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Millennial Anxieties | James Chapman

Doctor Who | Millennial Anxieties

The return of Doctor Who in 1996, after a hiatus of over six years, in the form of a £3 million co-production between BBC Worldwide and Universal Television was welcomed by aficionados but overall met with the sort of response from television critics that is perhaps best described as ‘mixed’. Doctor Who had been to all intents and purposes ‘dead’ throughout the early 1990s, though the corpse had refused stubbornly to be buried and there were persistent rumours of its revival. The 1996 ‘Doctor Who’ – strictly speaking the only individual Doctor Who story with the same title as the series itself – was the outcome of the shifting political economy of the BBC as it responded to both institutional and cultural change within the wider television industry. As the putative pilot episode for a series that was not commissioned, the Doctor Who ‘movie’ tends to be seen as a failure. This, however, is to ignore both its many points of special interest and its unique place in the series’ history.

The ‘new’ Doctor Who needs to be understood in the context of changing broadcasting ecologies in the 1990s. These changes were heralded by the advent of satellite television in the form of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky, which began broadcasting via the Astra satellite in 1989, and by the Broadcasting Act of 1990 which extended the deregulatory policies of the Conservative government to television and radio and thus paved the way for a proliferation of new channels over the following years. The BBC, under pressure during the 1990s from governments hostile to its privileged status and struggling to protect the principle of the licence fee on which it relied for its funding, became increasingly market-oriented (a process dubbed ‘dumbing down’ by its critics) at the expense of its traditional public-service remit. The popular and critical acclaim lavished upon its 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and on the drama series Our Friends in the North (1996) perversely indicates how rare such ‘quality’ drama had become in the midst of a seemingly ubiquitous diet of game shows, quiz shows, chat shows and ‘makeover’ shows.

The fate of Doctor Who exemplifies three processes occurring in parallel inside the BBC during the 1990s. The first was the introduction, under Director-General John Birt, of a new mechanism for securing funding which meant that individual programmes, rather than being part of an allocated budget, now had to bid against each other. This was dressed up in terms of ‘producer choice’ but what it effectively amounted to was the introduction of an internal market into the BBC of a sort that had already crippled the National Health Service. (Birt was caricatured in Private Eye as a bureaucratic Dalek, indicating that the cultural legacy of Doctor Who persisted even while the series was in hiatus.) The second development was the requirement that a quarter of its entire programme output should be commissioned from independent producers, which effectively brought the corporation into line with the ITV franchise holders and Channel 4. The third development was an increasing trend towards co-productions with international partners in recognition of the fact that television had become a global rather than a purely national enterprise.

Co-productions were advantageous in two ways: they allowed the corporation to share the costs of production at the same time as providing access to an international audience. In 1995, BBC Enterprises, a commercial arm originally set up in the 1960s to sell programmes to overseas broadcasters, became BBC Worldwide with an expanded remit to invest in co-productions with overseas partners. It did not go unnoticed that one of BBC Enterprises’ major revenue sources since the late 1980s had been from the sale of Doctor Who videos for the home retail market. A plan to mark the thirtieth anniversary in 1993 with a feature-length special, ‘The Dark Dimension’, produced solely for video, had to be aborted.3 (In the event the anniversary was marked by a woeful pantomime piece for Children in Need, entitled ‘Dimensions in Time’, featuring all the surviving Doctors – Pertwee, Davison, McCoy and the two Bakers – and assorted villains and companions caught in a time loop on the set of the soap opera EastEnders.)

