Regenerations have turned into something of a national event. There’s an expectation these days, after all, handed down from one incarnation of the Doctor to their successors: play the part for three years and then move on. Don’t hang around or you’ll get exhausted, jaded or – worse – typecast. Besides, Big Finish have your number…
Even though things have rarely worked out this way in practice, the three-year rule is enough of an informal schedule to set speculation swirling every so often. Bets are made, IMDb gets scrutinised to see who might have moved to Cardiff recently and top ten lists of the hottest picks are bandied around online. It’s a far cry from the day Tom Baker turned up at his construction job to discover his name noted in the morning paper, as much to his surprise as to those of his workmates.
But beyond the recasting of the show’s indefatigable Time Lord, there’s another type of renewal that takes place. Every so often, Doctor Who is utterly refreshed – its tone, its message and the way in which it tells its stories are rebuilt from the ground up, normally to revive the show’s flagging fortunes. With the latest of these reinventions mere weeks away and still so much we don’t know, what can we learn from the programme’s past that might help us determine what kind of a show Doctor Who will be when it returns?
Let’s begin at chapter two…
“I should like a hat like that…”
It’s hard to understate how critical Patrick Troughton’s first appearance as the Second Doctor was to the continued success of Doctor Who. Had viewers not grown to love the cosmic hobo who gurned and pottered around in place of the beloved William Hartnell, the show might never have survived to see a third actor play the part – never mind more than a dozen. (We’ll artfully ignore the extra pressure piled on by the Peter Cushing film adaptations.)
Indeed, Troughton’s premiere seems to impishly play on the audience’s uncertainty, leaving even his companions conflicted as to whether this new eccentric is even worthy of the title “Doctor”. Fortunately, there’s a lot of familiarity with which to take comfort – the TARDIS is the same, there are plenty of callbacks to the First Doctor’s escapades, and both Ben and Polly are on hand to grudgingly accept the Doctor’s latest incarnation, just as the kids at home are doing. Even the Daleks return after a year’s absence – it’s clear that the producers knew what a seismic shift Troughton’s arrival would cause and do everything they can to ease people into his performance.
Nevertheless, there were a few behind-the-scenes decisions made alongside the Second Doctor’s debut that began to reshape Doctor Who. The second serial, The Highlanders, would be the last “pure” historical adventure. The programme’s creators may have intended it to both educate and entertain, but consistently higher ratings for shows with aliens and monsters ensured that whenever the Doctor did travel to the past from now on, there’d be extra-terrestrial interference to uncover.
Another change was a focus on the Cybermen, who made at least two appearances in each of Troughton’s three seasons. It was part of a deliberate attempt to replace the Daleks as the show’s signature villains – the beloved pepperpots were still the intellectual property of Terry Nation, who was actively trying to take them beyond the confines of Doctor Who. Yet despite a newfound predilection for cyborgs picking off scientists in bases under siege, this was still unmistakably Doctor Who – gallivanting through time and space, running through corridors and disappearing into the sunset afterwards.
All of that was about to change.
“Home it is, Miss Grant.”
Even if you weren’t one of the lucky few sitting down to watch Spearhead From Space on a shiny colour TV, it wouldn’t take you long to notice a new addition to the iconic Doctor Who title sequence – the smiling face of Jon Pertwee, newly-minted Third Doctor, leaving you with little doubt who the star of the show was going to be.
The show’s seventh season saw, it can be argued, the classic era’s most significant transformation – if it happened today, it would be tempting to call it a full reboot. Pertwee’s Doctor was to spend much of his time exiled on Earth, transmuting his role from an adventurer to that of a planetary protector. No longer would we see a new world and a new civilisation every few weeks, as this was becoming too expensive to be practical. Instead, invading aliens would turn up in the Home Counties to harass the Doctor and his surrogate extended family – UNIT, a global taskforce created to deal with otherworldly threats.
