The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Desperate But Not Serious

Back in 2002, things were very different in the land of Doctor Who. The show had been off the air for over a decade, more or less, with little prospect of returning. Doctor Who Magazine had spent the intervening years drawing at the well of Doctor Who facts, running archives, interviews and analytical features, but with no new series to write about, that well was starting to run dry.


And it was at this time I wrote my first feature for the magazine, in issue 318. A cover feature, remarkably, about how Doctor Who was actually a game show. I suspect it was a pub conversation that got out of hand, but it was an article the magazine had never done before, which after twenty-odd years, was an achievement in itself. But ever since – particularly since the show came back – the article has become an example of how desperate things were back then for the magazine that it was scraping the bottom of the barrel.

And I’m okay with that. It was only that desperation, that paucity of barrel content, that gave me my first break on the magazine, which I’ve written for repeatedly – and hopefully more substantially – since. I’m eternally grateful to Clayton Hickman for commissioning it. And yes, it was a daft feature, symptomatic of a fandom running out of steam and slipping into self-parody (the article may be silly but at the time the magazine was running po-faced articles examining continuity errors in The Ambassadors of Death, so at least I had a sense of humour).

And – and I’m sorry for beginning three paragraphs with ‘and’ – I think the article does have a point, that Doctor Who has reflected, in various ways, the popular light entertainment programming of its day. It was usually broadcast in the same slot, to appeal to same audience, so of course there would be similarities.

Little over a year later, and the news was announced that Russell T Davies would be bringing back Doctor Who, and the magazine finally had something new to write about. And what did Russell do, in that first series, in the twelfth episode? He had Doctor Who incorporating editions of Big Brother and The Weakest Link (both of which were pictured as part of the feature). So maybe I hadn’t been so far off the mark after all. Maybe Russell had even been inspired by my article?

This is all by way of a preamble to the near-legendary article itself, which now follows. This is straight from my hard-drive so this is what it looked like before it had been sub-edited into English. Enjoy...

Illustrations by Adrian Salmon, reproduced by kind permission.


THE WINNER TAKES ALL!

The very notion that Doctor Who is a game show is, of course, profoundly ridiculous. It’s not a game show, it’s the longest-running children’s-science-fiction-drama TV series. It’s not a piece of Light Entertainment with a theme tune by Ronnie Hazelhurst, it’s a profoundly serious programme about a Time Lord in a scarf defeating aliens and saving planets. It is not, absolutely not, to be treated as a mere game.

After all, if it is a game show, then where are the contestants? Who is the host and what are their catchphrases? Where are the little red boxes with the scores in them? Doctor Who is a fiction with its own inner reality, and it follows the rules of drama. It is most certainly not about two rival families attempting to win a shiny new Mini Metro and fondue set.

And yet, in a more fundamental but slightly spurious sense, it is a game show. It follows the rules of game shows and holds a similar appeal. It engages and involves the viewer using the same approaches. In many ways, it is more of a game show than it is a children’s-science-fiction-drama-TV series. This is a shocking idea, but it contains an element of truth.

But this fact has not gone unrecognised. Throughout its run, Doctor Who proved remarkably successful at originating game show formats. There is probably not a single TV game show that has not felt its influence.


Let us take one story at random. The Celestial Toymaker. Our heroes find themselves trapped in a realm where they are presented with a series of sub-vaudeville comedy routines. There is slapstick, there is a lacklustre dance number, there is an unfunny fat comedian. Each routine ends with the presentation of a cryptic rhyming clue – which may or may not lead to success - and the enigmatic host of the realm has a habit of repeatedly counting backwards. It is clearly the template for 3-2-1 with Ted Rogers [which began twelve short years later]. The only difference being that the entertainers in The Celestial Toymaker were reduced to mindless playthings forced to endlessly re-enact the same tired routines, whilst in 3-2-1 Chris Emmett and Louise English would merely return to ‘Puss In Boots’ in Hull.

A coincidence? Perhaps. But let’s turn to The Deadly Assassin. In this story, a conflict takes place in a virtual reality environment where the Master controls the game. It is obviously a forerunner of similar computer-game-based shows, in particular the [suspiciously-titled] Gamesmaster with Dominik Diamond. In The Deadly Assassin the prizes are the Rod Of Rassilon and a Golden Sash – in Gamesmaster these have been neatly conflated into the ‘Golden Joystick’. I’m surprised that Robert Holmes didn’t sue. 


Still not convinced? Then what about that recent TV phenomenon, Big Brother. Now, it has not gone unnoticed that Big Brother owes a debt to Vengeance On Varos. They both share the same winning combination of voyeurism, outlandish clothing, spa baths, claustrophobia, unlikeable characters, the promise of nudity and outright sadism. In both shows the viewers observe events through a network of closed-circuit cameras and get the chance to vote off the personalities they dislike.

