Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary - Reflections on the Movies, Spin-Offs, and Other Media, Plus Addenda


Doctor Who has become far more than just a television programme. One can think of that metaphorically in terms of the effect it has had on its fans, but here, I mean it literally as well. It has expanded into numerous other media, from comics and annuals to stage plays to movies to books to audio productions, and beyond. Some of these are just things fans put together in their own homes, while others are professional productions or publications. No look back over the history of Doctor Who would be complete without including a mention of these various things.

There is so much out there that it’s unlikely that any single individual has seen, read, or heard it all (if there is any such person, I’d love to meet him/her). I certainly haven’t. I’ve already mentioned in these reflections that, to my chagrin, I have heard very little of the Big Finish audio productions, something I really hope to correct some day (especially to hear the Paul McGann ones). I also haven’t read most of the novels of the last ten years or so. However, I’d like to take a look back at the things I have experienced. It’s likely that I don’t remember everything Doctor Who-related that I’ve ever come across, so no doubt some things will be left out. Also, I’ve touched on the books in previous reflections (both the Target novelizations and the later original novels from Virgin and then BBC Books), so I won’t retread that ground here. Primarily, I’m looking at the movies, spin-off television programmes, and some selected other media, such as comics and roleplaying games.

The Movies

I’m often surprised by the number of Doctor Who fans I meet who are completely unaware that there were two Doctor Who movies made in the sixties. Admittedly, these are not part of the show’s canon. They involve a human Doctor (whose name actually is Dr. Who), who invented his ship, Tardis, and they are based on already existing television serials. They star Peter Cushing as Dr. Who and Roberta Tovey as his granddaughter Susan (who is considerably younger than the Susan of the TV show). Each movie also features two additional companions, but they change between the films.

My first encounter with either of the movies was when I saw a portion of the first one, Dr. Who and the Daleks, on TVOntario. I can’t remember exactly how old I was, probably around seven or eight. As I mentioned in my Reflections on the Fourth Doctor, in my head, the fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith were all there ever had been, so when there was no sign of Tom Baker’s Doctor, I assumed this was a story without the Doctor in it. Indeed, it was clearly a story about when Sarah was a little girl (because apparently, Susan sounds the same as Sarah, or something). It was much later that I actually learned any details about the two movies (possibly in Doctor Who Magazine), and I realised immediately what I had really seen all those years earlier.

I didn’t get to see either movie in its entirety until after YTV started showing Doctor Who in the late 80’s. Shortly after they started, they showed both movies on consecutive Saturday afternoons, and I eagerly tuned into both. Most people who have seen them pan these movies pretty badly—and with a certain amount of good reason. They are incredibly campy and silly films, with some bizarre logic to them. The second one, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. makes much more significant changes from its source serial (“The Dalek Invasion of Earth”) than the first, and those changes are generally not for the better. Both films also have moments of inexplicable comedy. By that, I mean scenes that are in there just for a laugh but actually make no sense in the context of the movie. The one that sticks out most in my mind is the scene with Ian trying to open the door into the Dalek city in Dr. Who and the Daleks. For some reason, it will only open when he sits down on a nearby platform, but as soon as he stands up, it closes again, stopping him from going through it. There is absolutely no explanation for why the door works like that. How would the Daleks in that story possibly be able to open it?

However, there is a strange charm to the movies. Peter Cushing is fun as a doddering, absent-minded version of the Doctor. At the time these were made, William Hartnell was the only Doctor, so the decision to play the Doctor differently is an interesting and rather prescient choice, seeing as that would become tradition just a couple years later. Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. also co-stars a young Bernard Cribbins, who, many years later, would become beloved as Wilfred Mott, Donna Noble’s grandfather. He doesn’t play Wilf in the movie, obviously, but he’s fun to watch nonetheless.

That said, they are the kind of movies that are easy to make fun of, and would have been perfect fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000. They really ought to do RiffTrax for these movies. Oh wait! They have (for the first one, at any rate)!

