“Paul McGann doesn’t count!”

The Doctor Who TV Movie (titled just Doctor Who, and variously referred to in Who fandom as “The One With Paul McGann In”, “The TV Movie”, “Time Waits For No Man”, “Grace: 1999”, “That Piece Of Crap” and “The Sensational TV Movie Starring Paul McGann”) is possibly one of the most over-analysed pieces of media ever created. As the only new Doctor Who to be shown on TV between 1989 and 2005, as the pilot for a revamped version of the show that never existed, as the first high-profile piece of Doctor Who created since the internet became a mass medium for discussion, and as the sole basis of several incompatible lines of spinoffery, this rather unimpressive ninety-minute TV show has been the subject of tens of millions of words’ commentary, direct and indirect.

Very roughly, there have been two critical consensuses among ‘established’ fandom about this story. I say ‘established’ fandom, because once we get to the post-2005 series there is a parallel fandom, mostly female-dominated, and revolving around LiveJournal and Tumblr, and their views will become increasingly important as our story continues. But here I’m talking about the older, more insular fan community who, due to their having written most of the books on the subject, have become the de facto consensus which one is either agreeing with or challenging when writing anything about the programme.

The consensus right up until the broadcast of Rose in 2005 was “the TV Movie was crap, a terrible attempt to remake Doctor Who as an American ‘Cult TV’ programme; its only saving grace was that Paul McGann was absolutely wonderful in it.”

Pretty much straight after the broadcast of Rose, there was a more-or-less unanimous revision of this opinion, first stated by Lawrence Miles in his review of that episode:

McGann, despite being a decent actor and I’m sure a decent human being etcetera etcetera, was not a good Doctor; he was the predictable Doctor. Given the job of reintroducing the character / concept for a new and mainly American audience, the decision was made to turn him into a gross mean average of all the Doctors who’d gone before, except with extra sex appeal… It could only have been worse if they’d hired Hugh Grant. Watch the story again, and he barely even has a personality… The managers of all the world’s boy-bands couldn’t have come up with a Doctor more demographically-correct than this, and the true horror of it is that most of us fell for it, myself included.

One suspects, though, that after David Tennant and Matt Smith, Miles may want to reassess his opinion of whether a “more demographically-correct” Doctor could be created.

The crucial point about both of these assessments, though, is that they are both agreed that there is absolutely no resemblance between the 1996 TV Movie and the post-2005 series.

Except…except that’s clearly nonsense, isn’t it?

I don’t want to jump ahead, but the 1996 TV Movie is, to an unbiased eye, quite clearly closer to the post-2005 TV series than any other piece of Doctor Who to that point.

The TV Movie introduces the Doctor in a TARDIS that is a vast steampunk-Gothic contraption in brown, rather than having a small white console room.

In the TV Movie, while the Doctor’s TARDIS works, he still arrives on contemporary Earth and the entire story is set there.

There’s a horrid orchestral rendition of the theme tune.

The Doctor gets a one-off companion — a contemporary human with whom he has a romantic subplot.

It’s shot single-camera film, rather than multi-camera video, and largely on location. (If you don’t think this is important, it affects every single aspect of the production’s look and feel.)

We’re meant to care deeply about the Doctor’s mysterious background.

The emotional relationship between the various main characters is of vastly greater importance to the story than the actual plot, which is wrapped up with a bit of handwavium and some turning back of time. (Almost no Doctor Who prior to this actually dealt with time travel as a theme, rather than as a means of getting the Doctor from place to place. A significant chunk of the post-2005 series, especially those stories written by Stephen Moffat, does just that.)

TVs on screen comment on or parallel the main action.

These all sound like they’re only minor things — and many of them are — but the fact is that if you showed this and a random episode of the Moffat series to the casual viewer, they’d recognise them as the same kind of thing, in a way they wouldn’t recognise even Survival, let alone anything earlier than it, as being the same. They might think it was significantly worse than either the “classic” or “modern” shows, but they would recognise it as the same kind of thing as the modern one.

