doctor’s own quirks and peculiarities.

People have been talking a bit about [eighth Doctor novel] The Burning ushering in a new age for the old Doc’. But compare that to the way that Season 26 (and the books that followed it) took Sylvester’s own performance, played to his strengths and thus shaped a Doctor of far more exciting range and scale than Time and the Rani ever dared suggest possible."

I'm not sure my predictions were quite right, but when McGann returned on screen last week, it was his audio companions he namechecked, not those of the books and comics.

Next episode: 2002

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Doctor Who: 2000

After episode 696 (Doctor Who): Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) - A Man of Substance
First broadcast: 8.50pm on Saturday, 22 April 2000
<< back to 1999

"I wonder if you could help me?"
Tom Baker in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)
In the long years that Doctor Who was off the air, the belief seemed to be that television viewing habits had changed and there was no longer an audience for family entertainment on a Saturday evening.

Instead of TV drama, it seemed, the general population were more interested in light entertainment that put ordinary people on screen, often live to make it more of an event. There was Noel’s House Party, The Generation Game, Stars in Their Eyes and the string of shows presented by Michael Barrymore or Ant and Dec.

Yet the BBC persisted in making shows for a Saturday evening that had a sci-fi / fantasy element: Bugs (1995-8), Crime Traveller (1997), Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (2000-1) and Strange (2002). I’d be tempted to include Jonathan Creek (1997- ) in that list, too.

Like Doctor Who, each of these shows tended to involve a peculiar, even outlandish, mystery and would then build up to a chase. Each had a certain tongue-in-cheek knowingness, a sense that the production teams didn’t expect us to take anything too seriously. (You see the same thing in reviews of sci-fi: a reviewer feels the need to tell us that they know the events depicted weren’t real.)

I really liked the revived Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). It had a good mix of the eerie and daft, with lead actors it was easy to warm to. It's also beautifully shot and directed. The last episode of the first season, A Man of Substance is particularly good - strange and unsettling, funny and sinister, with a ridiculous plot that it plays perfectly straight. It hinges on Marty Hopkirk having to choose between his friends and his every desire, and right to the end we're not sure what he'll decide. At the time, I thought it a perfect template for how Doctor Who might be done - not the plot, just the feel of it.

It's still a brilliant episode, but watching it again I'm surprised by several key elements: the heavy drinking, the sex, the whole blokey attitude. The show is riffing on the style and tone of the original Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), but watching it now it feels like having Gene Hunt in Life On Mars but without the moderating influence of Sam.

I said of 1991 that the New Adventures books were no different from Batman or James Bond at the time in being darker and more violent, and excluding children. This was simply how drama was done. In Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), I think there's a glimpse of what Doctor Who might have been like had anyone else brought it back to TV.

The belief was that there wasn't a family audience for TV drama on a Saturday night. Russell T Davies, though, knew that was wrong.
"Early on in the Doctor Who production process, Davies knew he had the Saturday night 7pm slot, and it informed the feel of the programme he was going to make. 'If you channel-hop on a Saturday night,' he says, 'you're up against the big Light Entertainment shows, like Ant and Dec, with a shiny black floor and a huge audience. With background music behind everything. They're phenomenally loud, those shows, and I believe that's what draws an audience. So we decided to make Doctor Who really noisy.'"
Next episode: 2001 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Doctor Who: 1999

After episode 696 (Doctor Who): The Curse of Fatal Death
First broadcast: 12 March 1999
<< back to 1998

"How are things?"
Rowan Atkinson meets the Daleks
Dr Who & the Curse of Fatal Death
In June 1999, Doctor Who Magazine #279 spoke to six writers all working in popular telly about how, if asked, they would bring back Doctor Who. It's fascinating to read Gary Gillatt's "We're gonna be bigger than Star Wars" again today. Four of those writers would write for Doctor Who when it returned in 2005 - but not in the way they told DWM.

