Tardis-travelling on television only

Doctor Who films should remain as nothing more than rumours.

Remember when Doctor Who was played by Eric Idle? Or how about the time it was Pierce Brosnan on a quest to find his father? Then there was the David Hasselhoff Doctor, with his trusty companion Pamela Anderson and a rapping time machine. Classic.

Rumours of Doctor Who movies roll round every couple of years and, generally, like the monstrosities described above, never actually happen. Most of the time, they don't even make it into serious development.

But there are two reasons to think this week's rumours have more truth to them. One is that they come from a plausible director, David Yates- he of the Harry Potter franchise. The other is the involvement of Jane Tranter, the BBC exec who did so much to bring Who back to TV in 2005. She, along with the lead writer of that version Russell T Davies, are now in the US trying to build the BBC's Hollywood business; this would seem to be an obvious project for her.

Just because something is possible, though, doesn't make it a good idea, and this is definitely not a good idea. Doctor Who is - I realise these points are obvious to the point of tedium- but they are key: British and a TV series. It is a spectacle of a kind designed specifically to be watched in the nation's living room on Saturday evenings, as an alternative to X-Factor or Ant and Dec. This explains so much about what makes the show fun; it's what allows cliffhangers and ongoing story lines, it's what makes it a shared cultural experience, something to be anticipated and tweeted and deconstructed. It's what allows the series to gobble up whatever bits of popular culture it fancies, and to turn them into monsters or silly jokes.

None of that would work in a film. You can't have ongoing stories or a nation watching all at once, clearly. But nor can you stuff it with the kind of silly gags that only make sense to those living on a single rainy European island. Can you really imagine a movie Who featuring Patrick Moore playing himself as a dirty old man? Or a version of The Weakest Link with a murderous robot Anne Robinson (the 'Anne-Droid')? In a movie version, kooky gags like that'll be the first thing to go.

But there's another less obvious reason why Hollywood and Who are mismatched. One of the reasons, I suspect, that so many literary or comedy types are unashamed Doctor Who fanboys is because it is a writers' series. It allows radically different scriptwriters to come in and offer their own take on the show without the risk of breaking it. How many other children's TV writers have become famous in their own right, like Davies or Steven Moffat have? How many shows have run publicity campaigns based on the status of a Richard Curtis episode or a Neil Gaiman one? Hollywood, however, doesn't think much of its writers. It's notable that a director is leading this, and one that doesn't seem too concerned that he has not gotten a script lined up yet; the writer, apparently, is just a detail.

Nonetheless, the show is probably still safe. A movie may conceivably make more money (although it would be one hell of a gamble), but in terms of the BBC's remit, and in giving it a centrepiece for the TV schedules, a TV series is far more valuable. That's good. A movie version of Who could quite plausibly miss the point of everything that makes the series worth having in the first place.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis