What fandom did for Doctor Who

Andrew looks at the role fans played in bringing Doctor Who back after its cancellation in 1989, and talks to one of those responsible for its revival...

Doctor Who


It is said that the cancellation of Doctor Who in 1989 was marked by earthquakes, bad dreams, the closing of quarries, and, shortly afterwards, the issuing of several contracts by Virgin Publishing. However, the only people this is said by are Doctor Who fans, and there are several possible theories to explain this.

1. A fondness for slightly forced Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy references.

2. Hyperbole.

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3. Nothing else.

Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989, and returned in 2005. In that time BBC Books took up the publishing mantle from Virgin in 1997, Doctor Who Magazine‘s monthly comic strip went from strength to strength, and Big Finish gained a licence to produce original audio-plays. This era produced some of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever told; helping young writers go on to great things, from The League of Gentlemen to Action Comics. Fans have argued (occasionally in order to justify disapproval of the new series) that without keeping Doctor Who alive in this way, the show would never have returned in 2005. How true is this?

All of these spin-offs were created to meet a market demand. Since 2005, the Doctor Who market has since changed beyond all expectation. Simon Guerrier has written Doctor Who books for both markets, and so I asked him about the differences:

Simon Guerrier: The market is completely different these days. Before the show came back, Doctor Who merchandise was a relatively small but lucrative area, mainly based round adult collectors. Now it’s a huge and broad market, with magazines and toys selling large numbers in supermarkets to kids. I think it would be difficult to predict one from the other.

Was there a sizeable difference in sales for these ranges?

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SG: Yes, there’s a huge difference – by something like an order of ten. The first new series books – with the Ninth Doctor – sold phenomenally well. The Time Travellers (Simon’s Past Doctor Adventure) was very well reviewed and in all the right places but never made its advance back.

In 2006 nine titles sold 321,230 copies. Presumably this new market has come from new viewers. For some idea of the difference in sales, The Monsters Inside shifted 38,923 copies and The Stone Rose 32,35 (according to the Bookseller website via Justin Richards). When you consider that Doctor Who Magazine‘s 2011 circulation was 30,682 these figures are impressive, but for further context we must ask: how many hard-core Doctor Who fans are there?

It’s impossible to say precisely. If you combine the highest figure from fan-sites’ Twitter followers or forum members the total is roughly 145,700. This figure does show is that, even adjusting upwards (say, doubling the figure to accommodate variables), the kind of fan who is debating how much of Destiny of the Daleks was written by Terry Nation or Douglas Adams has gone from being the near-totality of fandom to being a minority (the average UK viewing figure for the 2011 series was 7.75 million). 

This increased audience may have been latent (Paul McGann attracted nine million viewers) but BBC Worldwide complicated rights issues by looking to make further films. When Mal Young – a fan since the 60s – became the BBC’s Controller of Continuing Drama Series in 1997, he looked into bringing Doctor Who back to TV. I asked him about the process:

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Mal Young: As soon as we talked about Doctor Who, everyone was suddenly into the idea – and I heard that if it was ever more than a possibility, then I had to meet with Russell (T. Davies) who was the only person who could write it for a new audience. But then we hit the rights issue and were frustrated that we couldn’t take it further at that point.

I can’t be certain, but I think the rights became available around early 2004. But we knew any new version would have to compete with the higher production values of series like Buffy – much more than the previous series of Doctor Who. Sci-fi TV and film had moved on a lot in the intervening years and we knew the audience’s expectations would be high. It couldn’t be studio-bound or multi-camera anymore. But this also meant the budget would have to be significantly higher. BBC1 knew they wanted to put it back into its traditional Saturday tea-time slot, but at that point there was not enough money available for what had become an entertainment slot. So me, Julie Gardner and Russell headed off to LA to pitch it as a potential co-production to hopefully make up the shortfall.

However, this was at a point when US Networks were looking to reinvent their own brands like Battlestar Galactica, and although there was much fondness for Doctor Who, it was seen as too British, so we came back empty handed. Nearer production, we were able to get some additional funding from Canada, and of course when the show became a hit, BBC Worldwide were able to sell it all over – especially to the Americans – so it did eventually become cost-effective.

It was always going to be on Saturday early evening. It wasn’t even a debate, just accepted. I had strengthened Casualty in the later slot, and more family entertainment shows were emerging, so we felt we should kick off Saturday night with Doctor Who in its old slot.

Part of our strategy was to attract dads who watched the show the first time around to come back to the sofa and watch with their kids. We knew we had to somehow create and new audience and fan-base, as the existing one was simply not enough to give us the ratings for the show to survive. We needed to make the show more contemporary and relatable. We also knew we had to attempt to attract the female audience.

So although we felt we had a well-known brand with a history, we also had to create something brand new and not rely at all on that past. Some sections of the audience didn’t remember the show fondly and to them it was a damaged brand. We had to be respectful at the same time as making a brand new show. As we got closer to launch, there was a definite feeling that it was going to work and so we gained confidence to do stuff like the Doctor Who Confidential.

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Ultimately the decision was down to the Controller of BBC1 – when we started on the journey it was Peter Salmon, but by the time it got on air it was Lorraine Heggessey – they were both big supporters of the show and know what it could mean for BBC1, if we got it right.

Jane Tranter, then Head of Drama Commissioning, was also a big part of getting the rights back and giving us that support. they were all very aware of the fan base, strength and loyalty of the brand and the fact it felt like a jewel in the history of the BBC.

The books and audio-plays helped convince everyone there could still be an audience, but there was also nervousness that that wouldn’t be enough. We knew we had to attract audiences outside of that core fan base. What if the new viewers didn’t care? What if sci-fi had moved on too far and left Doctor Who behind. We knew we couldn’t rest on the past.

So, what fandom did was be part of the foundations for the show’s successful return. Whether or not it remains a cornerstone is difficult to say. Certainly the show’s universe is richer for all of its spin-off material, and what would have happened without it is conjecture rather than proof either way. 

However, the reason the series is popular is that it did look beyond its existing fan-base. The show, like its title character, is always moving on, and this is the way it should be. If you don’t like the show now, just remember that its popularity ensures that it will change again in the future.

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