Shiny Shelf

The Franchise Cycle

By Eddie Robson on 11 July 2005

In amongst the various reactions to the ‘Doctor Who’ revival, one comment that I’ve been consistently surprised/amused by is the suggestion (made by several commentators) that it was brave of the BBC to take a punt on this mouldy old property which everybody had written off.

As a longtime fan of ‘The Show’ (I’ve often noticed myself referring to it in these terms, like it’s the definite article) I sometimes forget that, as far as most people are concerned, ‘Doctor Who’ has been dead for years. In truth, however, there has never been a time in the past fifteen years when the BBC wasn’t considering making ‘Doctor Who’. After the last Sylvester McCoy season in 1989, the BBC looked to outsource the production ‘Doctor Who’ to an independent company and, what with it being quite an expensive thing to make, the ideal solution was thought to be an American co-production deal.

This eventually bore fruit in the form of 1996’s TV movie, which the BBC intended to be the pilot for a series, but production partner Universal was lukewarm on the idea and the possibility of American ‘Who’ gradually petered out. In the late 1990s, buoyed by the theatrical success of BBC Films successes such as ‘Mrs Brown’, the BBC started to think that the best way of going forwards was a movie and earmarked the property for such treatment. When this project failed to materialise, BBC1 argued that it should get a chance to make a series, and did so. That takes us up to today, when ‘Doctor Who’ is British TV’s great Comeback Kid. We Brits do love a good comeback, don’t we? It’s like we don’t respect something until we’ve kicked it down and it’s got back up again.

Yet ‘Doctor Who’ has always been on the way back. I’ve been following its progress all the way, and although I lost faith a couple of times (just before, and then just after, the McGann TV movie) I realised, probably sometime around 1999/2000, when we’d had movies like ‘Lost In Space’ and ‘Charlie’s Angels’, that any property with a recognisable name will eventually be revived. This is the cyclical nature of popular culture. Even if the next ‘Who’ revival bombed, one day somebody would come up with the idea of having another crack at it.

And yes, this is partly because, in today’s crowded media market, you have to get your ideas across quickly and clearly and there’s no better way of doing that than reworking an idea people know already. BBC Films often exploited this maxim by slipping the title ‘Doctor Who’ into press releases: the film was no closer to being made but mentioning it was a good way of getting the rest of the development slate noticed. Many view this as a depressing state of affairs, because it mitigates against the development of original projects, but you could also view it as a means of providing bankable projects which support the development of originals.

The truth is probably a bit of both, and additionally it’s unfair to assume that there’s no creativity going on in revivals. Properties are also revived because really potent ideas endure, and frequently offer something a little different to each new audience: critical consensus certainly suggests that this has been the case with ‘Doctor Who’. It’s noticeable that when an idea wasn’t really that great to begin with, or was very specific to its time, the revival often falters (as with ‘The Mod Squad’). ‘Doctor Who’ has changed and endured long enough that we can be confident it’ll be around for quite a while yet.

The surprising thing is that a lot of media commentators don’t understand the difference between this and, say, a company deciding to make another ‘Beverley Hills Cop’ movie. If a new project isn’t a wholly original idea it’s liable to be written off as creatively bankrupt. This is how a lot of commentators seem to have viewed the ‘Batman’ series until the recent success of ‘Batman Begins’ (which, like ‘Doctor Who’, is based around a character who has been successfully portrayed by a variety of actors). As far as many were concerned, ‘Batman’ was a once-successful film franchise killed by diminishing returns, and it was a surprise that Warners was even up for having a go at another film.

This makes the mistake of comparing the situation to that which occurs when a wholly original film spawns sequels which don’t work. Bad sequels are often an indication that the character(s) and/or situation(s) of the original movie didn’t have that much mileage in them, and should therefore be dropped from further development: to take the earlier example, ‘Beverley Hills Cop’ was based on a fish-out-of-water premise that was thoroughly explored in the first movie and meant that the sequels ended up being mere re-treads. But this clearly isn’t the case with the character of Batman, who has had thousands of good and diverse stories told about him across comics, television, radio and film. He is bigger than one bad movie, however bad ‘Batman and Robin’ might have been.

Warners has always known this, and its response was not to drop the ‘Batman’ franchise like it was a rotten peach, but to give thought as to where ‘Batman and Robin’ went wrong and who might be able to get the property back on track. Within three years of the release of ‘Batman and Robin’ the studio had Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller working on a new project, and if that had gelled (as it appears not to have done, although the two men did several drafts of the script) we might have had a ‘Batman’ movie all the sooner. If anything, the surprise is that it took Warners so long to get ‘Batman Begins’ out there.

There’s a certain type of creative mind that likes to re-invent old properties – Grant Morrision was recently talking about how he does this sort of thing for fun between jobs – and there are many of them working in the media, looking for opportunities to get their hands on something iconic. The companies which own these properties will usually be keen to get value out of them. If anything, the problem is often lack of confidence in how to proceed, because an ill-conceived revival tends to damage the potential of future revivals – Warners has only just got over almost two decades of cold feet over a new ‘Superman’ movie.

This will always be happening. This is why anybody who thinks ‘Star Trek’ is dead is a complete fool. Recognising the nature of franchises and iconic characters is, I feel, key to understanding how popular media works today.

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By Eddie Robson

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