How Doctor Who missed his true decade of glory
|FEATURES - TV|
When his moment truly came, TV's favourite time-traveller was nowhere in sight... thanks to the BBC.
Having watched Tim Burton's initially promising Alice In Wonderland get over-run at the half-way mark with fare more familiar from Harry Potter and LotR movies, I'm alarmed to read that (new) Doctor Who season 5 executive producer Piers Wenger has decided that grafting these cinematic successes onto the look and feel of the time-lord's adventures in the Moffat/Smith era is a profitable good idea.
"We wanted to give the look of the series a slightly more storybook, fairy-tale feel - within reason."
...he says, and I find it hard to believe that I am groaning alone to hear this.
But then, was it Socrates who complained that the youth of his day were a better bunch than those he was seeing as an old man? I forget. In any case, I have to admit that Doctor Who has always been - ahem - responsive to popular trends.
I would argue, however, that the Doctor has been even more ill-used a victim of BBC capriciousness than is already well-documented (even on the special features that the Beeb lets 2Entertain put out on official Doctor Who disc releases).
There has been a cosmic gaffe, a universal blunder and mis-timing undocumented on Galifrey regarding Doctor Who. Let me explain...
What Doctor Who channeled in the 1960s
When Doctor Who first came on the air in 1963, the show's use of sci-fi was merely a device (like the TARDIS itself) to leverage the 1960s mania both for world travel (with particular interest in Italy and Europe in general) and historical drama (Spartacus, Cleopatra, El Cid, Lust For Life, The Agony And The Ecstasy, etc etc); since the Beeb invested a fair deal of the UK licence-payers' money outfitting lavish historical serials and plays, it seemed thrifty to re-use them.
As John Bensalhia is currently documenting in his complete Doctor Who reviews at this site, Terry Nation's Daleks threw a bit of a spanner in the works by becoming hugely popular sci-fi creations in a decade which was to consider sci-fi disreputable up until the advent of 2001: A Space Oddyssey in 1968.
In any case, the Daleks had more to do with terror and horror - both thriving under Hitchcock, Corman, Polanski and Hammer theatrical releases in 1960s movie and TV culture - than sci-fi. Metal bogeymen to send the kids hiding behind the furniture. Armour-plated zombies. Hell, armour-plated Nazis, again tapping in to the 1960s considerable interest (The Dirty Dozen, Guns Of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, The Great Escape, etc etc) in WWII drama.
What Doctor Who channeled in the 1970s
Many of the Tom Baker stories from the 1970s drew heavily on the ailing Hammer Film's decision to syndicate/flood their entire horror back-catalogue to British TV, as well as that decade's general obsession with the occult (The Wicker Man, The Omen, Carrie, The Exorcist etc etc).
Once Star Wars-mania kicked in (in the UK) from 1978, the show got a lot less talky and a lot more shooty. It didn't really have the budget to completely abandon plot in favour of space battles, but it was clearly itching to get a bit more of the space-opera action that Terry Nation's timely Blake's 7 was bringing to Brit viewers.
"Having suffered a decade of internal and external criticism for periods of excessive violence in the 1970s, Doctor Who could hardly cash in on the new 'slasher' craze"
What Doctor Who channeled in the 1980s
And here the tone of Doctor Who hit a problem. Star Wars-fever was proving too expensive a risk even for most movie studios, and moderate TV/theatrical releases such as Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers In The 25th Century were unable to retain the box-office momentum. Alien seemed a fluke, despite its low-rent imitators, and the budgetary excesses of John Barry's box-office bomb Saturn 3 did yet more to slow, or even kill the movie sci-fi boom.
Having suffered a decade of internal and external criticism for periods of excessive violence in the 1970s, Doctor Who could hardly cash in on the new 'slasher' craze started by Halloween and jet-boosted by Friday The 13th. Neither could it afford to ape the Indiana Jones franchise, the new action movies or any of the eclectic, big-budgeted blockbusters that Lucas and Spielberg had set in motion back in the 1970s. Visual effects were the new craze, and Who couldn't afford many decent ones. With landmark films like Tron and The Last Starfighter proving mere box-office curiosities, and Blade Runner only just beginning its long and slow crawl from a loss-making critical turkey to a profitable cult institution, sci-fi successes like Aliens proved the exception rather than the rule. And the Beeb couldn't afford that kind of thing anyway.
With historical outings such as Dragonslayer, Ladyhawke, Legend and Excalibur enjoying a brief flurry of activity, Who occasionally returned to its history-exploring roots, and the popularity of 20s/30s-set detective fiction made an impression too...
