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.