The 1980s began with Doctor Who regarded as a much-loved and popular British institution. By the end of that decade, it had the reputation of being a sad and embarrassing joke, watched only by the sort of male fan-geek who still lived with his parents, had personal hygiene problems and had never kissed a girl. Many lay the blame for this at the door of John Nathan-Turner, who became the show’s producer in 1980 and stayed in the post for the next nine years. Nathan-Turner certainly made mistakes, though it’s arguable that by keeping the show in the headlines – he had a great talent for publicity stunts and gimmicks – he helped it survive longer than it otherwise would have done.
Nathan-Turner’s initial instincts were sound enough, which were to tone down the amount of comedy in the show and get rid of horridly-cute robot dog K9. He also employed a new script editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, who was keen on using stories that both explored new developments in science (e.g. tachyons) and were imaginative – indeed, one of Bidmead’s scripts was inspired by the M.C. Escher picture Castrovalva. Mind you, on his watch, the scripts got a bit too earnest.
However, the list of things that John Nathan-Turner got wrong is a long one. He scrapped the show’s wonderfully eerie theme music (which was still recognisable as the one fashioned by Delia Derbyshire and the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in the early 1960s) and replaced it with a snazzy 1980s-style version that today sounds dated in the way that only 1980s music can. The show’s incidental music also became dinky and garish in a peculiarly 1980s way, to the point where, nowadays, there are episodes from that era available on youtube that I can’t stomach because they’re so unlistenable. Also, fatally, at a time when TV drama was becoming increasingly flashy-looking and cinematic, he left the filming of the show to a number of bog-standard, old-school TV directors, with the result that it often looked very flat and stagy indeed.
But for me Nathan-Turner’s worst mistake was to make the show more for its hard-core fans than for a mass audience. It always had dedicated fans who bought all the memorabilia – in my childhood I owned Doctor Who annuals, models, painting kits and most of the novelisations of past adventures published by Target Books; I even pestered my long-suffering grandmother into knitting me a Tom Baker-era Doctor Who scarf. But the show was massively popular among casual TV viewers too. In fact, during the 1970s, while Star Trek fans gathered in huge conventions and acquired their own nickname (‘Trekkies’), Doctor Who fans were a much less visible, much more underground tribe. The show had an official fan club, but it was run from a bedroom in Edinburgh by a lone teenager called Keith Miller, who managed to knock out an occasional Xeroxed newsletter. (Miller has written two memoirs about his experiences as club organiser and, amusingly, he mentions that a young, rival Doctor Who fan in Glasgow kept trying to wrest control of the club from him. The name of this Glaswegian would-be usurper was Peter Capaldi, of whom we will hear more later.)
Aware that by the 1980s Doctor Who fandom was taking on the trappings of a cult, Nathan-Turner increasingly tailored the show for those fans. At every opportunity he popped in fan-pleasing references to past Doctors, companions, monsters and storylines – often things that only diehard fans could remember. Thus, the programme became increasingly impenetrable for non-fans, even though they made up the majority of the TV viewing audience. And, consequently, high ratings became a thing of the past.
After one year with Nathan-Turner at the helm, the mighty Tom Baker left the show and was replaced by Peter Davison, who’s probably my least favourite Doctor. Baker was always going to be a hard act, if not an impossible one, to follow, but I couldn’t understand why his replacement should be someone as young and bland as Davison was at the time. He was best known for playing Tristran Farnon, one of the vets in the wholesome Sunday-evening drama All Creatures Great and Small, and once he stepped into the Tardis he quickly, sneeringly became known as ‘the Vet in Space’. (No offence to Davison – I’ve seen him, middle-aged, in more recent shows like The Last Detective and thought he was good. He was just too young in 1981 to give the role much gravity.)
In 1984 Davison gave way to Colin Baker, whom I thought was a far better choice. For one thing, the second Baker tried to steer the character back to the abrasive and irascible one played by the original actor in the role, William Hartnell. This approach worked well in dark, satiric adventures like Vengeance on Varos (a commentary on the then-topical ‘video nasties’ scare, written by Philip Martin, who’d been responsible for the surreal crime show Gangsters) and Revelation of the Daleks (a reworking of the Evelyn Waugh book The Loved One, which for a change was shot by a talented director, Graeme Harper). Unfortunately, my positive opinion of Colin Baker is a minority one and most people regard him as the worst Doctor ever, the George Lazenby of the franchise. What ruined his portrayal was the decision – another misjudgement by John Nathan-Turner – that he should wear a multi-coloured and jaw-droppingly ugly overcoat. This was intended to make him appear more alien, but it had the result of making his Doctor very hard to take seriously.
Meanwhile, the BBC’s upper echelons were getting sick of the show. Michael Grade, BBC1’s Controller during the 1980s, made no secret of his loathing for science fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular and he did his best to sabotage it – cutting its budget, taking it off the air for an 18-month hiatus, ordering it to tone down its violence (Mary Whitehouse had been complaining again) and making Nathan-Turner sack Colin Baker. He also moved the show from its traditional Saturday-teatime slot and broadcast it on weekday evenings, where it ended up against Coronation Street, rival channel ITV’s über-soap opera. Coronation Street, in fact, was the Death-star of ITV programming.
