Jul
2010

The Drama of It All

Many “Doctor Who” fans have embraced the title of “cult” TV show, but former “Doctor Who” executive producer Russell T. Davies says in his book, “The Writer’s Tale,” the show is more than just a science fiction show. I agree, and would argue that the newer series of “Doctor Who” should be considered a drama that’s based in sci-fi.

Strip away the outer sci-fi shell and here’s what you have: a very smart man, who travels around and helps people in need. He never carries a gun, but fights evil with his intelligence. From time to time he gets himself, and his friends, in tough situations, but they always seem to find a way out. He inspires the people around him to live better lives and appreciate life. At its core, that‘s “Doctor Who.”

The writers use the device of science fiction to weave their tales of drama. Add back in the sci-fi: The Doctor is from the planet Gallifrey, and he travels through time and space in a ship that’s bigger on the inside. The Doctor is the last of his kind. His home has been lost to a long and bitter war, what could be more real then that?

In an interview with the BBC’s radio 4 show “Front Row” former executive producer, Russell T. Davies, explained how they approach the series in modern times.

“It’s treated as real, every time you come to a great big science fiction moment you say what would you really be feeling, what really happens.”

Russell’s past TV credits have only been drama. “Doctor Who” was his first science fiction type show, but in his book “The Writers Tale,” he says he sees “Doctor Who” as drama that uses the setting of science fiction. Which he approached as a drama, not a sci-fi show, his other most notable TV credits include, “Queer as Folk” and “Bob and Rose.” Both focus on the lives of gay men living in England. It was his life long love of “Doctor Who” that helped bring the show back from the dead in 2005.

“Doctor Who” first aired in England on November 22, 1963. Due to the assassination of President Kennedy, the show flew under the radar. The BBC tried it again a week later. It was presented as a “tea time” children’s show, “but not being produced by the children’s department, which caused a certain amount of aggravation within the BBC.” Verity Lambert, the show’s very first producer, talked about how the show came to be in the documentary “Doctor Who at The BBC.” Verity goes on to say the BBC wanted the show to have an element of education. When the characters would travel back in time, there was a little history lesson buried in the background of the plot.

The show lasted 26 seasons and was cancelled in 1989. BBC One, the BBC’s drama department, brought the show back in 2005. Under new direction and a polished “feature film” look. Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner served as executive producers and show runners.

Some would argue the special effects in the show would detract from my reasoning. Neil Harris of “Doctor Who Magazine” recently wrote an article called “Special? Effective?”

He asks the question “are special effects such a crucial part of Doctor Who?” Neil cites a recent poll the magazine did where the top favorites were episodes featuring little to no special effects. The highest ranked story was called “Blink.” The plot involves stone angles called “The Weeping Angels,” they are motionless stone when you are looking at them, but if you turn away, or even blink, they attack. They are gentle killers, in the blink of an eye, you are randomly sent back in time where you live out your days. Only one special effect was used in the entire episode. Neil goes on to cite many of “Doctor Who’s” emotional scenes, or dramatic moments, built around the tension of the plot. Will our hero die? Will his friends survive the situation they have gotten into?

It’s that tension that keeps us coming back for more. It’s the drama of having to say goodbye to the woman The Doctor loves. She lived through their latest adventure, but became trapped in a parallel world. Unable to get to her, The Doctor does find a way to communicate with her one last time. As Rose stands on a beach, crying out her love for him, he can’t even bring himself to tell Rose how much he loves her.

The Writer's Tale by Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook

In “The Writer’s Tale,” Russell said of that scene: “(if your emotional) if you’re, empathizing, you’re feeling it, there’s an echo of every loss you’ve ever had in that. If it’s successful then it’s saying something about you, about the world.”

Yes, we can scoff at things like “parallel worlds” or “Weeping Angels,” but it’s great fun and even better dramatic television. As head writer, we would see The Doctor through Russell’s eyes. That often meant loads of fun, but also the effect of one man’s actions. Running from his past, never standing still long enough to reflect. Davies wrote The Doctor as a lonely man, who had no place to call home. He would have friend’s come and go, but in the end he was alone.

The character has an ability to regenerate when he is near death. Even within that, Russell’s writing shows us just how devastating this ability can be. In the episode “The End of Time: Part 1” The Doctor knows he is to regenerate soon and says: “it feels like dying. Everything I am, dies. Some new man goes sauntering away, and I’m dead.” Sure enough the time came and the regeneration occurred. As the tenth incarnation of “The Doctor” turned into the 11th, his final words were “I don’t want to go.” It was a very emotional scene, a death scene. For fans of the show, it really was like a close friend had died.