But the Doctor Who story closest to Big Brother is Carnival Of Monsters. Consider the facts. In Carnival Of Monsters the passengers on board the SS Bernice are the equivalent of the contestants on Big Brother, their tedious, repetitive, self-obsessed, pampered little lives serving only to entertain the gathered masses. There is the brief prospect of romance but it never really gets going. Indeed, the action quickly becomes so stultified that it becomes necessary to introduce an element of conflict to liven up proceedings – the giant man-eating Plesiosaur being the equivalent of ‘Nasty’ Nick Bateman. And who hasn’t watched Big Brother without wishing for an Aggro-meter to get things going? That’s what we want, after all. Sex and violence. Not people lying in bed reading books all day.

What this illustrates is that, time and time again, popular game show formats have their origins within Doctor Who stories. This does not happen by chance; there are numerous other examples. You don’t believe me? A few more for you…

Young hopefuls have been brought together to audition for three uncompromising and impassive judges. They seem somehow inhuman and unknowable. If the brave hopefuls impress, then the ancient Gods Of Ragnarok [i.e.‘Nasty’ Nigel Lythgoe] may proclaim them to be Popstars. If they lose, they will be reduced to cinders [or at least, to make personal appearances at gay clubs for all eternity].  Cannily, Captain Cook realises the best way to impress the judges was to form a double-act with a young woman in fishnet stockings cavorting and making shrieking noises.

Meanwhile, the Doctor’s stand-up magic routine is straight out of the talent-show tradition of New Faces and Opportunity Knocks. Indeed, if Ace hadn’t got the medallion to him in time he would no doubt have been forced to resort to the infamous ‘balloon dance’ from Over The Top.


Have you noticed how, in The Horror Of Fang Rock, each person dies shortly after proving themselves to be the most credulous and cowardly person in the lighthouse? One by one they are eliminated by the merciless alien - the story is a natural precursor of The Weakest Link.

Now image story which involves a quest through a variety of locales including a futuristic city and an overgrown jungle temple. The contestants must recover hidden treasures, each one hidden behind devious traps that will test both their deductive skills and co-ordination. They must solve cryptic riddles and cross perilous bridges. And then, after accumulating their treasures, they must place them into a perspex polyhedron for the grand finale. The Keys Of Marinus with Arbitan and Yartek the flipper-footed Voord? Or The Crystal Maze with Richard O’Brian and Ed Tudor Pole?

Take any game show and there is a Doctor Who corollary. Through The Keyhole? It’s obviously The Tomb Of The Cybermen with Lloyd Grossman instead of Eric Klieg. “Let’s go over the facts again. The spartan metal decoration. The rejuvenation sarcophagus. The symbolic logic puzzle. The ornamental Cyber-mat by the entrance. The hieroglyphs of silver giants. Who’d live in a tomb… like this?”

The climax of The Mind Robber ends with the Doctor defeating the computer by talking, without hesitation, repetition, deviation or fictionalisation. The episode is short in duration but not quite Just A Minute. Who can forget the terrifying Robot Wars between K-9 and Polyphase Avatron in The Pirate Planet? Or the Treasure Hunt for the Dragonfire, with the ancient and icy Kane standing in for Kenneth Kendall? Both The Sontaran Experiment and Survival are variations on the Survivor / Castaway format, again with the protagonists being eradicated in turn when their only crime is to be a bit nondescript and unpopular. And, as the Rani enters the brain chamber filled with dry-ice in Time And The Rani, you can almost hear her say, ‘Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be… Bonnie Langford’.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Despite the togas and lack of moral fibre, The Dominators most certainly does not take place on a Temptation Island. Ice Warriors does not involve any pincer-wielding Martians. And, despite their ability to weave massive shells, Tythonians are not The Great Egg Race.

Before I move on from this section, one final example of Doctor Who’s ability to originate game show formats. Somebody from Earth has been kidnapped in a spaceship to take part in an extraordinary alien adventure. Fortunately some eccentric aliens come to their rescue, aided and abetted by a small robot dog. It transpires that the goal of their quest is to locate a powerful crystal guarded by some rather unlikely-looking aliens. Meanwhile, a Machiavellian talking pot plant switches allegiances and changes its appearance. After the crystal has been recovered, the grand finale takes place against a CSO backdrop, in which the victors begin their journey home and the losers are vaporised…

Conspiracy theorists take note. Meglos was aired autumn 1980. The Adventure Game began in the spring of the very same year. I think we can draw our own conclusions.


It’s also pertinent to note that The Adventure Game shared much of its cast with contemporaneous Doctor Who. You could forgiven for believing that Janet Fielding, Bonnie Langford, Liza Goddard, Paul Darrow, Nerys Hughes and Sarah Greene had simply wandered into the wrong studio by mistake and decided that it was all much-of-a-muchness.