Despite Russell T. Davies’ widely-known antipathy for Grace: 1999 (an antipathy that Stephen Moffat appears not to share), the TV Movie seems to have, if not influenced the new series (and the makers of the show have argued convincingly that the biggest influence it had was in showing them what not to do — it’s made as a piece of “cult TV” in a way that the post-2005 series never has been) then at least been an example of convergent evolution.

The problems with it are, of course, self-evident — the Doctor is shoe-horned into a Campbellian Hero’s Journey for which he is almost uniquely ill-suited, it begins with a huge unnecessary infodump about Skaro, Daleks and Time Lords which has nothing to do with the actual story that follows, it spends the first twenty minutes having Sylvester McCoy as the star, and most egregiously (as was recently pointed out to me by someone who has never watched any other Who than this) it sets up what has the potential to be a much more interesting story — Doctor Who and the Gangs of San Francisco — before turning into a pointless runaround with the least interesting version of the Master to date. And that’s not even getting into the “half-human” revelation.

So why does this look so much like the new series, which at least doesn’t make those mistakes?

Because it’s American.

The American and British TV traditions are so different as to essentially be two different media which happen to have the same name. The British tradition comes, as I’ve said before, from a theatrical background. We had teleplays, and Play For Today and The Wednesday Play.

The American tradition, on the other hand, is a filmic one (unsurprisingly given that their film industry dominated the world even before TV came along). They have “TV movies”. They use a single camera taking specifically set-up shots, rather than multiple cameras filming the scene from all angles to be edited together later.

But the British televisual tradition has, since around the time Doctor Who originally went off the air, essentially ended — only soap operas are made in the multi-camera way which encourages the theatrical style, now. Our directors are now all making films for the small screen, which is a totally different set of techniques from the old techniques. Nothing now looks the way that, say, David Maloney made it look.

I suspect this is to do with the choices made at the end of the Thatcher era, when public service broadcasters got weaker requirements at the same time that the ITV franchises got sold off to newer, more ruthless companies.

This difference can be seen most clearly if one watches Red Dwarf , the only BBC science fiction series to be broadcast consistently over the time Doctor Who was off the air (though Red Dwarf is an unusual show in that it’s an SF sitcom). The first two series, in the late 80s, were filmed purely multi-camera, with very few effects. Series three through six, in the early 90s, were still multi-camera, but with far more model shots and effects. Then series seven, filmed in 1996 and broadcast in 1997, was single camera. Watching it, you can see the old way of making TV dying.

That’s not a value judgement, but a judgement of fact. And when it comes to TV, now all TV follows the American model. And this affects the choice of shots, which affects the type of acting that works, which affects the type of writing that works.

The things about Grace: 1999 that are different from the rest of TV at that time are the things that Davies and co avoided when they came, seven years later, to start their new series of Doctor Who. But the underlying assumptions about the way TV is made that it embodies continue to this day.

21 Responses to “Doctor Who: Fifty Stories For Fifty Years: 1996”

  1. New Who Post on Mindless Ones | Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] In which I argue that actually the TV Movie is more like the current series than you think. Share this:PrintEmail [...]

  2. Brett Weir Says:

    Dear Sir,
    You are a tool.

    Regards
    Brett Weir

  3. Tim O'Neil Says:

    One point – American TV shared some origins in the theater. In the first, say, decade of American TV they were still working from the assumption that broadcast formats needed to produce edifying and intelligent program as part of a general public service remit. The early years of US television are filled with shows like PLAYHOUSE 90 – anthology dramatic series that spotlighted well-known writers and journeymen actors. The format favored theatrical performances, and that is why actors who cut their teeth in this format – like, say, William Shatner, who is a perfect example – retained an overly theatrical style in their later work.

    But this era didn’t last for very long. The same kind of transformation as you pinpoint in the Thatcher era in UK broadcasting happened in America some 20 years earlier. Technology changed, budgets grew, people grew to expect a slickness of effect that – if usually only a cheapjack approximation of “real” movies, still required a self-seriousness that actively suppressed any consciousness of the medium’s limitations. Look at how an episode of STAR TREK from 1967 looks next to a Patrick Traughton serial from the same year. It’s not just money that makes a difference (although that is a big difference), it’s a philosophy of entertainment based on trying to get as far away from any theatrical associations as possible. For most Americans, the theater is a cheap substitute for movies, and TV is at its best when it is as movie-like as possible.