K-9 and Company

In some ways, it’s kind of surprising that, in the first half of Doctor Who’s long life, only one serious attempt at a spin-off was ever made. Today, we’ve had three more official spin-offs, and the possibility of others (like one about Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax) doesn’t seem that far-fetched. Yet at the time of K-9 and Company, it had never been done before—and wouldn’t be done again for quite some time.

I had heard about K-9 and Company well before I ever got to see it. TVOntario never broadcast it, and neither did YTV, which was kind of surprising, since in the first year or so they showed Doctor Who, they also seemed eager to show everything that had any connection to Doctor Who (such as the movies as I mentioned above). My first glimpse of K-9 and Company came when a friend of my brother, who knew I liked Doctor Who, noticed that a PBS station that he got (and we didn’t) was showing it, so he taped it for me (the PBS station we got in London, Ontario was one of the very rare ones that didn’t carry Doctor Who). I was really excited until I played the tape and discovered that he had only managed to tape the last ten minutes or so (he hadn’t realized it was on until he stumbled upon it partway through). Still, I watched the end of it, and I was grateful to him. It had been a nice gesture (and an unusual thing for one of my brother’s friends to do).

I had always heard that K-9 and Company was not very good, but it was hard to judge from just the last few minutes of it. What did stick out, though, was the theme music at the end. There was a voice-over by the station, so the music was dimmed, but I was still taken aback by K-9 chanting, “K-9!” over and over. Surely the voice-over was blocking out some part of the music that made that make sense. It would be years before I would find out for sure that that was not the case.

I didn’t get to see K-9 and Company in its entirety until it was released on VHS in the 90’s. I have to say, I don’t think it’s as bad as it’s commonly made out to be. It has a number of strong elements, most notably the fact that, despite being named after K-9, it’s really a show about Sarah Jane Smith. K-9 is a fun character, but not complex enough to carry a show on his own. Having a human lead was the right decision. I actually think the show could have had potential if it had gone on past its pilot, “A Girl’s Best Friend”. Alas, that was the only episode ever made, so we can never say if it would have ever lived up to that potential. However, I think the success of the more recent Sarah Jane Adventures shows what might have been possible.

The show's potential aside, it had terrible theme music. Seeing—and hearing—it in full on the VHS quashed any hopes I’d had that what I’d heard on the tape my brother’s friend had made for me was just distorted or something. K-9 and Company, without doubt, has the worst theme music and titles sequence of any show I have ever seen. I challenge anyone out there to find something worse. No, I take that back. If you can find something worse, I don’t want to know about it. [Edit (Michael's wife here): He totally does, secretly! Put it in the comments! ]


The Sarah Jane Adventures

The Sarah Jane Adventures takes the idea of Sarah Jane investigating and having adventures on her own to its full potential. Although Sarah Jane still has K-9, he only appears in a few episodes here and there throughout the series. The Sarah Jane Adventures is even more focused on its human characters—Sarah Jane herself and the young friends she mentors. And it doesn’t attempt to hide that fact in its title.

I fell in love with The Sarah Jane Adventures almost instantly. The pilot was not the strongest, but the potential of the series was immediately evident, and it very quickly found its stride in its first full series. Each series following just seemed to get stronger and stronger. The Sarah Jane Adventures is children’s programming done right. It doesn’t talk down to its audience, but instead treats them intelligently with well-developed, consistent characters and intelligent scripts. If I had to pick a favourite Doctor Who spin-off, it would almost certainly be this show. While Torchwood at its best is a better show, Torchwood is just not as consistently good, whereas I’m really hard-pressed to think of a bad episode of the Sarah Jane Adventures.

This show could have—and probably would have—gone on for so much longer if it hadn’t been for the devastating and sudden loss of Elisabeth Sladen to cancer in early 2011. It was heartbreaking to watch the final three stories air the following fall (you can read my reviews of them here, here, and here) knowing that she was gone, but “The Man Who Never Was” has a wonderful tribute to her at the end.

