Outside the Government 4 (The Dark Dimension, Dimensions in Time, [More than] Thirty Years in the TARDIS)

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When I turned thirty about a month ago, I comforted myself with the fact that it wasn’t possible to have turning thirty be more depressing for me than it had been for Doctor Who. If the ten anniversary had been a manic burst of glam with a dash of William Blake and the twentieth a banal but more or less inoffensive litany of the show’s past, the thirtieth was a gi?. Even the official thirtieth anniversary logo had a whiff of the funerary, 1993 seeming penciled in by some BBC executive optimistic that it might be time at last to bury this whole embarrassing spectacle for once and for all. For the fortieth anniversary, at least, we got an announcement that the show would be back on the air in two years. For the thirtieth we got an almost tangible absence - an anniversary that was observed but not celebrated. That is not to say, however, that there was absolutely nothing Doctor Who related on television. There were three Doctor Who television projects, in fact, two of which actually happened.

We’ll start with the big absence, The Dark Dimension. The commissioning and production process on this is a complex mess, with a variety of reasons given for why the project failed. Its writer and primary hype engine, Adrian Rigelsford, is a controversial figure to say the least. He’s primarily a writer of non-fiction books about popular culture, but he’s been subject to no shortage of accusations of things like fabricating quotes and interviews, including a fraudulent “Stanley Kubrick’s final interview.” He’s also, you know, been to jail over stealing photos from the Daily Mail picture library and selling them, which, given that it’s the Mail, actually may make him more of a folk hero. Regardless, it means that it’s enormously difficult to get at anything that could fairly be called the “truth” about this production.

Some things are relatively easily established. The script, for instance, has leaked, and we’ll talk about it shortly. It appears that Rigelsford managed to get BBC Enterprises, the arm of the BBC that handled commercial material, to sign off on a direct-to-video Doctor Who story for the thirtieth anniversary. Eventually the BBC proper found out about this and raised a bit of a fuss, since BBC Enterprises wasn’t supposed to be a production unit, but Enterprises persisted and the BBC proper acquiesced with an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude. The problem was that Rigelsford and Enterprises weren’t a production unit, and had no idea what they were doing. The project, by all accounts, could never have worked. Its budget was a joke, and Enterprises mishandled just about everything involved with it, completely botching the negotiations with the actors. The script was, in practice, primarily a Tom Baker story with the other Doctors reduced to cameos. As it turns out, neither the actors nor their agents were fond of that, especially since BBC Enterprises clearly just assumed they’d take the roles and hadn’t even negotiated properly. On top of that, the BBC was beginning the talks that would lead to the TV Movie, and they didn’t want to poison the well with this. But all of this is just a variety of ways of summing up the real problem: The Dark Dimension was a collaboration between a company with no drama production experience and a scam artist. Still, there’s a script, and as scams go it was one that got a lot of attention, so let’s have a look.

There’s an odd tendency among out-of-power political parties to spend a while doubling down on ideological purity in openly self-destructive ways. In the US it’s happening lately with the Republican Party, which, after losing the 2008 election by a landslide to a center-left candidate began insisting that their real problem was that John McCain wasn’t conservative enough, a theory that assumes a large block of voters who, frustrated at McCain’s lack of conservatism, decided to vote for an even less conservative candidate. A similar logic seems to be rapidly settling around Mitt Romney. And a similar logic also settled in around a sizable chunk of the Doctor Who world in the early nineties. The segment of fandom who were finally shaken off in the course of Trial of a Time Lord regrouped having convinced themselves that the only thing that held them back was John Nathan-Turner’s insistence on comedy and light entertainment. If only they could do a properly scary, dark, epic version of Doctor Who slathered in continuity then they’d win everyone back and be successful again.

The Dark Dimension, as a script, is that segment of fandom unleashed. And it’s awful. I mean, it’s easy to be seduced: there are a bunch of cool ideas and set pieces here. The Seventh Doctor being dead and  the disheveled and amnesiac Fourth Doctor wandering around lost is a cool idea. The trapped alternate versions of the Doctor are cool. But it’s difficult to ignore the fact that there’s very little… fun in the script. It’s terribly emblematic of the grimdark nineties - right down to its title. Doctor Who made it twenty-six seasons without ever having to trumpet its own darkness in the title. But come 1993 you can’t go anywhere without shouting “by the way, I’m really really dark.” And that’s the only idea The Dark Dimension has - taking piles of Doctor Who continuity and doing them darkly, because as far as it can understand the only problem Doctor Who ever had was that it was too cheerful in its continuity strip-mining. This approach is, of course, utterly wrong, and it’s been causing enough problems in the novels. Thank God it never made it onto television. Say what you like about The Five Doctors and its museum-exhibit approach to continuity, but at least it was having fun.

