The Transmedia Experience
A look at the Doctor Who franchise since 2005
BBC Television - ongoing since 1963
When Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989 it temporarily ceased life as a televised experience through its weekly episodic format transmitted by the BBC. However, its ongoing legacy and history was maintained through other forms of storytelling, through other types of broadcast media. The development of these channels significantly involved the transmission of the franchise across traditional and new media platforms officially by the BBC and its license holders and unofficially by fan communities. There was also a convergence with technological developments such as digital video and audio and publication via internet. The fan audience, redefining what it is to be a ‘fan’, has invested its ownership into the Doctor Who franchise and created a further convergence in the way fan consumers become their own producers, sharers and distributors. Finally, the BBC itself has recognised the impact of these convergences in the way it has presented and marketed the new television version of Doctor Who in the 21st Century and employed fans, turned professional producers and writers, to shape the new series.
The original series itself, running between 1963 and 1989, was already an early example of transmedia storytelling and marketing that combined the consumption of televised episodes, comic strip stories in TV Comic, TV21, Countdown, fiction in yearly annuals from World Distributors, spin off cinema films (Dr. Who And The Daleks and its sequel Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD), the Target range of books, album and single releases, various toys and games and a weekly, then monthly, magazine. Fans of the series had also inaugurated an officially recognised Appreciation Society in 1976, succeeding The Doctor Who Fan Club which had been in existence since the 1960s and increasingly from the mid 1970s until the show’s demise and beyond, fan culture dovetailed with and often had a dramatic effect on the show’s production.
By 1990 the ownership of the Doctor Who brand, as it were, shifted to fan produced media and by the end of the 1990s, the ‘scribbling in the margins’ (a phrase coined by Henry Jenkins in his book Textual Poachers) by fans had taken the Doctor Who canon beyond the televisual and into fan created fiction, a range of new books from Virgin Publishing, a range of fan produced video spin-offs and, from 1998, with the audio plays released by Big Finish. Concurrently, the original series was analysed in detail, academics unearthing long undiscovered materials about the genesis of the show, and the official history of the Doctor Who series was greatly expanded upon within a postmodern context.
During what writer Mark Gatiss refers to as the franchise’s ‘interregnum’ of 1989 to 2005, its continued existence owed a huge debt to a collaborative effort between writers and producers who had formerly worked on the series and fans of the series. They continued the Doctor Who narrative in both established and new forms, such as print, audio/radio, video and internet publication. This development of narrative forms accessible across a hierarchy of production channels would provide the building blocks for the re-emergence of the televised Doctor Who in 2005 into a television industry catering to a new audience - one that had fragmented into niche communities and one that was not satisfied in merely consuming, but also producing, sharing, and interacting as well.
There were three avenues of fan and official production, which emerged during the ‘interregnum’, that would impact significantly on the development of the television version of Doctor Who from 2005 onwards. In print, fans took the established fictions of the television series, embellished them and in the Virgin Publishing ‘New Adventures’ range, with its groundbreaking open submissions policy, this allowed them to create new texts that were far broader in scope than the original BBC series. By 1996, Virgin had lost the license to produce original novels, likely as a consequence of the broadcast of the Doctor Who TV Movie, a co-production between the BBC, Fox and Universal. But the ‘New Adventures’ had not only given unpublished authors an opportunity to realise their efforts in mass market publishing, but it had also pulled together a number of fan groups, writers and producers. Many of these were already working in the television industry or would go on to forge successful careers within it.
The BBC moved the production of tie-in novels in-house, beginning with a novelisation of the 1996 TV Movie and then continuing through to 2005 with two book ranges, one featuring the Eighth Doctor and one featuring past Doctors. The authors of both the Virgin and BBC ranges, themselves fans and often writers who had worked on the original series or in contemporary television and radio, collectively ensured that the books operated within their own continuity through consultative mechanisms that fans had openly embraced in the 1990s – on-line forums, email, conventions and fan group meetings. Through its audio dramas, Big Finish, a production company established and run by fans, commissioned new adventures from established authors within this grassroots network and from those who had worked on the ‘New Adventures’ from Virgin. Over 150 dramas have now been released, further embedding the Doctor Who brand and shifting fan culture and fan fiction from an underground audience and out into the mass market.
