by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne
Doctor Who is perhaps the BBC’s biggest worldwide brand. For nearly fifty years the British public has drowned in Doctor Who merchandise and tie-ins: novels, audio plays, comics, toys, and T-shirts. Yet when it comes to new media, the BBC has been curiously slow to act. In the 1980s there were a few Doctor Who text adventures, and in the early ‘90s a pair of dubious licensed games for the PC. Since the show’s successful 2005 revival, Eidos has released a collectible card game across several platforms. Their individual merits aside, none of these games or genres really reflects the show’s talky, exploration-heavy premise.
By comparison, Doctor Who: The Adventure Games is a venture of the BBC proper, and a collaboration with the current TV production team. Over the last few years the BBC’s website division – also paid for through the TV license fee – has experimented with Flash games and animated episodes. Some of those efforts resulted in, for example, the reanimation of lost Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s. All these efforts, however, have been tentative and have skirted the edges of procedure.
With The Adventure Games, the BBC has some motivation – namely competition. Channel 4, the TV station established some thirty years ago to provide an alternate perspective to the cultural mainstream represented in ITV and the BBC’s two channels, has recently begun to expand its remit to cover videogames.
As a broadcaster, Channel 4 is required to air less enfranchised voices and to commission its programming from independent bodies. By the same reasoning, of late the Channel 4 website has become a significant source of funding for British indie games. To keep speed, the BBC seems to be responding to its competitor in familiar BBC style by luring huge and established talents to develop broadly appealing in-house entertainment — as when seven years ago they brought in Queer as Folk creator Russell T Davies to revive Doctor Who.
In this case, the BBC has contracted one of the most respected adventure game authors and perhaps the most respected nuts-and-bolts development crews in Europe. For their part, Broken Sword designer Charles Cecil and OutRun 2 developer Sumo Digital have digested and translated the show’s appeal in a way that spin-off and licensed material – including much under the Doctor Who banner – rarely does. Granted, the actors’ line readings sound like the first take for an audio book and the story itself perhaps borrows too liberally from Back to the Future – yet at no point does the game feel throwaway.
The question is, why? To quote Tom Baker’s Doctor, as he gawped at the remains of planets shriveled into gallery exhibits, what’s it all for? It’s all well that audiences now have a decent Doctor Who game, and it is curious to see the level of collaboration from the show’s production office, but what does the BBC hope to gain from the project?
Surely the game is more than a competitive response to Channel 4. Granted they’re both public broadcasters with a certain remit, and the lack of direct commercial concerns means that not every move has to be absolutely sensible so long as they can argue its creative or social merit — but likewise, it’s not like they’re chasing a buck here. There’s no market to corner, and nothing really to compete over. The games are effectively free to their largest and primary audience, and any foreign sales would be hard pressed to justify the expenditure.
Then again, lately the BBC has been in a weird place culturally and financially. There are growing movements to abolish the TV license fee, meaning that to avoid defaulting to a commercial broadcast model the BBC more and more has to justify its funding. In an era where fewer and fewer people watch TV, and those who do generally record it or download it later, the BBC seems to be constantly experimenting with format and new forms of publicity and new ventures (many of them, such as 3D theatrical trailers and week-long event programming, spearheaded with Doctor Who and its spin-offs), all to ensure the corporation’s tentacles remain genially laced through every aspect of British culture. When TV ceases to be a part of everyday life, every bit of mindshare helps.
To that matter, even for public service broadcasters viewing figures and audience share have taken on an importance far apart from the early ‘80s, when Channel 4 was more or less created with the intent that nobody watch it. Instead of a battle for ad dollars, the BBC is in a battle for relevance. And the moment they slip, they could be in big trouble.
The dilemma is not unlike the spot that print publications are in now, and that Steve Jobs is doing his best to exacerbate. If a magazine or newspaper fails to keep up its mindshare, and make itself a crucial part of people’s lives, then it’s in trouble. When people are turning to the web and to the iPad more than print, the publications have to assess their likely audience and how much of their energies to divert. The problem is that publications have no extra budget to spend on iPad development. Many of them can barely maintain their web presence. Yet without that presence, maybe people will forget them. Maybe they will lose their relevance, their importance. There’s a bit of desperation at work.
You might also think of the situation in terms of the browser wars. It’s not like Microsoft and Google and Mozilla are selling their applications, so why are they so hot on trouncing each other? Because everyone uses a web browser, and whoever controls the browser – both the technology and the branding and feel of the thing – controls the user’s experience.
Everyone has a different idea of making over the world in his own image. Right now Google wants to move everything to the cloud, and kind of return computing to the old PC terminal days where the data is all “out there” somewhere. “Out there,” of course, being in Google’s hands. In all probability, Facebook is hard at work on its own browser and operating system.
How does the online push relate to the BBC, beyond the cultural tentacle thing? Maybe it’s got something to do with the iPlayer, which might be described as the BBC’s own proprietary Hulu. Maybe it’s got to do with the shift away from TV and toward computer screens.
Common wisdom says the test of any new medium is its suitability for porn, and that the spearhead of most computer technology is videogames. These days the BBC says the test of any new venture is its suitability to Doctor Who – and much like The New York Times or Wired, the BBC really wants a piece of your computer. It’s got to survive somewhere.
Maybe in the future, when we get all our TV through the Internet, it will be hard for entities like the BBC to resist the old multimedia chestnut. And maybe, freed of the boundaries of CD-ROM and ridiculous production companies, there will be a time for… well. Something more advanced than the alternate angles you get on DVD and Blu-Ray. And maybe, through one insidious high-quality download at a time, the BBC is preparing itself for that eventuality.