The BBC, of course, had done this to some extent for years. In terms of Doctor Who, this has been tracked extensively by the folks at BroaDWcast. But notably, these sales were mostly to Commonwealth countries, with Hartnell and Troughton stories often airing well into the 1970s. Despite Innes Lloyd eying the possibility in the 1960s (hence the conscious reintroduction to the premise of the show at the start of Tomb of the Cybermen), no successful effort to show Doctor Who in the US happens until 1972, when Time Life, who bought the distribution rights, sells a package of Pertwee episodes to a PBS station in Philadelphia. (In a moment of explaining things to a different side of the Atlantic than usual, PBS is basically what the BBC would be if Rupert Murdoch got his way – an underfunded and stitched together coalition of local stations with an extreme lack of money for producing new content outside the children’s market. They market to the sorts of people who in the UK watch a lot of BBC4 and read The Guardian. But more on them in a few paragraphs.) But it’s not really until the late 70s/early 80s when Doctor Who manages to take off in a meaningful sense in the US, so we’ll mostly drop that strand until… oh, The Five Doctors sounds like a pretty good place to pick it up next, no?
The logic behind this is fairly straightforward: there are a whole lot of English speakers in the US, so it’s a really obvious market to sell in. But right around now there’s an odd transition going on in the nature of what a typical UK to US export looks like. In the 1960s, had we done a piece on exports, we’d have talked mostly about ITC – Lew Grade’s production company that made, of the things we’ve talked about so far, The Prisoner. In the UK, Grade’s shows went to ITV, whereas in the US they usually ended up in CBS.
Several things characterize the ITC approach. First of all, they were generally budgeted with the export market in mind. This gave them the budgets to do glitzy action set pieces that BBC productions couldn’t touch. Second, they were generally put together so that episode order didn’t matter that much. Even a limited run show such as The Prisoner really only needs its first and last two episodes aired in the correct positions in the run. Third, they were often made by Gerry Anderson.
We should pause here and talk a little bit about Gerry Anderson, just because I’ve kind of ruthlessly and inexcusably skipped him. I was going to do a Thunderbirds entry, but the end of the Troughton era was getting crowded and I found the five minute sample of Thunderbirds I watched dull and I just decided to cut it and come back later. Actually, I did talk about Anderson a fair bit over here. And said I’d talk more about him later, so I suppose it’s later now.
Anderson, basically, is one of the great masters of schlock action stories. He is Terry Nation with a flair for the visual. His initial success was in children’s television in the 1960s with a technique he cleverly branded Supermarionation, in which marionettes were controlled by extremely thin metal wires that could also transmit electricity to handle facial movements and things. The result was an iconic visual style that could be wrapped around quality action pieces just so long as nobody actually had to walk.
In the 70s, however, Anderson reinvented himself as a live action producer with some significant successes. And then there was Space: 1999 – his Waterloo, if you will. I approached Space: 1999 with… not so much trepidation as bemusement. For a variety of reasons, Space: 1999 is something of a punchline in science fiction fandom. The most obvious reason is that, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey and 1984, it is one of the great examples of a title that took a gamble on a date and got it completely wrong. Tragically, our nuclear waste dumps on the moon did not explode in 1999 sending the moon hurtling out of orbit onto an interstellar voyage.
But there are subtler reasons. Space: 1999 is one of the archetypal examples of the fringe cult show. By this I mean that it has enough fans that if you go to a sci-fi con, or at least an American one, you will have several, often very, very dedicated Space: 1999 fans (though this is less true now due to generational shifts in fandom). However, and this is equally if not more important, you will never find enough Space: 1999 fans to make doing anything that caters to them financially sensible. (Other examples of the fringe cult show include Buck Rogers, classic Battlestar Galactica, and until recently, erm… Doctor Who, actually. At least in the US.)
There are many things that characterize this sort of show, and a much larger discussion to be had about science fiction post-Star Trek and, in turn, post-Star Wars and the demise of the golden age aesthetic, but let’s save that for the inevitable Star Wars post. Instead, let’s just sum up the basic logic of Space: 1999, which amounts to “let’s do a really big budget sci-fi show.” The problem is that it was basically a complete disaster. Within the UK it failed for straightforward reasons – the fragmented nature of the ITV system meant that it didn’t have a consistent airtime and, in fact, ITV’s fabled Doctor Who killer failed to actually air opposite Doctor Who consistently. This led to extended and focused efforts to revamp ITV, generally with the tried and true method of hiring BBC talent and paying them about four times as much to do shows that weren’t as good as what they’d been doing on the BBC. (See also Forsyth, Bruce and, more recently Ross, Jonathan.)
In the US its failure was more subtle. The show was, after all, carefully tuned to the US market, grabbing Barbara Bain and Martin Landau from the recently-finished Mission: Impossible as stars so that the show let American. But US networks were getting increasingly good at making homegrown shows in a more or less ITC style – things like Land of the Lost, or, for that matter, Mission: Impossible. And they were increasingly less interested in just buying a huge chunk of British episodes. As a result, US distribution of Space: 1999 was often outside of prime time and on local unaffiliated channels, only some of which were major powerhouses.
