Sunday, July 28, 2013

50WHO: My Favourite FOX Failure

This is the seventh part of a series of articles celebrating the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. Over the years there are certain stories that mean a lot to me either from personal memories or involvement I had in fandom through the years. These articles are not meant to be close examinations of the plot or production but more about what these stories mean to me on a personal level. Enjoy.

“This is the story of two hearts that learn to beat as one. It started on the distant planet Skaro where the Master was finally sentenced to die. He listened silent as the crimes of all twelve of his evil incarnations were read to him. Then he made his last and final request. He demanded that I, The Doctor, nemesis and rival Time Lord take his remains back to our home planet of Gallifrey. It was a request they never should have granted.”
The Doctor (not read by Paul McGann)
TV Movie rough cut
I have always felt that I hold a special connection to the 1996 TV Movie. As this pretty long article shows, not only do I hold a lot of affection for the film but my life has intertwined with it a couple of times leading to an interesting story and a lot of great memories.
It was announced in 1995 that Doctor Who would indeed return for at least a special one-off production co-produced by the BBC and Universal to air on the FOX network in the US. This may be one of the stories closest to my heart and most personal to me. I worked at FOX at the time. OK, so I worked for an affiliate. It is still a remarkable experience to work at a network that was going to run a pilot for a TV series that seemed like a perfect fit for the network at the time. If the TV Movie worked, more episodes would be made or so we were lead to believe.

American television is so different in 1996 than it is now. FOX is easily one of the most changed networks from that time. To understand Doctor Who possibly running on a US network is to understand FOX. At the time, there were 3 other broadcast television networks CBS, ABC, and NBC. These networks had been around since the 1950s and they ruled the airwaves. On April 5, 1987 there was a launch of a new network. The 4th network that was going to shake up broadcasting. I remember sitting there that whole evening with my sister, it was a Sunday and we watched a sleuth of programs we have never seen before. I remember watching The Gary Shandling Show, we watched The Tracy Ullman Show and then there was Married….with Children. These shows were alien to me.
The one thing FOX did that the other three weren’t taking was risks. They would try out programs that were a little unconventional and keep working at them making them successes. Who would have thought anything like The Simpsons would be big. It ruled at FOX. Now, it feels like an afterthought but The Simpsons on FOX reflected the whole demeanor of the network. The more nights they would take over from their affiliates, the more interesting programs would crop up. There was another little series that started up in 1993. It was called The X Files. Once again, it started at a time that no other networks were getting programs of that genre to work; FOX had a nice hit on their hands. More programs were being broadcast on FOX that matched what I liked to watch. FOX also stole away the NFL from CBS; it was a major coup starting the tradition that they went after as many sports as they could.

Meanwhile as the FOX broadcasting network was germinating, in Minneapolis I was enjoying a healthy amount of Independent stations. For those who are young enough to remember, the Independent stations were the ones that never had networks tied to them. The Independent stations would show a ton of repeats of old programs and often cult movies. It’s kind of what Retro TV and Me TV does now but still very different and felt looser. It really wasn’t commercialized. One of my favorites was KXLI in St. Cloud which used to show The Avengers. I wrote about that experience here. Then, there was KMSP but my absolute favourite was KITN channel 29. Also known as “The Kitten That Roared”.
KITN started off as WFBT which stood for “Family Bible Television” in 1982. The power of WFBT compels you! Anyway, surprisingly this bible format station seriously tanked and gave way to KITN. Some of the programs I grew to love I first saw on KITN. This includes the original series of Star Trek, The Beverly Hillbillies, I Love Lucy, and The Monkees to name a few! Before anyone gets confused, this was not the station that gave us Mystery Science Theater 3000. That was KTMA. I am sure this amazing history of Minnesota independent station chronology is interesting, so I will continue on….

When FOX began broadcasting in 1987 it started on KMSP but soon the station became disappointed in the performance of the network and dropped it. It moved over to KITN which at that point the call letters changed to WFTC. This stood for We’re Fox Twin Cities. A lot of the cool syndicated programs from the 1960s and 1970s went away but we got the cool FOX programs and also multiple (and I mean multiple) repeats of Star Trek: the Next Generation. They showed it so often, it made BBC America look like they show it once a week! For those who didn’t get that joke, BBC America shows Star Trek: The Next Generation all the time.
As for myself, before I got into Advertising, I was working down in Mankato at a TV station in 1994. In 1995, I really wanted to move back to the Twin Cities and I was lucky enough to have a friend who I went to school with who worked at WFTC. They wanted to hire someone else in their department and that person was me.

Perhaps now we could actually talk about how Doctor Who fits into all of this? In 1995 it was announced that Doctor Who would be returning to our screens via Philip Segal, Universal, the BBC and FOX. This is where things start to get interesting is that I worked for Fox. Now that might be a little misleading. To bog this article down more with technical terms, some TV affiliates in the US are called O&O which means Owned and Operated. The network owns those affiliates. Others are owned by other media companies. WFTC, at the time, was owned by Clear Channel Communications. So, although I worked at a FOX affiliate, I technically didn’t work for FOX.
When I found out that FOX would be making this TV Movie, I was ecstatic for a couple reasons. The most obvious one is that Doctor Who was finally returning and also there was a chance that this would become an ongoing series. For the FOX network that existed in 1996, Doctor Who was perfect programming for the network. It was sci-fi that could be made to look cool. I felt it would fit in with the growing number of demographics for series such as X-Files or dare I utter its unholy name, Sliders. I felt Doctor Who has the ability to be a contemporary series that doesn’t need to be so dependent on its past. I was pretty sure this new film wasn’t going to be mired in heavy continuity, right?
In January of 1996, Doctor Who fans were given the one piece of casting news we had been dying for since we heard the TV Movie was being made. Who was going to play the Doctor? He is name was Paul McGann and I had no idea who that was. His hair was also way too short. I was starting to have my doubts. My friend Roger, previously seen in an article where he dressed as the Sixth Doctor, another Roger and myself sort of got into the business of planning conventions. We had a pretty sweet idea.
If you remember or cared, I was a part of a group called The Whoniversity. In 1990, we held our first convention PseudoCon which was a way of making a super cheap but fun convention. Our guest was John Levene. John Levene stayed at my house for a week. Someday, I will write an article about that which would make Hadoke’s Living with Levene look like an episode of The Walton’s. We had been involved with local convention planning for years and years……and years. We decided that we could do a pretty decent convention in July of 1996 called MediaLive. This was back at time that there weren’t a billion conventions in the Twin Cities every year. It was more manageable and was able to have some more fun with them plus less competition.

