Category: 50 Years 50 Stories

2005: Doctor Who Rose

Clive's_website_RoseSaturday 26th March 2005. 7pm. Doctor Who is back on BBC One.

10 years on, and it’s hard to remember what a nail-biting moment it was. As fans we’d been let down by the TV movie, and made to feel like weirdos by the BBC. 45 minutes later, it was almost just a relief that Russell T Davies hadn’t mucked it up. At the time I just thought, ‘thank God it was good’.

Subsequently, Rose has become probably the most picked-over 45 minutes of television ever. Probably had been even before The End of the World broadcast, because by 2005 internet fandom was properly established, and the episode leaked online before transmission.

In retrospect, Rose isn’t a hugely surprising episode for anyone familiar with Davies’ previous work, including Damaged Goods, or for anyone aware of the way Doctor Who had been developing since Survival. I’ve already covered making the ‘Wilderness Years’ for a new audience in the Scream of the Shalka post.

What is surprising is that, of all the options open to the BBC – making a feature film, co-producing with an American partner, or just rebooting the show – a continuation of the 1963 series was one of the least likely. Especially when there was a consensus view that among the TV movie’s biggest mistakes were including Sylvester McCoy and an info-dump of arcane mythology.

So Rose has to answer the question: how do you resurrect a long-running TV programme where the past is widely seen – including by the production company – as a bit of a joke? How do you simultaneously make Doctor Who Season 27 and Doctor Who Series One.

Davies’ solution is the Time War, clearing the decks of the mythology – of rival Time Lords and regeneration limits – that stifled the TV movie. The Time War isn’t a BBC Books’ style continuity reset, a negation of the past. Everything is still there. It’s just time-locked, safely segregated from the rest of the universe. It doesn’t prevent Davies from telling stories about Gallifrey and the Master. But it’s a way of closing the door on the past, from keeping it from impinging on the new series until Davies is ready. It is even used (bizarrely, for long-term fans) as a justification for his not going back for Sarah Jane. The Daleks and the Master are explicitly said to have escaped the time-lock, slipping through the cracks – which also allowed the Parallel Cybermen into our universe. The Sontarans and the Nestenes are said to have been affected by the war, even if not directly involved. In The End of Time the Doctor says, ‘If the time-lock’s broken, then everything’s coming through.’ He mentions the Horde of Travesties and the Skaro Degredations but he might as well add the Borad, the Quarks and Faction Paradox. The time-lock is there to keep them all safely contained. Anything returning from the show’s own history is explicitly linked to the Time War, which therefore becomes the watchword for pre-2005 Doctor Who.

The shadow of the past becomes one of the most interesting aspects, both of Rose and the whole of the Davies ‘era’. The ninth Doctor isn’t just the only survivor of the war. He was part of it, soaked in blood. He’s tainted by association with the past. We’ll learn he committed double genocide on the Daleks and the Time Lords. In Rose, the Auton killing spree happens because the Doctor blunders into the Nestene base and causes the Consciousness to accelerate its plans for conquest. Clive, the only speaking character in Rose to get killed off, becomes just another in ‘the ranks of the Doctor’s fallen extras’ as Davies called them back in Damaged Goods. Earlier in the episode, he’s predicts his own fate when he tells Rose: ‘The Doctor is a legend woven throughout history. When disaster comes, he’s there. He brings the storm in his wake and he has one constant companion. Death.’

This theme runs across the Davies series. The Doctor might be wonderful, but he’s also ‘the storm in the heart of the sun’. Dozens of people die in 1913 because he hides there ‘on a whim’. Even Martha becomes wary of him, telling Donna, ‘He’s wonderful, he’s brilliant, but he’s like fire. Stand too close and people get burnt.’ It’s summarised in Boom Town, when Margaret Blaine challenges the Doctor:

Only a killer would know that. Is that right? From what I’ve seen, your funny little happy go lucky little life leaves devastation in its wake. Always moving on because you dare not look back. Playing with so many people’s lives, you might as well be a god. And you’re right, Doctor. You’re absolutely right. Sometimes you let one go.

The Doctor has no glib answer. And I think it’s because neither does Davies: these are questions about the Doctor that trouble him, he keeps replaying Margaret’s criticism – through Joan Redfern and Davros and Adelaide Brooke. These ideas were there as far back as Damaged Goods, and they’re definitely there right from Rose. Again and again through Davies’ scripts, we see a character torn between being a ‘vengeful god’ and a human – ideas raised in Davies’ first collaboration with Eccleston, The Second Coming.

At the end of the season, Rose says the Doctor showed her ‘a better way of living your life’. But I think she does the same for him. All along, the Doctor’s needed us ‘stupid apes’ – to stop him from going too far, from braining a caveman to exterminating the Racnoss. The tension between the Doctor as the lonely god, the last of the Time Lords, the ‘Time Lord victorious’, and the Doctor as a ‘man of peace, never cruel or cowardly’ runs right through to the end of Davies’ tenure, when he realises that there’s no point having epic adventures if he can’t save one old man.

So Davies makes the Time War/history of Doctor Who more than a convenient piece of backstory. It’s like the Big Bang – the thing that the entire universe, including the Doctor, is rushing away from. The ninth Doctor’s first word is, ‘Run!’ And he never stops running. This forward momentum is typical of Davies’ writing, which is both fast-paced (the biggest innovation of Rose is its speed, so much quicker than any previous Doctor Who in any medium), and looking to the future. Of 31 episodes Davies is credited for, only two are historicals (both set in Victorian Britain). That’s six per cent, compared with 40 per cent of Moffat’s 31 episodes to date. This might just mean Davies is less interested in writing historicals. He clearly doesn’t have a massive issue with them, he just prefers to give them to Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts or Moffat. But it’s interesting because I think we can infer something of Davies’ mindset about ‘the past’ in general: he doesn’t have a problem with it, but he’s not much interested in revisiting it.

I think it’s also representative of Davies view of what Doctor Who should be: exciting, pioneering and optimistic: ‘You never take time to imagine the impossible, that maybe you survive.’ History might therefore seem a bit dull. On the rare occasions the TARDIS goes back in time, it’s to go to pop concerts or plays: the running gag in Series One and Two is the Doctor trying to take Rose to see Venice, or Ian Drury and the Blockheads or Elvis and getting it wrong. Davies’ Who is both more grounded in the real world, and more interested in adventures that demonstrate the excitement of human endeavour. Rose ends on a Next Time trailer for The End of the World, which says a lot about the tone of the new series: Ian and Barbara met the first humans, Rose gets to meet the last one.

Though the first companion to get her name in the titles, Rose isn’t exactly unprecedented: every one since Grace has been the Doctor’s equal. But she’s more solidly ‘ordinary’ than any of them. The gets at the other thing I think Davies strives for: authenticity. Rose is a shop girl with no A-levels, who left school because of a boy. She’s sexualised – ‘Any excuse to get in the bedroom’ – and she drinks. She feels authentic, grounded in real life.

