The Doctor Who Column: Repeat when necessary
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We've been here before. But are we still eager to come here again..?
I'm always experiencing Déjà vu these days. Like the other day I visited a lovely Cornish pub for a cosy meal with my wife Ally, and yet all of a sudden I had this notable feeling that I'd been there before. No word of warning, and then BAM! It was like I'd suddenly realised that I'd been a patron of this lovely olde worlde pub in another life. Back in the 1800s, I was probably one of those poor scribes clamouring for a slice of bread, slab of cheese and lots of ale in return for a dreary recital of my latest meisterwork. The pub would have seen a mass exodus of people, leaving me to mop the floor with my upturned head.
Still, this Déjà vu can extend to the telly - the problem with modern British TV is that these days, there seems to be more repeats than ever before on the goggle box. Dad's Army? Yup, seen that one before. The three CSI alternatives? Great shows, but they always seem to have the same episodes on these days. Perhaps the laziest form of unwelcome repeats is the seemingly non-stop drivel that is Come Dine With Me. Not only that, but I swear that they're repeating the same old boring episodes virtually every week - or maybe it's just that once you've seen one small group of loud, boorish, attention-seeking morons, you've seen them all. Blimey, even the same old Friends episodes were on less than this.
One notable absentee from the repeat crowd is curiously Doctor Who - or to be more precise, what they call Classic Who. Classic Who - for all new Whobies - refers to the original run of tales from 1963 to 1989 before the BBC cruelly brought the axe down. NuWho (2005 to the present day) gets more exposure, in that there's a handy channel called BBC3, a repository for such greats as Snog? Marry? Avoid? and Hotter Than My Daughter - fortunately, the good BBC3 channel saw fit to balance out this shallow nonsense with regular repeat runs of all the recent Doctors.
But is now the time for a repeat run of all the old stuff as well? Given that next year is the 50th anniversary of the series, is it time to unleash the Eleven Faces Of Doctor Who onto the country? Many moons ago, the BBC decided to bridge the gap between the 18th and 19th seasons by broadcasting The Five Faces Of Doctor Who, a short repeat season that looked back at a sample choice of adventures from each previous Doctor. If you were a young Doctor Who fan in 1981, this was a season not to be missed, and for me anyways, it was a real eye-opener in that I hadn't realised that other actors had played The Doctor. Ever since I'd first tuned into the show in 1979, I'd always assumed that Doctor Who was all about a tall, goggle-eyed, curly haired genius in a long scarf. So to find out that a grumpy old man, a funny little hobo - and best of all, Worzel Gummidge had played The Doctor, well - revelation.
Retrospective repeat seasons have had mixed fortunes on the BBC. After the Five Faces season, we had Doctor Who And The Monsters, boasting popular monsters such as Ice Warriors, Daleks and Cybermen, and again, it was a runaway hit. When Doctor Who was off the air in the early 1990s, BBC2 compensated by digging into the archives for more choice cuts. The ploy initially worked well with long-unseen gems such as The Sea Devils and a recolourised copy of The Daemons making it to the small screen. Problem was, the repeats started to put people off, considering that Genesis Of The Daleks and The Caves Of Androzani were readily available back in 1993. Two all-time greats I'll grant you, but the dropping viewing figures suggested that most of the fans already had the videotapes in their possession (and Genesis had already been repeated in 1975 and in the 1982 Monsters season). There was a mini season of repeats in late 1993 and 1994, when the final two Jo Grant stories were aired - Planet Of The Daleks was chosen as the 30th anniversary repeat (complete with five-minute vignettes about notable Who elements such as UNIT and the TARDIS). Following a graveyard slot on Sunday lunch (when people were either tucking into Sunday roasts or nursing hangovers), a half-hearted repeat of Pyramids Of Mars wasn't the best choice, given that the story had only been released on video in unedited form only weeks before.
