3 years, 7 months ago
The consensus, for reasons thoroughly intelligible to basically everybody, is to pretend this doesn’t exist. Every other Doctor Who spinoff is celebrated. This… was difficult to even find a copy of. I have hunted down some freakishly obscure things in the course of my blogging career, and while this was in no way the hardest, it was still a lot harder than an entire television series based on Doctor Who that came out in the last decade seems like it should be. Similarly, what was the last time anyone mentioned this series? Clayton Hickman’s actually kind of marvelous turn as one of the judges on the “Companion Academy” feature comes up occasionally, and it’s the answer to the trivia question “why in the name of God does The Infinite Quest exist” (but more on that next season), but other than that the phrase “Totally Doctor Who” goes blissfully unmentioned.
So much so that I should probably discuss what it is. Totally Doctor Who was a CBBC… Christ, I actually probably have to describe that too. OK, so, launched in 2005, CBBC is a digital channel where the BBC now dumps most of their children’s programming. It is for the most part accurately described as a dumping ground, and ironically just spun its previous biggest hit Tracy Beaker Returns off into a show actually called The Dumping Ground, but in 2006 it became the destination for Doctor Who’s first spinoff, Totally Doctor Who. Totally Doctor Who was, in essence, a half-hour Blue Peter-style children’s magazine program about Doctor Who. Combining some regular features like “Companion Academy” (a reality competition to find the best would-be companion among a bunch of kids) and the absolutely mind-wrenchingly badly named “Who-Ru” trivia game with interviews and behind the scenes features, it’s…
Really, really bad. There are moments of entertainment to be had here - watching Noel Clarke attempt to be remotely convincing as he claims that the Doctor Who t-shirt he’s giving someone is his prized possession and not something he was handed just before he walked on stage. The dead-eyed stares with which former Blue Peter presenter Liz Barker and future one Barney Harwood present their appallingly badly scripted hosting. The entertaining conceit that the “bigger on the inside” filing cabinet that is recessed into a half-height wall such that it appears far shorter than any filing cabinet actually is might actually fool someone.
There are occasional moments of actual quality, in which you can see how well a children’s program about the making of Doctor Who could have worked, although to be honest it’s fairly rare that Doctor Who Confidential doesn’t seem like it could do the job better. David Tennant actually does quite well with his appearance. He has the decency to show up on Totally Doctor Who for an interview and treat it like a perfectly ordinary chat show, answering questions sent in by kids as perfectly ordinary interview questions worthy of thought and attention. In other words, he makes the completely accurate judgment that the best way to handle talking about Doctor Who for kids is to handle it the same as talking about Doctor Who for anyone else. Similarly charming is Tennant’s handling of the “Who-Ru” game, where he actually engages the kids playing and comes at it with genuine excitement. (It helps, presumably, that Tennant is a lifetime fan who is capable of thinking about how cool playing a trivia game hosted by the Doctor himself would actually be.)
The problem here, in essence, is that Totally Doctor Who gives every appearance of thinking its audience members are stupid. It's cynical and believes that they won't notice the complete lack of any effort or thought that has been done here. It's not just details like the fact that the judges in Companion Academy are obviously recorded separately from the actual competition, which is something that at least not every kid watching would notice. It's things like the fact that some of the answers to Doctor Who trivia questions they ask are actively wrong. In all seriousness - they ask what song Cassandra plays on the jukebox in The End of the World, and then declare that "Toxic" is the wrong answer because it's actually "Tainted Love." Or that they go for "Raxacoricofallapatorius" as their joke for who their most wanted guest was, ignoring the tiny little detail that Raxacoricofallapatorious is a planet, and that the joke they were looking for was "The Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe."
Because, apparently, who cares about getting tiny little things like the details about Doctor Who in a show aimed at Doctor Who fans. Nobody's going to notice, are they? (Spoken like someone who has never talked to a young Doctor Who fan in their life.)
The key moment is where Russell T Davies appears to answer kids’ questions about writing Doctor Who. Two things are interesting here. First, the kids are actually intelligent and are asking questions that show a meaningful engagement with the material practice of writing - things like how long it takes to write a script, and what the editing process is. For moments that give you a real sense that maybe, just maybe we’re not all going to kill ourselves in some appallingly preventable way, it’s tough to beat a young boy asking Davies if he’d ever have the Doctor regenerate into being a woman. Second, Davies is very good at answering their questions - he answers honestly but approachably. (Incidentally, Davies is all for a female Doctor. I also feel like I should make some comment about the eight-year-old who asks if the Yeti are coming back, but honestly, I’ve got nothing but a kind of stupid grin on my face.) He aggressively demystifies the process of writing, actively refusing to suggest that there’s anything different in how he gets his ideas and how a kid making up Doctor Who stories gets his.
