Proxy Who – Genre TV During The Wilderness Years

❉ What were the shows that starved fans nibbled on during the Who drought? WARNING: Contains Jesse Birdsall.

Look Who’s back!

You may think it’s been a long wait for a new series of Doctor Who, which returns to our screens in 30 days, but that’s just peanuts compared to the Wilderness Years.

With just one paltry episode between 1989 and 2005, fandom had to fill its Who-shaped hole with whatever telefantasy could offer in those intervening years. Feasting on the meagre crumbs of cult telly, we found ourselves digesting literally anything that had traces of our favourite show’s idiosyncrasies, some markedly more than others…

Red Dwarf (1988 – present)

What?

Deep space-set sitcom charting the comic misadventures of the last human in the universe and his oddball shipmates.

How Who?

An irreverent attitude towards the genre; flimsy sci-fi concepts; series cliffhangers; hokey special effects; a complete aesthetic and tonal overhaul every couple of seasons; a questionable attitude towards its own continuity; and an arguable dip in quality in its latter years.

How Not?

Well, it’s a studio-bound sitcom with a laughter track whose intention is to provoke mirth, rather than chills.

Quantum Leap (1989 – 1993)

What?

American body-hopping shenanigans in which a do-gooding physicist (Scott Bakula) fixes people’s lives for the better.

How Who?

Time-travelling nice guy leaps about history (at least, a small portion of it) righting wrongs with no control over where his next destination will be? With a different location every week and a rotating mix of action, comedic and dialogue-heavy episodes, that’s pretty damned Who-sounding.

How Not?

As commendable as the series was, its cheeseball schmaltz overpowered the mix somewhat, so it never really felt like “our show.” From the dewy-eyed intro and theme music to the sanctimonious tone of the social issues raised, you could argue that there’s a hint of Cartmel at play, but quite frankly, you’d be arguing the point with yourself.

The X-Files (1993 – 2002)

What?

Paranormal investigation series chronicling FBI agents Fox Mulder & Dana Scully’s weekly adventures into the unsolved and unknown.

How Who?

With a mysterious, enigmatic lead male, resourceful and attractive female companion, and episodic adventures of peril, horror and alien invasions, The X-Files‘ landing was the perfect graduating point for many a young Doctor Who fan there at the show’s demise. Its more adult content and intentional scares neatly bridged the gap between classic and NuWho. Hey, you could almost squint and pretend you’re watching a US remake of the UNIT years (unfortunately, the continuity-tangled guff of its final season mythology has more in common with Attack of the Cybermen than, say, The Claws of Axos).

How Not?

At its heart, it’s an earth-bound conspiracy-fest, which is about as Doctor Who as an Iraqi beheading video.

Space Precinct (1994 – 1995)

What?

Gerry Anderson’s futuristic police procedural drama series.

How Who?

Set in deep space, with a ponderously serious approach and reliance on hard sci-fi concepts, there’s a distinctly joyless Series 18 vibe to the whole show. Fans in need of a bit of Pertwee-esque moral sermonising could also get their quick fix here too; every episode seemed to end with a furrow-browed “lesson for everyone.” At least when the Doctor did it, he was dressed as Jimi Hendrix. If you were particularly desperate, you could pretend that some of the aliens are second cousins to the Sea Devils, but mainly because their heads lollop about quite a bit.

How Not?

Distinctly parochial feel to the show, entirely at odds with Who’s infinite possibilities. Plus, it was all a bit crap really.

Bugs (1995 – 1999)

What?

Hi-octane espionage explosivision, concerning the antics of crime fighting tech experts. Starred Craig “Neighbours” McLachlan, Jesse “Jesse ‘Eldorado’ Birdsall” Birdsall and Jaye “erm, Bugs” Griffiths, (although McLachlan bailed for the final season).

How Who?

A knockabout breezy action vehicle (with Jesse Birdsall) and more fun than its barely-remembered reputation suggests (except for the Jesse Birdsall bits). Broadcast in Who’s traditional family-friendly Saturday evening slot (with added Jesse Birdsall), its often knowing humour broadened its generational appeal (discounting Jesse Birdsall). With a fair mix of standalone and ongoing narrative episodes (all featuring Jesse Birdsall), it more often than not climaxed with one or more of the leads (usually involving Jesse Birdsall) running slo-mo from something about to detonate (sadly, we never got to see Jesse Birdsall scattered across a mile-wide radius).

How Not?

