Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Blueprints For Brilliance: The Doctor Who movie

['Blueprints For Brilliance' is a non-regular feature focusing on how best to adapt challenging or interesting properties to a certain medium. It's a bit like Flixist's How To Do It, but with added alliteration.]

It was announced this week that Harry Potter director David Yates is lining up a movie version of Doctor Who, the longest running science fiction programme in television history which found a new lease of life since being revived in 2005 by Russell T. Davies, and subsequently taken over by Steven Moffat. Unsurprisingly, the news has not gone down particularly well with fans.

The major point of contention is that the movie's story is set to exist outside the canon of the television programme, in a similar fashion to the Peter Cushing movies from the '60s (Doctor Who And The Daleks; Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 AD), which adapted serials from the series with new actors - Cushing taking over from the canonical First Doctor, William Hartnell - and vastly improved production values. Yates hasn't done himself any favours by saying he would also consider American writers, despite the series being renowned and beloved for its British sensibilities.

Is there any way for Who to take the journey to the big screen without being a complete debacle?
The non-canonical nature of the story is going to be the biggest challenge for the movie to overcome. From a commercial point of view, it is easy to see why the decision was taken: there is such a vast amount of continuity to tackle from the television series that making a standalone movie seem both significant enough to justify the outlay and accessible to new viewers could be challenging. Fan approval is also no guarantee of success: just look at the fate suffered by Joss Whedon's Firefly. There is also the fact that a movie production would inevitably delay production of the television series were it to be a direct spin-off in the style of the X-Files movies, which would also bring back the difficulty of following Steven Moffat's increasingly convoluted continuity.

The flip side is that taking the story out of the series' ongoing continuity lumbers it with a sense of irrelevance for any prospective viewer, fan or newcomer alike. Fans who have already invested their time (and space?) into the universe of Whoniverse will no doubt feel that handing over money to watch a story related only by name and a few broad ideas is at best not all that appealing, at worst slightly cynical. Newcomers might be more willing to take the opportunity to experience a two-hour distillation of what has made the series special without the complications of its enormous history, but the question will always linger as to why not just jump in at the point of the Christopher Eccleston-starring revival, which had to handle the series' history in simple enough terms to engage a new generation of viewers?

As you might have guessed from this article's header image, my suggestion for Yates' Doctor Who movie would be to set the movie during the television series' canon, but during a time when there are still enough gaps that a standalone story can be presented without doing too much heavy continuity lifting. The obvious candidate for this is the life of the Eighth Doctor, as played by Paul McGann in a (very weak) 1980s Doctor Who movie of his own, albeit aired on television rather than in the cinema.

When Russell T. Davies took over the series, he wrote away a huge part of the series' complicated mythology in the creation of a 'Time War', which supposedly eliminated the Doctor's people and civilisation (the Time Lords) and  devastated the ranks of his greatest enemies, the Daleks. Although Davies hinted at ominous-sounding events leading up to and during the War, the exact details were left up to the viewers' imaginations, barring the fact that the Doctor was the one to instigate the cataclysm which ended it.

At first glance, this event would seem the worst possible place to set a standalone story, being as integral to continuity as it is. The story would have to establish the Time Lord society, who the Daleks are and why they are out to destroy the universe, all before leading into the meat of the story: how the War started and ended. 

I would argue, though, that the most difficult aspects of this would have to be tackled in a fresh origin story anyway: concepts like the TARDIS, or an alien visitor from a civilisation of time-travelling galactic overlords, require the same explanation whether in a reboot of the mythology or in the middle of it. There is also no reason that the story has to be literally set in the midst of the Time War itself: Davies established that the human race weren't developed enough to be aware of the terrible battles taking place throughout the galaxy, so it is quite plausible for an Earth-based story to be occurring at this point in the timeline with no visible effects on the human race. Why shouldn't the Daleks, for example, be hatching a plan to conquer Earth for its resources or strategic value?

Besides, if a time-travelling character is to be introduced to a new audience, would it not be even more thrilling were he not only a time-travelling soldier, but a pacifist time-travelling soldier desperate to end an invisible war that could destroy all of time and space? If it is all seen through the eyes of a fresh companion, the story is not a million miles away from the first Star Wars, a perfect example of deep but accessible science fiction.

For fans, a story set during this time period would deepen a key element of the series mythology, while for newcomers it could function as a science fiction thriller, doubling as an allegory about the nature of war against an invisible enemy: a potent topic these days. Were Paul McGann cast again in the lead role - he may be almost twenty years older, but that can be explained away in how the Doctor is known to age and that he's having to endure the horrors of war - it would give the writers the opportunity to flesh out the least developed of the character's eleven official incarnations to date, operating outside the television series (and in line with how McGann's Doctor has only been seen in movie form to date) but within continuity.

The danger is that a war-based story could be too heavy for the series' most appealing elements - the humour and slightly bonkers charm - to shine. Again, my answer would be to look towards the original Star Wars trilogy, which balanced some pretty dark concepts (a galaxy ruled by dictatorial overlords out to crush a small group of rebels) with a great deal of silliness and wit.

A movie adaptation of a television series has to feel like its leap to the big screen is justified and rebooting the whole series seems like a cop-out when there exists such a fantastic opportunity to tell the story of the biggest off-screen event in Who history, which has been left vague enough that it could easily function as an accessible independent story for newcomers. On a personal note, Paul McGann gave a wonderful performance in the otherwise dismal television movie, and I would love to see him get a second shot at establishing his take on the character under better circumstances. For those concerned about his lack of star power, I would doubt that many big names would fit a role as idiosyncratic as the Doctor to begin with, for fear of overwhelming a part that needs to be surprising. Better to put big names in the villain or companion roles, as the television series has often done on special occasions.

Of course, none of this is ever going to happen: Yates is almost certain to stick with his mission statement and do a one-time reboot of the series. (Although if it does take him two or three years, as envisioned, the movie's release would almost certainly miss the series' fiftieth anniversary in November 2013, which would seem the only time in which such a production could be justified). However, should Steven Moffat, or whomever takes charge of the series after him, decide that a canonical movie might not be a bad idea, at least the opportunities are out there for the greatest show in the galaxy to get the big-screen outing it has long deserved.

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