But then again, they wouldn’t be the only ones to make the seamless transition from Doctor Who to another game show. Sylvester McCoy started out on Jigsaw and Jon Pertwee took the quizmaster’s chair of Whodunnit. Peter Purves is, for a whole generation, synonymous with Junior Kick Start. Colin Baker has occupied the celebrated ‘Dictionary Corner’ of Countdown. And even Tom Baker dropped in for an edition of Call My Bluff, though he seemed somewhat boggled by the experience.

The flow of ideas hasn’t always been in one direction, though. It is important to also note the influence that contemporaneous game shows have had on Doctor Who. Or rather, to note how the producers of Doctor Who have identified the aspects of game shows that create drama and suspense and have then incorporated those aspects into the series.

To begin with, there is the idea of the ‘game’ itself. At its most elementary, you have the contest in Enlightenment and the various sports and past-times with which the Doctor has hobbied himself; cricket, fishing, chess and so forth. More often, though, ‘game’ elements are included into the story for one reason and one reason only. Padding.

After all, a game serves two purposes. Ideally, it keeps the viewer engaged and entertained and secondly, it fills up time without any of that tricky plot development or characterisation business.

One could argue that those two surreal 60’s stories, The Celestial Toymaker and The Mind Robber, consist of nothing but padding. After all, what are they but a sequence of rather lame parlour games? It is only the fact that the games are a matter of life and death that lends them any consequence. The Celestial Toymaker is blind man’s buff, hunt the thimble, musical chairs, hopscotch – no doubt if it had been six episodes long there would have been a haunting game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and a session of Twister with an electrified mat. The Mind Robber is even more uninspired, featuring brainteasers too feeble even to fill out a World Distributor’s Doctor Who annual. ‘When is a door not a door?’ ‘Can you rearrange these pictures to make Jamie’s face?’ ‘What kind of weapon can you make out of words?’ And, just like a Doctor Who annual, there’s a section on ‘Mythical Monsters’ too.

The technique of using games as time-filler was revisited once more during Death To The Daleks. Once again, the puzzles are desperately uninspired – a maze, another game of hopscotch – and once again they have no function other than to postpone the story. It’s an interesting thought that the ancient Exxillons decided to make their city totally impervious to all races… except those who were good at low-brow picture puzzles. Presumably, like the Cybermen and their tomb, they intended to restrict access to only those with a certain level of intelligence. They just set their entrance qualifications a little lower, that’s all.

However, if that’s the case, goodness knows what the Horus was thinking when they locked up the most evil being in the universe, Sutekh, in a prison secured by nothing more taxing than a ‘spot the difference’ and a variation of the Knights-and-Knaves logic problem. Presumably the other dangerous Osiran criminals are held captive by means of a wordsearch and a game of Buckaroo.

The most successful application of a game to the Doctor Who format is in The Five Doctors. As Borusa so aptly puts it, it is ‘a game within a game’ [a line which, indeed, would not actually make sense if Doctor Who were not a game-show]. Terrance Dicks knew that the best way to create a programme with numerous protagonists would be to place them within a framework which is effectively just a game of Ludo. Each group simply takes a different route to the Tower Of Rassillon, beset en route by a variety of obstacles and puzzles. The story can be made as long or short as required; it is simply a case of adding or subtracting more games or players. And The Five Doctors incorporates every popular game show element; physical stunts, cryptic puzzles and the now obligatory game of hopscotch.

However, rather than disguise the fact that it’s all just a big board game, Terrance makes a virtue of it. As in The Celestial Toymaker and The Mind Robber, the idea of playing a game of life and death directed by an unseen hand is used to sinister effect. And it is for this reason that the story begins with a roll-call of all the contestants [as in Stars In Their Eyes, we see each participant going about their daily lives] before a miniature of each character is placed onto The Ludo Set Of Rassillon. It is a device to make the nature of the show explicit.

And how does the story end? The climax is a ‘quickfire head-to-head round’ between the Doctor and Borusa, before we get to see the celebrity special guest – Rassilon – and the allocation of prizes – immortality to the loser, the presidency to the victor. Of course, the rule ‘To Lose Is To Win, And He Who Wins Shall Lose’ is somewhat arbitrary and unfair on the contestants, but in a way cleverly presages the rise of such ‘cruelty’ game shows as Shafted and The Weakest Link [recently parodied in The One Doctor audio to hilarious effect].

