The Continuing Return of ‘Doctor Who’

Doctor Who is coming back! Doctor Who is coming back! So says this article! Do you know what this means!? It means jack. About once a year the Little Boy Who Cried “Doctor Who is Back” goes running around with a new update. Last year’s involved Anthony Stewart Head, who plays Giles on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” being pegged as the Doctor. Of course, that wasn’t true. So while it’s certainly kind of people to inform me of the imminent return of my favorite TV show ever, please understand if I’m highly skeptical.

Let me tell you how much fun it is to be a Doctor Who fan. This latest taunt of the show returning is only the tip of the iceberg. This is a show that was canceled by the BBC back in the 80s because it was unpopular. Never mind that this wasn’t true, it was canceled anyway. The BBC won’t bring it back, because of its unpopularity, but they’ll be happy to sell merchandise rights to anyone who wants to churn out tons of crap. They’ll be happy to put out books galore, audio dramas, and so forth. But they won’t actually, you know, make the show.

I don’t understand. This is a show that survived over 25 years. It’s got a wide-open premise that even allows you to change out the lead actor every so often. It’s got a nice gallery of villains. It can clearly be made on a shoestring budget. It’s got a huge fanbase. You’d think that channels like Fox, UPN, WB, and Sci-Fi would be fighting for the right for this property. Yet, although I can read any one of over eighty-twelve books based on the show while listening to dozens of audio dramas (all reported on and reviewed in the ongoing ‘Doctor Who Magazine’), drinking out my mug, wearing my shirt and cap, and enjoying my inflatable Dalek, I can’t watch the frickin’ show on TV. Not new episodes, at least.

I’ve tried to get into the novels. I tried a couple audio dramas. It’s just not the same. The stories don’t feel like Doctor Who stories. They’re ridiculously complex, and have developed this epic, overarching storyline with far-reaching implications. This from a TV show that had so little continuity, there were three different versions of the destruction of Atlantis! The fun, the innocence of the show has been jettisoned for heaps of sex, including gay Silurians! What the hell?

I will say that I have enjoyed the comic strips in the Doctor Who Magazine, though they too have flirted with this stupid idea to “modernize” the show by adding unnecessary ‘wheels within wheels’ plot arcs (curse you, Chris Carter!) but in general had a good feel for the show. Also, they were a good balance between the visual medium of the show and the unlimited possibilities of the books. But the rest of the magazine got depressing as we got further and further away from the actual show. Not only were we left talking about books and audio dramas I wasn’t interested in, and recapping “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” for the umpty-jillionth time, but there were all these articles about the original actors dying and the ones still alive appearing in weird fan videos. Both of those things are kind of sad. I really wish someone would publish the comic strips from the magazine by themselves, in trade paperback format. I’d love to have them.

And what’s worse is, to a large extent, it’s the fans who are to blame. I’ve seen more than one fan pose an argument that this is in fact the golden age of Doctor Who because of the books and we should never want the show back because that would ruin things. The argument is that the show was about a guy who can freely travel through time and space and is practically immortal, which is a huge realm to play in, and yet was confined to a cheap little show that could barely afford to have laser blasts. With the books and audio dramas, the show is free to do whatever it wants, on as big a stage as it needs. That’s not a bad point, but it ignores the fact that despite this ‘limitation’ the show succeeded for 25 years.

The real deal about the novels is that it’s more of a fan-based medium. Many of the novel authors hang out on the Doctor Who newsgroups, chatting with the fans there. This gives the fans more ownership of it than they did with the TV show (or would with a future show). This puts more of the show in the fans’ hands. I have a whole essay in my head about how fans are probably the worst thing that can happen to a show (or movie or comic or whatever) for exactly this reason. Fandom is notoriously elitist and exclusive, and being a true fan requires a level of access superior to all others. So in other words, in many fans’ minds, the show can only succeed if it fails, because then it just wasn’t as accessible to the mainstream as it was to the true believers.

Confused? What I’m saying is, I think for many of these people, they have transcended the level of merely being fans of a TV show and become insiders. They’re fans of a TV show that no one else can watch! A TV show that only exists in books that many stores don’t carry! And they can even talk to the authors of these books and maybe the authors even put little nods to them in the books, the way some TV people do with their fans. If the show comes back, they’re demoted again back to fans of a TV show. And worse, maybe a TV show that isn’t as good as the original was.

Because, and the fans aside, there is good reason to be afraid of a new show. The old show was a difficult balancing act. The traditional line is that because the effects weren’t good, the show had to have top-notch characters and plots instead. Well, that’s true up to a point. No one can tell me that the story of the “Horns of Nimon” is so well written and acted that it makes up for the silly effects. (A lot of people have argued that the show wouldn’t be as good without poor special effects, which is hogwash, in my opinion. In my opinion, if it did so much with so little for so long, give it a chance to do even more with a lot.) But there was a certain charm to it that I’m not sure will be easy to duplicate. The Fox TV movie showed how badly it could go. (I myself said at the time that I’d rather have no Doctor Who than more of THAT Doctor Who, which was silly, I admit.) I think it should be given a chance, both by producers and fans alike. I don’t know why it hasn’t. Maybe this latest rumor will be true and we’ll finally get a show again and it will be good. But as I said, I’m skeptical.

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