Monday, 10 May 2010

Dr Who - in Confidence

The makers of Doctor Who Confidential have been accused of wasting money. In the next episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companion Amy (Karen Gillan) visit Venice. The show was filmed in Croatia, but The Sun reports that Smith was flown to Italy for Confidential. Other BBC programme-makers have allegedly now accused the series of wasting money. However, a BBC spokesperson said: "Doctor Who Confidential is highly successful and is fantastic value for money."

I watched the Confidential, and I think the view that the team are wasting money is totally mistaken. As well as giving background on how the series is made, the writer and Matt Smith met the architect and historian Francesco da Mosto, whose family owns a magnificent house in Venice. There the viewer was given a tour of Venetian architecture, insights into the sometimes closed and apart nature of Mediaeval Venetian society and the time of the story, the plague years, along with Francesco showing in his family tree how many members of his family had been troubled by the plague.

Rather than being a waste of money, I think it was actually fulfilling the Reithian remit of the BBC to inform and educate. By having Matt Smith present, the younger viewers would be drawn into watching and learning aspects of European history and geography, because their hero was there. Far from being a waste of money, I think Sydney Newman, one of the founders of the concept of Dr Who, would have been extremely satisfied with the way the programme was still being used as a peg to teach some history.

Incidentally, the same happened with the recent Victory of the Daleks, where the real war rooms and tunnels used by Churchill formed part of the Confidential documentary. Viewers were also encouraged to visit this often neglected - but open to the public - part of British history.

The educational aspect has even been seen on the special features of some of the older Dr Who DVDs, where the Jon Pertwee story "The Time Monster", has a short featurette well presented by professor of theoretical physics Jim Al-Khalili, in which he explores which aspects of time and time travel in Dr Who actually fit with modern physics and which do not. Jim Al-Khalili has recently presented the very good series on BBC3 "Chemistry: A Volatile History" and is an adept populariser who engages his audience but does not talk down to them.

In the Pertwee years of the 1970s, the late Barry Letts, producer of Dr Who, and his script editor Terrance Dicks were both reading New Scientist magazine to find seeds for stories within the speculation of hard science, and part of the fun of Dr Who in the 1970s was that it could provide a springboard for generating enthusiasm in science. Under the aegis of Steven Moffat, the series seems to be returning, in some ways, to these educational roots, without in any way losing its fun and adventure.

The new Confidential and extras on DVDs show how the educational springboard, whether for history or science, is still present. Only the Sun could be expected to mock that!

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