Who can doubt the strength of Doctor Who as a popular cult series in 2013? It may not quite be all over television, as Steven Moffat perhaps a little over-enthusiastically promised, but its fiftieth anniversary year has definitely been making waves. The last eight episodes were high-concept, fantastically produced pieces of forty-five-minute television that ended on a cliff-hanger which has everyone in fandom – and a little beyond – hotly anticipating the fifitieth anniversary’s special episode. Nicely done, Mr Moffat.
For a series to be so strong fifty years since its creation is indeed an extraordinary phenomenon, matched by few other television creations. And yet at the half-way mark it all looked very different. Twenty-five years ago, at its silver jubilee point, Doctor Who was in such a dire state of health that it seemed unlikely that any further regeneration was going to come along.
In autumn 1987, the long-running science fiction series was limping into its twenty-fifth year after having been seriously holed beneath the waterline. In the hands of a long-serving producer who was incurring the hostility of a large proportion of fans by this time, it appeared to be more panto than drama, while BBC controller Michael Grade was making no secret of his desire to see the end of the programme – oh all right, to “exterminate” it in fact, to use the wording so beloved of the tabloid press at the time. One Doctor – the ill-fated Colin Baker – had been unceremoniously dismissed after little more than two seasons in the role and now his successor, Sylvester McCoy, was suffering the indignity of another question mark-themed costume, script humour that seemed to be reaching below the merely childish, and falling ratings. Few fans gave it much chance of surviving beyond its twenty-fifth celebrations.
It seems almost academic to consider the reasons why Doctor Who reached such a low-point by the late 1980s, yet the present health of the programme should never be taken for granted. In a time when television is spreading its wings further than ever before and larger numbers of high-quality television series are being commissioned for both terrestrial and digital channels, no programme can be considered to have such entrenched longevity that it couldn’t readily be decommissioned if it failed to deliver on its promise. That, in fact, was precisely the position of Doctor Who in the 1980s. When Tom Baker reached the end of his marathon seven year run as the Doctor at the beginning of the decade, it seemed as if the series was bullet-proof. Ratings were at an all-time high, each of the four actors who had played the central role had imprinted a particular and successful version of it, often significantly different from their predecessor; and in twenty years as an annually recurring series, it had built up too significant a fan-base to be able to lose it.
But lose everything it did. After hobbling uneasily through its twenty-fifth year, and, Silver Nemesis aside, with no special episode to commemorate the fact, the Doctor was finally put to rest in 1989. By this time, even the fans were thinking it was probably time to put the show out of its misery.
What had gone wrong? First, a show that thrived on regular refreshing of its cast and production staff started to see key players stay in place too long. Tom Baker’s seven years as the Doctor were immensely successful, but they cast a long shadow and made his successor’s chances all the more difficult. Peter Davison just about made it, though at the cost of the programme’s Saturday night slot to help maintain ratings, a decision which started to cast the programme into an almost homeless state. Then, the programme’s ‘showrunner’ – the producer – stayed on too long. John Nathan-Turner was responsible for Doctor Who for nine years, eventually presiding over its seemingly permanent cancellation. The programme also lost its mojo. The quality of its story-telling seemed to be diminishing, as did the confidence of the producer in the series as a serious drama. Nathan-Turner began by inflicting overt question marks on his leading actors’ costumes. His nadir was to put Colin Baker in a bizarre multi-coloured costume that looked as if it had been borrowed from the set of the children’s television series Rainbow. It was difficult for Baker – though he certainly tried – to give the character the necessary sense of mystery and remoteness whilst parading through the galaxy dressed as a one-man travelling circus.
Fans in the pre-jubilee year had little doubt as to who was to blame for the show’s decline. The popular fanzine ‘DWB’, edited by Gary Levy, headlined its November 1987 issue with “JN-T Must Go Now” and carried a heartfelt plea from prominent fan activist Ian Levine to the BBC to sack its producer. The article, incidentally, is a remarkable read as a sign of just how much the programme had alienated its core support. It makes any critical comments on today’s websites seem positively anodyne. Levine described McCoy’s opening episode as “inanely, disgustingly and appallingly written”, condemned the “tacky standard of direction, acting and lighting” and suggested that “the BBC are wasting licence-payer’s money by spending vast amounts of money on rubbish nobody wants to watch”. And he was a fan. He wasn’t alone. The episode review comments sent in by other fans were equally scathing.
At 25, it seemed that Doctor Who had had its chips, and it finally entered television purdah in December 1989. Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor – ironically at the point of his own successful maturing in the role – even had a short closing monologue to punctuate what had been a remarkable series over 26 years: “There are worlds out there where the sky is burning and the sea’s asleep and the rivers dream. People made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come On Ace – we’ve work to do.”
No-one expected it to return, but the people made of smoke and the cities made of song have been added manyfold since its re-ignition in 2005, not least by the most recent batch of eight creative, often tantalising episodes. Where Doctor Who really scores is in the maintenance of strong-enough stories to attract considerable acting talent, not just in the title role but across all its myriad characters, recurring or not. In its new incarnation it has boasted three talented and multi-faceted actors in the title role, two ingenious and unfeasibly creative show-runners, and a host of superb supporting cast and crew. We should relish it while we can, for no matter how good it may be today, there really is no telling where it might end up tomorrow. If it died once, it could die again, and unlike the Doctor, the series isn’t guaranteed twelve regenerations. That, if anything, is the lesson of its unloved quarter-century malaise.
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