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July 2005

Suffering from Dr Who withdrawal symptoms, Huw goes in search of decent TV science fiction and ends up on the campaign trail...


Ever since the latest series of Doctor Who ended, I’ve been at a loose end. I’ve been left with nothing to watch on TV except wall-to-wall soap operas, chat shows and a highly artificial form of entertainment called ‘Reality TV’. This explains why I have been rummaging through my stock of DVDs in search of something worth watching of an evening.

The collaborative encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, has a good entry on Firefly.
The entries on Farscape and Doctor Who are worth checking too.

Thank Heaven for Firefly! Perhaps the most intelligent science fiction series (other than Dr Who, of course) to have emerged in recent years. The scripts, the acting, the wit and the style put better known series such as Star Trek to shame.

Now, it’s quite possible that you’ve never heard of Firefly. Even though it was created by the Joss Whedon, the man behind Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly has never been widely aired on mainstream TV channels. This is explained by the fact that Fox TV, who commissioned it, lost faith and pulled the plug at a very early stage. Only one series of the show was ever made and Fox didn’t even bother showing all the episodes.

In past times, if a TV network pulled a show, the best that most fans could do would be to moan amongst themselves or write angry letters for TV executive to toss into their waste bins. These days, thanks for the Internet, fans have a far more creative and visible outlet for their anger. For Firefly, the first rallying point was an Internet campaign called Firefly: Immediate Assistance (http://firefly-support.com). In time, Firefly blogs and fan sites appeared such as http://www.fireflyfans.net/, not to mention a Wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firefly_(television_series).

All of which demonstrates that, while Fox TV may not have liked Firefly, an awful lot of viewers did. Thankfully, Whedon stuck with the project and set to work on a big screen movie version called Serenity (http://www.serenitymovie.com/) which will be at cinema near you in September. I only hope it lives up to the TV series. That will certainly be a hard act to follow….

Farscaped Crusaders

A well coordinated Internet campaign can be a powerful thing. Some campaigns are literally life-and-death struggles. For example, the West Memphis Three site campaigns to overturn what some people believe to be a miscarriage of justice which has condemned three innocent men (http://www.wm3.org). Other sites campaign for everything from freedom for Tibet (http://www.freetibet.org/) to abolition of the death penalty in the USA (http://www.nodeathpenalty.org/).

The aims of these campaigns are, of course, far more serious than those of fans campaigning for the preservation of TV series. However, few of them can hope to generate the same degree of fervour as an online network of angry fans. If only they could, their prospects of achieving their aims would probably be much improved.

No, this isn't a picture of Huw taken while watching reality TV.
It is, of course, the wonderful villain, Scorpius, featured on the Watch Farscape site.

A dramatic example of concerted fan-power was provided by the campaign to save Farscape. Just in case you missed it (your loss, not mine!), I’d better explain that Farscape was a science fiction series made in Australia by the man behind the Muppets. Nope, I didn’t think that sounded too promising when I first heard of it either. In fact, Farscape proved to be some of the most innovative, dramatic, funny, frightening and downright gripping television of recent years. Unfortunately, it was also expensive to make. When the Sci Fi channel decided not to pay for another series in 2002, it looked as if Farscape was destined for an early grave.

The fans were having none of it. Web sites, blogs and forums sprung up like mushrooms after rain. Pretty soon an aggressive email campaign had been launched, inundating the Sci Fi Channel with pleas and complaints. The Save Farscape web site (now called Watch Farscape) was, at one time, reputedly getting about 600,000 hits a day. In the end, the fans won and a Farscape miniseries, ‘The Peacekeeper Wars’ was produced, tying up many of the loose ends that were left dangling at the untimely end of the previous series. More on Farscape here: http://www.watchfarscape.com/ and here: http://starburstcards.com/KarlswebNewscape/index.htm and here: http://www.farscapeworld.com/.

Who’s That Man?

All of which brings me back to Doctor Who. If you are unfamiliar with Dr Who, I think I can safely say that you don’t live in Britain. Dr Who is a TV institution in the UK. The series tells the story of a time traveller whose time machine, The Tardis, happens to look like a police phone box. This itself is an anachronism since police boxes haven’t been seen on the streets of Britain for many a long year. The Doctor’s arch enemies are alien half-robot creatures called the Daleks. Having typed the above sentences in Microsoft Word, I am shocked to find that both ‘Tardis’ and ‘Dalek’ are shown as spelling mistakes (the best suggestions Word can make are ‘Tardifs’ and ‘Dale’). How preposterous! ‘Tardis’ and ‘Dalek’ are part of everyday speech in Britain.

At last the BBC seems to have regained confidence in Doctor Who.
Visit the web site for information, pictures and video clips.

Dr Who was first broadcast by the BBC way back in 1963. Initially he was played (superbly) by William Hartnell as a curmudgeonly old character. In subsequent years the role was taken on by another six actors on TV and by Peter Cushing in a couple of movies. The Doctor has a neat trick of ‘regenerating’ when one actor leaves the series and another arrives. With each regeneration, not only his face but also his clothes and his personality change, which means that no two doctors are alike.

While this is a neat trick, unfortunately what tended to happen over time was that the rough edges of subsequent doctors became more and more worn away. The spiky and unpredictable character created by William Hartnell eventually turned into a family-friendly and rather ‘cuddly’ chap. It was increasingly apparent that the BBC had lost interest in Dr Who. Towards the end the last series, in 1989, many of the scripts were poor and the production values were frequently abysmal (wobbly sets and aliens in rubber masks). The Doctor was brought back for an ill conceived one-off UK/USA coproduction in 1996 but I shall pass over that in silence.

Then, for almost a decade, Dr Who vanished from our screens. New and old adventures occasionally popped up on the radio. And a huge number of devoted fan sites kept the Doctor’s memory alive on the Web. Finally, in 2003, the BBC yielded to pressure and a new Doctor Who series was put into production and was broadcast in the first half of 2005. The guiding force behind the series was one Russell T Davies, a script writer who was previously best known for a the series, Queer As Folk, about gay men in Manchester.

Davies may have sounded like an odd choice for a series which had previously been regarded as ‘something for the kiddies’. Fortunately, the new series, with Christopher Eccleston at the Doctor, provide to be a much more grown up affair than its immediate predecessors. For the first time since the ‘60s, a real darkness had entered the series. Frightening and disturbing elements rubbed shoulders with the downright silly and absurd.

Go to Dalek City to find out how to build a Dalek of your very own.

For more information on Dr Who, see A Brief History of Time Travel http://www.physics.mun.ca/~sps/drwho.html, Who Space http://www.drwho.org/ , The Dr Who Reference Guide http://www.drwhoguide.com/, Outpost Gallifrey http://www.gallifreyone.com/ and the fine BBC site which includes video clips from the latest series and some older ones http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/. Dalek fans should certainly visit Dalek Links http://www.daleklinks.co.uk/. And if you have a bit of spare time on your hands, you can build yourself a Dalek using the plans here: http://www.wilson203.freeserve.co.uk/Dalek%20Plans.html and here: http://www.dalekcity.co.uk/

If you happen to live in part of the world in which Dr Who hasn’t yet been broadcast on TV, you may be wondering what you can do to rectify that sad situation?

May I suggest that you launch an Internet campaign…

Copyright © 2009 Dark Neon Ltd. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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