Science fiction double feature
"Space ... the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
Its continuing mission - to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new
civilisations. To boldly go where no-one has gone before."
So begins, as if you couldn't guess, the new series of Star Trek, which, by an amazing
leap of the imagination, is called Star Trek - The Next Generation. (Well, I suppose it's
marginally better than Star Trek 2.) Yes, but so what? cry a multitude of Dr Who fans,
what has this got to do with us.
On a basic level, nothing, I suppose. It's just that I've been looking at this new series
(or at least what little has permeated over here) and I can't help feeling that here are
to be found a few lessons for Doctor Who, if it is to survive into the 1990s. Now, Star
Trek - The Next Generation (TNG for short) is far from the ideal science-fiction series,
and I would hate to see Doctor Who copy it to any real degree, but there are some lessons
to be learnt from this particular example of US mass-SF. ST-TNG is not another Buck Rogers
or Battlestar Galactica (Thank God) - what it is is another Star Trek, or rather Star Trek
as it would have been if it had been made today. As American tv goes it's really rather
good, although compared to the best of British programmes it rates about as highly as
Doctor Who itself (ie. not very highly at all).
There are several areas where the new Star Trek leads the way in current tv-SF, though,
and the most obvious of these is in Special Effects. Doctor Who's SFX in recent years have
varied between ludicrous extremes - at the one end there are the odd shots such as the
spaceship from Trial, which outclassed anything ever seen in tv Star Trek, whilst at the
other we have ultra-cheap done-for-fivepence effects such as those that littered
Bannermen. The new series of Star Trek has some pretty neat model-work, with the effects,
like Dr Who, usually a mixture of film and video. (Yes, I know it was shot on film, but it
was edited on video, and this means that we who are privileged to have 625-line PAL are
forever doomed to see the new Trek as a grotty 525-line conversion (a la Dallas). In
practice this doesn't seem to matter that much, although to be honest some of the copies
of TNG that I've seen so far have been "amateur" conversions of US tapes, so the
quality should be a bit better once the BBC finally get to show it.)
The shots of the new Enterprise are nothing short of stunning, but they are not
technically that ambitious - certainly nothing that the BBC could not do. Indeed, recent
stories such as Dragonfire or Time and the Rani had a similar standard of model-work. The
difference is that Star Trek has consistency : it isn't a case of one minute an amazing
special effect, the next cardboard sets and tinfoil monsters, one story Star Wars-type
space-craft, the next Dinky toys on a piece of string. Okay, so Doctor Who doesn't have a
fraction of the budget of Star Trek, but when stories such as the ones quoted above are
capable of stretching to include convincing model work it does beg the question, why not
all of them? One of the main problems in Doctor Who is the video effects, in particularly
CSO, used so atrociously in Bannermen. Star Trek also uses video effects, but they are
skillfully blended in with the filmed models, with careful lighting, etc., so that one
literally "can't see the join".
But all this is merely gloss, and that isn't what we watch Doctor Who for, right? The
BBC's most humble of SF programmes can never hope to achieve a tenth of Star Trek's
massive budget, and the emphasis has always firmly been on characters and situations. But
in this area, too, the new Star Trek leads the way. Its leading characters are on the
whole interesting - you care what happens to them. Not something I think one can really
say about Mel or Ace! Patrick Stewart's Captain is as far from Jim Kirk as is imaginable
("to baldly go ..."), not least in that he can actually act. Captain Jean-Luc
Picard dominates every scene he is in, and the character is possessed of just the right
amount of humour to avoid the po-faced moralising and seriousness that the old Star Trek
was occasionally accused of. The relationship between characters is the key to the whole
drama, and this is how it should be in all television. Look at the success of, say,
Moonlighting to see how important interaction and dialogue can be. On a different level
entirely, there is BBC North West's Red Dwarf (ironically a low-budget comedy with effects
as good as, if not better than, Doctor Who's), whose success is attributable, as with all
comedy, to the characters and their relationship. This, of course, is where Doctor Who
really falls down badly. I haven't yet seen enough of Sylvester's Doctor and Ace as a
double act to comment on the future, but past Doctor-Companion combinations hardly inspire
confidence. (Memories of the Sixth Doctor and Peri come horribly to mind.) The
relationship between the Seventh Doctor and Mel may have been realistic for the characters
concerned, but it was hardly riveting entertainment. The fault lies in the scripts, in the
lack of "sparkling" dialogue. I am convinced that Sylvester McCoy has in him the
ability to be a truly great Doctor, but unfortunately many of his lines leave a lot to
be desired (but I think Ian has said more than enough on this subject already).
To go back to Red Dwarf for a moment, I can see that this could be where the future of
Doctor Who lies. Not in turning the programme into an out and out comedy half-hour, of
course, but in following the current trend visible in Doctor Who and placing the emphasis
firmly on entertaining the viewers. A sort of Moonlighting in space? Why not?
There are, of course, many die-hard fans out there to whom such radicalism would be an
anethma, who would scream out "BUT IT'S NOT DOCTOR WHO!", and of course they
would be right. But the programme as it stands today is not Doctor Who, or at least not
the Doctor Who that I remember. Season 24 stands as living (?) proof of JNT's desire to
turn Doctor Who into a light entertainment show.
There is nothing inherently wrong in this.
But, if this is the cours we that the programme is to take into the nineties, I feel
that changes need to be made. The BBC may pretend all they like that the ratings are
actually quite acceptable, but in all honesty they have to admit (secretly) that the last
couple of series have bombed, and that something has to be done. The remedy, if it is not
to be a return to the old-style thrills/spills/scaries/drama formula (are we certain that
this would actually work today?), might well be to continue along the path that JNT has
laid out, heading more into the realms of humour and LE, but, hopefully, with an edge of
seriousness that will avoid the high camp recently seen.
I live in hope.
Issue two contents
Five Hundred Eyes index