Part Four: “Full Circle”

By Jack Kibble-White

First published October 2000

As we come to the conclusion of our travels across British telefantasy in the ’90s, the remaining genre offerings we shall consider form a pretty disparate group. Jupiter Moon, Oktober, The Last Train, The Uninvited and Cold Lazarus may share the commonality of fantastical premises, yet the existence of each came about due to different commercial and creative requirements. Here we shall consider how the ultimate motivations of the broadcaster shaped these programmes, and reflect on how a still reticent BBC hierarchy might resist any new plans to reintroduce the good Doctor to our schedules.

Beginning in 1990 with the launch of BSB, and broadcast on its flagship entertainment channel – Galaxy, the Jupiter Moon formula seemed specifically designed to tap into the popularity of the soap genre, whilst appealing to the large section of sci-fi fans lured to the channel by its promise of archive repeats. Whilst the press may have dubbed the series “Crossroads in space”, there was a sense that the television enthusiast might tune into watch a programme that evoked memories of two of British television’s most fondly remembered programmes: Doctor Who and Crossroads. Funnily enough though, the programme makers made a concerted attempt to try and position the series as a credible production (perhaps wishing to have their cake and eat it). The £6 million investment in the programme’s first year was the “biggest financial commitment to an independent television production company for a continuing drama since Channel 4′s Brookside in 1982″. Furthermore, the makers were keen to bill Jupiter Moon as “science possibility rather than science fantasy”, commenting that all the “storylines were worked out with the co-operation of British Aerospace, and every script checked by the University of Birmingham’s Department of Space”. Nonetheless, such studious undertakings failed to change the general impression that this was essentially “silly” stuff. Although axed in the midst of the BSB/Sky merger, it was perhaps – in retrospect – an inherently flawed idea anyway to attempt to mix two antithetical genres (soap and sci-fi) together. Whereas the former (until recent years) has relied on plausibility and identifiable concepts, the latter revels in presenting strange and new ideas to its audience. The press may have looked on with a sneer as Jupiter Moon crashed and burned, but the BBC apparently didn’t take much notice. They broadcast Eldorado just a few years later, another soap set in an alien environment.

The Uninvited, Oktober and The Last Train formed something of an unofficial trilogy on ITV. Broadcast in 1997, 1998 and 1999 respectively, each received similar billing and status, and all were designed to fulfil the same brief: produce sci-fi as A Touch of Frost-style drama. Whilst each was also concerned with a quest for some truth, all three sadly chose to eschew the concepts that had placed their characters into jeopardy in favour of hurling our heroes into multiple moments of contrived danger. The Uninvited and Oktober also bear hallmarks of having been commissioned in the first afterglow of X Files‘ popularity. They are both stories of lone voices struggling to unravel sinister conspiracies involving government agencies and multinational companies. The media furore surrounding the exploits of ex-snooker commentator David Icke may have also encouraged ITV (then obsessed with creating dramas provoked by contemporary news stories) that the time was right for such routinely formulaic excursions in to the realms of telefantasy. Yet The Uninvited and Oktober are certainly not irredeemable. The former’s evocative imagery of corruption within a small rural community locates the series’ events in to a pleasingly pseudo “Avengersland”, whilst the latter’s concept of the creation of a drug that somehow links together the consciousness of individuals is genuinely interesting. However, it is difficult to ignore the dilution of the central premise that seems to be required to shoehorn these dramas into the ITV mould. Insufficient time is spent on exploring the dramas’ central conceits, and there is practically no commitment to characterization. So blank and featureless are they as central characters, Oktober‘s Jim Harper is entirely interchangeable with The Uninvited‘s Steve Blake. The series’ Scratchmen are similarly devoid of depth, with the archetypes of brutal henchmen, and dispassionate, corrupt local official lazily utilized as dramatic short hand. The cinematic precedent of the villain that “absolutely will not be stopped” has taken hold here and ensures that ultimate victory of good over evil is dependent on the deployment of an artificially contrived dénouement.

Similarly, The Last Train relies on recognizable stereotypes. This might allow the viewer to work out – very quickly – where the tensions within the group are likely to stem from, but it is a fatiguing and dull ploy. Conceptually though, The Last Train is a different beast from The Uninvited or Oktober. Seemingly taking inspiration from Survivors, it is difficult to ascertain exactly why the idea for a post-holocaust drama found favour at ITV. Certainly there is no direct lineage to explain what persuaded Granada to invest £4 million (the most expense lavished on any drama broadcast on ITV that year) on this six part series. By this stage, press reaction had evolved beyond commenting on the rarity of telefantasy drama on the nation’s third channel, and instead most commentators found themselves nostalgically adopting the same mocking tone they had wheeled out for each new series of Doctor Who. Unfortunately, The Last Train presented them with abundant opportunities. Shaun Usher writing in the Daily Mail: “[In order to cross a loch] they stole a dinghy, nearly getting lynched in the process, and sailed across. That much I grasped. But then the group was back on four wheels and driving off. Had they ferried the van over while I wasn’t looking? It was a very small boat but maybe they all squeezed up and held the vehicle on their laps.”

