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The Context of 'Doctor Who' 8

So the three pillars which had supported Doctor Who for so long had been undermined to the point where the show had finally been cancelled. Those three fundamentals were: the nature of the Doctor and his role; the shape of the story; and the social context of the programme. For the first fifteen years or so, Doctor Who had managed to flourish on the basis of those three things. The Doctor had begun as a mysterious and ambivalent outsider, intervening in situations throughout time and space, and reflecting in his attitude something of the dying deference of late 1950s and early 1960s Britain; this had evolved, through the remarkable medium of ‘regeneration’, into a younger and more ‘Beatles-friendly’ Doctor, who had similarly revealed nothing of his origin and was a catalyst in the prevalent science-fiction scenarios he became involved in. Then, in the early 1970s, the show had undergone an almost complete re-invention, and the Doctor had become its chief protagonist, his background revealed and his freedom to travel in time and space taken away. This trapped him in the Britain of the times, and saw him caught up in some remarkably political tales. As time went on, though, the story impulse to roam the universe had triumphed over the claustrophobic exile elements: with the Third Doctor’s later adventures, and then with the Fourth Doctor’s travels, opportunities arose for different genres to come to the fore. As Britain entered a dark social period for many, the themes of the stories turned to Gothic horror - and ratings reached their highest levels in the show’s history.

But then things went awry. Responding to protests from the more conservative sector of the audience, the show’s producers ‘toned things down’. Stories lost their way; the Doctor himself, though very much carrying the show on his shoulders now that his central mystery and operating methods had changed so much, changed from the quirky Tom Baker whose personality had just about managed the burden, to the weaker and misdirected Peter Davison. Instead of riding the mood of the country with mild horror stories, plots and scenes became disjointed and nonsensical and the quality of the writing deteriorated. In desperation, a new Doctor was cast who behaved completely out of character as producers sought despairingly to re-establish a place in audience’s hearts. When things went from bad to worse in the ratings, the Doctor was re-cast again and an overarching storyline which attempted to reassert some of the character’s mystery and dignity was introduced, but it was too late. The programme had made too many enemies and was shut down.

Like its protagonist, though, the premise was too powerful to kill altogether. The core fanbase kept various audio productions going and new stories were produced in novel form: Virgin Publishing, BBC Books and Big Finish Productions kept the Doctor alive for many. Loyal fans lived in hope that somehow the programme would one day return to mainstream television. But, as we have speculated, it would only do so successfully if three things could be achieved:

1. The Doctor’s character needed to be understood as ‘mysterious alien’. The Seventh Doctor had begun to recapture that personality, but in the midst of very weak and wandering scripts.

2. Stories needed to follow a pattern which placed less emphasis on the Doctor as such. Far from diminishing the protagonist, a story in which he would play his almost preordained role as a ‘wise old man’ archetype lent power and weight to him.

3. Somehow, the show needed to reconnect to the zeitgeist of the time, the dominant set of ideals and beliefs that motivated Britain in the late twentieth century. (Interestingly, the word ‘zeitgiest’ translates literally as ‘time mind’ or ‘time spirit’.)

But Doctor Who had nowhere to go. Eventually, by 1996, the seeds of rebirth bore fruit: after six plus years off screen, a new, feature length episode of Doctor Who was to make its US premiere. That boded well in one sense - Americanisation had progressed in leaps and bounds in British society during the 1980s, and American input might not totally jar against the expectations a contemporary British audience. But in another sense it was something to be dreaded: if the programme was to be made with American money, it would need American audience response. Could something as innately British as Doctor Who chime with American audiences sufficiently to survive a pilot episode?

Furthermore, the television movie of Doctor Who was to receive a simultaneous nationwide broadcast through the Fox network, something which it had never experienced before. The producers, sensing the pillar of social context on some level, were keen to ram it into place by sheer scale of audience contact. If enough people watched it, in other words, what could possibly go wrong?

Working backwards from what we know made the show so successful during the 60s and 70s, the movie would have to feature an adventure in which some kind of ongoing drama was visited by a mysterious outsider, whose wisdom would catalyse events and save the day. That would restore both the nature of the Doctor as an archetype and the shape of the story as one which didn’t revolve around him as a hero.

In this context, it’s possible to see how the film fails in the first few minutes. Yes, there was an ongoing adventure, as the opening narrative summarises: the trial of the Master. But after that initial voiceover we are very much following the Doctor as a protagonist, travelling in his Tardis. Scene by scene, we continue to follow him as he is shot, deposited in a morgue and regenerates. We are introduced to a new Doctor played by Paul McGann, clearly chosen to be a dynamic and attractive protagonist, as well as a new Master played by Eric Roberts, who was just as clearly chosen as a nemesis for just such a protagonist. Yes, we were given a gloriously new TARDIS interior, and a whole new look and feel that the old series had never been able to achieve, but the shape of the tale meant that the Doctor’s real strengths as an archetype could not be utilised. This, and the target audience of Americans, few of whom understood the core of the show, meant that it was doomed to fail: with 8.3 million viewers it only ranked in 70th position against strong opposition on rival channels.

It cannot be discredited, of course. Enthusiasm for the Doctor’s return ran high in Britain, where audience figures were not a disaster. It was at least an attempt to modernise the show and to bring more up-to-date production values to it. McGann himself was well-chosen and possessed that hint of gravitas which the previous three incarnations of the character had lacked. Introducing a hint of romance and a back story connected to humanity (the suggestion that one of the Doctor’s parents had been human) showed a sensitivity to the need to connect this hero to his audience on an emotional level.

But the film missed the mark - or, to be precise, the three marks: the Doctor’s most successful personality traits were not tapped into; the narrative weakened rather than strengthened this; and the attempt to play to an American audience confused any effort there may have been to re-connect to a British contemporary mood.

Would anyone else be able to get those factors right?

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