Equally, the ninth Doctor has an authenticity to him that’s beyond the frock coats and eccentricities of his predecessors. Not even the Shalka Doctor foreshadowed this version. The northern accent adds to this sense of bluff honesty. It’s probably a coincidence that these authentic leads are pitted against monsters made of plastic, with its connotations of artificiality and fakeness, defeating them through a mix of Rose’s practical gymnastics and the Doctor’s anti-plastic. But it fits a trend. Next episode, the villain’s a plastic surgeon’s wet dream, and throughout the season the Doctor and Rose get pitted against fake space refugees, fake politicians, even fake Daleks. Davies was candid about wanting to avoid stories set on ‘the Planet Zog’, which lacked realness or relevance to a contemporary audience. In Damaged Goods and Rose the only thing that makes the lingering after-effects of a Time Lord war important is the effect it has on the real life of people on a council estate.

This real-life ‘authenticity’ is something new, albeit the direction Doctor Who was moving towards in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While a backdrop of mainly present day Earth / future spaceships might recall the Pertwee era, Davies’ Doctor Who has practically nothing in common with it. Instead, the entirety of time and space becomes a social commentary on early Twenty-First Century England.

In Rose, there’s one character out of step with this: Clive. On one level he’s clearly a parody of the BBC’s view of Doctor Who fans. By killing off Clive – and only Clive – you could uncharitably argue Davies is demonstrating that this series is no longer for old-school Doctor Who fans, and he’s “killing” their influence on the show. He’s always been candid, not least in The Writer’s Tale, about his unsentimentality, of always putting the good of the programme first.

But that’s not quite how Clive is positioned. He is the link to the past of Doctor Who – quite literally to its beginning, when he shows Rose a photo of the ninth Doctor at the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd 1963. By overtly referencing the day before Doctor Who started, and putting the ninth Doctor there, Davies is connecting Rose to An Unearthly Child, and the previous 42 years of the show. Through Clive, fans are reassured this series is a continuation, not a reboot.

I think the real purpose of killing Clive is to kill off the BBC stereotype of a Doctor Who fan, putting a bullet through the head of the sniggering condescension of stuff like Doctor Who Night, which portrayed fans as slightly unsavoury middle aged men. The clincher for me is that Clive is a nice man who never deserved to be treated he was. I think there’s a flash of anger in his death, Davies’ veiled criticism of his new employers’ failure to cherish the show.

The other thing is, Clive is always right. When he says of the Doctor, ‘I think he’s immortal. I think he’s an alien from another world’ he’s absolutely on the money. So, it’s a lovely, generous gesture that Clive’s last words are, ‘It’s true. Everything I read, all the stories. It’s all true’, I think in that line Davies is acknowledging everything that’s gone before. The Sensorites; the Myrka; Timewyrm: Genesys; the Chelonians; Paul McGann; War of the Daleks; Beep the Meep: all of them are in the canon, all of them had value, they’re all part and parcel of the 2005 revival. It’s a measure of the inclusiveness of Davies’ vision of Doctor Who. This is absolutely for old-school Doctor Who fans like Clive, or Russell, or me. It’s just, now it’s for everyone else as well.

 

Next Time: ‘Now they’re all gone. All gone. None of them could understand… Perhaps I should go home, back to my own planet. But I can’t. I can’t.’ – The Runaway Bride

2004: The Flood

regenerating-2-FINALAugust 2004. Doctor Who is returning to TV in seven months. By the time Scream of the Shalka finished broadcasting on BBCi in December 2003, the ‘Wilderness Years’ were over and we were just marking time until the new series started.

A sense of anticipation hangs over all of the tie-in ranges. The Eighth Doctor Adventures are in their terminal phase, having moved to bi-monthly publishing from September 2002, and concluded their final major ‘arc’ in January 2004. There are only three more books to go. Meanwhile, Big Finish had just planned to exile the eighth Doctor, Charley and new companion C’rizz to a divergent universe when the news of the new series broke. They have to accelerate the story arc and bring forward the Doctor’s return to ‘our’ universe.

And while the books and audios are in turmoil the DWM strip quietly slips in, just as it had in 1998, the last time the ‘main range’ started to lose its momentum. The final eighth Doctor strip, The Flood, ran for eight months, its last instalment coming out the same month Rose aired on BBC One.

The DWM strip was in a unique position in 2004. Whereas Big Finish didn’t have the rights to use the ninth Doctor (and would have been unlikely to get Christopher Eccleston in any case), and the books were changing format to tie in to the new series, the strip was continuing – just as it had in 1985, 1989 and 1996. Which is perhaps why Russell T Davies chose it as the medium to show the eighth Doctor’s regeneration into the ninth.

The Flood is one of the best strips. Without having seen the new series, Scott Gray manages to capture its aesthetic remarkably well, including several plot elements that presage images or characters in later Davies and Moffat episodes:

  • Cybermen appear as ghostly figures, in a pub
  • A huge spaceship descends over the Houses of Parliament
  • The global danger is illustrated with clips of international landmarks
  • A British organisation protecting the country from alien menaces without involving UNIT
  • A female scientific advisor who’s the Doctor’s biggest fan
  • The Cybermen plan to use rain to facilitate the conversion of humankind
  • In his final moments, the eighth Doctor ‘visits’ all his previous companions

Most of all, The Flood feels contemporary in the same way as Scream of the Shalka: not, like the old UNIT stories, set ‘a few years hence’, but bringing the alien menace to Earth, today. But while Shalka was set in a Lancashire town, off the beaten track and deliberately overlooked by the media, The Flood is in your face in London: brash and bold. In its final panels, the eighth Doctor touches everyone in the world in the kind of universalism we’re going to see in the Davies series finales. The strip got a lot right – but that’s not surprising, because Davies loved the strip. He loves cartoons. In the ‘making of’ stuff for Series One there’s even a little picture of Lady Cassandra he drew to illustrate his script. Of course he was going to offer the regeneration scene to DWM.

But when DWM, which had the gall to ‘regenerate’ the eight Doctor as a stunt in 1998, was given the chance to do it for real, it backed away. The Flood ends not with Christopher Eccleston lying on the floor in a post-regenerative haze, but with the eighth Doctor and Destrii wandering into the sunset. Clayton Hickman’s explanation, in The Flood trade paperback, elaborates why DWM turned down the chance to show the regeneration. It’s a fascinating essay, but it’s most telling when Hickman writes, candidly:

This was our eye-opener… Our cosy little cottage industry was now a fully-fledged brand. It was a major, multi-million pound BBC One series with clever people at the helm, and we were short-sighted to think we could cling on to what had gone before.

Essentially, Davies politely but firmly ended the DWM strip’s semi-detached relationship with continuity. It was going feature the ninth Doctor and Rose. The eighth Doctor novels were going to end. Big Finish continued, but was not allowed to use any elements of new series continuity. The fan-led ‘Wilderness Years’ are officially no more. For the first time since Peter Darvill-Evans, someone’s taking charge.

