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Who'd be an online star?

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Doctor Who, one-time bane of the cybermen, now faces a challenge in cyberspace, writes Angus Kidman

IN 1989, the BBC axed Doctor Who, the world's longest-running science fiction TV series, after 26 years on the air. The cancellation was not exactly surprising, as the then-controller of the BBC, Michael Grade, had been pushing for some time to shut the show down (in a 1985 interview, he described it as "tired" and "overly violent").

It seems, however, that affection for a world populated by Daleks, screaming companions, wobbly sets and budget special effects lingers on. Since the cancellation, the BBC has shown little inclination to recommission the show, but it has expended great effort on maintaining Doctor Who in other formats (and has been supported in such efforts by broadcasters such as the ABC, which transmitted the series in Australia).

A spin-off series of novels by Virgin Publishing proved so lucrative that the BBC took the project back in-house. A group of fans formed a company, Big Finish Productions, which since 1999 has issued more than 20 authorised audio CD dramas that feature former Doctors reprising the role in new stories. A 1996 telemovie co-produced with US channel Fox regenerated the character for the eighth time, with actor Paul McGann taking up the role to general acclaim (although the ratings weren't strong enough to proceed to a full new series).

And just last week, the BBC sent the Doctor into a relatively new realm: cyberspace. A new 30-minute audio drama, "Death Comes to Time", was made available on July 13 at the official Doctor Who website ( The half-hour streaming audio broadcast saw the return of the seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, who played the role from 1987 to 1989, along with his companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) and a cast featuring comedian and author Stephen Fry. According to BBC publicity documents, the transmission marked the first time that the BBC has specifically broadcast a piece of newly commissioned drama purely in an online medium.

While that made for a useful promotional device, it's stretching the truth somewhat. In fact, "Death Comes to Time" had originally been developed in 2000 by producer Dan Freedman as a pilot for a possible six-part drama series on Radio Four, which has the largest drama output of any BBC station.

However, Radio Four rejected the pilot because, according to Freedman, it didn't suit the station's profile. "The problem is that everyone in Radio Four wanted it, just not the commissioners," he says.

After Radio Four turned down the pilot, Freedman began campaigning for an independent net broadcast, a plan that was eventually approved and announced in June. (A CD release is also expected later in the year.)

While the emergence of any fresh Doctor Who material has been cause for fans to celebrate, the transmission of the new drama raises at least two broader questions for online media.

The first is whether, by choosing to broadcast online a production that wasn't deemed good enough for its radio network, the BBC is demoting web-only dramas to second-tier status. Some Doctor Who enthusiasts believe so. "Somehow, I don't think the internet is going to be the saviour for Doctor Who," wrote a frequent contributor to rec.arts.drwho, an online newsgroup dedicated to the show. Shortly after the online broadcast, many visitors to the newsgroup began questioning why the show hadn't been granted a full radio transmission.

Not everyone sees the shift from conventional broadcast to a web medium as a problem. "I think it's great they're giving "Death Comes to Time" another chance," says Kate Orman, the Australian author of the most recent Doctor Who novel, "The Year of Intelligent Tigers", and a long-time fan of the show. "It makes sense to use one of the BBC's best-loved shows in an experiment like this -- the TV show was screened in over a hundred countries, so it's known all over the world."

Some even see the project's resurrection from a rejected pilot as a positive move, as there are no new costs associated with developing the online broadcast. "The fact that this pilot is low-risk for BBC Online makes it easier for them to test the waters," says Australian Jonathan Blum, a prolific Doctor Who author who has written novels, short stories and audio scripts for the series. "But the important point is that, if it's a success, they'll know there's a demand out there for original online drama -- not just Doctor Who. We're talking about a whole new medium for BBC broadcasting, with a vast new potential audience.

"The whole ethos of producing Doctor Who is about making an opportunity out of a pittance -- the BBC never gave them time or a budget or support," Blum adds. "But they still managed to tell charming and imaginative stories, and that's what matters. This broadcast is just the latest in that long tradition."

Freedman himself saw the move to the web as opening up new possibilities for synchronising the existing audio with on-screen events. "In the making of the net version, we realised that we were really dealing with a new medium and a new form. Although we haven't made it as experimental as we could, because it's essentially an audio production, it raised a lot of interesting possibilities," he says.

