Part One: “Carnival of Monsters”

By Jack Kibble-White

First published July 2000

On 12 June 1998 BBC1 effectively suspended the production of serious science fiction drama. The broadcast of the much-trailed (but never repeated) Invasion: Earth left little mark on the public consciousness. Perhaps overshadowed by the antics of a petulant David Beckham (the World Cup had began just two days before the last episode was broadcast), this co-production blockbuster came and went in the space of six weeks. Writer Jed Mercurio was something of a “talent” having previously created the stunningly visceral Cardiac Arrest in 1994 (using the pen-name John MacUre). Under the tutelage of executive producer Tony Garnett (latterly of This Life fame), Mercurio’s cynical take on the NHS (with each of the early episodes opening with a flashback to one of the characters espousing their ambition to become a doctor or nurse) suggested that his attack on science fiction should have been – at the least – engaging. Provocatively, Mercurio espoused that “a certain Time Lord should be consigned to the dustbin” and attempted to lace together a pseudo credible story with contemporaneous characterization to demonstrate the “way forward”. He moved on to write The Grimleys for ITV. Stories of Doctor Who‘s cinematic return still abound.

Doctor Who has consistently acted as a barometer for much of television science fiction drama – even more so since its demise back in 1989. Dismissed as “old hat”, it is often derided by the makers of the latest genre offering, desperate to assure us that their programme will be nothing like it. Yet such assertions merely betray Doctor Who‘s continuing importance, as well as reveal how much (or little) British TV sci-fi has changed in the last 11 years. So, how might Doctor Who have looked had it been resurrected at particular points during this last decade? Depending upon the year you choose, its departure from its perceived antiquated reference points and engagement of the contemporary dramatic landscape would result in varying versions of the programme beloved by so many. Much has been made of how the last incumbent of the role – Sylvester McCoy – might have matured had he been able to continue in to a fourth series, and oft quoted production plans substantiate the belief that Doctor Who was ready to adopt a more modernistic, youthful tone. Certainly, the script writing brat pack of that time appears to be demographically and attitudinally similar to those “movers and shakers” who now preside like some kind of Mafiosi over British television.

So, the question remains: what has happened to British-made science fiction/fantasy dramas since the Doctor departed these shores, and exactly how might the mythical “go anywhere”, flexible format of Doctor Who have fared in a climate where Neverwhere, Oktober and Crime Traveller were – at times – considered credible, contemporary, fantastical drama?

Whilst Stephen Gallagher’s Chimera may have been one of the first post-Doctor Who explorations into the speculative, its preference for conventional, realistic drama misaligns it with much of the fantastical, yet frivolous productions that tended to proliferate in the pre-X Files 1990′s television fantasy genre. Virtual Murder‘s playful and knowingly “knocked-off” ambience hinted at a BBC still shy of committing to a serious minded science fiction production. Whilst Doctor Who‘s inadequacies were unintentional by-products of an overambitious production, Virtual Murder positively revelled in its “naff” exterior – perhaps the self-defence mechanism of a Corporation still ripe with anger and disinclination for non-realistic drama and fans of such programming. It is difficult to imagine a version of Doctor Who made to this recipe (although perhaps the ratings blockbuster Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death hints at how an excessively self-mocking Who might have developed). Virtual Murder is its anathema. Whilst the essential ingredients may bear surface comparisons, and the final product some intrinsic worth, it is difficult to view Virtual Murder as anything other then a riposte to the perceived dated antics of the Time Lord. A “Virtual Who” would not have been a continuance – just a parody, and not a loving one. Unlike the recent offering from Higson (who clearly admired his source material), Virtual Murder came across as a mean-spirited reminiscence of speculative drama.

An enforced hiatus of fantasy drama allowed introspection to set in amongst those who would admire or indeed, commission such works. Memories of well-loved cult programmes became absorbed into the dominant culture and – as such – distorted by it. Lazy reminiscences and a perceived vacant niche proved too much temptation for some. Although founded in 1978, it was in the mid-’90s that Carnival Films obtained its stranglehold over British cult programming. This process began in June 1995 with series one of Bugs. Series script consultant Colin Brake confessed his love of genre television and in particular – Doctor Who: “It was a twist of fate that made BBC cancel Doctor Who before I could become script editor. I spent a long time angling to become Andrew Cartmel’s replacement and the bastards just cancelled the series”. He seemed well suited to a series created by ex-Who writer (amongst other things) Stephen Gallagher and the incomparable Brian Clemens. Running for four series, Bugs was high-octane, escapist action and – in retrospect – a pivotal programme within the evolution of ’90s popular drama. Existing within the midst of an almost exclusively cops and nurses climate, Bugs (and Carnival) would ultimately begat not only the flurry of fantastical programmes that we shall consider shortly, but also such action based dramas as Thief Takers and Bodyguards.