The culture shock of 2005 was huge. Some fans still haven’t got over the fact that ‘their’ series is now the property of fangirls and children and Americans. The saddest thing about Doctor Who between 1991 and 2004 is that the series that was radically and brilliantly reinventing itself, but the only people who cared were the fans. On 26 March 2005 this is going to change. The ‘Wilderness Years’ are coming to television. Doctor Who is coming home.

 

Next Time: ‘It’s silly, isn’t it? I feel frightened. As if we’re about to interfere in something that is best left alone.’ – Rose

2003: Scream of the Shalka

DoctorWhoChristmasSpecial2012aNovember 2003. Doctor Who will be returning to BBC television in 16 months. This fact inevitably overshadows Scream of the Shalka: the BBC’s first bid to broadcast a new series of ninth Doctor adventures.

It’s an aberration, a footnote to the ‘Wilderness Years’, not even a false start because there was never any possibility of a follow-up. Even its entry in the fortieth anniversary coffee table book, Doctor Who: The Legend is undercut by a paragraph about the exciting announcement that Doctor Who was coming back to TV in 2005.

Richard E Grant’s ‘era’ didn’t even coincide with his single appearance. It started on 9 July 2003, when BBCi announced:

Doctor Who is back. This time he’s fully animated, he’s got a new body… and he’s on BBCi. Richard E. Grant will play the ninth incarnation of the Time Lord. He described his interpretation as something of a “Sherlock Holmes in Space,” and said he immensely enjoyed recording the story.

And it ended on 26 September 2003, when the BBC announced that Russell T Davies would be creating a new TV version for BBC Wales.

Scream of the Shalka haunts the end of the ‘Wilderness Years’ like the Could’ve-Been King. In many ways, it’s the pay-off to 12 years of development, as fans of the classic series became professional writers, producers and editors, honing their skills and getting employed in the kind of positions that allowed them to create this: an officially-sanctioned ninth Doctor that, had circumstances been different, would have become the ‘current’ incarnation in the BBC Books and DWM strip. If that had happened, Grant, like McGann, would have been hard to ignore if anyone chose to revive the series on TV. If anything, unfortunate scheduling relegated Grant to ‘unbound’ status.

Watching Scream of the Shalka now is a curious experience. It hardly feels like a lost opportunity, because it’s so close to what we got on TV in 2005. Right from the start, it’s obvious that this is a series that owes a heavy debt to the Pertwee era, even if it’s ambivalent towards it. The titles feature the coloured swirls of the 1970-73 credits; UNIT plays a significant role; the plot – which begins with a meteor shower and features a race of cave monsters – has obvious antecedents. The animation is limited, but there are some neat visual nods to movies like Jurassic Park and Aliens, and a visual storytelling that owes something to the big splash pages of the comic strip.

This ninth Doctor is a curious mix of slightly snobbish distance, largely during the first two episodes, and wild excitement. He can tell a lot by sniffing, a trait Cornell re-uses in 2007 for the Family of Blood. He’s running from a traumatic event in his past, which has left him angry, wounded and reluctant to make personal connections, although he’s able to drop the posh accent and attitude when he meets a homeless woman, implying they’re just an act to keep people at a distance. He keeps claiming, ‘I can’t do this any more’ as though he thinks he’s no longer up to the job. A theme of the story is his rediscovery of his mojo. Grant’s performance, which has had mixed reviews, works well in this context, his flat delivery in the first episodes picking up and coming alive just as the Doctor starts rediscovering his joie de vivre.

His new companion, Alison, is a young black woman whose dreams are being stifled by a needy boyfriend who wants to keep her in the small town of Lannet rather than the big city. She ‘gave up a degree in history’ to spend her life with Joe, and regrets it. She sees the TARDIS as her way out of the rut she’s in. We see more of her domestic set-up (her job, her house, her boyfriend, her mother’s house) in the first two episodes than we’ve seen for any previous companion. This is a Cornell innovation of the ‘Wilderness Years’, a theme he started when Bernice brought a determinedly ‘domestic’, human viewpoint to the seventh Doctor and Ace’s epic space adventures. Alison pushes the idea further by because she’s clearly grounded in the real world of 2003. This level of domesticity, of actually putting the monsters in front rooms – ‘You’re on every street, you’re in their homes’ – is something that we associate with the Yeti-on-the-loo approach, but in reality rarely happened in the past (Terror of the Autons and Survival are the most obvious exceptions).

Other elements that Cornell inserts, such as the ultra-topical references to WMDs and ‘regime change’; the Doctor’s mobile phone, the danger of climate change, and the shift from a local to a global threat (with scenes of possessed humans in America, Siberia and China) are incremental changes. They’re exactly what you’d expect a contemporary version of Doctor Who to do. Brilliantly, the Doctor defeats the monsters by singing show tunes, which is both a clear and deliberate killing blow to the Saward and guns school of Doctor Who, and more Russell T Davies than the man himself.

When Scream of the Shalka was issued on DVD in 2013, some of the reviews noticed ‘surprising’ similarities between it and the TV revival. But there’s nothing surprising about them at all. The point is: Rose is absolutely the outcome of the ‘Wilderness Years’. Any history of the series that treats them as a brief paragraph that’s mainly concerned with the TV movie is, frankly, as wrong as trying to jump from The War Games to Robot.

Scream of the Shalka is evidence that the new series didn’t leap, unprecedented and fully formed, straight from Russell T Davies’ brain in 2003, but was instead a distillation of themes and ideas that had been developing for 11 years. It’s what you get when you’ve kept up with Doctor Who since 1989 (the TV movie is what you get when you haven’t). Why should it be surprising that two New Adventures authors were able to independently re-launch Doctor Who with the principles of the novels, combine them with the sensibilities of the Big Finish audios and the style and pace of the comic strip? Given their authors’ shared background, it would be much more remarkable if Rose and Scream of the Shalka were radically dissimilar.

We’re at the end of the ‘Wilderness Years’. They were a strange time, often frustrating, and frequently disappointing. But they also bequeathed the 2005 series five writers who weren’t only up to the job of bringing Doctor Who back, but also a whole approach to telling Doctor Who stories that was only partly suggested by the 1963-89 TV series, but which was wholly contiguous with the way they developed in 1991-2003. ‘Wilderness Years’ is a misnomer: they were abundantly productive and the nucleus of modern Doctor Who.

 

Next Time: ‘I absorbed all the energy of the Time Vortex, and no one’s meant to do that. Every cell in my body’s dying.’ – The Flood

2002: Neverland

Doctor-Who-Magazine-321neverland.jpgJune 2002. The end of the second series of Paul McGann audios. For the first six months of the year, the eighth Doctor plays have taken over Big Finish’s main range in the audios’ most ambitious ‘arc’ yet. In response, the comic strip has deployed the Daleks, in the highly-acclaimed Children of the Revolution, and BBC Books’ Eighth Doctor Adventures have embarked on their own ‘arc’ focusing on the vulnerability of time in the wake of the Time War, with a mysterious villain called Sabbath bedevilling the Doctor, Fitz and Anji. But the Big Finish main range is where it’s at.

