Strange Magic – 2 

1 May 2005

Tracing the history of sci-fi on television in an exciting two-part serial. Part Two: Masters of Space and Time

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Doctor Who was conceived as a very ‘Reithian’ programme. It would attract the entire family; it would teach them about history and science; it would make statements about a potential future for the British that they could aspire to.

In short, it would entertain, educate and inform – the traditional goal of the BBC. Who knew that it would also terrify? Or that it would be imprinted upon the childhoods, not just of those who watched in 1963, but those who watched in the 1970s and into the 1980s – and then, after a break, would start again impacting upon the childhoods of a further generation in 2005?

William Hartnell as the first Doctor Who

Perhaps the BBC knew they had something special. Perhaps someone in drama or in light entertainment saw that the new show was something big. Whatever the reason, when the opening episode was transmitted the day after unknown assassins in Dallas murdered the president of the United States, the BBC immediately decided to repeat the opening episode a week later.

This science fiction show was an instant hit. It had the elements required of pulp fiction – a hero who wasn’t straightforward with his companions or altogether honest in his dealings with mere humans; two examples of humanity accidentally taken on board and left to fend for themselves in a series of new worlds; and a never-explained granddaughter who was a bridge between the two, at once a time-travelling superbeing and a standard early sixties British schoolgirl.

The success of Doctor Who as an on-going property (and the merchandise rights, not fully understood for their potential at the time but still exploited by the BBC) should have been enough for ITV to have challenged it.

ITV did challenge Doctor Who, but they did it by buying in the likes of Lost in Space, rather than investing for themselves. In their defence, the potential costs were huge and the pay-offs were not guaranteed: ABC’s The Avengers had come to be very popular, but the strangeness that passed for science fiction in later episodes soon grew tiresome to viewers. At the same time, the costs of the outlandish sci-fi drama escalated beyond what the new Thames Television could pay or what the American ABC Network was willing to cough up for what had been the most successful British television export to date.

The 1970s saw both a new peak for science fiction television and a series of lows. Programmes like NBC’s Star Trek, cancelled in the 1960s by television executives with the typical American disease of lots of money but very little patience, found a home on BBC-1 in peak time; yet new indigenous productions were comparatively few.

The Doctor, meanwhile, was grounded in the UK, deprived of his time travelling and multiple notional locations across the universe. The executives clearly thought that science fiction, that troublesome genre, was on its way out and were keen to see it gone. What would remain would be broader, make more sense, would appeal to everyone.

But science fiction doesn’t work that way. And one of the major flaws in the genre still existed: writers like to write sci-fi, and viewers like to watch (quality) sci-fi.

With adult and family slots largely lost to television’s new-found love of ‘reality’ – not the unreal ‘reality’ of today, but a version of the kitchen sink of Armchair Theatre 15 years before – the writers turned to children’s television.

Later, this would create an additional black mark for science fiction. Television executives, not wanting the genre but unable to lose it, would see the children’s productions and thus consign all science fiction into that bucket. Doctor Who would spend the 1990s being thought of as a children’s programme (the concept of ‘family entertainment’ having inexplicably but fortunately ceased to have ever existed), whilst the reborn Star Trek: The Next Generation would find itself at 6pm on BBC-2 – out of the way in a ‘grown-up children’ slot, far from its core viewership.

But the period in children’s television hell managed to produce some classics. Timeslip from ATV in 1970 had the right ingredients for an adult show: bizarre but explicable science, odd occurrences and frightening cliff-hangers.

Tomorrow People logo

Thames Television’s The Tomorrow People of 1973, whilst looking very dated now, was another show that attracted an adult audience but needed an adult timeslot.

These two shows marked ITV’s effective debut into the market – but even then’ their support for science fiction was lukewarm and liable to lapse. It certainly didn’t extend as far as an adult place for the genre – ITV perhaps taking collective fear at the memory of ITC/ATV’s The Prisoner, a show with a great later cult following but a financial and ratings disaster at the time.