Evidence that there remained a strong fan base for Doctor Who can be found in the success of the New Adventures novels published under licence by Virgin Books, charting the further adventures of the Seventh Doctor and Ace, which began in 1991. Another line of Missing Adventures featuring previous Doctors and companions was added in 1994. Barry Letts wrote two Doctor Who radio serials featuring Jon Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen, ‘The Paradise of Death’ (1993) and ‘The Ghosts of NSpace’ (1996), though neither excited much interest. In the meantime rumours persisted about a ‘new’ Doctor Who on television or film, most of them wildly inaccurate, some containing a morsel of truth. One of the most persistent stories was that a Doctor Who feature film would be produced by a consortium backed by pop singers Bryan Ferry and John Illsley, with Alan Rickman as the Doctor and to be directed by Leonard Nimoy, ‘Mr Spock’ of Star Trek who had successfully directed two Star Trek continuation films. A court case was threatened when the consortium sued the BBC for reneging on the film deal. In late 1993 a story was leaked that Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment was in negotiations to buy the rights to the series. According to which report one prefers, the candidates to play the Doctor included Eric Idle, Dudley Moore, David Hasselhoff and Tom Cruise. Yet again, the initiative did not progress, perhaps because Amblin was committed to producing another SF adventure series, Seaquest DSV (1993–1996), for Universal Television. However, it was largely through the agency of former Amblin executive Philip Segal that Doctor Who was commissioned in late 1995. Fans’ concerns that the BBC had ‘sold out’ to an American network were partly redressed by the fact that Segal, writer Matthew Jacobs and director Geoffrey Sax were all British and that a British actor, Paul McGann, was to play the Doctor. The television film was shot in Canada early in 1996, with Vancouver standing in for San Francisco where the story was located.6 It was broadcast by the Fox network in the USA and by the BBC in Britain in May 1996.

Segal later averred that the production of Doctor Who was compromised by having to meet the demands of four constituencies: Fox, Universal, BBC1 and BBC Worldwide. The US network Fox ‘insisted on it being an Americanised version’ and on the casting of ‘special guest star’ Eric Roberts as the Master. At the same time, however, Segal ‘had to make sure that I kept my promise to Alan [Yentob, Controller of BBC1] in terms of the integrity of the show and its Britishness’. BBC Worldwide just wanted something ‘terribly commercial’. Given the circumstances of its production, therefore, it is hardly surprising that Doctor Who betrays the competing cultural and ideological demands of the various interested parties. It represents an uneasy compromise between British cultural capital and American commercial enterprise, between the different cultural competences of British and American audiences, and between the liberal ethos of the ‘old’ BBC series and the innate conservatism of the US networks. In attempting to be all things at once – both a revival of an old series and the start of a new one – it failed to satisfy any of the constituencies for whom it was intended.

The response of British critics, predictably perhaps, was that Doctor Who had lost its distinctive British identity. It was described, variously, as ‘a classic mid-Atlantic fudge’, ‘a vulgar American reincarnation’, ‘awfully, awfully American’ and as ‘stranded somewhere in mid-Atlantic and about as interesting as Rockall’. One critic thought that the producers ‘seem to have missed the joke. There is no point to the Doctor if he’s just another vaguely eccentric Englishman culture-clashing [sic] in America.’ Even those commentators who were more favourably disposed towards it, such as the SF critic and author Kim Newman, felt that ‘this regeneration hasn’t taken yet. There’s still extraneous American DNA floating around the matrix.’ These responses demonstrate that Doctor Who had now become a site of cultural contestation for British critics keen to protect its ‘Britishness’ against the encroaching effects of Americanisation.

The terms of this opposition are familiar: ‘British’ equals small, quaint, eccentric and individual, whereas ‘American’ equals big, brash, conformist and corporate. Thus critics disliked the intrusion of those ‘Hollywood’ ingredients deemed necessary for American audiences. Newman, for example, felt that ‘Doctor Who is really hurt by the need for car chases, a cocky ethnic sidekick, [and] a second-rate straight-to-video villain’. Others waxed nostalgic for the Heath Robinson production values of the original (‘special effects consisting of loo rolls, washing-up bottles and sticky-backed plastic’), claiming that ‘there was something very British about the refusal to espouse anything flashy.’ This was a view shared within the fan community. The spokesman of the ‘Dalek Appreciation Society’ wrote: ‘Once again the Americans have used their Midas touch on an original, inventive British masterpiece and created an over-the-top, Batmanesque nightmare.’

There were some dissenting voices, however, whose response was not coloured by the parochial ‘Little Britain’ discourse of most critics. ‘Does everything that claims “Britishness” have to be quaint, quirky and amateur?’ asked one correspondent, who thought it ‘a very worthy successor’ to the original series and remarked that ‘it was a pleasure to see it given the production values and funding that it has always deserved’. Newman, whose review is amongst the most balanced and considered, felt that the production had been much enhanced by spending more money: ‘The revelation of seeing a shot-on-film “Who” that is well-lit and atmospheric – something the show hasn’t been since its very earliest studio monochrome days – is so strong that, in his first-reel cameo, even Sylvester McCoy comes across well, suggesting the melancholy of an outcast from his own planet who can never fit in on Earth.’

