Reboot, remake or restart?

At what point of divergence from the original is a rebooted show merely trading on nostalgia rather than reviving a cult classic?

Time for a change...?

If I have been reticent until now on the subject of The Stolen Earth, I would like to think that it has been through a resigned sense of forbearance towards everyone around me, enthused as they are by speculation on where the Doctor’s regenerative fireworks are leading. Rather than a morbid fear of the decomposed fruit that will be heading towards my face if I let on what pants I think that episode was.

Why, they have asked in the comments to my less favourable Doctor Who reviews, do you even bother to review the show? Why not just go home, prepare a cup-a-soup, buff up your flares and settle down to your Betamax tapes of Tom Baker?

Likewise with Quantum Of Solace, this exchange from the comments for the new trailer:

Davros:Bond’s not back – just an action film with Daniel Craig pretending 🙁

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Me:Davros is right. I reckon it’ll be a bloody good action film with Craig excellent in it. But Bond it isn’t.

WeakLemonDrinkPlease elaborate, guys. Your challenging and surprising views interest me hugely. Or, you know… not.

Well, okay – I will elaborate. If my column has been critical of the lack of originality amongst the current crop of film and TV producers, it is hardly a lonely opinion at this site. At the same time I have shown a fair amount of enthusiasm at the announcements of my old, beloved shows being revived – and these include Blake’s 7 and The Prisoner.

Now, whilst I accept that there are admirable younger viewers (and also readers of this site) whose enthusiasm for cult sci-fi and horror TV and movies has led them beyond current output to enjoy the back-catalogues of the small and silver screen, I would also contend that my more common experience of younger geeks is…Blake’s WHAT? The Prisoner – what, that old aussie show my grannie liked? There’s no practical reason why it would generally be otherwise, I suppose.

Since projects like Doctor Who, Blake’s 7 and The Prisoner are revived with crusty old fans like me as bedrock capital, it isn’t unreasonable that we expect the resultant programme to demonstrate the essence of what we liked about the old version (and Doctor Who does that. Maddeningly often. I almost wish it would stop these unexpected flashes of brilliance, so I could just switch off).

Therefore I would respectfully remind those that are irked by my objections to the soapiness of new Who, that the project got rebooted not through the enthusiasm of the young audience that the current version of the show has attracted, nor the more soap-oriented (mostly female, if anecdotal evidence suffices) viewers who have been won over by the populist approach, but by several generations of Doctor Who viewers, men and women, whose goodwill towards the general tradition of the franchise kept interest in the show alive for 15 years. It was thanks to us that development of the Ecclestone series was ‘covered’, from an insurance point of view – we were certainly, indisputably, going to watch every last frame.

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I acknowledge the legions of new Who fans drawn from the ranks of the old guard – many my age and older have been won over by RTD. My question today is – having been the guarantor for the show, do you feel it continues the series or just wears the long scarf without commitment? I have no definite answer – if I had a decidedly negative answer, then indeed I wouldn’t bother to review (or watch) Doctor Who, for it would no longer have anything to do with me.

I do wonder at what point the modernisation of cult classics becomes so problematic and the compromises so unfortunate that it might have been easier just to start over and make something new.

But it’s hard to fund anything ‘new’. And the trade-off for playing the profitable nostalgia card is that you have to stick to the spirit of the show you’re reviving.

The beauty of James Bond and Doctor Who – for producers who wish to optimise their product for the current demographic trends – is that both franchises have built-in reboot routines: in both cases the lead casting – critical elsewhere in Hollywood and in TV-land – is mutable. Bond films have an additional tendency to ramp up the quotient of gadgetry and goilz (such as in Moonraker and Die Another Day) until a new, ‘harder’, ‘grittier’ Bond is tendered (For Your Eyes Only, The Living Daylights, Casino Royale), and the cycle begins again.

In the case of Doctor Who, the ‘internal reboots’ have always come from two sources: new producers with new vision for the show, such as Philip Hinchcliffe (scarier), John Nathan Turner (dry-as-dust sci-fi purist) and Russell T. Davies (populist bet-coverer). Secondly, the BBC has a history of treating the ratings of Doctor Who – however impressive – with casual disdain, but has frequently responded to accusations that the show is too scary/violent/sexy/dull with edicts and initiatives, which some of the new producers have had to carry as baggage. Both the Who and Bond concessions are in their mid-forties, and much has changed in each – it couldn’t be otherwise.

Thus with these franchises it’s hard to discern a sea-change – someone could be truly jumping the shark in there, and who would notice?

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I would. And I have. I noticed when Doctor Who became The Rose Tyler Show in series 2. I noticed when multi-series story arcs replaced cliff-hangers (The Stolen Earth aside) as incentives to tune back in, just in case the writing was too poor – which it often is – to tempt back the more casual viewer. Though nostalgically dazzled by the sonic screwdriver, I noticed when it – and that Psychic ID – began to short-circuit any effort to maintain credible plotting; I noticed when sentimentalism began to overwhelm the show, and when an all-permeating – but terribly dull and politically correct – strain of sex began to permeate the plots like cheap cologne, ‘just in case’.

In the Bond camp, I noticed (in spite of the general brilliance of Casino Royale) that they had cast a superb actor who was nonetheless too blonde, muscle-bound and potato-headed to carry the role; that Bond was now a thug; that ‘Q’ was missing; that for all the magic there was, it wasn’t Bond magic. And that it was for more than dramatic effect that the producers withheld the classic Bond theme until the final shot: unless Casino Royale is to be considered a species of prequel to a genuine new take on Bond that will take root in Quantum Of Solace, then it classes itself as a superb action thriller…but one that is merely trading, cynically, on a beloved and bankable name it has no claim to.

Well…money talks, and I guess I am wrong about all these things. I guess RTD got the gig because Queer As Folk demonstrated his adroit handling of soap-style character-arcs, and that was far more security for the Beeb than a bunch of crusties gargling the Tardis materialisation sound at grubby conventions. I guess too that ultra-muscled hard man Craig is the right Bond for the Age Of Raunch, the age of porno-sex. Maybe I’m shooting the messenger…

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