October 15, 2013

50 Glorious Years: Episode 35 - 1997

In 1997 Doctor Who fans continued to wait once again. Only, for the most part, with much less frustration. The word was that the rights to a new series still rested with Universal, the studios that had backed the production of the T.V. Movie, and the rights would not expire until the end of 1997. Which meant that nobody was really expecting any news of a new series until 1998 at the earliest.

The 8th Doctor’s adventures continued in novel form, with first entitled The Eight Doctors in June. That is, the first of the BBC 8th Doctor books - as now, for both the current Doctor (as the 8th was generally considered to be) and past Doctors were now published by BBC themselves, as they chose not to renew the licence that Virgin (the company who had purchased W.H. Allen and the Target novel range back in the late 1980’s) had to publish original Doctor Who fiction, figuring that they could do it themselves and make more money that way. With the publication of The Dying Days in April 1997 (the only 8th Doctor book published by Virgin), a long run of licensed original Doctor Who fiction from W.H. Allen/Virgin had come to an end. Virgin would continue to publish books featuring Bernice Summerfield as the lead character. The first was written by Paul Cornell and was entitled Oh No It Isn’t, and apart from starting off a run of Bernice Summerfield adventures, would prove to be very significant for other reasons in the years to follow….

The spin-off videos continued, with the start of the impressive Auton trilogy, starting in 1997 with the eponymous Auton. The series was meant to star Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier but he wasn’t available to do the filming, so his character was replaced by a new character for UNIT called Lockwood, played by Michael Wade. With the Brigadier not really being a leading character, the new character of Lockwood this actually gave this trilogy a life of its own, and along with the books, help to keep the spirit of Doctor Who alive in its second extended period of waiting for new episodes.

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October 06, 2013

Keep your hair on…...but more missing episodes have been found!

The rumours have been swirling for months that more missing episodes have been found from the worldwide search of the Archives. The Radio Times (a magazine formerly owned by the BBC but still with very strong ties to it have now provided the first confirmation of any sort that missing episodes have indeed been found. And the first ones to be made available could be available for downloading this week. You can read more in the Radio Times article here.

There’s no doubt about it - this is the best present we can have for the 50th Anniversary celebrations.

UPDATE: The BBC have finally admitted it themselves, with a press release you can read right here.

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September 29, 2013

50 Glorious Years: Episode 34 - 1996

Finally in January 1996, the long wait was confirmed to be over - Doctor Who was back! Paul McGann was the 8th Doctor! And it was coming back on BBC1 and, something that is perhaps still hard to believe, network television in the US! Yes, it turned out to be for one-night only on television in May of 1996 (with the filming of the story done for the first and so far only time in Canada - the same country that would be the first to broadcast it), but the TV Movie provided so much more than one tv movie could provide in 90 minutes. Obviously there was now a brand new Doctor for the franchise, for the books, comic strips and in a few years time, the audios. But more than that, it signified that Doctor Who had survived “death” - or as most people call it in television terms, cancellation. The TV Movie burst the bubble of frustration that had existed in fandom after the series had ceased production in 1989. Even though the TV Movie did not do well enough in the US for more Doctor Who tv movies to be made for Fox and Universal, it proved that the show could be a mainstream hit again in the UK - something that should not be taken for granted after the poor ratings the series endured after the 1985 hiatus, and years of BBC brand-damaging its own property. If Doctor Who could come back successfully in the UK once after it’s cancellation, it could happen again. Despite the disappointment that no new tv movies were immediately forthcoming and this would turn out to be the only new proper television story for the show in the 1990’s, the future was definitely brighter after 1996 than it had been in the years before it.

Oh, and Paul McGann rocked as the Doctor.

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September 21, 2013

50 Glorious Years: Episode 33 - 1995

As Doctor Who edged ever so closer to returning to production, 1995 was perhaps THE year of the spin-off video. At the end of 1994, Shakedown - The Return of the Sontarans, had been released, though many fans would end up purchasing the video in 1995. This was (for a direct-to-video release) a fairy glossy space-opera adventure with some excellent special effects, a script written by Terrance Dicks and a cast featuring several stars from both Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 - Carole Ann Ford, Sophie Aldred, Michael Wisher, Brian Croucher, and Jan Chappell. Visually this looked the best of any of the spin-offs to date and with a script by Terrance Dicks, it perhaps as closest we had gotten to having Doctor Who back without actually having the Doctor in it.

This was soon followed in January 1995 with the release of the first proper P.R.O.B.E. videos - in a sense, a spin-off of a spin-off. 1994’s The Zero Imperative was actually the first to be released, but although it featured the return of Liz Shaw (once played by Caroline John) working for an organization called P.R.O.B.E. that investigated paranormal or supernatural activity, it wasn’t labelled a P.R.O.B.E. video at the time. In 1995, the first of a trio of videos with that label was released, with the first being called The Devil of Winterbourne. These videos didn’t just feature Caroline John reprising her role as Liz Shaw but once again featured other Doctor Who luminaries in regular or guest roles in this series. This included Louise Jameson playing Patricia Haggard, Liz’s boss at P.R.O.B.E. in all four videos, Peter Davison guest-starrring in two of them (Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy had all been in The Zero Imperative), Geoffrey Beevers, Terry Molloy, Mark Gatiss (who also wrote the scripts) and even Reece Shearsmith - who has an important role in the upcoming An Adventure in Time and Space docudrama (which I won’t spoil here for those that don’t know).

By September 1995, the spin-off video that was arguably more of a sequel to televised Doctor Who stories than anything else before (or since) has been was released - Downtime.  This was a direct sequel to both Yeti adventures from Season 5, featuring both the Yeti and the Great Intelligence (and even the control spheres), effectively forming a trilogy. It featured several regular or guest characters returning to reprise their familiar roles - Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier, Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, Deborah Watling as Victoria Waterfield, Jack Watling as Professor Travers, with John Leeson playing a new character (rather than the voice of K9). Nothing else has quite linked so heavily with established Doctor Who continuity. And ironically, years later perhaps the most significant continuity development in Downttime was the invention and introduction of the character of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, who would go on to appear in the television series some 17 years after she was created in a fan-made spin-off video. The above photo shows how the character looked in Downtime in 1995, as played by Beverley Cressman, and how she looked in 2012 in The Power of Three, as played by Gemma Redgrave. It’s a testament to how much these spin-off videos are respected and appreciated that they found an actress who looks so similar (and also about 17 or so years older than she would have been in Downtime).

And what of the tv series itself? By 1995 we knew that the US networks weren’t ready to green-light a new series. The most we were going to get was a tv movie on FOX, which, if it did well enough, could lead to more Doctor Who tv movies on that network. Yet, despite fans discussing production, plot and casting details with Philip Segal on a webchat, many fans, burned by so many false dawns, were skeptical that even a tv movie was ever going to happen. Those of us who believed, however, were getting excited and spent Christmas of 1995 eagerly awaiting an announcement of who the new Doctor was going to be…..

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September 19, 2013

Sydney Newman interviewed by CBC in 1966

Here’s something one wishes that could have been included on a Doctor Who DVD. It’s a 1966 interview with Sydney Newman, one of the leading creative forces behind Doctor Who. The CBC program Umbrella interviewed the ex-pat Canadian (and former CBC executive) about his work as BBC Head of Drama.

At the 2:50 mark he shows off a toy Dalek on his desk and describes Doctor Who as a “silly sci-fi kind of thing”.

It’s brilliant to see a contemporary in-depth interview with Newman from that period. I’m sure a few production designers on An Adventure in Space and Time are wishing they could have seen that beforehand!

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September 08, 2013

50 Glorious Years: Episode 32 - 1994

1994 continued the celebration of past Doctor Who that had begun in November of the previous year with the 30th Anniversary. More and more stories continued to be released on home video for fans to enjoy. A heavily extended version of the 30th Anniversary documentary was released under the title More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS. And the book range, which by now had gone monthly in its releases of New Adventures, expanded further by adding in new original fiction for Doctors 1 through 6 in its Missing Adventures range (called such even though none of these adventures were strictly “missing” since they had never been made or written back in the day - now, if they had novelized more of the original Season 23 adventures or Shada at that time…..but I digress). This series too started off bi-monthly but once again would become successful enough to warrant a new release every month. This meant that, remarkably, 5 years after Doctor Who had supposedly ended as a television series, it now had two book ranges of original fiction being published on a monthly basis. To anyone who was paying attention, it showed that Doctor Who wasn’t simply going to be a franchise that faded away and died after it ceased television production.

Attention in 1994 was also placed upon the continued attempts to bring the series back to television. It was a clear that a deal had been struck with Amblim Entertainment and that the rights to make a new television series were now in their hands, and contingent upon getting a US network of some kind involved. CBS became the first network to apparently express interest, but by the end of the year it was clear that they were going to pass on the series. Attention would soon turn to FOX in 1995…...

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August 30, 2013

YouTubing It #33

Fans have become really, really inventive. We all know that. But to see someone construct a title sequence for the series that’s as good as what’s on the air… that’s just incredible.

Here’s what one posited as a title sequence for Peter Capaldi. I would hope by the time the Twelfth Doctor takes the reins they would have, if not a new logo, then a new theme arrangement since this one has become too closely associated with the Smith era… but even, so, this is phenomenal. And the way they integrated Capaldi’s head into it is really, really cool.

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August 24, 2013

50 Glorious Years: Episode 31 - 1993

1993 was Doctor Who‘s30th Anniversary year, and despite the lack of a new series or proper new tv episodes, it saw the Anniversary celebrated in style and perhaps with more love than the BBC gave it in 1988 for the 25th Anniversary.

