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

The Pipe Dream

Tardis

My holiest of shows is “Doctor Who” and not far behind, its spin off “Torchwood.” My dream job is to work on “Doctor Who” and live in England. Last year, I gave it a shot.

“Doctor Who” is produced by BBC Wales. They make the show in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. In 2008, the Mrs. and I took our first big vacation there. We spent two weeks in England, but only three days in Cardiff. The city is a secret gem. The Brits often make fun of it for various reasons, but we fell in love with the place. We knew we needed to spend more time there.

When we returned from our big UK adventure, I signed up for the BBC employment emails. I started getting a lot of job listings for both “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood.” Most of the postings I was not qualified for. Then in late November of 2008, “the holy grail” of jobs was announced, producer for “Doctor Who.”

Christmas came early. I was running around the house screaming and jumping for joy. All I could see was a life in Cardiff making the show of my dreams.

Once I calmed down, I needed a plan. Specifically, I needed to get going on the application. I thought long and hard about everything I had done in TV up to this point. I then considered that “Doctor Who” is the BBC’s most valuable show; naturally I was a perfect fit. It wasn’t an act of ego that convinced me to apply; it was my love of the show and the BBC. The “Doctor Who” is flawless; I just wanted to hitch my wagon to it.

The rejection letter came about two weeks after the position closed for inquires. I knew I would be turned down, so I didn’t tell a lot of people I was applying. Most of the people I told were very supportive. One friend thought it was a dumb idea to even try.

I don’t regret taking the chance, if you can call it that. Having investigated it further, the BBC (and England) are very strict about only hiring UK citizens. Unless I have a sponsor, family ties, or have been working towards getting my citizenship, they will not even consider me because I am an American.

I still get the BBC Wales job openings in my email. Many more have come through that I am qualified for. They have a show just like mine called “The One Show.” The shows hosts have just left for better jobs on a competing network. So here is the BBC’s chance to mix things up. Give the show over to an American who sees England with a fresh perspective.

I’ve been back to Cardiff since the rejection letter. We even snuck on the BBC campus to have lunch one day. I will continue to submit my resume. I like to think that someone in human resources is getting familiar with my name.

Jun
2010

“Our Television Heritage”

I am a media professional, but that’s not why I think I am qualified to critique television. Most people sit down and are just entertained by TV. When I sit down to watch, I am studying it. I look for what works and what doesn’t. I watch for patterns or certain styles of editing and shooting. I look at how a show is made and figure out how it was done and how it can be re-created. I have been doing this ever since I realized, “I Dream of Jeannie” wasn’t real.

You always know when you’re watching a bad TV show. Often you don’t think twice when you’re watching a good show. I do hate seeing a good show turn bad. “The West Wing” was a great show in the first two seasons, then the third season was just terrible. You could tell the writers lost their voice and direction. Their show wasn’t going anywhere or doing anything. They eventually recovered, but they lost something special after the second season.

My show and “The West Wing” are obviously different worlds. “207” is a local newsmagazine show complete with cooking, comedians, and live music. “The West Wing” or even “Doctor Who” for that matter are fictional worlds with storylines. What I compare are the techniques used in telling the stories. From the shots to the edits and even the writing, I have ripped off many production elements over the years. Many of my show opens have been influenced by classic TV.

I have respect for the history of TV. Nick at Nite used to have an ad campaign for “Our Television Heritage.” It was a joke, but in there were lots of good tidbits of information. I grew up on great TV. I would watch a lot of Cheers, The Cosby Show, and dive into reruns of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Get Smart,” “The Avengers,” “Bewitched,” “Barney Miller,” and anything else Nick at Nite served up.

Having a degree in television studies and being the producer of content gives me the right to weigh in general TV topics, but being a viewer and a consumer solidifies that right.

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

“Back To The Future”

The Internet was born out of great intentions. The idea was to share information in a fast way to save time and money. What no one had the foresight to factor in was the human element.

The human element is unpredictable. Unlike computers, humans have ideas, emotions, and goals. There is great good in humans, but also a considerable amount of evil. History has taught us that with any new advancement in technology humans have always found a way to abuse it. So as we move into an amazing future of unpredictable new technology, how can we prepare ourselves to not make mistakes that can hurt society, and damage our world? The answer is in science fiction.

Poet George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot learn from the past, are condemned to repeat it.” So how can we learn from our past as we look to the future of technology? In a sense we already know the future. All we have to do is look to our past to see it. Our favorite TV shows, movies, and books are the keys. Our collective past has always found great entertainment in the realm of science fiction. Many of today’s astronauts chose their career paths after watching “Star Trek as kids.

Our history of science fiction is both our future and our past. As silly as it may sound, within our science fiction; we can learn our greatest lessons.

