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FIT TO RULE?

by Tim Munro © 1989

Anyone who thought that the BBC's SF output was in safer hands once Michael Grade had gone to Channel 4 had their hopes shattered recently by Jonathan Powell. Indeed, we must now face the fact that Grade might have been only a part of the problem.

Powell's comments came at a recent It's Your BBC farce. Quizzed about the BBC acquiring Star Trek - The Next Generation, Powell retorted that he had "seen it," that it was "TERRIBLE," and that it "might" pop up on BBC2. He also repeated the Holy Mantra, "SF-is-not-popular."

Fair enough... until it emerged that Powell had not actually seen a complete episode - he'd seen "a bit" of the pilot.

What, one is forced to ask, is Powell's idea of "a bit"? A minute? Two? Dr McCoy's show-stopping cameo (essentially an in-joke for regular Trek viewers, which I think we can assume doesn't include Mr Powell)? The breathtaking saucer detachment? The moving conclusion? Or did he just get as far as, "Space... the final frontier..." before switching off? Is Powell in the habit of making major procurement decisions on "a bit"? If so, it explains a lot of the mind-numbing garbage we import - do we have to endure Head of the Class simply because Powell saw a few seconds of it which looked funny?

Of course, the really ludicrous point is that Star Trek - The Next Generation's quality is irrelevant! There is a guaranteed audience for anything with the Star Trek label on it - and it is the BBC's duty, laid down in its Charter, to serve its audience. In other words, The Next Generation should be acquired automatically and I can't help feeling that under any of Powell's predecessors - Grade included - it would have been!

"SF isn't popular," Powell bleats, but the assertion simply does not hold any water. Only three years before his tenure, Blake's 7 was pulling 10 million against Coronation Street. Star Trek always did well in peak slots - it lost viewers only when Grade moved it to 17:40! And if Trek is so unpopular, can Powell explain why the BBC acquired The Search for Spock at considerable expense (after ITV chalked up such impressive figures with The Wrath of Kahn)? Could he also explain why The Voyage Home ran for four weeks at my local cinema, with queues round the block every night? Even Mr Grade might have relented towards SF now that Channel 4's Top ten regularly includes Lost in Space (the first recorded instance of garbage being recycled into a TV show).

Powell points at The Tripods and Star Cops - the former a financial and ratings disaster, the latter cancelled because the Drama Department were "not happy" with it. His arguments fall down - Tripods failed because it was badly paced, badly made, suicidally scheduled, and too long (six episodes per season would have sufficed - greed gave us 13). The fact that it was SF was the least of its problems! The fate of Star Cops deserves closer examination because it throws light on Powell's running of the Drama Department.

At Falcon III (Bath, July 1988), Chris Boucher painted a gloomy picture of the problems he had in getting Star Cops made, describing it as "an attempt to sell SF to a Department that didn't want to know." He stated that the Drama Department is run by people who don't like SF, don't read it, don't understand it, and simply don't want to make it. They do Doctor Who as "token SF" once a year and that's yer lot!

Boucher believe that the ratings had doomed Star Cops, but Alan Yentob - the new BBC controller - has said: "... I have taken it up with the Drama Department, but I'm afraid they're not happy enough with the series to consider re-offering it..." This implies that the "problem" is the show's quality. When one speaks of "the Drama Department," one really means the Head of that Department: at the time, Mr J Powell. The more I hear, the more I seriously question Powell's ability to judge the quality of SF, or any genre he happens to dislike. This has very serious consequences for the BBC's drama output and - now that Powell is BBC1 Controller - for the rest of the channel's product as well.

A good Controller knows quality when he sees it, irrespective of whether it appeals to him. I don't like Howard's Way, but I can see the skill which goes into making it. Very few Sunday Classic Serials have grabbed me, but I see their quality. Thin Air isn't my cup of tea, but I'm aware it's state of the art television, a pinnacle of its genre [Nice one! Nick/Ed/President of the Kate Hardie Appreciation Society]. Thus, even if Powell dislikes SF, he should be aware of the quality of Star Cops. It is ingeniously written, superbly acted, subtly designed and - by and large - its special effects are state of the art. It is innovative, pushes back the boundaries of TV, and is cinematically directed. I question the judgment of any Controller who is blind to all this.

The same applies to The Next Generation. Unlike Mr Powell, I have seen nine episodes and I believe it to be the best telefantasy currently in production. It is thought-provoking, dramatic, witty and skillfully made. It richly deserves a place on BBC1. It is quality TV and Powell should be aware of that. He might not like it, but that is irrelevant - any Controller duty-bound to serve a diverse public is obliged to transmit some material which isn't to his personal taste.

Sadly, events since 1984 indicate that Powell has very peculiar standards for SF indeed. At the time he inherited Series and Serials from David Reid, Doctor Who was on a high. The Davison era - a dramatic and innovative one of hardcore SF - had just finished. Colin Baker had strong BBC support and Reid has even sounded him out about a four year commitment. Reid's Doctor Who record is good: he consistently supported it, pushing for publicity and repeats, approving a 90-minute 20th Anniversary Special, and allocating higher budgets. His predecessor, Graeme MacDonald, had offered similar support, taking a close interest in every script, befriending the production crew, and even attending Tom and Lalla's wedding!

Compare Powell's record. Colin Baker never even met him until he demanded a meeting when he was sacked. Powell supported Grade's critique of Season 22 once the show was suspended, yet Saward says that Powell read every single one of those episodes before recording and raised no objections! Powell demanded rewrites on The Mysterious Planet which ruined a good script. Powell permitted Trial to be done on the cheap. Saward's account of his resignation leaves some doubt as to whether Powell had any idea of events in the Who office - and note: Saward implies that his meetings with Powell were rare, yet Chris Bidmead indicates that Graeme MacDonald always met producer and script editor together. Note also that Powell asked Saward's opinion of Colin - clearly he was unhappy with him, but never said anything! And whilst the lack of repeats under Grade is surprising, surely one might expect that repeats would appear once Powell - who professes to be "a fan" - became BBC1 Controller?

Powell is "a fan," but whether he is a fan of the same Doctor Who as the viewers is debatable. Powell hated the Davison era. His unhappiness with the Colin Baker era is obvious. His enthusiasm for the show begins with Season 24! He declares Sylvester McCoy to be, "the best Doctor we've ever had." He appointed and supports Cartmel. When the show came under virulent fan attack, he defended it, insisting that it was popular and the ratings were better (quietly ignoring the fact that the figures were down on the eras he so reviles).

The show has become a self-mocking parody, but the sillier it is, the more Powell likes it! At the same time he dumps Star Cops, slags off The Next Generation, and eradicates the legacies of Bidmead/Davison.

I believe Powell is one of those narrow-minded people who thinks that all this spaceships and monsters stuff is very silly. "How can people take all this seriously?" he thinks, and thus gets very bored with shows which do. He likes McCoy Who because it refuses to take itself (or anything!) seriously - even the show's own past is whimsified.

"People do not like SF," translates as "J Powell does not like SF." If Doctor Who has survived his reign it is because, under his influence, it ceased to be real SF three seasons ago. It ill becomes a man who misunderstands and underestimates the genre to presume to judge the quality of The Next Generation.

Look elsewhere too for signs of Powell's narrow vision. Prior to becoming Head of Drama, his expertise was limited to high quality expensive one-off series and plays, and this persists. A BBC2 person at heart, he has little grasp of populist TV. Soap operas are a mystery to him - Julia Smith claims that, upon reading EastEnders' first script, he remarked, after a few perfunctory criticisms: "Of course, you know far more about this type of show than me, so feel free to ignore everything I've said." His reign has produced notable one-off's (The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, The Monocled Mutineer, The Singing Detective, etc.) but not one popular long-running series. Shows which he began have died - Pulaski (despite incredible popularity on the co-financing Arts and Entertainments Network in the States), Call Me Mister, Star Cops - and the shows which are still hits (Howard's Way, All Creatures Great and Small, Bergerac, etc.) all originated under his predecessors., even EastEnders! The cheap VT-ed play has died, replaced by glossy TV movies. This Autumn Powell unveiled a line-up, "with the emphasis on laughs," but every single new comedy on BBC1 flopped. The hits were Bread (a pre-Powell series) and First of the Summer Wine (re-tread of a long pre-Powell success).

It is time Mr Powell widened his vision. Shows must not live or die simply on whether he likes them, and if a show's genre is outside his tastes, he should not try to warp it into something he does like. Instead he should defer to the more informed opinions of those who do like and understand those genre. It is time that other producers were given the free hand which Powell so wisely (obviously in a moment of sudden madness) permitted Julia Smith's EastEnders.

I note with amusement the success of First Born, drawing around 10 million viewers. Unfortunately, its lack of spaceships and monsters is such that I doubt Powell even realises he's just had an SF hit right under his decidedly ignorant nose!

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[A shortened version of this article appeared in DWB/Dreamwatch Bulletin #71, November 1989, under the title 'The Enemy Within'.]

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