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Parallel Franchises and Keeping Them Alive: Star Trek and Doctor Who

I have been reading two excellent, and very long, books about Star Trek by Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross: The Fifty Year Mission – The First 25 Years and The Fifty Year Mission – The Next 25 Years. Together, these weigh in at 1200 pages of admirably well-researched interviews with crew, cast, and writers of the different incarnations of Star Trek. They focus particularly on producers, writers, and rewriters. Some of the stories make your hair curl and stand on end. I thought some of the disputes behind the scenes on Who over the years were pretty nasty, but, compared with the infighting on Trek, they look like polite disagreements over whether the cucumber sandwiches should be served with or without crusts

Altman and Gross’s excellent books illuminate the history of, perhaps surprisingly, both shows and give us some new ideas about how to think about Doctor Who.

Doctor Who and Star Trek have parallel and similar histories. The original series of Star Trek could be deemed a shadow to the “classic” series of Doctor Who. Both were shown on national networks in their home countries (NBC and BBC); both were wildly popular with their fans and intermittently popular with the general public; both were threatened with cancellation at several points in the run.

It’s well known that Paramount and NBC intended to pull the plug on Star Trek at the end of its second series in 1968; a third series was only grudgingly ordered after a huge letter writing campaign, in part orchestrated behind the scenes by the production office and Gene Roddenberry. The classic series of Doctor Who had, of course, a much longer run than the original series of Star Trek – 26 seasons as opposed to three – but was similarly, regularly, threatened with cancellation by an unimpressed network. Verity Lambert reluctantly prepared to wrap the programme up after 12 episodes: 10 million viewers a week for The Daleks in 1963-4 secured the initial run of 48 episodes. Cancellation was again considered in 1966 (Hartnell leaving) and, surprisingly, in 1970 after Jon Pertwee’s successful first season. Pertwee came back to fight the Autons and the Master in Season 8 largely because the BBC couldn’t think of a replacement programme. Doctor Who was reasonably secure until 1981 and the end of Tom Baker’s run, although Richard Marson writes (in The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner) that, from Peter Davison’s Season 19, it was far from loved within the BBC: programme executives would ask, from year to year, “Um, I suppose we continue with Doctor Who?” Of course, the programme was actually cancelled in 1985, in spite of reasonable viewing figures for Colin Baker’s first season, on the outrageous grounds that Michael Grade personally hated it.

At this point, 1985, Doctor Who history converges with 1968 Star Trek history. Both shows were renewed, in part, because of fan campaigns to save them – and campaigns that were, in part, orchestrated by the production offices. Gene Roddenberry’s office encouraged fans to write to NBC to demand a third season of Star Trek: Nathan Turner actually fed inside information to fan Ian Levene while the latter was on the phone to The Sun. That newspaper’s article, Dr Who Axed in Plot by the BBC, largely prompted a furious BBC to renew the show that it wanted to bury. The BBC let it be known in 1985 that Doctor Who was to be rested, not cancelled, oh dear me no, and would come back bigger and better and with even more episodes per season – 14 x 25 minute episodes, weren’t we the lucky ones!

But the networks took their revenge on the series which were no longer loved. Star Trek was relegated to the graveyard slot of 10pm on Friday nights and a very unhappy Gene Roddenberry withdrew his full attention from the show. Fred Freiburger, the Chris Chibnall of 1969 (later responsible for Space: 1999 – nuff said), took over most of the producer duties. The budget was cut and the quality of the third season episodes nosedived. There was to be no fourth season and NBC gladly rid itself of Star Trek at the end of 1969. In 1985, the BBC took its parallel revenge on Doctor Who: an 18-month hiatus, a halving in the running time, and, at the end of The Trial of a Time Lord, a demand that Colin Baker be replaced by a new Doctor. Like Roddenberry before him, the show’s disaffected producer – John Nathan-Turner – wanted to move on. He was told that he would not be given another show to produce at the BBC and, if he left, Doctor Who would be cancelled. As with Season 3 of Star Trek, unhappiness behind the scenes inevitably affected what made it onto the screen and the last four seasons of classic Who were arguably much less sure-footed than earlier seasons.

Then came the hiatus in production for both shows: 10 years for Star Trek – 1969 to 1979 – and 16 years for Doctor Who: 1989 to 2005. Altman and Gross argue that Star Trek only really became a cult show, embraced by millions, because of syndication: the endless rerunning of episodes on local TV stations in America. Overseas sales conferred international cult status: Trek arrived in the United Kingdom in 1969 and was screened as a replacement for Doctor Who on Saturday evenings, after the end of The War Games. That was why American fans lobbied so hard for a third season: only with a third season would Star Trek have enough episodes to make it to syndication. Had it ended after Season 2, the programme – in those days before domestic video recorders – would have been lost for ever.