MediaLive Flyer
We thought it would be a fun idea to invite Philip Segal to our convention. Now I think this is the way it happened. I might have some of the details off. I met Shaun Lyon of the Gallifrey One Conventions at the 1995 Visions. We immediately hit it off and have stayed friends since. We either talked about it at Visions or I e-mailed him afterwards once we found out the Philip Segal was going to attend his convention in February of 1996. Roger and I would fly out to Gallifrey that year and either ask Philip Segal to be at our convention or sign the contract to be at our convention. Either way, Shaun helped us to carve out some time for him to spend about a half hour with us going through the details. February comes and we get on a plane for my first of many trips to LA. Prior to us meeting with Philip at the convention, we were treated (as with many of the convention goers) to a panel about the production of the TV Movie hosted by Philip Segal and Sylvester McCoy.
There was a real anticipation to the panel and what we were going to see. The room, as one can imagine, was packed. I remember Cowboy Bob, from Visions, walking up and down all the isles to make sure no one was videotaping it. Of course, there was no need for that. They just needed to hire Steven Moffat to threaten people that there would be no more exclusives as he did at ComicCon in July of 2013. Anyway, there was not video footage from the making of the film. It was a slide show. It was 1996. The one moment I will always remember is when Philip Segal announces to the room, “Ladies and Gentlemen, your new Doctor Who.” and a picture of Paul McGann in costume is up on the screen. The room goes crazy! It was the first time I or I believe any of the general public saw McGann in costume. He was perfect. Absolutely perfect. Everything negative I thought about McGann playing the Doctor disappeared and I hadn’t even seen him deliver one line yet.

This image was the first time I ever saw the Eighth Doctor in costume. 
This was my first trip to Hollywood. I loved it. There is really a different feel to LA than to anywhere else I have ever traveled. Hollywood is what it is. A tourist trap that has a ton of historic pieces to it. We did the Hollywood Walk of Fame where we were offered tickets to that night’s John Larroquette Show taping. No thanks. We also went to Universal Studios. I love film making and television production so it was a ton of fun. I knew I needed to go back soon. I have been there about 10 times now.
Returning home, I decided to de-cloak and let my bosses at WFTC  know that this movie is coming up in May and I am a lifelong fan of Doctor Who. I let them know that I think we should do something to get people excited about this. After all, this was going to be big. We might as well get publicity going now especially since this was (no doubt) going to become a weekly series in the fall. So I spoke with our graphic designer who was really talented and was responsible for the look of our station. I always thought that the look of WFTC was far superior than any of the other local TV stations in our markets. It was actually cool. Local TV stations notoriously are known for having a cheessy/sickening look to them. Honestly, WFTC did not have this. So, we built a Web Site on the WFTC Web Site to promote the TV Movie. It was pathetic.

It was a simple page with a Doctor Who logo found on the Internet and a picture of Paul McGann. It had the header of Dr. Who? and was adorned with a tile background of bitmap question marks. I believe that was it. I didn’t expect something along the lines of Blogtor Who but I did hope for something slightly more robust. After he showed me what he did, I thanked him and never looked at it again. I was too young to request any changes because he did it in his spare time at work and I didn’t want to press him any further.
I was allowed to get publicity items for the TV Movie from FOX. I have a ton of pics from them and also a set of 35mm slides. Yes, 35mm slides. Once again, it was 1996. I went to Brown’s Photo, anyone remember that place, to get the slides turn into photos. They wouldn’t do them for me because I wasn’t the copyright holder. So, I went back to the station and got permission from the station to get these transferred bringing along a letter saying I could do so. They still wouldn’t do it. Of course, now I could easily do it at home but I don’t know where the slides currently are in my belongings. It could still be at my parent’s house but I don’t know. I am sure there is nothing on there we haven’t seen before but I still would like them back.

Sometime in April, something really amazing happened that was completely unexpected. I got a hold of the TV Movie rough cut. People at the BBC in the 1970s through 1980s would call this a 71 edit or so, other people called this a workprint but the proper term is rough cut. In April of 1996, I saw the whole film from start to finish (with effect shots missing and a couple of extra scenes) and the movie was over a month away from airing. That was really cool. So cool, I made an edited down version as a teaser at an event hosted by a local fan club The Celestial Affiliation of Time Lords. They were a local group that were having a viewing party and asked if I would schedule the day’s video schedule. I love doing that. I haven’t done much in fandom for a little while after The Whoniversity dissolved so I thought it would be a fun thing to do.

I took the TV Movie and left virtually everything in tact from the beginning up until the regeneration cutting out bits and pieces to move it along and ended it on a “cliffhanger” of the Doctor answering the door at Grace’s place to see the Master. I ended with the sequence of them staring each other down. While my edit played, I sat and stared at everyone watching to see their reaction to the Seventh Doctor being gunned down. We had not seen such American violence put on the Doctor before. I wanted to see their reaction. Of course me just staring at them might have been a little over the top on my part. Not everyone stayed to watch. Some wanted to be completely surprised when the film ran on FOX. I get it; I didn’t get it back then. If I still have a chance to watch a rough cut of any episode prior to air, I will. Just as I did with Rose in 2005. I realized that after creating a day’s worth of programming of just Doctor Who rarities was kind of fun. I watched people really enjoyed themselves. I made a little booklet that let the group know what they were going to watch that day. I made about 100 to 150 of them at Kinkos. I think there were about 15 to 20 people who showed up. Upon reflection, why did I make so many? Anyway, I knew at that point I wanted to have events like this more often. I wanted to schedule video days and have people watch the series together. I would have to think more about this….