The presence of McCoy – referred to in the publicity as ‘The Old Doctor’ – is the most direct testament of this Doctor Who’s continuity with the original series. It is evidence that the producers were keen to keep faith with the fans and to respect the legacy of Doctor Who. The transition from McCoy to McGann is much better handled than the transition from Baker to McCoy had been, with McCoy allowed his valedictory performance as the Doctor. The film begins with the Doctor transporting the remains of the Master back to Gallifrey when the TARDIS is forced to make an emergency landing in San Francisco. (Here there are some glaring non sequiturs with the series’ internal history: had not Skaro been destroyed at the end of ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’, and since when did the Daleks, whose voices can be heard in the background, go in for legal process and judicial execution?) Stepping out of the TARDIS the Doctor is shot by gun-toting members of a street gang. Taken to hospital, his unusual physiology (‘Two hearts! That can’t be right’) confuses the surgeon operating on him and he dies following a cardiac seizure. The body of the unknown ‘John Doe’ is sent to the morgue, where it regenerates. Also consistent with the series’ past is that the regeneration leaves the Doctor shaken and disoriented. He has temporarily lost his memory, until a chance encounter with the surgeon who operated on him (but of course does not recognise him now) starts to bring it back. Some of the dialogue can be read as a commentary on the nature of this new Doctor Who: McGann’s anguished ‘Who am I?’ reflects its schizophrenic identity (is it British, American or a mixture of both?) and his subsequent realisation of what has happened (‘I was dead too long this time. The anaesthetic almost destroyed the regenerative process’) is an ironic comment on the ‘death’ of Doctor Who which had been absent from television screens for so long that some had begun to doubt whether it would ever be revived.

What, then, of the new ‘Doctor Who’? McGann was described both as ‘the best actor ever cast as Doctor Who’ and as ‘the sexiest Time Lord in light years’. McGann had first come to notice in the BBC’s Great War drama The Monocled Mutineer (1986) and possessed the necessary acting credentials to make his interpretation of the Doctor acceptable to fans, whilst his appearances in Hollywood films (Alien3, The Three Musketeers) lent him a certain ‘star’ cachet for the US market. A chisel-jawed and handsome-faced actor, McGann plays the Doctor as a Romantic hero: passionate, energetic, extravagant, sensual, idealistic, quixotic. He imbues the Doctor with a youthful vigour that recalls Davison, while at the same time possessing the flamboyance and élan of Pertwee. His outfit, a ‘Wild Bill Hickock’ fancy-dress costume that he appropriates following his regeneration (neck-tie, waistcoat, frock coat), is strikingly similar to Hartnell’s. There is a sense, therefore, in which Doctor No.8 is a composite of his predecessors, an idea further alluded to by the reintroduction of props such as his jelly babies and sonic screwdriver. The suggestion of a romantic attraction between the Doctor and cardiologist Dr Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) was anathema to some fans, but it is entirely consistent with the McGann characterisation of the Doctor as a heroic, handsome and youthful figure. Perhaps this is also why the Doctor is revealed here to be half human. In any event, the romance is understated (it amounts to two rather chaste kisses) and the film ends with Grace deciding not to go off with the Doctor in the TARDIS.

It would probably be fair to say that McGann’s Doctor represents an American idea of the modern British gentleman: courteous, mild mannered and slightly foppish. This was the archetype personified by Hugh Grant in the hugely successful romantic comedy Four Weddings And A Funeral (dir. Mike Newell, 1994), and to an extent the 1996 Doctor Who belongs in the same tradition. Indeed, the Doctor is here explicitly coded as British through his encounter with a traffic policeman. The Doctor, challenged by the policeman, puts his hand into his pocket, apparently searching for some form of identification. The traffic cop interprets this as a hostile move and reaches for his gun. Grace intervenes:

Grace: Wait! Stop! He’s… er… he’s British.

The Doctor: Yes, I suppose I am. Jelly baby, officer?

It is an incident that irresistibly brings to mind Hugh Grant’s much publicised encounter with the Los Angeles Police Department in 1995, though, unlike the Doctor, Grant did not offer the excuse that he was looking for some jelly babies at the time of his arrest.

