Saturday, September 11, 2010

Doctor Who: After "Survival"

So Doctor Who was cancelled and you might think that would be the end of it... but it wasn't. After all, what do Time Lords do when they die? Regenerate into another form of course! In this case the good Doctor went to print.

Virgin Publishing -- that's the publication arm of Richard Branson's insanely sprawling multi-media empire -- got the licensing rights to Doctor Who from the BBC and in 1991 they began publishing all-new adventures of the Seventh Doctor and his companion, Ace. Over the years they would add new, original companions as well -- one of the most popular being Bernice "Benny" Summerfield, an archaeologist and adventurer. In point of fact, Benny became so popular she spun off into her own series of books and audio adventures from Big Finish (more on them later).

Rather smartly, Virgin accepted stories from a number of former Doctor Who writers such as Ben Aaronovitch and Marc Platt. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to what fans refer to as "The Cartmel Master Plan".

When Andrew Cartmel was brought on board as Doctor Who's script editor he was determined to shake things up. He believed that one of the problems with the series was that the Doctor had become too well-known to fans. In the beginning he was a mysterious figure -- we didn't know where he came from or why he ran away, we didn't know anything about his people or his home. Over the years that changed until it got to the point that the Doctor could pop back to Gallifrey any old time (a rather grave change from the Time Lords who cruelly exiled the Second Doctor for his "meddling") and the Time Lords were as familiar, and as interesting, as a group of 70 year-old career politicians. Cartmel wanted to re-inject some mystery back into the Doctor.

Cartmel himself never referred to his ideas as a "Master Plan" and, in fact, did not know that fans did so until many years later. As it was his ideas were just that... ideas and suggestions that he tossed around with some of the writers for the show. What emerged was this idea that the Doctor was more than just another Time Lord -- that he was actually this reincarnation of a very powerful figure in Time Lord history -- an early Gallifreyan who had helped to found and start the Time Lord society and that this being, known as "the Other", was actually something of a demi-god to the Time Lords. Tied to this was a further idea that, being the Other, the Doctor had more powers than an ordinary Time Lord -- powers that he did not use. One idea was that the Doctor would end up encountering the cosmic personification of Time herself and he would be pushed into becoming "Time's Champion" and in this role would end up having to use more of his powers and abilities.

Cartmel quickly realized, however, that if he explained everything then it would put him right back where he was before with the Doctor no longer being a source of mystery and enigma. Therefore Cartmel and the other writers decided to content themselves with merely hinting at things and stringing the story out. Of course, the series was cancelled before all but the smallest little hints had been dropped.

Another story aspect which the writers had intended to work towards was the eventual departure of Ace as a companion. Had there been a season 27 then they would have continued laying the groundwork they had begun at the end of season 26 of showing Ace maturing and growing up and becoming a more stable person. Even though Sophie Aldred had not indicated a desire to depart the show yet Cartmel and the others felt that, after three seasons, they should make some changes to the cast and halfway through season 27 was felt to be a good departure point for Ace so that they could then introduce Ace's replacement and get her settled in the part before the season closed.

The plan was for it to be revealed that the Doctor had been grooming Ace all this time to go to Gallifrey, enter the Academy and become a Time Lord -- the first human to become a Time Lord. The tone of it was going to indicate that the Doctor felt that Time Lord society had become too hidebound and it was time for some new blood to shake things up.

When the series was cancelled obviously all these plans went for naught... until Virgin Publishing showed up. Seizing their chance, the writers used the books to introduce a number of their unused ideas from their scripts. Marc Platt, for instance, got to reveal much of the Doctor's past and his family in the book Lungbarrow. The writers found that at least one benefit of writing for books instead of TV was that the sky was the limit since they were not hampered by the limitations of budget or special effects.

The Seventh Doctor published adventures became known by fans as "The Virgin New Adventures" series but in 1994 Virgin Publishing branched out and began publishing books featuring the previous six Doctors in all-new adventures which were taking place in-between the TV stories. This range became known as the "Virgin Missing Adventures" series.

Then there was the blip on the radar in 1993... Every year there is a huge charity drive called "Children in Need" which raises funds to benefit a children's hospital and children's health care. It is a big deal in Great Britain and the telethon attached to it has long been known for special events and stunts. In point of fact, the anniversary episode "The Five Doctors" (which I've already reviewed) first aired as part of Children in Need. As 1993 was the 30th anniversary of the show (even though it was no longer on the air) Jonathan Nathan-Turner managed a herculean feat in that he gathered all of then then surviving Doctors and many of the companions to appear in two short episodes over two days of the telethon. The plot (what there was of it) involved the various Doctors and companions mixing and matching and jumping from time point to time point while the villainous Time Lady known as the Rani tried to destroy them. As William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton had passed away at this time computer generated images of them were shown already captured. Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy all appeared as the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors respectively and Carole Ann Ford appeared as Susan, Deborah Watling as Victoria, Caroline John as Liz Shaw, Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Richard Franklin as Captain Mike Yates, Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, Louise Jameson as Leela, Lalla Ward as Romana, Sarah Sutton as Nyssa, Nicola Bryant as Peri, Bonnie Langford as Mel, Sophie Aldred as Ace and John Leeson provided the voice of K-9. The short, called "Dimensions in Time", can be found floating around the Internet (usually in a rather poor copy which was taped off of someone's TV on a VCR back in the day) but it has not, to the best of my knowledge, ever been released as an extra on any of the Doctor Who DVD's so far.

All of this went on until 1996 when the BBC teamed up with Fox television and Universal to produce an all-new Doctor Who made-for-TV movie which was to air in the American market. The hope was that the TV movie would act as a pilot for a TV series which would be a joint BBC - American collaboration but which would feature primarily American companions and American locations.

