Thursday, November 29, 2007

Secs Sell

A question I've already asked in my "proper" journal (there's a link on the left): what's the most excessive piece of merchandising in history? Anyone schooled in the important points of British cultural development will be familiar with artefacts like the Doctor Who underpants of the 1970s, designed in such a way that you could make Tom Baker's face look really, really Jewish by having impure thoughts. But this sort of thing seems almost reasonable, compared to the deluge of merchandising that followed the BBC radio show Bandwagon in the 1930s. Bandwagon was largely a vehicle for the young(ish) Arthur Askey, and the idea that shops began selling Arthur Askey "action-figures" seems remarkable in itself, especially if you grew up in the '80s and can only remember the aged, cancer-riddled version of Arthur Askey who had to have both his legs amputated. At the height of its success, however, Bandwagon even had its own brand of oven-cleaner. Star Wars just isn't in the same league.

Of course, to us, the mad glut of Doctor Who merchandising available for Christmas 2007 is definitive proof that We Win. Let's be quite clear on this point: here in the latter '00s, Doctor Who is more popular than at any time in its prior history. Naturally, the viewing figures were higher in the late '70s. This is partly because there was nothing else to do in those days, when the TV set was the only leisure accessory that ran on electricity, and when "getting boozed up on a Saturday night" wasn't seen as a fit pastime for all ages, classes and genders. But it's also because viewers in the 1970s saw themselves as belonging to a wilfully captive audience. Saturday-night viewing was part of a complete entertainment experience, the stay-at-home descendant of the Music Hall, and you sat through the entire BBC schedule - or the entire ITV schedule, if you were a bit common - whether you liked all the programmes or not. You wouldn't have switched channels, even if you'd had one of those newfangled remote controls. In those days, before geek-scum tried to claim that Doctor Who should be just like Babylon-5, the series was part of the World of Showbiz. And yet…

…and yet it wasn't what the BBC now likes to call its "jewel in the crown" show. Doctor Who was halfway down the bill of the entertainment line-up, it was never the star attraction. The ratings may have been higher in the supposedly golden year of 1979, but even then - even at a time when you could rely on one-third of the population to have seen Julian Glover rip his face off and become a one-eyed seaweed-man - the importance that's attached to the series now would have been unthinkable. In 1979, it was taken for granted that it'd always be there. In 2007 (if slightly less so than in 2006), it matters. It's a lodestone of British pop-culture rather than a reassuringly ever-present quantity, the Beatles rather than One Man and His Dog. "Popularity" is measured by impact rather than ratings, and for the people of the 1970s, it'd beggar belief that "Sontarans Return" would qualify as a news headline. In a world where Showbiz was a rare and precious commodity, it was always going to be overshadowed by The Generation Game. In a world where celebrity culture seems somehow more banal than fly-on-the-wall footage, something as strange and as (potentially) unpredictable as Doctor Who is bound to thrive. For a while, anyway.

So when Asda presents us with a national TV advertisement specifically to tell us how cheap its Dalek Sec masks are, we have to see it as our crowning moment. Consider what this means. At a point in time when consumerism is just about the only surviving philosophy, one of the largest retailers in the country has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds to focus on a toy based on a character from one single episode of Doctor Who (plus one cliffhanger). It wasn't even a very popular episode, at least not amongst "serious" fans [see footnote], but that's hardly relevant. At the very least, you can't help feeling that the ubiquity of the Sec mask would raise severe feelings of bitterness in Scaroth of the Jagaroth. This, not 1979, is the age of the one-eyed tentacle-faced monstrosity.

So just as Doctor Who has gone from "a thing that everyone watches because it's there" to "a thing that lots of people watch because they feel compelled to", Doctor Who merchandising has gone from "stuff you buy for children at Christmas because it might shut them up for a bit" to "stuff that has a cultural identity of its own". With the possible exception of the '60s Dalek playsuit - an item which achieved a certain cache just because it seemed so expensively exotic, and which became notorious in the 1990s when Toyah Wilcox appeared on Thirty Years in the TARDIS to describe it as if it were an item of rubber fetishwear - no piece of Doctor Who fodder has ever been this iconic, or this high-profile. And if anything, then the odd cultural side-effects of the new series are even more disquieting than the obvious cash-ins. When Kylie Minogue leads up to her Doctor Who appearance with a single called "Two Hearts", it's hard to tell whether it's a joke or a coincidence. It apparently comes from her new album X, which also includes the hits "Lungs of a Birastrop" and "Aspirin Might Kill Me".

But in the high street, not since Bandwagon have manufacturers believed they could get away with so much. Personally, I have a theory that someone at Character Options is seeing how far they can push the concept of "action-figure". Children are actually supposed to play with these things, remember, they're not just Dapolesque collectors' items. The "action-figure" of Lady Cassandra was hardly G. I. Joe (even Arthur Askey had two working limbs), but at least you could roll her around a bit, and at a pinch she could get into a Hot Wheels race with the Moxx of Balhoon. Recently, however, Character has become obsessed with releasing "action-figures" of geriatrics. I can accept the Carrionite witch, but now we've got poseable toys of Victor Meldrew, a dead grandmother, and an old woman with no face. "Gee, dad, an old woman with no face! Can I have one for Christmas? Can I?"

