Friday, November 08, 2013

Doctor Who: 1992

After episode 695 (Survival, part 3)
Resistance is Useless, first broadcast 3 January 1992
<< back to 1991
Confessions of an anorak
Resistance is Useless (1992)
Who was Doctor Who for?

As I've argued so far, by 1992 it was no longer on telly, no longer for children and - in the New Adventures books - being written for and by fans. I was thrilled by those books for their bold take on Doctor Who and the feeling I got from reading them (and pitching my own paltry efforts to the poor editorial staff) of being part of a community.

But not everyone shared that excitement. Plenty of fans didn't like the books: indeed, editor Peter Darvill-Evans felt moved to defend the range in Doctor Who Magazine #200 (cover dated 9 June 1993):
"I've just received another letter of complaint. 'Why are the New Adventures so awful?' is the opening line..."
In the letters pages of DWM, and in the ever more professional-looking fanzines, there were earnest debates and essays about the relative merits of the range and what constituted proper Doctor Who.

Though new adventures for the Doctor were limited to books and comic strips, he was then suddenly back on TV. On 3 January 1992, BBC Two broadcast Resistance is Useless as a lead-in to a series of repeats of old Doctor Who. Nowadays we're used to clips shows and Doctor Who being repeated but at the time this was very unusual: it was the longest series of repeats in 10 years.

Yet while the Five Faces season of repeats in 1981 - and the Monsters repeats in the 1980s - had been aimed at a mass audience of general viewers, the 1992 repeats seemed to target a more select group.

It's weird watching Resistance is Useless now: the clips themselves are full of excitement: monsters, deaths and strangeness, the Doctor being brave and funny. There's a madcap mix of the scary and daft that makes up much of Doctor Who. The programme does a great job of selling the prospect of full episodes, even if those episodes are nearly 30 years-old and in ropey black and white.

But, undercutting the actual evidence of the thrilling nature of Doctor Who, the clips are presented by a croaky-voiced anorak, imparting nuggets of trivia.
"Everyone knows that TARDIS is an acronym for Time And Relative Dimensions [sic] In Space but not many people know why this Type 40 TARDIS, which the Doctor stole from the Time Lords, is shaped like a police telephone box. Well, that's due to a malfunction of the chameleon circuit which enables it to change its shape and blend in with its surroundings. It jammed in London in 1963, the date of the first episode. It's interesting to note that a horse named Call Box won a race at Doncaster on that very day."
The implication is that Doctor Who appealed chiefly to dreary nerds.

That same presumption seems to be there in the BBC Videos of the time. Doctor Who sold well on VHS, often appearing in the top 10 charts, competing well against movies. But who did the people producing the videos think they were selling them too?

In March 1992, The Pertwee Years offered tantalising clips and three episodes from the third Doctor's era - at a time when it seemed impossible that all his episodes would one day be available to buy. It includes an episode from the story Inferno - one of my brother Tom's favourites.

In it, the Doctor steps sideways in time to an England ruled by dictatorship, and meets sinister versions of his friends Liz and the Brigadier. The exterior scenes shot round the Kingsnorth industrial estate have a particular, eerie bleakness. But (as Tom pointed out to me) the episode chosen for the video - episode 7 - shows little of this atmospheric stuff: we glimpse the alternative Liz and are then back to reality.

Why choose this episode? It's the least atmospheric, exciting and strange of the whole story. But, as Jon Pertwee says on the tape, it's of interest because it includes the final appearance of the original TARDIS control console prop. I'm sure the anorak would approve.

I don't mean to criticise the people who produced these videos and programmes: they made judgements based on the perceived market. As we saw last time, the audience for Doctor Who had got older and more niche. If these teens and grown-ups were going to justify time and money spent on a daft old family show, perhaps it's no wonder they took it rather seriously, and mined it for ever more trivia.

At least, that's what I think I was doing at the time. My name first appeared in Doctor Who Magazine in 1992 (alongside Tom Spilsbury who is now editor):
Me and Tom Spilsbury in the letters page of
Doctor Who Magazine #186 (1992)
I glimpse in that letter an oleaginous teen trying to get in with the grown-ups. That painful eagerness to please is also there in the 'stories' I wrote at the time - I still have a box of them, but no, you're not getting a look. They're not exactly stories anyway, as any plot has been squeezed out by all the references to past Doctor Who adventures, grown-up science-fiction and other books I thought of as worthy. I genuinely thought the more clever references I crammed in, the better the story got - but I was being semiotically thick (sorry).

I was so keen to win acceptance and justify my sticking with Doctor Who that I rather lost track of its appeal in the first place. What I wasn't writing, what it never seemed to occur to me to write until years later, was stories that were scary and exciting and fun.

by Mark Gatiss
- via Virgin Territory
But if did occur to Mark Gatiss. His first Doctor Who story, the novel Nightshade, was published in August 1992.
"The book moves at a cracking place, full of drama. It’s built up of dialogue and action sequences, so reads like the novelisation of a TV story. It’s brief compared to many of the later books – only 228 pages – and keeps the reader on tenderhooks right until the end. The fact that it’s set in the days up to Christmas 1968 lends a significant atmosphere of invaded cosiness, as well as establishing a strong sense of time and place."
(Thanks to Jonathan Morris for the scan from DWM.)

Next episode: 1993

No comments: