The Doctor Who Column: Did Harry Potter save 'Doctor Who'?
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Did the Boy Wizard work his magic on an extinct sci-fi series..?
Filming on the new series of Doctor Who has started, and already the reports are trickling in about who's lining up to be in Who. And guess what, two Harry Potter alumni have signed on the dotted line, namely Mark Williams (who played Ronald Weasley's dad) and David Bradley, AKA perma-surly, scraggly mullet head caretaker Argus Filch, a chap who finds it physically impossible to crack a smile.
These two acting giants add to the list of Harry Potter actors in the last couple of years – Toby Jones. Helen McRory. Michael Gambon. Don't forget David Tennant. Give it a couple of years and Daniel Radcliffe will be cast as the 12th Doctor. All this Potter casting got me thinking though – could the popularity of the Harry Potter series have helped the renaissance of Doctor Who back in the early Noughties?
Now at this point I'll confess, I'm not a huge, massive Harry Potter aficionado. I was a bit of a sceptic when the books and films first came out. But over the years, I've seen the films and by and large, I've been impressed. The immature kid in me was taken by the big scale of it all, the adventure, not to mention the cool special effects. It's not all been perfect – I hated the fourth film, the one with the goblet of fire, which for me was one great big pot pourri of bad haircuts and teenage angst. When I went to see the film, the cinema screen actually broke out in great big oily blackheads, that's how bad it got. The sixth film too was for me, personally, not that great either, being little more than a lengthy way to mark time before the big finale. But hey, what do I know? These two instalments have their admirers, so I'm in no position to judge their merits. Especially when I have to resort to laughing at the bad haircuts (seriously though, in The Goblet Of Fire, they're laughable).
But by and large, these films are a modern marvel. They're action packed. They're generally cast well. They manage to keep you on the edge of your seat.
"In jolly old Britain, in the mid-1990s, home-grown sci-fi and fantasy programmes were all but extinct"
So what's this got to do with a wandering Time Lord, I hear you cry..? Well, I'm sat here remembering how Doctor Who really had hit its lowest ebb back in 1996/1997 (you can do the wibbly wobbly harp flashback if you wish). The TV movie had at that point been Doctor Who's last chance – the general feeling was that if it didn't hit the mark, then that was it: no comeback. And of course, despite perfectly adequate ratings both in Britain and in the USA, it still failed to strike a chord with the programme makers. The BBC, at that time, didn't seem to care for the programme, given that it was too busy trying to find new and uninspired ways of appealing to the lowest common denominator.
Back then, the whole big genre of science fiction, science fantasy, magic etc, was just dismissed as a minority sport. It wasn't cool enough. It wasn't 'with it' and happening enough. It was the sad little speccy kid plonked in the corner while the cool kids lobbed wet paper balls at the hapless chap's head. Admittedly, in America, fare such as Twin Peaks and The X-Files kept the cult torch burning, but in jolly old Britain, in the mid-1990s, home-grown sci-fi and fantasy programmes were all but extinct.
So when JK Rowling put pen to paper, somehow the end results struck a chord when they were published in the summer of 1997. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone went from being a monster hit through to a worldwide sensation. And all of a sudden, the speccy kid in the corner with wet paper in his hair became the unlikely hero of the day. More books were demanded, and by the turn of the century, the books were now about to be turned into films, therefore cementing the real demand for escapist fantasy. By 2003, we'd had two blockbuster films, with another in the can for summer 2004. The Harry Potter films were now the talk of every town and every playground across the globe.
Now I'm not saying that the revival of Doctor Who is solely down to the popularity of Harry Potter films, but you've got to agree that the BBC now finally admitted that there was room for this special kind of fantasy escapism on TV. So when Russell T Davies, after years of constant persuasion, finally found that his persistence paid off, in 2003, a new series of Doctor Who was finally given the green for go signal. The market was definitely there for this sort of TV programme, and sure enough, Doctor Who is just as much a global phenomenon as Harry Potter today. And thinking about it some more, both franchises have a lot in common too. Consider the facts...
- The central hero's an outsider
Neither the Doc nor Harry are conventional heroes. They're both what you might call outsiders. Harry's portrayed as an outsider at times because of his special status as the kid who can defeat baldy meanie Voldemort. So in some cases, there are times when he's turned against by the other Hogwarts kids. In The Order Of The Phoenix, he's lambasted for his claims that Voldemort is back and in big business (as Cornelius Fudge tries to stifle these claims and pass them off as malicious rumour). He's constantly hectored by snivelling brat Malfoy, who, in the early days, spends more time trying to give Harry a hard time than doing any work. Harry seems to be on the outside looking in – his special status is a double-edged sword in that while he can save the day, at times, he finds it harder to live an ordinary life.
Ditto The Doctor. He may manage to save the day, but he can never seem to live an ordinary life. A long-lasting relationship passes him by, especially as he finds with Rose (who has to make do with a second-hand Doctor copy rather than the real thing). His companions drift in and out of his life like snow. And it's not as if he gets any real recognition for his heroics – maybe a quick burst of applause and cheering from time to time (see The Next Doctor). It's a pretty lonely life that The Doctor leads – that's the price he pays for being a hero.
- The central hero's not your average cliché
One's a speccy, slightly-built kid. One's a bloke who thinks that the apex of cool is a bow tie.