By this time I was at college. I, and a number of my (male) friends, still watched the show, partly out of nostalgia for how good it’d seemed in the 1970s, partly because there was still the occasional, decent story, and partly – brace yourselves for a sexist confession – because we fancied the Doctor’s female travelling companions. Feminists derided Doctor Who because, traditionally, the female supporting cast had existed only to look pretty, scream at the monsters, twist their ankles whilst running away from those monsters, listen to large amounts of plot exposition and tell the Doctor how clever he was. From the mid-1970s, though, the producers had tried to introduce female companions who at least walked a line between being eye-candy and being characters who matched, or nearly matched, the Doctor in terms of intelligence or attitude: the much-loved Elisabeth Sladen, who played the smart and sassy journalist, Sarah-Jane Smith, and then actresses Louise Jameson, Mary Tamm, Lalla Ward and Janet Fielding. By the mid-1980s, the companion was the super-bosomly Nichola Bryant. I didn’t like her much because she was a throwback, wet in manner and screaming a lot, but her physical attributes at least kept the Dads and male students watching.
Unfathomably – another disastrous Nathan-Turner miscalculation – the next companion was comic actress Bonnie Langford, best known for playing shrill obnoxious schoolgirl Violet Elizabeth Bott in a 1970s TV series based on Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories. When she joined Doctor Who, Langford’s persona was still shrill and bratty and, thanks to her stick-thin frame, she remained child-like in appearance. All those Dads and lads switched off forever.
In 1987 Sylvester McCoy, the first Scottish actor to take on the role, became the seventh Doctor and at this point I gave up. McCoy is another actor I like, but with the grating Bonnie Langford sharing the Tardis with him, with the budget now apparently non-existent and with the stories appallingly written and going for a camp approach – I don’t mean ‘camp’ as in ‘flamboyantly gay’, but ‘camp’ as in ‘so-bad-it’s-entertaining’, like in the old Batman and Wonder Women TV series – I found the show too painful to continue with. People tell me that later the show improved, with a feisty new companion (Sophie Aldred) replacing Langford and a new script editor, Andrew Cartmel, hiring talented writers like Ben Aaronovitch, future author of the Rivers of London novels, and the Scottish playwright Rona Munro, but I’d had enough. When the BBC cancelled the show in 1989, I didn’t even notice.
Incidentally, one person who’s a big fan of the seventh Doctor is Peter Jackson, New Zealand director of the Lord of the Rings movies. Rumour has it that Jackson owns his own seventh-Doctor costume and he made a point of casting McCoy as Radagast the Brown in the Hobbit trilogy. Jackson has even offered to direct an episode of Doctor Who, provided the BBC give him a Dalek as payment. Nothing has so far come of Jackson’s proposition – maybe the parsimonious BBC can’t spare the Dalek.
Ironically, just as the BBC was pulling down the shutters on Doctor Who, another big TV science-fiction franchise was returning to the small screen. In the USA, twenty years after Star Trek had first appeared on American television, Star Trek: the Next Generation made its debut with a brand new cast. Such was its success that it spawned three further Star Trek series, with three further casts, which extended the franchise into the 21st century. Once Doctor Who’s blood had been wiped off the BBC’s floorboards, executives there must’ve begun to wonder if they’d actually killed a potential cash-cow – and indeed, if there was not some way that cash-cow couldn’t be revived, and of course, milked, in the not-too-distant future. The problem was finance. A big TV sci-fi series in the 1990s required convincing, i.e. expensive, special effects, which was going to be a problem for the always cash-strapped BBC, whose low-budget special effects for Doctor Who might have been serviceable in the 1960s and 1970s but looked positively embarrassingly by the 1980s. If the BBC was going to re-launch the show, it would have to do so in partnership with someone who had money.
The first attempt at a revival came in 1996 with a one-off BBC-American co-production called Doctor Who – The Movie. With committee-rooms of suited American executives clamouring to have their say about how the new Who should be, whilst knowing absolute zilch about the old show, it could have been abysmal. I’ve heard rumours that Steven Spielberg, whose company Amblin International was involved at one point in the re-launch, wanted the Doctor played by Michael Crawford, famous in the US at the time for playing the lead in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical version of The Phantom of the Opera. In the UK, Crawford was known to everyone for playing the beret-wearing, dim-witted, effeminate and utterly disaster-prone Frank Spencer in the 1970s sitcom Some Mothers do ’ave ’em; and the sight of Frank Spencer emerging from the Tardis would surely have killed off the show for British audiences, forever. The finished effort actually starred Liverpudlian actor Paul McGann as a melancholic-faced, Byronic-looking and fairly credible Doctor and it wasn’t that bad. It managed to get respectable viewing figures when it was shown in Britain, but it failed to make a splash in America, which destroyed its chances of earning a spin-off TV series.
(c) BBC / 20th Century Fox
The mistake made by the makers of Doctor Who – The Movie was not, as might be expected, because it strayed too far from the show’s mythology, but because it stuck too close to it. In its first minute a voice-over managed to refer to the Master, Daleks and Time Lords, which must have mystified those crucial American TV viewers, 99.9% of whom knew nothing about the original show. Another well-meaning nod to continuity, to keep old fans happy, was that the movie started off with Sylvester McCoy still playing the seventh Doctor and had him regenerate into the eighth, McGann, twenty minutes in. Any Americans still watching by that point probably switched off in bafflement.
Fortunately, when the next attempt was made to revive the series, the person at the helm was Russell T. Davies – a man who knew what the pitfalls were and knew how to avoid them.
To be continued.