RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, extras 08 February 2016

As always, spoilers abound.

New Adventures and Big Finish

Between 1991 and 1997 Virgin Books produced the New Adventures, which were unabashedly not trying to be children's stories any more (some of the early ones have a distinct "ma's out, pa's out, let's talk dirt" feeling to them). In 1997 the BBC took back the book rights (though Virgin produced more books without the BBC characters), and produced its own series of Eighth Doctor Adventures and Past Doctor Adventures; it kept going until 2006.

Starting in 1999 Big Finish Productions released audio plays, originally on compact disc, with characters from the series voiced by their original actors (and increasingly new characters and new actors). Again, these weren't trying to be for kids.

I didn't read/listen to these at the time, and I gather quality is pretty variable even if you favour the dark/significant last couple of TV series that influenced them, so while I may write the occasional review I don't expect to attempt any sort of comprehensive survey. To me Doctor Who is basically a thing that exists on television. Even so, many of the writers here ended up working on the revived series.

Dimensions in Time (1993)

John Nathan-Turner's final production, in which he got to do things all his own way for the thirtieth anniversary special. For fans who had been hoping for a revival of the series, this was a slap in the face.

The 3D production technique used here relied on the Pulfrich effect, which requires constant movement in the visual field to generate the illusion of depth; even if the writers had wanted to make a serious Who story, they'd have needed to keep everything moving. (And this was in any case meant from the start to be a one-off piece to raise money for charity. Though so was The Five Doctors, and that had an actual story.)

So what's left is a bit of a rogue's gallery, often literally, as someone clearly had a good rootle through the BBC's props warehouse and dragged out anything that could be stuck in a window and have "rar" noises dubbed over it (and in fact a lot of them are fan-made costumes). No Daleks, because Terry Nation wouldn't play, and most of the companions only show up in a single shot. It's very reminiscent of The Five Doctors, in fact, in that it's mostly meaningless if you don't have memories of and associations with the Doctors, companions and monsters who are thrown briefly onto the screen here.

Rather oddly, it's the recent companions who look most different: Pertwee's, Davison's and Baker's Doctors, and Liz Shaw, Mel and Sarah Jane, all look pretty much as they did. Susan is obviously older but still clearly Susan. But Peri has changed quite a bit, and Nyssa is barely recognisable. (Romana 2 has aged rather better.) And oh, dear, what they did to Leela! Still, Louise Jameson did refuse to wear the original costume.

Like the records and the various unofficial parodies, this is a celebration of the idea of Doctor Who more than of the programme itself. So really they had to get Tom Baker back, if only very briefly and not really fitting in the story. In the end, this is entirely dispensable; if you insist, make it the version with production notes.

The TV Movie (1996)

This had a long and troubled production history, with various companies trying to buy the television rights and the BBC usually havering. The 1994 series would have been a reboot, for which the series bible

introduced the Doctor and the Master, who were half-brothers and both sons of the lost Time Lord explorer Ulysses, Barusa's son. When the evil Master became President of the Time Lords upon Barusa's death, the Doctor fled Gallifrey in a rickety old TARDIS to find Ulysses. Barusa's spirit became enmeshed in the TARDIS, enabling him to advise his grandson. The Doctor took the TARDIS to "the Blue Planet" -- Earth, his mother's native world -- to search for Ulysses.

Yes, well. Ultimately this episode ended up as a backdoor pilot, to be broadcast as a one-shot, which would go to series if it attracted enough viewers.

Even more than some of the late stories of the main series, this feels like a story put together by fans who want more of the cool stuff and less of the connective tissue that allows the cool stuff to make sense. How long was it after the start before Time Lords and Gallifrey were mentioned? But no, right here in the pilot we've got the Eye of Harmony, local time travel, and a threat to destroy the entire universe.

It's a very steampunk TARDIS, all of a sudden, with a bigger console room than had ever been possible before (even more of it was built but not used), and floor-to-ceiling pillars which would be echoed in the new series; at the same time it's an obvious echo of the series 14 wood-panelled "emergency control room". It really ought to appeal to me more than it does.

Then we're dropped into a random gang fight in Chinatown, that seems to exist mostly to produce a dramatic entrance for the Doctor, and his most bathetic reason for regeneration ever. (Not counting six to seven, which didn't have a reason at all.) And of course "you don't shock a flatline", which was a cliché even in 1996.