"'Well, it would have to be made on film,' [Russell T Davies] said, and probably with the Doctor trapped on Earth to save money. 'I don’t think you’d put a 50-minute film series on during Saturday teatime,' he suggested with almost as much prescience as Steve [Moffat]’s 'The core elements are a Police Box, a frock coat and cliffhangers.' On the other hand, who can disagree that 'The key ingredient is death,' and Russell closed with 'God help anyone in charge of bringing it back – what a responsibility!'


In fact, they were already working on getting Doctor Who back on TV. Russell's acclaimed eight-part drama Queer as Folk (first broadcast 23 February to 13 April 1999) included a regular character who was a Doctor Who fan, with clips from old episodes, jokes only fans would get and a cameo by the real prop of K-9.

On 12 March, a new Doctor Who adventure, The Curse of Fatal Death, was broadcast as part of Comic Relief on prime-time BBC One. The script was by Steven Moffat.


On 13 November, Mark Gatiss co-wrote and starred in three more comedy sketches about Doctor Who - one with him as the Doctor in a pastiche of the show from the 60s, another exploring how the show was first commissioned (something Mark explores again this week in An Adventure in Space and Time), and one with Peter Davison gamely playing himself.

All these productions - Russell's, Steven's and Mark's - fondly mocked the conventions of the old show show. For all Steven and Mark created new incarnations of the Doctor, their sketches were more about looking backward at what Doctor Who had once been as it was reviving it anew.

Except...

The Curse of Fatal Death is not a template for a new series. It's certainly not a manifesto for the way Steven runs the show now. It's full of things that worked as jokes because they were so unlike Doctor Who as we knew it.

Yet, they're all things that were central when the show returned: fart jokes, jokes about the sonic screwdriver as a phallus, the companion and Doctor explicitly in love, the companion's confused feelings about that after a regeneration, lots of stuff about the Doctor's mythic place in the universe... Most obviously of all, it embraces the daft fun of Doctor Who as a key part of its appeal.

I think there's something else, too. When the Master brings in an army of Daleks, the Doctor greets them with a pithy line: "How are things?"

The joke is that he's so casual, that his words sound so ordinary. It's not the way the Doctor has ever spoken before. But it will be.

Next episode: 2000

(Ian Stuart Burns has also written about that article in DWM.)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Doctor Who: 1998


After episode 696 (Doctor Who): The Final Chapter, part four
First published in Doctor Who Magazine #265, cover dated 3 June 1998
<< back to 1997
Nicholas Briggs is the Doctor!
DWM #265, 1998
Last week, we finally saw how the eighth Doctor died. About time, too.

When Doctor Who returned to TV in 2005, there were mutterings that Paul McGann had not been asked to film a regeneration, handing over to the new Doctor as Sylvester McCoy had done for him. Head writer Russell T Davies explained why not in an early episode of Doctor Who Confidential: a lesson learnt from the TV movie was that an old Doctor got in the way of establishing the new one.

Despite this sensible reasoning, there were still those who grumbled that without a handover we didn't know that Christopher Eccleston really was the ninth Doctor. We weren't offered proof until The Next Doctor (2008), when the Cybermen played clips of each of the first 10 Doctors in order.

(The Cybermen might not be the most reliable sources, but then Doctor Who has relied on the testimony of monsters before.)

Perhaps it didn't help matters that there had been other ninth Doctors already.

In 2003, the BBC's Doctor Who website announced its own ninth Doctor, with Richard E Grant starring in The Scream of the Shalka. In 1999, Rowan Atkinson played the ninth Doctor for Comic Relief. These two stories, too, did not show a regeneration from McGann, but one story did.

In 1998, Doctor Who Magazine's comic strip saw McGann regenerate into a body that looked a lot like Nicholas Briggs. Now best known as the voice of the Daleks, Nick had starred as the Doctor in a series of fan-made adventures released on audio, and 'his' Doctor had appeared in an earlier DWM comic strip, a future incarnation that the seventh Doctor bumps into.

If this Briggs Doctor was a fan in-joke, he was also never intended as a legitimate addition to the canon: four weeks later, we learnt he was an invention of the still very much alive eighth Doctor, a decoy to fool the villains.

