Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 70 (Primeval, Robin Hood)

(41 comments)

An era of Doctor Who in which nobody is making desperate attempts to copy and compete with it is one to view with suspicion. The logic here is simple: when Doctor Who is hot, there are going to be efforts to do similar things. When it’s not… well, it wasn’t just Doctor Who that was withering in the mid-80s; the entire children-friendly sci-fi/fantasy/horror television market was dead, and adult sci-fi wasn’t doing much better, with Doctor Who being more or less the lone survivor in either category. Whereas in 1976, with the Hinchcliffe era at its imperious best, you had The Tomorrow People, Shadows, Survivors, Space: 1999, Rentaghost, and Children of the Stones all existing in the same general cultural space as Doctor Who. Notably, not all of these were competitors as such. Some were BBC productions that zeroed in on specific audiences, others were ITV “Doctor Who killers,” et cetera. The point is simply that Doctor Who, when it’s at its cultural peaks, is something that exists in a larger context of shows.

So following Doctor Who’s titanically successful launch in 2005, it was basically inevitable that there were going to be imitators. The major first two to market were the BBC’s 2006 version of Robin Hood, which was explicitly designed to fill the Saturday drama slot during some of the weeks Doctor Who wasn’t on the air, and ITV’s 2007 debut Primeval, which features time travel and dinosaurs. Neither show did phenomenally well, though both did respectably, getting a few seasons run and surviving with enough of an afterlife that they’re not recklessly obscure.

In many ways what is most interesting here is the underlying logic. That is, what do people think imitating Doctor Who means, exactly? After all, for all that there have been a lot of similar programs to Doctor Who over the years, only occasionally has anyone made a program that’s explicitly and consciously mimicking it.

Of the two, it is Primeval that feels the most like a straight-up imitation. There are, to be fair, significant differences. In many ways Primeval is closer to Torchwood - a team of people investigating weird things that come through a hole in space-time type thing. (Mostly dinosaurs, as it happens.) But equally, it’s an action-adventure sci-fi show featuring time travel of the sort that only exists because suddenly one of those was the biggest show on television. The producers made noises about how their show was more real-world and grounded, which is an absolutely wonderful thing to declare of a television show about dinosaurs attacking things. But this was a fig leaf fooling exactly nobody, and the points where it cribs the Doctor Who formula are at times amusingly blatant. (Most notably, casting a former pop star in the lead female role)

As a show, Primeval is solidly not bad, which is, of course, the exact worst thing a show can possibly be for the purposes of blogging about it. The staggeringly execrable and the absolutely phenomenal are both fairly easy to write about. The almost great but fatally flawed is dead easy. Basically competent schedule filler, on the other hand, is absolutely murderous. It is, in effect, a fairly generic American-style sci-fi show. An ensemble cast of science types and big, overarching mysteries. In many ways, it’s a redressed and updated version of Sliders.

Which is, in its own way, peculiar. Ten years earlier, after all, the big error of the TV Movie had been to think that Doctor Who was basically equivalent to Sliders. Now that it’s back and it’s time to try imitating it instead of making it as an imitation of something… ITV proceeds to produce Sliders. But in many ways this gets at the degree to which copying Doctor Who is a complicated business. Because Doctor Who’s entire purpose is to not be one type of show. Over and over again, throughout its history, it’s gone on to get the drop on its various competitors, doing the same things they do, only with a sly subversion to them. Not always better - The Stones of Blood is nowhere near as good as Children of the Stones. But The Pirate Planet calmly does The Tomorrow People with a half-dozen other brilliant ideas in there as well. The Daemons makes short work of Ace of Wands. Terror of the Autons takes the first episode of Doomwatch and goes to town with it. It is, needless to say, not easy to compete with a show that can nick the premise of yours and then do a glam rock parody of it.

And by 2007 this had gotten even more ludicrous to try. Primeval makes a go of it with a premise that Torchwood got bored with after half an hour. By the end of its first episode the thing it’s most concerned with is the question of how holes in space and time are being opened. At the end of its first season it makes a bid for a wider premise… by introducing what are basically dinosaurs from the future. Eventually there are time paradoxes. But through all of this the show mistakes “what’s the sci-fi explanation for all of this” for an interesting question. And in doing so it misunderstands the reason why Doctor Who is able to occupy the cultural space it is. For the most part the episodes of Doctor Who that have been the weakest are the ones in which the episode is merely based on a cool premise, as opposed to being about what sorts of stories you can tell within a premise.

And that, in the end, is where Primeval falls down; it assumes that what Doctor Who opens the door for is science fiction. When in fact Doctor Who uses science fiction to do something entirely different - to become a show that can respond to any other show. To simply use science fiction to be one sort of show is to miss the point entirely, and to assume that Doctor Who is the exact sort of show Davies turned it away from being.

A more on-target attempt comes from Robin Hood, not least because it shamelessly goes back to a Doctor Who alternative that had worked before: the 1980s Robin of Sherwood series by Richard Carpenter. But unlike Primeval, which fairly blatantly mimics Doctor Who’s premise, Robin Hood is considerably less of a carbon copy. It’s not a science fiction show, but a costume drama adventure. On paper this should give it an even more limiting premise than Primeval - it’s stuck with the same villain every week, after all, and has no obvious mechanisms for switching things up. And yet there’s a sense of whimsy and pastiche to it that makes it a closer match to Doctor Who than Primeval’s misplaced seriousness. Robin Hood takes the basic approach of Doctor Who in terms of its relationship to its own past and applies it to a different myth. And so we get everything from the Robin Hood mythology done with sincerity and gusto, whether it’s the silly bits or not. Robin Hood is rife with anachronism and self-awareness, calmly and cheekily twisting the legend around to serve its purposes. It plays the standard issue reboot game of taking old concepts and making them work in the present, but does it with a sense of fundamental love. Like Doctor Who, it’s the sort of reboot that gives the sense that all of this was working just fine in the first place, and that a reboot just means doing it again with a bit of flare and a budget.

This, at least, feels closer to the mood Doctor Who seems to embrace. Robin Hood is a romantic action-adventure story. It aims for fun. Inasmuch as it misses, it misses by being perhaps a bit too silly, and too prone to letting its comedy bits mug for the camera. Despite this, there’s an impressive current of steel to it. Horrible things happen to people, and the image of oppression and people being forced into poverty to support the lives of the powerful are quite awful. Sure, the Sheriff of Nottingham is done as leering camp, but that’s probably the right hedge against someone who casually tortures people becoming too scary to put on television in the first place. If there’s a complaint to be had, it’s that 2006 is a bit late to still be doing the exact same mix as Xena: Warrior Princess only without the lesbian subtext.

But it did well for itself for a while, at least, and in the end what did it in was more likely that Robin Hood only has so many episodes in it as a premise, and they eventually exceeded that number. It did about as well as Primeval, certainly. But in the end, we still have a show that’s doing half the work of Doctor Who. Primeval is a not particularly Doctor Who-like take on Doctor Who’s genre. Robin Hood is a fairly Doctor Who-like take on a genre that isn’t actually Doctor Who’s except inasmuch as it’s action-adventury. Both are certainly succeeding at giving people what they want, but equally, neither one is really contending to do the cultural work of Doctor Who, and it’s not hard to see why nothing unseated the show as the biggest thing on television even as it had a bit of a wobbly season.

What makes all of this interesting, of course, is that Doctor Who is busily creating its own imitators as well. This is a new development. We’ve already looked at them at non-trivial length and seen the stuttering unease of Torchwood. But there’s a larger question here to answer - how do you even go about creating a spin-off of Doctor Who? What room is there in the margins of a show that can do anything? In many ways it seems like something like Robin Hood has an even easier time of it than a Doctor Who spinoff. While there might be a limited amount to say about the Robin Hood mythology, it’s at least a well-developed and coherent mythology with centuries of history, which would seem to put it in a better position than a show that exists to eat Doctor Who’s leftovers, so to speak.

One answer - the one Torchwood has been playing with thus far - is to take a different worldview than Doctor Who. Torchwood isn’t giddily fun or hopeful in the same way that Doctor Who is. It can tackle almost as many other things on television as Doctor Who can, but its point isn’t to subvert them or mash them up - it’s to interact uneasily with the borders of them. The Sarah Jane Adventures, which are what we’re turning to next, aren’t really given the opportunity for horror in the same way as Torchwood - simply put, a children’s show can’t be quite as bleak as Torchwood is on a day-to-day basis.

Perhaps more to the point, however, The Sarah Jane Adventures aren’t even able to reach into as many other genres as Torchwood. They’re stuck with shows that are kid-friendly. And really, they’re stuck with Doctor Who; it’s telling that, unlike Torchwood, the Sarah Jane Adventures bring back Doctor Who monsters and concepts on a regular basis. In this regard, The Sarah Jane Adventures is attempting to be what Robin Hood and Primeval really don’t bother trying to be, for all that they occupy the cultural space: an outright response to Doctor Who - a show that takes bits of it and comments on them in the same way it does everything else. It is, in many ways, the one thing a response to Doctor Who could never be before. And while, as a CBBC show, it’s not really in the running to pull off the same sort of sprawling cultural success, that’s not really the point. Doctor Who has sprawling cultural success covered. What we have to look at now is something more unusual: at last, we have a show that can actually respond to Doctor Who on its own terms.

Comments

Spacewarp 3 years, 10 months ago

Merlin would have fitted in quite well here, which makes me suspect you are planning a detailed Merlin post...

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Chadwick 3 years, 10 months ago

What, in part, led to the demise of the Robin Hood series was that it got on the wrong side of viewers and critics by SHOUTING ITS PARALLELS TO CONTEMPORARY POLITICS AND SOCIETY and quite often, as you said, in a silly way. Allusions, references snuck in, parallels and allegories are great but just cutting and pasting Tony Blair's and Alastair Campbell's soundbites into the mouths of the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisborne was plain irritating. The show was criticised for that and then, in what was a PR blunder latched onto by certain media outlets already suspicious of the show, it was believed that the omission of Friar Tuck from the story was done on grounds of political correctness and to not appear to be insensitive to overweight people. The production office couldn't get its story straight on the decision to omit Tuck and that was seen as proof of "political correctness gone mad". Leaving that aside, the show was a load of predictable and overdone tosh for me...but then again, I don't like Xena, Hercules and Merlin either.

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David Anderson 3 years, 10 months ago

I read the sentence about mid-80s fantasy being dead, and immediately thought what about Robin of Sherwood. You do mention it half way down in connection with the recent Robin Hood, but still.
At the time we didn't really notice the absence of UK fantasy because of the dominance of imported cartoons, as well as imported reruns - most notably Star Trek.
Robin of Sherwood could probably have kept going had Michael Praed stayed on - it showed an admirably kitchen sink attitude to the matter of Britain.

Primeval kept going for a respectable number of series, especially given its penchant for killing off half the cast every so often. It knew what it was trying to deliver and it delivered it. It got Cornell to write for it a couple of times (sadly I didn't see those episodes).

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Seeing_I 3 years, 10 months ago

It's almost as though you're actively avoiding having to write about Voyage of the Damned! :)

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Bennett 3 years, 10 months ago

If memory serves me right, we have a whole series of The Sarah Jane Adventures to get through before then (thankfully!).

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 10 months ago

Funny, I always considered Voyage of the Damned a B-. Well, on first viewing, I thought of it as more of a C, but subsequent viewings on the DVD made me upgrade it to a B-. I think it'll be an interesting essay: when Doctor Who tries epic pastiche and takes its disaster movie clichés too seriously to pull off the pastiche. Corny fun, but fantastic, and alchemically connected to the sense of impending doom that surrounded the Donna season and Specials year, both in its basic storyline and the Bernard Cribbins cameo (who, after all, only became the Wilf we know and love because an actor literally died after filming his premiere episode).

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 10 months ago

I enjoyed almost the whole first season of Robin Hood immensely because of those parallels. I had a different cultural orientation to the show's clear anti-Blair/Bush message because, being in Canada, I was closer to Bush than Blair. And Bush was, culturally, much easier to parody than the greasily slick Blair. Also, we had just elected our own leader who, when he was in opposition in 2003, demanded that we heartily join the Iraq War out of solidarity with the United States. It took Harper until 2011 to take it back. Despite whatever controversy it may have caused, Blair, Iraq, and the War on Terror in 2007 was a ripe target for critique, even if Robin Hood's critique was as subtle as a pie to the face. Still not as entertaining as a thrown shoe, though.

Really, my only problem with Robin Hood was that it didn't always navigate the tension between its camp tone and its serious violence. I stopped watching after the first season finale convinced me that its creators didn't know what they were doing with that tension. The finale put those tones in stark relief for the first time in the show, where before there were multiple scenes transitioning to camp from horror and back again.

In the finale, the Sheriff concocts a scheme to detect traitors among the Nottingham nobles by tricking them into signing a pact against him when each is alone in a secret room. As each nobleman signs, the Sheriff unmasks himself and slits their throats. Then Robin and the gang show up, rescue everyone, and hang the Sheriff from a chandelier by his ankles, where he snarls like Snidely Whiplash. Then they leave the surviving rebel nobles, including Marian and her father, in the middle of the Sheriff's banquet hall, vulnerable to his army (about which the gang have done nothing) and casually stroll out of the castle, freeze-framing on a jumping group high-five. They switched too fast from brutality to cartoonishness, and the tone problem just became too much for me.

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jane 3 years, 10 months ago

Doesn't... like... Xena?

That's like saying there's no Silicon Heaven.

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Ross 3 years, 10 months ago

This article really hits on what I've never been able to articulate myself: why Primeval just did not work for me. My wife loved it, but I was just never able to get into it. (I'm starting to get a handle on the idea that I'm not actually a science fiction fan per se; I just like things that are Flippin' Weird)

That said, I did think it was pretty neat how Primeval was so willing to reinvent itself on a regular basis, being fairly shameless about replacing its leads and rewriting the frame story around the dinosaur-chasing. It's been a long time since TV shows were allowed to be so shameless about swapping out major elements like that.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 10 months ago

in the mid-80s; the entire children-friendly sci-fi/fantasy/horror television market was dead, and adult sci-fi wasn’t doing much better, with Doctor Who being more or less the lone survivor in either category

Well, apart from stuff like V, Max Headroom, Tripods, Voyagers, Matthew Star, the revived Twilight Zone, and something called Star Trek: The Next Generation.

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Andrew 3 years, 10 months ago

The only British TV drama on that list is 'Tripods' which was aborted after two series.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 10 months ago

the omission of Friar Tuck from the story was done on grounds of political correctness and to not appear to be insensitive to overweight people

Because if you include a fat character you have to then make fun of his weight. Got it.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 10 months ago

Did Phil mean British shows only? He didn't say that.

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David Thiel 3 years, 10 months ago

The comparison between "Primeval" and "Sliders" is apt, though "Sliders"--at least as it was conceived--could've been that show that responds to other shows. The premise of "Primeval" was much more limiting: a weekly remake of "Invasion of the Dinosaurs," albeit one with fewer puppets. (insert joke about main cast here)

For me, what made both "Primeval" and "Sliders" frustrating was that while both toyed with big story arcs, neither could decide what story it wanted to tell. The frequent shifts in cast and meta-plot left promising threads forever dangling as the producers pounced on the next shiny object.

What I found especially galling about "Primeval" was that by the end of its run, most of the original team of investigators were long gone, leaving only the two I dubbed Pork Pie Hat and Pants Girl. (The latter nickname based on the Series 1 scene in which she opens her apartment to admit a relative stranger in her pants--or out of them, depending on which side of the Atlantic you live.) Two less likely series leads I could not have imagined.

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Ross 3 years, 10 months ago

I found it rather charming that the two who ended up being the leads were the two least likely.

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Andrew 3 years, 10 months ago

Well, I took it to mean so, since the reference concerned attempts to copy or compete with Dr. Who (which American TV wouldn't have had the slightest inclination to do - not in the mid 80's, anyway).

Plus, as far as I can recall, shows like V, Twilight zone, Max Headroom were shown late at night in the UK, and so weren't attempts to encroach onto the "children-friendly sci-fi/fantasy/horror television market". ST:NG was shown at tea-time, but on the (slightly) minority BBC2 channel.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

My problem with Robin Hood was the same as Adam's. The tonal dissonance just got to be too much. I was never 100% sure if I enjoyed watching it after a given episode.

Jane: There is no Silicon Heaven. The Calculators just...die.

Adam: Where in Canada are you? I'm in Alberta!

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

Am I the only one who authentically enjoys Voyage of the Damned? As in would go back willingly and watch it again?

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Galadriel 3 years, 10 months ago

I've watched the first three seasons of Primeval--it's not a top-tier show, but it's amusing enough in its own way. Do you feel the short seasons were complimentary to the limited premise, or that longer seasons would have helped develop the premise?
And on to Sarah Jane Adventures! There is a sad lack of critical analysis for that show.

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Matthew Pickens 3 years, 10 months ago

You're not the only one; in fact, until it started popping up here in the comments, I had no idea that anybody particularly disliked it. I'm looking forward to seeing what problems most people here have with it.

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David Thiel 3 years, 10 months ago

In hindsight, I don't have strong feelings about it either way. At the time, I wanted more from a stand-alone special airing after a lengthy hiatus. And the "Poseidon Adventure" riff seemed at odds with the holiday. (Am I correct in remembering that there's a UK tradition of broadcasting disaster movies on Christmas Day?) Mainly, it just wasn't much fun, what with all of the likable characters dying.

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David Thiel 3 years, 10 months ago

To bring up a current example, it would be like having "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." season four led by Fitz/Simmons.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 10 months ago

copy or compete with Dr. Who (which American TV wouldn't have had the slightest inclination to do

I find it hard to believe that Voyagers wasn't trying to some degree to copy Doctor Who: mysterious and cranky man from society of time travelers, with time machine disguised as ordinary object, accidentally kidnaps younger companion from our era, the historically knowledgeable son of a history teacher (so sort of Ian and Adric combined), and thanks to a fault in the time machine has trouble returning him to his own time, but in the meantime the two visit various historical eras, including meeting Marco Polo ....

weren't attempts to encroach onto the "children-friendly sci-fi/fantasy/horror television market".

