I have for the most part avoided significant discussion of Ian Levine, typically gesturing to the fact that eventually I’d do this post. So let’s take the bull by the horns here and lay this question out in its most damningly blunt form: can Ian Levine be blamed for Doctor Who’s cancellation?
This is, of course, terribly unfair. Although no Gareth Jenkins, there’s something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth about a sustained attack on Ian Levine’s role in the series’ history. At the end of the day, Levine in 1985 was a 30-year-old geek and acted the part. He was a poor spokesman for Doctor Who in the public eye, yes. But more than anything one feels bad for him for being put there in the first place. His biggest problem, in many ways, was that he played the role that the cancellation crisis cast him in – slightly maladapted uberfan – too well.
I’d also be lying if I said that, as a 29-year-old socially maladapted Doctor Who fan, I didn’t have at least some visceral understanding of where Levine was coming from. Being an angry geek in 2012 is easy. There’s a whole Internet for hard-headedly arguing on. And adamant as I am that one argues on the Internet for the entertainment of the lurkers, I’m not nearly daft enough to pretend that I don’t like getting to vent obsessively on forums. Where do you think I learned to write 2000 words a day? I’ve been drawn inexorably into being a hard-nosed tit in Internet arguments too many times not to understand Levine. Time warp me into 1985 with no Internet to argue on and give me an in with the production office of Doctor Who and I’d probably smash a television as a publicity stunt too. At least Levine holds down steady employment, which is, let’s face it, more than we can say for my overeducated ass.
And so to some extent one is left wanting to let sleeping dogs lie. 1985 was a long time ago. Ian Levine is nearly 60 now. At some point one has to stop blaming someone for dumb shit they did in their early 30s. And if nothing else, the 1985 crisis is a footnote in the history of a wildly successful show. Perhaps lingering axes to grind exist among those who were making the show – or at least those who are still with us – but it’s tough to say that we the chattering public still have anything at stake in this fight. We’re not so much beating a dead horse as beating the empty space where once a horse carcass lay. These days Levine is mostly just another bloke with a Twitter who says stupid things about Doctor Who or DC Comics occasionally. So really, I’m one to talk.
And so I’ve avoided going too far into Ian Levine. But he can’t be avoided entirely. For one thing, he presents himself as a central player in this time period to this day. If he’s going to be one of the major interviews on the Trials and Tribulations documentary about the hiatus and the wreckage of the Colin Baker era, well, fine. He implicates himself in the judgment. For another, he’s only mostly just another bloke with a Twitter. I’ve occasionally entertained myself by, when Ian Levine has come up in passing on the blog, noting that he has personally told me to go fuck myself. The context of this is illustrative – I rather indecorously called him out on Twitter over his fearmongering in the wake of the whole Private Eye/shortened series kerfuffle with regards to the new series last summer (I shouldn’t have @replied him, for what it’s worth – that was rude of me). Which is to say, if he’s going to repeat the errors of 1985 and raise fearmongering panics over the future of Doctor Who, well, that, at least, remains perfectly fair game to criticize him for.
But perhaps most importantly, if most tragically, Levine serves as too useful a metaphor to let go of. He’s not the only person to have views on Doctor Who like his. But he’s the most high profile. And he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. His views caused measurable, definable damage to Doctor Who. I think a very compelling case can be made that were it not for some of his actions Doctor Who could have returned from its hiatus in a stronger position and that it needn’t have gone off the air in 1989. Is he the sole architect of that failure? God no. But he’s inexorable from it. And because he, both through his own actions and through the actions of others, got positioned as the archetype of a particular type of Doctor Who fan he serves, in many ways, as a symbol for a particular set of destructive impulses within fandom and their problems. Which is to say that, as with Gareth Jenkins, our collective disdain for Ian Levine is largely self-loathing.