Grace would work better if she weren't so thoroughly becleavaged in her opening scenes; the hawt babe-ness of the companion should always be incidental, I think, or it seems forced. She's also got a bit of the Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully thing going in her mannerisms, which makes her seem (to me at least) too familiar too quickly – and her reversal from disbelief to belief is entirely driven by the plot rather than her character. Still, Ashbrook does a decent job with a fairly half-arsed role.

There's a lot of visual grammar from Terminator 2 here, in the entrance of the TARDIS, the CGI slime-snake-Master, and the way Bruce-the-Master dresses himself and acts. But it feels as though it's done by a heavy-handed amateur, as with the intercuts between Frankenstein and the Doctor's regeneration, or between the Doctor's looking for clothes and Chang Lee going through his possessions; or the smashed-up rainy hospital wing for the big dramatic "who am I" sequence. (Geoffrey Sax had actually been directing for nearly twenty years.)

(How did the Master get into the TARDIS the first time? He didn't have the key.)

Of course at the time my main objection was to the "half-human" thing (which never actually affects the plot) and the whole business with the Eye of Harmony. These days I wonder why any old human eye is able to open the Eye. I didn't have as much trouble with the sexual tension with Grace to which many fans objected, but I should have known better considering what it led to in the revived series. Really, one should be amazed at how closely this manages to stick to original continuity, rather than objecting to how it varies. But then, this is in spirit another fan production that needs to sight-check a sonic screwdriver, jelly babies, and so on, without ever really understanding why they're there; they're just used as a way to please the fans who will recognise them. The resurrection of Grace and Chang Lee is the capstone to all this: because if that could be done for them, why not for all the other people who've died either in this one programme or in the show's entire history?

For me the narrative problem with the bike/ambulance chase isn't so much that it's a road chase (ahem, Day of the Daleks and Planet of the Spiders), it's that it's a road chase that's entirely conventional, that could fit in any old TV series or film with a big enough budget (particularly Terminator 2 again). Similarly, comic-relief Pete the pudgy morgue guy, and even more so Professor Wagg, are utterly generic stock characters, a sign of lazy script-writing. (So's the scrappy kid sidekick, I think.) Having the Doctor discovering himself is perhaps not bad as a way of giving new viewers some idea of what's going on, but having him not know for basically the first half of the show means it's all a bit aimless, not to mention cutting down on McGann's time establishing himself in the role.

Unfortunately the programme was broadcast in the USA during May sweeps, when the competition is fiercest, and ended up with audience figures well below what would be needed for a series (having almost no promotion didn't help). Fox decided to go with season three of Sliders rather than this, and I can't say they were wrong to do so; in the end this is just the same bland mediocre sci-fi TV that Sliders mostly was, only much more expensive to produce.

Numbers were better in the UK, but without an American production partner the BBC had no interest in putting up all the money for a new series.

I can't really think of Grace as a companion; if I did I'd have to count Chang Lee too. In that case I'd probably put her between Jamie and Nyssa, and Chang Lee between Katarina and Kamelion (in spite of his best efforts he's not as annoying as Adric).

The Curse of Fatal Death (1999)

Holy crap. This is the bridge. This is where Steven Moffatt laid out everything he was going to do if he got to play with the show for real, and everyone said "har har, breasts, snogging, vibrator". (Though after Dimensions in Time and the TV Movie I can see why it was viewed a bit more favourably than if one came to it cold.)

There's the casual reference to forgotten details in order to let the old fans feel as though they've been catered for. (The planet Tersurus from The Deadly Assassin). There's the endless parade of sex and bodily function jokes, and companion romance. There's the speech about how amazing and wonderful the Doctor is. There's endless doubletalk about time travel. And most of all, massed emotion trumps any sort of consistency or script logic.

In fact if you blend this with Survival you pretty much end up with the template for new Who, particularly Moffat-era Who, just as my watching of old Who has come to an end.

All three of these "extra" episodes, all by different hands, to my mind show up the problem with having fans working on the show: they lose sight of the distinction between "flaws are inevitable, so we accept them, cover them as best we can, and move on" (as the original production team would have done) and "flaws are an intrinsic part of the fun and need to be emphasised" (which puts off people who aren't dedicated fans in a way that mere technical failures can't).

The eternal error of the dedicated fan is to fill in every blank space and remove room for speculation.

Final thoughts

Wow.

