Doctor Who Is Axed!

The inside story on the cancellation of Doctor Who

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THE CANCELLATION OF DOCTOR WHO

The death knell sounded between the transmission of parts two and three of The Two Doctors.

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The first I heard of it was when David Saunders phoned me in a lather on 26 February 1985. He’d just learnt that the programme had been cancelled, as of the end of the current season. As co-ordinator (ie big chief) of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society (Dwas), Saunders was the man to know, and the next day the calamitous news was all over the media, sending Who fans into multidimensional meltdown.

On 3 March, I went to a crisis meeting at the London home of my friend Jan Vincent-Rudzki, the former Dwas president. Saunders and all the Society’s executive members were present, as well as Doctor Who Magazine writer Richard Marson, Doctor Who Bulletin editor Gary Levy, and Ian Levine – the elite of British fandom. I didn’t count myself among them (still in my teens, I was just tagging along with chums and acting as Saunders and Levine’s chauffeur), but I wish now I’d recorded the hours of vituperation and bonkers plans of retaliation.

It was a hugely enjoyable spectacle with Levine on particularly zealous form. I noted in my diary: “I wouldn’t have missed a gathering of these great egos for anything. We didn’t really achieve anything credibly sensible, although letters were drafted to Dwas members and Bill Cotton,” the BBC’s managing director of television.

BBC1 controller Michael Grade became Galactic Enemy Number One, but in my heart, heretical though it may sound, I thought Grade could hardly be blamed for pulling the plug on this tired, tatty-looking show. Call me jaded, but I must say I wasn’t surprised by the cancellation. For me, my family and close friends, Doctor Who had been in a downward spin since the late 70s, with the odd fillip here and there.

Season 22 was still getting respectable ratings but despite Colin Baker’s best efforts, the heart and quality were ebbing from my favourite series. Producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward were patently wrung dry of inspiration and energy. If The Two Doctors was disappointing, I knew an all-time nadir was nigh – having attended the studio recordings of still-to-be-aired turkey, Timelash.

But the backlash from long-term viewers was staggering and, as I remember events, Grade’s cancellation was rapidly commuted to “postponement”. Over the decades Grade has only ever spoken of his intention to axe Doctor Who, but a wounded JN-T insisted it had always been a delay or hiatus. In the event the series would be back after 18 months when, the BBC promised, it would be bigger and better. (Hoho!)

On 13 March 1985, Saunders and I were granted an audience with JN-T in his production office on Shepherds Bush Green. Guarded as ever and looking chastened, he lamented that “the whole of next season was commissioned and most of it delivered. And back-up scripts.” All would be jettisoned for a fresh start. (Ian Levine recalls that the season’s story titles would have been: The Nightmare Fair, The Ultimate Evil, Mission to Magnus, Yellow Fever, The Hollows of Time, and Gallifrey.)  

But there was a trace of optimism. “I think the reaction to the postponement of the show has taken a lot of people by surprise, very senior people at the BBC. I’m not surprised at all.” So what would he be doing during the hiatus? “I’ve built up a lot of leave, which is a constant embarrassment to my personnel officer. And now there’s time to think.”

He voiced no interest in working on other programmes, so what of his long-term association with Doctor Who? “I think almost certainly – and I’ve said this before but I mean it – the next season will be the last. And I can’t say why with that tape machine running, but I feel the current situation has not been…” and there he fell silent, with that inscrutable pout and eyelid flutter he so often resorted to.

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Then we repaired to The Defectors Weld pub across the road, in a foursome with Gary Downie (JN-T’s partner and production manager on The Two Doctors). As the wine flowed so did juicy anecdotes. JN-T’s mood soon lifted and, I noted, he became “lucid and blunt”, but sadly all of it was strictly off the record. And of course none of us knew then that he would remain with Doctor Who for its next four seasons – indeed, for the rest of his working life.