Doctor Who: Season 23 finally commissioned, 25 years late

Back when the BBC itself was Doctor Who's biggest enemy, an entire season was exterminated. But now it's coming back...

Well, it is a very troublesome time machine. Guess it lost a year...

The audio arm of Doctor Who spin-offs, ‘Big Finish’ has announced its latest project – the recording, at last, of the ‘lost’ Season Twenty Three of Doctor Who.

This ‘original’ Season Twenty Three, 6th Doctor Colin Baker’s second year in the role, was originally due to be aired from January 1986, but when John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward discovered in early March 1985 that BBC One Controller Michael Grade, in an attempt to solve a problem of financial shortfall, was not only pushing the new series back to the September, but also halving the number of episodes, they decided to revamp all of their plans, and thus they commissioned the sprawling curate’s egg that was the 14 episode epic, Trial of A Timelord.

The original Season Twenty Three was well advanced by this stage, with seven commissioned scripts, two of which were all but complete. It is from these scripts, and others, that the Big Finish ‘Lost Stories’ producer, David Richardson, has chosen to attempt to revive the lost season. He stated that, although three of the scripts made it to novel form, others have, “remained locked away in their respective writers lofts for well over 20 years. It’s taken a lot of (very enjoyable) detective work, but I’ve managed to source seven unmade adventures that will now finally come brilliantly to life on audio.”

The mystery now rests in the question as to what will make up this new seven-serial audio season. With Colin Baker on board stating that he “couldn’t have been more delighted” with the turn of events, and coupled with his original companion, Peri Brown, played by Nicola Bryant, expectations are high, especially given the list of Who luminaries who wrote the original scripts, such as Robert Holmes – writer of stories such as Talons of Weng Chiang and Caves of Androzani, Christopher H. Bidmead – writer of Castrovalva and Frontios, Philip Martin – writer of Vengeance on Varos, Graham Williams – series producer from 1977 to 1980, and Peter Grimwade – series director and writer of Mawdryn Undead. Oh, and there was also a script by Pip and Jane Baker in which they blew up Gallifrey.

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But let’s not mind that for now. Instead, let’s take a look at what we actually know about Season Twenty Three and have a think about what might, and what might not, be coming soon to a CD near you. Or maybe even Radio 7…

Both the Philip Martin and Graham Williams scripts, “Mission to Magnus” and “The Nightmare Fair” were novelised and have been mentioned in the press release. The former has been adapted for audio by the original author, and the latter has been adapted in the place of the deceased Graham Williams by John Ainsworth, who stated that “working on the script has been great fun. I have made every effort to remain true to the original TV script but have also been able to include extra material from Graham’s own novelisation of the story. Hopefully listeners will get a good sense of what the story would have been like had it been made for TV”. Wally K Daly’s “The Ultimate Evil” was similarly novelised, but has not yet been mentioned.

Taking each story in as much depth as we can, we can start with Williams’ “The Nightmare Fair”, which was commissioned on November 17th 1984. This was to have been directed by Matthew Robinson, who had previously been at the helm of Colin Baker’s first season opener ‘Attack Of The Cybermen’. The story was to have been linked to directly from the end of the previous season’s closer, “Revelation of the Daleks”, in which the Doctor tells Peri that he’s taking her to Blackpool, “the nexus of the primeval cauldron of Space-Time itself”, as described by Williams in his novelisation.

Once lured to the seaside town, the Doctor and Peri were soon to discover that something mysterious was afoot in a local video arcade. At the back of it was to be found the third season baddie, The Celestial Toymaker. The idea was that the Doctor and Peri would have to fight their way through the Toymaker’s various video games in order to defeat him, thus providing a late 20th Century revamp of the Toymaker’s earlier eponymous story. Upon the announcement of the hiatus in March, however, this story was immediately cancelled. Despite this, fans have been particularly familiar with this story for several years, not only because it was novelised in 1989, and it was also previously adapted for audio in 2003 in a charity adaptation.

Although not mentioned (yet) by Big Finish, Season Twenty Three’s second story was to have been Wally K Daly’s “The Ultimate Evil”, which was to have opened with the TARDIS working far too well for a change, leaving the Doctor at something of a loose end. Bored, he decides to visit the peaceful country of Tranquela, but soon encounters an evil arms dealer, the Dwarf Mordant, who has been busy inciting hatred and violence there via a device which inspired violence in both Tranquela’s inhabitants, and those of the continent of Ameliora.

The Doctor was to succumb to the violence himself at one point, which would no doubt have gone down particularly badly considering the criticisms of the previous season’s violence. Fiona Cumming, who had previously worked on ‘Planet of Fire’ was to direct. However, like the first story of the season, “The Ultimate Evil” was cancelled upon the commencement of the hiatus, although it was later novelised by Daly for Target.

