Is British Telefantasy About to Face Another Crisis?


The Living and the Dead has been cancelled, as has Houdini and Doyle. Similarly, Doctor Who faces major change, and the amount of big, expensive American-funded sci-fi series’ being made in Britain threaten locally-made telefantasy shows.

For almost 40 years, British telefantasy had a successful run of series from the 50s to 1989. From Quatermass to The Avengers, Doctor Who to Out of the Unknown and the myriad ITC action-fantasy series. It seems that the serious sort of telefantasy that is ashamed of the genre, like the works of Dennis Potter, often win out over the more overt, populist genre fare. This was confirmed when Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989. Throughout the ’90s, children’s TV was pretty much the only place where telefantasy prospered. The BBC alone had more than a dozen different series, including The Demon Headmaster, The Magician’s House, and The Ghost Hunter in 2000.

Ambitious Failures

The general drama side seemed to be dominated by an endless pass-the-parcel of ITC homages, from Virtual Murder in 1992 to Randall & Hopkirk – Deceased, among others. More ambitious shows like Neverwhere and the American co-productions of Space Precinct and Invasion: Earth were just some of the many failures at the time. Then there were the big-budget Henson/Hallmark/Channel 4 miniseries with big stars and bigger runtimes like Gulliver’s Travels in 1996. But it seemed big expensive American shows were putting pressure on British series. Could they compete?

Ted Danson as Gulliver - yes, we really did think this was the future of UK sci-fi television.

Doctor Who Revives British Telefantasy

In 2005, Doctor Who returned to TV and British TV execs started commissioning shows with fantasy elements again. ITV got Primeval and the “Quatermass-joins-Doomwatch-with-Emma-Peel-as-his-bodyguard” Patrick Stewart vehicle, Eleventh Hour.

The BBC soon followed suit with even more telefantasy series. There was Life On Mars/Ashes to Ashes (2006-2011), Merlin, Being Human, and Torchwood. Channel 4 continued to have success with Misfits, Black Mirror, and Humans. However, the cracks began to show when the network courted controversy over Utopia.

The Crisis Continues

 UK telefantasy show
The Living and the Dead

The telefantasy crisis had not been averted; it had just been covered up with a few bona fide successful sci-fi series, rather than comedies with sci-fi beats. But when ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde and Beowulf flopped and Torchwood flickered out, ITV cut their losses with the indescribably awful Houdini and Doyle. With major sci-fi provider BBC 3 dwindling to an online presence, it looks increasingly bleak for British telefantasy. Even Doctor Who is on a precipice of change. One issue is that in the past, shows like The Living and the Dead would have been a one-off serial. But these days, everything seems to need a sequel. We’d have an Edge of Darkness II if that were made today.

Big Budgets

Outlander - US telefantasy set in Britain, made in Britain...

Another change is American TV networks are making shows in Britain, like Game of Thrones and Outlander. These big budget series’ are shot and in many ways set in Britain (Game of Thrones is set in a fantasy medieval Europe, after all). They also use British casts, British crews, but have the backing of American money, much higher than British budgets. This is putting pressure on British shows to look good. It’s the same brush that classic Doctor Who was constantly beaten with for much of its life. Doctor Who executive producer Brian Minchin has been open about how they have to film abroad more because they are expected to, rather than doing everything with doubling and backlots. This is the impact that big-budget American shows like Game of Thrones has on the local industry and the telefantasy genre.

For British fantasy TV to survive, it needs to be small enough to work or have enough popularity and financial support to work.

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