by Colin Ravey
Before we go any further, gentle readers, please allow me to vent my spleen.
As the voluntary ward of the little orphan of the SF scene, let me highlight
the shoddy treatment of the departed parents.
So far we've had a trumpet, fanfare-backed description of the BBC's science fiction output, so easily dismissed as jingoistic self-pride. I myself may not be pure as the driven snow when it comes to "our shows are better than your shows"' mentality, but on a wider, national scale, this could not be further from the truth. What do the BBC think of Doctor Who? What do the creators think of Blake's Seven, the Tripods, the Survivors, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy? They suck. They're trash. They're not even trash in fact, as some weird misfits actually want to remember them, discuss them, and god help us, re-launch them.
The BBC never liked Doctor Who, it was born as a bastard half-child, with neither love nor funds and only the possibility of resent should it succeed. Sydney Newman, the show's aforementioned creator had brought division and distrust to the older, stuffier quarters of the BBC, reworking the departments that shaped and controlled what was made and how. Newly formed drama departments were irked at being given a 'children's show' to produce, and the children's department kicked up a stink at being robbed of the chance to produce Doctor Who. Newman's success could not be denied, but anyone who has ever worked in an office can imagine old-style management desperate for a successful reformer to slip up. Newman had only success to his name, and what's more, he was a bloody Canadian. Then came his idea for a SF series, to follow the success of the likes of Pathfinders from Mars which Newman had fathered in his earlier, overseas career. Sci-fi? At the Queen's own British Broadcasting Corporation?
Here comes the conspiracy theory, as the powers-that-be gave Newman enough rope to hang himself.
A young, female, producer. A foreign director. A designer who didn't give a flying flip about his job. The smallest studio, most out-dated studio (at Lyme Grove) available. The budget of a contemporary cop show. All aboard the Titanic with the BBC's irksome and impetuous.
The series was already marked for cancellation by the time the first pilot had been made. "We thought we'd all be back on the dole in a few weeks," remarked series regular William Russell recently. So did dear old Auntie Beeb.
Until a couple of weeks in when a monstrous race of cyborgs called the Daleks were introduced. The switchboards were jammed, etcetera etcetera. The show could not now be canceled, despite the BBC's best efforts. Not a single season of the show, from success to slump, comes without memos and discussions desperate to point to the show's demise. Why?
The BBC are, basically, snobs. They're happy for Americans to make low brow sci-fi. Happy to buy what they consider four flavors of Star Trek eye candy. The BBC is happy to sit back and broadcast mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, because it's not an attempt at something more. It's washing their hands of creative goals and getting some lowest common denominators watching. To make genre programs would involve a lot of financial outlay (expensive effects, ever-changing sets etc.) and can only be argued on creative merits. Unfortunately, as far as the BBC are concerned, Doctor Who et al, have no creative merits. We're back to square one, with Doctor Who, and all of the UK's future SF efforts, being pulled between the drama and children's department.
It's too intelligent to pull in dimbo and granny style audiences. It's not intellectual enough to justify the amount spent on a Dickens adaptation. It falls between two stools.
And if the BBC made SF with their limited amount of money, it wouldn't look as good as the American stuff. People might laugh. Not the way they laugh at 'Pets Win Prizes' and 'Whoops Vicar There's a Racial Stereotype Next Door', but really laugh. At the BBC -- and how could the powers that be defends such shows on their scripting, and acting, when they believe them to be worthless as well.
What we need is people at the BBC who are fans of the genre. Who believe it NEEDS making, whether it can be done as well as the Americans or not. Imagine the UK as a little theater with budding Shakespeare's and Dickens, giving up when a US cinema moves in next door. Why not just put on a farce, or some strippers? -- we're not going to compete with Star Trek IX. And if not the strippers, then some Brechtian, late night audience alienisation, and we can be pseudo-arsey about our empty seating.
The tragic, tragic, end note of this has to be a quote from someone at the BBC who is a fan of the genre. Stephen Cole -- at the time in charge of the BBC's 'Doctor Who Division', the show's only Gene Rodenberry figure... Stephen Cole, may you be named and blighted, attempting to justify to a "Make Yourself Heard" style UK show. Paraphrased slightly. But here's what he said: "Like it or not, the US shows like the X-Files and Babylon 5 are the benchmark of quality sci-fi," Cole commented, stars and stripes not pictured. "Doctor Who cannot be produced until funding can be found to reach their standards."
We're not worthy! We're not worthy! Forgive us, oh US, for even attempting to produce such sub-standard fare, like Doctor Who which predated, and outlasted that little Star Trek show.
I asked this of the BBC, via the strangely 'Out Of Order' Doctor Who forum. "Doctor Who cannot be made until it meets American acceptance and gets American funds? The American public don't pay our license fee, despite the undoubted lucrative nature of overseas deals. I'm sure the Americans wouldn't consider the UK before planning another series of Star Trek! Can't we afford our own shows anymore? Do we have to meet an American 'benchmark of quality'? In all seriousness, does the BBC view, artistically and creatively, US SF as superior to Doctor Who?"
My reply? Nothing. With so much tat and drivel to produce, and so many US shows to be bought, how can the BBC find time to answer?
Maybe that's what parents do, maybe parents will always be the last to see the great things in their own offspring. From the massive pain of birth, to the building resentment and mounting cost, something wonderful is lost in their eyes and everybody else's kid shines that much more brighter.
Colin Ravey is a twenty two year old Internet journalist, born and bred in Glossop, Derbyshire. Nope, people in the UK haven't heard of it either -- head for Coronation Street, and take a left into the countryside. He isn't half as jingoistic as he sounds, and welcomes your comments.
Interested in reading more of Colin's commentary? You can find it in his other SF Site columns, Rant and Ravey.
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