Gallifrey is in Britain

Martin's got some radical ideas for how to improve the next season of Doctor Who. Whether you agree that it needs improving is down to you, of course...


I didn’t like the Doctor Who Christmas Special as much as Simon. I’m hyper-critical of Who, I think, like the long-suffering football supporter that Michael Palin plays in the Ripping Yarns story ‘Golden Gordon’ – out on the terraces every week, watching his beloved team get yet another apocalyptic thrashing by even the weakest opponents, and coming home to throw his mantelpiece clock out of the window – again – in frustration.

But Gordon was always back the following week with a ragged hope in his soul, and so am I, because like him I remember the ‘golden’ seasons, and like him I retain, against all the available evidence, that it can happen again.

Gordon developed a mad plan to restore his ailing team to their former glory, and I have a similar plan, though unlike Gordon’s it does not involve gathering up the retired members of the ‘heyday crew’. Verity Lambert passed on recently, Douglas Adams less recently and my beloved Tom Baker would no doubt consider his years incompatible with the role, about which he is probably right.

No, my idea is far simpler – cut the budget, radically. Cut it at least in half, and preferably down to about one quarter.

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Doctor Who is currently co-funded by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and that’s too much influence from the American continent to retain the Britishness of the show, which is increasingly looking to American characters and/or locations (Jack Harkness and the New York Daleks), internationally-known actors and – I might add – Hollywood-level special effects to raise Who to the major leagues.

But the major leagues is not where the show belongs. The groundswell of British and world-wide fan-support that revived the series after a 15-year hiatus emanated from a program that was often poorly presented, but had tremendous character – not unlike The Doctor himself. That show had perennial renewals and wide scope to go where it would because it was a reliable ratings magnet that was not bankrupting the BBC and it happened to become very popular abroad too.

Abandoning the British character of Who is a very easy road to take for two reasons: a) there is great precedent for it in the cash-strapped history of British science-fiction and b) British culture itself is possibly now more poorly defined and outward-looking than it has been since the 11th century.

To pursue the first point, making Brit-based sci-fi and horror sexier to lucrative US audiences by inserting American or Canadian actors has a history going back to the 1950s, when fading Hollywood tough-guy Brian Donlevy was shoe-horned into the Hammer film adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s successful TV production Quatermass II (1957, US Title Enemy From Space), to the author’s chagrin. Jacque Tourneur’s classic Night Of The Demon (1957, US title Curse Of The Demon) also required square-jawed state-side psychologist Dana Andrews to come over and sort us fuddled Brits out. The list goes on.

Even where North American actors were not inserted, North American money has always been keen to genericise uniquely British aspects of transatlantic productions, unless it involves something highly recognisable, such as Big Ben or the Queen (ring any bells, Who fans?). We are, ultimately, talking about the continent that dubbed Mad Max II with American-accented actors.

Conscious of accusations of cultural invasion, this transatlantic homogeneity has been mitigated in recent years by American actors adopting English accents, and London’s West End theatreland has become an annexe of Hollywood or Broadway, peppered with faded and not-so-faded US stars (rather than actors). UK TV shows likewise pander to potential US markets in terms of style and approach, though this goes back much further as a practice. Heterogeneity is good both for race and culture, but only when it spreads because of the irresistible impetus of innovation and The New. It is currently happening for precisely the opposite reasons.

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To go on to my second point, perhaps it’s poetic justice. Britain’s considerable legacy in science-fiction dates back well over a century, but is ultimately linked to both the industrial revolution and to imperialism. Going back to the Hartnell years, the Doctor’s travelling in time and space seems anthropological in nature. The Time Lord crosses borders uninvited and ends up knocking heads together; he does it in a very genteel manner compared to the equivalent military method, but presents nonetheless a picture of a patrician amusing himself on a grand tour of the empire and its quaint environs. Though respectful and even admiring of many races, he is himself superior to them. In an age of British post-imperial apologism, that’s a problem.

One of the solutions in the new Who iteration is to pepper the show with relentless, supposedly-disarming post-modern irony, basically a single joke that is by now vanishingly funny, and barely covers its own hypocrisy: the notion that this is all very old-school, isn’t it? Yes, and it was the old school that generated the program’s revival. Doctor Who was built on empire as well as eccentricity, strictures and class as well as scary monsters and philanthropic ideals. Having dallied with Northern accents in the Ecclestone era, why must Tennent RADA-ise his own Scottish brogue? Why are his assistants almost always young and at least relatively-attractive women? Why does The Doctor himself keep regenerating as a male?

To tell you the truth, I don’t really want any of the aforementioned questions to be addressed, because I am a justified nostalgic as regards Who, and – as the BBC well knows – the series is founded on nostalgia and tradition, however problematic some of the correlative issues might be. Abandoning the heritage of Who will mean diminished cross-over sales of the old series on DVD to younger viewers who are fascinated to explore the Doctor’s history, a dilution of the ‘brand’ and a sharp drop in revenue for Aunty.

I admit that the program is too successful and established in its revival now for any back-pedalling on approach – it will either be made with worryingly high budgets that require the show to have the broadest appeal possible, or it will not be made; North America will either have an influence or there will be no Doctor Who.

I can only therefore appeal to Canadian backers and the US fans who risk being increasingly pandered-to in the show, to remember what it is that they loved about it back in the day. Like the original Star Trek, it was a show with a universal message of peace and equality that nonetheless formed its character in the midst of a very different, less pluralistic era. For better or worse, and with both the positive and negative connotations, it was uniquely British, and excessive revisionism will ultimately kill it completely.

Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.

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