The halcyon days for Big Finish really lasted from mid-2000 – when McGann’s return was announced and the novels thoroughly trashed their own continuity in a fit of self-loathing, hovering anxiously waiting for the audios’ next move – to 26 September 2003, when it was announced Doctor Who would be returning to TV. By the time Neverland’s belated (and lukewarmly received) follow-up Zagreus was released in November 2003 in time for the fortieth anniversary, events had already overtaken the eighth Doctor plays, and McGann’s incarnation was a dead man walking. So this moment marks perhaps Big Finish’s high watermark.

That’s reflected in the writing credits for McGann’s second year: three of the authors (Mark Gatiss, Robert Shearman and Paul Cornell) went on to provide scripts for the 2005 TV series, and three (Nicholas Briggs, Justin Richards and Alan Barnes) were the head writers or editors of the audios, BBC Books and DWM comic strip respectively. In other words, this was a series written by the ‘Wilderness Years’’ most experienced hands. In many ways, it’s the culmination of 13 years of non-TV Doctor Who, the Abbey Road of the ‘Wilderness Years’, a definitive statement of what fans could achieve without a new series. If you can get to Neverland without a TV show, imagine where you could go with one.

It’s also the culmination to a two-year storyline. Storm Warning introduced the idea that Charley Pollard had cheated death in escaping from the doomed airship R101. But, as in Final Destination, death can’t be so easily avoided. There’s a price to pay for eighth Doctor’s casual attitude towards it, evident since his resurrection of Grace and Chang Lee in the TV movie. That price is explored across the six 2002 audios, where it becomes clear that Charley’s continued existence when she should be dead is fracturing the web of time. Across the series, the stakes have gradually risen from the claustrophobic horror of The Chimes of Midnight, which explored the impact of Charley’s death/survival on those she left behind, to The Time of the Daleks, which featured history breaking down. Neverland is the pay-off: the Time Lords (still alive in Big Finish’s continuity) are now alerted to the danger Charley poses, and have hunted down the TARDIS to bring her paradoxical existence to an end.

Neverland also follows through on the development of the eighth Doctor’s character. The TV movie casts McGann as a fairly straightforward romantic hero – charming Grace, enthusing about shoes and revealing outrageous secrets. However, it also posits the Doctor and Grace as a kind of screwball comedy double act, a partnership of equals with Grace disrupting his world as much as he does hers. This idea of a partnership was followed through by the audios, with strong female characters – Charley, Lucie and Molly – that drop into the Doctor’s world and disrupt it.

And then there’s the snogging, which prior to 1996 was taboo, and post-1996 is de rigeur. The New Adventures had to make the seventh Doctor human to give him a love story, and then played the eighth Doctor’s newfound libido as the humorous punch-line to The Dying Days. The Eighth Doctor Adventures had Sam express an embarrassing teenage crush, and the amnesiac post-Time War Doctor start a tentative relationship with Mary Minett during the First World War. But the audios were the first to explore the idea of a Doctor/companion romance, most fully in this series, and particularly in Neverland. This element, I think, makes McGann more like the Twenty-First Century Doctors than the Twentieth

Like the season finales of the TV revival, Neverland creates a big, epic backdrop for a pretty simple choice for the Doctor: does he sacrifice his best friend, the woman he loves, to save the world? It’s a moment that the New Adventures and the Eighth Doctor Adventures have been reaching for, but never quite so explicitly as here:

CHARLEY: It’s all right, Doctor. I’m not afraid. It’s like I said in the Tardis. My time is up. There is no alternative. Oh, Doctor, you rescued me from the R101. You gave me these last few wonderful months. The things that I’ve seen, the places I’ve been. I’ve lived more than I ever could dream of, and all thanks to you. And you’re the sweetest, the kindest, most wonderful man I’ve ever met. And I’m sorry it’s come to this, and I’m sorry it has to end like this, but if the Web of Time is destroyed then all the time I’ve had, everywhere I’ve been, all those fabulous, fantastic things we’ve done, they won’t ever have happened at all. Don’t let those times be taken away. Don’t let it all go to waste. I know it’s an awful, terrible thing, but I want you to do it. Oh, Doctor, please do it before it’s too late.

DOCTOR: Charley, I can’t. You’re my friend, and I love you. I can’t look you in the eye and shoot you no matter what.

CHARLEY: Doctor, I love you too, and this is no way to say goodbye, but please, please! Oh, what’s wrong with you! You’ve saved the universe before, so do it again, the only way how.

This is the moment Russell T Davies will replay in The Parting of the Ways and Doomsday; the moment Steven Moffat will replay in The Forest of the Dead:

RIVER: If you die here, it’ll mean I’ve never met you.

DOCTOR: Time can be rewritten.

RIVER: Not those times. Not one line. Don’t you dare. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s not over for you. You’ll see me again. You’ve got all of that to come. You and me, time and space. You watch us run.

This is the moment the ‘Wilderness Years’ have been leading to: a Doctor who openly admits to loving his companion; a series where the epic and the personal are all the same. This is Doctor Who with the emotional tug of a good soap opera and the scale of a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s Doctor Who for the age of Joss Whedon.

‘Where do we go from here?’ sang the cast of Buffy at the end of the last undisputed masterpiece of that series. Neverland leaves us with the same question. Like the makers of Buffy, the audios don’t have a convincing answer. But finally, it seems, the BBC might.

 

Next Time: ‘I just though I’d slip into something more comfortable. Result? Cute, sexy and lick-the-mirror handsome’ – Scream of the Shalka

2001: Sword of Orion

011711browimageFebruary 2001. Since The Burning, the Eighth Doctor Adventures have had one of their most-admired runs: a linked series of novels set over the course of the Twentieth Century with an amnesiac eighth Doctor trapped on Earth without companions, returning monsters or even a TARDIS. Meanwhile, the big news is Paul McGann’s return to the role he last played five years previously: Big Finish’s own Eighth Doctor Adventures launched in January 2001 with Storm Warning, which introduced the new companion Charley Pollard in a story written by DWM editor Alan Barnes.

There was a real buzz in fandom at the start of 2001: the books were improving, DWM’s eighth Doctor strip switched to full colour and gained a new companion, and the first ‘season’ of McGann audios deservedly went down a storm. People seemed to be pulling themselves out of their fin de siècle blues. It was a very happy moment.

Unlike BBC Books or DWM, Big Finish’s first eighth Doctor story didn’t put him face to face with old enemies but instead spent its time establishing what the Doctor and Charley might actually be like. Storm Warning begins with the Doctor getting excited about his library, accidentally getting caught up in a time crash, losing the TARDIS and finally bumping into Charley, who’s in a spot of bother. It’s a scene that has some parallels with the beginning of Rose, four years later. The Doctor even introduces himself – after he and his soon-to-be companion have already had a back-and-forth conversation – with the line, ‘I’m the Doctor, by the way’.

Barnes’ eighth Doctor is familiar from the strip – romantic, expansive, with a tendency to blurt things out, like his spiel about his time ship the TARDIS that he blabs to Charley in their second exchange. These are characteristics Barnes, like most of the writers of the novels and strip, have extrapolated from the TV movie. In January 2001, this, so far as most of us were concerned, is what the eighth Doctor was like.

