Doctor Who - The Wilderness Years 1989 - 2005
Created | Updated Nov 23, 2013
In 2005, one of television's most enduring characters returned to our screens. Despite having been away for 16 years, the return of Doctor Who was one of the most eagerly-awaited television events of the year. Fans, critics and people who couldn't even remember the original series sat down and waited for the familiar theme tune. This entry details the events that took place in the world of Doctor Who between 1989 and 2005.
The Last Rites
Most fans realised that Doctor Who was on borrowed time from the moment when the then-controller of BBC One, Michael Grade, made his dislike for the programme abundantly clear. He cancelled the series at the beginning of 1985, resulting in a longer-than-usual gap between seasons (18 months). Next, he sacked Colin Baker, the actor playing the Doctor at the time, and forced the producer to stay on a production he'd hoped to be leaving.
By 1987, Michael Grade had been promoted, but his replacement, Jonathan Powell, had a dislike for the series as strong as his predecessor's. Fan opinions vary on the last three seasons, during which time Sylvester McCoy was the star. Some fans will point to stories like 'Ghost Light' as being the very best of Doctor Who, while others point to stories such as 'Time and the Rani' as being the very worst. As with any other set of devoted fans, arguments are fierce and unyielding.
One thing that both sets of fans agree on is that the BBC was as responsible for as many of the perceived problems as the actors, writers and directors. By spreading the budget ever more thinly (by not increasing it along with inflation) and scheduling the series opposite the ratings juggernaut Coronation Street, the BBC had ensured its failure. Michael Grade was more than happy to claim the credit for killing off the Doctor when he was blamed by the fans. This led to a few amusing exchanges when he oversaw its return as Chairman of the BBC.
Interestingly, Sylvester McCoy, who played the Seventh Doctor, would later be regarded much more kindly by fans. The mystery and occasional ill temper was a reminder of William Hartnell and a forerunner of the Ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston. His companion Ace, played by Sophie Aldred, was feisty, independent and almost an equal partner in their adventures. She can now be seen as a template for Rose Tyler, the Ninth Doctor's companion. Some of McCoy's stories - notably 'Ghost Light' and 'Curse of Fenric' - would have held their own in any era of the programme. 'Ghost Light', indeed, is Ace's equivalent of Rose's cathartic visit to the past in 'Father's Day'. In this episode, the Doctor arranges for a demon from Ace's past to be exorcised. Sadly, these occasional triumphs were offset by stories that attracted the opprobrium of many fans and the loyal support of the minority: like 'The Happiness Patrol', where the Doctor's enemy was a character that greatly resembled Bertie Bassett from the Liquorice Allsorts packet (a design element that overshadowed an intelligent political allegory). The final programme, 'Survival', saw The Master aided and abetted by cats on horseback. Despite this, the final scene of the original series would be remembered by fans as classic Doctor Who, thanks to a hurriedly-scripted line:
Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice and somewhere else the tea is getting cold. Come on, Ace, we've got work to do.
With that, Sylvester McCoy's Doctor disappeared from our screens, only for his version of the Doctor to be resurrected off-screen in various forms over the next 16 years as his stock rose higher among the fans. The show's producer during the show's last decade, John Nathan-Turner, had soldiered on, despite requesting a transfer to another production annually for six of his ten years in the role. In 1989, he realised his only way out was to resign from the BBC. With his departure went the show's last champion and Doctor Who ceased to be an ongoing TV production.
The Ultimate Adventure - Stage Show
As the final television season got under way there was a chance for fans of the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, to see him in action again in the theatre. An experienced and consummate stage actor, Pertwee was in his element in front of an audience of dedicated fans. The show started at the Wimbledon Theatre in London on 23 March, 1989, and toured the country for the next five months before finishing at the Congress Theatre, Eastbourne on 19 August. By this time, the Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, was in the title role, having taken over when Pertwee succumbed to exhaustion.
The story, such as it was, revolved around a plot by the Daleks and the Cybermen to destroy the earth, helped by a mercenary named Karl. The Doctor got involved after being summoned by Mrs Thatcher, the Prime Minister at the time, to foil the kidnapping of a diplomat. The Doctor, aided by companions Jason, Crystal and a small alien named Zog, managed to foil the plot. The script was written by Terrance Dicks, one of the stalwarts of 1970s Doctor Who, and was chiefly designed to pay homage to, and occasionally subvert, the Third Doctor's character.