Now… I'm aware that children (boys especially) like toys which represent the grotesque and the misshapen, yet this usually means rotting zombie-creatures and monsters made of bogeys, not 5" representations of people who dribble when they eat and suffer periods of incontinence. This is why there's no such product as My Little Rest Home. A septuagenarian whose only "action" ability is to lose her visible features seems less than dynamic, the sort of fan-fodder collectible you expect to see in the "unsold stock" section of Forbidden Planet, not in a display at Tesco's. And as for the Weeping Angel… kids, you too can have a moulded plastic representation of the top of a war memorial. Yet nobody finds any of these things puzzling, as if Doctor Who has not only broken the rules of modern TV (by being a light entertainment show that isn't disposable, by being a drama that gets noticed by the rest of the media without recourse to nipples, by being an SF series that doesn't involve Americans whining on about their f***ing "issues"…) but the rules of consumerism as well.

Which would be fine, if we could be sure that the iconic status of the merchandising won't start to warp the series itself. The curious decision to bring the Sontarans out of retirement in 2008 - even though they're visually less impressive than (say) the Judoon, and conceptually no more interesting than any other bunch of stomping alien warmongers - might, at first, be taken as a sign that we can expect Sontaran egg-cups for Easter 2009. Then the publicity photo turns up in the papers, and we discover that the "controversial" new Sontaran outfit makes it look like a five-foot-tall action-figure. Can we believe that it's been deliberately designed with an eye to the merchandising? No, not really. But can we believe that because of the merchandising, a brightly-clad, fully-jointed, clearly-moulded monster is what the designers think a "typical" Doctor Who baddie should look like these days…?

Actually, that seems a lot more feasible. Those Character Options figures are now an important part of what Doctor Who "does", and it's inevitably going to have an effect on the way everyone perceives the programme, including its creators. If nothing else, then it's hard to hear a title like "Planet of the Ood" without imagining how an army of collectible Ood are going to look in the Argos catalogue. It may well be the first thing you think of, even before you get the image of Charlton Heston shouting "get your damn hands off me, you lousy, stinking Ood". (Mind you, take another glance at that publicity photo: the Kinder-surprise Sontaran still looks less plastic than Catherine Tate.)

There was a time, as many of you will remember, when the only items of Doctor Who merchandising that really mattered were the books. Many, many people have expressed the opinion that without Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters or Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion, they never would have bothered to read, to the point where even describing them as "merchandising" seems rather unfair: before video, the internet and BBC3, these were the only way that juvenile viewers of Doctor Who could keep in touch with the series when it wasn't on the air. They were a form of history, not filler material. The Plastic Age has made Doctor Who books rather redundant, and turned things upside-down. Thirty years ago, the books meant something, and the toys - which very few children actually wanted, and not just because the 12" Cyberman had a nose - seemed rather pointless. Today, the action-figures and the voice-changer masks are like badges of honour, while the books… well, they sell, but they seem somehow irrelevant. And this is hardly surprising, because I didn't write any of them, even though I was obviously qualified for God's sake.

I mentioned that the Dalek Sec mask is the ultimate sign of Doctor Who's victory, proof that the series has become even more noticeable than it was in the Showbiz Era. Of course, it can't last. Doctor Who Volume One survived for 26 years specifically because it was Just There. Like the Shipping Forecast, getting rid of it seemed counter-instinctual. Doctor Who Volume Two has thrived because it was born into an environment that had forgotten it was even possible, but the environment is already changing around it. When the Showbiz Era ended circa 1980, the series had to give up its position in the Saturday night line-up, and find its own specific audience rather than being part of the BBC's big night out. It managed this quite well, at first, by being the kind of show that appealed to kids who liked the Human League rather than by trying to draw in the whole family (wise, given that the Family Audience was simply drifting apart). But if Doctor Who Volume Two starts to wane, then it's far too big, important and expensive to "specialise" in this way. When it goes, it'll go completely.

Which means that the Christmas toy-flood isn't just a sign of glory, it's also like the thing on the side of the life-support machine that goes "beep" to tell us we're still alive. In 2007, we get the Dalek Invasion of Asda. But this time next year, if the supermarkets have difficulty shifting the action-figures of the old man in the wheelchair from the final scene of "The Family of Blood", then we'll know we have a problem.

Footnote. Well, of course fans didn't like "Daleks in Manhattan" much. Their idea of "ideal" modern-day Doctor Who is something that's as much like an American sci-fi show as possible, preferably with more story arcs than stories, so it's hardly surprising that they'd take against an adventure which owes more to old-fashioned Doctor Who than anything else in the BBC Wales era. Very old-fashioned, in this case: the Doctor's semi-educational stroll around Hooverville is as close as twenty-first-century television can get to the "Marco Polo" model of the series, while the Daleks themselves speak, act, and argue about the nature of humanity in exactly the same way they did when David Whitaker was writing them. This is a '60s Doctor Who story with added colour and explosions, which means that you could almost believe you were watching the third big-screen Dalek movie, with David Tennant replacing Peter Cushing (or possibly Bernard Cribbins). Though we've all been conditioned by nerds to believe that "traditional" Doctor Who means the aberrant aliens-take-over-contemporary-England stories of the 1970s, "Manhattan" is as traditional as the latter-day series gets. And Sec's cult status proves, if nothing else, that nobody cares what nerds think.