Monday, December 2, 2013

Bow Ties Are Cool: The Reinvention of Doctor Who

Fifty years is a long time for anything to remain in the public consciousness. Most elements of culture, pop or otherwise, tend to dissipate in the mists of time – think of music, films, or television shows that you inhaled seven or eight years ago but have since forgotten, and you’ll get a sense of this lack of staying power. Even fewer of these elements become full-blown phenomena.

This is why the story of Doctor Who and its re-emergence in the public psyche is pretty remarkable – it’s a show that almost got scuttled by the news of JFK’s death, then saw an initial breakthrough with British children, then became reinvented after the departure of its star, then shifted from a series of sometimes historical-based “educational” episodes to straightforward “monster-of-the-week” sci fi, then moved into the era of color television and a change of formats designed to mimic secret agent shows, then reinvigorated itself with the arrival of a man in a scarf and a floppy hat, then survived a shift to weeknights and an uncharacteristically younger leading man, then survived a cancellation and a behind-the-scenes battle that is still a source of contention and speculation to this day, then faded into oblivion after another shift in focus and a diminishing fan base in 1989.

After its television death, Doctor Who managed to survive in the form of novels and comics written by a whole new generation of fans so that, 20 years later, it could finally reestablish itself in the public’s mind. Today, it manages to stay true to its roots, tell complex and engaging stories, complete in the global marketplace, grow tremendously popular beyond its fan base with “everyday” viewers, and as of this week, earn nearly $5 million theatrically in a day and be recognized in the House of Lords as an invaluable asset to British programming. How did we get to this point, when, for the past 20 years, hardly anyone but that prolific fan base seemed to care?

Brand recognition, plain and simple, and in this case, that’s a good thing. After decades of not appreciating, valuing, or funding its own treasure as it should have, the BBC has finally gotten the good Doctor right.

Intellectual Property

In a time when Disney is now visibly smashing up Lucas Arts, prematurely ending the fan-favorite Clone Wars series, halting plans for Star Wars-themed attractions at Disneyland due to cost overruns, and seemingly not comprehending the necessity of actual planning for its next Star Wars film (as evidenced by a recent JJ Abrams’ comment that the company’s desire to release Episode VII in May 2015 "didn't necessarily have to do with the reality of where anyone was creatively”), the powers-that-be at the BBC have figured out that to build an Empire, you don’t have to throw money and nostalgia at the problem—you get the fans on your side and honor their story.

The BBC’s current attitude—a stance that contributed to the ultimate success of the Doctor’s 50th birthday celebration—is a far cry from what once was. Considering that the initial “postponement” of the series in the mid-eighties, and its subsequent life support that was allowed to run out in 1989, seemed in retrospect to be an orchestrated attempt by certain controllers at the BBC to kill the show (which, imagination aside, was deemed cheap and only beloved by geeky “anoraks”), it’s highly ironic that anyone related to the BBC, let alone British government, should champion the show today.

Even when the show’s concept was revived for a series of novels from Virgin publishing, which picked up where the TV show left off, and even with a mid-nineties attempt to revive the show in a well-meaning but misjudged TV movie co-production with Universal and Fox (something that drew New York Times coverage), and even when the BBC reinvented the concept as a series of its own in-house novels and licensed audio plays from Big Finish (of which most, if not all, were written by one-time fans-turned pro-writers), the idea of televised Doctor Who failed to reignite in mass culture. Eventually the monthly comic magazine and the audios kept things going while sales in the books dropped. Ironically, when the series was revived in 2005 by producers Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner, the licensed audios were championed while the BBC books were dismissed; creative power had reverted back to the show runners and not the merchandisers. (Much is made by Davies in a recent DVD interview of how he “took care” of the audio company from being shut down by the BBC, which feared competition with its new TV “brand”).

Davies was also keen to see the comic magazine continue, and even allowed the editors to show the  then-current Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) regenerate into the revived TV show’s incoming Ninth (Christopher Eccleston), but a series of red-tape restrictions involving deadlines and image embargoes meant these plans were never followed through on by the editors; when the magazine relaunched with the TV show logo and Ninth Doctor in 2005, it started as a clean slate but also as a brand. Old and new viewers needed to recognize the Doctor and current Companion, Rose Tyler (as played by Billie Piper) only. These actions seemed like minor details at the time; business negotiations that would have no bearing on the merging of the past and future versions of the series, but current events have caught up and shown us just how important they are to what was experienced last week.

