Sci-Fi Channel goes Doctor Who mad

The US Sci-Fi channel now how its own little Doctor Who site to publicise its premiere of the new series on March 17th. It’s all Christopher Eccleston at the moment, of course, but if you’re a latecomer to Doctor Who, there’s a handy guide at the bottom of the site that gives you useful facts to fill in the gaps in your knowledge. Apparently, Tom Baker’s Doctor was the most popular and he wore a scarf.

Do not worry though: it is quite possible to get through life without filling in these gaps.

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The Eleventh Hour: no original thought allowed

11th hour wallpaper

Every so often, a show comes along that is so derivative, so unoriginal, it becomes almost impossible to decide exactly what it’s ripping off. So it is with Eleventh Hour, a four-part series starring Patrick Stewart as a “government scientific investigator”.

Although it’s silly, that’s a pretty accurate job title, in fact. Stewart is charged by ‘The Government’ with investigating science, whether that’s Evil Scientists who try to clone human beings or Angelic Children who believe in the healing power of spring water. A pretty broad brief, given that as a physicist, he’s probably as qualified as the average PE teacher to talk about most of the medical issues Eleventh Hour focuses on, but that’s The Government for you.

Nevertheless, the countryside-patrolling Stewart is so important and vital to The Government that they’ve actually given him a bodyguard, played by Ashley Jensen. This could be a mistake, given she drinks any experimental samples Stewart takes, doesn’t bother guarding him at night, takes naps during the day in her Land Rover while he’s busy confronting angry parents, and rolls about on the floor having fights with blood-soaked potential smallpox victims. But we’re not talking police procedural here, so kooky bodyguard gets to stay and protect Stewart with her unconvincing gun work, no matter how much danger she lets Stewart get into.

With global warming and nuclear weapons research among the plots, it’s tempting for anyone versed in British television history to accuse Eleventh Hour of simply being Doomwatch reheated to a lukewarm temperature for the 21st century. But unlike Doomwatch, which literally plucked its plots from the headlines to warn society where it was going wrong, Eleventh Hour takes great pains to steer away from anything controversial. Instead of well-meaning scientists and civil servants who simply don’t think through the consequences of their actions, we get Hollywood-style moustache-twirling villains and fabricated threats that have no actual relevance to viewers. Why run the risk of complaints with an avian flu story when you can write about the risks of deranged researchers trying to cross-breed smallpox with other viruses? Lot of that happening, is there? Is that really something which we have to lobby Parliament to prevent? Thought not.

Equally, any resemblance to actual science depicted in the programme is purely accidental. When Stewart the physicist starts dipping pH paper in water as his sole test for contamination, anyone with even a GCSE in Combined Science knows we’re in the realm of science fiction rather than looking at a serious study of the potential dangers inherent to modern science.

Instead, to find the true inspiration for Eleventh Hour, we need to look at the show’s creator, Stephen Gallagher. While he’s best known for his equally irrelevant 1991 serial Chimera, Gallagher started out as a script-writer for Doctor Who. A pseudo-science spouting older man, always wandering into trouble with his naïve female sidekick? Ring any bells?

Just as Doctor Who is essentially an adventure show that uses aliens and technology as the MacGuffins that create and advance the plots, it would be wrong to think of Eleventh Hour as anything other than a thriller that uses ‘science’ and ‘scientists’ as an excuse for a jolly run round. However, while a good thriller, such as State of Play or Edge of Darkness, can leave you thinking about the issues and the characters long after it has finished, Eleventh Hour is nothing like a good thriller.

Stewart and Jensen do their best to inject life into their ciphers and Gallagher has an occasionally good line in humorous but predictable dialogue. But the show has next to no grounding in reality; the plots have more holes than a colander; the direction leaps from shot to shot without giving you any real idea of what’s happening; and when the usually incoherent plot explanation finally arrives, you’ll wonder what the five other impossible things you’ll be asked to believe before breakfast are.

Rather than provide warnings about the dangers of science, Eleventh Hour provides warnings about the dangers of not having a clear, original idea for your programme before you start filming it. With ratings of 3.8 million and Stewart’s schedule full for the foreseeable future, further instalments of the show look unlikely. But with no real raison d’être other than filling an hour and a half in the mid-week schedules, it won’t be a great loss to television.

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US Sci-Fi Channel does massive U-turn and buys Doctor Who

David Tennant in a kilt

Wouldn’t have mentioned this except for

a) the great way the BBC announced it (sound needed, but you’ll get annoyed after about a minute)

b) the Sci-Fi channel turned down the chance last year because they watched a few episodes and “found the series somewhat lacking and didn’t think it would fit into the network’s schedule”

I’m guessing the change of mind came about since there was a definite pick-up in story quality in the second half of last year’s season, because it’s now a success and because David Tennant is due very soon. Plus how many rubbish B-movies can you fill a schedule with before you start to put off your educated 30+ demographic? Anyone for Mansquito 2? Thought not. Better get some decent shows in instead then, hadn’t you Sci-Fi?