K-9

One of the reasons K-9 appears so infrequently in The Sarah Jane Adventures is because Bob Baker (one of K-9’s co-creators) was trying to get an entire new series about the robot dog made. The result was this series, made for Disney XD and Australia’s Network Ten. I didn’t actually get to see K-9 until earlier this year when it came out on DVD, although it originally aired in 2010. And I have to say, anyone who hasn’t seen it isn’t missing anything.

The series really doesn’t seem to have learnt anything from K-9 and Company (either its mistakes or strengths) or The Sarah Jane Adventures. Although K-9 is given human friends, the focus is too much on this strangely emotional emotionless robot. The show is very inconsistent with whether or not K-9 can feel emotions. One episode, he’s able to and the next he isn’t. The other characters don’t fare much better with consistency either. The initial episodes have Jorjie discover that her mother works for the “Department” in a supposedly top-secret position (so secret that her own daughter doesn’t know). Future episodes have her mother making public appearances in her position for the Department and appearing on television. Her top-secret job has apparently become public knowledge. Characterization is also all over the place and the relationships between characters just don’t develop naturally.

The series also features a completely redesigned K-9. The original version appears briefly in the first episode before being destroyed. K-9 then regenerates into his new form. While the new version has a high-tech appearance, it just doesn’t work for me. One of the charms of K-9 is that he’s a super-advanced computer in a primitive-looking case. Giving him an advanced look dilutes his clunky charm. Also, K-9 really shouldn’t be able to fly. Not only are the special effects for his flight actually quite bad, K-9’s limited mobility is a defining feature of his character.

Although it’s now been several years since the airing of that first 26-episode season, there is talk of a second season, although that talk has been going on for over a year now. If it does come back, I’ll probably check it out (just because it’s Doctor Who-related), but I’m really not bothered. I’ll be quite happy if there are no further episodes.

Torchwood

When I first heard that there was to be a Doctor Who spin-off centred around Captain Jack Harkness, I was very excited. Not only was this the first spin-off since K-9 and Company, I really liked Captain Jack and felt he was the perfect character to base a show around. I was intrigued by the idea that this was to be a more “adult” show, but also concerned that “adult” would be taken to mean lots of sex—which, to a certain extent, is what we ended up with.

The first season of Torchwood was definitely hit-and-miss. I liked it overall, but it had its problems. It has a good premise and a diverse cast of characters. Unfortunately, some of those characters are thoroughly unlikeable, and the scripts vary widely in quality. There are some amazing episodes, like “Small Worlds”, “Random Shoes”, and “Captain Jack Harkness”, but also some incredibly bad ones, like “Day One”. “Cyberwoman” is often listed amongst the worst episodes, although I think that one actually has a decent script. It’s the execution that’s horrible, particularly the “sexing up” of the title character. Since when have Cybermen worn high heels? Visually, that episode has massive problems.

There was a lot of potential in Torchwood, though, and it started to shine through in its second season. That year successfully takes Owen—the single most unlikeable character in the show—and makes him sympathetic. I still don’t condone his behaviour, but I actually felt bad when he died. Series Two is definitely when Torchwood finds its legs.

However, it climbs to incredible heights with the five-episode Series Three: Torchwood: Children of Earth. Those are five of the most amazing hours of television ever. Children of Earth was released on DVD almost immediately after its original airing, and I picked it up right away. My wife and I watched it over two nights, two episodes the first and three the second. I think we had actually intended to do it over three nights, but by the end of “Day Four”, we simply had to keep going to “Day Five”. Perhaps we should have waited an extra day to prepare ourselves emotionally for the final episode.

