Bigger on the Small Screen (Part 2)

Doctor Who in da house

A more economical alternative would keep Hollywood out of the picture altogether. Were BBC Films to produce a Doctor Who film on something like their usual scale, the budget would be staggeringly less. It wouldn’t be designed to rival the latest Star Trek, Star Wars or comic book superhero iteration, which frankly might be a good thing.

Being a fully in-house production would likewise be advantageous.

The various attempts by production-company-with-a-name-change-fixation Green Light/Coast to Coast/Daltenreys over the late 1980s and early 1990s to get a Doctor Who film off the ground suffered from the problems often faced by producers that acquire adaptation rights. One of the last screenwriters to work on their project, Denny Martin Flinn, observed, “The BBC had overall approval of everything we did.” (quoted in Jean-Marc Lofficier, The Nth Doctor, p160)

However, if two in-house BBC teams are at work on series and film respectively – better still, the same team – creative unity and clear communication are more likely.

Paul-McGann-Night-of-the-Doctor-4.jpgEven on a BBC Films budget, there would still be an expectation that the film have as wide a reach as possible. Which means the path of direct continuity might be something of a fool’s errand. The use of an ‘out of time’ Doctor could solve this problem. Paul McGann doesn’t look appreciably older than he did in 1996 – certainly no older than he did in 2013’s ‘Night of the Doctor’ – and few would disagree that he hasn’t had a fair crack of the whip on screen. His ‘era’ exists prior to the Time War, which is as good a continuity cutting-off point as any. Such a prequel film could work on the same level as Rogue One, exploring the origins of a conflict whose conclusion we’ve already seen.

But what would it be about? Would it need to waste a chunk of running time on using a new companion as a point of reference? This tactic was successful in 1963 and 2005 but might suffer without the prospect of subsequent ‘episodes’ to back it up.

Should it feature iconic opponents? A Time War prequel invites the inclusion of Daleks, but so too does it encourage the active presence of Time Lords, the very people whose rejection by the Doctor kickstarted the programme’s limitless format.

Perhaps a variation on John Leekley’s attempts to reboot the programme for American TV in the early 1990s would work in this context. The McGann Doctor has returned to his people because a crisis is brewing, but he needs to explore the universe, questing for a means to pre-empt that crisis.

But that’s one option among so many. When a programme has an infinitely variable format it becomes tough to choose which one you want to sell it to the world with. This isn’t just a problem a McGann-driven film would have to face: it’s at the heart of any single film adaptation.

Green Light managed in their own way to address these thorny issues. They took as their starting point a greater respect for continuity than the Subotsky films: the Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who can regenerate and who has faced a multitude of intergalactic foes. Yet they opted for a quasi-reboot approach, introducing an unnumbered Doctor of their own devising – even regenerating him in some versions of the screenplay. To maximise the potential offered by the TARDIS, they fashioned a quest narrative, allowing their protagonist to explore the wonders of the universe in two concise hours.

The quest design is something of an obvious solution to the hairy problem of deciding which single story to tell in a Doctor Who film, but in it lies the potential for disaster. The narrative can end up meandering, all sound and fury signifying little. After the success of Dr Who and the Daleks, Milton Subotsky reportedly humoured the notion of adapting ‘The Keys of Marinus’ – a serial noted for spending six episodes dashing across Marinus to no real avail – before plumping for more Dalek adventures. Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, the film Douglas Adams once tried to get Graham Williams interested in, had a similar galaxy-hopping flavour of the sort Adams was particularly known for in his fiction.

“Two men, Griffin and Potts, are studying a file in the ‘Time Lord’ section of the futuristic Space Records Bureau in New York. The file is marked ‘Dr Who’ and speaks of a mysterious time traveller with two hearts. The traveller has no recorded date of birth, but was first sighted in the year 1189 and later at the Battle of Gettysburg. He is even rumoured to have tracked down the Loch Ness Monster to its lair and defeated the Marpeds.” (Norton, p228)

This opening to Doctor Who Meets Scratchman could be as good an ‘in’ for new audiences as we are likely to manage without burdening newcomers or boring fans. It also constructs an initial narrative impetus that makes the film about the Doctor while externalising his adventure: he’s being hunted. Better still, the idea of the Doctor, the legend, is being hunted. This lets us hop through time and space per the various Green Light drafts but, better than a quest, the Doctor is driven to react before later being driven to act. The antagonist’s motives concern him personally, and if the TARDIS itself is involved we can drop the mechanics of his magic box into the mix too. (A section where some of the villains invade the ship and the Doctor uses its wonders to drive them out could be interesting.) It’s basically ‘The Chase’ but with a greater level of sophistication than a 1965 BBC budget could hope to muster.