Yet the trick only worked if readers could believe that DWM really was prepared to drop the eighth Doctor as the "current" incarnation. It would only do that, we'd think, if there was no hope we'd ever see McGann in the role again, and little chance of new TV Doctor Who any time soon. For all we'd stuck with the magazine in the years without the show, the gag played on our own lack of faith in Doctor Who's future on screen.

Looking back, I think 1998 was the lowest point in those years Doctor Who wasn't on TV. And then things suddenly changed - in ways we couldn't have known the significance of at the time, but which now clearly lay a path to the show's triumphant return.

Next episode: 1999

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Doctor Who: 1997

After episode 696 (Doctor Who)
31 August 1997
<< back to 1996

Unexpected Spiders on UK Gold
via the Who Gold site
If there was no new Doctor Who on telly for much of the 1990s, there was at least a chance to catch up on old Doctor Who via satellite channel UK Gold. For more than 10 years, it showed a complete story every Sunday morning - and I had a kind friend who would tape them for me. As a result, I saw the majority of Doctor Who from the 60s and 70s for the first time via UK Gold.

The Who Gold site is full of clips and information about that wondrous time, but one particular Sunday morning in 1997 gives an insight into the way the channel was run:
"In the early hours of Sunday 31st August 1997, Princess Diana was tragically killed in a car crash in Paris. On that morning, UK Gold were scheduled to broadcast The Armageddon Factor, the final story of The Key To Time season which featured Princess Astra (played by Lalla Ward) in scenes of great peril."
So, instead of a story in which a space princess is in peril (but isn't in a car chase and doesn't die), UK Gold showed Jon Pertwee's final adventure Planet of Spiders (with a 25-minute chase and the Doctor dying at the end). The story was broadcast with a caption telling viewers to turn over, and anyone who'd been following the Key to Time season for the previous five weeks had to wait more than two years to find out how it ended. (The commercial VHS of the story, released in June 1995, was no longer available to buy.)

Who Gold also boasts an interview with continuity announcer Glen Allen:
"I remember that day very well. Only that week’s editor (four editors were responsible for a week each per month) and I went into work. You got Planet of the Spiders purely and simply because that was the only six-parter we had left in the library. I remember lying on the floor checking under all the shelves in case we had anything else. In retrospect I'm not sure people would have been that offended about a fictional princess in an old sci-fi show.

We had to view every show that was going out that day to make sure it was safe. Two comedies had to go. One was a Jasper Carrott episode that had him talking about fast cars and 'Who wants to go at 100 miles an hour anyway, apart from Princess Anne' ... CUT. The other was an episode of Alas Smith & Jones which had Griff sat in the middle of a crushed car shouting 'Vorsprung Durch Technique'... CUT. Thinking back it was rather bizarre. I was just the voice of the channel, and suddenly I'm viewing and editing programmes and actually choosing what went on air!"
(Glen also has his own website.)

Next episode: 1998

Friday, November 15, 2013

Doctor Who: 1996

Episode 696: Doctor Who
First broadcast: 8.30 pm on Monday, 27 May 1996
<< back to 1995
Doctor Who Magazine
announces the new Doctor
Gosh. Yesterday afternoon, with almost no warning, BBC iPlayer put up a new mini-episode of Doctor Who, The Night of the Doctor – starring Paul McGann.



This is the second screen appearance of McGann's eighth Doctor (not including clips from his first appearance being used in other episodes). Watching it on the Dr's iPad, and then seeing Twitter and Tumblr explode, made me realise what a different age the Doctor Who television movie belongs to.

I first knew about it on 10 January 1996, when the Lancashire Evening Post announced McGann's casting as the Doctor on their front page, in a tiny box-out I just happened to spot. I was 19, living in Preston in my second year at university.

I didn't have a mobile phone – no one I knew did. There wasn't a computer in our house let alone any internet. If I knew anyone with an email address, I didn't know what it was. Instead, a nice friend from home (who was at another university) printed out Doctor Who news pages and sent them to me in the post so I could keep up with the “latest” news on the movie. As a result of that, I tracked down the computer rooms in my department and visited about once a week – which at that time felt like I was following developments closely.

