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Thursday, 28 March 2013

Four Hundred False Dawns, Part One ('Doctor Who', 1990-1996)

As I was writing this, a series of tabloid stories, based on a book coming out in May, have accused John Nathan-Turner and fellow production office worker Gary Downie (who are both dead) of abusing their position to have sex with teenage boys – illegal at the time due to the unequal ages of sexual consent, but not now – and in the latter case, actual sexual assault on the author. Ian Levine hinted at this in an interview a few months ago as a scandal that could have killed the show had it come out.


As a police investigation is on-going, I feel it best not to make any further comment here.

While it’s a more than bit of an exaggeration to say that there were four hundred mooted or rumoured revivals of the show in the ‘wilderness years’ of 1989-2005 (in reality more like 1989-2003), there were certainly a good number. Separating the fact from the fiction can be hard, even twenty years later, so I will be focussing on the known attempts to get the show back on TV or in cinemas.


In 2005, SFX did a special on their Doctor Who coverage just before Season 27 began airing and this has proved invaluable for getting ducks into rows on this matter.

This said, let us move on to the main events in the first seven years after the cancellation. In fact, we have to start before it.


In 1987, a company then called Coast to Coast bought a seven-year option on a Doctor Who cinematic movie from the BBC. As the show was still on television,  this was going to be something parallel to the television series, akin to the two Peter Cushing movies in the 1960s. When the show was cancelled, it became a possible continuation of the series, more like Serenity.




The 1990 Broadcasting Act was passed, considerably deregulating the British commercial television business and setting in motion the eventual unification of most of ITV under one owner. British Satellite Broadcasting had a brief existence (see below).


The BBC no longer wanted to produce a Doctor Who show on their own, but stated that they were open to an independent company engaging in production on the show. The Coast to Coast movie seemed to be the main runner in this regard, but others were interested – Philip Segal and Colombia had approached the BBC regarding the film being a pilot for a TV series the previous year, but when Segal left Colombia for ABC in January 1990, the deal died. That film got the only firm bit of casting it would ever get it – Caroline Munro[1].


McCoy and Aldred, along with John Leeson as K9, reprised their roles for an edition of Search Out Science, a children’s educational programme, where the Seventh Doctor was a quizmaster and the latter two contestants in a quiz on space. This is not considered canon, but it was the only bit of original Doctor Who on TV this year or for the next two.


However, this is not say there was not some of TV – if you had a satellite dish. The Galaxy network of the government-backed British Satellite Broadcasting ran Doctor Who repeats, albeit with adverts and the channel ID ‘bug’ visible, during its eight month existence, an existence that also saw the cancelled after one episode sitcom Heil, Honey I’m Home!, which as the name suggests was a sitcom with Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun… moving in next to a Jewish couple. In November 1990, British Satellite Broadcasting, which had been struggling financially, merged with Sky (its five channels launching the previous year) to become BSkyB and Galaxy went off air, its slot being handed to Sky1[2].




The ITV franchise auction, under a system now more based on highest bid (although quality controls were added after complaints), takes place. As a result, five incumbent franchise holders lost their franchises from the end of 1992, most notably Thames Television, whose London weekday slot was taken by Carlton Television[3].


An extended cut of “The Curse of Fenric” was released on VHS and became the fastest selling Doctor Who video until 2005, while Virgin Books began their New Adventures run of original novels featuring the Seventh Doctor and Ace.


Coast to Coast renamed itself to Green Light and there were a good number of rumours of a revival that came to naught (although an animated version of the show did come close to being agreed), while the Museum of the Moving Image in London played host to an exhibition on the show.




The satellite channel UK Gold is launched, which will show a good number of Doctor Who repeats in the 1990s and get Silent Hunter into the show. Joss Whedon wrote a film called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


A re-colourised version of “The Dæmons” was aired on the BBC, while Tom Baker provided video links for a release of the unaired “Shada” material.


Philip Segal now moved to Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg’s production company – and that connection helped with discussions a good deal, although any Spielberg involvement would have been name only or hands-off executive producer.


To mark the 30th anniversary the following year, BBC Enterprises commissioned a direct-to-video story called “The Dark Dimension”, with the hope that it might get a TV airing. This would have starred Tom Baker and featured the other four living Doctors in cameo roles – the plot revolving around an older Fourth Doctor, with the Brig and Ace having to reverse an altered time stream where he did not regenerate at the Pharos Project.




The X-Files began its nine-season run.


As the 30th anniversary of Doctor Who arrived, “The Dark Dimension” was formally announced in June – and cancelled in July. Enterprises was not a production unit (which caused friction in the BBC), the living Doctors who were not Tom Baker were unhappy about the size of their roles, the cameos were making schedule juggling very hard and a failure would jeopardise negotiations with Amblin over a possible TV series. Some contracts had been signed and some test filming done – but the special was canned just before it began filming, to fan annoyance.


What they got instead was arguably much worse. A 3-D charity special was produced that had past Doctors and companions pop into and out of the story. Literally.