And, of course, there was perhaps the larger issue – Space: 1999 sucked. Barbara Bain, in particular, was godawful in it. The plots were wretched. The dialogue was often more wretched. They even hired Pip and Jane Baker. The effects were quite good, but that’s about the only remotely positive thing that can be said about the series. The result basically ended Anderson’s career until a 90s nostalgia revival in his old Supermarionated material allowed him a late career comeback. But if Space: 1999 marked more or less the end of the era where the UK exported glossy and cinematic action serials to the US, there was at the same time a rise of a very different sort of UK-to-US export with a considerably more enduring legacy. And for that we turn to I, Claudius.
It is not that I, Claudius is the first BBC series of its kind. It’s not. But it is without a doubt one of the most important and acclaimed. It didn’t actually make it out to the US until 1977 as part of Masterpiece Theater, a PBS series devoted not entirely but at least substantively to airing British (usually BBC) dramas, focusing largely but not exclusively on period drama. Masterpiece Theater has in fact been around since 1971, but the gist of it is straightforward: PBS realized that their upmarket viewers would probably enjoy British programming that felt British, and that nobody else in the US would air most of these programs, which meant they were relatively cheap to acquire as such things went.
I, Claudius being the archetypal example of this. I’m actually not going to go too into detail on the specifics of I, Claudius (Although rewatching a few episodes, I admit that I was vaguely scandalized that my Latin teacher in high school showed us the series senior year. Jesus that’s a lot of sex.) mainly because for our purposes here the specifics of the show are far less interesting than its basic approach. The heart of I, Claudius – and really of the classic BBC period drama in general – comes from the fact that it developed not out of the cinematic tradition that Space: 1999 (and the ITC genre in general) aspired to, but out of a theatrical tradition.
The BBC, at least in its earliest conception, was in part a sort of national theater. We haven’t talked about this tradition in a long time, but it has come up before. But on the most basic level, BBC drama drew on actors from the theatrical tradition. On one level, this is just a nice way of saying that BBC drama looks cheap. I mean, the BBC has some fantastic costume designers and can knock together a period set like nobody’s business, but the fact of the matter is that Space: 1999 is a glitzy action series with explosions and space adventures, and I, Claudius is a bunch of middle aged men talking to each other at great length. Another way of looking at it, however, is to look at it as a facet of a fundamental division between American and English styles of drama. And the easiest way of doing that is probably to look at actors.
It would be too much of a generalization to say that British and American actors have completely different approaches. But there is a real difference in what you might call the default technique of each. American acting, since the mid-20th century, has been dominated by various forms of the Method. Although it’s much more common in 2011 to see people reject that label, Method acting is usually defined by a heavy focus on the actor’s psychological state and on getting it to match the state of the character. (Though this is often accomplished by finding experiences in the actor’s own past or aspects of the actor’s own personality to draw on.)
The British tradition, on the other hand, tends to be based more on making conscious decisions about the character and following through on them. In this approach, the actor focuses less on the authenticity of the character and more on acting as a communicative practice – on how the acting conveys information about the character. This school tends to be based heavily on gesture and facial expression.
These days the dividing line is pretty lax. Matt Smith, for instance, is British, but uses lots of Method techniques in his acting. But he modeled his portrayal of the Doctor on Troughton, who is just about the least Method actor ever. But it still captures a basic division in aesthetics that is close to that of the cinematic/theatrical distinction between Space: 1999 and I, Claudius. Space: 1999, like the Method, is about creating things to be looked at. The Method tries to create a seamlessly realistic character that is observed voyeuristically through the fourth wall. I, Claudius, on the other hand, is about displaying the complex machinations of people and about communicating the various depths and contradictions of them. In other words, we’re not supposed to look at characters in I, Claudius. Instead we’re supposed to study them and try to understand them. In fact, if we don’t pay attention and think carefully about what actors are trying to communicate in I, Claudius, we’ll miss information. Whereas with the Method, the actors are supposed to disappear.
So it’s worth noting that at almost the same time the cinematic ITC style was flickering out as a viable form of export the BBC was busily nailing down a new style of export in which the old television play dynamic is used and a bunch of the really excellent actors that the UK is positively lousy with sit down on a BBC set and allowed to talk to each other a bunch. And this proves a reliable success for the BBC that continues to the present day – indeed, not just for the BBC, as ITV are busily proving with Downton Abbey these days.
This is a thread that’s going to develop a lot as the blog moves forward and these two approaches begin to intermingle more and more. But for now lets simply observe that for all of its love of the occasional action set piece, right now one of the absolute most interesting things about Doctor Who is that it is a science fiction show – a genre usually associated with the cinematic approach – that nevertheless acts like a television play in most regards. And that distinction, in both the extended and immediate future (and for that matter in the past), is going to prove enormously significant for the series in both good and bad ways.