After the show’s revival in 2005, it grew in fan awareness and went from strength to strength even as Christopher Eccleston left and David Tennant took over. Even the BBC’s botched announcement of Eccleston leaving didn’t hurt things; Tennant grew in popularity (current polls today place him as the #2 favorite Doctor, after Tom Baker). The Big Finish audios continued to breathe new life into old Doctors as Tom Baker—who like Sean Connery, once said “Never Again” -- joined the ranks of Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann to tell new stories; the magazine was eventually able to break away from the restrictions of the early 2000’s and tie into past continuity, as well as introduce the series in America. With the growth of BBC America on cable and the Internet, Americans were becoming aware of a show that, 20 years before, had been the butt of jokes due to scarf-bearing fans and wobbly sets. Even John Nathan-Turner, the controversial producer of the show in the 80s, who had long attempted to crack the American market during his tenure, and who only succeeded in doing so via the convention circuit and modest amount of merchandise licenses, could not have predicted what was to follow.

Romantic Nature

By the time Matt Smith took over the role in 2010, the awareness of America was a given and world domination seemed to be the goal. By Smith’s second season, the show was not only setting episodes in the states, but filming there as well; Smith and his companions Amy and Rory (Karen Gillem and Arthur Darville) were picnicking in Central Park and signing autographs on Broadway. It wasn’t unusual at this time to start seeing posters for the show on billboards and buses. This, along with a massive viral online campaign, encompassing everything from Twitter to the BBC web site releasing official “mini-sodes”—mini episodes that added depth or prequels to current or upcoming shows – became the norm.

Interactive online and smartphone games became as common as new novels; some were even penned by current SF heavyweights like Michael Moorcock and Alistair Reynolds. Doctor Who composer Murray Gold’s music was featured in concert; Doctor Who exhibits in England drew huge crowds. Comic book publisher IDW, which had already achieved success with comics based on franchises such as Star Trek and GI Joe, was allowed to produce comics strictly for the American market—now, the tables were turned, in that British fans could only find these at comics and specialty stores instead of mass market booksellers and newsstands. The show that had once been a novelty was now becoming actively discussed not only online and at conventions, but in public places by people from all walks of life. In short, like the Doctor’s bow tie -- which at one time seemed hopelessly out of style -- Doctor Who was cool.

Current show runner Steven Moffett has often been accused of many things, from the slight development of the Doctor’s companions (“walking plot points,” as stated by one fan), to overcomplicated plotlines across a whole season, but one thing he cannot be accused of is his understanding of the Doctor at his core, and the importance of the character to the fans. As his time on the series progressed with the Matt Smith Doctor, it became increasingly clear that once he put his own mark on the series, Moffett truly revealed himself as the fan he’d always confessed himself to be, and would give both fans and new viewers alike what they wanted—but not in the way anyone expected.

As intriguing plotlines and beloved characters (such as River Song) grabbed viewers, Moffett allowed himself to reach into the past and play with what fans thought they knew of the series—from Silurians to Sontarans, and in this season, Ice Warriors and Zygons, along with the Daleks, Cybermen, and the recent (and madly popular) Weeping Angels. This point is terribly important, because, unlike in the eighties when it would be a big deal to cram everything into one season and herald this in the media, the fact that every single major monster in the history of the series was featured this year in some way, albeit quietly, says a lot about Moffat’s silent master plan. Moffett brought in writers who loved the series and could bring in touches of the past while emotionally moving the audience and moving the series in new and exciting directions  (Neil Gaiman’s “The Doctor’s Wife” being one example).

Fans have criticized the current series leading up to the 50th as being populist and disappointing: the first half seemed to be some generic tales, wide in scope that could grab an average viewer but might not necessarily intrigue die-hard fans (“Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and the western-flavored “Town Called Mercy” being two examples). The series also seemed particularly celebration light, especially for fans who were expecting another Twentieth Anniversary Show, “The Five Doctors,” in which great pains were taken to involve every single Doctor, many enemies and most companions at the time. In fact, this expectation has always existed for anniversary shows, from 1973’s “The Three Doctors” to the 1993 Children in Need special “Dimensions in Time” to the 2003 Big Finish audio “Zagreus,” that featured the Eight Doctor meeting people played by actors from 40 years of all of Doctor Who. (Big Finish just released a new audio adventure, “Light at the End” that features the actors who played Doctors Four through Eight, and many of their companions, for its part in marking 50 years).