Children of Earth will tear your heart out, stomp on it, cut it up, force feed it back to you, and then tear it out again. It will shred your emotions and leave you a sobbing stump of a human being. And it does it so brilliantly, and I will let it do it to me over and over again. My wife, not so much. She agrees it’s brilliant, but she refuses to ever watch it again. My wife is not the sort of person who cries over TV shows or movies. Indeed, she used to make fun of people (like me) who do so. However, partway through “Day Five” (at a certain moment involving Frobisher, his family, and a gun), she broke down, grabbed hold of me, and sobbed hysterically into my shoulder for several minutes. I had never seen anything like it from her before, and I’ve never seen anything like it since. (I should point out that I was a wreck during that scene, too.)

Children of Earth has everything going for it: a brilliant script, an excellent cast (both the regulars and the guest cast), and incredible direction and pacing. Of particular note is Peter Capaldi as Frobisher. The soon-to-be twelfth Doctor gives the performance of a lifetime as the beleaguered civil servant who is basically a good man forced into villainous actions by the uncaring bureaucracy around him. Anyone who has any doubts about how good Torchwood can be will have those doubts quashed by Children of Earth.

Then came Torchwood: Miracle Day. It follows in the style of Children of Earth by being a season-long story, but extended to ten episodes instead of five. A lot of people really despise Miracle Day, and I’m not really sure why. It’s not as good as Children of Earth; that’s for certain. However, it’s pretty much impossible to be as good as, or better than Children of Earth. Perhaps, for that reason, the show should have ended after Children of Earth, as anything else will always pale in comparison. Nevertheless, I actually rather like Miracle Day. The second half is not as strong as the first half (except episode seven), but overall, it’s a good series. I explain my reasons more fully in the review of it I wrote just after it originally aired.

I do hope that there’ll be more Torchwood one day. It’s still somewhat up-in-the-air whether there actually will be, but the more time goes by, the less likely it seems. Still, Doctor Who rose from the ashes after years and years of absence. Maybe Torchwood will, too.

The Comics

I was into comics pretty heavily in my pre-teens and teens. In particular, I was a big Spider-Man fan. It was through that interest in comics that I discovered the existence of a Doctor Who comic one day. I was browsing through back-issues at my local comic book store when I came across the Doctor Who logo. I knew that Doctor Who Magazine had a comic strip within it, but this was a complete comic series of its own. I had to buy it! I had to start collecting it!

It turned out that these comics were just American reprints of old Doctor Who Magazine comics, but they were all from issues that were published years before I started collecting the magazine, so I was happy to have them. They were also reprinted in colour! Alas, the series had already ended when I discovered it (it only lasted 23 issues, if I remember correctly), but I was able to acquire all the issues without any difficulty.

I stopped collecting comics when I was in my early twenties. They no longer had the same hold over me; however, I never completely lost all my interest in them. Nevertheless, after I stopped buying Doctor Who Magazine, I pretty much lost touch with Doctor Who comics. I still have all those old comics, including the Marvel US colourized reprints and a graphic novel of the sixth Doctor story, Voyager, but I don’t have anything from recent years. Every now and then, though, I think about picking one up to see what the comic book Doctor is up to these days. One day, I probably will.

The Roleplaying Games

The first I knew of FASA’s Doctor Who Role Playing Game was when I saw it in the window of a store in London. The store was called Forest City Coins (London is nicknamed the “Forest City”), and like its name implied, it was a store that bought and sold collectible coins. Surprisingly, however, it also had a small selection of roleplaying games, something I never would have known before seeing that box in the window. I loved roleplaying games. I loved Doctor Who. The two combined had to be great, so I had to get it. I had to beg my parents quite a bit to let me, but they relented and I went round and grabbed the copy at Forest City Coins.

These days, I’m very glad I got it when I did, too. It didn’t show up in any other stores in London for quite some time, and by the time it did, it was the second printing (with a new cover). Although I didn’t know it at the time, the second printing had removed all pictures and references to the sixth Doctor, who was the current Doctor at the time (apparently FASA’s license didn’t cover the sixth Doctor). Luckily, I had my first printing (and still have it, although the covers have fallen off all the rule books.