The most frequently-adopted game show format in Doctor Who is that of the quest. At its most simple, it is a journey from A to B overcoming various obstacles, usually involving giant clams, ice-canos and bottomless ravines . On a more complex level, it involves the collection of a variety of objects to be utilised at the finale [whether they be the Keys of Marinus or the sections of the Key to Time]. Douglas Adams’ unused movie script Doctor Who And The Krikkitmen even involved the quest for sections of a set of intergalactic cricket stumps.  The Mutants involves the Doctor’s quest to deliver a Time Lord message-ball to Ky. The Caves Of Androzani concerns the Doctor’s quest for a cure to Peri’s illness. Indeed, many stories are about competitions; the villain attempts to gain an object that will empower them, and the Doctor attempts to stop them and get the object first. That is essentially the entire plot of The Daleks’ Masterplan, after all.

How else does Doctor Who utilise the conventions of game shows? Well, there are four games we’re all familiar with, but which have not, until now, been named. They are the Cliffhanger Game, the Who Gets It Next Game, the Who Done It Game and the Who Actually Is It Game.

I think most of us in the UK who became Doctor Who fans during the 60s, 70s and 80s did so because, at least in part, we were addicted to the Cliffhanger Game. We couldn’t get enough of it. We would spend every week from Saturday to Saturday thinking about it. It was the best part of the programme. Unfortunately in these days of novelisations, omnibus repeats and videos its appeal has been somewhat muted, but in the days of nostalgia, the Cliffhanger Game was king.

I hardly need explain the rules because I’m sure we’re familiar with them already, but I shall do so anyway. What happens is this: Each episode ends with a cliffhanger. The Doctor or one of his companions is in trouble. It looks as though all is lost and they will be killed. Then the programme ends and we are left asking… ‘How will they get out of that? How will our heroes find their way out what appears to be an impossible situation?’

The Cliffhanger Game is about trying to guess the answer to that question. The one rule of the Cliffhanger Game is this; all of the clues to the solution must have been given during the episode. You have to have all the information the Doctor and his companions have and work out how they will cheat death. And then, one week later, you find out whether you got it right or not.

More often than not, however, you would be unable to come up with a solution, and so the real pleasure was in seeing the answer revealed and having the tension of not-knowing relieved. Of course – the Doctor was merely holding his breath! Of course – Ace overpowers the headmaster and opens the cellar door! Of course – the Daleks’ guns don’t work on this planet! Of course – the gunshots were the firing squad being attacked!

However, fun as the Cliffhanger Game is, it is not without its frustrations. Too often, we are put in the position of the Kathy Bates character in Misery and are left screaming at the screen, ‘that wasn’t fair!’ because the writers have cheated. How were we supposed to know that the Doctor carries a snorkel with him at all times? How were we supposed to know that George Stephenson would happen to be walking by the mineshaft at just the right moment to prevent the Doctor falling into it? And how on earth were we supposed to guess that the Doctor that jumped off the plank was just an image projection?

The worst transgressions of the rules of The Cliffhanger Game are those occasions where the cliffhanger reprise completely recontextualises the ending of the previous episode. So the Doctor is trapped outside the door to the weather centre and about to be poisoned by a pod. Meanwhile, inside, Jamie and Zoe are cornered by an Ice Warrior. Roll on episode six and… and it turns out that by the time the Doctor has got to the weather centre, Jamie and Zoe have evaded the Ice Warrior and run to the other side of the door. A similar example is the end of The Planet Of The Spiders 5, possibly the most unfair edition of the Cliffhanger Game of all.

A variation on the Cliffhanger Game has been popularised by A Question Of Sport with their ‘What happens next?’ round. Rather than trying to puzzle a solution to the Doctor’s predicament, we are instead simply left wondering at the consequences of the events we have witnessed. At its most basic, it’s ‘oh my goodness, so there’s a monster here’. So there is a Dalek in the back of the antique shop! So Count Scarlioni is actually a one-eyed green scaly alien! The two most famous ‘What happens next?’ cliffhangers from Doctor Who are, as we all know, ‘the Police Box has landed in a wilderness and a shadowy something is approaching it’ and ‘what is at the other end of the sink plunger?’

This use of cliffhangers, to create suspense and to keep the audience watching from show to show until they’re addicted, is common to game shows. It’s at its most conspicuous on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? where we’ll go to an advert break or the programme will end before the answer to the question is given. But any game show where contestants continue from programme to programme has this quality – University Challenge, Blockbusters, even Blind Date. And cliffhangers are very useful things. They keep the audience thinking about a programme after it has finished and they keep the viewer watching by constantly posing unanswered questions and creating – and drawing out – the answers.

The Who Gets It Next Game may not be quite so familiar. It’s a game that can played consciously, with viewers shouting out the answers at the screen, or on a more subtle level. The Who Gets It Next Game more frequently applies to disaster movies, detective novels and horror movies, but also applies to those many Doctor Who stories with a high body-count.