  4. Andrew Hickey Says:

    Tim, you’re right of course (and I don’t know if you’ve been reading Josh Marsfelder’s very interesting blog about Trek, Vaka Rangi — http://vakarangi.blogspot.co.uk/ — but he makes the same point about Shatner. I think you’d like it…).

    But certainly by the time any reasonable number of US series were being imported into the UK, in the mid-60s, the two were essentially different media. Even if you watch something like Batman — something cheap and studio-bound — it looks totally, utterly different from anything British.

  5. Andrew Hickey Says:

    I suspect actually that the big change came with the advent of digital editing, because film editing has always been easier than videotape editing, but videotape was cheaper than film — and US TV pretty much always used film rather than video…

  6. Phil Sandifer Says:

    Completely correct. I’m very glad this essay exists, given that my own take on the TV Movie got pulled in other directions. This is the self-evidently correct take on the TV Movie’s place in television history, put better than I’ve ever seen anyone do.

  7. Andrew Hickey Says:

    That’s very, very good of you to say, Phil — means a lot coming from you.

  8. Tilt Araiza Says:

    I think syndication, moving things across markets in a transcontinental nation might have been one small factor in US TV’s love of filmed shows. I’m thinking of things like I Love Lucy and even You Bet Your Life (a gameshow on film!?) being shot on film, but multi-camera in a weird hybrid.

    (Warning: the following is British ITV franchise chat. Niche of a niche.)

    I also wonder if ABC TV (UK) having to muck in with Rediffusion on a 5-day London contract set back the cause of British filmed shows. They’re the only British TV company I can think of that challenged ATV/ITC’s dominance in the film drama field (I’m probably missing someone obvious). Even then, it’s really only The Avengers and The Human Jungle, but ABC had that slightly more high-minded ethos than Grade’s company.

    Andrew, have you ever seen The Solarnauts? It’s an unaired pilot for a children’s show (I think it’s an ABC commission) and it’s recognizably from the same sort of TV culture as Who, but it’s in glorious colour 35mm!

    I was going to write something about the wave of 16mm British film shows of the 70s and 80s but if I start rabbiting on about Shoestring I’ll forget what the original point was.

  9. Josh Marsfelder Says:

    Terrific essay as usual, Andrew, and thanks for the plug!

    One of the things that fascinates me about Star Trek as a franchise is how it bends and violates so many accepted rules about how US television works. As you and Tim both pointed out, due to William Shatner and other reasons, there is a strong performative and theatrical streak about it that sets it apart from not just other cult genre shows (save things like Doctor Who) but a lot of US television in general.

    The zenith of this, of course comes in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was designed to be and shot as a movie for television yet featured a cast almost entirely made up of veteran theatre actors, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which also features stage actors yet operates like a soap opera or a contemporary drama.

  10. Tilt Araiza Says:

    Ahh, YouTube delivers. The Solarnauts, featuring Mr. Derek and future newsreader Jan Leeming

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVe-rT4TpJI

  11. Figserello Says:

    Wonderful stuff, Andrew. Always plenty of good info and opinions to chew over.

    I’m enjoying these posts very much, and made a point of watching The Happiness Patrol after your piece on that.

    Clever show – much more to it than simply a satire on Thatcherism, though it is that to.

    Anyway, I’ve been rereading Panini’s 8th Doctor Comic strip collections from DWM and am about to get stuck into the last book. Much to enjoy there, I thought, but I’d really love to see you cover them in a bit of depth as you are doing here. They are probably underappreciated. A lot done in them, and teh early DWM strips that was way ahead of the TV show.

    If you do cover the strips, I might be able to come in with something more substantial than “good stuff”! (though probably not.)

  12. Matthew Craig Says:

    Ha, brilliant find, Tilt. Slight cog-disco over Leeming’s newsreader voice, there. You know that Susanna Reid was in a terribly dodgy teleplay with a pre-Casualty Derek Thompson? Are all the people who tell us about the bad men fallen luvvies?

    Man, I remember watching this in the Junior Common Room at Uni. So exciting. 1999! The Future!