Clemens involvement was heavily promoted implying that Bugs could capture the characterization and action of such well-remembered series as The New Avengers and The Professionals and marry that appeal to a contemporary dramatic format. In truth, Bugs never amounted to anything other then a shallow attempt to recapture past glories. Broadcast during one of the most prominent periods of Who rumour-mongering, those who digested the 10+ million viewing figures and positive publicity surrounding series one might have suspected that Carnival Films would have been a shoe-in as the source of any new, independently produced Doctor Who. It is difficult not imagine that theirs would have been a “back of the fag packet” representation of the series: Daleks, cliffhanging close ups, jelly babies, cups of English tea and a Tom Baker-esque lead. Trading off the general public’s shallow affection and half remembered expectations, this too would have been an introspective series – a cobbled together Greatest Hits. Bugs always had the feeling that its creators did not quite understand the appeal of such programmes, and a Doctor Who made to this formula would have been a hesitant beast at best. Aside from the obvious iconography listed above, it is a less tangible format to get to grips with then The Professionals. In the hands of a production team who do not understand it, yet wished to recreate it, this attempt to produce Doctor Who would have been like asking a chemist to recreate – from description alone – the satisfying taste of a cup of the Doctor’s Earl Grey.

Bugs‘ eventual demise in September 1998, ensured it was almost both the first and last genre production from Carnival. In between, the British public were able to experience Carnival’s Crime Traveller and subsequently The Vanishing Man. Both of these productions came from the pen of Anthony Horowitz (although only the first was a Carnival Production). Where Bugs may have resembled too closely the findings of a cult TV focus group, Crime Traveller appeared to derive from a less complex formula. Broadcast for only one series (in 1997) and consisting of just eight episodes, Horowitz described Crime Traveller as “fun and entertaining. I have always been fascinated by puzzles, riddles and ‘whodunits’ and time travel adds that extra dimension to enable the crime to be solved.” Crime Traveller was essentially escapist, Saturday night fun, with no pretensions. Derided by enthusiasts who – interpreting the formula as Doctor Who by numbers – felt the series displayed a lack of respect for its illustrious predecessor. In truth this was baggage that should never have been assigned to the programme in the first place. Many of the more serious minded Doctor Who fans would have been dismayed had their favourite programme been described as an “enjoyable romp”, yet this remains the most appropriate description of Horowitz’s creation and perhaps its only ambition. As slight and impudent as Crime Traveller may have been, it is telling that it never transgressed the laws of time as laid down by Doctor Who. All such explorations were accompanied with a clearly thought out logic ensuring any repercussions were fully explored. Indeed, in “The Revenge Of the Chronology Protection Hypothesis”, Horowitz explored much the same ground as Doctor Who‘s “Day of the Daleks” to – arguably – greater effect. However, this was ultimately fad TV, with limited scope, and certainly none of the ambition required to host Doctor Who.

Much the same could be said of Horowitz’s other excursion into sci-fi. The Vanishing Man received its first transmission just three days after the final episode of Crime Traveller. From the pilot episode onwards, it was plain to see that this too was a fairly transient piece. Whilst Crime Traveller relied on a more then usually rigorous examination of time travel to drive much of its drama, The Vanishing Man, paused to consider some of the less explored consequences of being able to disappear at will. At heart, The Vanishing Man was even more throwaway then Bugs or Crime Traveller and was probably the apotheosis of the mini-trend in light-hearted fantasy drama that lasted throughout the mid years of the ’90s. Whilst the pilot episode was able to garner over 11 million viewers, the series proper had already seen better days by the time of “Nobody Does It Better” (series one, episode one) some 14 months later. Perhaps lead actor Neil Morrissey had lost some of his popularity in the intervening months, or such opportunistic genre exploitation had become too transparent to a critical public. Either way, Horowitz had moved on leaving writers Tony Jordan and David Fox to pen the six episodes of the first – and only series. Certainly, Morrissey as Doctor Who would not have been an unthinkable choice to a production team such as this; happy to ride the tide of short-term popularity. Such a decision, however, would have caused die-hard fans to hurl their heads back and glare with fear and anger into the middle distance as if an “end of episode” camera was hurtling straight for them.

Of course, Carnival Films were not the only exponents of genre TV during this period. In the next episode we will reminisce of a time when Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere became British telefantasy’s “last, best hope”, and the Doctor rose again – as comedian Alan Davies…