An Open Letter to the Controller of BBC 1

 

Look after the universe for me; I've put a lot of work into it.

 The Curse of Fatal Death

 

Dear Ms Heggessey,

I am interested to learn that you are seriously considering reviving 'Doctor Who'.

Although I am not one of those geekish 'Doctor Who' fans you may have read about, I do think that, at a time when 'Star Trek' is in its fifth iteration and even 'Andy Pandy' merits a CGI makeover, it is high time that this classic piece of TV be given a second chance.

 

For a long time, I used to go to bed early, so in one sense I only became aware of 'Doctor Who' during the Pertwee period; (I think it was the Silurians.) But in another sense, I never really saw it for the first time-- it was never just a TV show. I had probably only watched half a dozen actual episodes when I first had access to reference books, 'The Making of 'Doctor Who' and 'The Radio Times Special', with summaries of every old episode and pictures of old Doctors and old companions.

The inhabitants of Planet Playground had only known Doctor Jon and Jo, but we all knew that there was a time, unimaginably long ago when there had been different Doctors, Black and White Doctors. Long before Jo ran off with the smarmy, welsh hippy we knew that there had been previous 'assistants', and there would be subsequent 'assistants'. (There had even been a time when the Doctor had had BOYS in the TARDIS.) We knew about Cybermen for ten years before they actually appeared on TV.

'Doctor Who' was not a TV show; it was an ongoing, historical process. You could hardly have bought a book with every previous episode of 'Scooby Doo' in it.

Davros. Leela. Daleks.

Sugar Puffs, with free badges.

TV Comic, with a colour Jon Pertwee story, along with some sub-Beano humour about moths and child beating.

The exhibition on Blackpool's Golden Mile.

The exhibition in the Science Museum, and the TARDIS COMMANDER badge.

Bars of chocolate with an episodic story on the wrapper, whereon I first heard the word 'evolution'.

Blue Peter 'Doctor Who' puppet theatre.

Coin operated Daleks on Brighton pier.

Jon Pertwee judging a co-op recipe competition.

Basil Brush.

Bruce Forsyth.

The first Radio Time of winter with 'NEW SERIES' in heavy print.

Jon Pertwee appearing, in character, with Ed Stewart on Junior Choice.

Diagrams of the internal workings of a Dalek, and realizing that you would never be able to use the Radio Times plans to make your own.

Realising that 'War of the Daleks' was in fact only Snakes and Ladders, and not caring..

The actual television programme was entirely secondary.

 

When reviving 'Doctor Who', may I suggest that you keep the following in mind?

1: The programme is about the Doctor. Get his personality right (as with the McGann movie) and everything else will follow. Get it wrong (as with the 'Death Comes To Time' travesty) and what you end up with has nothing to do with 'Doctor Who'

I remember the 10th Anniversary magazine, with the two-page spread of the three Doctors, long before I had ever seen, or ever hoped to see, a Bill Hartnell episode. Three has always seemed the right number of Doctors for there to be. The Wise Old Man. The Dotty Trickster. The Heroic, Fatherly one. Three distinct people, but only one Doctor, neither confounding the unity nor dividing the substance.

Doctor the Grandfather; Doctor the Father; Doctor the Holy Fool.

The fourth one rolled them into one: The Wise Old Dotty Heroic Fatherly Foolish Hero. He was THE Doctor. Subsequent Doctors were just copies of him, with minor variations. Doctor with Cricket Bat. Doctor with Checked Suit. Doctor with Umbrella. Doctor with American Companion. (Peter Cushing doesn't count. William Hartnell wouldn't have worked for Darth Vader, now, would he?)

What is the essence of Doctorness? Not, as Colin Baker says, his morality, the fact that he always does what is Right. Some images of the Doctor have been more cynical than others; early Hartnell had something of the callous Holmsean misanthrope. Even Tom Baker could be a thug; look at the way he sacrifices lives in "Fang Rock".

The essence I think, is that he is outside of time, outside of the script, outside of the rules: he can joke and behave madly because he is the one fixed point, and the rest of the universe revolves around him. He knows it's TV show, and can occasionally wink to camera. This is true when Tom Baker treats the entire universe as the set of a not very well assembled pantomime, and equally true when Sylvester McCoy winks cryptically and starts unravelling schemes which he has been preparing for since Time began.

If someone asked me what was the point of 'Doctor Who', I might show them 'Androids of Tara'. Not a classic story, in many ways. But it understands the point. The subsidiary cast deadpan their way through a pastiche of Prisoner of Zenda, taking it all quite seriously and sensibly, even though it involves androids. Doctor Tom wanders in like some Shakespearean fool, cast in the wrong play. Instead of chasing the Key to Time, he goes fishing. When the baddy zaps him with a raygun, he says 'Put that thing down. My hat's on fire.'

It is one of the minor sadnesses of the world that Tom persisted in the belief that he was an Actor, when his real genius was for comedy. In a just world, Tom would have been Gandalf, Ian McKellen would have been Dumbledore, and Richard Harris would have been relatively sober.

 

2: The programme is about thrilling yarns: historical settings and alien invasions. The TARDIS exists only as a plot device to get the heroes to interesting locations. Resist any temptation to make the series about time travel or 'science fiction'. (Ancient Rome or the Wild West are really just places where an adventure might happen: we are not interested in the philosophical effects of going backwards in time, although we may occasionally pretend to be.) When anyone uses the term 'Doctor Who universe' in your hearing, laugh derisively at them.

 

When people who do not understand the programme try to identify the 'unique selling point' of 'Doctor Who' they are inclined to say something like 'Doctor Who' is unique because he can go anywhere in space and time.' This is not true. In Doctor Jon's era, 'anywhere in space and time meant 'London back streets during small scale alien invasions'; in Doctor Tom's time, it meant 'the holds of rickety spaceships in space-operatic galactic empires.' Perhaps, in the very, very, very early days of the series, the production team did try to freak the audience out by showing of the open-endedness of the format: this week the Stone Age, next week, the Far Future, then Cowboys and Indians, the present day, but miniaturized, and the China of Marco Polo, with a one week stop over on the set of Keystone Kops movie. But even then, Aztec South America and the planet of the Insects both turned out to be costume dramas where everyone spoke with RADA accents.

Some programmes, such as 'Star Trek', depend on their setting; 'Enterprise' would not work if you did not have some awareness of what is meant by 'Vulcan' 'Klingon' and 'Federation'. 'Doctor Who' was never like this; there never was a 'Doctor Who' setting outside of the minds of the fans. 'Doctor Who' was an anthology series, along the lines of 'Twilight Zone' but which used the device of the time machine to have a continuing set of characters.

It gave writers the freedom to plonk the Doctor into a 'galactic empire in the far future' and not expect it to connect with last week's galactic empire in the far future, or next week's galactic empire in the far future. It was part of the freewheeling experimentation of the show that entire settings could be introduced and exhausted in 100 minutes. So what if no one understood "Warriors Gate"; you only had to put up with it for a couple of weeks, and then you could go back to random chase scenes through the streets of Paris. Even with recurring villains like the Daleks writers paid only the most minimal attention to what had happened in previous appearances; the Daleks of 'Genesis of the Daleks' have nothing whatsoever in common with the Daleks of 'Dead Planet.'

 

3: The programme is not about itself. Ignore the shows history and continuity. Most especially, ignore Time Lords for as long as you can.

Many of the 'Doctor Who' novellisations have turned in on themselves, and made the idea of 'Doctor Who' the subject of the narrative. In some cases, they ask 'what does it mean to be the Doctor, what is his place in the Universe'? At others, they ask 'What can we learn about Time Lord history? How can we extrapolate the workings of UNIT in the real world?' This is nonsense which only fans can take an interest in.

Astonishingly, the various pitches for what eventually became the Paul McGann movie (reproduced in 'the Nth Doctor') obsessed about Time Lord history and mythology; that is to say, they focussed on two not-particularly impressive Robert Holmes scripts, ('Deadly Assassin' and 'Three Doctors') at the expense of almost everything else in the show's 28-year history. There were pitches involving Rassilon and Omega, pitches about evil time lords and the creation of Time Travel, pitches about the Doctor's parentage and multiple Doctors. Even the film that got made focused on the Master and the idea of Regeneration; and spent the first five minutes info-dumping a lot of rubbish about Skaro and Twelve Regenerations on the hapless viewer. The Radio 4 pilot, 'Death Comes to Time' seemed to be more interested in playing around with Time Lord history (or 'history') than with actually telling a story.

The Time Lords form no necessary part of 'Doctor Who'; they were a deus ex machina, introduced to bring a dreadful rambling story called 'The War Games' to a conclusion. The programme managed without them for the first five years, and they only really became a driving force for the series when Doctor Tom was past his best. They occasionally served as a useful plot device, but the stories in which they came center-stage were uniformly dreadful. Similarly, 'regeneration' is not part of the Doctor's persona, or the theme of the series, or an important idea to dump on the viewer early on. It's simply a convenient trick for changing the lead actor when necessary.

If the new series is a great success, then the same actor will play the Doctor for the entire run, and you need never even mention 'regeneration' again.

The Doctor is a wanderer with a time machine.

The Doctor is a traveller.

'Hello, I am the Doctor. I travel in time and space.'

That is the only thing which the new viewer needs to know.

 

4: The programme is not about its icons. Daleks, Cybermen and Ice warriors accounted for only a very small number of the 695 episodes which were made. Only use them if you can think of a good use for them.

I believe that Eric Saward said that when he wrote 'Revelation of the Daleks' he tried to keep the monsters themselves off screen as long as possible, because he thought that they were dated and ridiculous

This is the wrong approach.