The game is quite simple. All you have to do is to guess who will be the next person to die. You can also guess how they die, but that’s not quite so important. Will it be Laird, will it be Calder, Archer, Stein, Mercer or Styles? This game particularly applies to the inhabitants of Fang Rock, Storm Mine 4, the web-infested London Underground, the Hyperion III, and stories by Eric Saward. We know that, one by one, they will be dispatched in a brutal and inhuman manner, just like the contestants on Fifteen To One.

As you might expect, there are various rules to the Who Gets It Next Game. You’re not going to kill off your most expensive guest star in the first five minutes. You want to keep a good mixture of age groups, ethnic minorities and genders for as long as possible so it doesn’t look like you’re killing people off on the basis of age, ethnic group or gender. The lead characters, the Doctor and his companions, will certainly survive, unless it’s in a story by Eric Saward or Dennis Spooner and Terry Nation. And generally speaking, the brave, resourceful, clever people will survive longest, and the evil, cowardly, greedy people will get it first.


Following on from this, we have the Who Done It Game, which is largely self-explanatory. It’s about picking up the clues and working out which person is the traitor/murderer. However, Doctor Who has trod the murder mystery path only rarely and it is fair to say that even then it has gone astray. The murderer in The Robots Of Death can be identified within the first few minutes by his distinctive eye-catching trousers and the intriguing murder-mystery aspect of Terror Of The Vervoids ends up buried in the Brummy-plants-taking-over story. The murderer’s identity in The Rescue is rather belied by the fact that there is only one possible candidate; this elementary mistake is repeated in The Space Pirates. Indeed, the only really effective times where Doctor Who has done a who-done-it are The Web Of Fear and The Reign Of Terror where the traitors identities do come as a genuine surprise. And possibly The Deadly Assassin, Arc Of Infinity and The Five Doctors too, at a push.

Such was the potential of the Who Done It Game that another science fiction show adopted the format wholesale to great effect. Captain Zep combined both the sci-fi action and the game show elements; the studio audience would help the eponymous Super Space Detective solve cases by remembering ‘clues’ from the episode, and the viewers at home could win badges by writing in with other details, ‘What was the name of the alien ambassador Professor Spiro met on Santos?’. The only drawback was that anyone who had a video recorder could cheat.

Turning our attention reluctantly away from Captain Zep and back to A Question Of Sport, we have the ‘Mystery Personality’ round or, as it would apply within Doctor Who, the Who Actually Is It Game. This game works in two ways. The first way is the Who Actually Is It In Terms Of Doctor Who. We see a character – usually an evil master-mind – lurking in the shadows. We don’t see their face; only perhaps a black glove is visible, or a scaly claw or pincer. They sit in a chair with their backs to us and cackle insanely. The game is, of course, to correctly identify them before their identity is revealed on-screen. The most effective use of this device was in The Keeper Of Traken, though a variation on it worked very well with the Master’s allies in Frontier In Space.

Even if the mystery personality is not a returning character, the game is still effective as the viewer attempts to glean some idea as to the hideous nature of the creature or character in question. We see very little of the Silurians in their early episodes, for example, and are left only to guess at their appearance from a claw and a wall-drawing. Similarly with the K-1 Robot, the Tetraps, the Captain, the Haemovores… virtually every Doctor Who monster. Once again, it’s raising unanswered questions to heighten suspense.

Similarly, the introductions of Magnus Greel, Sharaz Jek and the Borad toy with viewers’ expectations. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought the mysterious masked figure in The Caves Of Androzani would actually be the Master, or that the rasping battle-computer-thing in Remembrance Of The Daleks was Davros.

Sometimes, though, the Who Actually Is It Game fell rather flat. The revelation that the unconvincing French swordsman who looks like the Master in an orange beard and wig is, in fact, the Master in an orange beard and wig comes as something of an anticlimax to the end of part one of The King’s Demons. Similarly the surprise that the invisible monsters on Spiridon are Daleks is rather spoilt by the fact that the story in question is called The Planet Of The Daleks.

The second strand of the Who Actually Is It Game is best illustrated in Paradise Towers. Here we have some very typical ‘Mystery Personality’ camerawork – a brief glimpse of moustache, a finger flicking a switch, a couple of lines of muttered dialogue. We’re left guessing who this character is and what significance they hold. And then, towards the end of the episode, all is revealed - it’s ‘The Good Life’s Richard Briers! [This wasn’t the first time this device had been used, and its use parallels the introduction of a ‘Celebrity Guest’ element which I will discuss later.]