Perhaps the greatest opportunity missed was the ambitious plan to repeat the colour era of Doctor Who in its entirety from late 1999. I remember smelling a rat already at the time - mainly because I was working in TV listings for a living, and by then, I knew that the BBC could change its plans on a sixpence. Unsurprisingly, I remembered how after Doctor Who And The Silurians had gone down like a lead balloon, I was disappointed to read that the Beeb had bypassed the next 25 stories to move straight on to the umpteenth repeat of Genesis Of The Daleks. And I was even more disappointed when I had to amend the planned listing for Revenge Of The Cybermen in March 2000. Amendments were annoying enough at the best of times, but this one really stung, given that the BBC had thrown away a golden opportunity in favour of worrying excessively about ratings.
So with that in mind, would a repeat season of The Eleven Faces work today? Well, there are three factors that could work against it, which are as follows:
The BBC must make sure that all the actors involved are happy with the plan to show their past glory on TV again: plus they need to be paid a small fee - with 11 sets of adventures, that adds up to a lot of money.
The DVD Age
Back in 1981, part of the appeal of the Five Faces Of Doctor Who was that there were no previous stories on video. It would take a further two years to issue old stories on video, and even then, the prices were exorbitant. The only way you could enjoy an old Who adventure was to read one of the adapted novels by Uncle Terrance and the small crack team of Who authors. So to get a repeat season was a big reward for ardent fans.
Now though, young whipper-snappers have it too easy. Practically every story is available on DVD, so if they save up their pocket money enough, they can snap up some classic adventures for a bargain price on Amazon or Play. The novelty factor for repeats just ain't there any more.
Yesterday and Today
Perhaps the biggest threat is the way in which modern-day audiences try and get their heads around the way in which older TV programmes were made. Today, most programmes are on super-glossy film. Back then, there was the (rather cosy) cut between film and videotape. To be honest, this never bothered me, but for some, it's like that 1970 Monty Python sketch when Graham Chapman leaves a party interior to go outside and realise that he's on film. It may be jarring, but that was just the standard way in which TV was made in those days.
Another big difference between today's TV and yesterday's is that there's more emphasis today on quick, scattergun storytelling. Modern Who is seen as faster and pacier, whereas older Who was sometimes prone to long, talky sequences. I saw The Time Monster the other day for a giggle, and realised how much of it was taken up by long sequences of either plot exposition or talky cod-Shakespeare two-handers (the Galleia argument with She-Man Hippias is perhaps the most laughable example). Quite what modern-day audiences would make of that - well, I just don't know. Would they be more forgiving?
And of course, it's assumed that modern day audiences wouldn't tolerate ropey effects such as men in cuddly hamster costumes, sock puppet Skarasens or hand-puppet Bandril ambassadors.
But maybe I'm wrong. It seems that there are plenty of young fans out there who are willing to overlook poor effects and talky scenes and accept Classic Who for what it is. It seems that as long as you have a good, decent story to tell and a clutch of experienced, reliable actors to make that story convincing, then the job's done. And fortunately, most Classic Who adventures stand up well today, with that in mind.
OK, so I'd bet that there should be some sort of repeat season in 2013. It would be a perfect nostalgia trip for both casual and dedicated fans, and the perfect introduction for any newcomer to the party. But if the Eleven Faces Of Doctor Who does materialise, what to pick? How do you pick a good cross-section of stories that will appeal to all ages and all tastes? Bear in mind, the number of episodes too (e.g.: The War Games is an all-time great, but would modern audiences stick around for all 10 episodes?), and which time slots are available. The best bet is to go for a 90-minute adventure, which can be spread maybe over the weekend in two blocks (this way, the modern-day stories wouldn't need to be cut into four parts) - for Classic Who stories, you could just transmit two sets of episodes back to back. With all that in mind, here are my suggestions.