But the thing is, they’re not really how McGann is going to play his Doctor. It’s a similar problem, on a bigger scale, to the one Colin Baker faced in 1985, when the only thing the writers had to go on was The Twin Dilemma, and they were producing scripts that were written for a Doctor Baker wasn’t much interested in playing. Interestingly, in that case, Pip and Jane Baker’s generic Doctor of The Mark of the Rani became Baker’s favourite of the season.

The second eighth Doctor audio, Sword of Orion, similarly gives a better indication of how the eighth Doctor’s run is going to develop (not least because it’s written by Nicholas Briggs, who’ll become the steward of most of McGann’s tenure). McGann’s Doctor is revealed in the bits of the TV movie that weren’t as noticed – the Doctor’s impatience with Grace (‘Yes, very witty’); his pessimistic streak (‘I’ve a horrible feeling we’re already too late’), and his sarcasm towards the Master (‘Time enough to change’). In the audios, he plays the Doctor as the John Lennon of Time Lords: sardonic, detached, passing dry comment rather than getting excitable.

When the series started, the Doctor was a Gandalf kind of figure: a crotchety, mysterious and slightly disreputable wizard who crashes into the comfortable lives of Ian and Barbara and gets them embroiled in adventures. Through the 1960s series both Hartnell and Troughton continued in this vein: there was always a young hero – Ian, Steven, Ben, Jamie – to be the traditional juvenile lead. The third Doctor was similarly conceived as a whimsical, guitar-playing guru, as we saw in Spearhead from Space, with Courtney due to be the more straightforward hero. Pertwee’s big innovation was to hog both roles, becoming the hero wizard, Merlin and Arthur combined. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks planned to revert to the earlier format with an older Doctor and Harry as the young hero, but Tom Baker’s casting put paid to that. And while Davison might have been cast as a less domineering Doctor, Adric and Turlough weren’t written as heroes. It wasn’t until McCoy came along and Ace got the traditional ‘hero’ stuff, that the show got close to the original concept. Despite the TV movie, McGann prefers to play his Doctor lackadaisically horizontal, a far more reluctant hero than the twirling enthusiast that the novels and strips between 1996 and 2001 suggested.

While Storm Warning was expressly written for this consensus of what the eighth Doctor would be like, Sword of Orion is an adaptation of an Audio Visual from the late 1980s, specifically picked, according to The New Audio Adventures: The Inside Story, because it didn’t require much rework. While undoubtedly Briggs must have refreshed it, the fact that the script features a relatively generic part for Doctor conversely allows McGann to bring much more of himself to it. As Charley, India Fisher is all bouncy enthusiasm at her first trip into outer space, and McGann plays off this, providing a nicely laid back counterpoint. This is how their partnership ultimately develops: Charley’s wide-eyed excitement and romantic fancies balanced with the Doctor’s slightly cynical edge. McCartney and Lennon.

In a large part that’s why they the McGann and Fisher have become the classic eighth Doctor team – the one selected for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations in both The Light at the End and Destiny of the Doctors. It’s also Big Finish’s edgier eighth Doctor that Steven Moffat elects to bring back for The Night of the Doctor – a version of the character that would have been inexplicable if we only had the TV movie for reference. It’s not for nothing that Moffat uses the chance to explicitly ‘canonise’ the McGann audios.

That edgier interpretation really begins in the hugely influential Sword of Orion, a play that brings back the Cybermen in their classic form, and draws its imagery from the military SF of Aliens and the New Adventures, with its more-than-human androids, space wars, and returning monsters. This overtly spawned the Big Finish Cyberman range, but also, in its focus on ‘the future of human society in all its grim and grimy glory’, became the template for so much of the eighth Doctor’s audio ‘era’, particularly during the later Lucie Miller plays and the Dark Eyes series. And, latterly, Briggs has developed these themes out further in his Fourth Doctor Adventures. As such, Sword of Orion is Big Finish’s The Web of Fear, its Yeti-in-the-loo template.

Next Time: ‘I could save the world but lose you.’ – Neverland

2000: The Burning

doctor_who_2005.the_end_of_time_part_two_2010_special.hdtv_xvid-fovAugust 2000. In their three-year run to date, the Eighth Doctor Adventures have failed to settle on a particular style or approach. In Alien Bodies, Lawrence Miles came up with a genius idea, but because the BBC wasn’t cultivating its pool of writers, no-one really picked up on it for another year. Then, when authors did start experimenting with Miles’ new mythology he was publicly dismissive of their efforts, seriously undermining attempts to build a Virgin-style creative community. It didn’t help that range editor Stephen Cole commissioned a linked series of novels that were meant to lead up to the Time War: the kind of tight, plot-driven ‘arc’ that Virgin had abandoned pretty much after the Timewyrm sequence in favour of looser, thematic ‘cycles’. It became harder to dip in and out of the range: you had to read all or nothing.

As all this is happening, Big Finish has launched its own range of Doctor Who stories featuring past Doctors. In an environment where fans have to pay for their Doctor Who, each CD cost about the same as buying both the monthly eighth and past Doctor books. The comic strip, slotted away in a £3.30 DWM, was never likely to be direct competition for fans’ cash. The audios are. Plus, the BBC has started to reissue the series on the new DVD format. Suddenly, the books’ future seems less secure. And then Big Finish drops the bombshell: Paul McGann has agreed to appear in a new series of eighth Doctor audios which started recording in May 2000.

This is the context behind The Burning, the big re-launch of the Eighth Doctor Adventures written by their new editor, Justin Richards. In the previous novel, The Ancestor Cell, outgoing editor Stephen Cole and co-writer Peter Anghelides wrapped up the ongoing Time War mythology by basically blowing it all up, exploding Gallifrey, exterminating the Time Lords and wiping the eighth Doctor’s memory: as clear a case of ‘taking the nuclear option’ as you can get in TV tie-in fiction. Bidding farewell to all that, and consigning practically every element of the first 50 per cent of the Eighth Doctor Adventures series to the dustbin of history (the one exception being companion Fitz Kreiner, who most people thought had worked out reasonably well), The Ancestor Cell was a decisive full stop.

When Doctor Who finally returned in 2005 with a Doctor who is the last of the Time Lords, the sole survivor of a fallen planet, fans who’d stuck with the Eighth Doctor Adventures through the ‘Wilderness Years’ were quick to point out the books did that first. In reality, there’s not much comparison. Davies’ destruction of Gallifrey is a horrific event the Doctor is fleeing from, that haunts him, informs his character and creates a suitably dramatic mythology for the new show to drip-feed. In the novels, Gallifrey falls as a convenient way for the books to try to win a new audience. The Doctor isn’t tortured by it because he can’t remember it. He can’t remember anything, in fact: the solution to ‘too many continuity references’ isn’t just to edit them out, but to preclude them altogether. The Ancestor Cell resets him to the books’ 1997 factory setting: a blank slate eighth Doctor, one apparently Richards wants to reinvent from the ground up.