When a TV show can make you feel that much emotion, how can it just be classified as science fiction? As William Zinsser points out in “On Writing Well,” some of the best writing is found in science. Then it can be argued that some of the best drama is found in science fiction. “Doctor Who” is simply the best there is. When you strip away all the science, its just good drama.

Jun
2010

Meeting a TV Legend

I wrote this in 2009 for my station’s TV review blog:

Russell T. Davies

Meeting a TV Legend

It was my last day in Cardiff, after a week in the UK, and I was taking one last walk by the waterfront. I was enjoying the perfect weather in my favorite city. I was sad to be leaving, but was even more depressed that I had not seen the one thing I had hoped for. I was heading back to the hotel when I saw what I had come to see: a surprisingly tall Englishman, reading his newspaper outside a coffee shop where I had eaten the day before. It was Russell T. Davies, the executive producer and creative genius behind my favorite show, Doctor Who.

I am obsessed with the show Doctor Who. I grew up watching the show on public television, falling in love with a character known only as, The Doctor.  The show is so special to me. When I was a little boy, we would go to my Grandmother’s house and watch Doctor Who every weekend. I even asked my grandmother to make me a 12 foot long scarf. As a kid, I had no idea it was from the early 70’s or that most of it wasn’t real. What I loved was simply that the little blue box was bigger on the inside.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the show, it’s about a time traveller from the planet Gallifrey, known only as The Doctor. He travels through time and space with his companions. The Doctor travels in what is called a TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimension In Space. It’s in the shape of an old English police box and its bigger on the inside. The show started back in the late 1960’s and came to an end in 1989 when the show was cancelled.

As I got older, I wanted to know more about the show and threw myself in whole- heartedly. As the years passed I started to drift away, occasionally going off to watch a DVD or an old VHS copy of the show. In 1996 there was a brief comeback for the show as a TV movie, but it didn’t take.

Fast forward to 2005, the show made a fresh and brilliant return. The show was given the budget it needed for what it always tried to be, plus, special effects had finally caught up with writers imagination. “Doctor Who” was back and better than ever. It was a show I could be proud of and not hide it as my little secret. My girlfriend was even a fan. So my obsession with the show exploded. I was going to incredible lengths to get anything “Doctor Who.” After all, “Doctor Who” was the reason I got into TV in the first place, inspiring me to want to get out there and make television.

It didn’t take long until I became very familiar with the show’s current production. There is a show called “Doctor Who Confidential,” where viewers are taken behind the scenes of each episode -great for a TV junkie. The show even has its own magazine (titled, “Doctor Who Magazine”). It is mostly through these sources that fans have become familiar with the name, Russell T. Davies.

Russell is the man behind the show’s reincarnation in 2005. His official titles are “Show Runner” and “Executive Producer.” He is also head writer on the show. He has his hand in every script and has written many of them solo. This man is Doctor Who.

He recently published a great book called “Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale,” co-written by Benjamin Cook, a writer for “Doctor Who Magazine.” The book follows Russell over the most recent series on the production of the show and examines the creative process. While he states this is not a text book on television, I feel you could easily teach a class around this work.

Needless to say the man is a genius and a brilliant talent, who I have admired for years and am so excited to have now met.

The show is produced by BBC Wales in Cardiff, England, and many of its scenes are filmed around the city. Being the geek that I am, I recently took my second vacation there. It’s a beautiful place, and if you know what to look for, you can find Doctor Who everywhere.

It was a fun week, but I had not seen any on-location production of the show. They were in studio all week, locked up tight. I was feeling depressed on our last day, not having had any direct Doctor contact (and not wanting to leave the beautiful location). I decided to go take a few last pictures when I turned around to to see my hero, Russell T. Davies. He was just sitting there quietly outside a cafe having his morning coffee and reading a paper (and, coincidentally, waiting for Benjamin Cook).

I caught my breath and walked over quietly saying “Russell?” He replied “Yes?” and I introduced myself and we had a lovely chat. He was very kind and gracious. Soon my brain caught up with my mouth and I began to fear I was talking gibberish, or about to begin gushing like a 12-year-old girl at a Jonas Brothers concert. I like to think, looking back, that I kept it together, but I suspect some of my geekdom may have seeped out. I did have enough common sense to walk away before I freaked out too much.

I ran back to the hotel, grabbed my girlfriend and another friend of ours and back we went. We got a few pictures and he autographed my copy of his book. He even included a little Dalek drawing.