Working at WFTC, I got to know the people in Master Control really well. They knew I knew how to work equipment so they allowed me a little freedom. They ran some of my favourite series such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Simpsons. WFTC held broadcast masters of Star Trek: The Next Generation (STTNG) on Beta SP tapes. They actually held all of them on tape so they had all episodes at one time. Instead of having friends, I would go into the station every Saturday and Sunday for 2 hours. I would set up 3 different Beta SP machines to play 3 different episodes of STTNG while using 3 different VHS decks to record those episodes. I had to watch them closely because I needed to remove the bumpers and the 2 minutes of black space for commercial breaks. This would happen at different times on the episodes so I had to use the episode logs that were on the tapes to know when to stop the machines and do an edit x 3. I would have to switch back and forth. I would also do the same on The Simpsons. They were awesome copies for the time. Luckily the station was super close to where I lived plus I always laughed because this station was a big proponent of Star Trek, their address was 1701 Broadway which 1701 is the number of the Enterprise.
One day at work I was called into Master Control. The operator Mike showed me that they were “feeding” via satellite the EPK (Electronic Press Kit) for the TV Movie and it included a ton of promos. I recorded this and dumped it down to VHS. I thought I was extremely fortunate to have this. That was just the beginning.

The slate on the International Feed
I went into the station on Saturday May 11th to record some more STTNG. The Master Control Operator Donna called me in showed me one of the satellite feed screens from FOX. It was color bars that just said Dr. Who. I asked her what it was and she didn’t know but she did suggest we record it. So we got a couple of Beta SP tapes out and started to record. This feed was the completed uncut International version of the TV Movie days before it aired on FOX. I couldn’t believe it! I was jumping out of my skin! It was fed in two parts. I still have the Beta SP recordings to this day which I had transferred to DVD in 2001. I have made my own authored DVD of this which I prefer over the official DVDs and watch that when it is time to watch the TV Movie in my viewing of the series. It is beautiful looking. It was really rare at the time to get the complete version of the TV Movie which had no obtrusive station logos and had full end credits. I still cherish it. In fact, I went over to my friend Wayne’s house after I made the recording. I bought the finest Scotch VHS tape I could find to record the Beta SP to VHS. I was talking to him about my incredible day when another fan was in the room and heard that I had the TV Movie 4 days prior to transmission. He offered me on the spot $100 to have my VHS tape. Before I could even answer, Wayne told him no. I am glad he did that because I am not sure how I would have answered. I believe I had honestly seen the TV Movie 20 times prior to its broadcast on May 14th. This was just the finished version; I don’t know how many times I watched the rough cut.
Program Development Sheet for the 1996-1997 season featuring Doctor Who
May 14th 1996 was a huge moment for Doctor Who. The TV Movie was finally broadcast on FOX, days prior to BBC 1. It also was the first time many people watch anything Doctor Who and was a gateway for them to become fans. Just like so many people wear fez hats now because of Matt Smith, even though the TV Movie was a one-off, its footprint was massive. It launched a lot of things merchandising-wise and created a whole era of the Eighth Doctor. My friends Roger & Roger decided to have a get together at their house (yes they even lived together at the time let alone having the same names) to watch the TV Movie from the FOX broadcast. There was a ton of people that came over. Just so none of us missed any of the action, I brought over the commercial log for the movie so we knew when the last commercial of the commercial break was before going back to the film. That way everyone could settle down and get back to the movie. It was pretty sweet. It was a lot of fun and I felt once again we should get people together to watch more Doctor Who.

I spoke to Roger about this and he thought it would be fun to get people together once a week to watch Doctor Who at his house. This would be really casual. It wouldn’t be a fan club plus it would completely communicated to people online. We really wanted to do this because I had a collection I wanted to share and KTCA had stopped running the series years ago. VHS tapes were slow coming out and we thought there would be a resurgence of fans because of the TV Movie. Roger named the group, The Minnesota Doctor Who Viewing Society or MNDWVS. We created a web site which was better than the one made from WFTC. I went on to Rec arts Dr.Who and announced we were doing this. We originally decided to go through the whole series, one story per week and begin with An Unearthly Child. We had about 8 people show up which was about 8 people more than I expected. After each viewing we would sit around and discuss it kind of like a book club. It was super fun and very casual. We were even written up in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on their Web Site as being really cool and something to check out. We eventually moved to the Southdale Library and kept showing Doctor Who to people who had missed it being on TV. We even funded Gary Russell to come over for the first CONvergence and Keith Topping for the second one. Over the years other Viewing Society groups started around the world. It was flattering. I like to think the groups in the Twin Cities that get together at a theatre to watch episodes are based on what we did. Even the theatre’s Web Site erroneously listed the group as The Minnesota Doctor Who Viewing Society and not as the real group’s name. When the new MN Doctor Who convention CONsole Room was announced somebody posted on the convention’s Facebook page wondering if it was a Minnesota Doctor Who Viewing Society event! It’s not but the Minnesota Doctor Who Viewing Society will be handling the video room for the convention.  I am very proud of the MNDWVS even though it is nothing more than a traveling video room, it brought a lot fans together. I am immensely proud of that.
One of the iterations to the MNDWVS web sites coincidentally featuring the TV Movie and the launch of BBC America.
Anyway, back to 1996. I think I must have oversold the TV Movie to WFTC. The next morning after the TV Movie aired in May I went into the station like I normally would. Every morning the Nielsen ratings would be posted. The TV Movie was last for the evening ratings. There was a hugely pivotal episode of Rosanne that night. I had a lot of people at the station asked me what went wrong. How the hell do I know? I just thought it would do better! I remember going out the reception area and our Receptionist Marilyn looked at me almost hurt and just said, “What happened? That was terrible!” I think the TV Movie came in something like 76 out of the top 100. It failed. There was not going to be a TV series made but Philip Segal and Paul McGann knew that even before the film aired.

