Monday, September 14, 2015

Recap: "Doctor Who: The TV Movie" Intro

What James Bond is to film, what Harry Potter is to print, Doctor Who is to TV. It’s an integral part of British popular culture, without which the world would be quite different. I’ll tell the story of how I personally got into Doctor Who when I begin covering the 2005 Revived Series. For now, it’s time to tell the story of how Doctor Who returned. For the first time.

But in order to tell you how the show came back, I need to tell you the story of how the show was cancelled. The quest of a single man to kill the Doctor. Not a fictional villain, but a real life one.

But before I begin, you might be asking why I'm not starting with the beginning of Classic Doctor Who. Well, not only are there about three decades of Classic Doctor Who stories, some of them don't even exist anymore, thanks to the old BBC practice of erasing or straight-up burning old episode tapes to make room for new ones.

But that was incompetence. The story I'm about to tell you involves malice.

Let's begin.

You will know the depths the human soul can sink to when it comes to TV.
For those of you who don’t know, Doctor Who was an immensely popular British science fiction show that debuted in 1963. The premise of Doctor Who is very simple. The mysterious and titular “Doctor” is an alien. A “Time Lord” from the planet Gallifrey who uses a time machine to travel through the universe alongside humans (and the odd alien or robot) he meets in his travels.

Not to mention the aliens he'd rather not meet up with.
Throughout time and space, he rights wrongs, meddles in the affairs of others, and save various days. And when the actor playing the Doctor either gets too old to continue or wants to move on to new roles, the character “regenerates” his body into a new form, played by a new actor, allowing the show to grow and change with the times. The Third Doctor’s run was basically a spy show, the Fourth doctor’s run had a lot of goofy sci-fi and gothic horror, and the Eleventh Doctor was like a sci-fi fairy tale. No matter the year, no matter how the world changes, Doctor Who will always be able to find an audience.

It was what you’d call a “cult show,” albeit one that was enjoyed by a very large percentage of the population. Of course, though I described it as “immensely popular,” not everybody enjoyed it. In fact, some people hated it. Some of you who know a bit about the Classic Series probably think I’m going to talk about John Nathan-Turner, who was forced to work on the show long after he stopped caring. Well, the truth is that he was one of the only people keeping the show alive. He only stayed on because he was told that if he left, the people at the BBC who disliked Doctor Who would can it straight away.

One such person was Michael Grade, who was the BBC controller during the 80’s. For the Americans in my audience, that means that he basically ran the whole shebang. He constantly voiced his hatred of the show’s low-budget look, yet refused to increase its budget. His sabotage managed to put the show “on hiatus” for eighteen months between 1985 and 1986 before he finally killed it in 1989. In fact, I’m going to go over the various steps he took to get the show cancelled.

Step 1: Overpricing Episodes, Killing off Foreign Interest
Over the years, Doctor Who had various issues finding a foothold in America, though it did manage to build up a cult following. That’s why Americans used to be primarily familiar with the Doctor’s fourth incarnation; his episodes were among the relative few to be broadcast in America. So when Michael Grade allowed the price-per-episode to skyrocket in the 80’s, the majority of American broadcasting companies were like, “Screw this British crap, let’s just show reruns of M*A*S*H.” It was especially bad for the primary American channel for Doctor Who, PBS, because… well, it’s PBS. They practically need to have a pledge drive every commercial break to stay afloat.

Oh, how right they were.
And so, Doctor Who would continue to struggle to get an American audience until a couple years after the Revived Series came along, but I’ll talk about that when I get to the Ninth Doctor’s run.

Step 2: Little-to-no Advertising
They weren’t advertising the show in the 80’s. Simple as that.

What’s that? The Sixth Doctor is being put on trial by the other Time Lords with his life and potentially the universe at stake? Unless you already watch the show, you have no way of knowing that something really cool is happening. So much for new viewers.

Step 3: The 18-Month Hiatus
The ratings before the hiatus were a bit low by Doctor Who standards, but were still very good, around 7 million viewers per episode. The ratings for the show had been steadily increasing since the 70’s, but took a bit of a dip. Michael Grade used this small ratings dip (which his previous meddling probably caused in the first place) as an excuse to take the show off the air. And even though they brought it back, keep in mind that they brought it back with little-to-no advertising, meaning that a lot of people simply didn’t know it was back on.

Step 4: The Doctor Was Fired
I could write a whole post on how the Sixth Doctor was different from previous Doctors. In fact, I did.

Colin Baker was cast as the Doctor for the show’s 22nd season (and one episode of the 21st), during which time the writers tried to shake up a few aspects of the character. The audience reaction was mixed, but largely positive. But Michael Grade, ever determined to kill the show dead, made Colin Baker into the only actor to have ever been fired from the role as the Doctor before recasting him with a children’s entertainer who had limited acting experience.

"Hello!"
The next actor, Sylvester McCoy, became surprisingly popular, considering that he was hired as part of Michael Grade’s plan to kill the series. So when the show was brought back in ‘86, it limped on until ‘89 thanks in no small part to Sylvester McCoy.

Step 5: Coronation Street
Coronation Street is one of the most popular British soap operas of all time. And they aired Doctor Who at the same time on a different channel. And remember, Doctor Who had little-to-no advertising. So this was really the final nail in the coffin.