The BBC, having given a license to Virgin and Big Finish to officially create new Doctor Who in print and audio, gradually developed its own content, recognising that there was a large and receptive enough fan base for the series and characters, and as well as moving the publication of new novels in-house, developed its own related web based resources. Initially running the BBC Cult site and offering information resources for the series, the BBC matured its on-line Doctor Who presence, as BBCi become bbc.co.uk, and in 2001 produced its first Doctor Who webcast drama, using very crude animation techniques, with Death Comes To Time, starring Sylvester McCoy, John Sessions and Stephen Fry. This was then followed up by Real Time and a new version of Shada, the cancelled Season 17 Douglas Adams story. This activity peaked with The Scream Of The Shalka in 2003, which was bold enough to cast a new actor as the Ninth Doctor, Richard E. Grant, and featured Derek Jacobi as the Master. This was a specifically commissioned drama for the internet and featured full animation from Cosgrove Hall. At the time, BBCi’s Ninth Doctor animation series seemed to offer a new channel for the development of the franchise.
All three channels of production were genuinely collective activities by authors and producers with many of them, including writers, actors and artists, working together on and across various forms of Doctor Who during the 1990 – 2005 period. Video, audio and print adventures would also cross-pollinate and link stories and characters across the various ranges. By the time the BBC announced the return of the television series, those responsible for its continuation had already overseen the brand’s initial transmedia development and, in effect, had laid the groundwork for much of what the BBC would then explore and expand upon.
Doctor Who hadn’t gone away but the way it was produced and consumed had changed and it was now a multi-platform accessible narrative in good shape to enter the era of ‘television 2.0’ where the BBC itself was keen to encourage economic, technological and cultural convergences to create an environment for transmedia stories to thrive. In 2005, the BBC saw Doctor Who as the perfect vehicle to offer multiple points of entry into a franchise, to develop new modes of engagement, and increase fan involvement.
Full production rights on Doctor Who had returned to the BBC in 1997, after the failed co-production with Universal, and BBC Worldwide had long attempted to develop the franchise as a feature film. With no film forthcoming, in 2000 Mal Young, then Head of Drama Commissioning, and Peter Salmon, Controller of BBC1, had tentatively expressed a desire to revive the franchise as a television series. However, the rights held by Worldwide complicated matters. In 2003, new Controller of BBC1, Lorraine Heggessey, equally keen on reviving the series, managed to persuade Worldwide that as several years had now passed and they were no nearer to producing a film, BBC television should be allowed to make a new series.
Announced in September 2003 by Jane Tranter, the BBC’s Head of Drama Commissioning, the new series of Doctor Who went on to have an enormous impact on the television industry, as a drama series that demonstrated the creative use of a myriad of online and interactive incarnations, the viability and sustainability of spin off franchises and as a successful example of the BBC’s commitment to increasing production in the regions and nations.
The new series also emerged into a very different world of fan appreciation. Where the original series production never underwent the obsessive scrutiny from fans based on on-line forums, websites and blogs until decades after production had ceased, the production of Series One was caught in the intense glare of fan opinion. This was the first time that a Doctor Who series was produced in a related feeding frenzy of millions of on-line fans. Conversely, fan appreciation of the series expanded, many new fans joining the network of on-line fan communities just as the BBC shut down its own on-line fan forum. This altered the behaviour of the fan community towards the property, with many older fans not entirely convinced by the news coming from the production, particularly around the casting of the series’ regulars, the Doctor and his companion, Rose. This reached such intensity that when actor Christopher Eccleston announced his departure from the series in March 2005 the biggest on-line fan community Outpost Gallifrey had to temporarily shut down because of an outpouring of negative opinion.
Whilst the fan community’s interest went into overdrive and inaugurated the new activity of ‘spoiler’ on location set reports that would appear on one of the biggest on-line Doctor Who communities Outpost Gallifrey, the first official glimpse of this new production was with a teaser trailer that went out as part of the BBC’s Winter Highlights promotion in December 2004. This featured the opening pre-titles from opening episode Rose and gave only a little indication of the complex transmedia strategy planned for the series.
