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Now on the Big Screen Review

Review: Now on the Big Screen - The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who at the Cinema / Author: Charles Norton / Publisher: Telos Publishing / Release Date: Out Now

You might think that the history of Doctor Who on the cinema screen begins and ends with Max Rosenberg and Milton J. Subotsky’s two cheap-and-cheerful Peter Cushing Dalek movies in the mid-1960s. But you’d be quite wrong… and yet also quite right. Whilst it’s true that Doctor Who has never returned to the silver screen since 1966’s Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150AD, what’s remarkable is that virtually ever since someone, somewhere, has been working on a new Doctor Who film project intended to capitalise on the continuing high profile of the world’s most successful TV sci-fi show.

Forget all your Doctor Who dictionaries and miscellanies and all the other assorted series guides churned out during this fiftieth anniversary year. This entirely unofficial and unauthorised guide to the Doctor Who movies that were and nearly were is sure to be the very best Doctor Who-related book of the year, even though it’s really only tangentially connected to the TV series which inspired it. Norton’s clean, no-nonsense text intricately details the making of the 1960’s Dalek movies with reference to amusing contemporary censor observations about the script of the first film (it was often common practice for a film script to be submitted to the BBFC in order to secure a certificate for the movie prior to filming), the films’ critical maulings and their impressive – for the time – box office performance. Perhaps what’s most interesting here is how easy it was for the Daleks to cross over from the flickering black-and-white TV screen to the big screen in full colour: a simple, straightforward licensing agreement with a BBC still slightly bemused by the success of this odd new Saturday evening teatime family sci-fi adventure.

It’s all in marked contrast to subsequent struggles to get Doctor Who back ‘in the pictures’ and it’s here, in less-familiar territory, that Now on the Big Screen excels. Who knew that TV series Yeti creator Mervyn Haisman cannibalised his (and co-writer Henry Lincoln’s) 1967 Abominable Snowmen script into a never-published novel with new characters taking the place of the Doctor and co and even into a film script pitched to Disney, replacing the Doctor with Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger? Tom Baker struggled throughout the 1970s – accounting for the actor’s longevity in the role, the promise of a feature film always tantalisingly just out of reach – to finance the Scratchman project he developed with series co-star Ian Marter. The film finally came to nothing in the wake of the Star Wars phenomenon which blew their modest effort out of the water. Even in the 1980s, as the show’s star began its slow descent on British TV, interested parties were working on a feature film to capitalise on the series’ sudden growing reputation stateside. Now On the Big Screen examines each of these projects – and the many which flourished following the BBC’s abandonment of the show in 1989 – and speaks to many of the major players (including Dire Straits’ bass guitarist John Illsley, who was involved for a time, as well as producer Peter Litten, whose fingers were severely financially burned by some frankly reprehensible behaviour by the BBC). Completists will thrill to the many full story outlines reproduced, most of which fail utterly to capture the essence of Doctor Who in their desperation to go ‘big screen’ (several of them rewrite the character’s history and morality altogether). The outline presented for Baker and Marter’s Scratchman reveals a wild and schizophrenic storyline which would have made for an extremely interesting movie (in a world where ‘interesting’ is a euphemism for ‘absolute rubbish’).

Now on the Big Screen is endlessly, exhaustingly fascinating, a brilliant and informative read which is surely the very last word on an area of Doctor Who’s history rarely investigated. In 2011 Harry Potter director David Yates publicly announced his desire (and intention) to eventually direct a new Doctor Who cinema film. Readers of Now on the Big Screen will know better than to hold their breath waiting for the premiere…

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