The right approach is to do what every comic book writer does when he takes over 'Superman'. He says 'let's get back to basics. Let's look at what made Superman cool in 1939, and try to present those things in a new way that is relevant to the year 2002.' (Tough on Daleks. Tough on the causes of Daleks.)

Or, of course, to not use them at all.

The original point of Daleks was NOT that they said 'exterminate, exterminate, exterminate'.

The original point of Daleks was that they were so hideous that you could never actually see them.

The original point of the Daleks was that they were minds so brilliant (and so evil) that their bodies had to stop working altogether. They were Brains, and they required slaves to tackle violence and stairs for them.

In the original story, they got that way because of a nuclear war: in later versions, it was because of Davros' selective breeding experiments. It seems to me that if the 'Spiderman' movie can replace the radioactive spider with a genetically modified one, then the Daleks nuclear war can be replaced with an experiment in designer babies gone horribly wrong. This will infuriate the fans. Sod the fans.

 

4: 'Doctor Who' is not about special effects. In particular, it is not about massive space battles and action sequences. 'Doctor Who' is character driven costume melodrama. The costumes and sets, should, of course, be done as well as possible. But the moment it tries to sell on its spectacle, it ceases to be 'Doctor Who'.

The reason that 'Doctor Who' survived 28 years with 'bad special effects' is not because people in the 1960s were so stupid that they couldn't see the wire on the Dalek's spaceship. The reason that 'Doctor Who' survived 28 years with 'bad special effects' was that 'special effects' were never relevant to what the series was doing.

A misunderstanding of this point has kept the series off the TV for twelve years. The argument goes like this

A: 'Doctor Who' is sci fi

B: People watch sci-fi movies for their 'special effects'

C: 'Doctor Who' had poor special effects

D: Therefore, 'Doctor Who' was poor sci fi.

This argument is put forward by people who assume that 'Doctor Who' and 'Star Wars' are very much the same kind of thing, and who like neither. It is perfectly true that post-Lucas, there has been a market for movies whose main selling point has been the spectacle. It does not follow that all 'science fiction' is by definition spectacular. Some people want 'Doctor Who' to be 'Attack of the Clones' with a police box in it. They are wrong.

It is unquestionably the case that TV sci-fi, because of budget and the size of the screen, can never have the spectacle of movie sci-fi. It is also the case that TV cop shows cannot have the stunts or the action of movie blockbusters, but no one argues therefore that the BBC should stop making police drama.

We are told that 'Doctor Who' had 'wobbly sets'. This is not true; it is a proverb, which represents people's memories that the programme was very largely filmed in a studio; even jungles were often filmed indoors. This was, of course, generally true of TV productions in the 1960s and 70s: it presumably only ceased to be the case when camera became small enough to make outside broadcasts economic. One can see the proverbial set wobble in instalments of 'Coronation Street' from the same period, but no-one therefore argues that the BBC should stop making soaps. Neither do they claim that 'Eastenders' can only survive if it acquires a level of scale and drama that would compete with 'Titanic'.

It is not true that, in order to maintain its 'charm', 'Doctor Who' effects should look 'cardboardy' (another proverb.) But it is true that, because of its budget limitations, the action of the programme was always kept to a relatively small scale; rescuing a single French revolutionary spy, not re-fighting the battle of Waterloo; helping cavemen rediscover fire, not watching herds of rampaging tyrannosaurs charge across the plain. That set the tone; and that that tone should be maintained in any re-make.

The original version of 'Star Trek' had a special effects budget of slightly less than zero; spacecraft simply hung in front of painted backdrops. Roddenbury therefore created a style of space-ship battle which required more or less no model work: it consisted of enemy captains threatening each other on view screens; close ups of captain's faces and the bridge shaking and filling with smoke. This forced the writers to create battle scenes which turned on characterisation; perhaps Kirk bluffs the Klingons into thinking that his ship has a secret weapon called 'corbonite' , or maybe the two captains beam down to an alien planet and settle it with fisticuffs. 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' was free to use post-'Star Wars' special effects if it wanted to, but it very largely stuck to the grammar of the old version; so, in fact did the movies and 'DS9'. Partly, because that style of battle had come to define what 'Star Trek' was about; partly, because it was exciting and it worked. Any re-vamp of 'Doctor Who' should apply the same reasoning.

Small space ships, men in rubber suits. But hopefully, technological advances will ensure that the rubber suits actually fit.

Its been argued that some characters are universal, and are simply embodied by particular actors at particular times: Harpo has always existed, and would have existed even if Adolf Marx had never fluffed his lines on a Vaudeville stage. (Conversely, Groucho was the creation of specific set of historical and biographical circumstances, and ceased to be the moment that Julius Marx breathed his last.)

The Doctor is clearly an immortal character, and the BBC owes it to the world to re-embody him for us.

I trust that this is of some help, and will look forward to seeing whatever programme you eventually come up with.

Yours faithfully,

Andrew Rilstone

P.S

Please give Angus Deayton his job back.

 

 

 

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