By March 2005, the branding and marketing of the series was about to hit its height. Joining the first series on air would be a portfolio of franchise related materials. An accompanying 13 part ‘behind the scenes’ series, Doctor Who Confidential, was commissioned by BBC3, a documentary about the development of the series was produced for Radio 2, Project Who and BBC Radio Wales commenced a regular series of behind the scenes shows, Back In Time. The BBC had also started issuing licenses to merchandisers with the tip of the iceberg represented by Character Options producing their range of action figures and toys to accompany the show. Their toys and action figures would go on to win numerous awards including ‘Electronic Toy of the Year 2005’ (the radio-controlled Dalek), ‘Toy Of The Year 2006’ (Cyberman voice-changer helmet) and the ‘Boys Collectable Toy of the Year 2007’ (action figure range), from the Toy Retailers Association. A new range of novels, published by the BBC, were also scheduled for May 2005, offering an opportunity for new and established writers to become involved in the franchise.
The initial 13 episodes of Series One were promoted with an array of on-line and off-line materials. On the BBC’s new Doctor Who website fans could watch trailers, download images and wallpapers and play games. They were also able to watch video interviews, streamed episodes of the BBC3 documentary series Doctor Who Confidential and download podcast commentaries for each episode each week as a story was broadcast. All this activity fell within Henry Jenkins’ definition of the mechanics of a transmedia franchise on television in which multiple media platforms could offer viewers much more than the actual drama itself.
One of the other hallmarks of transmedia storytelling was that viewers could also gain new insights into stories and characters across platforms and within the series itself. In the 2005 series the ongoing mystery of ‘Bad Wolf’ was scattered as an overriding arc within the story and trying to unravel the meaning of ‘Bad Wolf’ occupied posters on forums, blogs and websites for months. ‘Bad Wolf’ not only featured centrally in the televised episodes of Series One it also continued to appear in further episodes, most notably in 2008’s Series Four where Rose used it as a warning to Donna and the Doctor after the events of Turn Left. It also leaked out into the comic strips and books produced outside of the series itself.
During the transmission of the second and third series this strategy of including a code word or meme within the episodes inaugurated the debut of ‘Torchwood’ and the mystery of ‘Mr. Saxon’. An example of cross-franchise memes occurred in Torchwood, a spin off drama that commenced on BBC3 in October 2006, where it too played with the use of peripheral images and code words linked to the parent series by featuring a poster declaiming ‘Vote Saxon’ in the penultimate episode of its first season.
Another strategy developed in 2005 was the creation of fictional websites to offer even further content as part of the world of Doctor Who. At the time of transmission of the premier episode Rose, the search term used by Rose herself whilst looking on the internet, "doctor blue box", could be typed into the real Google and take you to www.whoisdoctorwho.co.uk. This was either a result of genuine collaboration between the BBC and Google or very clever search engine optimisation. The fictional site also appeared to be run by the conspiracy theorist Clive Banks a character who also appeared briefly in Rose. There were sites for UNIT, Geocomtex (a corporation featured in Dalek), Guinevere One (the British Rocket Group project from The Christmas Invasion) and a site speculating on the ‘Bad Wolf’ meme that ran through Series One. The 2006 series expanded on these sites, with Mickey Smith, a regular companion character, running the ‘Defending The Earth’ blog via the original Clive Banks website, plus new sites for Torchwood House (as featured in Tooth And Claw), Deffry Vale School (from School Reunion) Cybus Industries (the company run by John Lumic in The Age Of Steel/Rise Of The Cybermen) and many others that would offer esoteric links to audio visual ‘treats’ for curious fans.
The ‘Vote Saxon’ site also developed a more intricate viral campaign during Series Three with the fictional PM Harold Saxon blogging his manifesto and answering questions about his plans for Britain on the Bebo and MySpace networking websites. BBC trailers featuring Mr. Saxon were posted on YouTube and “remixed” by fans, attracting thousands of views. The campaign culminated in a “general election” where opinion polls were published daily and fans signed up for SMS messages up-dating them on the result. More than 50,000 fans voted, with Saxon-sceptics winning by 55 per cent to 45 per cent.