The Burning is a pretty good re-launch: there’s a lot it gets right, introducing the Doctor as a mysterious and potentially dangerous outsider investigating a creature from the fires of the Earth in a north England town, much as the ‘ninth Doctor’ appears in Scream of the Shalka. He’s written, for the first time, as the ‘Byronic hero’ we were promised. And it’s a smart and deliberate move on Richards’ part to keep the Doctor vague and unknowable (even to himself) at this point, and for the next few books. He knows Paul McGann will soon be reprising the role and giving writers much more to build on than the TV movie. The Doctor’s amnesia is a ploy to buy them time to hear how he’ll play the part so they don’t seem to be at odds with the audios.

But this is the nub of the books’ problem: now McGann is coming back, what are they for any more? Arguably, just telling stories is enough – more good Eighth Doctor Adventures were published in the second half of the range than the first. But there’s a reason why, in The Night of the Doctor, the eighth Doctor remembers Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin and Molly, but not Sam, Fitz, Compassion, Anji and Trix. This is it. The Burning unmistakeably marks the moment when Peter Darvill-Evans’ vision of the novels pulling Doctor Who forwards is quietly abandoned, and Justin Richards concedes that they aren’t the main range any more. From now on, they’re second fiddle to Big Finish, which actually has the eighth Doctor himself appearing in new adventures.

 

Next Time: ‘See, there’s the thing. I’m the Doctor, but beyond that, I just don’t know. I literally do not know who I am. It’s all untested. Am I funny? Am I sarcastic? Sexy? Right old misery? Life and soul? Right handed? Left handed? A gambler? A fighter? A coward? A traitor? A liar? A nervous wreck?’ – Sword of Orion

1999: Doctor Who Night

13th November 1999. The Eighth Doctor Adventures continue to be published monthly, to mixed enthusiasm. In August, Lawrence Miles’ magnum opus, the two-volume Interference, is released, expanding on the ideas of Alien Bodies and kicking off a year-long story arc that will eventually end in Gallifrey’s destruction at the Doctor’s hand on the last day of the Time War. Meanwhile, the DWM strips have brought back Grace and the Master from the TV movie, plus Beep the Meep and Kroton the Cybermen as the strip kicks off its own second big story arc. On TV, in March, Steven Moffat’s Curse of Fatal Death airs as part of the BBC’s Comic Relief. It’s a hint of some of the ideas Moffat’s going to seriously present in the 2010s, as he ploughs through the Doctor’s remaining lives, brings back the Master with breasts, and has the Doctor’s adoring companion beg the universe to resurrect him during his final battle with the Daleks. And in November, 36 years after it first aired, Doctor Who is back on the BBC. For one night only.

All the above makes 1999 sound like the series is finally getting its act together. But it didn’t feel like that at the time. The Curse of Fatal Death is an affectionate pastiche, not Moffat’s bid to resurrect the programme. It’s clearly much, much better than Dimensions in Time – but John Nathan-Turner’s intent was to make an epilogue to the show he’d made in the 1980s, not to look back at Doctor Who as a slightly tatty, but loved old kid’s programme. I laughed a lot at The Curse of Fatal Death, but I also recognised the undertone that Doctor Who was a thing of the past.

So when the BBC announced Doctor Who night, it was hard to get too excited. Particularly when the trailers featured a nonplussed little girl on the sofa with her balding, middle-aged father hiding behind it (the implication: Doctor Who is something that only odd middle-aged men are much interested in). The scheduling reinforced the point: this really was a Night, starting at 8.55pm on BBC2. Even the continuity announcer seemed slightly disdainful: ‘Once sandwiched between Grandstand and The Generation Game, tonight you get a whole night to hide behind the sofa’.

The night’s schedule is modelled on the format of BBC2’s Star Trek Night, broadcast to celebrate Trek’s thirtieth anniversary in 1996, which featured a mix of science shows, comedy sketches, documentaries and the BBC premiere of Voyager. Doctor Who Night similarly mixes a couple of documentaries, Adventures in Space and Time and Carnival of Monsters, with two science documentaries focusing on regeneration and building TARDISes, three infamous comedy sketches from Mark Gatiss plus the final episode of The Daleks and a repeat of Doctor Who: The Movie. The night’s end credits even feature a woman warbling in the style of the Star Trek theme.

This says a lot about how the BBC saw Doctor Who in 1999: as a sci-fi franchise, with creepy fans who’d like to know how to build a TARDIS, if they weren’t off kidnapping Peter Davison. Whereas in my experience the Venn diagram crossover of Doctor Who and Star Trek fans is surprisingly small. We care more about how the costumes and scripts are put together than the imaginary technology behind trans-dimensional engineering.

So even though I laughed at Gatiss’ sketches (particularly The Pitch of Fear’s description of the later Doctors as ‘any old fucker with an Equity card’, which, in a feat of Soviet revisionism, has since been stricken from the record). Even though I enjoyed seeing Tom Baker playing himself playing the Doctor. Even though, actually, a couple of the documentaries were quite interesting, I knew this was a one-off. Doctor Who‘s lack of popularity was cruelly hammered home when a heavily-trailed new season of BBC2 repeats planned for all the colour episodes starting with Spearhead from Space petered out after just three stories.

For me, 1999 was probably the nadir of Doctor Who: it felt like the BBC thought it a slightly weird obsession for a young man to hold. I was like Vince, in Channel 4’s Queer as Folk, attached to some old camp nonsense from his childhood. Had I not met a group of like-minded, talented, inspiring friends at university and the monthly Fitzroy Tavern meets in London, I think this might have been the point when Doctor Who and I parted ways.

Fortunately for me, and for Doctor Who, there were some very talented fans in a position, if not yet to revive the show on TV, then to reinvigorate it in other media. 1999 was the low point. From now on, things are starting to look up.

 

Next Time: ‘You all burnt, all of you. Ten million ships on fire. I watched it happen. I made it happen.’ – The Burning

1998: Wormwood

Eighth48July 1998. It’s been over two years since Doctor Who in any form has aired on the BBC. The Eighth Doctor Adventures have failed to live up to the reputation of Virgin’s novels. There’s no imminent prospect of Doctor Who being made for film or TV again.

First off the mark in the wake of the TV movie was, amazingly, the Radio Times, which ran an eighth Doctor comic strip between June 1996 and March 1997. But Doctor Who Magazine wasn’t far behind, launching its own eighth Doctor strip in October 1996 with a story set in Stockbridge, a quintessential English country village first introduced in the 1982 strip The Tides of Time. As in the Eighth Doctor Adventures, DWM seemingly felt the need to ground the unknown new Doctor in familiar continuity and surroundings, as if to anchor him into the canon.

