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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage