The first question with one of these, and by “one of these” I mean bits of Doctor Who made post-2005 that are not television episodes, is why it exists. This is not pejorative in the least – it’s just that with all the brand management that goes into Doctor Who post-2005, causing an officially licensed story featuring David Tennant’s Doctor as the lead character to exist is non-trivial. There are meetings, and budgets, and all sorts of non-trivial processes and hoops to jump through. Which means that a project like Dreamland only exists because of a complex network of politicized corporate decisions.
In the context of 2009, at least, it’s easy to understand. Doctor Who was being very naughty, after all. Coming off of its hottest year ever, a program that was pulling in a fantastic amount of money for the BBC decided to kick up its feet and take a year off prior to returning in a new and altogether more uncertain form. It was a massively high risk strategy, and the fact that Davies (and Moffat) could get away with it speaks volumes about how successful Doctor Who was and how unassailable Davies’s position was at that time. Nevertheless, there were, so to speak, bills to pay and favors due all around. The absence of Doctor Who proper meant an unusual amount of what we might call Doctor Who improper; things like The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith.
Which is to say that a fair part of why the BBC whipped up a roughly episode-length string of six animated episodes to throw onto the recently renamed BBC Red Button service was because Doctor Who owed the BBC a promotional favor, much as the outsized presence of Tennant and Piper in the 2005 Children in Need broadcast existed as a counterweight to the unusual decision to make “Pudsey Cutaway” a straight bit of Doctor Who instead of something that gave way to a comedic conceit at some point. The major purpose of Dreamland was to give the BBC Red Button service something a-list to air.
At least, that’s the one hand. On the other hand, Dreamland is a rather obviously cheaply made bit of fluff that got farmed out to a de facto Big Finish team with Gary Russell directing and Big Finish stalwarts David Warner and Lisa Bowerman popping up to act. Large swaths of the cast, most blatantly Tim Howar, have clearly not looked at the script prior to recording lines for it. Tennant, as with The Infinite Quest, is on autopilot that’s tempered only by his underlying skill. And the animation style is, to be charitable, complete shit.
This is, to say the least, a problem. There’s a general assumption that animation is somehow easy or trivial – within Doctor Who it’s seen most clearly in the reflexive belief that animating any missing stories that Phil Morris doesn’t happen to be sitting on is just a straightforward and unambiguously sane thing to do, not, apparently, realizing that animation is phenomenally difficult and complex unless you’re actively going for something that supports what might be called a low-fi aesthetic (South Park, for instance, where the fact that the characters all look like paper cutouts is part of the show’s point and conceit). Consider, for instance, the widely criticized Reign of Terror animation by Theta Sigma, who are actually very good animators, but who slightly misapplied their skills by doing a relatively fast-cutting style with lots of neat camera angles that just fails to look like (or be paced right) for first-season Hartnell.
All of which is to say that Dreamland’s opting for cheap CGI animation is exactly the wrong approach, giving the entire production the feel of a cut scene from a turn-of-the-millennium Playstation game. The result perfectly illustrates why fan-animated reconstructions are nobody’s missing episode methadone of choice. Everyone has dead eyes and expressionless faces, and spends their time lurching around unsatisfyingly. Action sequence are only accomplishable by cloning the same object repeatedly. The whole thing looks cheap, and the often phoned-in vocals don’t help it in the least.
Underneath this, however, is a Phil Ford script. Ford is the quiet workhorse of the late Davies era, banging out multiple Sarah Jane Adventures scripts a year, a Torchwood, the initial draft of Waters of Mars, and now this. It is difficult to identify anything he’s done that’s particularly flashy: his best script was openly rewritten by Davies. His Sarah Jane Adventures tend to be the ones we talk about in the context of “well here’s Sarah Jane Adventures trying to do a pretty straightforward sort of story and not messing it up.” But equally, one can scour his CV at length looking for an outright stinker and never find it. His best turn is probably Something Borrowed on Torchwood, which provided a sorely needed comedic beat to an otherwise excessively dire second season.
In many ways this is good. An overly elaborate and ambitious script would have floundered against the realities of the production. Instead we have a script based around a tried and true Doctor Who structure – the Doctor and company get captured, learn something crucial, and then escape so that they can get captured again. All that’s required is a reasonably large collection of places to escape to and from, which Ford generates with relative ease by creating three separate factions of villains who are interrelated but distinct, thus leaving lots of room for running around. Combined with the smart decision to double the episode length from the last attempt at this and you have something that’s paced like a decent adventure. It comes unglued in the finale, which needlessly adds an extra monster and location to the plot before using the MacGuffin in a wholly arbitrary way that doesn’t seem to extend out of anything we’ve seen before, but for the most part it moves along.
And yet it’s hard not to find it hollow. There are many reasons for this: the phoned-in American setting, complete with some rather awful attempts at Native American characters (Jimmy Stalkingwolf? Really?), a curiously unsubversive take on Area 51 and Roswell, and the general misfortune involved in being something this light and fluffy that’s situated between The Waters of Mars and The End of Time. Certainly there’s room for a proper Doctor Who/UFO story, or at least, there still was in 2009 before Moffat finally ticked most of the boxes, but this just isn’t it. And it knows it; it’s just a fluffy animated special. The US setting is being used because Roswell is something Doctor Who hasn’t actually done, as opposed to because anyone has an idea on how to handle it.
This sounds, in practice, like a mostly unceasing stream of abuse and criticism, and in fairness, it is. Floating around all of this is the same malaise that made Totally Doctor Who and The Infinite Quest so frustrating, which is that it’s clear that somewhere along the line someone decided that because this was “for kids” it didn’t actually have to be good. And yet equally, something that’s dumped on BBC Red Button to air over the course of a week in between the final two Tennant stories… actually doesn’t have to be that good. It’s no worse than a bog standard Big Finish audio or a dashed off New Series Adventure, and that’s ultimately the league it’s competing in. Or at least, the league it’s aiming for and largely getting right.
But in the context of the specials year, it feels more outsized. The Infinite Quest could be lousy in a fairly disposable, borderline fun way. It was, after all, firmly gravy on top of a season that coincided with a season of Torchwood and one of The Sarah Jane Adventures. But Dreamland is in the context of a year where Doctor Who was largely off the air, and served as Tennant’s penultimate appearance as the Doctor. That’s a bigger set of shoes to fit into. And Dreamland flubs it. As, to be fair, has a lot of the specials year. The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead were both curiously flat as well.
And this gets at one thing that is worth realizing about 2009 in Doctor Who, which is that the series had gotten to the point of ridiculously inflated expectations. It was so popular, and had gotten so epic and mythic that mere competence was no longer a viable option for it. Which is, perhaps, another way to look at the impending need for a regeneration and refocusing of the program. If Doctor Who has gotten to the point where a fun if rather duff bit of animated adventure is largely disappointing then something has to change. For all that it’s easy to identify the numerous faults of Dreamland, the fact is that there’s nothing disqualifyingly awful about it. It shouldn’t feel as mediocre and vapid as it does. And it’s only because the nature of 2009 was that Doctor Who had an unsustainable mandate to be extraordinary, instead of being free to screw up as needed. In a sense, the Davies era had gotten too big.