The comic strips have always had a slightly tenuous connection to the rest of Doctor Who: for most of the ‘classic’ series they only paid to use the likeness of the Doctor, so swathes of strips feature the Doctor travelling alone, or with strip-only companions, from John and Gillian through to Frobisher. This semi-detached relationship to continuity was interrupted for a brief spell in the early 1990s when the DWM strip featured Bernice Summerfield and the War Ace, Paul Cornell wrote DWM strips alongside New Adventures, and artist Lee Sullivan produced some concept art featuring Bernice to help nail the look of the character (including the cover to Love and War). However, by 1996 the strip was again forging ahead in its own direction.

In May-August 1996, DWM featured Ground Zero, a final seventh Doctor story that killed off Ace as a brutally effective way to demonstrate the strip’s independence from Virgin’s continuity. It also introduced a new enemy in the Threshold, an organisation that sells its ability to travel between dimensions to the highest bidder. The Threshold returned to face the eighth Doctor in Fire and Brimstone (a Dalek story that’s about a million times better than the Eighth Doctor Adventures‘) and The Final Chapter, which featured a shock cliff-hanger lead-in to Wormwood. The Doctor saves Gallifrey but only by sacrificing his life and regenerating into a ninth incarnation, based on Nicholas Briggs’ Doctor from the fan-made Audio Visuals.

It’s a tribute to the comic’s own strong sense of its own identity that in 1997 when the novels were struggling to define a character for the eighth Doctor, the strip was confidently slotting him into an ongoing story arc. I think maybe it was easier to convince the audience partly because the strip could actually use McGann’s likeness, so you were never in any doubt this was the new Doctor, and partly because a more expansive, ‘bigger’ incarnation was a natural fit for a strip, while the books really benefited from the broody introspection of the seventh Doctor. Regardless, kudos to DWM because their eighth Doctor strips in 1996-98 remain more convincing than most of what BBC Books were turning out.

The shock regeneration is representative of that self-confidence: a strip that can count among its back-issues stories by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison has clearly got an illustrious history. But the regeneration also probably reflects a lack of confidence in the eighth Doctor. It’s no coincidence that, as of 2015, between the BBC and DWM we’ve been presented with five different ninth Doctors. By comparison we were never presented with a range of possible eighth Doctors (for example, Virgin’s plan to introduce a new Doctor in the New Adventures was quickly nipped in the bud by the BBC). The plethora of Number Nines is indicative of multiple ranges pulling in different directions, and Doctor Who fragmenting and losing its identity.

The response to DWM’s ninth Doctor in the magazine’s letters pages is fascinating: a few disappointed voices lamenting the brevity of the ‘McGann era’ (with comments like ‘We haven’t got to know the eighth Doctor yet’), but almost an equal number jumping to praise the move. I’m guessing had DWM pulled the same trick with McCoy’s Doctor in 1991 there wouldn’t have been quite such balance. People clearly hadn’t had chance to build their affection for McGann, and there were still some people – like Vince, in Queer as Folk – who held the view that ‘Paul McGann doesn’t count’, so anything done to his Doctor was irrelevant to the unfolding text.

Of course, four months later it turned out to have been a massive deception: the ‘ninth Doctor’ was part of the eighth Doctor’s cunning plan to defeat the Threshold, and the strip ends with him promising, ‘this body’s just getting warmed up’. But as DWM’s deliberate test run for a potential change in “lead man”, a taster of how fans might react if the McGann Doctor was dropped, and an insight into the readiness of the tie-in series to consider moving on from TV Doctors, Wormwood is instructive. By 1998, most of us had pretty much given up on seeing Doctor Who on TV again.

 

Next Time: ‘I know you never forget a face. And in years to come, you might find yourself revisiting a few. But just the old favourites, eh?’ – Doctor Who Night

1997: Alien Bodies

name_doctor-12November 1997. It’s been six months since So Vile a Sin was published, and the New Doctor Who Adventures came to an end. Virgin is ploughing on with Doctor-less New Adventures fronted by Bernice Summerfield, which largely have the same authors – and audience – as the Doctor Who books. As expected, Fox did not pick up the TV movie for a series. There’s no imminent prospect of Doctor Who being made for film or TV again.

Against this unpromising backdrop, BBC Books have launched a new series of Eighth Doctor Adventures featuring the TV movie Doctor and a new assistant, Sam Jones. The first in the series, The Eight Doctors, is widely agreed to have been a disaster at least as bad as Timewyrm: Genesys, making the uphill struggle to win over those of us who’d been loyal Virgin fans even more difficult. Particularly because, in a parting up-yours to the BBC, Virgin had published a single, widely admired eighth Doctor New Adventure of its own.

In retrospect, the first six months of the Eighth Doctor Adventures aren’t as awful as it felt at the time. Barring one, they were all written by Virgin authors, and four of them wouldn’t have been out of place as New Adventures. The exceptions are the abovementioned The Eight Doctors and War of the Daleks, a novel that tended to imply its author John Peel hadn’t liked any Doctor Who made since 1975, a view that might have endeared him to some fans but probably not many who read the books.

The biggest problem with the Eighth Doctor Adventures is a lack of direction. Unable to use any of the new characters or situations introduced in the TV movie, faced with a BBC Books policy to ‘neither confirm nor deny’ the New Adventures, a new Doctor and companion who were pretty much blank slates and no Peter Darvill-Evans setting the tone, the writers had pretty much nothing to build on.

Understandably, the writers took the opposite approach to Virgin, which had dropped the known quantities of the seventh Doctor and Ace into ‘previously unexplored realms of time and space’, and instead put the unknown eighth Doctor and Sam up against enemies and situations that were familiar to readers. Hence the first five books feature all seven previous Doctors, two re-matches with the Vampires, the revenge of the Zygons, the return of Jo Grant, and the resurrection of the Daleks and Davros. The eighth Doctor’s personality likewise became ‘opposite’ to the seventh’s: open, spontaneous, upbeat, ‘light’. Anyone who describes these books’ eighth Doctor as a “Byronic hero” clearly has no idea what the term actually means (it doesn’t mean floppy hair and a frock coat). Sadly, he’s just not that interesting.

We can be overly harsh on the books, though: the DWM strip was doing exactly the same, pitting the new Doctor against the Celestial Toymaker, the Daleks and a court room full of defeated enemies. A character with an hour of screen time is too narrow a basis for a million words a year, particularly when the different ranges are actively not collaborating, and there’s no one person – like Darvill-Evans – willing to step up and take charge. This problem ultimately lasts until Paul McGann starts to work with Big Finish, and brings his own take on the eighth Doctor – a kind of sardonic detachment – that’s closer to the concept of a Byronic hero than anything done to that point.

Until then, Doctor Who was hobbled, pinning too much on too little. But given the “leading man” was inadequate, Lawrence Miles comes up with a clever solution. Alien Bodies, BBC Books’ sixth Eighth Doctor Adventure, gets round its tabula rasa Doctor and companion by making that in itself part of the story. Sam Jones is revealed to be a construct, whose biodata has been rewritten to make her a better companion: there’s a more troubled, more real version somewhere buried in her essence. Meanwhile, the Doctor is confronted with his own future death, in battle, on an alien planet, during a Time War between Gallifrey and its great Enemy. His corpse has become a complicated space-time event, much sought after by his enemies.