It was a huge success with fans who were determined to have a good time. An enormous cheer always went up when the original version of Ron Grainer's iconic theme tune was played. It was only exceeded by the cheer that greeted the Doctor's explanation to his companions that:
I need to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!
This was a quote from the 1972 TV adventure 'The Sea Devils' which had achieved cult status over the years. It is well known among fans that technobabble was something that Pertwee disliked intensely and he grinned knowingly as the audience reacted to the line. At the end of one performance he stopped a standing ovation simply by raising his hand, at which the entire theatre fell silent. It was a graphic example of the control which he exerted over his adoring audiences.
When Colin Baker took over, he had a script that emphasised the Doctor's comedic side. It was a very different Sixth Doctor that resulted. The outbursts that alienated many of the fans were gone, and the more likeable side of his character became clear. He is often quoted as saying that this side would have emerged over the years if he had been given more time in his television incarnation. It also gave an indication of the way that the Sixth Doctor would be played in the later audio adventures.
In the end, the stage show was important because it proved that the show could survive in other forms even if it disappeared from the screens1.
The Audio Doctor
Interestingly, the programme survived, and even thrived, as an audio-only production thanks to Big Finish, a drama company whose full-cast dramas used the surviving Doctors and companions, recreating foes old and new in the audio medium. After making unofficial Doctor Who adventures since the late 1980s, producer Gary Russell and writer Nicholas Briggs started to make audio adventures based on the Virgin Books companion Bernice Summerfield and approached Jason Haigh Ellery of Big Finish with a view to collaborating on other audio science fiction.
Then, in 1999, BBC Worldwide granted Big Finish the opportunity to make original audio adventures based on the Doctor. They had the freedom to contact any of the actors who had appeared in the series and they made full use of it. Those performers who played companions of the first three late Doctors expressed an interest in working on the projects and were given the chance to create new parts, while new companions were introduced to keep the audio adventures fresh.
The Doctors of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy were re-evaluated by fans as they became mainstays of the audio adventures and both actors were given the rare chance to improve upon their original characterisations. Both the fans and the actors themselves had seen their televised adventures as flawed for many reasons. The fault lay in part with low budgets, but the frenetic nature of the Sixth and Seventh Doctors alienated many long-standing fans. Both actors complained of the pressure of becoming an instant success in the role, which led them to try to make an instant impression. In the audio adventures, both Doctors were calmer and more reflective, which helped their portrayals significantly. Peter Davison was older and decided to play the Fifth Doctor as a more dominant character than had been possible in his television portrayal. He admitted in interviews about his time as the Doctor that he had originally taken on the role with no idea of how to play it. In a question-and-answer session with young fans at the time, one boy suggested that he play the Doctor like Tristan, his character in All Creatures Great and Small, only braver. In retrospect, Davison felt that this resulted in a watered-down character. The passion of Big Finish's team of writers allowed all three former Doctors to reassess and rework their characterisations. This was particularly successful for Colin Baker, who found himself named the best of all Doctors by readers of Doctor Who Magazine, a vote of confidence that the actor repaid with a commitment to relish on audio the adventures he'd been denied on television.
New Adventures in Print
A new generation of writers tackled Doctor Who thanks to the New Adventures and Missing Adventures, ranges of books published by Virgin Books until 1997 and by BBC Books thereafter. The Target novelisations of the 1970s had shown that there was demand for Doctor Who books, but they were aimed at the children's market, retellings of the television adventures, often written by the writers who had brought the original adventure to the screen. Though these books had helped improve literacy among the show's fans, that fan base had grown up, so the books needed to reflect this. The writers commissioned to write the New Adventures, also genuine fans, wrote challenging novels based on the Seventh Doctor which were not always well received by the more traditional elements of fandom, unwilling or unprepared to read a range of books aimed more at the casual science fiction reader. It was for these fans that the more traditional Missing Adventures were written. These reproduced the cosy world of Saturday teatimes for nostalgic fans, with more identifiable characters such as their favourite Doctor and the companions that travelled with him. These writers would later produce scripts for the webcasts and the new series.