That didn’t mean that ITV wouldn’t take a punt on science fiction. By the late 1970s, Lew Grade’s ATV was beginning to lose its previously amazing closeness to the baser needs of the viewing public. As Sir Lew also lost interest in ITV and started to turn to movies and America, ATV came up with a peak time family show that left a similar mark on its younger viewers that Doctor Who had previous maintained a monopoly upon.

If that show had run its course, it could still be running now; but a continuing lack of faith in science fiction, the imminent end of ATV’s contract, an unwillingness in Americans to follow the British habit of watching things they didn’t understand, and writers who didn’t know where to take the series next, doomed it.

Joanna Lumley as Sapphire, and David McCallum as Steel

Nevertheless, it had two of the decade’s biggest stars in Joanna Lumley’s Sapphire and David McCallum’s Steel. Sapphire and Steel was a hit with everyone, except the television executives, and it therefore died after six adventures – although it today lives again on DVD, ironically now badged as a ‘Granada Media’ production.

The 1980s saw another attempt at relaunching science fiction for the masses with the serialisations of novels like John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids in 1981 on the BBC and Chocky and its sequels, again by Wyndham but this time on ITV from 1984.

The ‘Dramarama’ strand on ITV’s children’s slot also often attracted science fiction – yet sci-fi again began to die in the 1980s.

The expense remained too high and the commitment from executives too low. If nothing else, science fiction was a children’s genre (suddenly) and therefore didn’t warrant the budget claim it made on general entertainment. Even Doctor Who died in 1989 against this background, as British television began the slow slide towards being engulfed in soap operas.

Conversely, the exact time that science fiction as a native genre started to die off, American television, last seen cancelling Star Trek for non-obvious reasons, was beginning to bounce back.

Whilst the sci-fi flame had been kept alive in the 70s and 80s by standard drama series that happened to be set in space like Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers, the late 1980s saw the rebirth of sci-fi as a new popular genre. Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 probably started the trend; its syndication (as opposed to network) distribution meant it could survive the rocky first two seasons and start to dominate even the fondly-remembered original 1960s series.

The X-Files, other Star Trek variants, programmes on fantasy themes from the sublime (Charmed) to the ridiculous (Xena: Warrior Princess) soon followed.

On the back of Star Trek, science fiction became one of the dominant genres of American television in the 1990s – ironically just at the point when British television executives were celebrating its well-deserved and unlamented death.

When the US programmes caught on over here, despite attempts to schedule them in terrible slots and edit them down from adult to kiddy-flicks, it could only be a matter of time until science fiction came back to the UK.

Ironically once again, this has now begun – just as American television has lost interest, with all four modern Star Trek series finished (one cancelled, yet again, prematurely at the end of a season), The X-Files and Quantum Leap now finished somewhat on a lame note and much of the ‘lesser’ shows withering on the vine or simply forgotten between seasons.

At this point, the turgid and forgettable Crime Traveller of the mid-1990s deliberately forgotten, television in the UK has woken up to science fiction again. Doctor Who is back, and is arguably better than ever.

Doctor Who logo from 2005

Other channels in the UK will notice and want to grab a piece of the action. The BBC will seek to cash in with a run of science fiction programmes (a remake of Quatermass, live, has already occurred on the unfairly obscure BBC-4). ITV will leap to produce some rubbish with the label ‘sci-fi’ loosely attached, then blame someone – anyone – for the lack of viewers (the poor quality and ill-thought-out bandwagon-jumping will not be a cause).

Channel 4 will claim it has something big coming that never actually arrives; Five will import what it needs, as long as it’s cheap; Sky will declare sci-fi in the UK dead because America has done so.

At some point in this melee of changing priorities, in which the needs or wants of the viewers are seemingly not considered or even contemplated, time will loop back on itself. The story of science fiction television will start to repeat from a point back in time. We’ll start to see ideas of the past pass in front of our eyes again.

Of course, this being science fiction, it may already be happening.

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