June 29th, 2013
By 1993, Doctor Who is a potential, rather than an actuality. The TV show has been off the air long enough that it could realistically be revamped, not just brought back. It’s not a TV series any more, but an idea for a TV series — an idea which can be done in many different ways.
This was the tack taken by The Dark Dimension, a proposed direct-to-video project that was intended to feature Tom Baker, with cameos from the other surviving Doctors. Possibly the whole feel of this story can be summed up in this quote from its writer:
There was a specific Cyberman who was being made by the people at Henson’s Creature Workshop. The guy who designed it was Chris Fitzgerald . It had holes in its knuckles and there was a point where it held up its hand, made a fist, and six-inch blades shot out of its knuckles! It was like Wolverine out of the X-Men comics; Cyberrine!
The book The Nth Doctor provides a synopsis of the story, which is heavily influenced by the New Adventures (down to having a character named Summerfield) and would undoubtedly have been absolutely dire. Perhaps thankfully, this story never got very far — amongst other reasons, the various Doctors were annoyed at being relegated to cameos in their own show.
But some sort of thirtieth anniversary multi-Doctor special was necessary. Step forward John Nathan-Turner with the other obvious possibility — to do it as kitsch nostalgia.
Dimensions In Time is, by any reasonable aesthetic criteria, godawful. It’s also the concentrated essence of Nathan-Turner, who co-wrote the story as well as producing it. It is actually impossible to review — merely describing it should be enough to allow everyone to form an accurate opinion of the merits of the story, such as they are.
The story consists of two short episodes (of seven-and-a-half and five-and-a-half minutes’ duration). These were shown on Children In Need (the first episode) and an episode of Noel’s House Party (the second), both introduced by the grinning buffoonish positive-thinking guru and anti-renewable-energy campaigner Noel Edmonds, who for the first episode was joined by Jon Pertwee in character. Part of the reason the story has no actual plot is that Edmonds insisted that two minutes of the second episode be cut, to leave more time for his smug, leering face to make jokes about bottoms and humiliate minor celebrities.
The stories were a crossover with the soap opera Eastenders, in which because of the machinations of the Rani (and her assistant Cyrian, so named because John Nathan-Turner had so little connection to reality by this point that he actually thought Sir Ian McKellen might play the role — he also tried to get the Pet Shop Boys to record the theme tune, with a similar lack of success) various incarnations of the Doctor and his companions wander around Albert Square while being pinged between 1993, 1973, and the futuristic space-year of 2013. Most of the dialogue consists of “Doctor, when are we now?” and “Excuse me, my good woman, what year is this?”
All five living past Doctors were involved (Tom Baker doing a short opening and closing segment, the others involved in the plot, such as it was), along with every companion and old monster they could get their hands on. There was even a cliffhanger, after which the viewers could vote on whether Big Ron or Mandy (two characters from Eastenders) would save the day.
If five Doctors (plus Mel, Mike Yates, Peri, Nyssa, Ace, Sarah Jane, Liz Shaw, the Brigadier, K-9, Romana, Leela, Victoria and Susan), a bunch of old B-list monsters, a phone vote and a crossover with a soap opera wasn’t enough to pack into twelve minutes, there was also the slight problem of this being in 3-D. But not normal 3-D — this was using a special method which meant that the programme was viewable on normal TVs, but would appear three dimensional when wearing special glasses (sold for charity).
The problem is, this technique only works when objects in the foreground are moving left-to-right, while the objects in the background move right-to-left. And the simplest way of doing this is having the camera constantly moving, round and round and round and round until the viewer gets dizzy and throws up.
That this is, other than City Of Death, the highest-rated Doctor Who story ever on UK TV, tells us quite a bit about how the show was viewed at this point. It was looked on with affection, as something silly from our childhoods, but certainly not as anything worth taking seriously.
Not, of course, that things have to be serious to be good, but they have to be made by people taking a serious attitude to what they’re doing.
This is, of course, not something that was meant to last — in fact, contractually it can never be repeated or given any legal release, because all involved gave their time freely for charity — so it would be unfair to look at its myriad faults as artistic failings. It exists to remind people of their childhoods and to give them a reason to phone a premium-rate charity telephone line, not to be a “proper Doctor Who episode”. But it was the only Doctor Who to be made for TV between 1989 and 1996, and something this slight shouldn’t have had to live up to fans’ expectations.
But now it was clear — if Doctor Who was going to come back any time soon, it would be either grimdark, with a Campbellian Hero’s Journey, or it would be a sad parody made for the kind of people who think watching something that is bad is ‘ironic’. Doctor Who and the 1990s simply weren’t made for each other.
If the BBC weren’t going to take making Doctor Who seriously, maybe those fans would just have to make their own Doctor Who…