The Cornell Effect: Being a Fan

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Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 21/12/2020 - 12:22am in

Never Mind the Magma Creature, Here's the Caves of Androzani

I have on several occasions unsuccessfully tried to explain the virtues of fandom to my friend and occasional acting coach Tony Wickert (director of, among other things, numerous episodes of Z-Cars but no Doctor Who; Verity Lambert approached him, but he turned it down!).

It is vital that the object of your fandom is not uniformly excellent. It should be occasionally excellent, mostly good, sometimes bad, and every now and then absolutely atrocious. Such variation encourages the development of the cultural literacy necessary to explain it, and contributes to the depth and richness of one's appreciation of any work of art. A consistent work of unalloyed genius would be absolutely useless to this end.

By this measure, the mid-1980s was perhaps the best time to be a Doctor Who fan, regardless of how we felt at the time. When thinking about this period, I can't but recall an excellent article written at the time by the frighteningly prolific Paul Cornell (writer of Father's Day for Christopher Ecclestone's Doctor, and Human Nature for David Tennant, as well as being a one-man industry of print fiction including, but far from limited to, titles within the worlds of Doctor Who of varying levels of canonicity).

Titled "The Androzani Effect", it absolutely nailed what had gone wrong with Doctor Who to produce the appalling first full series of Colin Baker's Doctor in 1985. About five years ago, I was looking for a copy of this article online, and found there was none, but (of course) I had a cardboard box in the cupboard full of fanzines, so I asked Paul via his website if it would be okay if I preserved it for digital posterity, and he very kindly agreed. A few personal developments in the meantime meant that I didn't get round to it until recently. However, before the casual viewer of New Who has a very rewarding read of it, I feel obliged to add my two cents worth of context.

Firstly, one must consider the average age of fandom in 1985. A decade earlier, then producer Philip Hinchcliffe established, in his own mind at least, that the core audience for Doctor Who was "intelligent fourteen-year-olds". I was fourteen years old in 1985. Current Doctor Who showrunner (as far as I can make out, "showrunner" is a merging of the old roles of producer and script editor) Chris Chibnall was fifteen. Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Robert Shearman — basically the authorial class of 2005 New Who — were all teenagers. Emeritus showrunners Russell T. Davies and Stephen Moffat were in their early twenties. When you are fourteen (if my own experience is any guide) you're suddenly taller than your parents, there are hormones raging, and you feel intensely passionate about the oddest things. For some reason the The Famous Five and the Tomorrow People lose their allure, and you're desperate for something that will stretch your imagination and flex your intellectual muscles, because you have an inkling that something big is about to happen, and you need to be ready for it. (Sadly, I'm still waiting.) Suffice it to say that this is an audience you disappoint at your peril.

The aforementioned Hinchcliffe, along with script editor Robert Holmes — a tall, urbane fellow, perpetually wreathed in pipe tobacco smoke, who had been writing for Doctor Who since the 60s — presided over what (to hell with it I'll give up on qualifiers) was the programme's Golden Era. It's this period that most people think of when they consider classic Who. Tom Baker was dazzling and working incredibly hard, rather than phoning it in or sending it up, as he was later inclined to do. Elizabeth Sladen as the indefatigable Sarah Jane Smith was an acting masterclass in every episode; the difference between what she was sometimes given on the page and what she delivered on screen is just amazing. And beneath it all was the work of Robert Holmes, writing, or more often heavily re-writing, the majority of the stories.

Nobody knew the soul of Doctor Who like Holmes. To be sure, other writers have equalled him in one way or another. Stephen Moffat can write dialogue to equal Wilde, but too often Moffat writes his characters from the outside in, and sometimes not very far in. With Holmes, the wit bubbles up from from the core of the character. Often it's when two characters realise they are just fundamentally not on the same page and they are going to have to muddle through as best they can; for the initiated, think Litefoot and Leela's supper in Talons of Weng-Chiang, or Harry and Vira in the Ark in Space.

[I, and I realise I may be in a minority here, love Harry Sullivan. Conventional wisdom says that he was devised to cater for the casting of a Doctor older and less partial to physical action than Jon Pertwee's, and upon the casting of a younger Doctor was relegated to the role of buffoon. I disagree; he was a character who functioned extremely well in a very particular and familiar context, and taken out of that context he adapted in ways that were sometimes sub-optimal, but still revealed his fundamental decency. He ought to be regarded as a template for how to do a companion, not an aberration.]

The point of all this waffle is to say that the story of what went wrong with Doctor Who in the 80s begins with what went wrong with Doctor Who in the 70s. After Hinchcliffe and Holmes left, the program cruised along under the momentum they had given it for a while. At some point, possibly due to the existence of a subsidised bar at the BBC, somebody thought it would be a ripping wheeze to hire the notoriously deadline-averse Douglas Adams as script editor while he was also supposed to be writing the second radio series of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This worked to the detriment of both programmes (despite providing the delightful Adams-penned romp City of Death).

At the same time the second oil crisis of the 1970s hit the UK, causing devastating inflation, the winter of discontent, and strikes such as those which terminated the production of Adams' next story Shada. Due to inflation, budgets planned at the start of a series' run dwindled to nothing by the time it came to produce the last episodes, and the programme, never blessed with the money necessary to realise its ambitions, began to look decidedly cheap. Nobody was at the wheel, and the programme's charismatic star had become lazy and petulant. As commentators subsequently put it, Doctor Who had become, at best, "The Tom Baker Comedy Half-Hour".

Enter a saviour in 1980: John Nathan-Turner, or JN-T to fans, having worked his way up the BBC ladder from floor assistant on shows such as BBC's Doctor Who to the rank of producer for the eighteenth series.

