Thursday, July 30, 2015

‘Doctor Who’ survives the wilderness

Paul McGann continues his adventures as the Eighth Doctor
in one of Big Finish Productions' audio dramas.
There was no real official theme, beyond the obvious, to this year’s Con Kasterborous, north Alabama’s annual “Doctor Who” convention. Yet had the convention’s organizers only thought of it, the theme could well have been “Doctor Who: The Wilderness Years.”

Four of this year’s celebrity guests played roles in keeping “Doctor Who” alive during the dark days between the classic series’ cancellation in 1989 and the revived series’ debut in 2005.

The guest of honor for the fourth Con Kasterborous, held earlier this month at The Westin Huntsville at Bridge Street Towne Center, was Paul McGann. McGann starred in the ill-fated 1996 “Doctor Who” TV movie, whose producers had hoped it would restart the series.

Two other con guests also appeared in the 1996 movie: Eric Roberts — as the Doctor’s arch foe, the Master — and Roberts’ real-life wife, Eliza, who played a supporting role.

McGann was arguably the most talented and accomplished actor to portray the Doctor up to that point (or possibly even since), and that’s no slight against his predecessors. McGann had previously played Anton in director Ken Russell’s 1989 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rainbow” (available streaming on Amazon Prime) and starred opposite Richard E. Grant in Bruce Robinson’s wry, must-see cult comedy “Withnail & I” (find a copy if you can).

Alas, the 1996 pilot was neither a critical nor a ratings triumph. Fans would have to wait another nine years for a successful reboot.

No one, however, blamed McGann. Maybe the script wasn’t up to snuff, maybe Eric Roberts overacted a bit — OK, more than a bit — and maybe the whole enterprise, being a U.S. co-production, was too “American” and not enough “British.” But McGann acquitted himself flawlessly. In just 90 minutes, he showed the world he could be an excellent Doctor if given a real chance.

As it would happen, that chance would come, just not in front of a camera.

That brings us to Con Kasterborous’ fourth crucial guest. Jason Haigh-Ellery founded Big Finish Productions in 1996, and it was Big Finish’s full-cast audio plays, along with novels from Virgin Publishing, that kept new “Doctor Who” stories coming during the wilderness years.

McGann returned to appear in many of Big Finish’s new “Doctor Who” stories, along with a series of new traveling companions, some of whom have themselves become fan favorites. And it was in the Big Finish audio plays that McGann’s Doctor — the Eighth Doctor — really came into his own.

Now that the revived “Doctor Who” has been around for 10 years and seen four new Doctors, it’s easy to forget what it was like not to have a new season of “Doctor Who” on television every year, much as the dark decade between the cancellation of the original “Star Trek” and the release of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is now just a dim memory.

Not only did McGann’s Doctor get to have via the Big Finish audios all the adventures he never got to have on television, previous Doctors got in on the act as well. Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, who was never served well by the quality of scripts during his too-brief tenure, finally got to shine in the Big Finish stories, proving that Six wasn’t such a bad Doctor after all.

The Big Finish audios and Virgin novels were also a training ground for writers who would go on to work on the revived TV series. “Doctor Who” writers who cut their teeth on either the audios, the novels or both included Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts and “Doctor Who” producer Russell T Davies.

Between McGann, Eric and Eliza Roberts, and Haigh-Ellery on the one hand and the 1,623 fans who came out to see them on the other, Con Kasterborous 2015 was a commemoration of those years when the fans kept “Doctor Who” alive, in spite of the BBC’s indifference.

“Doctor Who” is back on television now and more popular than ever, but Big Finish keeps putting out its excellent audio dramas and McGann keeps appearing in them, even though his Doctor finally did get a proper sendoff in a 2013 “Doctor Who” 50th anniversary short, “The Night of the Doctor.”

For the Doctor and his fans, those wilderness years paid off.

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