Often, though, the answers to the Who Actually Is It Game are only given in the end titles – to this day, I have no absolutely idea which Cryon is supposed to be Sarah Greene. And is it really Mike out of The Young Ones playing Lord Kiv? It still strikes me as surreal that Lord Varga the Ice Warrior is none other than Bernard ‘Ah, sorry, Sid’ Bresslaw

Of course these aren’t the only games that viewers can play whilst watching Doctor Who – there is the recent phenomena of ‘drinking games’ where the viewers drink in response to clichés and catchphrases – but the difference with the above games is that they are all deliberate on the part of the production team. The writers and directors are conscious that the viewers will engage with the programme on the level of a game show, and realise that the best way to involve an audience is to set them puzzles and make them think.

Let’s return briefly to The Five Doctors. Such is the undisputed genius of Terrance Dicks that within this story he virtually invented a fifth game. A game which has since surpassed all others. This is the Spot The Reference Game.

In a sense, it’s a variation on Telly Addicts or that edition of Mastermind where the guy chose Doctor Who as his specialist subject. It’s about testing the viewers’ knowledge of the programme and rewarding them for close, attentive viewing. Again it’s questions and answers; in this case, though, the question is, ‘What is the writer referring to?’ and the answer can only be found within a lifetime of Doctor Who trivia.

An early example of this game comes in Arc Of Infinity where the TARDIS is recalled to Gallifrey – ‘this has happened only twice before’, we are told. So the fan viewer is immediately engaged in the Spot The Reference Game; just when did it happen twice before? Cue a hasty rummage through the Doctor Who Programme Guide and a few Target novelisations for the answer.

But it is in The Five Doctors that this game becomes of crucial importance for the first time, as the 2nd Doctor defeats the apparitions of Jamie and Zoe not by willpower, wits or ingenuity, but by pointing out that they’ve got their Doctor Who continuity wrong. He defeats them by Spotting A Reference to The War Games.

Now, the fans in the audience have always been playing this game, but usually what references they spotted were unintentional. The Five Doctors was the first time the programme recognised that some viewers would be playing the Spot The Reference Game and thus deliberately  incorporated it into the narrative.

Since then, as we all know, the Spot The Reference Game began to take over the programme to the exclusion of all the other games, until it finally found its ideal home in the books. Characters, planets, chapter titles – virtually everything is an allusion to something in the TV show, or the author’s favourite pop groups, or the names of their mates, or bits from other TV shows, films and books. As the book ranges grew, so the novels even began to accommodate references to themselves, creating an ever-more-mind-boggling web of trivia. Paul Cornell came up with the first really impressive Spot The Reference Game with the ‘Hoothi’ in Love And War – taken from a mumbled aside in The Brain Of Morbius – but the current masters at creating Spot The Reference Games are authors Gary Russell and Lawrence Miles. Indeed, Miles’ Christmas At A Rational Planet is rumoured to contain a reference to every single Doctor Who story, a feat which surpasses even The Doctor Who Quiz Book. And this is, of course, adds greatly to the fun.

Before I move on, I should mention that there is possibly a sixth game. In the tradition of Call My Bluff, there is the What Does The Dialogue Actually Mean Game. Pioneered by writers Pip and Jane Baker, such lines as ‘Catharsis of spurious morality’ have a certain cryptic quality which would certainly leave Clement Freud and Sandi Toksvig beguiled. But, it has to be said, if this game does exist, it hasn’t really caught on.

To become serious for just one second. What all the above games illustrate is that Doctor Who, like all great TV game shows, engages its audience by posing questions and then rewards its audience by revealing the – often surprising and overlooked – answers. It keeps the viewers in suspense and gets their brains working - and that is what viewers love. The process has three stages: 1) The question. 2) The viewer shouting out the answer to the question. 3) And then the programme giving the answer. Intrigue –interaction – reward. The ideal formula for entertainment.

In other respects, Doctor Who has followed the trends displayed in other TV game shows. The most obvious element it has implemented is that which I alluded to briefly before – celebrity guests.

Now, the idea of a celebrity guest is actually quite a modern invention. It was virtually unheard of in television throughout the 60s and 70s when actors were fairly anonymous types. Although there are many recognisable faces from 60s and 70s television, there were very few actual ‘celebrities’. By a celebrity I mean an actor [or at least, someone associated with the entertainment profession] who is famous enough to get away with not actually doing anything. In the 60s and 70s entertainers only appeared on television doing what it was they were actually famous for.

That all changed in the 80s and the programme that changed it was Blankety Blank. Suddenly actors were not just people who played parts; they were a spectacle in their own right. The fact that someone had once appeared in Butterflies or Seaside Special or even just an advert for Luton Airport suddenly meant they were worth putting up on screen. TV producers realised that if you got enough of these half-famous non-entities together, you’d get an audience. Hence Blankety Blank. Never mind that they weren’t actually doing whatever it was they were famous for doing – they were ‘celebrities’ and their mere presence was enough. Indeed, as Rowan Atkison once observed, the only other TV programme that these people ever seemed to appear on was ‘Celebrity bloody Squares’. Many viewers would be quite right in suspecting that many of them had never actually done anything to merit their fame in the first place; they had just gestated, fully-formed, onto the right-hand side of the bottom row of Blankety Blank.

