‘6 Reasons Why Doctor Who Dodged a Bullet in the 90s’ by Bob Sheppard

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This is not a critique of the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie. In fact, as a one-off adventure, I rather like it; Paul McGann is an excellent Doctor and his sole full-length TV appearance is fun, fast-paced and remarkably cinematic. Okay, yeah – the script seemed a bit mixed up at the time, but the post-2005 series has got us so used to scripts that are more full of holes than a Swiss cheese that it no longer looks like such a problem. As is now well known, the TV Movie never became a full series and we had to wait another 9 years before we got new Doctor Who on TV. But perhaps we were lucky. Perhaps a 90s version of the series would have been more of a curse than a blessing. Why would I think that? Here’s 6 reasons…

Before the TV Movie came along, the closest Doctor Who came to a proper dramatic return was The Dark Dimension; a proposed straight-to-video thirtieth anniversary story featuring parts for all of the surviving Doctors, but with Tom Baker in the central role. How close it came to actually being made as is debatable; the oft-quoted story is that the BBC knocked it back because they were in talks with Amblin Entertainment, but it’s just as likely that they took one look at the proposal and said no. The story, which has been leaked in various sources, is an unholy mess with none of the cohesion of something like The Five Doctors; it’s also absurdly over-ambitious and would require a Hollywood motion picture budget to do it justice. In Stranger Than Fiction 2, the making-of video that covers BBV’s The Airzone Solution, Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy talk candidly about The Dark Dimension and how little faith they had in the project. It’s clear that the other Doctor actors resented Tom Baker’s starring role and I’m certain that, had it gone ahead, at least 2 of them would have declined to appear. A lot of fans see this as a lost epic, but I think it would have been a bit of a shambles with a paltry half-cast of Doctors and clearly not enough budget to sustain it. At least with the monstrosity that was Dimensions in Time, we can dismiss it as a non-canon spoof.

When Doctor Who finished in 1989, it was well known that the BBC hated mainstream sci-fi and that attitude persisted well into the 90s. They were quite happy to screen it ‘in its place’, which was usually 6pm on BBC2 and had achieved great success with Star Trek: The Next Generation in that slot, but they didn’t really want anything imaginative bothering a primetime BBC1 audience. The term ‘Cult TV’ was practically coined to marginalise shows that were, to the BBC at least, inexplicably popular. When the BBC deigned to make something fantastical of their own, there seemed to be a massive aversion to it being seen as science fiction. Sci-Fi was a dirty word; it had connotations of geeky, lank-haired boys in anoraks and the BBC wanted nothing to do with it. So shows like Bugs and Crime Traveller that were explicitly science fiction, the BBC seemed to go to great lengths to present them as something else. They could get away with calling Red Dwarf a comedy, but look at the production on Crime Traveller; its design and music seems to be pushing it in the direction of a quirky comedy-drama like Jonathan Creek, though its premise is quite clearly sci-fi.

On the rare occasion that a ‘cult’ show was popular enough to warrant prime-time viewing, it was treated as the black sheep of the schedules. The X Files is a great example; it was simply huge in the mid-90s and the BBC had paid good money to wrest it away from Sky, but although it was put in a prime-time BBC1 slot, the cracks started to show almost immediately. Firstly, it was pushed slightly later into the schedules, then broadcast as double-bills, which is broadcasting shorthand for ‘we’ve lost faith in this show and are trying to usher it off the schedules as quickly as possible’. Eventually, it was shifted to BBC2 and became part of the ‘cult’ landscape; evidence that the BBC were, at best, no longer interested in it and, at worst, slightly embarrassed by it. The X Files was still huge and it had spun off into a feature film, but the BBC weren’t prepared to push it because it hadn’t immediately struck a chord with the middle class audience. It’s not hard to imagine an American co-production of Doctor Who suffering a similar fate. When the BBC finally relented and produced Invasion: Earth a 1998 co-production with the Sci-Fi Channel with hints of Dark Skies and The X Files, it bombed appallingly.

