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!

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Dave G said...

I anxiously await the rebirth of the MNDWVS, or even the MNBTVS. Those were the days.

Daniel Rider said... interesting as your TV Movie experiences were, I'm most excited by your future write-up on your week with John Levene!

Unknown said...

As I read your articles, Greg, I am continually amazed at how much better your memory is when compared to mine. Thank goodness someone remembers! Thanks for a great read and a delightful trip down memory lane.