But Phil explicitly included the adult market in his thesis: "adult sci-fi wasn’t doing much better, with Doctor Who being more or less the lone survivor in either category."

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BerserkRL 3 years, 10 months ago

Plus the time traveler's clothing looked like a cross between Han Solo's and the Fifth Doctor's. (Though his name, Phineas Bogg, was a nod to Jules Verne.)

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BerserkRL 3 years, 10 months ago

Indeed the more I think about it the more I wonder why Phil didn't pop between realities to do a post on Voyagers. For the book, perhaps?

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David Anderson 3 years, 10 months ago

In series four and five it was I think too much of an ensemble show for them to be the leads. If there was a lead it was Matt from the future.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 10 months ago

There was a letter in Radio Times criticising it for precisely those reasons. "What are you supposed to say to a child? 'Let's watch Poseidon Adventure so you can appreciate the cultural context'?"

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Daibhid C 3 years, 10 months ago

The only British TV drama on that list is 'Tripods' which was aborted after two series.

In Max Headroom's case, that very much depends on your definition of "British". The original one-off special is definitely British; the series, probably as British as Miracle Day.

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Ross 3 years, 10 months ago

I'd even say that comparing the two versions of the pilot is an extraordinary way to demonstrate very clearly the difference between how TV works in the US and the UK.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 10 months ago

Maybe Phil considers Star Trek: The Next Generation a late-80s show-That's what I took away from that sentence at least.

And IIRC wasn't TNG delayed a few seasons in the UK anyway?

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elvwood 3 years, 10 months ago

Interesting. I've never even heard of Voyagers! And TNG was, indeed, delayed in reaching these shores, so the first episode wasn't broadcast until September 1990.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 10 months ago

In other news, guess who's going to get David Tennant's role in the American version of Broadchurch?

http://www.aintitcool.com/node/64450

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Spacewarp 3 years, 10 months ago

Indeed, the first I ever saw of TNG was on VHS in my local video rental store in the mid to late 80s. I would go in every week in the hope of a new release. In these days of the successful Star Trek franchise you forget how exciting New Star Trek actually was.

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Spacewarp 3 years, 10 months ago

At the risk of too much Primeval in this thread, did anyone else really enjoy the recent Canadian "New World" iteration? Lots of timey-wimey and a slow-burning arc that kicked off in the last few episodes, sadly though not enough to save it from cancellation.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 10 months ago

I did mean British shows, yes, as those are the ones that would meaningfully be conceived of primarily as responses to Doctor Who. Influenced by Doctor Who - which I'm willing to buy that TNG was - is not the same as "copy and compete."

And there is no amount of money in the world that will get me to write about Voyagers.

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Ross 3 years, 10 months ago

Most of what I remember about Voyagers! is the rather tragic story of what happened to its star.

That and the episode where they considered "He's a fan of Niccolo Machiavelli" to be absolute irrefutable proof of someone's guilt in a court of law.

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Iain Coleman 3 years, 10 months ago

The article refers to '"Doctor Who" vet Tennant'. I thought that was Davison?

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BerserkRL 3 years, 10 months ago

there is no amount of money in the world that will get me to write about Voyagers

If I were enormously wealthy I would take that as a challenge.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 10 months ago

Ah, but he's a Doctor of everything.

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Chadwick 3 years, 10 months ago

I hope BerserkRL doesn't think I agree with the view on Friar Tuck, but his omission from the series raised a lot of questions and issues that were handled badly by the BBC and the production team for Robin Hood. Why wasn't Tuck there? The press went with a supposed leak from the production team that it was because Tuck's a comic character as he's an overweight glutton and that mockery of fat people was wrong. Cue the "political correctness gone mad" headlines. But the production team failed to respond adequately and made some statements about the relevance of the character that made you think it really was the reason. The other theory going around was that as a Christian religious figure, that was wrong too in today's multi-faith culture or with secular viewers. Again, the response from the production team was slow and not convincing. So that became a stick to beat the show with, which opened up all kinds of accusations that the show was populated with Hollyoaks style youth actors who didn't convince in an action series, the clunky allegories and, inevitably unfavourable comparisons with Robin of Sherwood and other incarnations of the Robin Hood story.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 10 months ago

Brother Tuck appeared in Season 3, as a not-overweight and very serious black man.

I don't suppose that would have exactly have silenced the "political correctness gone mad" crowd.

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