And yet the segment ends with Russell T Davies looking as though he’s ready to punch Barney Harwood in the face for a typically lame joke about pronouncing “Raxacoricofallapatorious.” To be fair, the same segment offers the barest hint that maybe the presenters aren’t the problem here, as one of them also inserts a quite good question about whether Davies does any drawings of the monsters he designs, suggesting that the problem is on a larger level than the presenters (who presumably are at least decent at their jobs, that in theory being a requirement for being a Blue Peter presenter). To be honest, it seems like the program is fundamentally misconceived and mishandled, and like Davies knows it.
Davies actually ends up spending most of the episode demonstrating how he thinks the program should actually be. Davies replaces Barney Harwood for the “show off things people made out of the badly done massive filing cabinet” segment, and is actually quite charming and good at it, cheerily comparing the hand-drawn Doctor Who comics he’s looking at to what he did as a kid, and sheepishly admitting to accidentally decapitating the David Tennant biscuit someone sent in. (Davies then eats Tennant’s head and proclaims it quite good.) It’s clear Davies doesn’t object to the idea of the program (he could have presumably stopped it from existing if he did), but it’s also clear that he’s spectacularly unimpressed with how it’s being done and realizing that he can do much better.
Which isn’t surprising, because Russell T Davies is not an idiot, and, more to the point, is someone who cares tremendously about children’s television. This show must have absolutely enraged Davies. It’s everything he’d never want a show associated with Doctor Who to be. If nothing else, given Doctor Who’s status as a family program, creating a spin-off that is so witless as to be barely watchable to adults seems to miss the point. Surely the point of a children’s Doctor Who program ought to be in part to be another thing parents can watch with their kids, as opposed to something that kids might vaguely tolerate having on television if they’re really bored one afternoon. It’s everything that Davies, as someone who passionately advocates for the importance of intelligent children’s programming, must deplore.
For Davies’s part, he goes right off and creates his own children’s spin-off of Doctor Who, and we’ll cover it thoroughly when the time comes. But let’s pause for a moment and acknowledge the unseemly implications of Totally Doctor Who. Thus far we’ve not really gotten ornery about the glut of Doctor Who-related content that exists. On the other side of Series Two, in fact, we gave Attack of the Graske a pass on the grounds that it is a bit of fun for Christmas. But this is a thirteen-episode series meant to further engage kids with Doctor Who, and it seems to think that unfunny banter written by someone who it’s not entirely clear has ever watched the program is the way to accomplish this.
And it’s not, obviously. It’s the opposite of the way to accomplish this. Part of what’s so effective about the new series is that every episode has had a ton of thought put into it. Even when it fails miserably it doesn’t feel like something casually dashed off while drunk. Even Fear Her, for all that its plotting talked down to its audience, has moments of intelligence and charm. Totally Doctor Who seems actively opposed to either. It treats Doctor Who as a source of disposable crap - as a franchise or a property that needs to be milked for all that it’s worth, and is worthwhile only based on how much it can be milked.
It’s not necessarily the worst offender - I could get two thousand words trivially out of staring in horror at a variety of truly stupid bits of merchandise. But it might be the most cynical, in that there’s absolutely no reason for it to be bad. Clayton Hickman, who’s absolutely charming as one of the judges of “Companion Academy,” could no doubt have dashed out a better version of “children’s magazine program about Doctor Who” in his sleep. Any number of people could. It just would require someone with actual enthusiasm for the program (which explains why Tennant and Davies both sparkle in this setting). Instead we have something that’s made ostensibly made for people who are enthusiastic about the program, but is unfortunately made by people with no interests beyond “expanding the brand.” That it’s painful can hardly be called surprising, but what’s key is that it’s so unnecessarily painful - that it could have so easily been good if only anyone had wanted it to be.
Its failings expose deep issues within and without the BBC. On the one hand they’re a public service broadcaster that has a low-rated digital arm like CBBC for the sole reason that making programming for children is a good thing to do. On the other, they’re sufficiently underfunded that they have little choice but to strip-mine something like Doctor Who for every last dollar it can make. When you decide that part of the BBC’s mission is to do high production value adaptations of obscure 19th century literature with world class actors then unsurprisingly you end up with an organization that has a perverse incentive in how to handle the handful of things that actually do make money. And so you get a weird spectacle like Totally Doctor Who - a show that’s made out of good intentions and public service, but made in the most cynical way imaginable.
To the BBC’s credit, and particularly to Russell T Davies’s credit, this is a nadir. The decision to change course on how Doctor Who interacted with children was a good one, and in line with Davies’s general and laudable commitment to public service within Doctor Who. Most of the time things like Totally Doctor Who didn’t happen, and by any standard they happened less than one would expect or fear. That doesn’t excuse Totally Doctor Who, but it at least blunts the impact of its crappiness.
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