Even though we had birth of the MNDWVS, we didn’t have enough attendees to do a proper MediaLive. There was a belief in fans running conventions at that time that the show must go on even if it meant that the organizers lost their shirts or sometimes houses. We didn’t believe in that philosophy at all. We cancelled the convention. We just did a smaller party. The only one who seemed genuinely upset was Philip Segal. He threatened to sue Roger for breach of contract. Relax. We don’t have anything he could take anyway except for a pristine copy of the TV Movie but I imagine he already had that.
MNDWVS schedule guide from 1997
For some reason I have always considered the TV Movie exclusively mine. I felt like I have always been involved with it in some tangential way. When the TV Movie was released on DVD back in 2001, Steve Roberts of the unofficial Doctor Who Restoration Team made a call for any US fans who might have any TV Movie promos or even the EPK. I had that! It’s just that I knew that VHS would not look great on DVD and that I could do better. I decided to work through some of my contacts to get a hold of the master tape to the EPK from FOX. I was able to get the tape and make a digibeta copy for Steve. I sent it to him via BBC Worldwide Americas and it appeared on the DVD. I got a contributors copy and a nice letter thanking me for supplying some content. It was nice. I also saw that footage and interviews from the EPK I provided was used in the TV Movie Revisitation DVD release on Ed Stradling’s documentary The Seven Year Hitch. It would have been nice to have my name included to the Acknowledgments credits for providing the piece that content was taken from but it was not meant to be. I am glad that made good use of it.

My letter from the BBC for contributing to the BBC range.
I did meet Paul McGann in 2003 at ChicagoTardis. Nice guy but he is much shorter than I thought. I was invited by some friends who knew him to have drinks with him and them in the bar but when I got there a bunch of other fans were there crowded around him to just watch him drink and listen to his conversation he was having with not those people. They weren’t joining in the conversation, they were just sitting there. It was creepy and I left. Later that night I was having a conversation with a friend in the lobby of the hotel. Yee Jee Tso walked by and as he knew my friend so we all started to talk. He was a super nice guy and extremely genuine and friendly.
After the TV Movie failed on FOX, I was convinced we would never see Doctor Who on TV again. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary, how wrong could I be? The series has never been more popular as we go into production of Series 8 since the series returned in 2005 and we are about to find out the identity of the Twelfth Doctor. I think the new series owes a lot to the TV Movie visually and structurally. The TV Movie is the perfect bridge between the classic series and the new series. In fact, it’s not a failure at all.

Paperwork from FOX Broadcasting for local affiliate to buy media time for the TV Movie.
Next 50WHO article: Once I got involved with The Whoniversity in 1988 a whole new group took over and we started monthly meetings. The main feature we showed was Remembrance of the Daleks which was a story like we never saw before. Sylvester McCoy was the Doctor and although he may have received a lukewarm reception in the UK he was, dare I say, Ace in the US. This will be the story of one of my favourite Dalek adventures and a man who I had one of the strangest convention experiences of my life on a Sunday evening in July of 1989.
Next week: We say farewell to Ray Butt with a tribute to some of the series he worked on including Only Fools and Horses plus reviews for Midsomer Murders Series 1, Midsomer Murders Set 22, and the Blu Ray for Smiley’s People.

Have a great week!

Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at

I am on Twitter: @FromtheArchive

Also please subscribe to my From the Archive: British Television Blog Facebook Page for updates about new articles.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Z Cars: One of a Kind

There is a lesson to be learned. Being someone living in the US and being a huge enthusiast of British television has always been really interesting for me when speaking to other people about my passion. When I told people that I was a huge fan of British television, they would often reply “Do you mean like Monty Python or Fawlty Towers?” Well, yes I am fans of both of those series but that is just a tiny slice of British television. They just happen to be amongst the most popular. The over-arching generic idea about what British television is in the US has sometimes been border lined condescending.

People over here often based their opinion of British television solely on the snippets of programs seen over here on PBS. Through PBS, we learned about silly walks, rude hotel proprietors, crazy sisters all named after flowers, and we learned when people are free to help customers in a clothing store. We learned how to smeg off, how to be self-sufficient by growing crops in our own backyard, and learned that a man in a long scarf can save the universe each and every week. I think many people over here think British television is zany. It only has overly eccentric characters or the only worthwhile British television series are ones that take place in the 1920s. So what is my point to all of this?
My point is that there is more to British television than over the top characters. Every country has eccentric characters. The problem is that it seems like only the “British Eccentric” style series find their way over here. Of course there are some exceptions but over all it feels like that it is the only hook to get a British television series over here. So, what about something that features everyday life like a series about policemen? Is this a series about policemen (bobbies) set in the 1920s? No. It’s a contemporary series about policemen set in contemporary times of when the series was made? Sure, but they are in the British country side right? Maybe residing in a manor house? No! Not all British police dramas are Midsomer Murders!

It’s a shame that American Television has an imperialistic view of television. What we have shown on our Network TV through the years from the UK has been The Prisoner, The Avengers, Merlin, and possibly a couple more but over in the UK, they have shown a lot of US drama/cop imports that shows contemporary everyday life. There isn’t anything like that over here from the UK. It’s not unique enough? It’s still amazing TV. Not all British television is Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Is this an incredibly long-winded way to saying that Z Cars is any good? I know most people in the UK who have seen it would agree but there are many fans of British television especially in the US who have never seen it before. It is a shame really. Z Cars is now 51 years old. Finally Acorn Media in the UK are releasing a DVD set of episodes. To me, that was a good sign that maybe some of this stuff would make its way over to the US. I asked Acorn about it and it appears that there are currently no plans to release this series over here. The same goes for the DVD release of Dixon of Dock Green that was released in the UK last year. Too bad, it is simply amazing television.