Unlike Jenkins, though, I can’t get around the need to deal with what Levine is a symbol of. And unlike Jenkins, there are things in his adult life that are valid sources of criticism. So with the knowledge that in 30 years time someone is going to nail me to the wall as the archetype of a disastrously smug postmodern turn in fandom, and that I will fully and completely deserve this fate, here’s my one post of obligatory Levine skewering.
At the heart of my criticism of Levine, at least, is the fact that he is a shining example of why conflicts of interest are dangerous. He is, within Doctor Who, the original professional fan. But his professional status was enormously contested. He was the continuity advisor to the early John Nathan-Turner era, but this was explicitly and deliberately an unofficial role. In blunter terms, he was paid with access instead of money. This is just one example of what I’ve more broadly called the fan-industrial complex, but it’s a real problem – Levine was simultaneously serving as the high profile voice of fandom while getting perks from the show. The result was that one of the go-to sources for quotes about Doctor Who fandom was, by and large, happy to serve as a mouthpiece for the producer.
What gives all of this an upsettingly cynical tinge is the fact that in the aftermath of the suspension crisis Levine was one of the large bloc of fandom that turned aggressively on Nathan-Turner. In Levine’s account the breaking point was the casting of Bonnie Langford, but the fact remains that the overwhelming bulk of fandom abandoned Nathan-Turner following the cancellation crisis and Trial of a Time Lord. (Indeed, there’s still traces of a fan orthodoxy that viewed the McCoy era as a disaster. While it’s overstating the case to suggest that anybody who dislikes McCoy is guilty of this, the fact remains that a significant thread of McCoy bashing has its roots in nothing more than the fact that fandom decided in 1986 that anything Nathan-Turner did was rubbish.) This is, in many ways, Levine’s modus operandi, and it’s a fair part of why he comes in for so much criticism – he’s reliably among the first on the scene when there’s some visible glory to be snatched, has an astonishingly bad track record in picking what horses to back, and is ruthlessly swift with blame-shifting once it becomes obvious that he’s involved in a turkey.
As I noted at the time, then, there is perhaps no fact more revealing about Ian Levine than that he seeks to take the credit for Attack of the Cybermen. It is, after all, something of a rarity – the only other thing he actively takes a lion’s share of the credit for is missing episode recovery, and there his contributions have pretty conclusively been shown to be overstated. (He did indeed find a few, but fewer than he says, and his self-proclaimed role in stopping the junkings ignores the tremendous role that Sue Malden played. This isn’t to say, as some people attempt to, that he was uninvolved – he had some real contributions – but the legend exceeds the reality. Richard Moleworth’s alarmingly definitive Wiped the number of episodes Levine both actually discovered and returned promptly to the BBC instead of sitting on them for several years is six. Levine did serve as a clearinghouse – the people who did find the episodes often went through him in returning them to the BBC – but his actual find count numbers six. This is still a lot, but it’s considerably less than he claims. More troubling is the fact that in several cases Levine sat on missing episodes for some time before returning them to the BBC. Ostensibly this is because of collectors who had missing episodes but would only trade them for other missing episodes instead of selling them. The problem with this assertion is straightforward: no episode has ever been recovered in that manner.)
It is, of course, a mistake to suggest that Levine is purely or even primarily responsible for the series’ continuity fetishism from seasons 19-22. But equally, the fact that Levine is actually eager to take the credit for Attack of the Cybermen points to the fact that he is as strong an advocate for such an approach as exists. Certainly all records of what suggestions over the course of his unofficial tenure as continuity advisor indicate this. And this gets at the heart of where Ian Levine, to my mind, starts to acquire some active blame for the series’ cancellation. Because he believed the primary audience of Doctor Who was Doctor Who fans, and at a key moment in the course of the suspension the production team, using Ian Levine as their mouthpiece, doubled down on that view catastrophically.