But nothing lasted in the culture - no trend prevailed except high budgets, big spectacle and grisly 'video nasties' that Doctor Who dare not even wink at. When it was frightening, Who got criticised (mainly by the BBC itself). When it toned down the violence, it was dismissed as boring - most often by the man who had the power of life and death over it, BBC controller Michael Grade. Grade looked back on the contempt he had for Doctor Who in Paul Merton's Room 101 in 2002; in the show, guests were invited to symbolically consign things they hate to oblivion, with Merton deciding whether such a fate was merited. Grade put Doctor Who up for destruction, saying:
"I thought [Doctor Who] was rubbish, I thought it was pathetic. I'd seen Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., and then I had to watch these cardboard things clonking across the floor trying to scare kids!"
"Unable to reflect what the 1980s was really about - sex, violence and high-budget spectacle - the show was cancelled in 1989"
The Master was a poor nemesis by comparison. Grade gave the show a controversial 18-month hiatus in 1985, and when it returned with Trial Of A Time Lord - which satirised the temporary cancellation - it was clear that Doctor Who had no trend available to it in culture that it could tap into as it had in its first two decades. Some of the Colin Baker/Sylvester McCoy stories were played for laughs, some for scares, some for whimsy. Quite a few for whimsy, really...
Whatever Who did, it just couldn't do anything right according to its masters. To boot, the fan-base was loyal but shrinking, compared to the great gatherings round the TV for Tom Baker's outings in the 1970s.
Unable to reflect what the 1980s was really about - sex, violence and high-budget spectacle - the show was cancelled in 1989.
Just as screen sci-fi was about to have its best decade since the 1950s.
And just as the Beeb, via the computer revolution, was about to become capable of providing affordable visual effects that weren't laughable.
The decade that Doctor Who slept through
In 1990 Robocop director Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall took the familiar high-violence actioner people had come to expect of Arnold Schwarzeneggar throughout the 1980s and mixed it with the mind-bending psychological sophistry of Philip K. Dick as interpreted by Alien writers Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett. It was violent, star-fuelled and explodey enough to guarantee box-office, but it was sci-fi. With a brain. Something was changing...
Over at ILM, Pixar and other VFX workshops the experimental 1980s work on CGI was morphing into a new and life-changing tool for movie-making at the same time as the home computer revolution began to make a realistic prospect of disseminating VFX techniques beyond the high-budget sphere. And at the same time that affordable 3D software such as Lightwave, Cinema4D and (the admittedly more up-market) Maya was populating low-budget TV space-operas such as Babylon 5 and Space: Above And Beyond with the kind of intense SF action that had cost a prohibitive fortune a decade earlier for the likes of Battlestar Galactica.
"I wish that they had let the show sleep through the 1980s instead of the 1990s, because that decade was Doctor Who's time"
Even the Beeb was finally getting in on the act with increasing motion-control work in the sci-fi sit-com Red Dwarf. In 1997, by which time the 1990s was well-established as a prominent decade for genuine science-fiction output (T2, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Strange Dayz, Demolition Man, Gattaca, Starship Troopers, Dark City, The Matrix, Species, Existenz etc etc etc), Red Dwarf returned as sci-fi dramedy, with effects that Doctor Who could only have dreamed of in its spit and sawdust days.
Yet all Who fans got was a pallid Canadian/UK pilot outing with Paul McGann as a disoriented Doctor skulking about dark bays and playing second fiddle to the usual North-American phalanx of zoo-cast characters. After a seven-year nap, The Doctor woke up in the middle of a boom-time for movie and TV sci-fi...
..and then went back to sleep again for nine years.
By the time he woke up again, under the auspices of Queer As Folk creator Russell T. Davies, the competition between Red Planet and Mission To Mars (apparently a competition to see who could kill the nineties sci-fi boom quickest and at the greatest expense) had long-cooled Hollywood's passion for 'real' sci-fi. Someone else was in charge. Well, a few someones, really...
And it's no surprise to see these characters also entering the new Who-sphere (in [damned] spirit, at least), as announced today....
In a way, if Steven Moffat's reign as Doctor Who producer does throw us the requisite number of hirsute wizards, vampires, huge teen casts and CGI dragons that Piers Wenger makes me fear it will, the show will actually be going back to its roots as it has never done (or been able to do) since the 1970s. Good sci-fi stories are extraordinarily hard to write, and it was always easier - and more pragmatic - for Doctor Who to reflect the zeitgeist of its era than to seek new seams of worthwhile sci-fi storytelling.
I just wish - so much - that they had let the show sleep through the 1980s instead of the 1990s, because that decade was Doctor Who's time; a time it had been waiting twenty-five years for; a time when genuine sci-fi ideas were saleable on the big and small screens.
This instead is the age of superheroes, goblins and profitable teen angst. And the sci-fi element in Doctor Who will continue to be - as it was for five years under Russell T. Davies - a lodger given cheap rent so long as the presidential suite is booked with the populist fancies of the moment.