Speaking of museum-exhibit approaches to continuity and having fun, there’s also Dimensions in Time. I said earlier that The Dark Dimension and the school of thought it represents seem obsessed with the belief that what really went wrong in the 1980s was that John Nathan-Turner kept putting in silly bits instead of being properly scary and dark. Dimensions in Time, then, represents the corrolary perspective, in which John Nathan-Turner seems to think that the real problem with Doctor Who was that it kept trying to be serious drama. Of course, that’s a little unfair. This is a Children in Need sketch, and it acts like one. The suggestion that anything other than a mess of light and fluffy fun was called for in the circumstances is just being ridiculous.

No, the point of Dimensions in Time was to offer a massive helping of froth and silliness. But given this, what’s surprising is just how well-balanced it is. It manages to shoe-horn in a wealth of continuity references such that it’s fun to play “spot the thingy” while watching it, but also manages to fulfill its basic duty of having something ridiculously camp and/or a Doctor Who/Eastenders crossover show up every few minutes. Yes, it’s absolutely horrible, but let’s be fair, if you’re going to play off of the public’s nostalgic memories of Doctor Who in 1993 it’s not entirely clear that quality is the direction to go in the first place. This is crap on a stick, but it’s oddly lovable crap. There is a joy to it - an untroubled willingness to just enjoy Doctor Who not in spite of its rubbish elements but through them. And as we’ve seen looking at the rest of our 1993 crop of books, that’s actually something of an accomplishment, as a majority of the Doctor Who to come out this year didn’t seem to enjoy being Doctor Who at all.

What is perhaps most striking about Dimensions in Time, however, is the sheer madness of its concept. We noted some time ago that soap operas and science fiction seem, culturally, not to get along. Given this, it’s strange to see Doctor Who crossing over directly with a soap opera. Two things are worth observing here. The first is that Doctor-Who-as-soap-opera was one of Nathan-Turner’s original ideas for the series - indeed, the only creative direction that can clearly be seen as coming from him and not one of his script editors. And more to the point, it’s one that twenty more years of history have shown to be more clever than anyone let on. The second, though, is that the only reason these two shows make sense to mash up is that they’re British institutions. For all that this is an exercise in shoehorning in Doctor Who arcana for the fans, it’s first and foremost a (profoundly awkward) celebration of uniquely British television and culture.

And since this is John Nathan-Turner’s last contribution to Doctor Who, let’s pause for a moment and appreciate this. Yes, his production instincts were at times wobbly, with his biggest blind spot being writers. But the fact of the matter is, he got the show made. Repeatedly. He kept it going through two situations that should have outright killed it: the departure of Tom Baker and the self-inflicted wounds of the Colin Baker era. But perhaps most tellingly, in an era where absolutely nobody was willing to seriously consider the possibility that Doctor Who was fun and could be proud of what it was, he made a piece of Doctor Who that was both. He seems to have been just about the last person in 1993 to remember that Doctor Who was a cultural institution in the UK, not just an obscure cult sci-fi property.

So yes Dimensions in Time is, obviously, not a viable approach for the future. It’s not even worth being proud of, though most of its failures can be chalked up to it being made fast, cheap,  with a bunch of actors volunteering their time, and to various idiosyncratic issues like Louise Jameson flatly refusing to wear the original Leela costume, necessitating an improvised (and terrible) replacement. But it’s at least at peace with the program’s past and committed to the idea that Doctor Who could be fun. Unlike The Dark Dimension, there is a way forward from this. It’s the only piece of Doctor Who in years to seriously entertain the possibility that the primary goal of Doctor Who should be fun.

And that points at something else, exemplified by our third bit of Doctor Who on television in 1993, Thirty Years in the TARDIS, or, in the version that’s easily found these days, More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS. This was a documentary made by Kevin Davies, who had previously established himself doing a cute little documentary on the making of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy TV series. More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS (this was the version I have, and thus the one I’ll talk about) is daft and superficial, but in a deeply pleasant way. Almost everyone involved in terms of Doctor Who cast and crew is doing their party pieces, and the documentary has little to offer a longstanding fan, but that’s in some ways the point. What we have here is a ninety minute documentary on the history of Doctor Who that’s actually made for the general public. Given the direction Doctor Who seemed to be heading in during 1993, this is genuinely noteworthy and remarkable.

