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Dr. Who Out of Time--But Wasn't He Always?
Absent from TV for ten years, the Time Lord lives on in other media.
By Andrew Osmond
January 11, 2000
It has been three-and-a-half decades since the first episode of Doctor Who, slightly delayed by news coverage of Kennedy's assassination, introduced British viewers to a strange, rather nasty old man (William Hartnell) and a police-box. And just over ten years since a much younger time-traveler (Sylvester McCoy) and his young companion walked back to said police-box for the last time. A long trip.
Doctor Who is dead, at least as a TV series character. But like his most famous adversaries the Daleks, he just won't lie down. In Britain, the Who industry shows little sign of flagging. Over a hundred spin-off books relating the Time Lord's past and future adventures have been published since the series' demise, first by Virgin Publishing (this range is no longer reprinted, though titles are easy to find) and now by BBC Worldwide. There are numerous independently-produced, direct-to-video films featuring aliens and characters from the series, made with permission from the respective creators. The latest is AUTON 3, the last of a trio of adventures featuring the animated mannequins who originally battled Jon Pertwee's Doctor in 1970. Coincidentally, the BBC has just shown the Pertwee serial (SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE) as the opener to an extended re-run of color Doctor Who stories on its minority channel BBC2.
This screen revival follows a recent 'Doctor Who night' special on the BBC, while the corporation also exploited viewer nostalgia with an expensive spoof starring MR BEAN's Rowan Atkinson as the Time Lord ('Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death'). The latter was shown on the BBC's 'Comic Relief' annual telethon, and has now been released on British video. Then there's a new series of licensed audio Doctor Who adventures in which original TV Doctors reprise their roles (for example, the SIRENS OF TIME brings together the McCoy, Peter Davison and Colin Baker editions). More traditionalist fans may prefer the ongoing video releases of the BBC stories, or the commercial soundtracks of '60s episodes deleted from the archives before the series became a cult concern.
All well and good, but for many fans this distracts from the main question. Will Doctor Who return to the screen, not in a spoof or homage but for real? Only this past October, the latest bid to revive the Time Lord (a movie version to be directed by EVENT HORIZON's Paul Anderson) was cancelled after negotiations with the BBC broke down. There has been cautious discussion of a new TV version, but at the time of writing, things seem as ambivalent as ever. To date, the only 'straight' revival of Who remains Philip Segal's 1996 TV movie, made by Universal Productions Canada with Paul McGann as the Doctor. While popular in Britain, the film was a ratings failure in the crucial American market, and cast the Time Lord deeper into limbo.
For many non-fans, this may not be surprising. Why not just accept the series has run its course? Doctor Who belongs to an age of cheap'n'cheerful production, a time when TV audiences would watch actors playing hide-and-seek in tiny studios or pretending men in rubber suits were galactic conquerors. Once it was possible for American TV shows to afford cinematic effects and production values, the writing was on the wall. Was it coincidence that WHO died just when STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION was finding its feet? Or that British tele-fantasy in general--odd exceptions like Red Dwarf and the neo-vampire series Ultraviolet aside--has practically vanished? Die-hards claim Who has the higher ground in story and imagination, but does it really have anything to offer in the age of BABYLON 5, GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and such upcoming blockbusters as DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN? A great deal hinges on the reception to the BBC's ambitious Gormenghast serial, being broadcast this month.
Such issues obsess Who fans at conventions, on newsgroups, in fanzines and in the pages of Marvel's Doctor Who Magazine, a remarkable publication that originated as a children's weekly back when Tom Baker was battling the spaghetti-faced Scaroth in Paris with wife-to-be Lalla Ward. (In keeping with the anniversary spirit, the magazine recently celebrated its twentieth birthday.) At times, it seems the only consensus is there is no consensus. One of the main problems is that there's no such thing as 'paradigm' Who. Watch stories from the series at five-year intervals, and it becomes clear the program is as much a chameleon as its hero. There's very little obvious resemblance between Hartnell's excursions into Earth's history, Pertwee advising contemporary soldiers on how best to fight aliens, Tom Baker looning about corridors and offering foes jelly babies, or the final batch of overtly cryptic episodes in which McCoy's Doctor seemed the only person understanding the plot.
The common reply is that, despite their obvious diversity, all the stories share a baseline 'Who-ishness,' an essence separating them from other media. Without disappearing into metaphysics (or 'fanwank' as some would call it), this begs the question of what 'Who-ishness' is. Again, it's a trickier issue than it seems. For example, is Who really about a two-hearted alien who stole a Type-40 time-machine from his home planet Gallifrey, and can regenerate his body twelve times? In a sense yes, but the above 'mythology' entered the series years after it had begun. In the first few seasons Who was simply about a mysterious non-human traveler who could go anywhere in time and space. One of the main divisions among fans is between those who want to keep the subsequent mythos and develop it, and those who want to return to the first principles of the '60s.
