GUEST POST – Doctor Who and the Soft Reboot

by Z.P. Moo

 

It’s an exciting time to be a Doctor Who fan at the moment. We sit on the brink of a new era for the first time since the 2005 relaunch. So I thought it might be good to take the time to look at three such occasions where a similar transition took place – with varying results. Specifically the three attempts to relaunch the series from its 1989 cancellation, those of Paul McGann, Richard E Grant, and Christopher Eccleston.

I’m excluding the beginning of the Steven Moffat years here, you’ll notice. The reason for that is simple: continuity. Moffat had been a regular and (deservingly) popular writer for the show during the time before he took charge, he kept largely the same format, and he kept many of his contemporaries on board. Chris Chibnall, having not written for the series since 2012, seems to be doing no such thing. Not even the music composer is safe this time, the show’s format is getting a shake-up, and there’s the small issue of the Doctor being a woman now (and not a moment too soon to quote one of her underrated predecessors). As much as Steven Moffat’s phenomenal tenure in charge was seen as a clean break from what came before, that wasn’t really the case when you scratch the surface.

 

One of the more noteworthy additions of Moffat’s to the canon was the return to television of the Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann, to depict his regeneration, a previously missing piece of the temporal puzzle that is the Doctor’s life. And by mentioning that I can segue nicely into the three examples I want to look at.

First up, let’s look at the Eighth Doctor’s debut in what’s the only official Doctor Who movie, even if it is a made-for-television one made for American audiences, co-produced with the BBC and Universal, filmed in Canada, and first broadcast on (of all things) the Fox network.

There’s very little new to say about this movie, but because it gives us a good point of comparison to the other two example it needs to be said why this failed. Besides that, it bears repeating what went wrong and it forms a vital lesson to anyone trying to resurrect a TV show.

It opens with narration from Paul McGann (prophetic of his fate as The Audio Doctor perhaps?) dropping a colossal infodump to the audience. Time Lords! The Master! Skaro! Daleks! Regeneration! It’s nothing that long-term fans can’t recite by heart, but this was made for an audience who didn’t know the show. By the time we hear that “the Master had used up all of his [lives]” the audience is still getting their heads round the fact that he’s from space.

And it goes on from there. We see the TARDIS, sans introduction, which is shaped like a blue police box (“What’s a police box?” will ask the American audience – they’ll never find out) and apparently it has a steampunk parlour room inside it, though how that works will go unexplained. So will the identity of Sylvester McCoy. As the plot progresses we eventually see the master manipulator Seventh Doctor brought down by the might of the American health service before the Eighth Doctor emerges. It’s an effective regeneration, but it comes both too soon and too late. Not enough time with Seven to get attached and invested, and when you publicise Paul McGann playing the Doctor you’ve got to wonder what McCoy is even doing here.

This would be fine if it was made for fans. But that was not the point! Who is the audience meant to identify with here? Is it Grace? If so then why doesn’t the story begin with her perspective? She doesn’t even show up until shortly before the twenty minute mark. But considering her wafer-thin characterisation maybe that’s a good thing.

And then there’s the villain. The Master, played by Eric Roberts. Whoever thought opening with the Master was a good idea?! This character is so deep-rooted in the lore that you have to build to him. The revived series waited until the end of the third season to do it, long after the Doctor and his species were explained. And while Roberts is incredibly fun to watch and makes a great Master (yes, I said it) he shouldn’t be here in what is essentially a reboot.

With a story that completely alienates the intended audience by forgetting they’re not mega-fans, it’s no wonder this pilot failed to get picked up for a series. It’s not by any means a bad episode, and if you want a good “night in entertainment” episode of Doctor Who then you can’t go much better. As the leaflet inside the DVD cover will tell you, the successful viewing figures it had in the UK proved that “there was life in the Time Lord yet”, but it failed to revive the series by alienating the new viewers it was aiming for. It’s impossible to get into this story without knowing the lore. This is not okay!

Which brings us to the next attempt to resurrect the series.

 

By 2003 the series wasn’t the juggernaut it would be even a couple years later so when the effort to bring back the show finally succeeded it was still treated as a cult obscurity with no mass appeal. This would be the best explanation for why the show’s return came with virtually no fanfare in the form of a flash animation in the BBC website with one of the more popular expanded universe writers taking it on.