It wasn’t easy to get people to play the game with me, alas. I had one friend who was interested in Doctor Who, and he was eager to play the game, and he occasionally managed to convince a couple other people to play with us. However, it wasn’t until high school that I managed to get a regular game going with another friend who, oddly, really disliked Doctor Who, but he loved the game. Go figure. That ended up being a long-lasting campaign that ran through high school and several of my university years. It only ended after that friend moved out of the country. Other players came and went over the years, but that friend and his Time Lord character remained constant throughout (although the Time Lord did regenerate a few times).

That campaign lasted considerably longer than FASA’s production of the game. After a few supplements and adventures, FASA stopped producing it and the game was long out of print by the end of the 80’s. The absence of a Doctor Who roleplaying game was then filled by Virgin Books’ Time Lord. Only one book was ever published for this game, and naturally, I bought it right away. Towards the end of the campaign I mentioned above, we did try converting to the Time Lord rules, but other than that, I never got to play any games with that system. It was a very basic system—perhaps too basic—but that worked reasonably well with Doctor Who. FASA’s game mechanics had never really suited the style of the show (they were basically just a modified version of the mechanics from their Star Trek Role Playing Game). Time Lord was much less rigid and more free-form. That’s not to say the FASA game was unplayable (I certainly managed it for quite a few years); it just wasn’t ideal.

It wasn’t until the publication of Cubicle 7’s Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space that Doctor Who got a really good roleplaying game. I’ve reviewed several products for the game on this blog, and had a campaign running for a while. Unfortunately, that game has fallen apart, but I hope to eventually run another.

The Internet

Of course, I shouldn’t ignore Doctor Who’s presence on the Web. From forums to fan videos on YouTube, Doctor Who is everywhere on the internet, even right here on this blog. I talked last week about how I came to write this blog, so I won’t repeat that here. Instead, I’d like to make a quick mention of some of the other areas of the internet I’ve been floated around in.

In the beginning, there was rec.arts.doctorwho. Ah, Usenet. It was basically a precursor to the forums people use nowadays, but much clunkier. I rarely posted on rec.arts.doctorwho, but I read it voraciously. Eventually, I tore myself away from that though, and mostly stayed away from Doctor Who locations on the internet for quite a few years. I focused more on the roleplaying sites. However, I eventually discovered Outpost Gallifrey and began reading that just as voraciously as I had rec.arts.doctorwho. After Outpost Gallifrey shut down and its absence was filled by Gallifrey Base, I moved over there. I still don’t post often (my post count on Gallifrey Base is still less than 100; I don’t think it’s even hit 50 yet), but I read a lot.

There are lots of other Doctor Who forums out there, but I don’t actually visit any of them. I just don’t have the time. One forum to follow (plus one roleplaying forum) is more than enough. I do like to surf about from time to time, though, checking out what else is out there, and listen to the occasional podcast, like Two-Minute Time Lord or the Verity Podcast. One day, I’d like to get involved in a Doctor Who podcast. I used to be part of a non-Doctor Who podcast called Screaming Halibut. It was a sketch series, and I’d like to believe we were very funny. I’d really like to get involved with something audio again.

Addendum 1: Reflections on the Missing Episodes

When I started these reflections, the big missing episodes announcement in October hadn’t yet happened. Oh, the “omnirumour” was already in full swing. I wasn’t yet fully convinced of its veracity, but I had seen enough to make me not dismiss it entirely as I generally do with most missing episode rumours. When I wrote my reflections on the first two doctors, I was hopeful that some part of it would be true, but I was ready and expecting to be disappointed.

I can’t remember when or how I first discovered there were missing episodes of Doctor Who. I probably learned it from Doctor Who Magazine, though it might have been from a book. The knowledge actually didn’t bother me much. In the 80’s, episodes were still being found with a certain regularity, so I just assumed that every episode would eventually be found. It was just a matter of time. I honestly believed that by the time I was an adult, they’d all be back.

