Like a lot of people, I grew up with Star Wars. By that, I mean the originals- the ‘original’ originals, even. So I admit I greeted the purchase of the franchise by Disney with a degree of trepidation. It seems they plan to wring every last dollar out of the fans by releasing not just a new trilogy, but also a number of stand-alone films. This, along with George Lucas’ own constant tinkering with the originals and the dire prequels, should serve to remind us in the tenth anniversary year how bloody lucky we’ve been with the return of Doctor Who.
The return of Who and the resurrection of Star Wars are a bit similar: both came back after a sixteen-year gap to much hype and expectation and, in the case of this second resurgence, with a fan at the helm – JJ Abrams, a man with a track record as long as your light saber in rebooting franchises. His enthusiasm for the source material is evident, so why is the return of Star Wars so utterly soulless compared to the development of new Who?
There’s a difference between making a fan your producer and having a producer who’s a fan. Both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat are seasoned industry professionals who have a genuine, unalloyed affection for Doctor Who. Their love of the concept and the ethos of the show is filtered through the technical skills and industry savvy of their professional lives with the result that, when the series returned in 2005, its success was guaranteed. RTD took what was great about the show, tweaked it for modern tastes and turned his love letter to the original show into ratings gold.
However, making a fan your producer can be like putting the proverbial kid in the proverbial sweet shop. Will they be selective or will they gorge themselves? Disney’s pockets are sufficiently deep that, if they want Hollywood’s number one fanboy to bring back their cash-cow acquisition, they can get him. But it hasn’t worked elsewhere. Josh Trank has quit one of the many as-yet-unidentified spin-offs, citing ‘differences’. Disney won’t worry; when it comes to directors, to quote Yoda, there is another. It’s a production line, proving Disney aren’t the Magic Kingdom- they’re the Death Star.
Making a fan your producer can be like putting the proverbial kid in the proverbial sweet shop. Will they be selective or will they gorge themselves?
Credit where credit’s due: George Lucas took a tough-sell concept and created a multi-million dollar franchise. But his was a very singular, serious vision; there’s no intentionally funny side to Star Wars. In the cinema where I saw Attack of the Clones, people laughed at the fight between Yoda and Count Dooku. Why wouldn’t they? It’s an octogenarian actor having a scrap with a Muppet. Then there’s the dialogue – as Harrison Ford once famously told Lucas: ‘you can type this s**t, but you can’t say it’. It will be interesting to see what Abrams does on both counts.
By contrast, Doctor Who is very much a team effort. Down the years, that team has been exceptionally diverse, taking in Buddhists, communists, Cambridge graduates, philosophers, comedians, journalists and assorted mavericks, all bringing their life experiences and perspectives to the table, to produce a show whose stars have included an aspiring footballer, a radio comedian, a former hod carrier and a man who hammered nails up his own nose. ‘Eclectic’ doesn’t cover it! Absurd, even, but then Who is a show that’s often at its best when its tongue is in its cheek. It starts with Ian’s refusal to believe that the mystery of time travel is going to be solved in a junkyard with a Police Box, and comes up to date with Matt Smith’s ‘mad man in a box’, via the ‘wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey’ explanation of the universe. The Doctor has always faced the dangers of the universe with an eminently quotable line, the big difference being that, for the most part, it’s the sort of s**t that can be both written down and said.
To reiterate, we have been very fortunate with the return of Doctor Who. The concept is almost infinitely flexible and can go off in any number of directions. At the heart of that is an imagination and a wonderfully British sense of humour that has sometimes helped carry that concept through situations where there wasn’t the money to quite bring the writer’s vision to the screen. Horror of Fang Rock is probably my favourite Who story – one that overcame budgetary constraints, an enforced move to another studio and a monster made of swarfega by strength of an amazing script, committed performances and taut direction.
It’s far more than that, though. The care and attention that made Who inspired us as fans to be here now, sitting and writing about it. It inspired other fans to get into the industry and, more importantly, others still to bring the show back. Yes, there’s been a degree of revisionism, but it’s been integral to taking the show forward. We aren’t treated to pointless retreads (the Han-Greedo ‘who shoots first?’ debacle that’s merited four re-releases of the same film): the people who make it care.
The key, then, is integrity. Yes, I will almost certainly go and see The Force Awakens, but it won’t rekindle the enthusiasm I once had for Star Wars – too much damage has been wrought on it by the very person whose legacy it represents. Interestingly, Horror of Fang Rock came out in the same year as Star Wars: I adore one and merely enjoy the other. I can probably recite both verbatim, though one is slightly more difficult than the other, because you may indeed be able to type that s**t, but you really can’t say it…