DOCTOR WHO IN FRANCE by Alain Carrazé
It seems odd that a popular series like "DOCTOR WHO" never made it to France. To explain this we must consider a lot of things. Firstly, up until recently, science fiction has not been very well appreciated by French television executives. We are maybe the only country in the world to discover "STAR TREK" for the first time in the year of its twentieth anniversary! Secondly, the same executive, even if they have changed through the years, are well known for making big mistakes. They bought "DALLAS" years after it was successful. The same went for "KNOTS LANDING", "PEYTON PLACE", "KNIGHT RIDER", "MORK AND MINDY", "M.A.S.H.", "HAPPY DAYS"... the list goes on and on. So don’t be surprised if they don’t care about a small, obscure, kiddie show. Thirdly, they prefer to buy American action series to British ones. The BBC is especially notorious for being very ‘talkie’, If you put all these factors together, add the fact that the public are apathetic about the series, and the result in nobody cares enough to buy the series, so no "DOCTOR WHO" in France.
I care. As a television science fiction fan I had always known about "DOCTOR WHO", without ever seeing it. Thanks to my good friend Jean Marc Lofficier I was able to have a look at some episodes. I must admit that I found it boring at first but as I watched the first Dalek story I became hooked. One needs some time to become acclimatised to the series, half an hour is not enough!
Between 1979 and 1987 I was the chief executive on a television show, "TEMPS X", dedicated to science fact and science fiction. After some years the show was modified to include a bought—in series to supplement the magazine format. My first choice was "THE PRISONER", seen for the first time in its entirety. Then I worked hard, took a calculated risk, and bought a series never seen in France before: "THE TWILIGHT ZONE". In black and white it had never been dubbed into French before. It was difficult to get the show past the other executives who resisted it strongly, but we have done it now and the show is enormously successful, After being broadcast for two years I felt that the time had come for another series. After having failed to obtain the rights to "THE NEW TWILIGHT ZONE", due to delays accrued by waiting for executive decisions, I proposed that we try something completely new.
Wanting to do the same thing that I had done with "THE TWILIGHT ZONE" discussed the possibility of buying in "DOCTOR WHO". The first reactions were negative, the executives thought it was cheap, wordy, too British, they didn’t like the serial format, and it wasn’t catchy enough... I lost, we didn’t buy "DOCTOR WHO". I decided to make to make a documentary for the magazine part of "TEMPS X" about the phenomenon that is "DOCTOR WHO" and presenting it to act as a sort of trailer for the series aimed at the executives. The report was sixteen minutes long and featured clips from the series, interviews with Colin Baker and John Nathan Turner, film of recording an episode at BBC studios including special effects and a section on the Doctor Who Appreciation Society.
The BBC were very cooperative seeing the potential of interesting a French television channel in buying the series. Apart from a union problem occurring during the filming of the documentary, the technicians threatened to go on strike if we didn't pay every face captured by our camera an appearance fee, everything was perfect. Colin was especially friendly and expansive about the series as was JNT and the DWAS was very helpful, Dominic May now being a valued friend. When all was finished I was able to resume my battle with the powers that be. During my time preparing the documentary, a BBC distributor had given us a suitcase full of "DOCTOR WHO" merchandise. The idea of making money out of the series suddenly popped up in the thoughts of the executives of the now privatised TF1 network.
A go ahead was obtained but I insisted that the broadcasting of this unusual series was to be made with a few precautions. I was to select the episodes to be broadcast and decide the precise order in which they were shown. I was also to have a short introductory sequence made to explain what the show was all about. The deal with the BBC was complicated by the fact that the series had to be dubbed, but no international sound track exists. That means that, being recorded 'live', no sound track exists containing just music and sound effects onto which dialogue can be added, as is the usual case for all television series intended for international sales. So the dubbing has to be total, re—mixing the music which has to be identified, located and dug out of the vaults of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, making some new sound effects before putting a single French word on the top of all that. This all adds to the costs, the result being that this coat much more then the usual dubbing session.
Nevertheless, the deal was made. I spent two whole days in a BBC preview room selecting episodes, in the end I chose the first two Tom Baker seasons for starters. The BBC were very friendly and very helpful, in fact I have still got a very good relationship with the man in charge of arranging things for me. They sent us lots of publicity material, and I mean a lot! Then again the series had proved very expensive to buy, mainly due to the high cost of dubbing. I'm afraid that I’m not at liberty to say just how much.
Some months after that "TEMPS X" disappeared from the screen, I had already started negotiating to produce my own programmes, so I left TF1. The executive who was in charge of "TEMPS X" moved to a different department so everyone forgot about "DOCTOR WHO". The children's division was put into the hands of Dorothée a French presenter incredibly popular with children. The whole scheduling for the children’s slot was now in her control, and she decided that she could obtain a larger audience through Japanese robot and super heroes cartoons. She got her audience.
Finally, "DOCTOR WHO" had to be broadcast due to the investment made. Dorothée had to find a slot for it and she decided to put it on the air on Sunday mornings at 9.30. The first story to be screened was "Genesis of the Daleks" with no introductory sequence or explanation of the series broadcast beforehand. Then it went onto "The Ark in Space", then "Robot" then... but the series was already off the air. The ratings were so poor that they decided to broadcast the rest of the episodes on Saturday and Sunday at 7.00 in the morning! Nobody even noticed that "DOCTOR WHO" was on the air, nobody understood the premise of the series and nobody knows what the Tardis is, who the Time Lords are etc... Now the series is forgotten, dead to the French market.
At the time I was very upset after having spent so much time and effort to get "DOCTOR WHO" on the air, time I could have spent more profitably, and seeing it broadcast in that shoddy manner. What is more, some die—bard fans who eagerly wanted to see the series were disgusted, "We understand nothing. It’s on too early. It’s badly dubbed..." This is a perfect example of how caring and professionalism can be a complete waste if something goes wrong. Television is a difficult medium and if you don’t supervise every part of a venture, not only arranging broadcasting deals but supervising dubbing, scheduling end so on this kind of catastrophic failure can happen. Catastrophic because I strongly doubt that "DOCTOR WHO" will ever be back on a major French channel along with his merchandising.
I have been involved with a tentative project to set up a new cable TV channel devoted to fantasy. I approached the BBC again regarding "DOCTOR WHO", but our limited budget for the small cable market is an obstacle to buying the series. The cost of dubbing alone will be five times more than the cost of buying the series from the BBC. I am contemplating the use of subtitles, time alone will tell if this will work. [*]
On the whole the main problem with selling "DOCTOR WHO" to the French is that if you don’t care for the character or the stories, the series is cheap and talkie.
(Originally presented in Time Screen 17 (Spring 1991) and used with permission of the author)
[*] ADDENDA: Alain's follow-up SF cable channel project did not eventuate.