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Doctor Who on German TV

Doctor Who has a spotty record when it comes to being on German TV. As far as I've been able to find out, some people (like me) got to see a few Tom Baker episodes in English on "Super Channel" in the eighties, and nearing the nineties they showed a short run of Sylvester McCoy episodes of the old series. That's pretty much it.

So, I was delighted to see that the new 2005 series finally returned to German TV yesterday, Saturday 26th, at 5:00 PM, only 3 years late. Judging from the internet reaction on the Amazon forums associated with the German DVD boxset, some people have been waiting since 2006 for it, and got mixed information from the TV station that bought the rights.

I read in a TV magazine that Dr. Who got sold as a package deal together with Desperate Housewives, and the treatment of the show definitely felt that way: They had to buy it, had to show it. They apparently took the last possible moment before their option ran out to show it, waited until they could dub two seasons of the show in one go, (which caused the German DVD release to get pushed back) and now they're showing two episodes per week, on the same day, back-to-back.

If you have a 13-part serial, why show two episodes on one day? That means in 6 weeks you have one season finished. I've seen no trailers announcing the show until about an hour before the first episode actually ran. They're giving the viewers no opportunity to accidentally tune in and discover this show, and there are none of the usual nightly re-runs.

I think they're trying to kill the show, to prove to whoever sold them the rights that it doesn't sell in Germany and that they should unbundle it from the "hotter" stuff...

So much for a little background. Now let's come to the actual presentation, which means the dubbing. In Germany, pretty much every foreign show is dubbed, unless it's some incredibly artsy film. If you've ever seen the original to a show and its German dubbed version, you'll get the feeling it's done on a shoestring budget and in a heck of a hurry:

It feels like the translator is usually sometone who didn't have any English after High School, or at best an intern who just got out of High School English. Most jokes get botched, even if they would have been a straight translation, and they fall for every single false friend, like the english word "Chips" (French fries) which sounds just like the German word "Chips" (which the US call chips, too, but the British would call crisps).

But you can't really blame them for that, because they do not seem to have access to the original script. From the way a lot of the translation and later dubbing sounds, there's one guy who gets the soundtrack and tries to write down what is said (often without seeing it). Then, the voice actors only get the picture, and this slightly insufficient translation to work from.

The end result is that scenes that even in the slightest need the movie's visuals are frequently botched. In other cases, sentences are disfigured in such a way that even the German sentences don't make sense (Babylon 5 has a couple of such WTF moments where the sentences don't even follow the most rudimentary German sentence structure ... it's just a tangle of words...).

Okay, in this case I have to give them credit for at least watching the important points. Yes, the Doctor's use of 'armless would have translated into German one-to-one, because the two equivalent words would be "Harmlos" and "Armlos", and they said "Chips" where it should have been fries in one spot, but at least in the ending scene, where Rose smells chips, they realized what it meant and went with the correct "Pommes" (how could you smell crisps, anyway...). So, the connection between the doctor telling Rose humans just eat chips and watch TV, and their actually doing it gets lost, but the plot does not depend on these details, so at least everything still makes sense. And no, I don't complain that they didn't give him a Northern accent in the German version, so that bit was a bit confusing, but it couldn't be helped.

Once you're past the actual business of translation, the next issue is that the dubbing voices apparently get chosen based on a short description of the characters in a solicitation: Billie Piper got a 17-year-old voice. Yup, the German Rose sounds like a little girl, a young, bubbly blonde. In the Pilot's opening scene, she sounds genuinely scared, instead of the slightly annoyed, spunky London chick the character actually is portrayed as in the original. When she's surprised she went with the Doctor in episode 2, so is the German viewer, because she didn't have much fun at all in the Pilot as far as we were shown.

And the Doctor's voice? Well, he's not quite as miscast, but he'd have been a better fit for David Tennant than for Christopher Eccleston1. You see, Eccleston is an actor who often plays villans. The nicest roles he plays are generally the guys who do the wrong things because of inferiority complexes. He has a voice with some depth, and he can be genuinely frightening, and if he is scripted as dangerous, you believe him. To make him a good Doctor, they had him walk around like a funny, bumbling man with an almost-falsetto voice, so people realized he could actually be funny and likeable. They used the presence and image he exudes, which is rather serious, and had him act the other traits the character of the Doctor has, to complete the personality.

Tennant, having immediately followed Eccleston, had to be different. But it still had to be believable that he's the same person. He had to be funny like McCoy, dangerous like Hartnell, handsome like Davison, and had to combine these things in a kind of offbeat way like Tom Baker. (He didn't need much Eccleston, as he had the same writer serving as a connecting element) So, they almost kept the role the same, but took an actor from the other end of the spectrum. Tennant is a skinny man with big teeth who generally got to play well-meaning but nonetheless failed existences. At least, my main memory of him was of a kinda funny guy in a chick flick.

Thus, they approached it from the other side. When you look at him, you immediately think of a funny man, so they introduced him as the dangerous guy that isn't afraid to be ruthless when the time calls for it. Tennant doesn't need a booming voice, he can be snarling, hissing, go all over the place with his voice. But Eccleston has gravitas, and the character was written that way. So, why they chose such an utterly plain voice for him in the German version without any bass whatsoever ... well, I'm being unkind.

Compared to other characters the voice actor has lended his voice to, you can hear he is really trying to sound adult here. But these voices are for Clark and Lana from Smallville, two teenagers discovering life. Eccleston and Piper on the other hand, are clearly adults, and played as such. Their portrayal is substantially changed in the dubbed version. This extends to other characters. Jade is pretty straightforward, but Jackie, Rose's Mum, should have had a really annoying voice, and they just gave her a nice, plain one.

So, the German version of the show loses noticeably in the dubbing. Doctor Who is a show that is larger than life. It needs voices that can sound epic, and that can sound brave, and that fit the characters' ages. And since at least German dubbed shows in general have a much lover volume level for the music, Murray Gold's Music also doesn't feature as prominently here. But it could be worse, and considering this is just the pilot, maybe the company who does the dubbing just had to find their footing. Still, I wish they'd try to be more like the original shows, particularly in the voice direction.

1) Okay, not really. We'd need someone with much more vocal range for Tennant.

Reader Comments: (RSS Feed)
Derek BrowellA good write up.I am a big fan writes:
A good write up.....Having seen German Dr Who I also notice it is mercilessly cut up by advertisements, which makes it very disjointed.The ends were cut off...A big irritation as one uses the end music to contemplate what has gone on...but sadly a lot of world films are given the same treatment on some German T.V.channels.. Secondly .For some reason Sci Fi generally has been given short shrift in German T.V. .(I am nearly sixty, and I have seen a lot of German T.V. over the years).It is only now socially acceptable in England to like Sci Fi.. f you wind the clock back to when I was Twenty ..to say one liked sci fi..even in the seventies ..one was regarded as a miss fit....Finally Sci Fi came of age with Star Wars.. and Doctor Who is regarded as main stream T.V. now in England....It fought the "Everyone likes Sport" Controllers of B.B.C. to re grab its original place on saturday evenings.... On a more positive note : We are all excited about the 50th Anniversary next year and hope that Susan and Ian (the first companions...who are still around) will be in one of the five specials next year... Best wishes and thank you for an excellent write-up....... Derek
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