I am saying all of this because I think there are British television stereotypes in the US. I love Acorn Media, I am not trying to have a go at them. They are a business to make money. When it comes to British television, the US arm will release the stuff that many US citizens consider to be the only types of British television made. These include mysteries (with many by Agatha Christie) or historical dramas. This is all content I love too but what about some of the programs that depict everyday life in the UK? A set of Special Branch was released last year. I wonder how well that did. It was all shot on film so maybe that is why the series was released. What is all the fuss about?
I watched the first episode of Z Cars this last weekend. I have seen the series before and I have really enjoyed it. While watching this, I thought to myself that there are a lot of people over in the US that are really missing out on some vintage/historical BBC television. I am lucky enough to have friends from the UK who know my lust for British television and will watch anything but there are many who consider themselves experts who don’t even know this series exist. Does anyone else in the US ever run into this?

Four of a Kind 02/01/62
Kind of like Brian Blessed, it is hard to believe there was ever time when I thought this series was young. I have read about Z Cars most of my life. Z Cars is a series about police officers driving cars on patrol in the town of Newton. That is an overly simplistic description but the idea of police officers patrolling in cars was a new one in the early 1960s. Most of the police officers would patrol on foot. In fact, in this episode, there is a bias and misunderstanding about officers who drive cars opposed to walking their beat. It was thought that by some officers that patrolling in a police car meant doing nothing and listening to music.

I have seen the first episode to Z Cars before but admittedly did not pay too close attention. I was more interested in some of the later 1960s episodes. What shocked me the most about this episode was that it is really a first introductory episode. This is an episode that sets up the whole series. I thought we sort of joined into an established story but at the beginning of the episode there are no Z Cars or system in place for them but by the end of the episode there are Z Cars. This episode is about how to officers Barlow & Watt find the men who drive the Z Cars.
The series starts off with Watt visiting the grave of a recently murdered police officer. Sneaking up behind him is DCI Barlow. Barlow doesn’t realize it is Watt and tackles him thinking that Watt could be the murderer. Barlow believes that the murderer always returns to the grave of someone they killed. After Barlow sees his mistake, he and Watt start to discuss what happened to this poor officer. Watt believes that if the police in the area had police patrolling in cars, this could have been avoided. Not only does Barlow agree with him but so does Superintendent Robins. In fact, work is underway to get a department set up with Barlow putting Watt in charge of it. It is up to Watt to find the officers who will be in the cars.

Ultimately Watt chooses four officers: PC Bob Steele, PC Bert Lynch, PC “Fancy” Smith, and PC Jock Weir. None of these officers are perfect. This is what often set the tone to be somewhat different to another police series the BBC had going at the time, Dixon of Dock Green. Between the two series at this time, Z Cars was a little grittier. We first meet Lynch and Steele at Steele’s house. Lynch has come over to eat supper while Steele is taking his time returning home. One thing that is surprising from the start is that Steele has a rough relationship with his wife Janey. When we first meet her, she has a black eye somehow given to her in an argument with her husband. At this point, we don’t know any more about their relationship. It is clear they both care for each other but there is something else happening. Lynch clearly feels bad for Janey. Lynch also appears to be someone who only wants to work his shift as an officer and nothing more. His superior tells him that being a police officer is a 24 hour a day job. What Watt likes about Lynch is that he has a knack for catching criminals. As Barlow & Watt watches from their car, Lynch nabs two men for stealing a van. It’s interesting to note that these criminals are Bernard Kay who is a brilliant character actor and also Derek Ware who would later found the stunt team HAVOC.
I had to re-watch how we met Jock Weir because it is short and virtually forgettable. Weir is playing rugby in a match and gets hurt. Barlow & Watt go see him as he is being attended to which is when they ask him if he wants to join the new team. There is a nice little bit of humour to this series that I didn’t expect. When they ask Weir to join, he mumbles something in pain. Watt asks Barlow what he said to which Barlow replies, “He asked, Is there more money?” Before they leave Weir, Watt gives him one extra day to recover before reporting in since he is hurt. It is subtle humour and a nice touch that permeates throughout the episode. We meet Fancy Smith who sees immediately a couple of girls that he can tell at least one is a runaway. After the girls are handed off to Barlow & Watt, a brawl starts in a pub. We don’t see it but hear it escalate. Smith is waiting outside for the brawl to warm up a bit before he goes in. The scene is very enjoyable because the timing of the humour is great and it also shows how well he knows his area plus it is Brian Blessed.

We meet Steele at the beginning of the episode but he is never asked to join this new team. Back at the station, Lynch is boasting to Steele that he has been asked to join and Steele hasn’t. Steele is a little sore about it and goes into an office in the station to do some work. Soon, Mrs. Jones shows up to tell Lynch at the front desk that her son Rodney won’t take his medication and is getting crazy. He has an axe. Mrs. Jones was played by Anna Wing who just passed away. Lynch asks Steele to go with Mrs. Jones because he is stuck at the station filling out a report.
This scene at the station is kind of odd. Prior to Mrs. Jones coming in, Lynch gets a call from someone reporting a house fire. Did calls for fire go to the police back then? Lynch really didn’t do anything about it but it also was apparently right next door to where he lived. Lynch did not look upset about this at all. There is also a young man who comes into the station to get a shilling. His name is Willie Thatcher and he is played by David Jones or more so known as Davy Jones from The Monkees.

Anyway, Steele goes to the house where Mrs. Jones lives with her son Rodney. She leaves with the baby while Steele has a discussion with Rodney. Since I don’t know these characters very well, there is actually a great deal of tension as I don’t know what is going to happen to him. Steele is uneasy about having to talk with Rodney as he doesn’t know what to expect but he does his duty and he does it well.  It all turns out to be a misunderstanding and good ol’ Rodney finally takes his medication.
Steele returns to his house to find Lynch there again but this time with Watt. Watt asks Steele if he would join this new force which Steele readily agrees. We end with a shot of all 4 officers going to their new cars thus the beginning of a television classic!

