DW60: Not on a School Night

When I was growing up, Doctor Who was Saturday night. In fact, to be honest, it was most of Saturday day too! When the lazy afternoons were being just a little bit too lazy, I would often go and play with my Action Man toys because I knew that, by some remarkable and quite genuine freak of the space/time continuum, that would make time pass more quickly and that new episodes of Doctor Who would arrive that little bit sooner. But in the early 1980s, just as Peter Davison was joining the series as the cricket-loving Fifth Doctor, BBC Television did a most unexpected thing and moved Doctor Whofor 18 years a fixture of the Saturday night schedule – to a twice-weekly weekday slot! The Nation was aghast (and I don’t mean Terry Nation, who was by now living in America with two Daleks and an enormous pile of money).

It seems trivial now, but back in the days of linear analogue TV, Doctor Who moving to a weekday was a big deal and a not unsubstantial risk for the Beeb. The show was still quite a big hitter in terms of ratings, but its 1981 series had taken a beating from ITV’s glossy imported space opera Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which couldn’t have come at a worse time as the long-established Tom Baker was coming to the end of his 7-year stint in the title role and taking the still-popular robot pooch K-9 with him. At the same time, the BBC programme planners had noticed that a repeat run of Blake’s 7 was getting surprisingly good ratings figures in a midweek slot; was there an appetite for a bit of sci-fi escapism to break up the monotony of the working/school week? It’s understandable that they thought this might be a new home for Doctor Who.

With retrospect, the idea was a sound one. For many years, ITV had lain back and exposed its belly over the Saturday teatime slot, offering little in the way of resistance against the ongoing popularity of Doctor Who, but in the 1980s, they started to fight back. To a generation of post-Star Wars kids, Buck Rogers was very appealing with its colourful action and flashy visuals and ITV would follow it up with a whole host of impressive shows into the decade, finally delivering what may have been a killer blow when they pitched the inexplicably massive The A Team against the show upon its return to Saturday nights in the mid-80s. But 6:55 on a Monday and Tuesday evening was something of a safe haven, with little of interest to kids on ITV in a slot generally reserved for regional variants. Plus, it was a relief from the disappointment brought by the beginning of the school week.

I have very fond memories of watching the Peter Davison era on a weekday evening. My parents weren’t fans of anything ‘spacey’, so they never really sat down to watch Doctor Who with my brother and I on a Saturday teatime, but my memories of the weekday episodes is very much tied in with my mother standing ironing in the next room of the open plan terraced house we had at the time (open plan was very big in the 80s – everyone was knocking down their internal walls and making their downstairs into one big room) and my brother tearing off down the street on the Kawasaki motorcycle that he’d just become old enough to ride. I’ll confess that I’d strayed from the true cause and missed Meglos and State of Decay because I’d been watching Buck Rogers, but the move to weekday nights brought me back.

It feels almost a betrayal to Tom Baker – who was unequivocally my Doctor – but the arrival of Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor reinvigorated the series. The kick that John Nathan-Turner’s modernised take on the series should have brought to Season 18 arrived belatedly in Season 19 and Doctor Who was in the public consciousness again. Suddenly, everything was that bit more young and exciting, from Doctor Who Monthly to the Target novelisations. The comic strips in the Monthly, which were still great but had wavered since the heyday of The Iron Legion and The Star Beast, achieved big-screen grandeur with the epic Tides of Time. You can say what you like about Peter Davison’s Doctor, the companions he travelled with and his stories, but there was a palpable sense that the series had been reborn, in a way that was not repeated with the arrival of Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy.