We could suggest that Doctor Who’s long-term survival was similarly aided by the sale of Tom Baker’s first four seasons to Time Life television in the USA in 1978. A package of Jon Pertwee episodes had been distributed in the USA in the mid-1970s but the show had never fully caught on: only with the arrival of Baker’s stories did the show penetrate the PBS networks and become wildly popular, if not widely known and widely viewed. Unlike The Avengers, Doctor Who never got a national network slot on American television.

Without the American syndication, we would never have had the 1996 TV Movie (who said, “good”?). That this was Philip Segal’s attempt to launch a new series stateside is demonstrated by Paul McGann’s signing of a five year contract as the Doctor. It could tentatively be argued that American interest in Who, and American money, helps to prop up the programme today. Certainly, overseas pre-sales finance the current era of the show.

So, in the States in the 1970s, Star Trek lived on in endless re-runs, books, comics, merchandise, novels, novelisations, conventions. In the United Kingdom in the Nineties and Noughties, Doctor Who lived on in books, comics, magazines, novels, novelisations, conventions, booming VHS sales, endless repeats on cable television (UK Gold ran an omnibus of a whole story every Sunday morning – happy days!), and merchandise. And in the USA and the UK, Paramount and the BBC started to wonder if it wasn’t worth resurrecting the franchises that they had wanted to kill…

Star Trek – The Animated Series (1973-4) was seen by Roddenberry as a place marker. It kept the show alive while attempts to revive it as a live action venture coalesced. In 1977, Paramount announced that the television show would be revived with the original cast as Star Trek: Phase II (Leonard Nimoy, heartily sick of Paramount and the programme, refused to return as Spock and a new Vulcan science officer was created). Then the TV show was put on hold and it was announced that Trek was going to return as a movie. No, as a TV show. A movie! A TV show! A movie! 10 years after cancellation, the franchise was relaunched as Star Trek – The Motion Picture in 1979. It was enormously expensive and was neither a commercial nor a critical success.

In the UK in the early 1990s, BBC Enterprises was delighted by Doctor Who’s VHS sales figures. The VHS release of The Tomb of the Cybermen – returned to the archives from Hong Kong in 1991 – went to the top of the video charts in WHSmith. Enterprises said at the time it wanted to ‘give something back to the fans’ and, in 1993, Lost in the Dark Dimension was commissioned as a straight-to-video Doctor Who special to coincide with the programme’s 30th anniversary. Several hundred thousand pounds were spent on pre-production, but all floundered on rights issues and – something very familiar to those versed in behind-the-scenes shenanigans on Star Trek – internal politics at the network. BBC programming protested that BBC Enterprises was a marketing company and was not in the business of making programmes; Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker, and Peter Davison protested about the script. In the end, Philip Segal vetoed the project as muddying the waters of his attempt to bring Doctor Who back as an American production.

Eventually, the 1996 Paul McGann TV movie emerged. It could be seen as the equivalent of Star Trek – The Motion Picture: an unsuccessful attempt to restart the franchise. The TV Movie did well in the UK but bombed in the States as it was scheduled against the ratings giant, Roseanne. It wasn’t until Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan in 1982, and Russell T Davies’s Doctor Who in 2005, that the two franchises were successfully relaunched.

So, we have parallel structures to the two franchises. How else does the history of Star Trek shed light on Doctor Who? In the second of their books, Altman and Gross detail the nightmare history of writing for Star Trek: The Next Generation, which sucked in and spat out writers more quickly than Bill Shatner could rip his shirt off. One problem for what was now an ageing franchise: how do you keep generating enough material for a programme churning out 26 x 45 minute episodes a year without simply going over ground already covered by the movies and the original series? One solution was by mining the show’s mythology. Thus, we had arcs which explored the history and culture of the Federation, the Klingons, the Romulans, the Vulcans… Given the sheer number of television hours produced, such further consolidation of the fictional world – and mining the back catalogue – was probably inevitable. Peter Jackson found himself in a similar situation while simultaneously writing and making The Lord of the Rings movies. Jackson said that filming was like laying tracks for a mighty train that was hurtling at speed towards you. The scriptwriter was frantically laying down track for it, barely ahead of its wheels, to keep the filming on schedule and the train on the tracks.

