WHY ISN'T DOCTOR WHO ON TELEVISION ANY MORE?
Here's a question for all you budding TV buffs: which of the following television shows represents the very best of BBC popular drama over the last sixty years:
All Creatures Great and Small
The Onedin Line
When the Boat Comes In
The startling answer - at least as far as the BBC are concerned - is Doctor Who. At a glittering and well publicised presentation ceremony in 1996, the awards for the best BBC programmes over the last sixty years were presented and Doctor Who actually won the 'Best Popular Drama' vote.
So what happened? Simple, really. The viewers - and reportedly around 500,000 people phoned in with votes, 480,000 more than buy the Doctor Who merchandise - voted for Doctor Who maybe simply because it is the best popular drama series that the BBC has produced. Did this cross the minds of anyone at the Corporation when they saw the result?
Apparently not. At an event during the Conservative Party Conference on 9 October 1996, Head of BBC Television Will Wyatt, the boss of Alan Yentob and Michael Jackson who actually commission new programmes, was asked about the Doctor Who TV film which starred Paul McGann as the Doctor. 'It didn't do that well over here,' said Wyatt, seemingly forgetting the 9 million viewers which made it the highest rated drama show on television that week, and which placed it in the top 15 TV shows for the week. He also said that it was 'too dark' and not right for the family audience they had hoped to attract ... but the BBC had approval on the script, the casting, the editing ... If it wasn't right, why did they approve the script?
Other BBC officials at the event included Jenny Abramsky, former head of the BBC's Radio Five Live news and sport radio station and at the time in charge of planning the BBC's launch of digital TV. 'I hated it,' she said of the Doctor Who film and went on to wonder why the BBC didn't make things like Blake's 7 any more. 'It's not that we won't make SF,' she burbled, 'it's that we won't make Who.' A further comment from Wyatt seemed to seal Doctor Who's fate. When called over by Deputy Director General and Chief Executive of BBC Worldwide, Bob Phillis, to answer the question as to whether the BBC would make any more Doctor Who - a question which Phillis seemed unwilling to answer himself - Wyatt's unequivocal response was 'No ... we can't afford it.'
The fact that far more expensive shows, like, for example, Rhodes, have received disastrous ratings, would seem to indicate that the money is there, but only if the BBC Bosses deem it so. They feel that Doctor Who cannot be made without vast budgets being available, well it managed quite well for twenty six years without this, so why should things be any different today? With reactions and attitudes as reported above, it would appear that the 'top brass' at the BBC is staunchly anti-Doctor Who. This is very odd especially as Doctor Who was voted by the viewers - the people who actually fund the corporation and provide the budgets for all programmes - as the best popular drama. You'd think that someone in the BBC hierarchy would stop and think about it, wouldn't you?
But this is, I think, the whole problem. All those people in charge of the BBC are what one might call 'the old guard'. They are all totally out of touch with what is popular today. They genuinely don't understand the appeal of films like Star Wars or Independence Day, they were not brought up in a climate where science fiction on television was essential viewing. Therefore they cannot understand why so many people like science fiction and, as a result, won't commission it themselves. They're quite happy to import shows from America and to show them in popular early-evening slots to satisfy the viewers' thirst for the fantastic. Or, when a decent genre show comes along - like Ultraviolet - they play it down and pretend that it isn't a genre show at all. However, at the same time, they ignore and neglect the one science fiction show that they own, despite the fact that it is still drawing a huge amount of interest, and the merchandise alone is bringing in many hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.
Just to take an example: the Doctor Who novels. Until early in 1997, Virgin Publishing were releasing two books a month, twelve months a year. Each book cost £5.99 of which around 2 per cent went to the BBC. Each book also reportedly sold in the region of 20,000 copies. By my calculations, that makes an annual royalty of £57,504. And that's just on the novels. Add to that the income from videos, magazines, special books, postcards, calendars, watches and all manner of other licensed Doctor Who goodies and you have a significant annual income from a product which the BBC claims is dead. In fact, the BBC has now taken over the publishing of the novels from Virgin, and so their profit on them is even greater (perhaps double, if not more).
The independent Doctor Who drama Downtime cost £50,000 to make (it's a 50 minute direct to video film, directed by ex-Doctor Who director Christopher Barry and written by ex-Doctor Who writer Marc Platt and starring Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier, Deborah Watling as Victoria and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah) which was cheap by anyone's standards. However the final result was impressive and certainly good enough to show on television. If the BBC have a profitable income from the books alone in excess of £100,000, why don't they commission an annual drama to continue the series and give it new life? With double the budget, those independent filmmakers who were involved in Downtime could create something to equal any Doctor Who story currently available on video. As well as being shown on television, the BBC could release the film on video, plus a novel, plus a CD of the soundtrack. From these items alone, a proportion of the cost of the product could be recouped.
For example: If the video sells for £13.99, the book for £5.99 and the soundtrack for £10.99 and the BBC gets to make, say, 4 per cent profit on all of these items. Assuming a sale of around 20,000 copies of each, that makes £24,776 profit:
That's a quarter of the entire budget made back. Don't forget about foreign sales on top of that, plus overseas television rights ... Basically, even at this simplistic level, the figures are workable, and I've probably underestimated the profit to be made from them, as well as underestimating the sales figures. By way of comparison, the novelisation of the McGann TV movie sold in excess of 30,000 copies, and the video over 100,000 copies!
So why aren't the BBC making Doctor Who any more? The only rational answer is because they don't want to as all financial, popularity and marketability arguments show that it would be a success. Not only would the new product revitalise interest in Doctor Who, but it would also ensure the continuation of the profitable merchandise lines.
It's a shame that an organisation that purports to heed what the public wants, that is funded by public money through the payment of television licenses, so stoically ignores all arguments and thinks that a thirty-year old science fiction show is as dead as a dodo. Unfortunately, as long as the BBC thinks in this way, Doctor Who will be dead, and interest in the show will slowly wane as people forget about it and new generations come along who have never heard of it.
Doctor Who is being used by the BBC to spearhead their new digital BBC Choice network, they have two official websites devoted to it, new books, videos and audio projects continue to be released on a monthly basis ... Not bad for a dead show.
It's a horrible, ignoble death for one of the BBC's greatest assets.
CODA: Rumour has reached me that at the time of writing (November 1998, the show's 35th anniversary) that there is an internal memo circulating around the various Heads of Drama at the BBC, stating that there is a scheduling gap on BBC1, on Saturday evenings at around 5.30pm. They are looking for ideas for a half-hour children's science fiction drama series that could fill that gap ... The mind simply boggles at either the BBC's ineptitude or lack of faith.
David J Howe