It was only natural for some people to feel pained that there would only be two doctors appearing in the 50th, not counting the mysterious “forgotten Doctor” played by John Hurt. That no other Doctors were approached to be in the special or in anything else connected to the anniversary was made clear by actors Paul McGann and Colin Baker. Moffat himself insisted that the special would look more to the recent past than the classic show, so fans just had to accept this as a fact (and breathe a sigh of relief that at least no Doctor would be represented by a stand in or wax model, as had happened in the past).

Except…the Doctor lies.

As has happened throughout the past two seasons, the Doctor Who production team had masterfully kept secrets from its fan base, secrets that, if revealed prematurely, would rock the foundations of time, space and fandom because they were exactly the sort of things fans wanted. Saying anything too soon would ruin the fun and the surprise. Starting with the fact that actress Jenna Louie Coleman appeared five episodes earlier than announced as a character that added to the mystery of her own companion Clara, and culminating in the season finale, “Name of the Doctor,” in which Clara’s mysterious mission is revealed, it’s easy to see now that Moffat was playing a long game. In seeing Clara interacting with images of all past doctors in the finale, fans got exactly what they needed to see, the way they needed to see it before the anniversary special even arrived, in a way done in the best possible taste and with logical story sense. There was a hint that patience might pay off for the anniversary special.

And then there was more—the nemesis of the Doctor and Clara in that episode was The Great Intelligence, a villain faced by the second Doctor in a story thought long destroyed and which no longer existed in the BBC vaults. Then the BBC announced in October that this story, along with another Troughton serial, had been recovered—and could be downloaded from iTunes for $9.99! The eager fans who flocked to iTunes for this download no doubt discovered another surplus of Who content, some free, some at a minor charge, that would continue to build up the hype and the hoopla for the anniversary (something the BBC was heavily promoting at this point via an ad campaign “#SavetheDay” and a specially filmed 50th anniversary trailer containing Doctors, companions, monsters, and elements from all fifty years of the show).

Brute Force?
It could have all stopped there and we’d have been happy, but it didn’t— announced a live simulcast screening of the “Day of the Doctors” on the anniversary itself; just to make sure those who didn’t have access to BBC America or the recent DVD releases, Fathomevents announced that many more multiplexes would open up their doors to multiple screenings of the show, some in in 3D, no less, two days later on the 25th. Most of these shows sold out and the screening earned about $4.8 million stateside in a single day. If there was any way for the BBC to test the viability of a Doctor Who film, something that had long been discounted since the modestly successful Dalek movies of the 60s, well, this was it.

Then the kicker—a week or two before the anniversary date, the BBC released another mini-sode, this time a seven minutes tale of how the Doctor becomes the War Doctor,  as played by John Hurt, the “forgotten Doctor” who fought the time war before the Eccleston emerged. The fact that the mini-sode, “Night of the Doctor” featured Eighth Doctor Paul McGann from the “failed” American TV movie, with nods to the CGI planet-scapes of the 1990s and story links to the Tom Baker era to explain this unknown regeneration, lit up the Net. Suddenly fans were clamoring for more McGann. McGann had been honest about not appearing in the season – by a trick of semantics, he was involved in a mini-sode, which no one had considered; and considering how, unlike other past Doctors who had been making appearances on talk shows and the BBC’s yearlong “Doctor Who Revisited” specials, his absence helped to cement in the minds of the fans that he would have no involvement whatsoever. Moffett had done his homework and had given the fans exactly what they wanted, even though they didn’t know they needed it at the time – acceptance of and closure for the eight Doctor, a prequel to the special, links to the past, and a feeling of being “in the know” if you were the first to download and discuss it. The BBC fronted the money and airing of this mini-sode because they seemed to trust the story would sell everything else—and it did.
Another two minute mini-sode, ”The Last Day,”  ran exclusive to iTunes two days before the anniversary, perhaps as a way to draw people to that site and all of the Doctor Who downloads there. It was far less stupendous than “Night of the Doctor” had been, even if its premise was epic: the start of the Dalek invasion of Gallifrey on the last day of the Time Wars. Nonetheless, it gave a taste of the ongoing story and a possible hint of things to come.