JN-T sincerely loved and believed in Doctor Who; he just didn't understand it.

Fortunately he had new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead, with a history not just as a scriptwriter, but also as a science journalist, and by heavens Bidmead worked himself as hard in that year as Holmes had done previously. The scripts were tighter, and there were thematic threads of varying degrees of subtlety that ran through the series, prefiguring New Who. The errant star, despite being "ill" much of the time (of the kind of illness you might catch in the public bar of the Coach and Horses or the Colony Room) delivered some of his best performances, "reined in" as they say, but still utterly beguiling.

And then the wheels came off. Baker demanded more money, which gave JN-T the opportunity to wish him all the best for the future. Bidmead also left, and JN-T, with no real idea what he was doing, managed to coast along on scripts Bidmead had commissioned for series nineteen, along with no small amount of luck. The casting of Peter Davison as the Doctor could be considered genius, were it not for JN-T's own admission that the reasoning behind it was that he wanted to contrast an older actor with curly hair with a young actor with straight hair. #facepalm

Here's where we get to Cornell's critique. Halfway though series nineteen, a young writer named Eric Saward was taken on as script editor. Like JN-T, he didn't understand Doctor Who, but unlike JN-T I don't think he ever really cared about it.

Saward's universe was bleak, and its inhabitants were constantly bickering to no good end. Endless whining in the Tardis console room was, for Saward, the stuff of drama. It became painful to spend time with these people. Once outside the Tardis (and sometimes even inside), body counts and bloody vengeance were at the core of Saward's 80s Hollywood sensibility.

Davison deployed all his charm in consistently playing against Saward's version of the Doctor: melancholic, irritable, amoral. His successor, Colin Baker. on the other hand, took that brief and ran with it. But first there was the return of Robert Holmes.

JN-T was vehemently opposed to hiring old hands, but Saward, to his credit, felt that Holmes was the person to write the Doctor Who twentieth anniversary special. Holmes wisely refused to shoehorn five Doctors, every supporting actor that could be rounded up, and a grab-bag of old monsters whose costumes hadn't disintegrated while in storage, into ninety minutes. That job fell to his script editing predecessor Terrance Dicks, who did about as well as can be expected with Peter Davison, two other Doctors, a stand-in for one, and some location footage from the unfinished Shada in lieu of an egotistical Baker. Then, for Davison's final story a year later, Saward again turned to Holmes.

Here you should transport yourself back to 1985 and turn to Paul Cornell's insightful analysis. I'll be waiting here till you're done.

Good, wasn't it? I remind you that the author was at an age where many of his peers were still saying things like "Wouldn't it be great if the Cybermen battled the Daleks?". No Russell, it wouldn't! It would be very, very boring!

I desperately tried to enjoy series twenty-two and Colin Baker's Doctor. True, at the age of fifteen, I was probably at my most vulnerable to Saward's excesses (I was also watching a lot of James Bond at the time; a penchant I now find utterly inexplicable). Other criticisms of the show's direction failed to persuade me. Founding member of Australian Doctor Who fandom Antony Howe famously railed against "Doctor Whooligan" and basically quit all association with the program in protest, yet I was unmoved.

Yes, series 22 was, in comparison to its predecessor, a dud series, but it had its bright spots. Vengeance on Varos was at its core a clever variation on prior dystopic tales like the Sun Makers, somehow managing to critique reality television long before the term had even been coined. The Mark of the Rani was an old-school psuedo-historical which ought to have pleased the traditionalists. Holmes' the Two Doctors suffered from a mostly superflous, exposition-heavy first episode and flat direction which utterly failed to take advantage of much-hyped location filming in Spain (an example of JN-T's instinct to produce based on what would make for a good press release while being quite unconcerned by what ended up on the screen), still it is not quite without charm and Swiftian bite ("But I remember a dish… Shepherd's Pie." "Shepherd's Pie? Oh, a shepherd! Can't we walk faster?").

Saward created for the series 22 finale (here I perhaps damn with faint praise) his best credited work on the programme in Revelation of the Daleks. Cornell is of course quite right in identifying it as largely the product of lessons half-learned from Holmes. But on the other hand, Saward did at least bother to draw a wider than usual net of cultural influences including Evelyn Waugh's the Loved One and ripping yarns of the Knights Templar. And it is tightly paced, save for the by then traditional plot exile into which he sends the Doctor and Peri, who wander around aimlessly for the whole of the first episode, and in fact barely influence events at all throughout the entire story. Saward did not much like his regular cast, and prefered to do without them wherever possible.

It was Cornell's dissection of the way that Saward had learned all the wrong lessons from Homes that shook me from complacency, making fan commentary I'd previously dismissed suddenly salient. Certainly in retrospect it was on target in a way that hindsight has only vindicated.

Still, if there is anything Doctor Who does well, it's reinvention. Two troubled series later, once Andrew Cartmell, who both loved and understood the series as well as recognising its potential to break new ground, was firmly established as script editor the show was as solid, and certainly as innovative as it had ever been.

But by then Doctor Who was the only drama that the BBC was still producing in-house, as the corporation preferred to follow strict Thatcherite doctrine by becoming a purely managerial enterprise, and outsourcing actual production to companies without the merest sliver of the institutional expertise that the Beeb once had. It is doubtful that any programme could have survived in this environment.

However it is tempting to look at how well 1989's series 26 and (if one really must adopt new nomclementure) 2005's season 1 (really series 27) mesh together, and wonder what might have been. I know that Cornell, Cartmell, et al. were having fun writing novels, audio dramas, and so on, but oh! for another couple of years at least with Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred…