Philip Hinchcliffe: 'I was pushing the envelope on Doctor Who, but not irresponsibly'
Hinchcliffe, who produced some of the BBC sci-fi's best-loved stories, is back with a new set of adventures for Big Finish.
In the spring of 1974, aged 29, Philip Hinchcliffe was appointed as the new producer of the BBC's Doctor Who – together with script editor Robert Holmes, he would go on to craft some of the most acclaimed stories in the sci-fi show's 58-year history.
Almost five decades on and Hinchcliffe has returned to the worlds of Doctor Who, collaborating with audio drama producers Big Finish to put out a new collection of stories under the "Philip Hinchcliffe Presents..." banner. The range kicked off back in 2014 and continues with its fourth volume, The God of Phantoms, out today (19th August).
"David Richardson [Big Finish senior producer] approached me and said 'Have you got any old stories from your era that we could do?' and I said, 'Well, no...' – I mean, we didn't have any stories, Bob Holmes and I, lying in the drawer, ready to go for another season," he tells RadioTimes.com.
"So what I've tried to do, really, is to create new stories that wouldn't have followed on from my last season in the 1970s, but that kind of have the flavour of what we were doing in those three years."
The God of Phantoms is one such story, bringing the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) to a colony world in the distant future, a planet where the residents are seeing the ghosts of their lost friends and relatives. And the ghosts are stealing people...
Hinchcliffe provides "detailed ideas and treatments" for these new stories which are then adapted by writer Marc Platt (Ghost Light), with the now-retired producer taking "a sort of mental leap" to transport himself back to that era of the television series.
"I kind of racked my memories for things that I had wanted to do, but never could get into the show, or they were half ideas or whatever, and so that that's how I came up with these new story ideas.
"I felt it wasn't just a jolly, because there's a sort of reputation to that period of the show now, and also the fans have a sense of what they will be getting. And so I felt, you know, these have got to be really good stories, and they've got to really hit the spot."
Back in 1974, having previously worked as script editor on children's adventure series The Jensen Code and as an associate producer on ITV's General Hospital, a young and fired-up Hinchcliffe came to Doctor Who with a "clear vision" of how he wanted to reinvent the series. He was keen to ditch the cosy "UNIT Family" set-up of the mostly Earth-based Jon Pertwee era and take the Fourth Doctor back out into the stars, but also to make significant changes to the mood and style of the show that he felt would help it survive into the 1970s.
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"I was a great admirer of the show with Jon Pertwee – the ones I saw anyway, I didn't see a lot of it. But I think Jon Pertwee and Barry Letts, the producer, created a version of the show that belonged, really, to the 1960s. You know, it was swinging London, it was James Bond, it was gadgets, and he [Pertwee] dressed a bit like we all dressed in that time, with velvet jackets and frilly shirts.
"The combination of me and Tom [cast as Pertwee's replacement in February 1974] being put on the show together... we went back a bit to the idea of the 'cosmic hobo', which I think was a phrase coined by [Doctor Who co-creator] Sydney Newman, and made you think of a Doctor who could be a bit different, and a bit looser, and a bit more the Zeitgeist of the later '60s into the '70s."
With a number of stories for Doctor Who's 12th season having already been commissioned by his predecessor, Hinchcliffe admits that it initially "wasn't easy" to make his mark on the programme. "We didn't really get into our stride with the kind of stories we wanted to do from scratch until the end of that series."
Hinchcliffe's tenure saw the show embrace a more gothic atmosphere influenced by Hammer Horror and he was also determined to "ramp up the cliffhangers" that left the Doctor or his friends in peril each week – a shift which famously attracted the ire of conservative activist Mary Whitehouse, who criticised this new era's darker tone and on-screen violence.
"I think that's where my age probably did come in," Hinchcliffe reflects. "I was probably more in tune with what was happening in the wider world – movies, you know, and other TV channels – and things were moving very quickly. Within the boundaries of censorship, it's a very delicate producer's judgement what's acceptable for the audience that he knows he's serving.
"I was pushing the envelope," he accepts. "But not irresponsibly. I thought a lot about what we put on the screen."
In 1977, Louise Jameson was cast on Doctor Who as new companion Leela, the Eliza Doolitle-esque alien "savage" partnered with Baker's all-knowing Time Lord. Jameson, who returns to the role in The God of Phantoms, remembers the young Hinchcliffe as "determined and visionary".
"I think the thing about Philip is that he's not a compromiser," she says. "He has an incredibly clear vision and he just keeps whittling away until that vision is realised." With a giggle, she adds: "He never had an eye on the budget like the other producers did. He wasn't, you know, ‘a good boy’. I mean, [Doctor Who's season 14 finale] Talons of Weng-Chiang is a rather famous example of where he really overspent and then left the series! And then Graham [Williams] took over as producer and and wasn't left with much money at all for his stories… but the end result is Talons of Weng-Chiang is a classic that has really stood the test of time."
Tom Baker also admired Hinchcliffe during their time working together, though for different reasons. "He often found my ideas interesting and sometimes he adopted them," Baker says. "And for that reason, of course, I thought he had marvellous taste and insights."
Those his Big Finish output is comprised of original stories, Hinchcliffe's new productions are "very evocative of the era" when he worked on the TV series, Jameson says, and "faithful to the beating heart of Doctor Who”.
"Big Finish, bless them, have given Leela all kinds of trajectories – some are parallel lives, some are her older and wiser and a bit more guru-like... different strands have taken her in different directions. But the Philip Hinchcliffe stories absolutely swept me right back to 1977."
Like the majority of Big Finish productions of late, The God of Phantoms was put together remotely, with its cast embracing home studio recording. "I'm 50 years in the business this year, and I didn't think I'd be spending it in a cupboard," laughs Jameson. "It's taken me a bit by surprise. But what has happened during the pandemic is that the sound designers' status has risen enormously. I mean, they always did do an amazing job. But now they're having to correlate everybody's different sound qualities, and make it sound like they're all in the same room. It's a lot of extra hours. But they are amazing what they do. Absolutely amazing."
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Now working in a new medium, Hinchcliffe is no longer faced with the same budgetary constraints which might've hampered him in the 1970s, but says that the nature of audio drama means his new Doctor Who stories will, like the TV classics, often featured a small cast and limited number of locations. "You don't have to pay for enormously expensive locations, or sets and things like that. But if you wander too much, the audience loses track of who's who, who's where, so there is a natural sort of extent to how far a story will move from one place or one group of characters – because the audience needs these pictures in their mind, they have to be able to construct the world that you're telling the story in and hold it in their own imagination."
When he left Doctor Who, Hinchcliffe produced the hard-hitting police drama Target – a show created by his successor as Doctor Who producer, Graham Williams – and in the late 1990s oversaw series including Taggart and Rebus as an executive producer. Though he retired in the early 2000s, he's happy to continue to be associated and involved with the series for which he remains best known.
"Doctor Who kind of found a position in in the history of TV, or the canon or whatever. And then suddenly, when it came back again, there was this revived interest and this energy and all the rest of it. And I think it was then that I began to realise that maybe what I did all those years ago had more impact than I thought. I had no idea that Big Finish were churning out all these things for years without me, but I thought, yeah, it's a challenge, really, to go back. So I've done it happily."
Doctor Who: Philip Hinchcliffe Presents Volume 04: The God of Phantoms is available now from bigfinish.com.