So, ultimately deficiencies in plotting and characterization unify these three productions. Predictably, much of the emphasis here is on visualization. Creating a credible looking product seems to be more important then producing stylish dialogue or engaging plotlines. If truth be told, this might well be the fate awaiting a returning Doctor Who. Certainly such a description would not be inappropriate if applied to the US funded telemovie of 1996. ITV has seldom produced confident telefantasy, and its ’90s incarnations adhere to this precedent adding to it the self-conscious artifices that seem to have shaped the genre over the course of the last decade. As we have learnt during the course of this examination, the tyranny of embarrassment seems to be the most influential factor in the realization of telefantasy in the 1990s. It would seem to take a colossal reputation to produce a fantastical drama unencumbered by such insecurities.

To learn that one of this country’s most respected writers had decided to end his career by composing a science fiction drama must have been a beguiling prospect to those genre admirers still vainly searching for credibility back in the mid-’90s. The context and history underwriting Dennis Potter’s final televised work ensured that his chosen genre was to be – unusually for telefantasy – the least discussed aspect of Cold Lazarus. Historically broadcast across both Channel 4 and BBC1, the series was to be the decade’s only telefantasy offering destined to transcend the factionalism and suspicion usually directed at the genre. However, if you unpick the artefact from the context, you are left with a work that ironically posits a very old-fashioned vision of the future. This is “BBC future”, borne of Kneale’s 1984, Blake’s 7, Dominick Hyde and ultimately out of the pulp fiction dystopias that in some way informed all of these works. A harsh, authoritarian world with “rebel” factions, and moralistic debates concerning the exploitation of people’s suffering for the sake of entertainment; there is little here that we have not explored in previous decades. Unhindered by the expectations of a telefantasy audience, Potter plucks surreal concepts out of the air (seemingly with little thought as to how such a world could have evolved to include half-vegetable, half-mechanical vehicles), indulging the whims of a dying man. His vision of the future ill thought out and utterly irrelevant, serving only to provide the dramatic conceit required to accommodate Potter’s yearning to examine the root of his storytelling prowess. This is a surreal, psychological piece of work – not science fiction at all.

That Potter almost became one of Doctor Who‘s first story editors is a concept worth conjuring with. What might his vision of the series have been? From the evidence of Cold Lazarus, it is difficult to draw much that is pertinent. Perhaps he would have become as fascinated with the character of the Doctor as he became with the character of himself. One can imagine Hartnell’s adventurer landing on worlds brimming with allegory, and Flash Gordon-type vistas. Doctor Who meets 1984? Latterly of course, the Time Lord’s battle with the Daleks would have been nothing but a thinly disguised manifestation of Dennis Potter versus the BBC (and that “croak-voiced Dalek” John Birt). This playful speculation might make for an amusing diversion, but peering at Cold Lazarus tells us very little about how a ’90s Doctor Who might have looked if produced this way. Cold Lazarus does inform this debate though, suggesting that getting Who back onto our screens requires the backing of an industry respected auteur. Such an injection of credibility might be the only way to allow the series to return in full possession of those eccentricities and flaws that so embarrassed a Corporation seeking perpetual credibility.

Patchy at best, it is possible to align each of the productions we have considered to a predominant media trend of the time. Shunned for much of the early ’90s, telefantasy re-emerged mid decade as a light-hearted, parodic form. Tied closely to prevalent trends of nostalgia, it was perceived merely as a conduit to allow the viewer to re-experience the innocence of half-remembered thrills. Following the impact of The X Files, telefantasy was seized upon as a potential source of new credible drama, but initially the results were half formed and unsatisfying. As the decade progressed there was a subtle shift as young male scriptwriters encroached upon this nostalgic form to start creating more personal and valued visions that truly adhered to their recollections of exciting fantastical drama. Imperceptibly, we began to see the demise of the formulaic misremembered. The relative failure of Invasion: Earth, and seemingly lukewarm response to Ultraviolet, ensured that there were slim pickings throughout 1999 – surely the most “sci-fi” of years. Yet, it is not a completely gloomy picture. The year 2000 brought us Randall and Hopkirk: Deceased – something of a convergence of the two predominant trends of the last decade. Nostalgic and reflective it might be, the series has proven to be truly commemorative, yet recognizably the work of people with more then a passing interest in the genre. Elsewhere, persistent rumours encourage us to believe that the “hot young writer” of 1999 – Russell T Davies, may well tackle the big one itself. The license given to a dying Potter’s last imaginings might not be lavished upon Davies, but there is at least reason to cautiously believe that he might be allowed to proceed relatively unencumbered. So once again, we find ourselves waiting. Recollections of Neverwhere, Invasion:Earth and Ultraviolet alarm like a cloister bell in the minds of every Doctor Who fan.

Isn’t that how this all started?

<Part Three