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Review: Doctor Who – The Christmas Invasion

The Christmas Invasion
Did everyone watch the Christmas episode of Doctor Who? I know 9.4 million of you did, so fess up. What did you think? I actually thought it was rather good. A couple of embarrassing moments at the beginning, but other than that, I really enjoyed it.

Heresy though it seems to be these days, I didn’t like the first season of the new Whos. Christopher Eccleston was good at the intense and miserable stuff (QFS!) but couldn’t pull off the lighter stuff at all. He clearly thought it was all beneath him: certainly if you caught any of the Doctor Who Confidentials (what can I say? I’m a sucker for a behind-the-scenes documentary. I even listen to the audio commentaries on DVDs, sitting through all three of the Se7en voice-overs), you’ll recall him saying “he didn’t need to get out his Stanislavsky” for the role.

Most of the scripts were equally toe-curling and there was more than a hint of “Oh my God! They’ve given us a budget but we don’t know what we’re doing! Help! Help!” in the earlier episodes. Given that the exec producer, Russell T Davies, is more than capable of writing drama for children that’s also suitable for adults – as anyone who watched Dark Season or Century Falls in the early 90s can attest – it’s a surprise that he went with fart jokes, belching dustbins and slapstick as a way to bring the kids in. Still, what do I know? Look what the ratings were.

Anyway, as a result of all this childishness, I never bothered to make a date for most of the episodes.

‘The Christmas Invasion’, however, is probably the first of the new Whos that I would want to watch again. Everything worked. David Tennant, with toned-down London accent, was very good, maybe needing a little more gravitas at times, but excellent for the most part. The script was good, with no fart gags and no tiresome deus ex Piper at the end: the Doctor actually earned his victories this time round. There was also a darker edge to it that hinted at a more adult tone for the show.

The trailer at the end of the episode has made me eager for more, which is something I wasn’t expecting. Curses. I really don’t want to be a Doctor Who fan. Don’t do this to me!

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Kaiser front man offered role of Doctor Who?

David Tennant as the Doctor

Ah. More reasons to hate those twats in the Kaiser Chiefs (about whose pretentious, self-love I’ve already written). Now lead singer Ricky claims he was offered the role of Doctor Who. I suspect there’s a certain amount of tongue in cheek here.

“The BBC offered it to me but I was so busy they got a lookalike. It’s the kind of thing I’ve got down for my autumn years.”

But he goes on:

“I’m worried David [Tennant]’s too young for the part. Eddie Izzard would be perfect.”

If he’d stopped at the first quote, he’d just have been cheeky. A twat, but cheeky. But he didn’t know where to stop. He crossed the line from cheeky to rude. Can the next person who sees him give him a thumping? (It might be construed that I’ve written this article just to come up with a thin pretext for people to beat up the Kaiser Chiefs. I couldn’t possibly comment…)

Incidentally, following on from yesterday’s discussions about it being who you know, not necessarily what you can do, that gets you the job, it should, to a certain extent, be clear that Mr Tennant got his job through the exact same mechanisms that Charlie Skelton did in Space Cadets. Not to diminish his acting skills, etc, since he’s a fine actor and does one of the better mockney accents I’ve heard, but

  1. He appeared in Casanova, which was exec produced by Russell T Davies, who is the exec producer of Doctor Who. He replaced Christopher Eccleston, who appeared in Davies’ Second Coming for ITV1.
  2. Tennant says “I did a show that he’d written, called Casanova, at the end of last year, so I knew him through that. And, I guess, unbeknownst to me, that was my audition. So it just came up after that, I guess, when they knew that Chris Eccleston was moving on. They just came to me and asked me to do it.”
  3. He’s been up to his neck in Doctor Who work for years, through the Big Finish audio plays. Russell T Davies is a big fan of these, using their writers in his own show and mentioning them in his own stories and articles from time to time.

Anyway, my point isn’t that this is necessarily a bad thing, only that this is how the industry works.

PS David Tennant’s been a Doctor Who fan from way back. Despite his playing it down somewhat in this interview (search for ‘Doctor Who’), I hear from sources that he’s able to list every single Doctor Who story in order. Not too difficult for a Doctor Who fan: I’ve met many who can do this quite easily, although I never hung around long enough to hear the full 27 seasons’ worth. However, the earliest stories only had episode titles on screen, not story names. Given that ‘The Dalek Masterplan’, for example, had 12 episodes, each with its own title, you’ll immediately spot that that’s a whole lot more learning and obsession to deal with. Tennant can apparently list even these episodes in order, which I’ve never seen anyone do. I think I’d be frightened.