“Doctor Who was held universally in contempt by the powers-that-be,” said late-1980s script editor Andrew Cartmel in 2019, when reflecting on the show’s final years. “It’s extraordinary to say that now when it’s sort of a jewel in the crown, but Doctor Who was just beyond the pale.”
The BBC’s one-time apathy towards Doctor Who is all the more incredible when you consider that, as of this month, the series has been back on television for as long as it was originally off-air (give or take a 1996 TV movie) – 15 years on from its magnificent return in the form of Russell T Davies’ ‘Rose‘, the show remains an international success story… but then again, would it have ever reached those heights if it hadn’t been allowed to “rest” and then return refreshed and revamped?
It’s no slight on the Sylvester McCoy era to suggest that perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing that Doctor Who was allowed to rest when it did – if anything, having begun to take risks and experiment with storytelling and tone, the show was actually starting to find its feet again in 1988 and 1989 after a troubled few preceding years.
But at the time the support from the BBC just wasn’t there. Cartmel has also alleged that the show’s then-creative team were “left completely alone” without much in the way of outside interference: “We used to have to show the tape to the head of Drama… he’d just take a phone call and he wouldn’t watch it, which was good in a way, because it just left us to our own devices.”
Regardless though of how significantly it was flourishing on a creative level, Doctor Who in the late 1980s was never going to be doing enough to turn the tide of opinion – possibly the show’s cancellation meant that we missed out on some incredible adventures throughout the 1990s, we’ll never know, but it seems deeply improbable that the BBC would have suddenly discovered a newfound respect for the series that encouraged it to dig deeper and give Doctor Who not just the consideration but the funding it properly deserved.
More likely the show would’ve remained the BBC’s problem child – looked upon as at best a relic and at worst an embarrassment, no matter how incorrect either of those assumptions were. By having the show going off the air for 15 years, the public and the BBC both had time to miss Doctor Who – at some point during those wilderness years, it stopped being merely “an old show” and became “classic television”, a vintage show now considered worthy of revisiting. Though one should never underestimate what a peerless job Russell T Davies did with his revival of Doctor Who, anticipation for the series’ return was high before anyone had seen a single frame, far higher than it would’ve been for a fourth Sylvester McCoy series in 1990.
The break also allowed Davies’ to bring back Doctor Who in a form more befitting the television of the time. When the original series began in the early 1960s, 25-30 minute dramas weren’t all that exceptional, but by the late 1980s, few still held onto that format outside of Doctor Who and the soaps. The classic show’s (predominantly) more plot-focused narratives also landed better at its beginning than at its end, with sci-fi fans in the 1980s having grown used to more nuanced, emotional storytelling the likes of which Davies would later employ from 2005 onwards.
Again, it’s possible that Doctor Who might have gradually evolved to better match the modern TV landscape even if it had stayed on air, but the break served as a natural cut-off point, a time to take stock and consider which parts of the show were essential and which could change.
In a classic example of opportunity rising out of adversity, the absence of Doctor Who on television also saw many fans begin to apply their talents to spin-off projects away from the small screen, with many later going to work on Davies’ revived series.
It’s hard to imagine, for example, Big Finish being granted a licence to produce original Doctor Who on audio in 1999 if the television show were still on the air, which would’ve not only denied us hours upon hours of fantastic stories, but might also have meant that the likes of Nicholas Briggs, who emerged as the go-to voice of the Daleks during this period and continues to win plaudits from fans and critics for his work, might never have been hired to work on the TV series.
With the benefit of hindsight then it does feel as though, whatever the reasons behind the BBC putting Doctor Who out to pasture in 1989, allowing the show to rest for a period did ultimately benefit it in the long run. The operative word being “rest”, of course – let’s be clear, there’s no upside to the show disappearing off our screens permanently. If that was ever threatened, I’d be the first one in line to sign a petition, picket Broadcasting House and buy a copy of ‘Doctor in Distress: 2020 Remix’.