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The next story that Big Finish mention was Philip Martin’s “Mission to Magnus”, previously known as “Planet of Storms”. This was the third story to be commissioned for Season Twenty Three’s, and was possibly going to have been directed by Ron Jones, who had worked on Martin’s earlier “Vengeance on Varos” and would do so again on the ‘real’ Season Twenty Three’s ‘Mindwarp’. The plot entailed the Doctor and Peri being threatened by Anzor – a Time Lord who had bullied the Doctor in his youth – who had locked the TARDIS in orbit around the planet of Magnus.

On the planet below, we would have found that Anzor and the planet’s ruling female caste had joined up with Martin’s earlier creation from ‘Vengeance on Varos’, Sil for the benefit of the corrupt Time Lord’s own ends. When the Doctor investigates, he was to discover that the classic 60s monsters, the Ice Warriors were hiding in the planet’s polar ice caps. Again, this series was immediately cancelled upon the announcement of the hiatus but was novelised for Target by the author.

The next story in terms of development was the, by now, eagerly awaited “Yellow Fever, And How To Cure It” by Who legend, Robert Holmes. Holmes had earned his stripes on undisputed series classics, Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Autons, The Time Warrior, The Deadly Assassin, Talons of Weng-Chiang, and The Caves of Androzani, amongst several others. This fourth Season Twenty Three story had been commissioned on February 6th 1985, around four weeks before the entire Season was scrapped, and was to be a six parter (or, indeed, a three-parter consisting of 45 minute episodes, as was the format of Who at this time).

The serial was to be filmed in Singapore and was to have featured Holmes’ own creations, The Autons, as well as the Rani, and possibly also The Master. Holmes’ story was one of only three that managed to remain commissioned after the hiatus announcement, and he was duly requested by series producer John Nathan Turner to revise his script to suit the reversion to the 25 minute episode structure. However, in May, Holmes himself asked the production team to drop his serial. Still, that does mean that he worked on it for at least three months, providing the possibility that there is more than just a bare storyline available for development, as many sources suggest. Holmes’ death the year after he wrote the story has meant that it hasn’t been touched since that time, however.

With two slots left in Season 23, Christopher H. Bidmead’s “The Hollows Of Time” was very likely to have taken one of the slots. Again, having been commissioned some five months before the scrapping of the Season, it was likely to have been in an advanced stage of scripting and development. Similarly, like Holmes’ story, this serial also limped on until May before finally being abandoned.

Of the two stories considered for the series’ final remaining slot, both were by writers who hadn’t previously worked for Who. The first, entitled “The Children of January” was commissioned on 6th February 1985 and was by the prominent Irish writer Michael Feeney Callan, who was noted for his work on Shoestring and The Professionals. This work is a strong possibility for inclusion in the Big Finish series due to the fact that Callan is still writing, and also due to the fact that the story remained commissioned until May 1985, like the stories by Holmes and Bidmead.

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The other story in consideration for the final slot of the season was by a somewhat shadowy writer named Bill Pritchard, who I can’t find any other information on. Pritchard’s story was immediately nixed in March 1985 once the hiatus was announced.

Other Season Twenty Three possibilities that had already fallen by the wayside included “League of the Tancreds” by Peter Grimwade, who had directed several episodes of the show and also written “Mawdryn Undead” and “Planet of Fire”. Oh, and “Time Flight”, but we won’t mention that. Grimwade passed away in 1990, which suggests that this won’t be one of the finished scripts. Two other stories, one from Gary Hopkins, and one from Jonathan Wolfman, had also been discarded by the time of the hiatus.

Another possibility for the original Season Twenty Three was actually begun after the hiatus had been announced. On 11th March 1985, Pip and Jane Baker were commissioned to write an all new serial named “Gallifray” (sic) which was to feature the destruction of the Time Lords’ homeworld. However, like the remaining three stories by Holmes, Bidmead and Callan, this was eventually abandoned in May. Presumably, due to the Bakers’ extremely swift writing speed, this story would have been substantially complete by this time. Also, considering their continuing fondness for all things ‘Who’, this story would be a strong possibility for the new old season.

As the Big Finish producer, David Richardson, says, “I’ve spent the last week fielding emails from many people, all desperate to know what the final five stories are!” Richardson continued. “And, you know, I’d love to tell them. I’d just like to get it off my chest! But for now we can’t say I’m afraid – not until final scripts are delivered, and studio dates are booked, and everything is set in stone. But keep looking at the Doctor Who Magazine news pages, as we’ll be announcing the Final Five in there first!”

For my money, coupling “The Nightmare Fair” and “Mission to Magnus”, I think that “The Ultimate Evil” would be a definite for one of the seven slots. I’d suggest “The Hollows Of Time” and “Children of January” would also be strong possibilities, and I could easily imagine “Gallifray” joining them. A revamping of Holmes’ “Yellow Fever” would provide a huge coup for the Big Finish team, and I could imagine there would be no shortage of writers (such as Terrance Dicks?) who would be more than happy to complete it.

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