First Doctor - The Aztecs (1964)
A historical may be off-putting to some, but there's still enough relevance to modern-day audiences in that the crux of the plot revolves around Barbara's attempts to change history. Given in mind how recent plots revolve around the perils of changing history, it's a good one to kick off the season of repeats. The First Doctor isn't as abrasive as he is in An Unearthly Child, and his romantic misunderstandings with Cameca afford for many comedy highlights. Tlotoxl's a memorable baddie for kids to impersonate in the playground, and there's also much amusement to be had in the way that Ixta can't say “Ian” properly. A good, well-designed example of the Hartnell years.
Second Doctor - The Tomb Of The Cybermen (1967)
Perhaps the only one to be chosen for the Second Doctor. Process of elimination means that there aren't that many Troughton four-parters anyway - four of them are incomplete or missing entirely, and the other complete four-part story is about two overgrown jukeboxes with Brummie accents. So The Tomb Of The Cybermen it is then.
Admittedly there's causes for concern with this story, such as the iffy treatment of Toberman, the dummy Cyberman and the pantomime dame antics of Klieg and Kaftan, but there's still much to enjoy in this creepy classic. Many scares for the kids such as the blank-eyed Cybermen, the first classic monster in my proposed repeat season, at their emotionless, all-powerful best. And also Troughton on top form here, whether he's duping the expedition into thinking that he's a harmless fool (when in fact, he could out-think smart-arse logic geek Klieg in one second) or whether he's quietly welcoming Victoria as a full-time companion in a very touching scene.
Third Doctor - Terror Of The Autons (1971)
I've chosen this one for three reasons. One, it includes another iconic monster - this time, it's the creepy Autons, patrolling the streets of London in weird carnival masks and handing out free flowers to wrinkly-handed grannies. Two, the story totally lives up to the mantra of sending kids behind the sofa, and in this case, they won't even have that comfort after they've seen what happens to curmudgeonly old git McDermott. The chair. The bug-eyed doll. The policeman. And that's just in Episode Two.
The other reason I've chosen this is because it introduces two notable mainstays of Doctor Who - the ever-brilliant Jo Grant, seen recently on The Sarah Jane Adventures, so kids can see that she was just as scatty but endearing back in the day; and of course, The Master, seen in this adventure as a suave but highly dangerous adversary, played to perfection by Roger Delgado.
Fourth Doctor - The Robots Of Death (1977)
Choosing the Fourth Doctor story is the hardest task, given that there's so many classics to choose from. City Of Death is a tempting proposition, given its ready wit and timey-wimey pre-empting, but in the end, I've gone for an adventure that represents the Golden Age Of Doctor Who.
Yes, The Robots Of Death, one of the classics of the Hinchcliffe age, and one of the all-time classics of Who, period. Part of the reason that I've gone for this one is because it maintains the scares of Terror Of The Autons, and even outdoes them with the terrifying Voc Robots advancing impassively on their over-privileged victims.
The superb direction from Michael E Briant could stand up in today's reboot, with many classy shots and inspired video effects, such as the Robot POVs and their fizzy red eyes. In fact, this has something for everyone - scares for the kids, much wit for the adults (a tie between the “Inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain” or “Please do not throw hands at me” for the best lines), and of course, Leela in a chamois leather bikini for the blokes.
Fifth Doctor - Snakedance (1982)
Part of Doctor Who's appeal is that there's lots of different types of story to be had. So how about a more cerebral story that still manages to entertain and terrify kids at the same time?
OK, maybe Snakedance is a bit out of left field, considering that it's a sequel. Would audiences have trouble working out what's going on? I don't think so. There's enough background info to fill in the blanks from what happened on Deva Loka, and the sequel tells a story in its own right, as the brain-dead, pampered masses prepare to celebrate a sham of a ceremony.
I've also tried to include stories that portray each Doctor the way that people tend to remember them. So in Snakedance, we get the apex of the Fifth Doctor's youthful vulnerability in that not many people tend to take him too seriously - in Snakedance, it's really only Chela that takes notice of what The Doctor has to say.
It's a well-directed, thoughtful story with some well-known faces (Martin Clunes, Jonathan Morris, Brian Miller) - I think this one would go down well.