Mike Yates, Sergeant Benton, Liz Shaw, Jo Grant and Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart – they all came to work alongside the Doctor as soldiers and scientists; professionals who knew – mostly – what they were getting themselves into by turning up for work. To stay ahead of the pack, Pertwee’s Doctor could no longer afford to be an eccentric wanderer with luck on his side. This new regeneration was suave and stern, a capable fighter in a dapper outfit with a number of cool gadgets… and a few decidedly un-cool ones, mostly stored in the garage.
As if these sweeping changes weren’t dramatic enough, the Doctor was to be paired off against his own personal Moriarty – the Master, also trapped on Earth, made his debut alongside the Third Doctor and would appear in every single serial that year, normally making ill-advised alliances with the latest alien menace. For a show that had taken its audience on a whistle-stop tour of the galaxy, Doctor Who was now embroiled in standing sets, evolving relationships and some of the show’s first season arcs.
For any child who dreamed of setting foot in the TARDIS, seeing it reduced to a background prop in favour of a vintage motor-car must have been utterly flabbergasting. Had all of these changes not been handled so deftly by the cast and crew, the show might have shed its most loyal fans soon after. Fortunately, Pertwee’s performance, his tempestuous relationship with the Brigadier and an influx of exciting action sequences helped to ease the transition. Indeed, a serial like Inferno, introducing the audiences to despotic Mirror Universe counterparts of the UNIT team, would have proven far less effective if we hadn’t gotten to know those characters so well over the past year.
While this era of Doctor Who is remembered fondly, the threat of repetition eventually saw the Doctor regain control of the TARDIS and the ability to head back into time and space, albeit infrequently. At was as if the show, much like the Doctor, had passed a test by enduring a terrestrial exile and would now be allowed the freedom – not to mention the budget – to wander once again.
“The moment has been prepared for…”
While Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor departing in his TARDIS may symbolise what we now consider a return to the “classic” Doctor Who format, this change was by no means a guaranteed success back in the day. The grounded format – not to mention Jon Pertwee – were all many viewers had ever known after the Third Doctor’s five-year run. Wisely, there was a transitional period between the outgoing team and new producer Phillip Hinchcliffe, as well as an Earth-based “UNIT story” to introduce the eccentric new Doctor. As with Troughton, familiar faces were on hand to help bed in the latest regeneration.
As ever, concerns that the show might fail to endure were unfounded. The Fourth Doctor’s era and its transition from bombastic action to Gothic horror proved to be another successful reinvention; a much-loved period containing several of the show’s most lauded serials, including Genesis Of The Daleks. Everyone, from the staff through to an increasingly-cocksure Tom Baker, seemed particularly comfortable in their roles as season after season of the show’s “Golden Age” rumbled past – but all the while, viewing figures were slowly declining.
There were new troublemakers in town – brash, high-budget American sci-fi imports, often set against Doctor Who in the Saturday night line-up and chipping away at its fan-base. Knowing this, newly-promoted producer John Nathan-Turner – who’d worked on the show since Jon Pertwee’s day – had some very strong ideas about what needed to happen for the programme to survive in the face of its latest adversaries…
“I’m definitely not the man I was. Thank goodness.”
Were it not for Tom Baker’s curly-haired visage sprinkled across the stars, the eighteenth year of Doctor Who might have been almost unrecognisable, as Nathan-Turner and his new team revamped almost every aspect of the show. Costumes, sets and companions were all overhauled, as were the theme and incidental music.
While an earlier set of episodes had seen the Fourth Doctor embroiled in a season-long struggle for The Key to Time – itself riffing on the First Doctor’s quest for the Keys of Marinus – a new season arc was introduced with a feather touch, diverting the characters briefly into the alternate universe of e-Space and focusing, either thematically or literally, on the topics of entropy and inevitability. This year’s serials showed a deliberate shift away from horror iconography towards surreal “high-concept” sci-fi ideas, though the results were often mixed.
With Romana departed and K-9 retired, the Fifth Doctor was to make his debut at the end of Logopolis surrounded by relative strangers, all three of whom would go on to become his companions. Peter Davison’s run is often characterised by an unusually busy TARDIS, where a trio of friends from wildly different walks of life allow this younger, more reserved Doctor to sink into the background and observe the situation. These adventures would whizz past at twice the usual pace, as Doctor Who had been plucked from its Saturday Night timeslot and was now airing twice in the working week.
