Saturday, 25 January 2020

The Doctor and the BritBox of delights



A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Doctor Who on BritBox. Our resident US roving reporter, Nick Smith, friend and fellow Whovian, has had more time (pun intended) to explore.

Here are Nick's thoughts along with an anecdote regarding how his adventures aboard the TARDIS began (he never cared to mention it during classic Doctor Who screenings on VHS at university).

Guest post by Nick Smith

Everyone knows the best babysitter isn’t Mary Poppins or Nanny McPhee. It’s the TV set! That steadfast screen can show us the world, how to behave and how not to. It can show us how to get to Sesame Street. It can show us the past and possible futures, human nature and Mother Nature.

In September 1980, I had a human babysitter called Mrs. Baggs. Ten or more kids at a time, nothing fancy, just her living room to play in and a drink of water if we got thirsty. Mrs. Baggs knew how magical TV was to simple kids who wouldn’t have known what to do with a Gameboy if it bit them. Those gadgets wouldn’t be around for almost a decade, so at the age of eight, I was happy playing with a toy steering wheel. I was a mini-Mansell oblivious to my surroundings. Then Mrs. Baggs said a few words that pricked my attention above the roar of my World Championship Racing engine.

"Did you see Doctor Who the other night?", Mrs. Baggs asked her charges in her piratical Bristolian accent. "He got ‘is arms and legs pulled off. It was brilliant!"

Although I’d been casually watching the Doctor since I was a toddler, I had not seen the offending episode. I was fascinated by the lurid picture painted by my sitter, the way her eyes got Tom Baker-wide when she described the cliffhanger from The Leisure Hive. I had to find out what happened next!

From then on, I was an avid viewer. While the episode endings did not always have me clamouring for more, they got everyone talking about how the Doctor would escape his latest predicament. The school playground was rife with conjecture about what would happen next. Like Saturday matinee serials beforehand, Doctor Who had a life outside its 25-minute airtime, a life that transcended TV’s two dimensions thanks to our vivid imaginations.

Later, convention screenings, bootleg videos and VHS/DVD releases meant we could watch stories any time we wanted! UK Gold ran repeats for a staggering 15 years, from 1992 to 2007. BBC2 showed the occasional rerun as well. Although we didn’t always have to wait a week between episodes, there was a sense of chronology. We watched a story through from beginning to end.

Now, with the advent of BritBox, that’s starting to change. The online streaming collection of British TV shows from the BBC and ITV provides an a la carte menu of viewing. Want to watch your own Cyberman saga or check out an Auton oeuvre? Go ahead, binge away.

Other services such as Twitch (with the occasional marathon) and Pluto TV, which has a Doctor Who Classics subchannel, provide a different way of viewing. They don’t give you a choice of what to stream but they do show whole stories. Pluto’s choice of stories can be arbitrary, although it’s good to see that they show some ‘60s tales casting a black and white light on Tom Baker Street. Some of the programming is strategic – want to watch Tomb of the Cybermen followed by Earthshock? Pluto’s your planet. But because the shows can’t be rewound, you might find yourself catching parts 2-4 of Power of Kroll. The result is more of a pick ‘n’ mix than the banquet of BritBox.

There are pros to this brave new world of streaming sci-fi. It’s on all the time and you can dip in whenever you want. The major downside: commercials, popping up uninvited on Twitch and Pluto. Yuck. Pacing in these shows is very important, and even 25 minutes stretched to half an hour makes a difference.

More Who is never a bad thing. Personally, I’m very glad there’s enough interest in my favourite TV show to devote a 24/7 channel to it. And if streaming draws new fans, subsequently increasing the show’s longevity, then that is great too. The new series still has a cliffhanger ending or two up its masterful sleeve, and I can handle missing episode one of Meglos. A show about time travel doesn’t always have to start its stories at the beginning.

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