Sontarans, Daleks, Ice Warriors, Zygons, Nimons, Macra, Autons, Cybermen…. The Doctor had survived everything these foes threw at him. And in the end, he was killed by a mere man armed with nothing more than hate and authority. To this day, Michael Grade hates Doctor Who, regrets nothing, and will gladly talk about his decision with pride.

In closing, fuck Michael Grade.
But don’t despair, Whovians, because Michael Grade has also gone down in history as the first BBC controller to not be knighted by the Queen.

The Queen loves her some Doctor Who. Sometimes, the world is an awesome place.
But like the Doctor himself, the show regenerated. Several times, actually. There were numerous attempts to bring the show back since 1989, only three of which were successful.

The first time Doctor Who returned, it was in “Dimensions in Time,” a 30th Anniversary crossover special. These days, it’s mostly remembered for the fact that it was a crossover with EastEnders, a popular British soap opera. The closest US equivalent would be if Picard and Data beamed down into an episode of All My Children.

The third time was a full revival in 2005 starring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, which I’ll be covering soon enough.

Today, I’m here to talk about the second time Doctor Who came back. The TV movie, aka “The Enemy Within,” a non-canon name that was suggested by the director at a convention.

When Philip Segal, a British ex-pat, decided to try and bring back Doctor Who after its cancellation, he went to America for help. Disney was reportedly interested (and had been looking to outright purchase the rights to the series during the hiatus), but nothing came of it. After a deal with Amblin Entertainment fell through, all the major networks passed on the deal except for Fox. Apart from The X-Files and Fringe, Fox ended up screwing over pretty much every one of their sci-fi shows over the years, including Alien Nation, Sliders, Space: Above and Beyond, Terra Nova, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dollhouse, and a certain other show…

"Lightning Bug," or something.
So yeah, great choice, there, BBC.

From there, Matthew Jacobs was tasked to write the script because Segal felt that he could write a script that would end up pleasing the BBC, Fox, and Universal, who were set to actually distribute the show. Many versions of the script with various stories were churned out, but there were always three requirements.

Requirement 1: The story had to be personal to the Doctor.
He couldn’t just wander into someone else’s problem. It had to be his problem.

Requirement 2: It had to deal with his regeneration.
This was actually a point of contention. Fox wanted what we refer to today as a “reboot” of the series, while the BBC wanted to have the Fourth Doctor regenerate, potentially undoing about ten years’ worth of episodes across three incarnations of the Doctor.

But in the end, Segal’s wish to preserve previous continuity was honored by bringing back Sylvester McCoy, the Seventh Doctor, to pass the torch. I mean, why would anyone just throw out a decade of continuity on a long-running series and just start fresh with a reboot at issue number one when Action Comics was nearing the first legitimate issue 1000 in comic history!? Tell me why, New 52!

…sorry, I got a little off track.

But seriously. This.
Requirement 3: The story had to take place on Earth.
Not only were some of the best stories set there, but it would be a perfect way to reintroduce the character to a new audience with a familiar setting.

And with a script created and Jeffrey Sax set to direct (beating out Joe Dante and Ridley Scott), it was time to cast. The various humans were fairly straightforward and relatively unimportant compared to the task of recasting two icons of British popular culture. The Doctor, and his arch-nemesis, the Master.

Potential actors for the Doctor included many American names like Jeff Goldblum, Eddie Murphy, Tom Hanks, and Jim Carrey, but it was decided that the Doctor should remain British, or at least somebody with an accent. Names like Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Chris Barrie (Red Dwarf), Robbie Coltrane (Harry Potter), Timothy Dalton (James Bond), Pierce Brosnan (also James Bond), and Eric Idle (Monty Python) were tossed around. Basically, if you were from the UK, Ireland, or Australia, you were in the running. Heck, the list even included Christopher Eccleston and Peter Capaldi, who would both end up as the Ninth and Twelfth Doctors anyway. Eventually, they chose Tim Curry for the role.

Yeah. That Tim Curry. Sources differ, but many accounts agree that schedule conflicts led Tim Curry to bow out early on. But before he left, he recommended Paul McGann for the role, as Curry had been consulting him for advice on how to play a heroic role.

And when the moment came, Paul McGann was chosen over a list of actors that included his own brother because, among other reasons, the director took a liking to his long hair… which had to be replaced with a wig because McGann was playing a soldier when he was cast.

Hmm... Paul McGann becoming a warrior....
As for casting the Master, once names like Dan Aykroyd, Michael Dorn, Kevin Spacey, and Bill Pullman were thrown around, the role nearly went to Christopher Lloyd of Back to the Future fame before it was decided that he was too expensive. So the role went to B-movie star Eric Roberts, who ended up costing more than Christopher Lloyd would have.

The TV movie was created as a backdoor pilot for a series that never materialized. While ratings were very good in the UK when it aired May 27th, 1996, Fox decided to air it on the 14th, instead. Smack dab in the middle of sweeps week. Not only that, it aired at the same time of the episode of Roseanne where Dan has a heart attack at David and Darlene’s wedding. Ratings weren’t very good in America, to say the least.

So the UK was just glad to see the Doctor again and the Americans couldn’t care less. The question remains, then: Looking back on it now with an impartial eye, is this thing actually good? Let’s find out.

Coming up in Part 1! Old faces, new faces, and stolen faces.

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