I'm writing this on the evening of 25 December 2015. I don't remember exactly when, or why, I decided to start this re-watch; I know I wrote my first series recap in December 2011. That was the year of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, when Amy Winehouse and Kim Jong-Il died.

It was also the year Lis Sladen died, but I don't think that's what kicked me off. It might have been related to my increasing disenchantment with new Who; I'd been plugging along for a while, but I found Matt Smith quite literally unpleasant to watch and basically stopped at that point.

My memories of the show before I started this were roughly of series 14 to 21 and hazy bits later on, though as a child I devoured the Target novelisations and had a good idea of the content of stories I'd never actually seen. (The pictures in my head were much better than the real thing, but that's always the way.) There haven't, therefore, been many narrative surprises as I went through this lot except for some of the later stories that I had entirely forgotten, and I was able to concentrate on the performances and how well the plot was conveyed by what was actually broadcast, rather than what was laid out at greater length in the book.

The great thing about doing this re-watch has been the ability to see the stories in context, such as the ebbs and flows of whether they were mostly set on contemporary Earth or mostly on alien worlds, and whether the companion role was filled by single or multiple people. Pick a story at random and you can't say whether a particular thing was standard at the time or being done differently to make a point, and I certainly found I appreciated stories I'd previously seen in isolation, such as The Krotons or Carnival of Monsters, more when I saw what came before and afterwards.

I've enjoyed McCoy's stories more this time than I did last, and I've particularly liked the rediscovery of Troughton (what's left of his episodes). I haven't undergone any major revisions of feeling; I still have little time for Davison or Colin Baker, but Ace has climbed up my companion ranking and I'm amazed in retrospect that Zoe and Barbara ended up on the top spots.

There have been times when I thought about dropping it, but they were all after Tom Baker had left, and by then I'd covered the majority of the material anyway.

I would recommend this experience to any Who enthusiast; it's left me with a much greater appreciation for the limits of budget and technical capability, and in spite of everything an abiding love for what the show can do when things come together.

And that's it. Maybe the occasional Big Finish or New Adventure, but for the show itself: I'm done.

(If you want my thoughts on the revival, buy me beer.)


  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:12pm on 08 February 2016

    I've only seen the TV movie out of these three, and I share some of your views about it. It felt like it was trying to put other films into Dr. Who and pander to the US audience.

    Well Moffat is leaving, but we have to wait another series which is more than a year away to be rid of him.

    Maybe it's time I watched some of Troughton, my memories start part way through Pertwee's doctor.

  2. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:07pm on 08 February 2016

    Thank you for doing that. I won't buy you a beer to encourage you to talk about NuWho but I might in thanks for having gone all the way through the old.

    Yeah, there is a lot of proto-NuWho in The Curse of Fatal Death. I don't mind all of it but 'Oh, Doctor you are the most wonderful person in the cosmos' gets up my nose now. Say it once, I can take it as a tribute to a much loved series. Include it in the re-make... Tcha!

    The new writer has whaffled on about how Yoooge a fan he is. Perhaps that is now the Obligatory Thing To Say.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 09:20am on 09 February 2016

    Owen - those are youtube links, so you can watch the other two yourself if you want to.

    Michael - I feel that the "Most Wonderful Person Ever" speech is something you can get away with once. If that.

    The new writer came up with Countrycide, Cyberwoman and 42. I don't hold out much hope, and I think it's a great shame that an actor as competent as Capaldi should have had such a lousy showrunner.

    It would seem pretty strange if the new writer said "I never really liked the show as a kid, but it's a job and I'm going to do my best at it" - even though that's exactly the attitude I'd like to see. Or even "it's had good and bad patches, and it's reinvented itself every time a new team came in, and I'm going to carry on that tradition".

  4. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:49pm on 09 February 2016

    I'm not sure how good the new showrunner is as a writer is particularly relevant. Moffat wrote some of the better early nuwho episodes, but has been a considerably poorer showrunner. So the two skills aren't entirely correlated in my mind.

  5. Posted by RogerBW at 03:07pm on 09 February 2016

    The amount which the showrunner writes, while also running the show, is also a factor. In the latter days of the old series, the script editor could get away with one story out of six or so as well as uncredited polishing jobs on some of the others, and the producer generally wasn't a writer at all. Now there's one person doing both jobs (plus an executive producer or two, but it's not clear how much involvement they have), and writing or co-writing around half the scripts. It's not surprising if the whole thing falls apart a bit.

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