What’s key about it is the way in which it returns unabashedly to a narrative of Doctor Who that’s about the popular consciousness instead of about fandom. Clip after clip is dusted off of Doctor Who’s intersections with the larger cultural narrative of Britain, and the parade of B-list celebrities lined up to sing Doctor Who’s praises are all, you know, normal people who like Doctor Who. Or, at least, not “fans” in the sense that we culturally code them as being. Toyah Willcox excitedly babbling about her massive Jon Pertwee fetish or her perverse love of the red PVC Dalek suit she had when she was nine is a particular highlight, though Gerry Anderson good-naturedly grumbling that despite all the shows he’s made his son is a big Doctor Who fan is a treat as well. But also key is the way in which the program dusts off tons of clips of Doctor Who interacting with the broader British culture. The Spike Milligan “Pakistani Dalek” sketch is included, the Prime Computer ads make it in, clips from Blue Peter and Crackerjack are there. God help us, “I Am the Doctor” and Roberta Tovey’s “Who’s Who” are there. It’s unambiguously a documentary about Doctor Who’s role in the culture.

The real thing to observe here is that More than Thirty Years in the TARDIS is advancing the same basic narrative that formed the default narrative of the new series in Doctor Who Confidential. Doctor Who is a British icon, loved by all sorts of people. It’s ropey, but that’s part of its charm, because it’s also madly ambitious and inventive. Much is made of the bits where iconic scenes from the classic series are made with nineties production values, and fair enough, they’re charming, but they don’t look good at all. What they do manage, however, is to look endearingly bad. They’re sweet. The whole program is sweet. And it’s sweet in exactly the same way that eventually became the standard account of what Doctor Who was.

And this marks a real turnaround. 1993 was something of a grim anniversary, with the New Adventures seeming to be slouching towards a rut and the series seeming hapless in its attempts to be revived. But if you look carefully enough, you can just about see the road to the series’ return starting.

Comments

Scott 4 years, 7 months ago

I remember reading about "The Dark Dimension" in Jean-Marc Lofficier's "The Nth Doctor" (for those unaware, basically a summary of the various pitches to either make a film of the show or to bring it back after it was cancelled) and thinking it sounded really awesome. It seemed like the best of all the other ideas.

But then, considering I was a kid and that the other ideas all seemed to pretty spectacularly miss the point of the show to some degree or another, that's perhaps not as glowing a tribute now as it seemed back them.

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daibhid-c 4 years, 7 months ago

I first heard about Dark Dimension when I went to a talk by Colin Baker in 1995. His main criticisms were firstly, that if there was a "main Doctor" it should have been McCoy ("current" Doctor) or Petrwee (oldest surviving Doctor), and secondly that there probably shouldn't have been a main Doctor.

He described complaining to Rigelsworth that giving him a trial scene and Davison a impassioned speech to the Cybermen was perhaps a bit of a superficial understanding of their eras. Apparently, Rigelsworth replied that he could just swap them round, which pretty much proved Baker's point.

The other thing I remember about that talk is that when I suggested the BBC themselves had seen Dimensions and Time as a panto, he retorted "No, you've been reading Dreamwatch Bulletin, haven't you?" It was actually TV Zone, but I took his point...

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arcbeatle 4 years, 7 months ago

I do have to disagree heavily on one point: While I haven't rewatched More Than 30 Years in the Tardis since I was a child, the scenes where parts of the original show were remade with 90's special effects was the most memorable part for me. I remember vividly watching the Documentary over and over because of how wonderfully more real then the show I loved those effects looked, especially the shot of the child entering the Tardis with the interior of the Tardis viable through the door.

While the effects may not hold up well over time, they were better then what we'd seen on the show, at least as I remember, and it influenced my ideas of what Doctor Who was and would be greatly.

And, as it would seem from how the new show did the Tardis door, Russel T Davies.

(Oh, and long time reader, first time commenter! Love the blog!)

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Tommy 4 years, 7 months ago

"But the fact of the matter is, he got the show made. Repeatedly. He kept it going through two situations that should have outright killed it: the departure of Tom Baker"

Foregoing my personal bias that the show ending there would have been a more preferable, dignified fate for it, the BBC seemed to have a lot of faith in the show around that time. They brought back Barry Letts to oversee things, they granted JNT unprecedented slots for one-off specials like K9 and Company and The Five Doctors. The BBC was showing a lot of good will to the show, and any producer would have done well with that kind of support. But we could always count on the show under JNT to spit that good will back in the BBC's faces.

Infact Tom's final season was a ratings disaster, and it was the BBC's decision to move it to a nnew timeslot to try and improve the ratings. Which it did at first, until the double whammy of Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity began to chase them away, and each successive charmless, fannish casual-viewer-repellent season opener proved the production team had learned nothing.