One of the great achievements of John Nathan-Turner as producer was to recognise this trend and adopt it wholesale for Doctor Who. If Blankety Blank was getting viewers because it had celebrities, then so would our favourite sci-fi show. Indeed, many of the names were interchangeable; in Season 19 alone we have Bert Kwouk, Stratford Johns, Nerys Hughes, Michael Robbins and Beryl Reid; later seasons would up the celebrity contingent considerably. And it worked. It seemed incongruous at times, yes - occasionally it seemed like lunatic mis-casting - but it made Doctor Who bigger and more important and it gave viewers a bonus as they played the Isn’t That Whatsername, Oh What Have I Seen Her In? Game. [this game actually first occurs at the end of City Of Death, where John Cleese has no call to be there, but the beauty lay in the fact that he is there].

In many ways, John Nathan-Turner was ahead of his time; nowadays we think nothing of Barbara Windsor turning up in Eastenders or Les Dennis in Brookside or virtually every BBC drama containing someone out of The Fast Show. In the early 80’s, however, it did come as a culture shock to some to see Rodney Bewes, Chloe Ashcroft and Rula Lenska fighting the Daleks [not to mention Leslie Grantham, though his budding celebrity had, at the time, yet to flower]. Without wishing to be disingenuous, one suspects that a similar approach was even used in the casting of at least one companion – hiring them not because they were necessarily suited to the role, but because of their celebrity caché and the corresponding audience they would bring in.

And there is nothing wrong with that; indeed, every ‘celebrity’ to appear in Doctor Who acquitted themselves more than admirably [with, perhaps, the possible exception of Leee John!] because Doctor Who gave them a chance to get away from playing the ‘Supermatch Game’ and tittering at Kenny Everett’s microphone-bending-antics and to actually demonstrate their talent. One need only look to Nicholas Parsons – the only first-division game show host to appear in Doctor Who – who gives a revelatory performance in The Curse Of Fenric.

In many ways, it’s a shame Doctor Who finished when it did. Who knows, it was only a matter of time before we were treated to guest performances from Fred Harris, Su Pollard, Paul Daniels, Duncan Norvelle, Johnny Ball and Gary Wilmott. All of whom would have been terrific. The Krankies could have been an Oak and Quill for the nineties.

It’s interesting to note that Big Finish have not been slow in realising the additional kudos [and additional sales] that result from including celebrity ‘names’ in the casts, and in so doing are continuing the approach initiated by John Nathan-Turner. If Doctor Who were on TV today, it would do well to boast a cast that included Mark Gatiss, Lucas & Walliams, James Bolam, Simon Pegg, Jessica Stephenson, Christopher Biggins and Murray Head’s little brother. And it’s no coincidence that Death Comes To Time includes Stephen Fry and John Sessions in its cast. The celebrity factor is big business nowadays – it’s a fact that if David Jason wanted to play Doctor Who then the series would come back tomorrow.

How else has Doctor Who followed the fashions of game shows? Well, in the late 70’s Tiswas was enjoyed throughout the land [except by those children who were so middle-class they weren’t allowed to watch ITV] and its appeal was largely due to seeing people being drenched in cold water or splattered with foam [often flung by a certain Sylveste McCoy]. Now, Doctor Who had been doing foam since the late 60’s when the BBC special effects department bought a foam machine and used it on every single Troughton story in some capacity or other. But what Tiswas did – and what Crackerjack and Noel Edmonds later refined – was the appeal of seeing people being covered in slime – or ‘gunge’ as it became known.

So it should come as no surprise that 80’s Doctor Who was full of gunge too. Most obviously in the slapstick finale to The Mysterious Planet, yes, but in many other stories; just as the losers in Crackerjack would get gunged, so the defeated monsters in Doctor Who would have equally slimy deaths. Every villain, be it Silurian, Malus or Omega, would have gunk simply oozing out of its eye sockets and nostrils. If there had been a studio audience, it would’ve been going, ‘Oooeeeuch!’

Another area where Doctor Who and other game shows have borrowed from each other has been in their sets. Many game shows attempt to create a sense of concentrated power and high technology; the resemblance between the set for The Weakest Link and the Daleks’ control room in The Dalek Masterplan  cannot be a coincidental. And on one occasion Doctor Who actually used a game show set outright; my namesake helped the Doctor defeat the Mara on the very same stage where Nicole sang ‘A Little Peace’ in the 1982 Eurovision Song Contest.

Finally, there is one more way in which Doctor Who works as a game show. That is in terms of contestants and hosts. Each one has a specific function with the programme.

