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The Doctor Who webcasts

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I resolved some time back that if I ever did a rewatch of New Who, i should start with The Curse of Fatal Death and should include all the dramatic presentations, to choose a potentially wideranging term, that fit into the general sequence. Before the glorious return of Doctor Who to the screens in the person of Christopher Eccleston, the BBC experimented with bringing it back as a webcast animation series. Four such stories were produced in 2001-2003, three of them featuring the last three established Doctors - Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann - and a fourth with Richard E. Grant as a new incarnation of the Doctor. My impressions of them at an episode a day are below.

Death Comes to Time (2001) was the first of the four webcasts produced in the first half of the last decade. I have to say that, rewatching it, I'm surprised we got any more. There is lots of portentous music and dramatic declamations, but the plot is rambling with many loose ends from the early episodes and a totally canon-busting ending, jvgu gur Qbpgbe irevnoyl xvyyrq naq Npr genafsbezrq vagb n Gvzr Ybeq. We have one key character rather gratuitously and horribly killed off, and a welcome if confusing return by the Brigadier at the end. By today's standards, or even the standards of Cosgrove Hall's animations for Scream of the Shalka, the visuals are rather crudely done (not to diss Lee Sullivan's artwork, but rather what is done with it). There are some great performances - McCoy, Aldred, Jon Sessions as the villain, Stephen Fry as the Minister of Chance, Kevin Eldon as new companion Antimony, the underused Jon Culshaw, Anthony Stewart Head and Jacqueline Pearce (and indeed Nicholas Courtney) - but this was never going to lead to a grand revival of the show.

See for yourself, starting here.

Real Time is a step forward - not least because the animation is much better. The story feels much more like Doctor Who than did Death Comes to Time; at first it seems to be a retread of Tomb of the Cybermen, but Gary Russell, who rarely gets it wrong, takes it in a direction of parallel timelines where the Cybermen dominate and partially Cyber-ised people, both themes which came back in New Who and Torchwood respectively but were new ground when Real Time was made. And there is more innovation; the Sixth Doctor appears here in a blue suit rather then the canonical multicoloured outfit, along with Evelyn Smythe, the history professor who is very well-known to Big Finish listeners as one of the best of the audio-only companions, but would have been completely new to fans who only knew the TV series. We also have the return of Yee Jee Tso from The Movie, though playing a mysterious Asian scientist who has a sinister secret (*sigh*), and rather bizarrely the comedians Lee and Herring playing a Robert Holmes-style double act of expedition personnel. It has its flaws - there are two very gory scenes in episodes 4 and 5, and I don't think Tso quite nails the character he is meant to be playing - but it is basically OK, if more a good advertisement for Big Finish rather than a new beginning for Who.

See for yourself, starting here.

The webcast version of Shada is the best of these four by some way, so it is unfortunate for the fate of the format that it also is the one story of the four that really looks back rather than forward. Of course, it benefits hugely from Douglas Adams' script, rounded off and updated by both Gary Russell and Nick Pegg; but it also uses the webcast format to full advantage, with some lovely background pieces - the prison planet Shada itself, the Doctor's Tardis from The Movie, and the Cambridge street scenes. The animation is a bit limited - there's a weird sequence of dialogues in the first episode where the character we see in "shot" is the one who is not speaking, and Skagra's face and body are always stretched vertically but not always consistently - but I forgive that for the very nifty animation of the eight Doctors' faces morphing into one another at the episode 1-episode 2 cliffhanger. And the cast are brilliant - Andrew Sachs in particular is superb as a much older, more sinister, more alien Skagra than Christopher Neame's Assange-like portrayal in the TV series. (With one crucial exception: McGann is not on top form, to be honest, and is outshone by Lalla Ward when the script permits. Though he sparks with his future girlfriend Susannah Harker, playing Claire. She is portrayed wearing what looks to my inexperienced eye like a fetish collar.)

See for yourself, starting here.

Scream of the Shalka is the reboot that didn't come off. It is a shame in some ways because it has its strengths - notably the animation, which is far ahead of the other three in quality, Paul Cornell's story-line of alien beings breaking into our world from an unexpected direction, and Sophie Okonedo's performance as one-off companion Alison, and Derek Jacobi, not for the last time, as the Master. (Also keep an ear out for a brief appearance by David Tennant as a minor character.) But the biggest problem is Richard E. Grant's Doctor, a pale and vampire-like presence whose arrogant character lies somewhere between the low point of Pertwee's Doctor and the mid-point of Colin Baker's for likeability. (Which is to say, not very high.) In the last episode we are told - by the Master, no less - that the Doctor is dealing with the scars of some dreadful conflict too awful to describe, an idea brought into NewWho also; and he gradually mellows throughout the story. In the end it feels a bit like The Movie, a false start, which relies a bit too much on continuity and does not do enough to make this about a character you would want to watch another seven, or twenty-six, or fifty years of. (For instance, Old Who fans will be baffled that the Master is now n sevraqyl ebobg; those new to Who will wonder why they are meant to care.) And there is an awful lot of screaming, though of course the clue is in the title.

See for yourself, starting here.

The webcasts tend to be forgotten these days. They started as a lure to get Who fans to explore the BBC website, and even now are only to be found in obscure corners of the Internet. But at the same time a lot of the people involved with the webcasts remained engaged with New Who, including particularly James Goss, who was involved with production of all four of these and has written some of the best New Who and Torchwood fiction. The webcasts may not have been a howling success, but they paved the way for the BBC Wales revival, and possibly demonstrated that there was still some life in the old franchise yet.

And tomorrow, I will watch Rose.

< The Curse of Fatal Death | The Webcasts | Rose - Dalek | The Long Game - The Parting of the Ways | Comic Relief 2006 - The Girl In The Fireplace | Rise of the Cybermen - Doomsday | Everything Changes - They Keep Killing Suzie | Random Shoes - End of Days | Smith and Jones - 42 | Human Nature / The Family of Blood - Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords & The Infinite Quest | Revenge of the Slitheen - The Lost Boy & Time Crash | Voyage of the Damned - Adam | Reset - Exit Wounds

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