‘The Chase’ also uses contemporary Earth as a repeated destination, a wise decision for a property about a character whose favourite planet this is. Contemporary Earth – especially contemporary Britain – is a unique selling point that Star Wars can’t use and Star Trek rarely does, so any film adaptation would be foolish not to make the most of it.

Alternative free

If these complications are too complicated, the alternative is to follow the lead of Amicus Productions and just remake a serial, or simplify the backstory. Mervyn Haisman, co-creator of the Yeti, took the latter approach when pitching a version of ‘The Abominable Snowmen’ to Disney. The practical reason may have been that he hadn’t acquired the rights to anything beyond his own intellectual property, but it is equally telling that he didn’t feel the need to. Instead he used a Doctor-like character, an approach taken by the producers of a number of Doctor Who spin-off videos for the same legal reason, many of them to great success. auton32.jpgHere, characters like Lockwood (the Auton trilogy, BBV, 1997-1999) and The Stranger (BBV, 1991-1995) take on a life of their own and are developed in new directions that can then impact on familiar characters and concepts in unexpected ways. The result isn’t Doctor Who and couldn’t in all conscience bear that name on screen, but it’s an option that has pulled a great many productions out of development hell and on to screens of various sizes.

That said, rights are a problem even if you do have adaptation rights for Doctor Who. As Philip Segal, executive producer of the 1996 telemovie, knows only too well, the BBC controls in toto any characters and concepts created in-house during the original 1963–1989 run of the programme. This means the Doctor, the Master, (most of) the companions and various other characters. Even the police box likeness was the property of the Metropolitan Police at the time Segal made his overtures to the BBC, and he had to fight tooth and nail to persuade his financiers at Universal Television to plump up the cash to Warner-Chappell for the rights to use Ron Grainer’s signature tune.


The argument could be made that the time for Doctor Who cinema films – in the way we’ve come to understand them – is at an end. Digital cinema has all but taken the place of its celluloid forebear. The possibilities this brings have already made contact with Doctor Who. Employing a strategy originally utilised by the National Theatre in steaming stage productions across the globe, BBC Worldwide has already ensured the cinema release of several Doctor Who episodes as ‘special events’, beginning with ‘Day of the Doctor’ in 2013. Their success has led to this approach being adopted by other programmes such as Sherlock.

Because these ‘events’ are often little more than extra-long episodes, they don’t need to function on the level of a blockbuster. Moreover, the television and cinema audiences are genuinely interchangeable, and exhibition windows are kept tight enough to ensure the run ends before the next episode is broadcast. Production values are comparable to anything BBC Films might conceivably bankroll, especially with the changes brought on show runner Chris Chibnall. planet-earth-II.jpgCinematography has become consciously more cinematic, with the use of Cooke and Angénieux anamorphic lenses lending the image a genuinely cinematic look above and beyond many actual cinema films. The BBC has begun production in the 4K format with Planet Earth II, so there is no reason why televised Doctor Who shouldn’t now be of a technical standard equal to mainstream cinema.

Every hurdle a traditional ‘canonical’ cinema adaptation might face is swiftly overcome by this method of production and transmission: it differs in no appreciable way from the parent series because it is the parent series.

All this begs one important question: if the ideal form of a Doctor Who feature film is a digital cinema projection of an extra-long episode, is a film even necessary? Perhaps Kirsten Tranter put it best in a Guardian piece. She said, “Television was the medium and the metaphor of Doctor Who … [T]he Doctor belongs not on the big screen watched by a crowd but inside my own little box at home.” Since 1963 it has been that mysterious beast burning into our collective consciousness, transporting us to times and worlds unseen through the little box in the corner of the room that is somehow so much bigger on the inside. Maybe that’s where it ought to stay.

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