Before any discussion of the suspension crisis it’s necessary to try to square away exactly what happened. On February 27th, 1985, it was announced that Doctor Who would not be coming back for eighteen months after Season 22. Central to any interpretation of what follows, however, is what we think this announcement actually meant. The conventional wisdom is that the eighteen month delay was a front for an actual cancellation of the series. The reason this is widely believed, however, is deceptive: both Michael Grade and Ian Levine say it was, and since they’re on polar opposite sides of this kerfuffle everyone believes it.
The trouble is that the actual evidence is thin on the ground. Certainly the initial announcements when the story broke were that it was an eighteen month break. Is it possible, as both Levine and Grade imply, that this was a case of breaking the bad news into small chunks and that after eighteen months the show was still not going to come back? In theory, yes. But it’s worth noting that Doctor Who wasn’t the only show cancelled in this period. So far as I can tell, Crackerjack and the other shows cancelled around this time were not announced as delayed – they were cancelled outright. So the very fact that Doctor Who’s suspension was announced as a delay suggests strongly that it was, in fact, a delay all along. To think otherwise is to assume that the BBC was capable of long-term conspiracy. Put simply, there’s very little evidence they were that composed or competent in 1985.
This raises the question of why Levine and Grade, who are otherwise proponents of seemingly irreconcilable positions, find themselves allies on this point. The answer is much like the answer every other time, in the course of looking at history in this blog, we’ve found a fundamental alliance between two seemingly diametrically opposed positions – that there’s another alternative position that both sides want erased. Because there’s one tacit point of agreement between Levine and Grade, which is that Doctor Who is primarily for fans.
It’s obvious enough why this position suits Levine, but one might fairly ask why it suited Grade. The answer is simple: Grade needed a pantomime villain to position his broader reforms of the BBC against, and Doctor Who fans were an easy target. Grade’s mandate was to make the BBC more like a commercial broadcaster and less like the public service broadcaster it was. This is an unsurprising position to come upon in the height of the Thatcher years, where the idea of a public service broadcaster – particularly one that stubbornly refused to just be a mouthpiece for the government – was anathema. It was tremendously convenient for Grade to be able to position himself in opposition to a group as visibly pathetic as Doctor Who fans. Doctor Who was, after all, easily mocked. So Grade had a show he could rail against the production values of and have everyone acknowledge that he was right, then make a joke about how a small number of people stayed up all night in their parents’ basement writing letters to complain and hit a known stereotype of Doctor Who fans. And then poof – he’s saving the BBC for the masses from the clutches of some entitled man-children. How very convenient. And this is what people should hate Michael Grade for – not for cancelling Doctor Who, but for using its fans as his own private Arthur Scargill.
But we know that, by all appearances, he didn’t really want to cancel the show outright. Or, at least, he didn’t try to cancel it outright in 1985. Which leaves us with the uncomfortable implication that it was the Levine-fronted fan campaign to save Doctor Who that gave Grade the opportunity he needed to make Doctor Who into his punching bag of choice. And here we begin to approach the erased alternative to what actually happened.
It is worth noting that there was, in fact, a massive wave of popular attention directed towards Doctor Who during the suspension crisis, with both The Sun and The Daily Star running “save Doctor Who” campaigns. The former is explicable enough – they were fed an almost certainly fictitious line about how the BBC was trying to bluff the government into giving them money and jumped on it as part of their standing hostility to the BBC. (The fact that Michael Grade’s later career is as a Tory peer in the House of Lords suggests that any theory based on him wanting to start a fight with the government is speculative at best.) But The Daily Star is not a particularly political paper, and even The Sun, for all its overt political agenda, won’t touch something without a strong populist angle. That both would launch “Save Doctor Who” campaigns, in other words, suggests that Doctor Who was still beloved by a wider public.