“Change, my dear…”
Nathan-Turner would go on to become Doctor Who’s longest-serving showrunner, and his influences permeated the adventures of the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors – particularly their costumes, which became deliberately quirky ensembles that tended to be adorned with question marks. Under his stewardship, the show grew noticeably more aware of its own vulnerability, often choosing to involve celebrities in lieu of traditional actors while introducing companions from countries where the programme was especially popular – and then taking most of their clothes away. Nearly all of the show’s most popular villains would also return.
Although the Doctor’s travelling party would soon dwindle back to a single regular companion, the show’s format during this time would remain largely unaltered: one Time Lord, one TARDIS, and a series of serialised adventures across time and space. One notable change, however, was the introduction of 45-minute episodes to accompany Colin Baker’s first full season as the Sixth Doctor, halving the number of instalments but returning to the Saturday Night primetime.
Despite the bump in viewing figures that accompanied these longer episodes, a second year in the same style was not to be. The programme suffered an assortment of behind-the-scenes issues that conspired to first delay the next season by eighteen months and finally halve its length – the reduced episode count would remain, but each would be twenty-five minutes long once more.
Under scrutiny from the BBC amidst claims of excessive violence, the Doctor Who production team scrambled to create an abridged year of stories that could squeeze into the new time constraints. Their solution: The Trial Of A Time Lord, the first full-length arc since the 1970s, and one that saw the Doctor’s capture and interrogation used as a framing device for his escapades.
Trial Of A Time Lord contained a number of clever ideas, including the nefarious Valeyard and an adventure from the Doctor’s own future – complete with Mel, a hitherto-unseen companion – but it seemed that nothing could salvage the show in the eyes of the BBC’s incumbent controller, Michael Grade.
Another overhaul seemed inevitable, whether the show’s creators wanted one or not.
“Not just another Time Lord…”
Remaining under the reluctant stewardship of Nathan-Turner, the Seventh Doctor’s reign began ignominiously as a bump on the head – apparently enough to trigger a regeneration – saw Sylvester McCoy replacing Colin Baker, whose time as the Doctor had been brought abruptly to an end by Grade. The show had been shunted back to a weekday evening and pitted head to head against the hugely popular Coronation Street, a battle it simply couldn’t win at a time when many households still owned only a single television set.
Initially a light-hearted clown with a penchant for magic and playing the spoons, McCoy’s Doctor was soon to take on darker and more Machiavellian qualities – a push attributed to the season’s script editor, Andrew Cartmel, who felt that the Doctor needed to become mysterious and ambiguous in his motives once again.
Whatever the team’s intentions, they were never given a chance to succeed. With viewing figures plummeting and the quality of the show considered by many to be in decline – naysayers were particularly fond of citing the ‘Bertie Bassett monster’ as an example of the programme having reached its nadir – Doctor Who was effectively cancelled, forcing the Doctor and his latest companion Ace into the realm of spin-off media and charity specials to continue their travels together.
With a push to move away from in-house production of their content, however, the BBC were already courting Philip Segal, a producer working in America. Segal spent several years unsuccessfully attempting to convince American networks to pick up the Doctor Who concept and remake it entirely before finally securing a deal for a TV movie that could serve as a “backdoor pilot” if it was successful.
The results, as any fan will attest to, were a mixed bag at best. Though the last-minute decision to make the movie a continuation rather than a reboot (giving Sylvester McCoy a regeneration of his own) were welcomed and Paul McGann’s performance as the Eighth Doctor was praised, the story and wider casting garnered their fair share of criticism – as did a certain kiss. Despite performing well on its home turf of BBC One, the TV movie failed to impress American audiences, and Fox ultimately declined on the chance to create a series. Doctor Who was, once again, dead.
We all know what happened next…
Come back tomorrow for the second instalment in this trawl through Doctor Who’s history of reinvention.