This is a really great start to the series and to be honest I think Acorn Media UK missed a trick to not having at least this episode represented on their upcoming release of the series in the UK. I think this is a nice way to give a little bit of context to the series. Obviously, I am not an expert on this series but I feel the series’ first run from 1962 to 1965 may be a very popular one with the classic line up of characters. I think that would have made more sales.
In case I wasn’t clear above, Z Cars are the two patrol cars in the series that we get to see very little of at the end of the episode. The series gave the cars the non-existent signs of Z-Victor 1 and Z-Victor 2. The series originally ran from 1962 to 1965 and went off the air for a couple of years. It returned in 1967 and finished up in 1978 with a grand total of 799 episodes. Of course, there are a lot of missing episodes. In fact, according to Wikipedia, this very first episode was returned to the archives in the 1980s to writer Allan Prior by an engineer who took it home to preserve because his children loved it so much. Sadly, there are no rumours of 90 episodes of Z Cars being found……or are there?

Lots of notable people in this including Stratford Johns as Barlow and Frank Windsor as Watt. I love these two characters. I wrote about them a while ago in an episode of Softly Softly and I wrote about Frank Windsor in an article about A for Andromeda. There is also Brian Blessed in an early role as Fancy Smith. It is so underplayed. He is a great actor. If you have never seen him in I Claudius, seek it out. It is divine. James Ellis played Bert Lynch who would make it through the entire run of Z Cars.
I think what also surprised me about the episode was how easy it was to enjoy. I don’t know why I thought it was anything other than that. When I tried to get through the episodes before, it seemed like a lot of characters to digest at once yet when I actually sat down to watch it, it was great. Part of the problem is that the quality of the episode isn’t great as you can see from the quality of the screengrabs. I was afraid since it wasn’t great quality that I may not have been able to decipher all the characters. Out of the 799 episodes of the series, I have about 40. So not a whole lot. The quality in my collection varies from good to very good to pretty bad. A VHS was released in the UK years ago that I thought of picking up second hand to make a better quality DVD copy of the first episode except to buy the VHS used was £20. Too expensive for me!

I thought this first episode did a really nice job of introducing the characters of the series. First off, we see almost immediately that these are not perfect characters. Even Watt’s wife had left him which was a taboo subject back then. Getting a divorce was also very difficult too. Even the police officer themselves who eventually joined the new Z Cars division had flaws. Lynch was not even considered a real policeman by the standards of Superintendent Robins. As mentioned above, we are given the impression that Steele hit or even hits his wife. It brings some unsavory real life into the series that may not be pretty but adds dimensions to the characters. It even has the music track “Three Guitars Mood 2” by Nelson & Raymond. Maybe the name isn’t completely familiar but Doctor Who fans would instantly recognize it as John Smith and the Common Men. It featured in An Unearthly Child. Speaking of music, the theme to Z Cars is great. It’s like a march arranged from the Liverpool folk song “Johnny Todd”. Once I hear it, I can’t get it out of my head for days.
I look at the numbers that these articles bring in for my blog every day. I am always curious to see how these articles perform. When I do any kind of article for Doctor Who, especially reviews, the numbers go through the roof! When I do something like Jeeves & Wooster, it goes way down. I would assume the same will happen with this article and that is too bad. Not bad because no one will read my work but bad because no one will be interested because it is a series they are not familiar with; not having seen it. This is truly one of the all-time classic series made by the BBC and very few have the opportunity to appreciate it. That’s too bad.

Next week: It’s time for another 50WHO article. This time I look at the eighth Doctor as I write about the TV Movie. I discuss my time working for a FOX affiliate and how they all somehow thought it was my fault that the TV Movie did not do as well as I hoped!
Have a great week!

Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at

I am on Twitter: @FromtheArchive

Also please subscribe to my From the Archive: British Television Blog Facebook Page for updates about new articles.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

DVD Review: The Doctors Revisited One to Four

Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited: One - Four 4-DVD Set  (Main Feature: 456 min)
Released by BBC Home Entertainment on July 16, 2013. SRP $39.98 (DVD)
Subtitles: English SDH 4:3/16:9 Mono/Stereo

This year marks the 50th anniversary for Doctor Who. In the UK, there have been a couple of DVD sets that have come out to commemorate the anniversary but there hasn’t been too much over here that has done so beyond the regular schedule of stories to be released. The set I am reviewing today is the first set of Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited covering Doctors 1-4. To my knowledge something like this doesn’t look like it is planned to come out in the UK. I like the idea of this set, I like the contents but the whole thing confuses me a little. Bear with me as I try to unravel this set a little bit.

This is an interesting DVD set and probably the first time that the actual Doctor Who stories on DVD is actually relegated as an extra. Because of that, I am not going to spend a lot of time on the stories but on everything else including the packaging. This is not presented in a way that Doctor Who has been presented on DVD before and it is worth taking the extra time to explain what we have on this set because it is really interesting.
The main feature on each set is called The Doctors Revisited. I am not sure if these specials have a larger purpose than just being on BBC America but since I don’t know that for sure, I will just tell you what I know even if it is in ignorance. Back in January of this year, we found out that BBC America was commemorating the 50th anniversary by airing 1 story from a different Doctor each month. Starting in January with the first Doctor, William Hartnell, we were treated to The Aztecs. What made this more of an event was that each story would be preceded with special about that Doctor. What is now termed as “classic” Doctor Who had not been on BBC America in years let alone serving up such a diverse selection of stories. This truly was an exciting prospect and I immediately began hoping that fans that have only experienced the new series would check this out too. The night on BBC America would go as follows: The Doctors Revisited, story introduction by Steven Moffat and the story. With this DVD set, I can recreate that evening.

I have never been a fan of the Doctor Who specials that were aired by BBC America during Series 7. These are the talking head specials about the scariest villains of the series or best companions yet these specials never left the realm of the new series. Also, the celebrities were people I had mostly never heard of in my life. I understand that people liked those but they left me cold and I felt Doctor Who deserved better. They would get it with these specials.
Overall for The Doctors Revisited, within the span of about 25 minutes per Doctor, would be an overview of that Doctor’s era plus a look at the companions for that Doctor and some of that era’s most notorious villains or monsters. To start with, these are slick looking productions. What holds these productions together is the motion graphics which are simply gorgeous. This sets the tone for design. They are intricate with a lot of moving parts. I really believe without these, the program would be a much lesser entity. These graphics were done by Michael Dinsdale. I know of him through the various work he does the on the DVD range and he posts on one of the forums I post on. The work looks professional and is exactly what these programs need.