    The Skaro sequence, I thought, was more there for the fan-service (and some post-Babylon 5-style foreshadowing), in the same way NuWho had the scene in the van Statten museum (already a year in the fictional past for us): in order to reassure people that this was the same person in the same universe as Jamie, Jo and Adric.

    Where do shakycam shows like NYPD:Blue fit in? A happy medium between the theatrical and the structured? I kinda like that shows like Brookside (remember when Liverpool used to be on the telly five nights a week?) and latterly Eastenders have been able to play with the visual langauge of soap. They make mistakes – non-diegetic music, psychic twin powers, etc. (Eastenders) – and sometimes it’s weirdly jarring to have the camera pull up from the street into a CGI overhead of London, pulling back into the closing credits. Shows like Corrie never seem to break that mould, and quite right too.

    …except, of course, when half of Doctor Who took over and gave Jack that deathbed dream sequence. That was a good’n.

    //\Oo/\\

  13. Tilt Araiza Says:

    Would that be “The Price”, Matthew? Never seen it but I’ve just found it appears to be in full on YouTube and it’s got Peter Barkworth in it.

    I don’t really think of Derek Thompson in terms of “pre-Casualty”, more in terms of “post-Gonks Go Beat”.

  14. Matthew Craig Says:

    That’s the one. And I’m watching these Gonk vids, and while there’s no sign of oul’ Ironing Board Fairhead, I do rather feel like Michel Gondry may have watched this film once upon a time.

    //\OO/\\

  15. RetroWarbird Says:

    Joss Whedon’s Firefly was what I always think of when I think “this does not need an exposition dump starting things off”. It annoyed me about the prior season of Matt Smithy New Who as well; “My name’s Amy, exposition you already blah blah blah this is sort of implicit to how every episode functions so just watch, maybe?”

    Star Trek’s theatre background is evident. To be honest, I’m not sure the American love of theatre in general waned. It still exists, on Broadway and off. We’re taught it in school, every school has a drama club which stages plays. We read Shakespeare and field trip to see it performed. Some of us really get into it and then do soliloquies for crowds.

    Small rural towns in the middle of our somewhat more spaced out landmass are still dotted with theatres. Here in Podunk, New York, population 30, there’s a theatre within bicycling distance.

    I recognize when and how the transition happened I just don’t have the understanding to determine the “why” of it. It’s not as if it’s in the Pulp. After all, the grittiest Clint Eastwood or even the cheapest John Wayne Westerns run intelligent rings around the purported “smart” movies of 2013. We certainly typically see a proper theatre actor in a television or movie role and say “he’s such a good actor”, whereas we see some vacant face with abs and recognize “he’s not so good”. So why then should television have shifted its execution as well, when otherwise the same concepts apply?

    I think you’re all right, cost-cutting was the answer. But also probably some combination of television becoming more than just a few coastal networks, slow economies, studios fixating on fickle trends, rising gas prices killing drive-in movie theatres and necessitating that kind of experience at home. All manner of avenues.

    Anyway, it seems like it could be a conspiracy with Ronald Reagan at the center of it.

  16. Roderick T. Long Says:

    Another similarity — the pixie dust coming out of the Doctor’s mouth post-regeneration. The tv-movie was the first time we saw that (though there it may have been intended as mere frozen breath).

    Joss Whedon’s Firefly was what I always think of when I think “this does not need an exposition dump starting things off”.

    Whedon hated that infodump intro and ensured it would be absent from the dvds.

  17. Tilt Araiza Says:

    I can’t even find a still of Derek in “Gonks”. You can’t miss him, he’s sitting on a flower-strewn swing with his twin sister. Now, I’m not saying that there’s a large number of lawyers, hackers and bruisers going around removing traces of his singing career, but that is definitely what’s happening.

    They missed this, though http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNrDzaK7WSI

  18. Gavin Burrows Says:

    You talk a good fight, as ever. “Because it’s American” may be a good way to describe the similarities between the film and the new show, but as you say there are also important differences. The similarities may well have been downplayed in the past, but at the same time we shouldn’t lose sight of the differences.