These were all about offering fan communities more and more material to follow rather than an opportunity to add their own fictions to the world created in the new series. However, inspired by the BBC’s own metasites, fans have gone on to create fictional sites for Harriet Jones, the deposed Prime Minister from The Christmas Invasion, and a ‘Powell Estate Tenants And Residents Association’ site (the fictional estate home to Rose and her mum Jackie) as well as hundreds of blogs and websites that are home to fan-inspired fiction.
By Series Four in 2008, the BBC had invested in a number of other transmedia activities. They created 13 downloadable TARDISodes for the run of stories during 2006. A series of short fictions that were made available via mobile phones and later could be downloaded from the BBC Doctor Who site. They were designed to add either a brief prologue or some further background information (fictional news reports or adverts) to forthcoming episodes and were a way for the BBC to trial and test mobile phone technology as a platform for additional storytelling content. Although they were moderately successful as downloads from the website the combination of cost and ineffective marketing of the mini-episodes led to a very low uptake via mobile phones. Notably, it’s an experiment that wasn’t repeated again.
To accompany the Christmas Special in 2005, a technically more ambitious example of transmedia storytelling was successfully produced. Attack of the Graske was a 15 minute, dramatised adventure that featured a set of puzzles and quiz questions accessible via the BBC’s Red Button service. This was specially shot with David Tennant addressing viewers from the TARDIS and also taking them to Victorian London in pursuit of the mischievous alien Graske. This interactive episode was looped on the Red Button service and made available on the official website. Other Red Button successes have included a full broadcast of the Doctor Who Children In Need concert in December 2006 and the complete Doctor Who concert featured in the Proms 2008, both of which showcased the incidental music from the current series. Proms 2008 was also notable for the Music Of The Spheres, a specially filmed interactive episode screened at the Prom but which was also integrated into live action material on stage.
In 2006 and 2007, Totally Doctor Who was produced for CBBC to offer a specific behind the scenes experience for younger children, in addition to BBC3’s own behind the scenes Confidential series, and it too went on set to cover the filming of the series as well as looking at the making of one of the TARDISodes. The series featured quiz activities such as ‘Who-Ru’, testing children’s Doctor Who knowledge, team building exercises such as ‘Team Totally’, a reality show game ‘Companion Academy’ and ‘The Filing Cabinet’ which contained viewers stories, drawings and models. One of the most interesting spin-offs from Totally Doctor Who, from a transmedia narrative perspective, was the animation series The Infinite Quest. 12 episodes, produced by animation company Firestep, were screened as part of the Totally series, featuring the voices of David Tennant and Freema Agyeman
The thirteenth and final part was shown in an omnibus broadcast on 29 June 2007, the day of Totally Doctor Who’s final episode. In 2009 a six part animated story co-produced by CBBC and BBC Interactive, Dreamland, was screened on the Red Button service, made available on BBC iPlayer and the official website and in high definition on BBCHD.
By far the most important of the BBC’s transmedia activities was their commitment to two spin-off dramas. Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures would expand the fictional world of Doctor Who, often overlapping characters and situations between all three series. All three series were transmitting episodes within days of each other over the Christmas and New Year of 2006/2007: The Runaway Bride was aired on Christmas Day, the final two episodes of Torchwood’s first season and the pilot episode for The Sarah Jane Adventures both went out on New Year’s Day. This was an unprecedented attempt at transmedia world-building and Matt Hills has called this ‘hyperdiegesis’, “the creation of a vast and detailed narrative space, only a fraction of which is ever directly seen or encountered within the text, but which nonetheless appears to operate according to principles of internal logic and extension.”
Even though there has not yet been a definitive transmedia narrative shared by all three series, it’s clear that all three exist within the same world and the same time frames. It was confirmed as such during the Doctor Who 2008 season finale The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End where the narrative not only featured past companions Martha and Rose but also Captain Jack Harkness, Gwen Cooper and Ianto Jones from Torchwood, Sarah Jane Smith, her ‘son’ Luke Smith and robot dog K-9 from The Sarah Jane Adventures. This should be considered quite a conceptual feat simply because all three series appeal to three very different audience samples; Doctor Who is considered a family show, Torchwood for older teens and adults and The Sarah Jane Adventures is aimed purely at young children. Further narrative sharing occurred in Torchwood’s second series where the Doctor’s companion, Martha Jones, appeared in three episodes and in the recent 2009 series of The Sarah Jane Adventures it was the Doctor himself that became involved in the two part The Wedding Of Sarah Jane Smith.