The side effect for The Next Generation (and the later Star Trek television series), as Star Trek writers acknowledge in Altman and Gross’s book, is that exploring your show’s mythology in such detail meant that viewers needed an increasingly detailed understanding of the franchise’s history in order to understand what they were watching, let alone enjoy it. These writers and commentators said that the original series of Star Trek was accessible to everyone because it told adventure stories with a minimum of baggage: everyone could understand and enjoy it. Subsequent incarnations of Star Trek turned increasingly inward, required an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Star Trek history and could only be understood by fans. Thus a programme popular with the casual viewer became cult programmes which alienated the general audience. The consequence was declining viewing figures and consequent early cancellation of, at the very least, Enterprise (later, Star Trek: Enterprise) (2001-2005).

Doctor Who hit similar problems in the last four years of its classic run. Demoralised beyond words by the BBC’s hatred of the programme – which was clear to the production team, if muted to the general public – script editor Eric Saward and producer John Nathan-Turner turned, in desperation, to the programme’s back catalogue for Colin Baker’s second season. The Trial of a Time Lord was, Saward freely admitted, a canny auto-referential title to the programme itself being on trial at the BBC. There was no guarantee that Doctor Who would be renewed after Trial and the order for a new season only came after production on it had wrapped – on the condition that the Doctor was recast. Trial repeated the premise of episode ten of The War Games from 1969: the Doctor was tried by his own people for violating the policy of non-interference in the affairs of other planets. The lift was so blatant that it was acknowledged on screen: the character of the Inquisitor mentioned in episode one that the Doctor had been tried for these offences before.

After the confusion of Sylvester McCoy’s first season, Andrew Cartmel also revisited the programme’s mythology – not just by repeating it, but by attempting to rewrite (or at least tweak) it. The Doctor was not just a Time Lord but a survivor of the Dark Time of Gallifrey, a temporal engineer like Omega and Rassilon, who had escaped from Gallifrey not just with a TARDIS but with a clutch of world-destroying devices… In the end, the Cartmel masterplan only made it to the screen in the form of irritating little hints: “Nobody knows who the Doctor is!” exclaimed Ace, when viewers thought, well, we thought we did: he’s a Time Lord, a Prydonian renegade with twelve regenerations… 32 years after Cartmel’s masterplan, Chris Chibnall turned to retrospective continuity (retcon) again with Jodie Whittaker’s second season as the Doctor: the Doctor was not a Time Lord but an alien from outside time with the ability to regenerate ad infinitum, which was passed on to the Time Lords.

The combination of the need to find new ideas for a very old franchise, plus the need not to re-use ideas that had been used before (although Star Trek and Who writers cheerfully admitted that they recycled plots), plus the desperation of having scripts ready for shooting, then, led both Star Trek and Doctor Who to turn in on themselves. By doing so, both franchises alienated the general audience – and, for Doctor Who in 2020 and 1988- 89, accomplished the remarkable dual feat of alienating many of its fans as well. Both franchises became seen as geeky and cultish by the general viewer, and the viewing figures – on the original screening in the home countries – declined. In 1989, the general public stopped watching Doctor Who and the BBC, sighing with relief, used the excuse of low ratings to cancel the show. Wise from the experience of 1985, the word “cancellation” was never used and the BBC smoothly told any concerned parties that the programme would return when the time was right: better that than “a battle-weary Time Lord” languishing in the backwaters of audience popularity.

In 2009, J.J.Abrams solved the pitfalls of retconning and mining back catalogues by sweeping the lot away and starting again, with his film Star Trek. Casino Royale (2006) did the same with the James Bond franchise. Abrams avoided continuity problems by setting his film in a parallel timeline, thus insisting that his version did not rewrite or undermine any other version and allowing these core Star Trek universes to co-exist. Both Casino Royale and Star Trek (2009) retained the tropes and fun that we had come to expect from their respective franchises. The films were tremendously successful, Star Trek (2009) making $386 million worldwide. Is this the solution for Doctor Who? To begin the story again with the young Doctor leaving Gallifrey, learning again how to travel through space and time…?

What about the cultural impact of the programmes? How else were the programmes intertwined? In the United Kingdom in the 1970s, Star Trek was endlessly repeated on BBC 1. It was far better known in the UK than Doctor Who was in the United States, even after the widespread distribution of Tom Baker episodes post-1978. (Philip Segal ruefully recalled presenting his bible for an American series of Doctor Who to television executives in the 1990s, saying, isn’t this great? “To you, maybe,” they replied. “To us, it’s just gobbledegook” – a reply from people completely unfamiliar with Who.) Patrick Troughton apparently loved Star Trek. Both shows were immensely popular and were even paired in the popular consciousness. When I was at primary school from 1970-1977, both were regularly played in the playground. Some of my friends liked Doctor Who best and some of them liked Star Trek best; those who preferred Star Trek said Doctor Who was their second favourite show, and those who preferred Doctor Who said Star Trek was their second favourite show. (I was in the latter camp.) Children were often given both the Star Trek and Doctor Who annuals for Christmas (the Star Trek annuals reprinted old 1960s comic strips which hadn’t previously been published in the UK).