It was quite the wild year for Doctor Who. It started off with rumours heating up that the show would be back as a one-off tv movie to celebrate the 30th Anniversary that would be released on home video only. Then there was an official confirmation that Doctor Who would be back as a drama production - on radio. The Paradise of Death was a 5 part story that was to be broadcast in the autumn, featuring the return of Jon Pertwee as the Doctor with Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney, in a story written by Barry Letts. As the months moved closer to the summer the rumours of the 30th Anniversary special heated up and finally in June it was reported that Doctor Who was back in production at the BBC as a television program - a one-off 90 minutes story called The Dark Dimension, featuring all five surviving actors to play the Doctor, to be shown on BBC1 and released on home video. The rumours were true!  After an incredibly long wait of 3 and a half years, we heard the news we were all waiting for - Doctor Who was back!

Unfortunately, just two days after hearing the official news of the return of Doctor Who to television, I received word that the special had in fact been cancelled. Hearing that news, after getting so excited for two days, was probably the most crushingly disappointing feeling I’ve ever had as a Doctor Who fan. We weren’t going to get a new story to celebrate the 30th Anniversary after all, and if we weren’t going to get a story made to celebrate something like the 30th Anniversary, it was starting to seem unlikely to even the most optimistic fan (which I probably was and am) that the show was ever going to come back. And it was also the first time that the word “cancellation” had actually been used to describe what they had done with Doctor Who since the show had ceased production in 1989. I always believed the show would come back but the time I believed in the least was probably the summer of 1993 following the death of The Dark Dimension.

Shortly after we did hear that there would be a 30th Anniversary charity skit that would only be about 15 minutes long. At the time I heard that news it seemed like a small consolation. I was probably more excited by the news that four of the actors to play the Doctor (Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy) were to act together in a straight-to-video non-Doctor Who sci-fi story the The Airzone Solution. And more mollifying still was the news of an official documentary, Thirty Years in the TARDIS, that was to be made and shown on tv by the BBC in November.

In October the big news came - after years of telling us that they were looking into independent co-production for the show, it was reported in reputable BBC papers that the BBC were in negotiations with Steven Spielberg to make a new television series of Doctor Who. It was the hope that turned the tide in celebrating the 30th Anniversary in a positive mood. Jonathan Powell had now finally left the BBC and his replacement, Alan Yentob, was interested in getting new Doctor Who made for television. Armed with the tangible proof that the BBC were interesting in making Doctor Who again, a November 1993 spent listening to The Paradise of Death, watching The Airzone Solution, Dimensions in Time and Thirty Years in the TARDIS was made a much more positive and uplifting experience as a result. By the time the 30th Anniversary year had ended, all doubts that the show would ever come back had forever been exterminated. As I watched the Dalek at the end of Thirty Years in the TARDIS repeat “We shall return!” over and over again, I had come to the conclusion that Doctor Who not only was going to come back to television - it absolutely had to.

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August 16, 2013

50 Glorious Years: Episode 30 - 1992

1992 continued Doctor Who fans’ frustrations about the state of the tv series going forward - it was becoming more and more apparent that the show might never come back, at least in the form of new episodes (older ones were being broadcast on BBC2 in the UK as well as a retrospective documentary program, Resistance is Useless). The BBC kept saying that they were looking into independent production, but few believed it by this point. And with the 30th Anniversary soon approaching, the frustration mounted that there would be no new Doctor Who to celebrate the anniversary with. Some fans were so frustrated that they started making their own Doctor Who stories for video - the “Doctor Who-all-but-in-name-only” series The Stranger  (which starred Colin Baker in the title role and Nicola Bryant as “Miss Brown”) had started in 1991 and continued in 1992, gaining more popularity with the lack of actual Doctor Who television episodes.

But something happened early in 1992 which was unquestionably the highlight of the year. When things seemed to be getting bleaker and bleaker for fans, a nice present was provided with the shock return of all four episodes of The Tomb of the Cybermen from Hong Kong in January. There had been missing episode finds before and just as large - in fact, the missing episode find prior to this was of the same amount - four episodes of The Ice Warriors found in 1988. But while the previous episode finds had always been celebrated, nothing had been celebrated quite like this. Part of this was to do with the fact that the story was one of the “Holy Grail” stories that fans most wanted to see recovered. Part of this was because it was a complete Patrick Troughton adventure, to add to the paltry total of complete 2nd Doctor Adventures in the archives (which had been just 5 stories up to that point). Part of this was because it was the now the first and only complete story from Season 5. But most of all, I think this missing episode recovery was celebrated more than any other since then because of the timing of when it happened - it gave Doctor Who fans a spark of joy which most had not felt since the show had ceased production. This was the first time missing episodes had been found at a time when they weren’t making new Doctor Who. That, along with all of the other factors, meant that The Tomb of the Cybermen single-handedly made 1992 a glorious year for Doctor Who.

