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In Memory Alone

By Scott McPherson

'It's only when I close my eyes. I can see him standing there, before those horrible Dalek creatures came to the house. He was a very kind man. I shall never forget him.' - The Tomb of the Cybermen.

The recent disillusionment provided by the BBC could be seen as the death knell of the programme. But does this have to be the same in New Zealand? Does the popularity of Doctor Who have to be in memory alone?

A recent article in TSV (issue 34, The Future of Doctor Who - One Point of View) by Ehren Stowers touched upon one aspect of New Zealand fandom which is often never seriously debated (in print at least); the time-slots that Doctor Who has been - and will be - allocated in this country.

We are all fully aware of the importance of the programme's scheduling in the United Kingdom. A bad screening time means low ratings - and the lower the ratings, the closer a show reaches cancellation (as Doctor Who fans the world over are all too painfully conscious of).

But what of the importance of where New Zealand programmers decide to place this rather antiquated science fiction series?

Back in March 1990 the (then) TV critic for the NZ Herald headlined a commentary piece 'Planners don't want to know Dr Who'. The general thrust to the column was that the critic was at a loss to explain '...why fans had not marched on TVNZ to protest what its programmers have been doing to the series...'

And what heinous crime were these terrors of the networks committing against our favourite errant Time Lord?

Well, believe it or not, the villainy carried out was to displace Doctor Who from a relatively prime time slot, until it eventually ended up at the 'wake up call' time of 9.35 on Sunday morning.

And while this was no doubt a major blow to the dignity of fans everywhere, it was easy to hazard a guess as to the reason behind the lack of public outcry that the author of the mentioned article found so difficult to account for - advertising!

Yes, there was a silver lining to this particular cloud. For although dedicated followers of the show had to put up with the shame and dishonour of living in a country that (now) failed to realise the worth of one of televisual history's true success stories, this particularly unwatched broadcasting nook also meant the answer to a television addict's dreams - a commercial-free outpost!

After years of having to cringe at the 'Barbie Doll' and 'My Little Pony' promotions that were alarmingly sudden by their intrusion into the world of Doctor Who (well - every ten to fifteen minutes at least!), and - far more concerning the seemingly pointless 'pruning' of almost every single episode shown here (which often rendered the story incomprehensible e.g. The Trial of a Time Lord Part 14 - though some may argue that this was the case before the abridging took place!), followers of the show had, apparently, been granted a rather delicious patch of good fortune.

Because, despite the series now being removed from the general public eye, those dedicated could appreciate the product of their admiration without it being soiled or defamed.

A seemingly golden age for the NZ Doctor Who fan had arrived. For, apart from those installments that the Australian censors claimed with their (unfortunately) efficient scissors, the stories could now be watched as the producers had originally intended - surely one of the 'prime directives' for any devotee to a TV product.

But by embracing this change of how Doctor Who was valued by New Zealand TV programmers (and, as a byproduct, confounding the expectations of the above mentioned TV columnist), were we - the fans - betraying the very object we value so highly?

Perhaps, over three years later, it is easier to see how great an impact that decision - to place Doctor Who out of prime time - has had. And may be, for those of us who could have been more vocal in our discontent regarding scheduling, to feel a tinge of guilt.

Because, while it provided many of us with the opportunity to view and videotape the show without interruption, the effects of this short term and selfish approach can now be observed without great difficulty. The programme itself is now considered as early morning fodder. None of us blink an eyelid at the 11.30 Sunday morning placement - nor are we surprised when it is "rested" without explanation.

The result is clear - an old series that only has a very minority audience. Any items of merchandise connected with the institution (the magazines, Dapol figures, etc) are so lowly rated by retail outlets that even that once most commonly available output - the novels are becoming more and more difficult to locate. And when found, it's a rather depressing sight to see those older Target publications gathering dust because a new, younger audience is not being introduced to the exciting adventures of the Doctor and his companions. The similarity between those dust covered books and the public's perception of the show are very close - a long dead childrens' science fiction series that bares no relevance to an audience living in the 1990's.

But the scenario could have been and can still be - very different. With a prime time scheduling between 5.30-6.30 in the evening (whether a weekday or weekend), Doctor Who can attract a respectable audience - probably consisting of those older viewers who remember it from the past and new generations who have only just discovered it.

At the time of writing this article, a weekday slot of 6.30pm Monday to Friday had been vacated by a (rather dismal) Oz soap. TVNZ could do a lot worse than running the Ninth Season onwards. These stories are in colour, enjoyable and (for the most part) easily followed - not least by the soap viewer. A welcome oasis from the current affairs diet being offered on the other channels.

The benefits from such a prominent timeslot are manifest. Increased public awareness of Doctor Who will no doubt result in a demand for all things 'Who-like'; magazines, toys, books and (not least of all) membership of the NZDWFC! The general public will once again begin to ask 'What ever happened to Doctor Who?' and if the ratings are of a suitable scale the TV network will join the voices of many the world over to question the BBC if there is '... any chance of a new series?'

So the importance of where programmers in New Zealand decide to put Doctor Who should in no way be overlooked.

However, this (possibly) meteoric rise will not be without its disadvantages. The sacrifice NZ fandom makes would be of the first degree. To see our beloved programme shredded into commercial bite-size chunks could be an agony that some could simply not face.

Also, the club and the increased number of conventions held (in order to satiate the newly-increased demand) may be overrun by those new to the fan world. Would this offend the sensibilities of many, who perhaps perceive Doctor Who and its ilk as something that should only be savoured by a small, elite group?

Hopefully, most fans today would feel that these concessions would be well worth making.

To see a programme that we all have a 'soft spot' for, suddenly succeeding against the odds (something the BBC recently nearly realized for us), could conceivably provide a greater delight than those provided by the stories themselves.

It is up to us fans, as individuals, to see if we can give the Doctor a helping hand back towards the limelight. In sufficient numbers, the power of a 45c stamp and a well-worded plea should never be underestimated!

This item appeared in TSV 35 (September 1993).