You didn’t like Chris Chibnall’s recent changes to Doctor Who canon? Consider yourself incredibly lucky, because the proposed Universal co-production could have turned Doctor Who into a series that was almost unrecognisable to British audiences! In the protracted development period of Doctor Who, writer John Leekley created an extensive series bible with input from producer Philip Segal; there’s a lot in it which is familiar to fans of the series, but used in a context which is at best unfamiliar and at worst downright bizarre. For starters, the Doctor and the Master are brothers; their father is an explorer called Ulysses and their Grandad is Borusa! The Doctor is the rightful heir to the Gallifreyan throne, but the Master takes it from him. You think that’s bad? Check out some of your favourite monsters – the Daleks have now become Praying Mantis-like aliens who scuttle around spidery metallic exoskeletons and the Cybs [sic] are pirate-like cyborgs who look like something out of Mad Max. The Leekley Bible is lavishly illustrated and a lot of the illustrations are pretty gorgeous… but it’s just not Doctor Who. Luckily, 90% of this crap was ditched before the TV Movie, but there’s every reason to believe the mythos would have been re-tooled again if the idea had gone to series.

The 90s produced a lot of worthwhile things – some great music, some terrific cinema – but, in the UK at least, it was also the time of the Lads’ Mag. These ‘harmless’ magazines with titles like Loaded, Zoo and Nuts revelled in a heady brew of alcohol, football and semi-naked women (in particular, the latter) and the influence of toxic lad culture extended to the most unlikely of places. Fellow British sci-fi colossus 2000ad launched an infamously sexist ad campaign that suggested it was a product not intended for girls and around the same time published the notorious ‘sex issue’. But Doctor Who would never go there, I hear you cry. Well, you’d be surprised; details of the unmade Coast to Coast / Daltenrays movie that leaked out in the early 90s saw the gun-toting Doctor with a busty, scantily-clad mercenary as his ‘companion’ and even The New Adventures novels, seen as beyond reproach by many fans, were not above this kind of behaviour. It’s infrequent and relatively mild, but it was there. A lot of fans craved a ‘dark’ and ‘adult’ vision of Doctor Who on film or TV in the 90s, but in the wrong hands it could very well have wound up being crass in a way that would be completely unpalatable today.

Lad culture didn’t extend to America, thank God, which is where our most likely shot at 90s TV Doctor Who was to be made. But US TV had problems of its own; the BBC might have hated sci-fi and everything that it stood for, but it was having a massive renaissance in the States. As well as no less than three iterations of Star TrekThe Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager – you had Babylon 5, Crusade, Sliders, The X Files, Millennium, Harsh Realm, Dark Skies, Earth 2, Space: Above and Beyond, Nowhere Man, Quantum Leap, Strange Luck, Deepwater Black… and they’re just the ones I can think off the top of my head! American TV was literally teeming with sci-fi and fantasy series and as a consequence, many of the ones I’ve just mentioned didn’t last more than one or two series. It was a vicious and competitive market and, as big as Doctor Who is in the States today, I don’t think it had to pulling power in the 90s to survive in that shark tank. I reckon that if the 1996 TV pilot had gone to series, we’d have only have had a couple of years of Doctor Who before Universal pulled out and the failure would most likely have stung the BBC so much that we wouldn’t have got the 2005 series.

So, do you still wish we’d had a Doctor Who reboot series in the 90s? 16 years was a long time to go without, but it was better to wait that long and end up with a series that was made by people who really cared than have it a bit sooner churned out to meet the needs of a corporate machine. It all worked out fine in the end – without the gap, there’d be no New Adventures and without The New Adventures there’d arguably be no new series. So yeah, in the end I think we really dodged a bullet in the 90s, because it could have all been so much worse!

Bob Sheppard is a grumpy old man that lives in a forest in the North of England. His hobbies include reading, chess and throwing stones at children.


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