It failed.

Up until recently there was a conflict between Fox and Universal over the rights to the TV movie and because of this it was never released on either VHS or DVD in America. One could purchase it in Great Britain but not here in the U.S. (although there were some shall we say less than strictly legal ways of getting access to the movie). That has changed, however, and as I understand it a special edition DVD of the movie is going to be released here in the States. As such I'm not going to discuss much about the movie here and will wait until it shows up in a future Grab Bag Review to go into details about the tangled web of the TV movie.

But the movie ended up having an impact on Virgin Publishing. When the license ran out in 1997 the BBC refused Virgin's offer to renew it and the BBC's own publishing wing now began to put out all new novels featuring the new Eighth Doctor as introduced in the TV movie. Along with that, BBC publishing also began doing a series of "missing adventures" for the past seven incarnations of the Doctor.

Then in stepped Big Finish. Here in America radio dramas died out in the 1950's as television took over but in Great Britain they never really did and in point of fact one of the BBC's radio stations is devoted to little but audio dramas as they are called. As such there is a market over there for original audio dramas done straight to CD or MP3. Big Finish started business in 1998 and quickly made a name for themselves by acquiring the licenses to do audio dramas based on a number of British cult sci-fi series like Judge Dredd (and no, don't think of the Sylvester Stallone movie -- most Brits will kill you if you bring that up) and Sapphire and Steel (one of these days I'm going to do a series of posts about that show). Another license they soon acquired was Doctor Who. In 1999 they began creating all-new audio adventures featuring the surviving past Doctors -- Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor, and Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor. They also managed to often get many of the companions actors and actresses to reprise their roles for the audios. Sarah Sutton and Mark Strickson reprised their roles as Nyssa and Turlough -- companions of the Fifth Doctor, Nicola Bryant reprised her role as Peri and appeared in audios alongside both the Fifth Doctor and the Sixth Doctor, Bonnie Langford, who played Melanie Bush, reprised her role beside both the Sixth and Seventh Doctors and Sophie Aldred gave voice to Ace again with the Seventh Doctor.

Big Finish also soon expanded and began doing all-new adventures of the Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann. As the stories grew more and more popular Big Finish even began adding new original companions to the past Doctors -- actress Maggie Stables gave voice to the new companion, middle-aged history professor Evelyn Smythe, who traveled with the Sixth Doctor. The Seventh Doctor picked up a young, male nurse named Hector "Hex" Schofield voiced by Paul Oliver, and many more. As of this writing Big Finish continues the line of audios.

Another one-off came in 1999... although not strictly Doctor Who... Another charity which is big in Great Britain is "Red Nose Day" -- a telethon that is part of Comic Relief -- in which comedians raise money to help end world hunger. The public is encourage to help raise money by doing something funny -- particularly involving comedy red clown noses. As part of the telethon there are stand-up comedians and comedy sketches and sometimes skits. In 1999 Stephen Moffat (current show runner for Doctor Who) was commissioned to write a comedy skit to air on Red Nose Day. What he produced was "Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death". The plot of the story revolves around the Doctor in his Ninth incarnation (played by comedy actor Rowan Atkinson -- best known for Mr. Bean and Blackadder) deciding that he wants to retire and settle down with his current companion, Emma, with whom he has fallen in love. He is forced, however, to confront his old enemy, the Master, as well as the Daleks in a series of traps, crosses, and double crosses. In the course of trying to save the universe (yet again) the Doctor keeps getting killed and regenerating -- going from Atkinson to actor Richard E. Grant to stand-up comedian Jim Broadbent to actor Hugh Grant and finally to actress Joanna Lumley. Like "Dimensions in Time" "Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death" was never made available to U.S. audiences although it had been made available in various formats to British audiences. It is floating out there on the Internet and if you want to you can probably find a copy of it. It has not been offered as an extra on any of the Doctor Who DVD's however and there is no word of it being so in the near future.

Time proceeded apace, though, and in the early 2000's the BBC began playing with webcasting -- producing audio stories with limited web animation accompanying them. The BBC chose to use Doctor Who for many of these experiments.

One of the earliest ones was a 2002 webcast featuring the Seventh Doctor and Ace called "Death Comes to Time". The story has not been extremely well-regarded by fans since it ignores a lot of established continuity for both the Doctor and the Time Lords within the story and also because the end seems to indicate that the Seventh Doctor dies permanently -- which would end the series and also contradicts the Seventh Doctor regenerating into the Eighth Doctor in the TV movie.

"Death Comes to Time" was followed up also in 2002 by "Real Time" -- a Sixth Doctor story and featuring the companion Evelyn Smythe from the Big Finish stories -- so far the only time a Big Finish companion has been used in a BBC Doctor Who production. "Real Time" can still be found to listen to (free and legal) on the BBC's Classic Doctor Who website so sooner or later you'll probably see a Grab Bag Review of it. The same holds true of the next two webcasts the BBC created -- "Shada" in 2003 and "Scream of the Shalka" also in 2003.

And then, of course, the new series launched in 2005 and Doctor Who was reborn.

While it is fair to say that the good Doctor disappeared from TV screens in 1989 he never disappeared forever. The episodes were often seen in repeats and the books, audios, and little specials all show that the characters had gained a kind of death-grip on the British psyche and it was one that was not likely to go away soon. While those in charge at the BBC may have taken some convincing to bring the show back the people who had grown up on Doctor Who knew all along that there was something special here and they weren't going to ever let it completely disappear.

No comments:

Post a Comment