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The Twelve Days of Doctor Who: Days 7-12

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV Acting, TV History, TV in a Word, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2013 by Tom Steward

‘We’ve been watching Doctor Who for weeks. We must be out of the 80s by now’. I don’t have the heart to tell G that we’ve been watching Doctor Who for six days and that we still have one story from the 1980s to go. Doctor Who used to be notorious for filling time with extended re-caps from the previous episode so I feel justified in doing the same for this two-part blog on my experience watching stories from each Doctor in turn with my American wife in preparation for the 50th anniversary special last Saturday. So far we’ve had cavemen with underwear, cyber-mayans, poachers from space, monsters playing Space Invaders and Dig-Dug, and a TV maths teacher. Like good time-travellers and bad time-travel writers, this time round we’re starting at the end with an episode from 1989 as Doctor Who was on the verge of cancellation and about to go stateside.

‘The Curse of Fenric’ (G’s title: ‘Mr. Bean Goes to War’):

Just a minute…isn’t that Nicholas Parsons?

‘This is much better than the shit we’ve just been watching’, says G as British national treasure Nicholas Parsons is devoured by vampires of the sea. ‘Yeah, it got good again and then they cancelled it’ I offer in the way of no explanation. ‘So many deep quotes in this…“You must take the baby. Now you are the mother of the baby. Now you must drop the baby in the water.” Incidentally, none of these quotes actually appear in the story.

‘Doctor Who: The Movie’ (G’s title: ‘Star Wars UK’)

If you look closely you can see a shark jumping over them.

As the credits roll, G sings in her best John Williams: ‘Kind of like Star Wars/But not really the same’. The TARDIS lands in San Francisco’s Chinatown. ‘People didn’t really think that was China, did they?’. ‘I don’t know. They’re your people’. I’m enjoying passing the buck on Doctor Who’s shortcomings for the first time. ‘This doesn’t feel like Doctor Who at all. It’s more like Adventures in Babysitting’. Then the shark-jumping kiss. ‘I don’t like this. I don’t this at all’. I wanted to kiss her.

‘The Unquiet Dead’/‘Father’s Day’ (G’s titles: ‘The Walking Welsh’/‘Your Parents’ Wedding’):

Walkers in Wales!

‘Why are they so sexual tensiony?’ G asks after witnessing a few seconds of the Doctor and Rose together. ‘That’s what the kiss led to’ I say. ‘It doesn’t work’ G says confidently. Apparently even nine days of Doctor Who is enough to make you realise that the Doctor and his companion being a couple is a bad idea. ‘I don’t like this Doctor. He’s too Jean-Claude van Damme’. I’m sure that’s what renowned stage and screen actor Christopher Eccleston was going for. But you know what? He is a bit Steven Seagal in the part.

‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ (G’s title ‘Poor Father Christmas’):

The decline of William Hartnell…my fault, apparently.

Ok so this is not strictly Doctor Who but it’s a ninety-minute drama about the show and that should test any non-fan’s patience. At first there’s too many real and fictional worlds colliding for G to keep up. G: ‘How old is William Hartnell now?’. Me: ‘That’s not him. That’s an actor playing him’. G: ‘This is all made up, right?’. Me: ‘No it all happened, just like this’. When she sees David Bradley as Hartnell crying into his mantelpiece, it all gets too much. ‘I can’t watch old people being upset’. Then it becomes my fault. ‘How can he not be your favourite?’ (he’s my second). ‘He’s my favourite’ G asserts. ‘He’s the only one with real mystery’.

‘The Christmas Invasion’ (G’s title: ‘The Fall of Scary Santa Face’):

‘Stop being hussys…both of you!’

‘So they went leather jacket man, quirky and then another quirky? Where’s the variety?’. I wonder how G will react tomorrow with an episode in which quirky and quirky quirk off. ‘She’s such a hussy’ G offers ambiguously. ‘Who? Rose or her mother?’ I ask. ‘Same thing’.

‘Day of the Doctor’ (G’s title: ‘Return of the TV’):

Will Ferrell interrupts Doctor Who simulcast!