It's also been argued that the web broadcast is a more democratic means of making new Doctor Who material available to the show's worldwide fan base.

"Broadcasting on the net will enable fans throughout the world to hear an original episode -- for the first time enjoying the experience simultaneously with us in the UK," Chuck Foster of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society told the BBC's online news service. Given that the BBC's primary duty is to provide programs for the UK, such arguments may not carry much weight when assessing how successful the experiment is.

This brings us to the second, less obvious issue raised by the show -- whether any accurate judgment of the success of the broadcast can be made. While the ability to measure audiences on the web is the subject of frequent hyperbole, the reality is that virtually no system enjoys the widespread acceptance that is standard for ratings methodologies in other broadcast media. Because websites can be visited repeatedly, distinguishing between something listened to by 100,000 people just once or by 1000 people 100 times each isn't always possible.

Technologies such as forced registrations or tracking users via their IP addresses, can help solve the problem, but are far from foolproof.

Such measurements will be critical if the BBC moves ahead with proposals to charge for certain types of web content. Officials have recently discussed the idea of charging an extra fee for UK residents who regularly access broadcasts from the site, although how this would apply to a worldwide audience isn't clear. While the idea is still in the discussion stage, the success or otherwise of broadcasts such as the new Doctor Who show may be critical to the final decision.

However, the problem is particularly pronounced in the case of "Death Comes to Time", as the producers have been encouraging fans to visit the official site repeatedly for the show. "[Death Comes To Time] is the gun and your listening to it is the bullets, so give me ammo. Listen in twice a day and force your granny at gunpoint to do the same!" Freedman wrote in a posting on the official site. "It is absolutely essential to any further Doctor Who project that the site be swamped."

For his part, Freedman maintains that multiple viewings won't be a problem when the numbers are judged. "Multiple hits are regarded as valid, in that if it's seen a number of times by one person it's assumed officially that it must be interesting enough to see twice," he says.

So will it be swamped? The reaction from diehard fans to the prospect of the new show has been mixed, but observers say this is inevitable. "Fans are inherently conservative ... any change faces some initial scepticism," says Blum. "A new medium is just like a new Doctor in that respect. But good stories are able to overcome that resistance."

While Freedman has expressed concerns over whether TV audiences will embrace audio drama, dedicated supporters of the show are used to audio-only releases. As well as the Big Finish CDs, many of the Doctor Who episodes made in the 1960s exist only in audio format, as the BBC wiped the original video tapes in the 70s, and some of these recordings have been released commercially on CD.

One other source of complaint may be the format used for broadcasting. The BBC is transmitting the show using RealAudio, which allows fans to have the show streamed to their PC in real time, but makes it difficult to record copies. Dedicated Who fans, many of whom have taped all the broadcasts, feel cheated out of the ability to add to their collections in this way.

Software packages exist that can work around the problem, and some fans have offered to convert the broadcast into MP3 format. However, some supporters are worried that this will also reduce viewer numbers. "I worry that if people have copies on their hard drives, they won't listen online as often as they otherwise would," one fan, Barbara Headman, wrote on the rec.arts.drwho newsgroup.

Ultimately, Who fans will probably rally around to support the new broadcast and hope for additional episodes. Yet a sense remains that that would still only be a second-best outcome for many. "I think for most fans, a new TV show is like the Holy Grail," says Orman. "As much as we enjoy the books or the audios, we'd like our show back, too." Nonetheless, she's confident the experiment will work. "If any show can be successful on the web, it's Doctor Who."

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  • APA 6th ed.: Kidman, Angus (2001-07-19). Who'd be an online star?. The Australian p. M14.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Kidman, Angus. "Who'd be an online star?." The Australian [add city] 2001-07-19, M14. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Kidman, Angus. "Who'd be an online star?." The Australian, edition, sec., 2001-07-19
  • Turabian: Kidman, Angus. "Who'd be an online star?." The Australian, 2001-07-19, section, M14 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Who'd be an online star? | url= | work=The Australian | pages=M14 | date=2001-07-19 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 July 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Who'd be an online star? | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 July 2024}}</ref>