Despite its four year consistency, it rebounded off the public consciousness like a rubber grenade. Plus, you know, Jesse Birdsall.

Jonathan Creek (1997 – present)

What?

Mystery serial with a dash of the extraordinary. Stars poodle-haired comedian and professional Stephen Fry-botherer, Alan Davies.

How Who?

Saturday night yarns about an intelligent eccentric who uses unconventional detective methods to right wrongs. He’s ably assisted by a sparky female companion (of whom there have been several). Quirky, cerebral and with an admirable remit to purely entertain, Doctor Who’s vitality and originality is buried deep within the show like a shit in a child’s sandpit.

How Not?

Well, skipping the obvious (no space and/or time travel), Alan Davies makes most people want to punch out their own teeth. Or, preferably, his.

Crime Traveller (1997)

What?

As the prosaic but punning title suggests, it was a time travelling detective show. Lasting just one series, it starred Michael “David Wicks” French and Chloë “Red Dwarf’s Second Kochanski” Annett.

How Who?

Time travel; male lead; problem solving; Saturday night scheduling. That’s all we’ve got.

How Not?

Whilst some will maintain it sucked like God’s very own Dyson (wrongly, we might add), it was principally a reverse-engineered detective series not built for outer space hi-jinx.

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) (2000 – 2001)

What?

Noughties re-imagining of ITC supernatural detective series. Stars, improbably, surrealist comic duo Reeves (Hopkirk) and Mortimer (Randall), Emilia Fox and some bloke called Tom Baker.

How Who?

A Saturday night family-orientated 1960’s television classic resurrected as a blast of zippy action silliness featuring a foxy female sidekick and Tom Baker? No, we don’t see it either. The first episode co-starred some unknown Scottish actor by the name of David Tennant.

How Not?

Although a refreshing joie de vivre ran through the show like solid objects do ghosts, Reeves & Mortimer felt strangely miscast and oddly stilted. Whilst a show it was easy to admire, it didn’t inspire love.

Strange (2002 – 2003)

What?

Supernatural, demon-hunting horror bunkum, written by 2point4Children‘s Andrew Marshall (who often peppered said sitcom with many a cult TV reference).

How Who?

Broadcast on Saturday nights (but late) and starring smouldering could-have-been Doctor, Richard Coyle (except a sour departure from Moffat’s Coupling nixed that), as a kooky unstable Priest, its “good v evil” schtick could have felt like Who if The Daemons had been a dry run for even bleaker and more savage adventures. Tom Baker popped up in a cameo towards the end, as if to offer patronage to the programme’s cult credentials.

How Not?

Too bleak, too savage, and too Samantha Janusey.

What do you think? Have your say in the comments below, or if you prefer to Tweet, join the  conversation over on Twitter: follow us on @wearecultonline. Be sure to check out our Facebook page too!


❉ Doctor Who returns to BBC One on Saturday 15 April with episode 1, The Pilot.

❉ Freelancer and copywriter Miles Hamer writes regularly for SCREAM Magazine, Comic Heroes, Horrorville, and SFX/Total Film specials.

2 Comments

  1. The various fantasy serials for children: Dark Season, Century Falls, Elidor, Earthfasts, Moondial… all made on videtoape in the 90s and all looking pretty much as I imagined DW would look if it were being made then. Also Neverwhere, a bit later on (not for kids but with a Who-ish feel and Paterson Joseph seemingly auditioning for the Doctor in it). And then stuff like The Magician’s House and Shoebox Zoo, which were on film or looked as if they were, both co-productions.

  2. You learn something new every day. I did not realise there was any strangeness (see what I foreshadowed there) between Richard ‘Strange’ Coyle and Steven ‘Coupling’ Moffat, with regards Jeff’s character leaving the show. I know that’s a throwaway line in an entry not actually about ‘Coupling’ but I had to rush off and Google it, to see Moffat saying Coyle left without speaking to him then or since; as well as refusing a ‘goodbye’ episode in Series 4. I loved Coyle’s excuse of not wanting to be typecast, which – I’m pretty sure – just doing one goodbye episode to have an end to his character wouldn’t have done!! His replacement was waaaaaay too similar and suffered in comparison.

    Aside from that, which in no way relates to the article, I do recall all of those and vividly remembered yearning for ‘Bugs’ to get better and it never did – especially as Brian Clemens was involved, I just expected it to be more stylish, I suppose. The three leads had zero chemistry and only Craig McLachlan had any sort of personality. A real missed opportunity, even if it limped on for a few series.

Leave a Reply