There has been some traffic from Star Trek to Doctor Who at the level of television production and this has, on occasions, been acknowledged by the makers of Who. Interviewed in the 1970s, producer Graham Williams said that Doctor Who was unlike Star Trek in that, while Captain Kirk and Mr Spock might explicitly discuss the ethics of this week’s episode, you would never get that in Doctor Who. (As I remember this interview, which is in a copy of a fanzine long lost, Williams went on to say that Who emphasised telling the adventure story rather than have the characters comment on it: Chibnall, take note.) 1973’s Frontier in Space was an attempt to do a space opera for Doctor Who and seemed to owe a debt – never acknowledged – to the space battles of Star Trek, even down to the camera shaking and the actors throwing themselves around as their spaceship is fired on by aliens.

Doctor Who’s production values were often unfavourably compared to Star Trek’s. Michael Grade’s minions at the BBC let it be known that Doctor Who looked cheap and dreadful next to the new television series of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was one reason why Who was ripe for the chop.

But did the producers of Star Trek know anything about Doctor Who? Who fans had their suspicions: the character of the Traveller in Season 1 of The Next Generation shared some features of the Doctor and the Borg seemed very, very like the Daleks and the Cybermen. Did the Borg owe them a debt? Were they a rip-off? It was never acknowledged. There were attempts to remount Doctor Who as a film in the 1990s and a script found its way into the hands of Leonard Nimoy, fresh from directing two of the Star Trek movies. He had a meeting with Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, who were in the States for a Who convention. Almost nothing has been said about what was discussed, and the film, of course, came to nothing. George Takei was once asked if he had ever seen Doctor Who and said he was aware of it. He had been at a convention when Patrick Troughton had been another guest; Troughton was found to have passed away in the night. “It was a big shock,” said Takei.

Star Trek and Doctor Who have a parallel history. Both franchises have huge international fanbases and there are even those (heretics!) who profess to be fans of both. What can the Who fanbase learn from its Trek counterpart? Trek fans, like Who fans, are not uncritical lappers up of everything that is offered to them and seem comfortable about preferring some parts of the franchise to others. It seems acceptable to Trek fans to like, say, The Next Generation more than Discovery and no one is saying that you can only be called a fan if you adore every episode of the franchise produced in every form.

Unlike Star Trek, Doctor Who is not a selection of different shows and films with different characters, set in the same universe, but a single show with a changing cast. The Doctor of 2020 is the same Doctor of 1963 (discuss): he/she still wanders through time and space in a TARDIS that looks like a police box. Perhaps Star Trek fans find it easier to compartmentalise their likings than Who fans because they can attach them to different programmes: to the original series, to The Next Generation, to VoyagerWho is one programme, not several, and it might seem more difficult to justify liking some parts of it but not others. There is a perceived pressure on Who fans to like every episode, or at least era, of the 57 year old series. Indeed, a branch of Who fandom now insinuates that you can’t call yourself a fan of Doctor Who if you don’t like the Jodie Whittaker/Chibnall stories. It’s interesting that such absolutism kicks in when the programme is in trouble. Similar claims were made at the end of the 1970s, when Tom Baker’s penultimate season as the Doctor was heavily criticised in the fan press: some fans protested that if you didn’t like the series as it was, you obviously weren’t a fan. (Graham Williams himself weighed in in Doctor Who Appreciation Society publications, asking fans somewhat wearily to enjoy the programme first and only then to criticise it, “which you obviously will!”) Perhaps the absolutism, the demand for loyalty, arises from a desperate need to shut one’s mind to poor writing, popular derision, and declining viewing figures (of the late Seventies and 2020). Only believe that Doctor Who has always been brilliant and still is absolutely brilliant, and all will be well.

Where are we now? Star Trek strides forward in Star Trek: Picard, Discovery, and the recently-announced Strange New Worlds; Doctor Who has been renewed for at least one more season, probably to be broadcast in 2021. Star Trek remains confident, Who is in more trouble, critically panned and with declining ratings: it’s Who, Jim, but not as we know it. In the end, both will continue to be made as long as they make money for Paramount and the BBC. When they cease to do so, the plug will be pulled and the Enterprise and the TARDIS will sail off into the Antares Nebula and the space/time vortex … for good? (Or ill?)

Frank Danes

Parallel Franchises and Keeping Them Alive: Star Trek and Doctor Who

by Frank Danes time to read: 15 min
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