This is the position, of course, that’s excluded from both Ian Levine and Michael Grade’s account. Levine is so utterly obsessed with Doctor Who’s cult fandom aspects that he genuinely doesn’t seem to care about a mass audience. And this is why Attack of the Cybermen, though not even the worst story of its season, is the one that’s such an easy target – it’s the one that doesn’t even pretend that there’s a reason to watch the show other than a Whoniverse fetish. And this is what’s staggeringly absent from all of Levine’s defenses of the program in 1985 and 1986 – the actual defences of the program. Levine takes it almost completely for granted that Doctor Who is fantastic and wonderful, and just lays into the BBC for not appreciating its splendor. When, in truth, there are clearly a large number of people who want to like Doctor Who but who are, at the moment, failing to actually do so.
The issue here, and it’s a big one, is that Doctor Who was never a cult show in the UK before 1985. It had its embarrassing fans, sure, but it was mainstream entertainment. Even in 1985 there’s an odd tension between its return to Saturdays (its supposed “proper” timeslot, and one targeted at a family audience) and its descent even further into the cult-TV rabbit hole of the Whoniverse. Even in the US – where it actually was an obscure cult show – it didn’t work like a traditional piece of cult science fiction. Certainly it was never the show Ian Levine wanted it to be, and the good will of the public that had sustained it for twenty-two years had nothing to do with any of the things Ian Levine liked about the program. In this regard Levine was the exact wrong face for the public campaign to save the series simply because the series he loved wasn’t one the public wanted saved. If they had, they’d have watched it. They didn’t, and the ratings showed that.
And this isn’t, to be clear, a swipe at fans. Clearly Doctor Who had plenty of fans in the 1980s who knew what the public loved about the series. You can tell because, well, they’re writing it now and the public loves it. Ian Levine was no more representative of fandom than he was of the general public. Levine represented the fan-industrial complex, not fandom. And that position – that blindness to the quality of the show – is what set him up for the epic pratfall that was his public defense of it.
In this regard, it can’t be ignored that the press campaign spearheaded by Levine was done with the explicit approval of Nathan-Turner, who, for reasons of obvious propriety, couldn’t blast his bosses in the press personally. But equally, this reveals the show’s “save Doctor Who” campaign for what it was – a “save John Nathan-Turner’s reputation” campaign that adamantly denied that the series had gone off the rails in the first place. And what’s tragic is that all of this was avoidable. It’s not just Levine’s failure, nor even just the production staff’s – Jonathan Powell has been open about how there was no institutional will to reinvent Doctor Who.
But for that matter, its not all that clear that in late February of 1985 there was a sense in the BBC that Doctor Who needed a reinvention. Again we come back to the seeming fact that the suspension was never supposed to be that permanent. Yes, it was a vote of no confidence in the production team, but it clearly wasn’t a full one or else there would have been an alternative in place. In reality it looks like budgets were tight for that year and so they took some long-running programs off the air to free up money for other things. (We’ll talk about those other things in a few entries, but it’s worth noting that 1985/86 was a phenomenally good period for BBC dramas.) They always intended to put the program back, and accepted, broadly speaking, that it was going to be a program they thought was crap but that other people seemed to like. It was just a program they didn’t care enough about to keep on the air when they were short on cash. And in this regard, going ballistic at the BBC over it forced the BBC’s hand. At that point they had to defend their actions, and between the program’s low quality and the gigantic bullseye Ian Levine was painting on his back, well, the defense of the BBC’s actions wasn’t hard – they blamed the low quality of the series.
Which brings us to “Doctor In Distress,” Ian Levine’s charity single to save Doctor Who. That the song and lyrics are appallingly bad has been pointed out enough that I have no need or reason to join the pile. Less often noted, but still significant, is that the song is yet another example of too perfect a metaphor. Here are a bunch of pathetic C-list celebrities singing a terrible song about how good Doctor Who is. The result is confirmation of how bad Doctor Who is – so bad that it inspires crap like this and that people like this like it.