Paul Cornell is a genius, as writers go. With the audience he was writing for, Scream of the Shalka couldn’t be more perfectly pitched. He gives you a new Doctor, the official ninth incarnation having regenerated into that form since the movie several years prior. What’s happened to him in that interim time is left to the imagination with only vague hints to it dropped throughout the story.

Stop me if this sounds familiar. It’s basically identical to what Russell T Davies would do throughout series one. But the similarities end there. While Davies would write for a mass audience, Cornell isn’t doing that.

Shalka opens with its new Doctor arriving in the TARDIS, immediately you can see this not working properly if this was for newcomers. But it wasn’t for newcomers, this was made for the fans. Davies spends his first episode asking “Who is the Doctor?” but Cornell asks a different question. He doesn’t bother with that and instead asks “What’s happened since we last saw the Doctor?

The off-screen regeneration isn’t intended to give the show a reboot in and of itself, instead it is part of his new backstory. It’s not there to create a clean break (note two explicit references to this Doctor being the ninth) but to add to the mystery. Since we saw him last he’s become a habitual drinker, he’s angry at the universe, he’s got the Master as an android companion limited to just the TARDIS, refusing to take on a new companion, and he’s unable to choose where he goes or what he does there. He’s unmistakably the same person, but something has gone wrong for him.

Other than establishing that, the story itself is essentially a means to the end of getting the new companion away from her boyfriend and into the TARDIS. Alison Cheney is unfortunately a somewhat one-note character whose only defining characteristic is that she’s bored with her dull boyfriend and her equally dull life. It’s not dissimilar to Rose Tyler but unlike Rose she’s not written as someone for the audience to identify with and lacks the strong character, narrative focus, and good acting that made her work. She’s every bit as incidental to proceedings as the stereotypical classic companion was – a stereotype I’ve always felt was unfair to most of the companions, but one that’s definitely true here.

Luckily it makes up for that with the Master. Why he’s in an android body and stuck in the TARDIS is left unexplained, but he’s voiced by Derek Jacobi and has something romantic going on with the Doctor so it’s hard to complain.

It’s hard not to read Shalka as anything more than the final gasp from the Wilderness Years before the revival, but that’s unfair. This story establishes a lot of what the revival would go on to do, albeit said revival does it better. With a look at the companion’s homelife and a tragic backstory for the Doctor, it’s hard not to see similarities. And we know for a fact that Davies had watched it before casting the true Ninth Doctor (even if we know this from his unrestrained attack on how bad Richard E. Grant’s Doctor performance is and effectively strike him from canon). So maybe it was playing on his mind when he came up with it? We can’t say for sure, but if there’s some level of influence then it wouldn’t be a surprise.

Yet in spite of the innovations, Shaka definitely feels like ClassicWho – even if it is very much the final dying breath of the series in that form. We’ve got a title sequence lifted right out of the Jon Pertwee years, a similarly Pertwee presence of the military (complete with Brigadier stand-in), and an environmental message so blatant that it feels like Malcolm Hulke could’ve written it. The Shalka are aliens that base themselves underground, which sounds Silurian-like to me. The Master is almost identical in appearance to Roger Delgado. The story is split into six parts released weekly, complete with cliffhangers (the third of which is one of the best in the whole of the series).

You wouldn’t have got away with any of that if it was made for a new audience. Is Shalka a classic story or is it one for the revival? It can’t quite make up its mind. As much as it feels like it wants to push ahead and be new, it’s still stuck in the shadow of the past and unable to forge ahead on its own terms. Even the planned second story, “Blood of the Robots“, sounds like something out of Philip Hinchcliffe’s tenure, rather than anything new. The short story follow-up “The Feast of the Stone” has a similar problem, although it at least remembers to give a focus to the characters.

 

And that’s where series one comes in. Announced before Shalka’s release but after completion, Russell T Davies was bringing back Doctor Who and he was taking it to the masses. That would’ve been a laughable description of Doctor Who at the time, but he was doing it anyway. The serial format was ditched in favour of of single extended episodes that contained the story in one lump. The synthesisers were gone in place of a full orchestral score. And to give it some much needed credibility, the new Doctor was being played by Christopher Eccleston.