"and the self-inflicted wounds of the Colin Baker era"

The self-inflicted wounds of the 80's began long before Twin Dilemma. And in any case, when it comes to the 'self-inflicted' it boils down to the fact that a producer less savvy about saving the show from such a fate probably would not have caused that cancellation crisis in the first place. Hardly an achievement, it hardly even cancels out the preceding mistakes.

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peeeeeeet 4 years, 7 months ago

Yeah, I was going to mention that shot of the child walking into the TARDIS as being impressive for the time.

On the subject of the Dark Dimension, it's worth noting that Graeme Harper was signed up to direct and apparently loved the script, so it might not have been the disaster everyone assumes if it had been made.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 7 months ago

Given what you've said and what I've scrounged from around the internet about The Dark Dimension, it seems to be exactly what a successful series didn't need: a script composed of the worst kinds of continuity porn, a storyline that worshipped the Tom Baker / Philip Hinchcliffe era, a vision of the show that hadn't existed in two decades, and the aesthetics of 1990s pessimism superficially coating the whole production would have resulted in a pretty terrible piece of TV. At least with Dimensions in Time and 30 Years in the TARDIS, we could understand the role the show played in the culture, even if it was indefinitely dormant.

However, Cyberman as Terminator would have been derivative, but cool. Now, a combination of Mondas-style Cyberman ideas with Terminator activities and timey-wiminess, that could have been good.

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David Anderson 4 years, 7 months ago

Jumping forward two years - are you planning to look at Downtime? (Not that it had really crossed my radar before about ten days ago.)

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Scott 4 years, 7 months ago

While I think I'm a lot more generous to the JNT years than you appear to be, the fact that the wounds of the Colin Baker era were also "self-inflicted" kind of questions exactly how much praise we should lay at JNT's door for this as well -- if the wounds were indeed self-inflicted, then as producer it stands to reason that JNT was in part responsible for inflicting them. Overcoming them thus arguably becomes more a case of him cleaning up his own messes (or, less generously, finding other people who are able to do it for him) than him persevering in saving the show.

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Scott 4 years, 7 months ago

Another example for me personally -- the "Thirty Years" scene of the Daleks parading across Westminster Bridge knocks the equivalent one from the series into a cocked hat. I saw the former well before the latter ("Thirty Years" was a formative part of me becoming a fan as well), and must admit to being underwhelmed by the latter having seen the former first.

Now, of course, we can argue that this is somewhat unfair to the series, and that we have to make allowances for low budget 1960s-era production values. Which is of course true, but it also opens up the rebuttal that if we're extending such generosity to low-budget 1960s production values, it's only fair that we extend the same generosity to low-budget 1990s production values.

And I agree that the shot of the child entering the TARDIS is very impressive -- and, I think at least, quite effective. For it's time, of course.

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Henry R. Kujawa 4 years, 7 months ago

I was wondering if "The Stranger" would get a look, considering all the WHO-related actors involved. I particularly liked the 2nd installment, "More Than A Messiah", as it seemed the closest it ever got to being "almost WHO but not quite".

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Tommy 4 years, 7 months ago

I used to be more generous to JNT. I used to adhere to the fan camp that forgave him all his mistakes because he did give us Caves of Androzani. Then I learned JNT hadn't wanted Robert Holmes on the show at all, and realised that under a different producer we could have had a dozen stories of that quality. And bit by bit, I realised how little Caves actually ends up standing for, given what surrounds it and how much disgrace and damage everything else did to the Doctor's status as a public hero, and I began to think the whole era could be better off lost.

I'd always hated the fanservice of Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks, but I did feel that a producer who wanted to make the fans happy deserved some slack from us, especially in light of RTD who showed absolutely zero good will towards the fanbase.

Then I read The Unfolding Text and realised the kind of undesirable Ian Levine type fans it was being aimed at (in concert with visiting certain lunatic asylum forums where those views still exist), and realised it was no wonder the show began to feel so ugly, petty-minded and mean-spirited under him. And frankly hearing JNT slag off the Williams era before him, when at best it was fun in all the ways JNT's era wasn't, made anything said against his era seem fair game, and made it clear how little clue he had for the show's vision apart from giving us the anti-Williams era, which quickly became the anti-Doctor Who.

All that really left was the post cancellation crisis period, where surely anyone would have to feel sorry for the man, and take their hat off to him for keeping the show going. Then I read Sophie Aldred's recent DWM interview describing what he was like toward her at first (which is to say he was an utter shit to her), and I think the last of my sympathy died there.

I think had there not been such a hush up about the decisions made (or a pro-active effort by the man to control what DWM said about his stories so that nothing critical got printed), which spoke of a rather paranoid production environment, then there wouldn't be any campaigns for the truth, or obsessive autopsies on the era. And of course it would be easy to let the defence rest if most of the praise of his era didn't focus on him fixing the things he'd broken in the first place.

Ultimately the problems tend to be nowhere near as complex as made out. Convoluted yes (as Phil's piece on the stacked deck of idiocy behind The Twin Dilemma proves) but ultimately all that was wrong with JNT's vision is that the guy was a bit of a drinker, and resultantly we ended up with a very misjudged era, a very volatile working environment, and the show adopting something of a wino's vision.

The thing is, I do think the cancellation was so wrapped up in economics that it would have been inevitable no matter how good the show was. But when it happened, Doctor Who needed all the public good will it could muster to survive. And it wasn't there. It was something the show had been squandering since Time-Flight, and the reduced ratings afterwards reflect that. And I could forgive Time-Flight if they'd learned from it. If it weren't for how they followed up with Arc of Infinity and made that the new, fannish repellent model for the show.

The show got a bit of a ratings boost in Resurrection of the Daleks, and a renewed burst of publicity with Colin Baker's casting. But in those circumstances, Twin Dilemma really needed to be good, or at least decent. And it wasn't.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 7 months ago

That's it, Tommy, show us on the doll where JNT touched you.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 7 months ago

I'm not doing Downtime or The Stranger, but I'm doing two other similar projects.

Eh, you know, scratch that. I was going to do Shakedown, but the heck with it. We'll do Downtime. Sure.

Still no on The Stranger, though.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 7 months ago

I've still got The Stranger "In Memory Alone" because the bit in the caves was filmed in the sub-basement of the building I worked in, and until I left and they closed the building down, the robot costume was still there in a heap on the floor, gathering dust. Honest.

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daibhid-c 4 years, 7 months ago

Just rereading the post about The Five Doctors, and the "bucket list" approach of "Pertwee needs a Cybermen scene 'cos he never got one". And I remembered that Dimensions In Time, of course, found it necessary to check the Brig off Colin's list. And say what you like about Business Unusual, at least it has some sort of reason for the Sixth Doctor to meet the Brigadier, whereas Dimensions just seems to be saying "Colin and Nicholas in the same scene. That's sorted, then."

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Ben 4 years, 7 months ago

I also found the remake/new scenes with 90s production values a big part of my enjoyment of More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS. A glass of water to a thirsty child in the harsh, Who-less desert of 1993? Maybe? A tantalising glimpse of what might be achieved in the alternative universe where the program was still going and maybe Richard Griffiths was now the Doctor? Probably.

I agree about The Dark Dimension, however. Aside from the brilliant idea of explaining Tom Baker's age by having the Fourth Doctor never regenerate in Logopolis and having him become listless and forgotten in a world that should never have been, I find it all goes downhill after there - and the puritanical need for seriousness is probably a major part of this. Perhaps one day, we'll get to see Ian Levine's 're-creation' of the script and find this truer than ever.

Without it, 1993 could be little more than a nostalgia-fest. What with 'The Paradise Of Death' and Pertwee recreating the cliffhanger to part 3 (?) of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, I can't help thinking that if someone had suggested remaking a classic story with the (then still-living) original cast from 20 years earlier or even knocking together a new one - either way pretending to ignore the fact that they were all 20 years older - it would have been a success.

Then again, I've just watched the first episode of Red Dwarf X, which surely is an exercise in doing very nearly the same thing!

Great blog, by the way. Long-time reader, first-time poster.

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ferret 4 years, 7 months ago

It's 1996, I'm - goodness, I'm 16 - and Dimensions in Time is on. The reason why Dimensions in Time was instantly and unequivocally hated has less to do with fans being blind to it's status as a charity special fun piece, and more to do with the fact that this was the first piece of televised Doctor Who since the cancellation, and without knowing the future: all our hopes rested on this.

If Dimensions in Time could be good for just 10 minutes, maybe they'd commission a new series!

Oh. Oh, it was embarrassing crap. That's Doctor Who dead forever then.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 7 months ago

Dimensions in Time aired in 1993, though; the TV movie was in '96.

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Gavin Schofield 4 years, 7 months ago

The blog's caught up with my lifetime now, this was the first Doctor Who I ever watched live, age 6. Dimensions in Time / 30 Years in the Tardis that is, I don't live in some weird parrellel dimension where Dark Dimension was actually made.

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