If McGann’s Doctor is, in a sense, a pastiche of all his predecessors, the Doctor Who film is itself a pastiche that references various film and television sources. Rather than being a deliberately postmodernist production strategy, as with cult series such as Moonlighting (1985– 1989) or Twin Peaks (1990–1991), the various generic and cultural references would seem to indicate the production’s acute anxiety about who its audience actually was. The notion of pairing an other-worldly hero with a career-minded heroine suggests that Fox saw it as their answer to ABC’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993–1996), whilst making the heroine a surgeon also tapped the audience of the medical drama ER (1994–). Almost all reviews drew comparisons with Terminator 2: Judgment Day (dir. James Cameron, 1991) on the grounds of the special effects that turned the Master into a pool of liquid slime and the chase sequence which saw the Doctor and Grace on a motorcycle pursued by an ambulance. The opening title sequence, with its voiceover narration, planetary fly-past and ‘wormhole’ effect, refers explicitly to Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994). As one critic remarked: ‘Add a dash of Indiana Jones, a hint of ER, a smidge of Candyman, a pinch of Point Break and verbal inflections from Bill and Ted and you’ve got an idea.’

This is not to say, however, that the television movie is entirely unoriginal. In some instances the imagery it draws upon is employed for symbolic effect rather than as mere pastiche. The best example is the regeneration sequence, in which the Doctor’s physical metamorphosis is intercut with the mortuary attendant watching a television screening of the classic horror film Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1931). The ‘birth’ of the Monster in an electrical storm is paralleled with the ‘rebirth’ of the Doctor in a special-effects sequence replete with crackling energy and flashes of lightning. Throughout the film there are references to the Frankenstein story: Grace, like Frankenstein, became a doctor because she wanted to be able ‘to hold back death’, while the Doctor, like Frankenstein’s Monster, is initially regarded as a lunatic. The most explicit manifestation of the promethean theme that pervades the film is the resolution in which the Doctor is able to circumvent the deaths of Grace and Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso) by returning them to a point in time before they died – a direct violation of the Laws of Time, though this transgression passes without comment.

Another form of symbolism that pervades the film is its use of Christian imagery. The Doctor is (quite literally) resurrected: he emerges from the mortuary wearing only a white shroud in what seems a conscious reference to the Gospel of St Mark where Christ’s disciples discover in the holy sepulchre ‘a young man … clothed in a long white garment’ (Mark 16.5). If this might seem a fanciful interpretation, the imagery is even more explicit at the climax of the film where the Doctor, as one critic put it, ‘is manacled to a crucifix and garlanded with a crown of nails’. In invoking both Frankenstein and Christ, the film is attempting to reconcile the contradictory discourses of scientific rationality and religious faith. In this context the Doctor himself becomes a more complex figure than in the BBC series: both a Prometheus defying the forces of creation and ‘a gentlemanly Jesus come to save the world as it prepares to party on December 31, 1999’.

The scientific and religious themes of this Doctor Who are also apparent in its take on the familiar ‘Threat and Disaster’ narrative. The Master plans to open the Eye of Harmony in the Doctor’s TARDIS, which will cause the destruction of the Earth by altering its molecular structure and turning it inside out. Quite how or why he should want to do this is never fully explained. Critics were divided about this device: one felt that ‘the worst sci-fi cliché is the countdown to eternal oblivion’, but Time Out observed that it reflected the contemporary concerns of ‘global destruction and millennial malaise’. Doctor Who can be located within a social and intellectual zeitgeist of the mid and late 1990s that found expression in the term ‘millennial anxieties’. This zeitgeist was both similar to and different from the fin-de-siècle uncertainty that had marked the end of the nineteenth century. Of course the doom-merchants have always declared that ‘the end of the world is nigh’ and the prophesies of Nostradamus continue to be the subject of much speculation and debate. Events such as the siege at Waco, Texas, in 1993, in which 77 members of the Branch Davidian sect died, fuelled the fantasies of those millennialist groups, particularly in the USA, who believed that an apocalyptic confrontation between the forces of Good and Evil was imminent.