Even then, Doctor Who Magazine was often the first place to learn what was really going as, as opposed to the rumour. It was often ahead of the game – and promised features and interviews from the set! But look at that first cover, with Paul McGann holding a... is that an ashtray? If it isn't, it at least looks like one. I can't see that getting past the brand team now.

These days, new Doctor Who gets broadcast round the world simultaneously. At the time, the news pages suggested that the television movie would be broadcast in the US in May, and then in the UK in the autumn. I remember enviously watching people online discuss their plans to fly to the States so they could watch the new episode. For me, buying the thing on video was going to be an extravagance.

Then the dates were fixed: the TV movie would premiere in the US on 14 May; it would be released on video in the UK the next morning and broadcast on 27 May. I read of shops that would open at midnight on the 15th so that fans could buy it straight away. The HMV in Preston was not one of them, so I went in the morning.

Preston town centre was a half-hour walk from my student house in Plungington. It was a typically grey, cold morning but I remember the itchy, shivery excitement as I made my way there. And the horrible, sinking feeling when there was no obvious display in the window. There was no obvious display inside the shop, either, and no sign of new Doctor Who in the new releases or sci-fi sections. I asked at the counter and they told me I'd got the date wrong.

I trudged to the computer room and found out what had happened. The BBFC had classified the television movie as certificate 15. The BBC chose to edit the offending scenes to get a more commercial 12 certificate, but that meant the video wouldn't be out for another week.

So, on the morning of Wednesday, 22 May I trudged back to HMV and at last picked up the video – there were posters in the window and a special cardbox display stand. I had lectures that morning, too, so couldn't watch it at once. And my friends Darren and Andy were interested enough to follow me back home. I think we watched it once in rapt silence and then again straight away.

I loved the TV movie. What surprised me, a week later when it was broadcast, was that so many other people tuned in, too. My then girlfriend's whole house delayed going out for the evening to watch it – and not out of any deference to me. My landlord rang later in the week about something, and asked if I'd seen it, again without knowing I was in any way a fan.

In fact, the only people I knew who didn't watch it were my parents, who managed five minutes before deciding it wasn't enough like the show they remembered. This I didn't learn for weeks: I think they were a bit sheepish anyway, but also it hadn't occurred to them that, being panel members of BARB, their switching off would affect the ratings.

My chum Joseph Lidster had a different experience:
"In May 1996 I was 18 and coming up to the end of the first year at university. I was a Doctor Who fan in that I bought the books and the magazine every month but it wasn't a huge part of my life. I didn't really know any other fans and, to be truthful, I was far too busy embracing student life (bottles of lager for A POUND!) to think about it a huge amount.

Then, Doctor Who Magazine ran a competition to go and see the TV movie on a big screen in London. I entered partly because I was excited about it coming back but mostly because I never won competitions so it didn't really matter. And then a letter came from Gary Gillatt. I got a letter from the actual editor of the actual Doctor Who Magazine!
And a ticket! To some place called BAFTA?

I couldn't believe it. It really didn't seem real. I'd only been to That London on school trips. It was miles from Carlisle where I was studying. And because I didn't have any friends who were into Doctor Who, and there was only one ticket anyway, it didn't seem feasible to think about going. I also had an exam the next day so I'd have to travel there and back in a day. So I wasn't going to go. Sensibly, I wasn't going to go. But that Doctor Who part of your brain isn't sensible. I had to go.

So I sorted it. I managed to scrape together enough money for the train and off I went. It's all a blur really. I remember loving the movie itself because it just seemed so modern. These days we take for granted Doctor Who being a modern thing but back then, even only seven years after the TV series had finished, it felt like a thing of the past. It looked like a thing of the past. And then I saw the TV movie and, yeah, it was bonkers and to this day I've no idea what happens at the end but then – and now – I still think it's absolutely brilliant. It's just simply so much fun. And that theme tune and title sequence on the big screen was really just amazing. I think I did whatever the 1996 version of squeeing was.