But there’s a larger and more interesting problem. Let’s, for the moment, take “Doctor In Distress” seriously, if only because nobody else ever has. Inasmuch as the song forms an argument for the series’ existence, what is the argument? Let’s look at the first verse: “It was a cold wet night in November 22 years ago / It was a police box in a junkyard – we didn’t know where it would go / An old man took two teachers into time and space / It started off a legend that no other could replace.” What is telling here is that it is the legend, it seems, that is irreplaceable, not the show itself. This is reflected in the chorus – it is the Doctor who is in distress and whose SOS is being answered. Not the show, but the fictional character. Similarly, the lines “If we stop his travels, he’ll be in a mess / The galaxy will fall to evil once more / With nightmarish monsters fighting a war” are puzzling in that they seem to suggest that the biggest danger of Doctor Who’s’ cancellation is that imaginary species will run riot without him.
Indeed, what is strangest about the song is that the Doctor himself is curiously absent from it. The only point where he’s described is in the line “We learned to accept six Doctors with companions at their side,” as if the Doctor is some imposition on his own show that gets in the way. The companions fare little better, with the line “Each screaming girl just hoped that a Yeti wouldn’t shoot her” suggesting an almost total extraneousness to a show that is really about monsters. And let’s be more explicit – specifically about recurring monsters. The lyrics don’t focus on bits of the show that are well-remembered by the public (or else Autons and maggots would appear) but on bits that have appeared multiple times.
All of this bespeaks a larger hubris implicit in the song. It’s overtly modeled on songs like “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (released a few months earlier) and “We Are the World” (released a week earlier). But, well, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and “We Are The World” are about famine in Africa. There’s something phenomenally, jaw-droppingly wrong about appropriating a format created to fight famine in Africa for the purposes of bitching that you have to wait eighteen months for the next episode of your favorite sci-fi show. And this blindness mirrors itself uncannily in the lyrics themselves – most obviously when the line “That police box takes him everywhere” is followed by “Oh! Bring him back!” in a way that oddly implies that the basic and expansive premise of Doctor Who – the ability of it to do anything – is antithetical to what its fans want. The song is, in the end, a monument to nothing more than fan privilege in such a distended and warped form that the very thing that it ostensibly calls for is excised. If we treat Doctor Who over Season 22 as having gone through an exorcism, “Doctor In Distress” is the horrifying moment when fandom looks at all of the putrescent material that the season exposed and shouts “Yes! That’s what we love! Bring it back, don’t hesitate!”
And in all of this, it’s difficult not to see the fan-industrial complex, and by extension Levine, as very much to blame. Because let’s face it – The Daily Star, if not The Sun, were going to pick this one up either way. The Sun had fought to save K-9 only five years earlier. But had that campaign not been the one we had, with offensive charity singles and photographs of angry-looking men smashing televisions, it’s easy to imagine a wave of populist pressure to reinvent Doctor Who instead of preserve it. Hints of it existed at the time. Jon Pertwee, for instance, went hilariously off-message in suggesting that they bring back past Doctors for a season each. Though this would probably have been disastrous, it again gets at the fact that there were other angles to take – that people wanted Doctor Who, they just didn’t want John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward’s Doctor Who. The idea that they wanted Barry Letts’s again in 1985 was ludicrous, sure. But had fandom not been so blinded by the fan-industrial complex and the dishy access to their idols it granted them one can easily imagine a fan response to the suspension that was based not on “bring it back now we won’t take less” but on “can we please have a worthy program again with some proper writers?”
But instead we got the John Nathan-Turner Legacy Preservation Campaign. And by the time Levine went off-message and leaked the cut in episode order for the return, an incident that seems to have been more or less where he and Nathan-Turner stopped getting on, the damage was irrevocable. Michael Grade had a convenient enemy, John Nathan-Turner had ensured his job and that he could just carry on as he had been, and we were all set for the disastrous reinvention that wasn’t of Trial of a Time Lord. It would take just a year more for the show to begin its turnaround, and by 1988, as we’ll see, it got to where it was a show that the public could plausibly have embraced. But by then it was too late. Public outrage had been squandered on defending the desiccated corpse of a series left at the end of Season 22. The show was, as of April of 1985, finally completely doomed.