With the graphics being the baseline to the specials, we are treated with a whole host of people from the series in different forms to talk about these eras. These are actual people who worked on the program past and present such as William Russell, Frazer Hines, Richard Franklin, Tom Baker, David Tennant, John Barrowman, Caroline Skinner. The anchor interviewee is Steven Moffat. Since this is his show now, he passes on comment about these eras and almost puts it into context. I feel he is talking to new series fans and I am OK with that. I can guarantee that I am not going to watch something like this and learn something new. I am pretty advanced in my knowledge of the series. It doesn’t mean I can’t still enjoy it but the whole time I am watching it, I am hoping that someone who has only seen a Tennant or Smith story watches this and thinks, “I now want to see more!” To me, that would be great!
I think another area these specials succeed at is with the clips that are used in each special which will come back and bite this DVD later. All the clips used in these specials are presented in proper 4:3 and from the most recently restored sources. The clips look simply amazing. I have seen these specials in HD and the clips look tremendous upscaled to HD. Yes, the fan boy in me giggled when clips of things I had never seen on broadcast TV were in this special such as clips from The Tenth Planet or color Doctor Who and the Silurians. When I was watching it, I was excited by the prospect that at least a half a million people were watching these clips with me.

The downside to these specials is that some of things are overlooked. For example, when going through companions for the first Doctor era (just so you know, I prefer to call him the original Doctor) Vicki, Katarina, Sarah Kingdom, and Dodo were overlooked.  When we get to a special that has hold over companions from a previous Doctor, they are not mentioned at all such as Ben & Polly in The Doctors Revisited: The Second Doctor. I have heard people complain these specials are lightweight but I don’t really agree. They have 25 minutes to give an overview of each Doctor’s era.
I think these do what they are supposed to do. I wish they would be a little more accurate such as with the companion situation above. What does frustrate me is when we put the modern spin of the character on these classic series Doctors. Moffat keeps talking about how “mad” everything is in the series. He’s still calling the Doctor a mad man in a box. This is something he came up with for Matt Smith’s Doctor which is fine but I don’t think this description is suited for any of the classic incarnations. I’m sorry but William Hartnell’s Doctor was never conceived as a mad man in a box. Of course, others may have a different feeling on that matter. The interviews on these specials are generally pretty good. I think the best is David Tennant who provides very articulate and precise commentary on certain aspects of the series. He is insightful and humble. I feel he adds a great deal to these. On the other end there is John Barrowman who I feel doesn’t add anything to these. Generally he is just caddy without providing anything of interest. Caroline Skinner is just a sweet woman who gives some very honest and nice opinions on the different eras of the program she used to executive produce.

Here is the breakdown:
The Doctors Revisited: The First Doctor

Interviewed on this is: Steven Moffat, Caroline Skinner, William Russell, Neil Gaiman, David Tennant, Peter Purves and John Barrowman.
While I was watching this, the thought crossed my mind of any New Series fans checking this out and wondered if they had any opinion of seeing how things looked in the beginning such as the Daleks, the Cybermen or even possibly seeing clips of the original Doctor for the first time. I really do hope some of them found something they liked about this and will check out some more stories.

The Doctors Revisited: The Second Doctor
Interviewed on this is: Steven Moffat, Caroline Skinner, Neil Gaiman, Wendy Padbury, Frazer Hines, John Barrowman and David Tennant.

This is a really good installment because there is a lot to cover. There are some interesting points made here such as while talking about regeneration, Moffat is truly amazed that the producers at the time decided to go this route instead of just picking someone new, put a white wig on him and try to pass him off as basically Hartnell. I think this is stuff we take for granted. Moffat goes into detail about how Matt Smith loved Troughton and The Tomb of the Cybermen where he based a lot of his performance plus that is where the bow tie came from for his own look. Curiously, they describe Zoe as a “Kung-Fu fighter”. Hmmm….I know she did it in one story (The Mind Robber) but that would hardly be enough to label her as such, is it? The special ends quite nicely with David Tennant summing up how basically every Doctor that came after Troughton has taken something of Troughton with them when they played that role. I think I can agree with that and it is really a nice way to end that installment.
The Doctors Revisited: The Third Doctor

Interviewed on this is: Steven Moffat, Caroline Skinner, Camille Coduri, Hugh Bonneville, Adam Garcia, David Tennant, Richard Franklin, John Barrowman
Obviously, this installment talks about Doctor Who moving into color and the Doctor, himself, being exiled to Earth.  I don’t know why but the lure of this isn’t so great for me on this installment. I think it is down to personal preference but this one, out of this set, is among the least interesting for me. It’s made just as well as the other ones but fails to grab me. This possibly has to do with the fact this is the least amount of original cast members in one of the Revisited specials?

The Doctors Revisited: The Fourth Doctor
Interviewed on this is: Steven Moffat, David Tennant, Marcus Wilson, Neil Gaiman, Louise Jameson, John Leeson, Nicholas Briggs, and Tom Baker.

This, for obvious reasons, is the first special that has the Doctor from that era interviewed. It is really nice to see Tom Baker on this. Just his presence adds much to this. There is a point where he almost calls the Zygon voices rubbish until he catches himself and says something else. It’s really amusing. This is a monumental task trying to give a decent overview of the Tom Baker era in 25 minutes. It does fit a lot in but also leaves out stuff. I guess I find it really hard to believe there wasn’t some way to include a mention of Romana. As this installment goes through the fourth Doctor’s companions, Romana is completely left out. I think it is a shame they were not mention at all in some way. I think it could have worked. I understand it would have been literally a mention but at least they would have been included. I don’t know if there are longer versions of these specials but seeing some of the names who made this, I am surprise by these oversights.
The Stories