The Fifth Doctor’s first season was a big success and delivered a massive gut punch near its end with the unexpected death of Adric in Earthshock. These days this story would have almost certainly been the climax of the series, but unfortunately in 1983 such things were governed more by contracts and schedules than artistic integrity, so we got the disappointing Time Flight instead. Never mind, Doctor Who had a big birthday coming up, as 1983 would see the series clocking up 20 years on television – a not insubstantial milestone even in the 80s. Season 20 was still in the midweek slot and would see the return of a plethora of faces from the show’s past, including Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall), Omega (somebody who wasn’t Stephen Thorne) and the Master (Anthony Ainley). The original plan to end with a Dalek story fell upon stony ground and once again we ended with a damp squib in the form of The King’s Demons. Unless, of course, you count The Five Doctors.

The Five Doctors was the BBC’s epic feature-length tribute to Doctor Who’s twenty years on television (as I’m sure you all know) and this too was broadcast on a weekday. Not, as you might expect, on Wednesday 23rd November, the actual anniversary of Doctor Who, but on Friday 25th November 1983 as part of the annual Children in Need telethon. It seems unthinkable now that the BBC would devote a whole 90 minutes of their telethon to a non-fundraising endeavour (with not a single annoying on-screen caption! Can you believe it?) but I sat and watched The Five Doctors absolutely enraptured. It was also the first episode of Doctor Who that I ever videotaped off air on our faithful Sanyo Betacord VTC 9300PN. It’s a truism that Betamax was a superior format to VHS and that clean-as-a whistle recording lasted me for many years.

Videotapes were becoming slightly cheaper, so I recorded all of the following year. Season 21 was still broadcast on a weeknight and is probably Peter Davison’s best season, once more bringing back a host of classic baddies – the Silurians and the Sea Devils, the Master and, of course, the Daleks. Ressurection of the Daleks (originally planned as the climax to Season 20 as mentioned earlier) was scheduled in the fortnight of the 1984 Winter Olympics, so to minimise its impact of the BBC’s sports coverage, it was broadcast in two 50-minute episodes instead of four 25-minute episodes. This was an indication of things to come (albeit briefly) because the schedulers were so enamoured with the idea of 50-minute Doctor Who that they introduced it for the entirety of the following year’s run.

The Radio Times 20th Anniversary Special (a prized possession of mine for some 40 years now) had announced prematurely that the Fifth Doctor was leaving and his replacement was Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor. Season 21 was perhaps the most experimental of JN-T’s years on the show and he capriciously decided to break with tradition and introduce the new Doctor in a full story at the end of the previous Doctor’s final season. With the benefit of hindsight, this was a terrible idea, not least because The Twin Dilemma was a piece of clichéd pulp sci-fi nonsense next to its immediate predecessor, the extraordinary The Caves of Androzani. Having seen the Sixth Doctor in this not-very-good debut story took a lot of the shine off his reintroduction in Season 22.

Because of its quirky scheduling, the Peter Davison era stood out among there series of Doctor Who up to that point. It existed in sort of a bubble, but for a lot of classic era fans, myself included, it was the last truly great era of Classic Who. I don’t mean this as any criticism of C. Baker or McCoy, who were both terrific in their own way, but the series, which has been so assured in its format for so many years, was starting to be cut down and diminished. The switch to all-videotaped seasons was very noticeable and the BBC’s proud boast that a season of fourteen 25-minute episodes contained ‘more episodes’ than a season of thirteen 50-minute episodes wasn’t fooling anyone. I have nothing but good memories of Davison’s era on the show, but my feelings about the rest of the run are mixed.

Doctor Who’s return to Saturday night was a poison chalice. It was great to see it back in its familiar slot, but it was variously scheduled against Robin of Sherwood and The A Team, both of which were incredibly popular. For reasons that have been covered extensively elsewhere, the series was put on an 18-month ‘hiatus’ and when it returned as The Trial of a Time Lord, it was once more put on a Saturday night, where it again failed to find an audience. One can’t help thinking that if they had kept the Sixth Doctor’s era in 25-minute episodes on a Monday and Tuesday night, it would have stood more of a fighting chance in an increasingly competitive market. The show did eventually return to a weekday during the McCoy era, although suicidally scheduled against soap opera behemoth Coronation Street… but that’s a story for another time.


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