Doctor Who will storm back onto our screens on New Year’s Day, kicking off its 12th series since a triumphant comeback in 2005 – it’s almost easy to forget that the sci-fi series wasn’t always held in such high regard.
Doctor Who: Season 26 – The Collection – a Blu-ray release of the show’s final classic run of episodes from 1989 – is being released early next year, and while those last 14 episodes are now beloved by fans, then-script editor Andrew Cartmel has said that Doctor Who was “held universally in contempt by the powers-that-be” at the time.
“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,” Cartmel said at a recent BFI event to promote the Blu-ray set.
The upside? The show’s creative team were “left completely alone” without outside interference, Cartmel claims. “We used to have the 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.”
Negativity from the fandom of the time also filtered through to the production team, though. “I would go to John [Nathan-Turner, series producer]’s office and he would be sitting there, with his head over his desk, looking through these fanzines,” Cartmel revealed.
“There were some very bitchy fanzines, saying terrible things about him… and he couldn’t stop reading them. He’d just feel miserable – he’d be there with a fag in his hand, just unable to tear his eyes away from the page. So it had a big effect.”
Following its 26th season, a full series of Doctor Who wouldn’t air on the BBC for another 16 years, though Cartmel says the show was never officially axed.
“People ask me about the cancellation… we weren’t really cancelled, it’s just like ghosting your girlfriend, they just never phoned us back!” he laughed.
The Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who has been reappraised by fans and critics more recently, with the likes of Russell T Davies citing the seventh Doctor’s relationship with companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) as influencing how he wrote the dynamic between the Doctor (first Christopher Eccleston, then David Tennant) and Rose (Billie Piper).
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“It was only years and years afterwards, only after the new show came back under Russell, that people began to point out that Ace had set the template for the new companions,” Cartmel said.
“I think that we really did shape the series when it came back under Russell and Steven [Moffat, his successor as showrunner]. I didn’t realise until a few years ago how much of an impact we’ve had, but we were anticipating modern Who.
“We were doing so well… just when they cancelled us!”
Doctor Who: Season 26 – The Collection is out on Blu-ray on 20th January and is available to pre-order now