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Martin Belam | 12:10 UK time, Monday, 26 November 2007

Or, 10 Years Of Online Doctor Who

This post is part of the tenth birthday celebrations of bbc.co.uk

I don't think I've been to a meeting, presentation, or read a document from the BBC in the last couple of years that doesn't cite "Doctor Who" as a shining example of something-or-other.

Well, I'm about to indulge in the same vice myself, as I think you can get a pretty good snapshot of the development of the BBC's web activity over the last 10 years by looking at the programme.

Paul McGannPrior to the RTD-inspired revival, 1996 was the last time the BBC tried out Doctor Who on TV, with a one-off movie starring Paul McGann in the role. Promotion was strictly on air and in print - there was no such thing as a BBC Doctor Who web site.

During the gap between the TV movie and the arrival of Christopher Eccleston in the title role, there was plenty of off-air activity around the show. The BBC had a successful range of books based on the subsequent adventures of McGann's 8th Doctor, and Big Finish produced a monthly series of audio drama CDs featuring actors from the Doctor's past, some of which have now made their way onto BBC7.

And then there were the webcasts.

"Death Comes To Time" was originally a pilot to carry on the adventures of 7th Doctor Sylvester McCoy on Radio 4. When it wasn't commissioned, it got picked up by another BBC department, who, in July 2001, converted it into a webcast. Users could go to the much-missed BBC Cult site and stream the adventure. Sylvester McCoy promoted it with a live chat on the BBC News site, accompanied by the ubiquitous Dalek prop that seems to spend most of its time being ferried around from building to building in W12 - I spotted it myself at a BBC function just a couple of months ago.

The webcast was basically a radio show accompanied by some animation techniques that older viewers might recognise from the original Captain Pugwash. Well, that perhaps sounds a little harsh, but essentially static drawings of the characters would fade in and out at varying degrees of magnification, over the top of a set of different background images.

During the next couple of years, this technique was repeated for "Real Time" starring Colin Baker (in a rather more sensible cartoon costume than his TV one had been) and "Shada", with McGann reprising an unfinished Tom Baker television story. Whilst it wasn't broadcast quality, it was still 'official Doctor Who from the BBC', and so with no real prospect of it returning to TV, fans were mostly kept happy.

ShalkaA real leap forward occurred in 2003, though, with "Scream Of The Shalka". Made to celebrate the show's 40th anniversary, the visuals were produced by Cosgrove Hall and demonstrated that the BBC was confident, with increased broadband take-up, that it could stream more demanding content. In fact, the animation was good enough to be broadcast on television via the red button over the Christmas holidays, and the same technique was used to reconstruct two missing episodes of the 1968 Patrick Troughton story "The Invasion" for DVD release.

Shalka remains the only appearance of Richard E. Grant's angular 9th Doctor though, because just prior to the webcast launching, the BBC announced that Doctor Who would be returning to BBC One. The team behind the webcast put a brave face on it, despite their project becoming not the real new Doctor Who before it even started.

In contrast to 1996, when "Rose" was broadcast in March 2005, there was already acres of web support material. In the run-up to the show's return, the Doctor Who site had shown a new cryptic picture from the production team every day for several months, and there were streaming interviews available with key contributors like composer Murray Gold.

03_03-dalek.pngThe web also took on a role beyond mere programme support, and became part of the programme. The BBC produced fake websites for on-screen organisations like U.N.I.T. and Geocomtex, a 'Who is Doctor Who?' site purporting to be run by one of the characters in the show, and there was a message for Rose on the Bad Wolf site that kept cropping up in BBC Search results. Ultimately, the Daleks even invaded the BBC homepage.

Not only that, but the BBC got a wake-up call about the power of the web as a distribution medium. "Rose" was leaked on the net weeks before it was shown on BBC One, the first time that this had happened to a high profile BBC production. Users couldn't officially watch the programme itself over the web, but they were able to stream the behind-the-scenes "Doctor Who Confidential" show on demand.

Fast-forward to 2007, and now the show, plus spin-offs like Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, can be downloaded from the BBC's iPlayer, and each Doctor Who episode is accompanied by a free commentary podcast to go with the programme. A couple of weeks ago, you didn't even have to be on the BBC's site to watch the Children In Need special "Time Crash". The BBC themselves had uploaded it to their YouTube channel.

From nothing, to watching TV online, all in the space of ten years - that would have seemed more futuristic in 1996 than anything dreamt up by the script-writers.

Martin Belam is a former Senior Development Producer, New Media

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