As mentioned above, each of these installments of The Doctors Revisited included one story from that Doctor’s era. Due to time constraints on the commercial cable network BBC America, it was clear that only 4-part stories were up for consideration. Thus the stories in this set are: first Doctor: The Aztecs, second Doctor: The Tomb of the Cybermen, third Doctor: Spearhead from Space, fourth Doctor: Pyramids of Mars. This is where it all starts to get curious. I think these are all great stories that were picked for the broadcast. Each one’s inclusion makes sense to me. I am not going to go into detail about the stories. I had recently done a review of the Special Edition of The Aztecs that can be found here, I did a look at The Tomb of the Cybermen that can be found here, I will be doing an in-depth look at Spearhead from Space in less than a month when the Blu Ray comes out and Pyramids of Mars is just plain awesome.
What makes the presentation of these stories interesting is that they are on each disc twice. Once in a movie version presented in 16:9 including an introduction by Steven Moffat and once in its original 4:3 episodic versions. Curiously, when The Aztecs originally aired on BBC America in January, it wasn’t just a straight forward 16:9 presentation but it is that way here. One of the most shocking aspects of that production was how BBC America showed The Aztecs from some older master that must have come from the days of PBS or the VHS line. It was horrible, unrestored with horrible sound and scratchy picture. It was really bad on BBC America and really bad here except that it is now 16:9 but it doesn’t do the picture any favors. Even stranger is that the 4-part episodic version is the original restored version from 2002 and not the most recent version from this year.

The other stories are a little more straight forward. Somewhere it was decided to use better quality masters than what they did for The Aztecs. The Tomb of the Cybermen and Spearhead from Space both use their original restored masters from 2001 for the movie versions. The episodic version of The Tomb of the Cybermen is that original restoration but Spearhead from Space is a little different. The episodic version of Spearhead from Space is the most recent restored SD version from the DVD that came out in  out in 2011. It is easy to tell. The picture is much better and it has the TARDIS dematerialization SFX “fixed” thus also has Fleetwood Mac on it too. Perhaps this as included because it is the complete version of the story?  Pyramids of Mars is from the original release too.
One other oddity is that when The Tomb of the Cybermen, Spearhead from Space, and Pyramids of Mars originally aired for these specials on BBC America, the titles all retained the “Episode One” caption. On this DVD release, they have been edited out making for a much smoother transition into the story. All of the movie versions have remade end credits that are kind of odd. They are long because the credits for each episode plays and when the credits are done the music just cuts out.

I think this set missed a trick by not being released on Blu Ray. Before someone comes on here to “educate” me as to how expensive this is, here me out. These specials were made in HD with the archival content within the specials upscaled to HD. They looked great. It would have been an interesting testing ground to take these specials and the stories that they featured and released it all on HD on Blu Ray. The caveat for that is that they would need to use the most recent restoration masters to use the best looking material but I think that would have been interesting and would have sold. The one main hole in this plan is that Spearhead from Space is going to be released on Blu Ray in a month anyway. That being said, I would have preferred that as I hate buying stuff that has been made in HD but only available to purchase in SD.
Click to see full size HD broadcast screengrab
Click to compare: SD DVD screengrab
Here are some comparison shots between the 16:9 episodes and 4:3: (click on the image and arrow to the next one to see next frame)

I do feel this is where this set really excels. The 4 DVDs are housed in a regular sized Amary case. I think it is important to spend some time on this because the packaging differs enough from main range but is totally acceptable and still fits in with my collection. The cover is smart. It is a very simple design that has nice shots of all 4 of the Doctors that feature in this set. The cover features nice shots of the Doctors.  Instead of what the BBC calls “the blue mirror” Doctor Who logo, we get the official 50th anniversary logo which is simply divine. I love the look of this thing. Whoever came up with that, nice job!

The DVD labels are beautiful. As you can see, the label is in the center with the picture of the Doctor on the disc with that wonderful logo. The outer ring is the reflective surface of the disc with the name of the story printed on that ring. It is really nice looking! I wish they were all printed this way all the time! It really gives the feel of something special to the set.

The menus are different from the regular menus we get on the regular line of DVDs. No roundels but a very simple duplication of the style of the graphics featured in the specials. They are very simple straight-forward menus.  

What I didn’t expect to be part of this set is a set of refrigerator magnets. In fact four, one for each Doctor featured. They are nicely designed and fun. It was a nice surprise and I am glad they did this.
Disc Breakdown:

Disc 1: The Doctors Revisited: William Hartnell, The Aztecs Feature Presentation with Steven Moffat Introduction, The Aztecs Original 4-Part Version
Disc 2: The Doctors Revisited: Patrick Troughton, The Tomb of the Cybermen Feature Presentation with Steven Moffat Introduction, The Tomb of the Cybermen Original 4-Part Version
Disc 3: The Doctors Revisited: Jon Pertwee, Spearhead from Space Feature Presentation with Steven Moffat Introduction, Spearhead from Space Original 4-Part Version
Disc 4: The Doctors Revisited: Tom Baker, Pyramids of Mars Feature Presentation with Steven Moffat Introduction, Pyramids of Mars Original 4-Part Version
I feel the Steve Moffat introductions are mostly fluff. I am sure people will like it but to me they don’t do much especially as he calls everything “mad” & “bonkers”. I just enjoyed the stories for what they are which is brilliant!

I am not completely sure who this set is aimed at to buy. Is it aimed at the collector like me or is it aimed at new series fans? I have bought The Aztecs 4 times, The Tomb of the Cybermen 5 times, Spearhead from Space 4 times (5 with the upcoming Blu Ray) and Pyramids of Mars 3 times. I think the real reason to get this set is to have The Doctors Revisited specials. If you have no interest in those and you have these stories already, there probably is no reason to get this set.
If you are a new series fan and want to pick up this set to investigate a few of the Doctor’s finest adventures at once……enjoy!

Next week: I take a look at some very archive television as I go back to the very first episode of Z Cars with Four of a Kind. It is a great reminder that not all good British television is off-beat or a historical drama.
Have a great week!

Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at

I am on Twitter: @FromtheArchive

Also please subscribe to my From the Archive: British Television Blog Facebook Page for updates about new articles.