For example, we all know those little Bluetooth devices many people wear use for their cell phones? What if those devices could connect to your brain, and download information for your day? Sound impossible? Well here is an example of what I mean:

The clip is from television’s longest-running science fiction show, “Doctor Who.” Since the beginning of this show back in November of 1963, this show has asked its viewers to dream the impossible dream; humans being whisked away to travel through time and space with an alien known only as ‘The Doctor,’ in a rickety old police box called a TARDIS (which stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). Here, take a quick look:

Now, you might stop and laugh, and your initial thought may be that I have lost you, but stay with me. Before I launch off into a lecture about how great both the old and new “Doctor Who” episodes are, consider a simple, more basic idea. Yes, travel in time and space, may be out of our reach, but what if we can take a small space and make it bigger on the inside? What about the dimensions? What if we could take a cramped little blue box, and make it gigantic on the inside?

As absurd as the idea could seem, what if the Fab Lab at M.I.T. could figure it out? If anyone can, I think the think tank at the Fab Lab could do it. Under their sales pitch of any idea is possible, why not make something bigger on the inside? Just imagine how this would solve so many of our worlds’ problems. Now obviously one could argue we have too much stuff as it is in this country, but just how amazing would it be to have an entire house, full of stuff, fit into a tiny little box? You may not want a little box like me, but the ideas could be endless.

To slightly flex my geek muscle for just a moment, The Doctor’s TARDIS has something called a “chameleon” circuit. In the show, this circuit is broken, but when it’s working right the TARDIS transforms to blend in with the area they land in. It takes into account the time around it and turns into something that makes sense for the landscape. Now how about that? How handy would that be too? Sick of how old- looking your car is? Well, activate the chameleon circuit and “pop” you have a new-looking car (but sadly with all the same old problems).

I dare say that even some of the things they dreamt up, on the show, in the 60’s and 70’s are even possible today. Take for example, The Sonic Screwdriver:

The Sonic Screwdriver has been with The Doctor since the early 70’s. While it has taken multiple shapes over the years, one thing has stayed the same: it’s a screwdriver with multiple functions. Nowadays you have to look high and low to find just a plain simple screwdriver. Most modern screwdrivers have multiple functions or the very least different heads. So there you have it: one incredibly simple way Doctor Who has predicted a piece of technology we have right now.

It goes way beyond that though; think of all the technology we use everyday. How many of those devices have multiple functions? A great majority of them; Cell phones, MP3 players, cameras, printers, copy machines, the list can go on and on.

Science fiction doesn’t just help with the development of our future, it also influences where we will go. So many of our great thinkers were influenced from the science fiction they loved as kids. Here is a great example called “How William Shatner Changed The World:”

Maybe it’s strange, but it’s definitely true. Some of the most brilliant minds that attend the TED conference every year were once little children sitting at home watching shows like “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek,” and dreaming of a world where the things they saw on TV could actually exist. Would we have nearly half of the technology we have today if it weren’t for Star Trek?

Think back to the opening of each episode of Star Trek; “Captain’s log, star date…” does that sound familiar? It should because it’s a podcast. If it were written down, then it would have been a blog.

Remember the phaser on Star Trek, so often set to “Stun?” Well, now we have stun guns. The police try to use them more often then real guns. If it weren’t for Star Trek we might never have lived through; “Don’t Tase me dude.”

Obviously not society’s most dignified moment, but certainly one many of us remember. Now the most obvious of all devices we use today is the cell phone, most of which have a push to talk feature. This resembles the communication device they would use on the show. Maybe that was also the first use of the speakerphone.

How about when the captain would say “plot a course” and the navigator would program in their destination. Well, today we have GPS devices for our cars. We can plot our own destinations for anywhere we want to go.

I could spend a career going through popular TV shows in modern history and showcasing where some of today’s technology may have gotten their inspiration. From “The Jetsons,” to “Quantum Leap,” we have been raised on dreaming up ideas for the future. All of our wants and desires have been established through our science fiction pop culture. I never would have wanted an iPhone if it weren’t for the device Al would use on Quantum Leap.

On the show the device was a remote to a super computer called “Ziggy.” Al would use it to download information to advise Sam on what happened in the timeline. He could call back to the base, compute calculations, and so many other functions. This was when the show was supposed to be based in 1998.

Again, I could go on endlessly about how science fiction has influenced the technology we currently have, but the bottom line is to learn from the mistakes laid out for us in our history of science fiction

I will conclude on this thought. In the movie “The Invention of Lying,”

The characters live in a bland world where there is no creativity. There are no far-fetched ideas, just what is practical. Ricky Gervais explains that in order to be creative, we must be able to allow our minds to wander off into a world where we can dream of a better life and leave reality behind. It’s that dreaming of better things that leads us to create science fiction. Then the inspiration of science fiction allows us to wonder if such things are possible, then it’s on to create such impossible things.

The potential of technology is truly endless. We will never know how far we can push the world unless we try. With each idea we put out there, someone else might just pick up on it and take the next step.