With the revived Doctor Who series now in its 16th year and with a bright future ahead, it’s hard to imagine that it was once a brutal struggle to get it back on air.
But as revealed in a new behind-the-scenes book, following its 1989 cancellation (and the 1996 TV Movie) it was quite a struggle to bring it back, with the BBC blocked by an implacable foe – the BBC.
Well, specifically the separate commercial arm BBC Worldwide (now replaced by BBC Studios), which had its own plans for the Doctor’s future…
“BBC Worldwide, it transpired, owned all the rights to Doctor Who,” then-BBC One Controller Lorraine Heggessey says in The Long Game, a new book by Paul Hayes that follows the struggle to revive the series between 1996 and 2003.
“They said that we could not have it on TV because they were going to make a movie, and therefore we couldn’t put it on BBC One. Which I was pretty fed up about, and ranted and raved for a bit but didn’t really get anywhere.”
But Heggessey (who would go on to recommission Doctor Who under the creative team of screenwriter Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner and Jane Tranter) didn’t give up, eventually calling the bluff of the other team and forging ahead with her own Who project.
“About a year later they still hadn’t made the film, and we still hadn’t found something that seemed like the right drama for Saturday early evening on BBC One,” she says.
“I just said, ‘This is ridiculous! How can you possibly have the rights? It’s a BBC One property, it should belong to the BBC. You haven’t made a movie anyway. We are just going to go ahead and do it.’
“It would only happen in the BBC, wouldn’t it? BBC Worldwide wouldn’t let BBC TV produce it! But eventually, we just bust through that.”
Heggessey is one of more than 30 people interviewed for Hayes’ new book (released 1st November), alongside the likes of Julie Gardner, Jane Tranter, Mal Young and Alan Yentob. Also among the interviewees is Doctor Who’s secret ally in the BBC One camp from those days – Heggessey’s right-hand woman, the Channel Executive Helen O’Rahilly, who tells the story of how she enlisted a Dalek to come to the Doctor’s aid.
“I was a mad Doctor Who fan, from the Jon Pertwee and early Tom Baker years,” O’Rahilly explains. “I grew up being a non-licence-fee viewer of Doctor Who, because you could get the BBC for free then in Ireland. Every Saturday night my poor dad would move from the sitting room and I watched every episode!”
Fast-forward to November 2002, and O’Rahilly got the job as Lorraine Heggessey’s number two at BBC One – bringing one of her knick-knacks with her in the form of a toy Dalek.
“It had about six different commands. You press the button, there were six different phrases – ‘Exterminate!’ – all these different terms. It was really good and quite loud! I had a big double desk. As you do, you put your various bits – your awards or your whatevers – alongside your computer. I remember just putting my little Dalek on the desk.
“Every time Lorraine would come in, as she was taking her coat off, I would press the Dalek. It would come out with its ‘Exterminate!’ and she’d go, ‘Oh my God, that […] thing! Helen, you’re winding me up now!’ I would just continue doing it – even if I was on a phone call, I’d press the button! I’d never let up! Eventually, she just came out of her office and went, ‘Right! That’s it! I’m not putting up with this anymore! Go and organise a meeting. Let’s find out who has the rights. We’re going to do this!’”
In the end, then, it was a lot of stubbornness and the Doctor’s greatest foe that brought the Time Lord back to TV. It all feels very appropriate, somehow.
The Long Game: The Inside Story of How the BBC Brought Back Doctor Who is published by Ten Acre Films on November 1, priced £12.99, and is available to pre-order now via tenacrefilms.bigcartel.com.