The New Adventures had their ‘Cartmel Masterplan’, and a dark secret in the seventh Doctor’s history. By making the interesting thing about the eighth Doctor his awful future, Miles tips the focus of the Eighth Doctor Adventures on their heads, gifting BBC Books a whole new mythology to play with, shifting the series away from delving into revelations about what might have happened in the Dark Time, or in the Doctor’s past and urging the range to look to the future, to build towards something rather than trying to build on the thin foundations of the TV movie.

This is a genius solution to the problems of BBC Books in in 1997, a way for a range that was becoming increasingly trapped in nostalgia to look forward. Because the Time War is in the future, it never has to actually arrive, but it does offer a pole star, a direction of travel for a directionless series.

Most people talking about Lawrence Miles’ influence on Doctor Who – both the Eighth Doctor Adventures and the TV series – pick up on plot details: like the Time War, or the Celestis, Time Lords that have abandoned physical form to become ‘creatures of consciousness alone’, or the Doctor’s death on Dronid/Lake Silencio/Trenzalore: not a past he’s running away from, but a future. For me, the best thing about Miles’ work is this focus on the future. That’s also at the heart of Steven Moffat’s belief that the fiftieth anniversary couldn’t just look backwards, that the Doctor had to always be wondering what was over the next hill. I see that clearly at the end of The Day of the Doctor, when the “thirteenth” Doctor (the one Alien Bodies says will die in battle), says:

‘I have a new destination. My journey is the same as yours, the same as anyone’s. It’s taken me so many years, so many lifetimes, but at last I know where I’m going…’

 

Next Time: ‘Change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon’ – Wormwood

1996: Damaged Goods

Screen-Shot-2013-11-24-at-6.06.16-PMOctober 1996. It’s been five months since Doctor Who: The Movie aired on Fox and BBC1. Despite a flurry of excitement at the start of the year, there is no Paul McGann series on the horizon. However, BBC Books have published a novelisation of the TV movie as a prelude to them launching their own, in-house book series featuring the new Doctor.

1996 is like a re-run of 1989, with added disappointment. Having been promised a revival since 1990, fans understandably got their hopes up, only to have them dashed on the indifference of the Fox network. Meanwhile, Virgin, which might have been able to rally the troops as it did in 1991, has just been denied the Doctor Who publishing licence. A deep gloom is descending, darker and more protracted than after 1989.

In the immediate term, the movie’s failure was a crushing disaster. Taking a longer view, it’s merely a blip. There are elements – like the TARDIS set design – that might, possibly, have played some part in the thinking of BBC Wales in 2004. Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor was generally liked, even by people who hated the movie, but his inclusion in the 2005 series’ official roll-call is due more to the amount of tie-in material featuring the eighth Doctor from the BBC and Big Finish than any reflection on the TV movie itself (Richard E Grant’s ninth Doctor was firmly excluded). In every other respect – particularly the half-human revelation – the TV movie is barely relevant.

More damaging was its impact on the New Adventures, now consigned to history. This was a tough time to be a fan. I’d only started following the range in 1995, and quickly become an avid reader. For me in 1996, the news that the New Adventures were ending was worse than knowing the TV movie wasn’t being picked up for a series: you can’t miss what you never had.

The final, bittersweet months of the New Adventures maintained the quality of the range since 1994, but they inevitably have an autumnal tinge, having to wrap up plot threads and write out characters to tie in to a movie that the writers knew was going nowhere. This is the backdrop to Russell T Davies’ first professional Doctor Who work, a story that had about one five hundredth the audience of the TV movie. But it’s important because seven years later Davies was the man the BBC chose to bring Doctor Who back to TV.

It’s impossible now to read the novel without consciously looking for evidence that Rose was already in Davies’ brain. Gosh, a council estate, a Time Lord war and the Tyler family! Obviously, though, that’s ridiculous. Even in 1996, Damaged Goods wasn’t even the most NuWho-ish thing Davies had done (that would be 1991’s Dark Season). Yes, you can spot the Doctor visiting Bev Tyler as a child on a terrible night, and coming back to her years later like he does to Elton in Love & Monsters. You can notice the discomfort at those who die because they’re caught in the Doctor’s wake: ‘the ranks of the Doctor’s fallen extras’. You can spot Mrs Hearn desperately flirting with the Doctor like Jackie Tyler will in Rose. You can strip away the gory details and notice that Davies re-uses the generic plot for Partners in Crime (fat capsules dissolving people into cute little Adipose rather than cocaine turning them into N-forms).

The point is that Davies is writing in the New Adventures idiom – in The Writer’s Tale he admits he looks for ways to imitate the ‘voice’ of other writers when doing rewrites. Damaged Goods reads like him imitating the ‘voice’ of the New Adventures. There’s nothing uniquely different about Damaged Goods – previous novels did drugs, sex, squalor, body horror. What the most insightful reviewers at the time noticed was Davies took the most fundamental idea of Doctor Who, putting ordinary people face to face with the extraordinary, and he did it exceptionally well.

In this respect, Davies is in the same camp as Cornell, Cartmel, right the way back to the team that invented Ian and Barbara and dropped them into a dimensionally transcendental Police Box. Even the TV movie got this right, blowing apart Grace’s world with a man that can’t die. I can’t imagine any circumstances where Davies would have a TARDIS crew consisting of a mathematical genius, a Time Lady and an electronic dog.

For me, Davies’ Doctor isn’t down to earth, he’s not ‘descending’ to our level. Instead, he lifts us up to the sky. There’s a moment in the book where the Doctor reflects, ‘the silent lives of the Quadrant’s inhabitants were escalating beyond the personal on to an epic scale’ which seems to me emblematic of Davies’ writing. Later, he writes:

‘The Doctor spoke of wars and legends and histories older than the galaxy while smaller, more intricate, equally deadly patterns took their final shape as human and Gallifreyan lots intertwined. The people now gathered in the design would not amount to the smallest scintilla against the vast panorama which had set events in motion, and yet each person played a vital role in re-creating that vista.’

For Davies, the epic is the personal, made up of individual lives every bit as important as ‘legends and histories older than the galaxy’, ‘a universe of secrets’ behind each door. You see this in Damaged Goods, and again in The Parting of the Ways – when Rose’s ‘ordinary’ life on the Powell estate is directly linked to the vast space opera of the year 200,000: ‘That fight is happening right now, and he’s fighting for us, for the whole planet, and I’m just sitting here eating chips.’

All this is in the 2005 series. All of it’s there in Damaged Goods. And in Davies’ other work, not least Century Falls. This novel isn’t a template for the future of Doctor Who, but it holds the future in its principles and values.

In 1996, though, that future never seemed more like a fading dream. The New Adventures are finished. The TV movie failed. If Doctor Who’s going to survive at all, what comes next will have to be truly remarkable.

 

 

Next Time: ‘Welcome to the final resting place of the cruel tyrant. Of the slaughterer of the ten billion, and the vessel of the final darkness. Welcome to the tomb of the Doctor’ – Alien Bodies