The contestants are you and me. Ordinary Joe Public audience identification figures. When we see the contestants on screen, we put ourselves in their place. We empathise with them and thus we are drawn into the action. And the companions in Doctor Who fulfil the same function.

The most successful companions are those which have been defined by their ordinariness. We watch Ian and Barbara, and we think, ‘That could be me, there, facing down Koquillion on the surface of Dido.’ Similarly with Dodo, Ben, Polly, Jo, Sarah… the list goes on. Even when the companions have an extraordinary [and extraterrestrial origin] they are still our identification figures, because they are the same age as us [or our older siblings] and act accordingly. Vicki, Zoe, Turlough and Stephen might have been ostensibly from the far future, but they all sounded and behaved like 60’s teenagers. Similarly with Jamie and Victoria. The only companions who, arguably, didn’t work were those with whom the audience could not identify; no-one ever had a poster of Kamelion on their wall.

So the contestants/companions have been transported into a realm where they must use their wit and stamina to beat the forces that weigh in against them; the forces of faceless, reasoning intelligence [often personified as a computer, as in Family Fortunes] and random chance.

What about the quizmaster? Well, there are two types of game show host. There are the nice ones who work with the contestants, who cajole, joke and encourage. And there are the nasty ones who stand against the contestants and who subject them to cold, bitter interrogation. In recent years, the nasty ones have gained more popularity [Anne Robinson, famously, though Jeremy Paxman has a neat line in sarcasm]. It does not take a leap of insight to realise that the hosts represent the Doctor/villain contention.

The nice hosts are, effectively, the Doctor. In the case of The Crystal Maze, Richard O’Brian’s unusual dress and eccentric banter meant that he had effectively ruled himself out of the role of Doctor Who, on the grounds that he had already played the part for several years. The hosts gain the friendship of the contestants whilst not gaining their trust; this unequal relationship is essentially the same as that between Doctor and companion.

The nasty hosts are the villains. They dress in formal, black clothes, and they sit in a dark and spooky Villain Den behind a Villain Desk in a high-backed Villain Chair. They are at the centre of a web of power with controls and information and monitors at their fingertips. They are the Controller, the Borad and Sutekh. They are the question-Master, and they are to be feared.

This is quite neatly illustrated within the series during its fingers-on-buzzers rounds, or, to use a more appropriate term, interrogation scenes. In Genesis Of The Daleks Davros has the Doctor strapped to a chair; name? Doctor. Profession? Time traveller. Chosen specialist subject? The future history of the Daleks. The parallels are so obvious I almost need not have drawn them.

What conclusions then, can we draw from the above? Doctor Who is a game show in many respects. It utilises the same devices to engage and entertain the viewer, to bring them to the programme and make them addicted to it. It creates suspense by posing questions. In particular, it involves the viewer by playing games with them and making them work.

One of the buzzwords in the world of television at the moment is ‘interactivity’. And, like all buzzwords, it is used by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. The future of television is, apparently, ‘interactive’.

Now, there are several ways in which ‘interactivity’ can be achieved. You can have little URLs at the end of every programme to encourage people to go to web sites. You can have accompanying books, magazines and DVDs. The latest technological breakthrough allows viewers to ‘take part’ in programmes by pressing buttons on their remote controls, a development predicted in the wonderful Vengeance On Varos.

But this is completely missing the point. Television doesn’t become interactive through buttons and web sites and merchandise. Television is interactive through challenging its audience. Game shows, in which the viewer constantly and consciously participates with the action, are the original interactive television. And so is Doctor Who. Simply by reading this article you are interacting with the show. Doctor Who is a programme that has sparked our imaginations, a programme that has aroused our interest. A programme that has taught us things and a programme which we have analysed and discussed and studied. Another buzzword is ‘water-cooler-television’; programmes that make people talk. Doctor Who was water-cooler television in the playground; it was drinking-fountain television.

But the problem is that the people using the buzzwords believe that television is, essentially, a passive experience. It’s television as wallpaper; Ground Force and Animal Hospital and Changing Rooms and I Love 1983. Television where the viewer is just a consumer being drip-fed with a product.

And that’s the important thing. Doctor Who is different. Doctor Who is the original interactive television programme. That’s why it’s a game show, first and foremost; because it’s a programme we all take part in.


Interactivity is indeed the future. After all, it’s the game shows that capture the publics’ imagination and deliver the big audiences, isn’t it? Big Brother. Popstars. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. The Weakest Link. Every television channel is desperately searching for another format that will break through in the same way. Another format with the same appeal for viewers, another programme which viewers don’t just passively watch, but which actively engages them on many levels and gives them something to think about.

So bring back the ultimate game show. The greatest game show in the galaxy. Bring back Doctor Who.

After all, they did it with The Generation Game.

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