This feature is a companion piece to not only my reviews of Doctor Who Season 24 and Season 26, but also my earlier feature about the curious little renaissance the series enjoyed in the late ‘80s. In it, I shall attempt to explain how I think that the BBC missed a trick in squashing the series just as its star was once more on the rise. Since Doctor Who returned in 2005, various organs of the BBC have been pushing home the story of how the series was tired and needed to be rested; suggesting that the unprecedented success of its return in 2005 was directly attributable to absence making the heart grow fonder, whilst conveniently ignoring the fact that the 1996 TV Movie was a proportionate success on its home territory and only didn’t spin off into a full series because the BBC was tied into a restrictive deal with Universal, who declined to stump up the cash upon the movie’s failure in the United States.
All of this may be true, but could the BBC have kick-started the show with an injection of cash in 1989? The incredible popularity of the recent release of Season 24 (which even the biggest Seventh Doctor mega-fan has to admit is the lesser of his three seasons) on blu-ray shows that there is an incredible fondness for the era and it left an indelible impression upon those who were young at the time. The pairing of Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor and Sophie Aldred’s Ace are broadly seen as a pairing to rival the third Doctor and Jo or the Fourth Doctor and Sarah and although Aldred planned to leave in the next series had it happened, any number of additional episodes with that pairing would have been warmly received. It may have built very slowly over his three existing series, but Sylvester McCoy had a connection with the role of the Doctor that could have gone on to rival that of Tom Baker.
Some of you reading this will not have been around in the late ‘80s. Some of you may have grown up in the early stages of the show’s revival, when the shops in the UK were teeming with Doctor Who merchandise and it might seem quite odd to you when I say that the show’s increasing popularity back in the day could be gauged from the appearance of new product, but it is nonetheless true. In the 1970s, Doctor Who enjoyed a steady but unremarkable stream of merchandise; there were books, pencil cases, Denys Fisher dolls and… well, the least said about the Fourth Doctor underpants the better. And this continued into the beginning of the Fifth Doctor’s era, but it was already starting to slowly fizzle out. During the time of the Sixth Doctor, there is very little merch and what there is is mostly associated with Doctor Who Magazine or Target Books in some way. Doctor Who somehow seems less merchandisable.
But suddenly, with the appearance of the Seventh Doctor, it picks up somehow. Dapol, a small toy firm based in Wales and best known for model trains, starts to manufacture a limited range of 5” action figures from the new series, including the Seventh Doctor, Mel and a Tetrap. Okay, so they’re a decade or more late for the action figure boom, but no-one else has shown this much confidence in the series in years. Music mavericks The KLM, under the disguise of ‘The Timelords’ release a Doctor Who themed novelty pop single Doctorin’ the TARDIS… and it goes to No.1! They’re on Top of the Pops with a home-made Dalek! There were novelty records around the same time based on Star Trek, Thunderbirds and The Magic Roundabout, but none of them made quite such a lasting impression. Then there was the Battle for the Universe board game and… well, the list goes on. Suddenly, love for Doctor Who was picking up and everyone but the BBC saw it.
Now, the BBC these days is all about branding. For a series like Doctor Who, merchandising is all-important because its free promotion – people are actually paying you for the privilege of plugging your show to them. But the BBC in the three decades ago was a completely different beast. Formed in 1979 as part of BBC Enterprises, BBC Books famously turned down Douglas Adams’ novel of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which went on to be an international best-seller for Pan, and BBC Records and Tapes was more of a public service than a commercial enterprise; I can’t imagine that their endless series of BBC Sound Effects LPs actually made any money, but they kept on churning them out. The fact is that, in terms of commercial exploitation of Doctor Who, the BBC missed a trick in the late 80s; it was gathering momentum and instead of helping it along with a little push, they just let it run its course.
By the time the TV Movie came along in 1996, BBC Enterprises had been replaced by BBC Worldwide, which was a much more aggressively commercial organisation. Doctor Who was a big hit on VHS, but it was a finite commodity – once all the episodes were released, that was that apart from shameless cash-ins like The Tom Baker Years. BBC Worldwide recognised the commercial potential of Doctor Who and as well as increasing the release rate of the DVDs, they kicked Virgin Books New Adventures to the kerb and started releasing something very similar in-house through the revamped BBC Books. Worldwide squeezed as much as they could from the TV Movie, with the logo branding they introduced in 1996 still in use for the Classic series, but they must have been disappointed that the deal with Universal fizzled out. They wisely kept the UK merchandising rights and it was a big money-spinner, but it could have been an infinitely bigger money-spinner if the Eighth Doctor’s adventures had gone to series.