Dimensions in Time (2 episodes with a total running time of 12 minutes – the first part was aired as part of Children in Need and the second on Noel’s House Party[4])


The Rani kidnaps the first two Doctors[5], then traps the others and their companions (who keep swapping with each other) in a time loop in Albert Square as part of a plan to control galactic evolution…


While this got the highest audience of any of JNT’s work, this story (which I hardly remember) has been universally panned by the fandom and is considered non-canon by nearly all of it – especially with “Army of Ghosts” establishing EastEnders as fictional in the Doctor Who universe. Due to the charity nature of the show at the time and the contracts then signed, a repeat or DVD release is impossible and there is no legal way to watch this. I doubt I would want to anyway.


This was not the only bit of Doctor Who though – Jon Pertwee appeared on radio in “The Paradise of Death”, one of two radio plays he would do as the Third Doctor.




The Stargate movie hit cinemas, while Star Trek: The Next Generation finished.


Green Light joined with French firm Lumiere Pictures in connection with their film, but with no production having started, their option ran out on the movie in April and the rights reverted to BBC Enterprises, rendering the picture dead.


However, the TV action was still going – Amblin confirmed that they had bought the rights to a TV series and were now going network shopping in the US. CBS turned them down, but there was more than one network in the USA…




Toy Story became the first full-length film to be completely computer-animated.


Amblin now approached FOX and after some initial hesitancy on their part, a deal was reached between the BBC, FOX and Universal to produce a TV movie as a backdoor pilot for a possible new series, dependent on good US ratings. It was now a case of choosing a Doctor for Sylvester McCoy to regenerate into…


Paul McGann – The Eighth Doctor


One TV appearance, a good chunk of that with post-regeneration instability, does not give much of a time for a coherent character to be developed, but extensive appearances in audio, comics and literature do. The Eighth Doctor started as a romantic Byron-esque traveller with a penchant for Victorian dress, although he has now gotten darker and more contemporary as he approaches the Time War.


The role was taken by Paul McGann (1959-), one of four acting brothers[6], who had achieved prominence. Born in Surrey, his family moved to Liverpool in his early life, making him the second Doctor to hail from “Granadaland” [7] and he began appearing on television in 1982. His most prominent appearance was as “& I” in 1987’s cult movie Withnail & I, but he also makes a brief appearance in Alien 3, where it’s not a spoiler to say he gets killed off horribly.


After his one-night appearance (on TV at any rate), he has continued to make high-profile TV appearances and do films – he turns up fairly frequently on British television in guest roles, with his most recent appearance in the BBC daytime series of dramas called Moving On, but he’ll probably turn in many more things to come.




Independence Day grossed over $800m at the box office.


A second Doctor Who radio play was recorded – “The Ghosts  of N-Space” (reviewed here), starring Jon Pertwee in his final transmitted appearance as the Doctor (there was one other appearance recorded after this for an incomplete fan video) – he died in May of that year. In that same month, the television movie, filmed in that favourite sci-fi filming location of Vancouver (playing San Francisco) premiered, first in the US and then in the UK…


Doctor Who (the TV movie)[8]


The Seventh Doctor is tasked with transporting the remains of the Master back to Gallifrey, but the Master has other ideas…


My review of the TV movie can be found here – the movie is a mixed bag, but with clear potential for a future run. Due to the nature of the contracts, neither ‘companion’ from this movie can be used by Big Finish and so a slew of original companions have been developed for Eight’s EU appearances.


While the feature did very well in the UK, with an audience of 9 million, the US airing was poorly scheduled by FOX against popular US sitcom Roseanne and pulled in a mere five million viewers. That was nowhere near enough to justify any continued involvement in the show and without US funding, any revival was dead in the water.

What a full TV series of the McGann Doctor Who would have been like we will never know. Would there have been more snogging or even actual Doctor-companion sex[9]? What would the Daleks and Cybermen have been like? How long could it have lasted?


Instead, the show had merely changed Doctor and had another false dawn, but the extensive expanded universe was still going and still growing.

[1]A British model and actor perhaps best known as bikini-clad helicopter pilot Naomi in The Spy Who Loved Me, but was also a hostess on Yorkshire Television’s long-running game/variety show 3-2-1, a quiz perhaps best known for Dusty Bin and having a booby prize of a trash receptacle.

[2]Flagship channel of BSkyB, which started in 1982 as Satellite Television, the first European satellite station, but it changed over the years to become an encrypted UK-only network. While US imports make up a great deal of the network’s content (Stargate SG-1 made its UK debuts there, while the show currently does the first runs of Elementary, NCIS: Los Angeles and Glee among others), Sky1 is increasingly producing home-grown stuff like Stella, Got to Dance and Mad Dogs.

[3]Although Thames continued and still continues to produce programmes for ITV.

[4]A Saturday night light entertainment show running on the BBC from 1991-1999, hosted by Noel Edmonds. Best known for liberal lashings of gunge (that’s slime to the Americans), pranking celebrities and inflicting Mr Blobby on an unwitting UK. In fact, I’ve just been given an idea for Kvant.

[5]Who appear here as disembodied model heads…

[6]They appeared together in the 1995 miniseries The Hanging Gale.

[7]The area of the Northwest of England covered by the former Granada franchise of ‘Channel 3’, now known as ITV Granada).

[8]The movie has no onscreen title other than that. Segal suggested “The Enemy Within” as a title for fans to use, but most people just call it the TV Movie or TVM.

[9]The Eighth Doctor did have sex in one of the last Virgin novels, The Dying Days.

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