Doctor Who Magazine did a marvellous job of keeping the series alive, as it had been doing since 1979, with guides to the classic episodes as well as comic strips featuring the Doctor. After Paul McGann's single television outing as the Doctor these comic strips gave fans a chance to follow his incarnation through various adventures. Indeed, the final Eighth Doctor comic strip actually provided fans with an illustrated regeneration scene that they were denied on television. With new Doctor Who being produced in these media, and videos and DVDs of classic Who proving popular with fans, the programme never really went away.
Dimensions in Time
During the next few years, despite huge campaigns by fans, the return of Doctor Who seemed to be inconceivable. There were many rumours about a script for a 90-minute special to celebrate the show's 30th anniversary. The provisional title was 'The Dark Dimension' and the script had apparently been written by Adrian Rigelsford, but it was never made. To celebrate the 30th anniversary, the BBC did bring Doctor Who back as part of the Children in Need night in November 1993 in an adventure entitled 'Dimensions in Time', but its hurried, nonsensical story and unsatisfactory 3-D gimmick just held the show up for ridicule, not celebration - a source for cheap laughs. All the surviving Doctors, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy took part, as did Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart), Sophie Aldred, Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith) and many other past companions.
In this adventure, The Rani, a rival Time Lord, traps the Doctor in Albert Square with many of the cast of EastEnders in the years 1973, 1993 and 2013. It was chiefly memorable for the scene in which the Brigadier shares a moment with Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor, the only incarnation that he had not acted opposite before. Although this programme is contained in many episode guides, there is much debate amongst fans as to whether this should be seen as canonical2. Given the cast, it has to be seen as a missed opportunity and a sad farewell to the era of classic Doctor Who.
The Doctor Who TV Movie
Patient fans were given fresh hope with the news that a British-American Doctor Who co-production was to be filmed in Canada with Paul McGann. The choice of Paul McGann was met with almost universal approval, as he had been a fan favourite to take over as soon as the possibility of a new series came up. This would lead to a series if the pilot film was deemed to be a success. A well-made and reasonably faithful movie appeared to be the criteria that the fans would judge this production on. However, success would be judged purely on ratings in the cutthroat world of television. The suspicion was that the BBC were all too eager to see the pilot fail, given the trouble that Doctor Who fans had caused in the past. While this was, in hindsight, nothing more than a wild conspiracy theory, it gave an indication of the fans' prevailing attitude towards the BBC at the time.
It seemed as if the fans would rally behind the project. However, the news that the production would be largely American in style led to considerable disquiet in fandom. There was a tendency to believe the very worst of this production before it even made it to the screen. Wild rumours abounded, the most outrageous of which was that the Doctor would have sexual relations with his new companion. Although this was clearly unthinkable in a production for mainstream American television, since the major networks must please the moral majority, the fans and the British press reacted with fury. The executive producer tried to calm fans by expressing strong reservations about Doctor Who in the post-Tom Baker era and making clear his desire to take the programme back to its golden era. This was not altogether comforting to fans who realised that the new Doctor had to connect with a new generation.
When the Doctor reappeared in June 1996, the fans' disquiet seemed to be largely justified by the end result. Despite excellent performances by Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor and Paul McGann as the Eighth, the script was a disaster. It was not, as was feared, the Americanising of the character that caused the problem. The style was in fact too British, reverent and old fashioned. The Doctor was robbed of his edge of menace as his eccentricities were flagged up. The sonic screwdriver returned, as did jelly babies, the First Doctor's frock coat and his yo-yo. In one scene, his companion, Grace explains his behaviour by saying:
To which the Doctor replies:
Yes, I suppose I am.
It is a very telling scene that indicates the thinking behind the script as a whole. He is no longer a mysterious traveller, merely an eccentric Brit to amuse Americans. Further indignities occur when the Doctor reveals he is half-human - an absurd idea in every respect - and when he refers to the TARDIS's 'cloaking mechanism', a phrase from Star Trek, not Doctor Who. Given the behaviour of the Ninth Doctor, the most controversial aspect of the more recent production, a kiss between Grace and the Doctor seems very innocuous now. On the plus side, Sylvester McCoy's Doctor had a proper send-off and Paul McGann fitted the role like the shoes that he so gleefully put on. Eric Roberts (the brother of movie megastar Julia) was a decent adversary for the Doctor with his intriguing portrayal of the Master.