Of course, all this need never have happened if the BBC had been a little more forward-thinking and invested some money into keeping Doctor Who going in 1990. On the extras for the recently released Season 24 blu-ray, Sylvester McCoy states that he was offered a fourth season that would see the show returning to a 24 episode run; I’ve never heard this before, but if it’s true, it’s a very promising sign and suggests that someone within the BBC recognised Doctor Who’s potential for success. The fact that Sylvester McCoy was called in to record the ‘somewhere the teas is getting cold’ dialogue after principal production had ceased suggests that the decision to cancel was a late one. You get the impression that the future of Doctor Who was teetering on a knife edge and it could have gone either way, but someone high up within the BBC made a decision and… well, the rest is history.
But what would season 27 have been like? Well, luckily we’ve got a pretty good idea because script editor Andrew Cartmel has spoken many times about his ideas for the future of the Seventh Doctor; also Big Finish have produced four audio reworkings of ‘lost stories’ from the era – namely Thin Ice (originally called Ice Time), Crime of the Century, Animal and Earth Aid – and some concepts were recycled for the webcast Death Comes to Time. We know that Sophie Aldred planned to leave as Ace and that she would have been replaced by a new companion called Raine Creevey, an upper class cat burglar, for whom actress Julia Sawalha was in the frame. Possibilities for Ace’s departure include her becoming a Time Lord, the suggestion being that the Doctor has been testing her and training her up for this role. No actual scripts were ever completed though and the Big Finish adaptations are extrapolated from loose story outlines and shouldn’t be taken as a definitive picture of what Season 27 would have been like.
The season would also have ended with a regeneration, as Sylvester McCoy has confirmed that he definitely would not have stayed on beyond a fourth season. Who would have been the next Doctor? Well, it’s unlikely to have been Paul McGann, as he was red hot in 1989 on the back of Withnail & I and it’s unlikely that the BBC (without Universal’s funding) would have been able to afford him at that time. Reportedly, John Nathan-Turner favoured Richard Griffiths, but would JN-T have stayed on for Season 27, as he had been keen to vacate the producer’s chair for a number of years? Richard Griffiths would have made a fascinating Doctor, but his portly frame would have necessitated a reduction in the amount of physical activity that the Doctor was able to undertake. It may have meant a return to a more 1960s dynamic, where the Doctor is accompanied by a younger, fitter man to handle all the action.
A new Doctor is always a headline-grabber and if the BBC could have made Season 27 exciting enough to build on its resurgence of popularity, the news and anticipation of a new actor in the role could have continued that momentum and driven the series well into the 90s. This is all speculation of course, but I think that the assertion that Doctor Who was a spent force at the end of the 90s is a bit of an excuse. These days, they would most likely have just taken it off the air for a year and returned bigger and better, but the BBC were probably still stinging from all the hoo-ha that arose the previous time they ‘rested’ the series and decided that the simpler alternative was just to cancel it. In a way, Doctor Who fans shot themselves in the foot in the late 80s by whining when the series was put on hiatus, then whining again that it wasn’t the same when it came back. You can’t blame the BBC for thinking ‘why should we go out of our way to please this ungrateful lot?’
I do genuinely believe that the BBC missed an opportunity in not renewing Doctor Who for a twenty-seventh season, as there was still life in the old dog and public acknowledgement of the series was picking up. Although they were still making money from it during the ‘wilderness years’, there was a lot more money to be made from a ‘live’ series. Having said that – who knows what the future of the series would have been beyond that point? It probably would have sputtered out before the end of the century and without that absence to make the heart grow fonder, the series might not have been revived in 2005. More likely, it would have been eventually picked up and completely rebooted by Netflix or Amazon Prime about a decade later. So, we might have had a few more years of Classic Doctor Who at the expense of continuity when the series eventually returned. Whether you think that’s an acceptable compromise is, I suppose, entirely down to personal opinion.