Sunday, September 29, 2013

Unreality TV...

"D'you want to come with me..."

With those words Christopher Eccleston started a small revolution in British television, opening the way for a flood of home-grown science fiction and fantasy shows. Prior to Doctor Who's revival in 2005, executives seemed far from convinced that there was an appetite for that sort of thing. Think back to the 1990s and the dearth of deep space or dragons on this side of the Atlantic. The few shows that got commissioned were given meagre budgets, shunted to the outer edge of the schedule and promptly cancelled after one series.

You only have to watch the original TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere to see how little faith the BBC had in the genre. While the show is not without its charms, Gaiman himself was less than impressed with how the story had been realised and resolved to write the novel to repair some of the more serious compromises.

Early last decade, the Beeb were finally persuaded to sign off a revival of Doctor Who - over 15 years since the original run ended. Even then though there was still major resistance from within the corporation. Tentative attempts to launch supernatural or sci-fi series at the start of the noughties had been unsuccessful. The likes of "demon whodunnit" Strange - which I still think was secretly brilliant - weren't ratings winners. Recent interviews, to mark ten years since Doctor Who was recommissioned, reveals that executives came perilously close to pulling the plug at a number of points.

But the team pressed on and persuaded bosses to take the project seriously. The series would be 13 parts, in those days almost unprecedented for a British drama. Money would be spent, nothing on an American scale, but enough to end the tabloid jibes about wobbly sets and alien planets that looked suspiciously like a quarry in Pembrokeshire.

Two years later and a Manc dressed in leather and a a one-time teenage pop star won more than 10 million viewers with their opening episode. Not even a pirate copy leaking online or an audio malfunction involving Graham Norton stole their thunder. Within a couple of years, the sci fi show was a bedrock of the Saturday night schedule, the jewel in the crown of the Christmas night programme and one of the BBC's most lucrative properties both at home and overseas.

The success persuaded the broadcaster and soon their commercial rivals that there was life outside the usual line-up of hospital and detective dramas. There was, in fact, Life on Mars... The story of Sam Tyler, the modern-day DI who has a car accident and wakes up in 1973. No show represents the change in attitudes better than this one. The drama had been devised seven years earlier but no channel would touch the series. Within months of Doctor Who's debut, it was a very different story and the Beeb had ordered eight episodes. They aired to great acclaim the following year. Show creators Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham were just some of those who found doors had suddenly opened. And they had the man in the blue box to thank.

Magazines like SFX were quick to hail the sheer number of genre shows that had gone into production around the UK. In the 1990s, they'd dealt almost entirely with American productions - shows like The X Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now they could start talking about series instead of seasons and wax lyrical about strange goings-on that weren't filmed in a forest in the vicinity of Vancouver.

But seven or eight years on from this explosion of homegrown efforts, how successful has the revolution proven? I ask the question the day after the debut of the latest programme of this ilk - Atlantis. This is the spiritual successor to Merlin, itself one of the Doctor Who-inspired productions that finished its fifth and final run last year. Unfortunately it is another series that for all the hype doesn't live up to the promise.

I think part of the problem is that many projects are trying too much to be Doctor Who, while at the same time falling far short of their inspiration. When I was a child, Atlantis would have doubtless - and without any sort of stigma - been branded a children's show. It would have been handed the same Sunday teatime slot which once placed host to The Borrowers and Box of Delights. Something to warm yourself by as the nights drew in.

Instead the programme makers seem compelled to go for the American-friendly 13 episode run, with lavish production values and a big Saturday night launch. Unfortunately they fall short. Atlantis looks superb - the CGI is polished and an overseas shoot somewhere rather warmer than Bognor ensures a suitably cinematic feel. But at the end of 45 minutes you're left less than satisfied. The story is threadbare, the characters are paper-thin and the script has fallen short in producing something that has cross-generational appeal. Don't get me wrong, I'd have watched this at 11 and loved it. But shows for 11-year-olds shouldn't be screened at 8.25 in the evening.

The reason that Doctor Who works is because of it's place in British culture - parents watch now because they remember it from their childhood. Also when it returned it set out its stall as something bold and different. What other show pre-watershed would get away with having an alien exclaim "Oh Boll..." before being blown up by a cruise missile? Or a reptilian lifeform embroiled in a lesbian affair with her Victorian maid. But these asides to the adults are only a tiny part of the appeal. The fact is that Doctor Who has the ability to be as profound or moving as just about anything on TV. When Sally Sparrow says "It's the same rain" in Blink, I defy anyone, even the show's harshest critics, to not be a bit impressed by the fact that such an utterly unashamedly, brilliantly inventive, sci-fi premise was screened at the same time as ITV were showing "Saturday Night Takeaway" on the other side.

It's no surprise then that Atlantis looks average by comparison. Those sci-fi and fantasy shows that have been properly successful since 2005 have ploughed their own furrow. Life on Mars may have flirted with time-travel, but it was distinctly not Doctor Who. I can't imagine even Russell T.Davies would have got away with having Davros bellow "You are surrounded by armed bastards". Similarly Being Human did things its own way - going unashamedly for BBC3's 18-30-year-old audience and eschewing a six-month shoot abroad for the rather more modest backdrop of Bristol.

All-in-all, I'd say this country's output has been a mixed bag. 2005 saw the revival of BBC's famous Ghost Story for Christmas, with a pitch-perfect adaptation of MR James' A View From The Hill. But a few years later, a festive adaptation of Dracula was utterly atrocious - deciding that the latent sexuality of the original novel was better served by shoe-horning in lengthy discussions about syphilis. Drac's and the Clap may have been an appropriate subtitle.

Elsewhere, Steven Moffat's Jekyll proved that you could blend horror and humour and serve up something special for an adult audience. Torchwood proven that the adult audience deserved better than having characters exclaiming "fuck" every few minutes and a monster that shagged people to death.

So what can we learn from all this? Possibly that budget and target audience are largely irrelevant. You can have lots of money and fail, you can go for "gritty" and write something utterly juvenile. At the end of the day there is no substitute for good writing, actors who believe in the project and a show that is strong enough to do its own thing.

One thing I am glad of though, despite a lack of consistency, there has been no obvious drop in quantity. True, some of the most successful shows - the aforementioned Being Human, Primeval and Misfits - have finished or are entering their final year. But new series continue to be commissioned. This Christmas, another MR James adaptation has been written by Mark Gatiss, while a remake of cult classic Blake's 7 and Doctor Who's 50th anniversary celebrations are also on the horizon. All-in-all, there have been few better times to be a nerd.
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