Sixth Doctor - Vengeance On Varos (1985)
Chosen mainly for its relevance to how TV is programmed today (also, see my next choice) with its Big Brother-style emphasis on viewer voting and narcissistic TV programming.
OK, so maybe there's one or two ropey bits of acting, and maybe this Doctor is just a tad self-absorbed and over-zealous in this adventure, but again, uncompromising is probably the way in which most viewers remembered the Sixth Doctor. On the up side, it's a well-written adventure, it contains a marvellously revolting alien in the form of Sil, and it also boasts Madge from Benidorm, passing judgement on the third-rate entertainment unfolding before her eyes.
Seventh Doctor - The Greatest Show In The Galaxy (1988)
Again, as with the previous entry, Greatest Show still makes for relevant viewing today - whether or not The X Factor will limp drearily on into 2013 is anybody's guess (here's hoping that the recent poor viewing figures for the opening salvos of the latest series are a sign that people are bored rigid of this freak show), but the gaudy talent show is nicely pre-empted in this stylish scary tale that's probably one of the best-remembered McCoy stories. Both The Doctor and Ace are on top form here, with The Doctor moving into his Cosmic Manipulator phase and Ace displaying her more vulnerable side when it comes to clowns. It's very well directed, has enough oddball characters to entertain and hey- there's even a 1980s werewolf.
Eighth Doctor - The TV Movie (1996)
Well - self-explanatory really. The only McGann story made for TV, so like it or lump it, folks.
Ninth Doctor - The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (2005)
It's a Moffat story! Made in the halcyon days of the Christopher Eccleston era. It's a good one for fans of Moffat's vision, taking in thoughtful conundrums, playground-friendly catchphrases and Everybody Lives. It's also very well written, funny and also expertly brought to the screen by James Hawes.
Out of all the Eccleston stories, it's probably the best remembered. It's the equivalent of The Sea Devils or The Daemons sparking off childhood memories among Who fans, so with this story's creepy gas mask people and Victor Meldrew's gruesomely mutating head, this will be the one that 2005 kids will talk about in 2025.
Tenth Doctor - The Stolen Earth/Journey's End (2008)
Yeah, there are better stories to be had in the Tennant years. Yeah, there's zero subtlety to be had here. Yeah. Murray's Pompous Choir have evidently had one too many cups of coffee in this one. But given that a possible 2013 repeat run celebrates 50 years, then what better party is there than Stolen End?
It has the Daleks and Davros, of course, and no repeat season should be without either. Then you have practically all of the familiar faces from the Tennant era, from Rose going all pouty at an intergalactic Skype, through Martha and her “What Do We Do With Her This Time?” subplot through to the poignant temporary departure of Donna. Factor in all the other familiar faces such as Sarah Jane, Jack, Mickey, Jackie, Harriet and of course, the Legend That Is Cribbins, and you have one hell of a party. There's even two Tennants for the price of one.
Eleventh Doctor - The Time Of Angels/Flesh And Stone (2010)
The Eleventh Doctor stories are a bit of a problem, considering that many of the two-parters are entwined with the ongoing Story Arc. If you tried to watch The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang on its own, for example, you'd need to do a lot of homework beforehand.
So The Time Of Angels/Flesh And Stone is probably the easiest of the 90-minute tales (although of course, there's the mystery of The Crack to deal with in the final part). It's also got familiar mainstays River Song and the creepy Weeping Angels, who now have the power to move out of TV. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are on good form here, belying the fact that this was their first proper story before the cameras.
And you can also chuckle at the sound of Sacred Bob's supremely boring monotone voice. Let's just hope that if the BBC repeat this one, they leave out the Graham Norton cartoon, eh?
So there's my take on which stories would make good candidates for a repeat run. Whether or not we'll see The Eleven Faces Of Doctor Who remains to be seen, but such a season would undeniably make for a great introduction to potential Who converts and the perfect way to celebrate 50 golden years.
And now over to your suggestions...
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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