    And perhaps a lot of the differences come down to “because it’s a movie”. A lot of the film’s failings seem very similar to the failings found in the current rash of superhero movies. (Such as shoehorning in that accursed Hero’s Journey thing, to which I think I’m quickly developing an allergic reaction.) In short it’s a formal problem in translating something made for a serial format into something standalone. It’s all too easy to chop to fit. These problems aren’t insurmountable. ’The Avengers’ doesn’t particularly suffer from them. But they are perhaps inherent.

    I remember Davies being interviewed in the Radio Times just before the new show ran. He commented that in the film the Doctor’s arrival precipitated its events, which seemed entirely wrong to him. Had I not read that comment I’m not sure I’d have bothered watching the new show at all. For the first time it suggested some kind of understanding of what sort of show it was. That’s a rule which may have been bent a bit with Moffat’s multileaved storylines, but they’ve more or less kept to it.

  19. grant Says:

    @RetroWarbird > So why then should television have shifted its execution as well, when otherwise the same concepts apply?

    Personally, I think that this was a… well, maybe not technological, but economic innovation that took place with the dawn of widespread cable TV and videotape.

    Before cable (1950s to 1979 or so), most TV in America was made by one of the networks (or a studio contracted to a network) and had to be done pretty quickly. That meant – same set, “live studio audience,” multi-camera setup.

    That’s the way I Love Lucy and Dick Van Dyke did it in the 1950s & 60s, the way Mary Tyler Moore kept doing it in the 1970s… it was how TV “looked.”

    But by the 1980s, new competition started coming in from cable channels… which didn’t really play by the same “new content every week” rule. And most of them played movies – lots of movies, many of them really pretty (gloriously) bad in a straight-to-video way. Check out the career of Andy Sidaris for one vein of this stuff. Those movies were shot on video (like TV) but in a single-camera style. Using Betamax cameras.

    Location shooting became a lot cheaper and easier, too, when you had smaller crews and didn’t need to courier film to a darkroom to be developed. (That, incidentally, was one of my dad’s first jobs – running film for a local TV news department. They’d shoot it on the scene, then race to get it developed for broadcast that evening.)

    (Oh, and on film editing being easier than video – maybe cutting the picture was easier, but to edit stuff shot on film you’d have to synch up the magnetic tape from the sound crew with the film shot by the camera crew – which actually entailed a couple of people whose job it was to make sure the slate showed the right take, circling the good takes on their little clipboards and all that stuff. By the late 1970s, with video, the sound could go right to the same device. Tape held sound and picture, no synching required.)

    Around the early-to-mid-1980s, networks started making prime-time dramas using the same gear (and probably the same crews) as the straight-to-cable movies. Magnum PI, St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues… they were all part of this new, different thing where the Big Three were competing with Showtime and TBS and all these other up-and-comers.

    (There was also a corporate thing where the networks had once packaged mystery shows into TV movies – Steven Spielberg started out directing Monday Night Mysteries in the 1970s – then quit doing that because multicamera sitcoms were cheaper… then by 1981 realized that fucking Spielberg was making huge dosh and people really would watch movies made for TV on a shoestring using these newfangled video cameras.)

    By the time Star Trek:The Next Generation came out (in 1987) there was some genuine nostalgia for multicamera, theater-based shows (that weren’t sitcoms or game shows).

    (For instance, that’s about the same time that Twilight Zone had its first revival. Although the original show was mostly (but not entirely) shot single-camera, it was written and acted theatrically more than cinematically.)

    That might be part of the “why” there.

    I think right now, we’re seeing something similar with a rise of things shot in multiple formats (video within film), a shitload of handheld stuff in the Blair Witch Project mode and lots of documentary-style “behind the scenes” reality-show shots – because the big producers are trying to compete with iPhones and viral videos on YouTube. That’s the newest technology. (Examples: Parks and Recreation, either version of Office Space… those shaky little cameras that go everywhere, characters directly addressing the camera ops, edited in with oops-you-weren’t-supposed-to-see-that footage.)

  20. Ricardo Baptista Says:

    This text could have been written without all the post-2005 Doctor Who references/bashing…

  21. darquehex Says:

    Is it odd that whenever I see RetroWarbird has posted something I immediately skip the remainder of the comments? Love the site btw, longtime fan. Thanks for all the good.

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