As the “Day of the Doctor” approached, the tributes just kept on coming. Along with various TV specials (“The Science of Doctor Who,” “Doctor Who in the US,” “Doctor Who Explained”), the night before the anniversary, the BBC screened “An Adventure in Space and Time,” an affectionate, if somewhat pedestrian plotted dramatic telling of the creation of the series in the early 1960s. What elevated the show above average TV movie status was its recognition of four very important people involved in the creation of the show (creator Sydney Newman, producer Verity Lambert, director Waris Hussein and actor William Hartnell) and how their melding of ideas and raw instinct led to a very special creative concoction. The diverse backgrounds of these individuals fusing their creativity during this particular time period is remarkable:  Newman and Lambert, both Jewish and bucking BBC traditions; Lambert facing sexism in her efforts to be taken seriously; Hussein, a young, untested Indian director who faced many unusual challenges in his first major project; and Hartnell, a British character actor looking to get away from typecasting. All brought their sensibilities as outsiders to create the ultimate outsider, and this point is highlighted in the film.

In addition to a few cameos from actors and actresses who were involved in the early series (Jean Marsh, Carole Ann Ford, Anneke Wills and William Russell), it was especially poignant to see, after Hartnell’s decline in health and fall from grace, him being “replaced” by Patrick Troughton, then receiving the recognition he continued to crave even after he left the role, in this case in the form of current Doctor Matt Smith silently nodding, as if to tell him, “Your legacy will live on.” At any other time and in any other film, this might be seen as self-indulgence on the part of the writer (sometimes Who scribe Mark Gatiss); timed with the anniversary, and airing on the BBC, it feels more like a long overdue apology, public approval, and recognition by the powers that be for something they had long neglected to care for.

Cynicism? (Never Cruel or Cowardly)

The day of the anniversary came with several other surprises. Conventions and mini-conventions were held worldwide to celebrate the show; people dressed in costume as they never had before (publicly), and there was a very MTV-ish pre-show where people who seemed to know little about Doctor Who celebrated the show. Fifth Doctor Peter Davison unleashed online “The Five-ish” Doctors,” a spoof of multi-Doctor episodes playing on the fact that he, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Paul McGann (with a slight nod to Tom Baker, in a hilarious re-re-use of stock footage) are not featured in the anniversary special. Davison, who is well known for at one time distancing himself from the role, reveals himself to be the ultimate fan boy—there are so many well thought out cameos and in-jokes in this video – cameos and jokes that reach back into the show’s past and extend up until today -- that it has to be seen to be appreciated.

At the same time, movie theaters showing the simulcast featured screens of Doctor Who facts and trivia; Tennant and Smith recorded special footage that played before both the TV screening (mimicking famous lines in SF movies that “The Doctor would not say,” lines like “Hasta La Vista, Baby” and “Use the Force, Luke”). There were even special filmed announcements for theaters by Sontaran Strax about “silencing your communications device,” and by the two Doctors about the effects of 3D on Matt Smith’s chin, as well as a short “making of” featurette with current and past cast members screening in theaters. Included amongst the guests: Tom Baker, who was featured in the actual episode as the mysterious “Curator” – perhaps another incarnation of the Fourth Doctor—and Colin Baker as narrator, who mugs up for the camera and continues playing on the fact that he was left out of the special. Keeping in mind the content of the special itself—a storyline that tied up many lose ends about the Time War,  appealed to the general viewer as well as the fan, and that featured appearances by all of the Doctors, including Doctor Peter Capaldi (his split-second appearance drew the greatest applause out of the audience at the screening I attended)--one gets  the sense that the Doctor’s future is assured.

Triumph: Never Give Up, Never Give In

This type of mass exposure in a common every-day setting showed just how much the company that owns Doctor Who now values it  and continues to make it fresh and relevant while honoring all contributors, especially the creative -- the actors and storytellers. When the actors and cast members across fifty years’ time say how much attending a convention or being part of the anniversary is like being with family, they are not kidding, and the BBC is starting to understand that. When Matt Smith first started in the role, talk show host Craig Ferguson heralded the program in song, with a line about how the Doctor concerns the “Triumph of Intellect and Romance over Brute Force and Cynicism” – a line that is eerily similar to the guiding principle of The Doctor, as revealed in “Day of the Doctor”: “Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in.”  It’s taken 50 years, but it seems that the Doctor’s future is assured as long as those that make and influence the series keep these lyrics in mind and remember that bow ties ARE cool!

By Adam Throne

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