The only point of doubt was the casting of a popstar as the companion, but Billie Piper shut down every doubter the moment the show started when she turned out to be one of the most talented people ever to fill the companion role. And that’s just as well, because the first episode is all about her. It’s right there in the title: “Rose“.

This isn’t the Doctor’s story, this is the companion’s. She gets her name in the title sequence. She’s the co-star, not supporting cast. Her name is the name of the episode.

It’s through Rose Tyler that we get our first glimpse of the Ninth Doctor. It’s through Rose Tyler that we see the TARDIS for the first time. It’s through Rose’s internet search that we find out this Doctor is not all he seems. It’s through her that female fans suddenly become an expected norm, with the older man Clive keeping his Doctor Who fandom hidden away as an embarrassment to his family it’s Rose who shows us that it’s not meant to be that. And who is it that saves the day at the end of the story? It’s Rose. Of course it’s Rose. This is her story. It’s effective with slow steps without holding back, starting with the monsters before we meet the Doctor, the TARDIS, and finally time-travel in that order, and we learnt these things as Rose does.

Her life is grounded in reality too. We get to see a companion’s family for the first time through Rose Tyler. The first scene is a montage of her day, and through it we swiftly meet mother Jackie Tyler and boyfriend Mickey Smith and even before any of them get to say a single line we know exactly what all three of these people are like. It’s an incredibly effective start and as the episode progresses it only builds further. Later in the season Rose returns to them from travelling in the TARDIS and we see the effect on them of her leaving. It’s all making the same point: The companion is the star, she a real person.

I know I’ve repeated myself on that, but it’s a point that needs to be said because it’s a radical departure. The show no longer rests on the assumption that audiences will know who the Doctor is anymore, and that’s because they don’t. He is a relic from the previous century, Davies makes it his mission to make him relevant again and Rose Tyler is the lens through which he does it.

As Steven Moffat would later say, the show’s title is a question. “Doctor Who?” We’re meant to see the show from the perspective of the person that’s asking, and Davies uses Rose to restore that mystery.

Her and the Time War. There needed to be a clean break from the continuity lock-out brought in by 42 years of history without overwriting it, and this is the perfect solution. We get hints about it dropped throughout series one before we finally learn what happened halfway through Robert Shearman’s masterpiece, “Dalek“. Davies has asked the same question as Cornell before him – “What has happened since we last saw the Doctor?” – but he’s not made that the priority. He’s instead made it a natural follow-up to the first question – “Doctor who?”– and it’s much more effective as a result.

Russell T Davies nailed it here, he really got it right. Where the 1996 movie failed was the way it alienated the audience. Where Shalka failed was a lack of ambition. In the 2005 relaunch, beginning with “Rose“, we suddenly get Doctor Who free to push ahead without being caught up in either trap. This is suddenly, for the first time, a show that everyone can watch. It respects the past of the show and doesn’t patronise the established fans but it manages to do this while making the new viewers the priority.

And if that’s not a huge achievement then I don’t know what is. You want to bring back a show and make it a success, this is exactly the right thing to do.

 

But he world has changed since 2005. Would “Rose” be the episode it is if it was being made today? I doubt it somehow. Historical context is the key to the success of the episode. That’s why “An Unearthly Child” makes a point of Susan referencing decimal currency, it hadn’t been introduced yet by 1963, so it makes her feel futuristic. The aforementioned TV Movie of 1996 makes the turn of the millenium a key plot-point.

Rose focuses on the non-stop nature of normal life as it was in 2005 with class issues being raised in a different way to they would probably be addressed in 2018. Watch the first scenes as we see Rose’s life in a montage sequence, if that’s not the most 2005 thing you’ve ever seen (that soundtrack!) then I don’t know what is. But in 2005 this was exactly the launch the show needed to have, and the fact we’re talking about it as a success over a decade later speaks for itself.

What will a Doctor Who relaunch look like in 2018? Series eleven is effectively that, with how much the series format is changing. I don’t know what it will be like, but I suspect it’s going to be brilliant.

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