In the 1990s, furthermore, the doom-merchants found a new cause in the ‘millennium bug’ that would, or so it was feared, cause all the world’s computer systems to crash on 1 January 2000 and thus precipitate a catastrophic global meltdown. There were hysterical predictions of aeroplanes falling from the skies and hospital life-support machines failing. Millennial anxieties found expression in the vogue for ‘end-of-the-world’ narratives in popular cinema, ranging from disaster movies such as Deep Impact (dir. Mimi Leder, 1998) and Armageddon (dir. Michael Bay, 1998) in which comets collide with the Earth, to action films such as End of Days (dir. Peter Hyams, 1999) in which Arnold Schwarzenegger is all that stands between mankind and biblical apocalypse. The Doctor Who movie is an early manifestation of the ‘end-of-the-world’ narrative in the 1990s that taps into millennial anxieties by positing that the world will end at midnight on 31 December 1999/1 January 2000. It is an epic confrontation between the forces of Good (the Doctor) and Evil (the Master) that is replete with allusions to Armageddon and the Day of Judgement. Never before had Doctor Who drawn so explicitly on biblical allusion.

Geoff King has argued that the millennial disaster narrative is a means of displacing real social and political issues onto ‘a “higher” realm of biblical inevitability’. This process of displacement is evident in Doctor Who, which on this occasion dresses up its apocalyptic scenario as a biblical struggle rather than responding to the sort of topical issues, such as the misuse of technology, pollution and eco-catastrophe, that it had addressed in the past and that remained relevant in the 1990s. This demonstrates an ideological conservatism on the part of the 1996 film that can probably be explained by its American semi-parentage. It is difficult to imagine the heavily industrialised nation that five years later refused to sign the Kyoto Treaty on greenhouse gas emissions accepting a Doctor Who story as radical as ‘The Green Death’. In this regard it is difficult to escape the conclusion that one of the great strengths of Doctor Who, its willingness to address social and political concerns, was lost in this version.

Another criticism of the millennial catastrophe narrative is that it lacks the charm of the ‘old’ Doctor Who. Some critics bemoaned the absence of familiar ingredients. Tom Cussock in the Sunday Telegraph, for instance, professed his disappointment that there were ‘no interesting beasties or gadgets, no guards with strange salutes, no nerve-centre of power, no underground rebels’. The visual style of the film, pace Newman, is indistinguishable from any other US television film. The sole exception is the design of the TARDIS interior: a spacious, cavernous, temple-like space that now includes a library and stone staircase. One critic described it aptly as ‘a mad-scientist mixture of Jules Verne’s Nautilus and the British Library reading room’. Its ‘retro’ appearance of mechanical levers, switches, dials and overhanging wires recalls both the secondary control room featured in the 1976–1977 season and the two Peter Cushing films. The TARDIS design marks Doctor Who as different from the smooth, touch-sensitive surfaces of the Star Trek continuation series. But Grace’s reaction on entering the TARDIS (‘This looks pretty low-tech’) might be seen as a comment on the American opinion of Doctor Who.

The television movie was successful enough in Britain (it attracted nine million viewers on a Bank Holiday Monday) to suggest that there might yet be a popular audience for the show, but its reception in the all-important American market was lukewarm at best and there was insufficient interest from the networks to commission the proposed series. Its main problem, in terms of attracting a new audience to Doctor Who, is that it is too respectful of the series’ past. There are too many continuity references and too much prior knowledge of the series is assumed. As the series had never been shown on network television in the USA, American viewers could be forgiven for asking what had happened to the first six Doctors. Even in Britain there was a feeling that Doctor Who had had its day. Sean Day-Lewis felt that the Doctor ‘deserved to be left to rest in peace’ and regretted that he had been ‘summoned from beyond the grave and asked to achieve the impossible … to be accessible to a mass American audience, previously unaware of his existence, while not offending the sensibilities of British fans ready to spot any detail out of place’.18 In comparison to the high-tech American space operas of the 1990s (Babylon 5, Space: Above and Beyond, Earth: Final Conflict, StarGate SG-1, Farscape, Andromeda and the various different incarnations of Star Trek), Doctor Who looked rather quaint and old-fashioned, despite its muchvaunted special effects makeover. The future for the ailing time traveller remained highly uncertain. ■

This article is an extract from James Chapman’s Inside the Tardis.

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This entry was posted on July 27, 2012 by in Who Watching.

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