While producing 207 over the last five years, I have met and talked to many celebrities and important people. None of them have meant as much to me as meeting this man. He is a legend in TV and brought the world back to one of the the best-loved shows in history. All I wanted to do was thank him for that and for introducing us to Cardiff, my favorite place in the world.

So Russell, thanks for taking a few moments out of your day to humor a TV geek from Maine. Maybe one day we will meet again and have a longer chat…
Maybe one day you can come to Maine?

Oct
2009

Am I A Pirate?

I certainly don’t dress like a pirate, and I only talk like a pirate one day a year. So why do I feel like a criminal?

Well, what is Internet piracy? As defined by YourDictionary.com:

“Using the Internet to illegally copy and/or distribute software, which is an infringement of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (or DMCA) in the United States.

This week a magazine writer, who I follow on Twitter, posted a link to a You Tube video. He called the link “One of mankind’s greatest ever achievements:

Here is the video:

As a professional TV producer, and someone who has been taught a lot about ethics, I found myself confused about how I felt towards the video.

On one hand I loved it for its creativity and thought it to be almost inspirational. The idea of all these people, who are mostly strangers, coming together to make this video is so amazing to me. On the other hand, it breaks the law. Those students especially(being TV students), know what they are doing. In the TV field, you are taught the rules, and the rules clearly state that without written consent, you don’t have the right to take this music and do what you like with it.

Here is the basic definition of what copyright infringement is as defined by Wikipedia:

“Copyright infringement (or copyright violation) is the unauthorized use of material that is covered by copyright law, in a manner that violates one of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights, such as the right to reproduce or perform the copyrighted work, or to make derivative works.”

These students had no malice in mind as they set out to make this video. They simply wanted to create something fun and creative. They wanted to entertain and excite people. While they may have wanted to get noticed on the world stage, they certainly we’re not looking for any monetary profit from this. If any profit were sought it would be a good grade from their professor for such an innovative idea. So why should these students be punished or charged with any criminal act, or sued? They shouldn’t.

As someone who produces content, here is my take: I am all for the continued sharing of information on the Internet. After all, that’s why the Internet exists. Let me be clear though. Sharing “information” should remain free, not profiting from others work. Specifically, I’m talking about produced entertainment that is original content seeking to make a profit.

In the field of news, we produce for the user. The point of all that we are producing is to share information with the viewers. They should then be allowed to share that information with as many people as they like. I also feel that as a producer of information, I should be allowed to use whatever resources I can. Sadly, copyright law does not agree with that thought, even in the news world. For example, my company doesn’t pay for ASCAP or BMI rights. So if I don’t have the permission directly from a musical act to use their music, I can’t.

If I create an original video, and the elements of that video are all mine, and I choose to share that video with the world on the Internet, then that is my choice and I should be free to always have that right. That work should also be protected as mine. Yes, I want as many people to see it as possible, and no I don’t want to charge them. But if someone else wants to use it, they need to ask for it. It’s a simple rule we were taught in grade school: sharing.

I want to share with you. If you have something, of your own, you would like to share, then I would be open to that. However, it is wrong for you to take my work and make it yours.

Just because I enjoy watching a TV show, doesn’t make that show free for me to edit. Even if I buy a copy, I still don’t have the right to re-edit the outcome or re-distribute it. To claim that I do have the right online just because the Internet is an open place to share information is simply wrong, and hardly an excuse.

Artists create work to be seen, not to hide it from the world, but that doesn’t give us the right to change the work after we get it, unless we have consent.

Here is another perspective.

I am obsessed with the British TV show “Doctor Who.” The show has been around since the mid-1960’s, and came to an end in the early 1990’s, but was resurrected in 2005.

When the show came back I couldn’t wait to see it, but the show was only broadcast in the UK. A friend of mine downloaded a few episodes and then burned them to a disc and shared them with me. I viewed the discs and fell in love with the show all over again. Was this illegal? The action of my friend was illegal, but I argue that had there been any legal way for me to view it, and even purchase the video right away, I would have agreed to it. To further that point, as soon as the show went out onto DVD I have bought every season. When the show was broadcast domestically I paid for the cable channels to view it. Does that make up for my previous actions? I feel I could argue yes. The viewing British public is allowed the option of viewing the show again as many times as they like via the web, but if you are outside the UK, then you are denied that access. I would be happy to pay a reasonable fee to have that access, to see it right away.

Over the summer, a British actor and writer named Stephen Fry was asked to give a talk at the iTunes festival in England. He spoke on the history of copyright law and where he saw the world going in this digital age. He highlighted each time in history a piece of new technology came along that allowed people to reproduce original content. Fry outlined all the different arguments and legal fights that also accompanied these technical advancements. As he talked about his business, the film and television industry, he stated that he still didn’t know exactly how he felt about the current state of things, but did feel strongly that the industry is doing the wrong thing in taking strong legal action against those who illegally download. He went on to say,

“I think that most of us would agree that someone who downloads on the industrial scale in order to sell and make a profit probably should be prosecuted, but what I have tried to make the people in my own business understand, and many of them refuse to understand it, is that it does no good whatsoever to label people as criminals. We all know that preposterous, irritating, commercial that is on every f***ing DVD, ‘You wouldn’t steal a handbag.’ No, you want to find the person who made that commercial and say can you not see the difference, are you truly so blind, as to think that all moralities is so absolute, that someone who bit torrents an episode of their favorite American TV show ‘24’ so that they can see an episode before anybody else, is the same as somebody who steals somebody’s handbag? Do you not see the difference? Do you not see that when I was illegally taping it didn’t mean that I crossed a line into criminality from which I can never escape, that I am now a criminal I will never be a good citizen. I am the enemy of the copyright makers, the enemy of the creative artist, I am destroying live music, do you not see it was because I was a student, cause I love music, because I wanted a good compilation, because I was excited about the possibilities of having my own compilation, and that the moment I could afford to buy music I bought music. Because I wanted to, and that is what 98% I would submit, at the very least, all of you are like. I bet most of you have illegally downloaded at sometime, but that does not mean that you are now the enemies of society. That does not mean you should be characterized as criminals and pirates and destroyers of art, and enemies of musicians, and enemies of filmmakers, and the idea seems to me so stupid, it’s simply psychologically because it seems to misunderstand how human beings are. We are not nouns, we are verbs, we are processed we are being things through our life. We are not now suddenly criminals.”

Fry goes on to cite a study that shows how this action can alienate the people who do buy the work, and asks, how could any artist feel this way? People want to enjoy the work, he says, but the average consumer has been left out of this debate. Fry says we all just want a reasonable price and that at the core we are not all out to steal from the artist. He says we just need to work out how this can be done in a reasonable way, in the current technological world.

Stephen Fry is not alone in this specific line of thought. Mega-star and U2 lead singer Bono feels the same way. In Earlier this year, during a publicity tour for their newest album, “No Line On The Horizon,” Bono was being interview by Simon Mayo of BBC Radio 5 Live. The band recently agreed to allow their music to be a part of a new website called “Spotify.” The website is just like Hulu or TV.com except it’s for music. For citizens of the UK, the music is posted for free and open to be listened to as often and the user likes, just as an artist might post it on MySpace. The user is restricted from downloading the music for free and will hear a brief commercial every half hour.

Bono spoke about how the band, as artists, want their music heard, and if people can’t afford to buy their music right now, then listen all they like. But as soon as they can afford it, then please go purchase it. He went on to say that people want to be apart of the music and the band.

Here in the United States, entertainment companies are slowly starting to get the idea. In the last couple of years we have seen a slew of new websites owned and operated by the copyright owners. We have Hulu, TV.com, and so many more added each week. These websites allow for the user to go online and view their favorite TV shows. You can even share them on social networking sites.

Now, there are considerable limitations to these sites, but it’s a start and the message they are sending back is clear, “we get it.” It gives the user the option to view their shows as often as they like until the content is available to purchase for a reasonable fee. This is the direction we have been craving for years. The response has been very positive and more and more content is added to these sites everyday.

In a perfect world these steps will continue to evolve and balance will be restored to the Internet, and people like me won’t feel like criminals, but the debate over net neutrality might bring all that to a screeching halt.

So what is Net Neutrality and how will it determine the future of the Internet?

As defined by Google:

“Network neutrality is the principle that Internet users should be in control of what content they view and what applications they use on the Internet… net neutrality is about equal access to the Internet. “

Basically, the companies (or Internet Service Providers), that we pay to access the Internet, now want to further their control over how we use the Internet. They want end to the unlimited use of the Internet as we currently know it. If these companies got their way, I may never be able to enjoy a TV show for free on the Internet. They would require all of us to pay them extra to gain access to use sites like Hulu or TV.com. It wouldn’t stop there either. It’s unclear just how these companies would charge us depending on the different sites we use. With billions of websites in the world their charges could be endless.

The future is still very uncertain for net neutrality. Our government is still debating the outcome. So in the meantime I will enjoy the new technologies that the copyright holders have developed, and soak in as much (legal) entertainment as I can. So far my telepathic campaign to get international shows available domestically for a small fee, has made very little progress (surprisingly).

To answer the original question, am I a pirate? I don’t feel that I am… Yarrr!