4 years, 11 months ago
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.
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