I can't remember much about my visit. I didn't really talk to anyone because I didn't know who they were. I spoke to Gary Gillatt (the actual editor of the actual Doctor Who Magazine!) afterwards and gave him some thoughts which he never used in the magazine. For which I have never forgiven him. I do remember some bloke in the audience asking me what I'd thought about it. He said he hadn't liked it so much because he'd thought the older Doctors were going to be in it. But, mostly, I just remember it being a mad brilliant night. Manic and a blur. Very much like the TV movie itself.

Oh, and I totally aced my exam the next day.

And now, in 2013, I'm 36. AND I HAVE JUST SEEN PAUL McGANN REGNERATE INTO JOHN HURT! As the 18 year olds today say – WTF?!"
(Joe even appears briefly in this BBC news coverage of the premiere. And weirdly, Joe and I are both now on the DVD of the TV movie, wittering on about why we love it.)

But the thing that's most different from now is what happened next: the gradual realisation, month on month, that the pilot wouldn't be picked up, that the BBC had thrown money and publicity at the television movie and it hadn't worked... Doctor Who wouldn't be returning.

Next episode: 1997

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Doctor Who: 1995

After episode 695 (Survival, part 3)
Up Above the Gods, published in Doctor Who Magazine #227 (cover dated 5 July 1995)
<< back to 1994
Up Above the Gods
Art by Lee Sullivan
via TARDIS data core
It's just so majestically wrong: Davros, dad of the Daleks, parked inside the TARDIS, having a chat with the Doctor. That mad juxtaposition - things together that shouldn't be - makes for a brilliant hook into the story, but one aimed squarely at fans.

Up Above The Gods is a single-episode, seven-page comic-strip from Doctor Who Magazine. It a smart, sophisticated story, the Doctor and Davros debating ethics and trying to outwit one another. It's written and drawn superbly, but a big part of the appeal is how much more you get from it if you know your Doctor Who.

Davros isn't just in any part of the TARDIS but the ivy-strewn cloister room last seen in the fourth Doctor story Logopolis. But instead of the fourth Doctor here, it's the sixth. If you know the room, and that the wrong Doctor's in it, there's an extra thrill.

The story itself is a follow-up to a Doctor Who Magazine comic strip from two years previously (Emperor of the Daleks). It sets up events in the TV stories Planet of the Daleks and Remembrance of the Daleks, while it would also help to know the events of Revelation of the Daleks and Logopolis. The title is from a discussion between the Doctor and Davros in Genesis of the Daleks. Yes, all in seven pages.

That's not to say it's impenetrable to more casual fans. All those TV stories had been repeated on BBC Two in 1993 except Remembrance (released on VHS in 1993) and Logopolis (on VHS in 1992). But it rather assumes that the magazine's readers are fully engaged in repeats and releases from two years previously: it assumes a dedicated following.

You can see that, too, in the New Adventures books. Human Nature (published May 1995, and later voted the best of the range) is about the Doctor living as an ordinary human. John Smith is still a kind, brave and clever man, but when aliens attack he can't save the day. The emotional impact of the book hinges on our understanding of what the Doctor is and needs to be - again, knowing Doctor Who makes it more effective.

(That's why it could be adapted for the third series of the TV show, but wouldn't have worked so well in the first.)

Now, it might be argued that it made sense for Doctor Who Magazine to produce comic strips directed at the attentive fan. But it's striking, look back, how inaccessible Doctor Who was in 1995 to newcomers - younger ones, especially. The 1996 television movie was in pre-production at this time, cramming a script full of continuity references that would please the fans. In the first scene after the opening titles, it assumes viewers already know that the huge control room manned by Sylvester McCoy is housed inside the small police box. For a pilot for a new series, there's no concession to those not already in on the secret. (It also features the cloister room.)

But, again in 1995, one clever fellow dared ask if children might yet watch Doctor Who. You can read Gary Gillatt's adventure with Class 4G and the Zygons on his website.
"Today, with Doctor Who a TV powerhouse, we hear young voices much more frequently. But I think Class 4G had some profound things to say about what Doctor Who's priorities should be, and those observations are as true today as they ever were..."
Next episode: 1996