As with most British-American co-productions, the result ended up firmly in the middle of the ocean with no hope of rescue. The series never materialised, despite the pilot movie getting decent ratings and critical acclaim in the UK. In the USA, however, the movie was scheduled opposite an important 'season finale' episode of the top-rating sitcom Roseanne and audiences and critics alike were hardly even aware of its transmission. However, despite its limitations, the movie was at least a brave attempt to regenerate the Doctor and it gave us one of the best debuts by an actor in the role, even if that debut also proved to be Paul McGann's televisual swansong as the Doctor.
Thanks to the Big Finish audios, McGann's Doctor has had a chance to evolve as a character. Those fans who have followed the adventures on CD have had their original hopes for the Eighth Doctor well and truly met, as McGann has topped the poll as Best Actor in Doctor Who Magazine three years in a row, while the Eighth Doctor's audio adventure companion, Charley Pollard (India Fisher) has topped the poll as Best Actress for four years in a row.
The Curse of Fatal Death
This final, non-canonical piece of Doctor Who was devised for Comic Relief's Red Nose Day in March 1999 and consisted of four episodes of five minutes each. Rowan Atkinson played the Doctor, with Jonathan Pryce as the Master. The witty script, better by far than the 'Dimensions in Time' programme of six years earlier, enabled four further Doctors to be introduced. All four were rumoured to be under consideration at various times during the original run of the programme. They were Richard E Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley. It was in many ways a far more fitting goodbye to the classic series than the movie, as it was made for fans and by fans. Indeed, two of those involved ended up contributing to more mainstream Doctor Who later on. Richard E Grant finally appeared as an alternate Doctor in the BBC webcast 'The Scream of the Shalka', while the writer Steven Moffat became one of the writing team for the new series in 2005.
Doctor Who Webcasts
As technology caught up with the character of the Doctor, the BBC website produced four webcasts featuring animation and a full cast of actors. Sylvester McCoy starred in the first, called 'Death Comes to Time', with Sophie Aldred as Ace and Nicholas Courtney as The Brigadier. It was such a success that another webcast was commissioned straight away. 'Real Time' featured the return of the Cybermen and starred Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor. In an interview for the BBC Cult website he said:
Ultimately, it boils down to good scripts. I had good scripts when I was doing it [on television] but not all of them were as good as the ones that I'm getting now, and the one that we're broadcasting on the web is a thumping good Cybermen story. It's nice to get back to good story telling, good traditional Doctor Who story telling.
Next up was 'Shada', an episode from the Tom Baker years which was never completed due to an industrial dispute. Written by Douglas Adams, it had appeared in its unfinished form on video in the mid 1990s. It was remade as a webcast with Paul McGann reprising his role as the Eighth Doctor. Lalla Ward returned as Romana with John Leeson also making a comeback as the voice of K9. McGann's performance was witty and perfectly suited Adams' material. It indicated, yet again, that he would have made an excellent Doctor given the chance. Generally, fans were happy with the treatment of an episode that had gained cult status due to the fact that it remained uncompleted.
The final webcast to date was 'The Scream of the Shalka'. This six-episode webcast was written by Paul Cornell and starred Richard E Grant as the Doctor. Despite the fact that fans had regularly put Grant at the top of their list for the new Doctor, his performance was not universally welcomed. Indeed, Russell T Davies, the executive producer of the new series, said in an interview with Doctor Who Magazine, issue 360:
I wasn't a fan of Richard E Grant in it, I have to say. And yes you can print that! I thought he was terrible. I thought he took the money and ran, to be honest. It was a lazy performance. He was never on our list to play the Doctor.
Despite such reservations, the exceptionally high number of page impressions received by the BBC's Doctor Who website as a result of broadcasting 'The Scream of the Shalka' virtually guaranteed that further such adventures would be made in the future. However, any impact that 'Shalka' might have made was completely lost when the announcement that the fans had longed for finally arrived out of the blue.
The Return of Doctor Who
Doctor Who was named the programme that most viewers wanted to see revived in a Radio Times poll in September 2003, reminding the BBC hierarchy that the Doctor was still one of their most valuable assets. Despite this, the idea of a return to television was never taken seriously whenever the regular rumours surfaced. Suddenly, the bolt from the blue arrived in the form of a press release from the BBC on Friday, 26 September 2003: The Doctor would return to TV screens in 2005.