As each series has continued, the BBC has developed ever more sophisticated marketing tools to promote them. Glossy trailers accompany the start of each series, both Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures have had trailers specifically made for cinema exhibition, and early promotional clips have been unveiled at San Diego Comic Con. Every Christmas the official website unveils an Advent Calendar which contains access to games, unreleased music, video messages, sneak preview clips and images. BBC3 has rerun episodes of Doctor Who and Torchwood on a yearly basis since they started and recent Doctor Who episodes on the channel have been accompanied by a Red Button commentary. Episodes can now also be purchased for download from iTunes and both MSN and iTunes have made archive episodes of Doctor Who available for consumption. BBC iPlayer, launched 25th December 2007, reported that the Christmas special Voyage Of The Damned was its most watched programme in the first two weeks of operation and subsequently Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures episodes have recorded very high audience figures on the streaming service.
What is also interesting to note is how many of the fan authors and actors, originally involved in fan produced video, audio and print fiction, many having also written novels for the New Adventures and BBC ranges, have made the transition to the television series and all of these spin-off activities. For example, Paul Cornell (author of Human Nature, one of the most highly regarded books of the Virgin range) has contributed episodes to the series, including a dovetailing of transmedia narrative in the television adaptation of Human Nature itself. Gareth Roberts, an author whose work is again highly regarded as faithful to the original series, scripted Attack Of The Graske and eventually contributed to the parent television series and to The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Former actor Gary Russell, once editor of Doctor Who Magazine, Big Finish producer, writer of several New Adventures, now works as a script editor across the three series and directed and produced The Infinite Quest and Dreamland; actor Mark Gatiss has not only written episodes but also acted in the series too; and Nicholas Briggs, one of the executives producing and writing the Big Finish audios, has provided Dalek and Cybermen voices for the series and made an appearance in Torchwood: Children Of Earth. Finally, there’s Russell T Davies himself, contributing Damaged Goods to the Virgin range, meta-textually referencing Doctor Who in Queer As Folk, and now executive producer of all three series. All have made the leap from being textual poachers, those that have been involved in the fan culture that created new texts and communities based on the existing texts in Doctor Who, to textual gamekeepers, the new guardians of the Doctor Who text itself.
Beyond the effect on audiences, either in the way that they explore the narrative or additional media content of all three series, and on the way fan consumers have become the authors and producers of the series, the impact on television production in Wales and the rest of the UK has been significant with Doctor Who and the two spin-off shows being the biggest network project ever to come out of BBC Wales. During the peak of production, the series moved from fairly cramped studio premises in Newport to the currently used Upper Boat studio complex, just outside Cardiff, home to 400 production personnel and 86,000 sq feet of studio space spread across six stages. The sheer scale of the undertaking has had significant impact on the local creative economy.
The ‘Doctor Who effect’ has also directly impacted on tourism with a substantial rise in visitors to Cardiff attracted to the city because of what they have seen on Doctor Who and the spin off series Torchwood. As a result, the Welsh capital recently broke into the top 10 of the UK holiday destinations. The Welsh Assembly Government’s creative industries strategy has benefited from the success of Doctor Who, stimulating an expansion in TV and film production in Wales. As one journalist put it: “When the world of television takes a look at the pool of talent in Wales, they should find that – like the TARDIS – it is much, much bigger than it looks from the outside.”
Much the same can be said about Doctor Who’s revival since 2005. It is much more than a television programme and is now viewed by the BBC as a ‘tentpole’ franchise, central to their Saturday night schedules and to their ongoing transmedia strategy. It has reversed the perceived trend in the industry that ‘family viewing’ had disappeared, with Peter Fincham, former BBC1 controller, claiming in 2005, "Doctor Who has rediscovered something we had lost on BBC1 which is family viewing. When Doctor Who started suddenly it was there again."
And long may it continue.
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