Actually, that's a simplification (predictable, huh?). Few fans would now defend the most continuity-indulgent BBC stories, most infamously a 1980s Cyberman serial which sequelled two '60s adventures in a manner leaving even fans confused and mainstream viewers scratching their heads. More debatable is something like the 1996 TV film that tried to maintain basic continuity by having Sylvester McCoy, the last BBC Doctor, 'die' at the outset, as well as importing baggage such as Gallifrey, the Eye of Harmony and the Master, all elements from the '70s. Some fans believe this sank the film: the surfeit of plot-details alienated viewers unfamiliar with the show's history. Then again, Segal's film is mild compared with some spin-off media, which often presumes a working knowledge of all 150-odd TV adventures and much else besides.
The backlash against this approach is best represented by two recent pieces in Doctor Who Magazine. (Bias declared: one was by a friend of this writer.) The first opined, 'When you get down to first principles, Doctor Who was the spin the BBC put on certain rather formulaic genres, such as Walter Scott/RL Stevenson historical romances, B-pics about monsters and inch-high people, wartime derring-do and Victorian Utopias. That spin is self-aware, skeptical, domestically British and potentially whimsical, which is why Doctor Who's late-1970s parodies of Star Trek are so much more believable than the originals. (Go on, I dare you to watch The Devil in the Dark with a straight face after you've seen Creature from the Pit.) There's no need for even the Police Box, if you come down to it. I've always favored stealing a march on this blatant Narnia crib by having a door in a wall which shouldn't be there, possibly with a garden inside. It worked for Lewis Carroll and HG Wells.' (1)
The same point was amplified in a DWM cover-story a couple of months later (2). 'Don't you yearn for the days when the TARDIS just materialized in a field somewhere and the Doctor walked to the scene of the adventure? None of that drivel about the web of time, or the Cloister Bell, or Artron Energy--he just stepped out of the TARDIS and got stuck in... When Doctor Who was great it wasn't a sci-fi show at all, but a bizarre hybrid of all the other kinds of program-making at which the BBC happened to excel. It leapfrogged genres, mixing and matching to achieve unique and often surreal results, in exactly the same way as Monty Python. A pack of robot Yeti rampaging through the London Underground, or a disfigured war criminal from the year 5000 coming on like Fu Manchu while the Doctor dresses up as Sherlock Holmes, are concepts which have more in common with The Goodies [British comedy show] episode 'Bunfight at the OK Tea Rooms' (a spoof land-claim Western in which the goldmine spouts clotted cream and the guns are tomato ketchup squeezers) than anything in real SF.'
The above article was run in an DWM bearing the cover blurb, 'We've Come For Your Children! Why Doctor Who Must Capture the Hearts and Minds of the Harry Potter Generation.' Both writers believe it's essential that Who must not disdain its origins, as a family show with a core audience around eleven-years old. This runs counter to much of the spin-off media aimed at older fans, which tries to 'Dark Knight' the Doctor with gore, sex and--perhaps most shocking to those who grew up with the BBC version--bad language. In this way, the Who industry reflects tensions also present in say, American animation or the comic-book world. Some fans want the show to grow up, to touch on real-world issues and feature characters with complex backgrounds and personalities. The approach was suggested by Ace, the delinquent teen girl who was the Doctor's final BBC companion. Both scripters and spin-off book-authors strained to give her a detailed back story; unfortunately, it got out of control and became more silly than elaborate.
The other faction wants to keep the whimsy and childishness which sustained Who so long. (As Tom Baker's Doctor once said, 'There's no point in being grown-up if you can't be childish sometimes.') This debate lines up neatly with the continuity argument above. Those fans who value consistency and involved story-arcs also tend to be those trying to get Who to mature, to become something that would look like serious drama beside the best of Babylon 5 or for that matter I, Claudius. On the other hand, fans who favor the melodrama, self-mockery and absurdity of the program are also those who advocate trashing continuity, shaping a new series on a rough, improvised basis--in short, on what seems like a good idea at the time.
At the end, then, what hope for the Doctor's future? At the very least, the format does not depend on a particular actor, a particular writer, or a particular house-style--at least one that could be defined without a fandom-wide debate. If the 'trash-continuity' faction is correct, the Doctor does not even need Gallifrey, Time Lords, or a police-box. A wanderer in space and time, who fights evil and annoys monsters-- that's about all that's needed. Form matters more than content, and the form of Doctor Who is very amorphous indeed. Or is that more 'fanwank?'
To end on a speculative note, it's possible Doctor Who may be the first truly self-effacing tele-fantasy. The next series to capture its spirit may not be called Doctor Who, or have any notable connection to the BBC saga... save for a certain giddy sense of disorientation and wonder, comparable to stepping into an innocent-seeming police-box, to find one has entered a world past imagining. (1) Tat Wood, Letters, Doctor Who Magazine 281, Aug '99, pp6-7.
(2) Vic Camford, 'If you tolerate this, your children will be next!,'
Doctor Who Magazine 284, Nov '99, p11.