Now imagine how the celebration might be like if they were to find a whole bunch more…..

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August 12, 2013

Did the CBC really want to redub Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor?

With the upcoming release of The Green Death on DVD, a number of people are taking notice of something Russell T Davies noted on the “Doctor Forever!”  DVD feature. Namely, that the CBC wanted to dub Christopher Eccleston’s voice for Canadian audiences. Davies said on the feature “You’re not doing that to our lead actor!”

On the surface it sounds bizarre, CBC is home to Coronation Street a show with lots of Mancunian accents. Why on earth would Doctor Who need to be cleaned up?

Well, it turns out that a CBC Executive did have that idea. Richard Stursberg was CBC Executive Vice President from 2004 to 2010. Stursberg was to run the English television service. He documented his time with the Corporation in his book Tower of Babble, The: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC And in it he writes about what he wanted to do with Doctor Who. :

The BBC had decided to remake [Doctor Who] and wanted to know if we wanted to buy it. I was doubtful. British shows never do well in Canada. In many cases, the accents are impenetrable, and rather than soldiering on, Canadians simply change the channel. If we were to buy it, we had to find a way to make it more accessible to Canadians.

We met the BBC people at the Spoke Club in Toronto, a hangout for people in the entertainment business. Hilary Read, the head of the BBC in Canada, was there, along with the top person in drama from London and some others.

I would presume that the “top person in drama” was probably either Jane Tranter or Julie Gardner. Both were, I seem to recall, making trips to Toronto to pitch shows to CBC at the time.

As Mike Doran points out to me, the co-production deal was formally announced in October 2004, with the new series four months into production. Stursberg started at the CBC in July 2004. Stursberg hit the ground running if he was actually privy to conversations selling the show, as usually these discussions took place 6-8 months before an announcement.

Stursberg continues:

Over dinner, they explained what the new Doctor Who would be like. We listened politely. After they were done, I suggested they make two versions: one for Britain and one for North America. In the North American version, we would make the Doctor a Canadian and re-voice him with a Canadian accent. That would make the series that much more accessible, since it would involve fewer incomprehensible British accents and a lead character Canadians could feel kinship with.

The plummy woman from London made a strangled noise. “Re-voice the Doctor,” she croaked, “as a Canadian?”

“Yes. Why not?” I replied, “After all, he isn’t even English. He is alien. He has two hearts and three lungs.”

“Re-voice the Doctor, as a Canadian” she gargled again.

“Sure. And it would be seamless. it’s already made in English, so there wouldn’t be any lip-synching problems. We could have the same actor do it.”

“Re-voice the Doctor?” She sounded weak, like she might pass out. “He is an iconic British figure.”

“Why not?” I persisted. “We’ll do it for the Canadian version and if it works here, it’ll be easier to sell in the United States. And, not to be unfair, but you’ve never had a hit in the States.”

The conversation deteriorated. The BBC people politely drew the evening to an early close. We paid the bill and left.

I honestly don’t know if Stursberg seriously pursued this idea within the CBC. Certainly no one at the CBC I talked to in 2005 (mostly people working on promoting the show and its web content, who were communicating with upper echelons) knew anything about it. I frankly wonder if Slawko Klymkiw, the head of the CBC who pushed for the show to come to Canada, even knew of Stursberg’s idea.

I suspect it was just a pitch Stursberg made with Hilary Read and Gardner/Tranter at the Spoke Club but it was taken back to Britain as “Canada wants to re-voice the Doctor”. But who knows, maybe he did try to push the matter further.

There’s so much in Stursberg’s narrative that makes him look like a total idiot… and not just the frankly boneheaded idea of redubbing Christopher Eccleston. These include:

  • The fact that during spring of 2005, Doctor Who was the most popular show on CBC television during the NHL lockout, debuting at over 900,000 viewers, a gigantic number for a non-US drama (it was also treble the ratings of the show previously in the timeslot!)

  • The fact that during the fall of 2006, series two of Doctor Who did far, far better in the ratings without any promotion than many of the domestic CBC dramas Stursberg no doubt championed.

  • The fact that a year or two later, one of the most popular CBC dramas was The Tudors, with you know, impenetrable British accents

  • The fact that Doctor Who actually turned out to be the first breakout hit for BBC America.

    Reading Stursberg’s narrative it also becomes quite clear why it was that after Slawko Klymkiw left the CBC (to be replaced by Stursberg’s pal, Kristie Layfield)the CBC had zero interest in Doctor Who and never promoted it and never scheduled it properly. Stursberg was disdainful of the property to begin with.

    Thanks to Victor Wong for pointing this out (and reminding me I owned Stursberg’s book but hadn’t read it yet!)

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