Obviously, I was very wrong about that.

The return of “The Tomb of the Cybermen” in 1991 gave hope that more would come back, but after that, discoveries became very sporadic, and I didn’t really pay much attention. I completely missed that the first episode of “The Crusade” or the second episode of “The Daleks’ Masterplan” had been found until they were released on the DVD set, Lost in Time. However, by the time of the recovery of “Airlock” and episode two of “The Underwater Menace” in 2011, I was paying much closer attention. I didn’t really expect to ever see a complete story returned again, but I was hopeful that individual episodes might turn up here and there.

Now we have nine more back, and reason to believe there could be quite a few more to come sometime in the months ahead. It’s exciting. I don’t quite have that childhood certainty that everything will one day be back, but I do have confidence that a significant number will be.

Addendum 2: More Reflections on the Eighth Doctor

When I wrote my Reflections on the Eighth Doctor and the Wilderness Years a few weeks back, I had absolutely no idea that there would soon be another eighth Doctor episode. Sure, it’s just a seven-minute mini-episode, but such an amazing one it is! Seeing “The Night of the Doctor” (and not knowing in advance that Paul McGann was in it) was absolutely thrilling. It finally gives closure to an era of Doctor Who that has never had it. It finally fills in the missing regeneration.

Alas, the addition of a forgotten Doctor between McGann and Christopher Eccleston means that there is still a missing regeneration, just a different one. Unless of course, Steven Moffat has pulled some sort of timey-wimey conundrum out of his hat, one which results in time being rewritten so that John Hurt’s “War Doctor” ends up never having existed and McGann really does regenerate into Eccleston. I wouldn’t put it past Moffat. (Just in case anybody’s worried that I’m subtly spoiling “The Day of the Doctor”, I have not pursued any spoilers regarding the episode. What I’ve written here is pure speculation on my part, and very probably wrong.)

At any rate, more Paul McGann is great.

Final Thoughts

And that brings me to the end of twelve weeks of Doctor Who reflections. I’ve written in the vicinity of 60 typed pages, and I’ve rediscovered a lot of things about myself. Throughout the process of writing, I would frequently suddenly remember something I hadn’t thought about in years and would have to rewrite to fit it in. It’s been fun for me, and I hope it’s been fun for people to read. It’s nice knowing that I even have an audience willing to read it.

As a child, I was mostly ridiculed for liking and watching Doctor Who. I had the occasional friend who watched it, but for the most part, I was the only one. I found a bit more acceptance in university, where I actually met other people who watched the show. Then the new series started and suddenly there were people everywhere who watched it. I wasn’t alone anymore.

Alas, in my current social circle, most of my friends are turning away from Doctor Who again. Some (mostly the women) have stopped watching altogether, refusing to watch until Steven Moffat leaves. Others now only watch it occasionally. Only one or two watch it all the time. All are dissatisfied with it. My wife still watches every episode, but she mostly does so for my sake. If it weren’t for me, she probably would have stopped watching completely. She’s no fan of Steven Moffat’s writing of women. (I talked of my dissatisfaction with recent Who last week, and my mention of my friends here is not intended to be proof that nobody likes it anymore. Indeed, as I pointed out last week, I’m well aware of how popular it still is. But people tend to hang out with like-minded people, so it’s not surprising that my friends’ opinions of the show are similar to mine, and I mention it just to illustrate the social context I’m in.)

But while my friends may not watch the show as much anymore, they don’t ridicule me for doing so, like my childhood friends might have. And I can still talk about the show with them. We can reminisce with each other about the earlier Doctors or just complain vehemently about the Moffat years. It’s nice to have that social circle around me.

It’s also nice to have the wider platform of this blog to tell all this, and as I said, nice to have people willing to read it, despite how long I might ramble on. Thanks for sticking through it all!

And for those who just don’t have the patience to read it all, here’s the tl;dr version:

I love Doctor Who.

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