Well, it all paid off. G laughs knowingly at every in-joke (especially the one about the ‘big round things’ on the wall of the TARDIS)  and loves every minute of this nostalgic wallow in the series’ past. And then Tom Baker returns to Doctor Who 32 years after leaving the show. ‘Is that Will Ferrell?’ G asks. Maybe we’re not quite there yet.

Well, there you have it. 50 years of Doctor Who in twelve days. The first ten years just flew by, a decade dragged its feet, another took a holiday and after a few wrong turns we ended up where we started. Home.

Home.

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Who.S.A

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2011 by Tom Steward

I’m always surprised and impressed when I encounter Americans who adore Doctor Who. Surprised because it must have been such a pain to track down on TV that animosity would be a more natural response and impressed because they always seem to revere the qualities of the show that many British viewers have forgotten ever existed. But let’s go back in time. The BBC had wanted to sell Doctor Who to American television networks right from its inception. In fact, it was once touted as a replacement for CBS’ heavyweight science-fiction series The Twilight Zone. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Americans finally got a run of the show, thanks in large part to PBS purchasing a block of Tom Baker serials. However, the series was being shifted around the schedules so regularly and so routinely butchered by editors that it became difficult to follow or enjoy.

Doctor Who at US Customs

The Doctor and Friends fall foul of US Customs

Despite these viewing challenges, a fan culture emerged around Doctor Who in the US at this time. In the 1980s, the BBC and the producers of the show started actively courting American viewers; having an American companion in the series, organising US conventions and tours, and looking to the states for money for specials e.g. The Five Doctors. When the show was cancelled in Britain in 1989, it was American television that attempted to revive it. In 1996, a TV movie starring Paul McGann was broadcast by Fox with an eye to launching an American version of the programme. Roundly regarded as a failure critically, commercially and conceptually, it nonetheless laid many of the foundations for the show’s BBC revival in 2005, not least the still sacrilegious notion of The Doctor making out with his companions, which is virulent in the re-launched version of the programme.

 The export of post-2005 Doctor Who to America has been more straightforwardly successful. This is thanks to popular showings on BBC America, new episodes being bought by the Sci-Fi Channel, and interminable spin-off Torchwood being co-funded by US network Starz (formerly known as Starz!). Now we are in a situation where the first two episodes of the 2011 series are co-productions with BBC America set (as far as we can tell) in the American West and involving the White House.

From my own experience talking to Americans about Doctor Who it seems that the devoted cult following might have actually been consolidated by the patchy US scheduling of the series in the 1970s. As a seller in a second-hand bookshop in San Francisco said whilst handing to me a copy of Terrance Dicks’ novelisation of Terror of the Autons ‘You had to want to see it’. It’s also striking to me how much the Americans I’ve spoken to treasure the ‘classic’ series (or, more accurately, Doctor Who before 2005) and seem resistant to it being reinvented for contemporary TV viewers. ‘I can’t watch it now’ said the shopkeeper ‘it’ll spoil the memory of me and my brother staying up late to catch it’. Again, there’s a sense that the obscure scheduling of the programme was part of the pleasure but it’s also clear that viewers had great emotional investment in those 1970s serials. Others I’ve spoken to seem nonplussed by the more recent series, even when recognising its achievements. ‘Yeah, it’s a smart show’ another interested party told me ‘but I miss the big scarves and those robots with the stalks’. It’s interesting that the Americans I’ve met light up when talking about those earlier serials but talk dispassionately about the latest episodes, even when their image of the series is sharper now than it was then.

Genesis of the Daleks

Floppy Scarves and Robots with Stalks

It’s doubly interesting to me, as I have this ‘American’ perspective on the series too (though less so now the wonderful Matt Smith and some very capable producers and writers have taken over), and surprising as I don’t really have much of a childhood attachment to the series, it’s just my opinion gained through watching the programme as an adult. This perspective on Doctor Who seems much more sophisticated to me than that of the hoards of British viewers who were happy to jettison the show’s past and fetishise the aspects of ‘New Who’ that were completely at odds with what made it great, the worst culprit being excess of emotion. It’s natural for Britons to be protective of such a remarkable part of our national culture and want to protect it from Americanisation, but given stateside attitudes to Doctor Who in comparison to ours, I do wonder sometimes.

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