Harry and The Doctor do not conform to the traditional stereotype of the hero. They're not cool or hip or have tendencies for macho posturing. They're so far apart from the norm of the Captain Kirks and James Bonds and Angels that they become little specks on the horizon. The Doctor has, in his time, been a wrinkly, angry crumbly, a shouty, multicoloured anti-hero, and a socially awkward, bow-tie wearing chap. His dress sense would probably be ripped to shreds by any fashion guru from Gok Wan to Nicky Hambleton Jones. Scarves, cricket garb, bouffant haircuts – even sideburns would be singled out for criticism, and I suspect that even the bow tie would be consigned to the dustbin. So personality-wise and fashion-wise, the good Doctor is not your traditional hero to the rescue.
"Now it seems that every young chap these days seems to go around in glasses – even when they have 20/20 vision"
And then there's Harry. It's not every day that a geeky four-eyes is the saviour of the human race. Now when I was growing up as a little five-year-old with great big Eric Morecambe bins and a pudding bowl afro, Harry Potter would have been badly needed. Now it seems that every young chap these days seems to go around in glasses – even when they have 20/20 vision. Good old Harry has shown that small, nerdy kids can be bigger champions than the gel-headed muscly cool kids in town. Unconventional hero? You bet your life.
- The Morecambe And Wise Factor
John Nathan Turner, I think, once compared Doctor Who to The Morecambe And Wise Show in that both programmes managed a high degree of pulling power when it came to big star names. The Morecambe And Wise shows always used to bring in famous newsreaders doing bad dance routines or barking about dames, famous actresses carrying on like Cleopatra or your average singer recruiting Eric and Ern as substitute backing vocalists.
Ditto Doctor Who and Harry Potter. Both franchises have that unerring knack for bringing in big name guest stars. A lot of the time, the actors always claim that it earns them several kudos points with their kids or young relatives. And no matter what, whether it's Richard Harris as Dumbledore, Alan Rickman as Snape or Derek Jacobi as The Master, the big name thesps always go for it with 100% conviction.
Even those who started out as lesser names have gone on to huge things since. Tom Baker – well, you know the story: from building site labourer to arguably the most popular Time Lord of all. Matt Smith – a relative unknown in 2009 and now in 2012, he is frequently turning up in as many headlines as you can shake a Sunday Sun at. The three leads of Harry Potter have all become bankable names – Rupert Grint, in particular could hold a very promising future as a great comic actor. Check out his hilarious turn in Wild Target as a bumbling hit-man protégé for proof.
- Playground talk
A good gauge of success with these sorts of franchises is how much they're talked about by kids. Both Harry Potter and Doctor Who command that awe-struck back-chat in the playgrounds on Monday morning. Did you see the latest Harry Potter film? When's the new Doctor Who coming back? Bet you didn't hide your eyes from the scary bits...
And that's another thing: Both franchises are designed to scare kids in that creepy, other-worldly way. Harry Potter has its soul-sucking, eerie Dementors, which presumably led lots of kids burying their heads in popcorn buckets. There's also that weird double-headed teacher in the first film. Or a great big spider called Aragog in the second. And on top of that, a lot of the characters always come to memorably sticky ends, whether it's the aforementioned teacher crumbling to dust or (mercifully) Cedric Diggory, the charisma-free, walking plank of wood, getting blasted into oblivion. Scary childhood fears. Hard-hitting deaths. Sound familiar?
And don't forget the merchandise factor. Both franchises are gold-mines, spawning toys and action figures. Just like in the good old days with the Star Wars figures and spaceships. And how cool is it that several of the Classic Who characters are now available in the shops?
- Good Vs Evil
When it comes down to it, both Doctor Who and Harry Potter champion that very basic moral code of Good Triumphing Over Evil. It's a very simple notion that dates back to centuries-old fairy tales. And in today's day and age, where that moral code looks in danger of becoming blurred (thanks to online bullying, superficial lifestyles depicted as a good thing, earning huge amounts of money as a poor reward for either no work or badly-done work etc etc), it's a relief to see that these two examples define what's right and wrong.
Both franchises pit the hero against very vivid baddies: Harry's up against Voldemort and his motley band of followers, while The Doctor's got a whole long list of enemies enough to fill 10 contact books. But there's a very vivid line between Good and Bad. And while it's never easy opposing the bad guy or gal or thing (the central hero always finds himself losing friends or even lives along the way), in the end, the struggle always pays off, since either Harry or The Doctor triumph over evil. I would do the whole He-Man Big Moral At The End thing, but you'd be better off either hiring or buying one of the DVDs to see for yourself.
So cheers Harry. And cheers Doctor. You've entertained a whole new generation of kids and big kids (like me), and the vast catalogue of books and DVDs will doubtless keep future generations entertained for many more years to come.
John Bensalhia is a freelance journalist who has extensively written for more than 10 years on subjects such as franchising, ports, Italy, DIY, tractors, sports and arboriculture. Not to mention reviews for Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, which he's been a fan of ever since he was a little kid.
When not writing, John likes drumming, guitar strumming, cycling, cartoon drawing, pre-1990s music and animals. He lives with his lovely wife Alison and many guinea pigs. Catch some of John's work or get in contact through his website at www.johnbensalhia.co.uk.
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