Heading for trouble
This one is going to have quite a bit more history than an average entry in this series.
The majority television shows never get formally cancelled by their network – not in the form of a press release at any rate. Production is merely halted and the show taken off the schedules, with the confirmation being comments from the stars (usually on Twitter these days), off the record comments or the absence from the announced listings at the upfronts that the US networks do each May.
Doctor Who indeed was never formally cancelled in 1986 or 1989. We’ll discuss the 1989 ‘cancellation’ later on, but the show never shut down production in the first instance. In February 1985, Jonathan Powell, Head of Series and Serials, informed JNT and Saward that the 23rd season of the show would be put back a year. However, at this point rumours of full-scale cancellation hit the press (The Sun running “Dr Who axed in plot by BBC”) and campaigns to save the show began.
A number of reasons were given at the time and after for the 18-month gap between the seasons:
· Falling ratings – Season 22 was the least watched since 1980
· Concern over violence and a lack of humour
· A need to save money due to the launch of a daytime news service and the expensive BBC soap opera EastEnders.
· Dislike of the show among BBC execs, especially Jonathan Powell
On 1 March, it was confirmed to the Doctor Who Appreciation Society that Season 23 would begin in Autumn 1986. To protest this hiatus, a charity single (proceeds to Cancer Relief) called “Doctor in Distress” was recorded, featuring the voices of Baker, Bryant, Anthony Ainley and Nick Courtney among a batch of D-Listers, under the collective name “Who Cares?”. It got roundly panned and the BBC refused to give it radio time; the Top 40 wasn’t even bothered by it.
During the hiatus, the show made its second radio appearance on a children’s programme called Pirate Radio Four with a six-part serial called “Slipback” by Eric Saward – a review is planned.
It soon became clear that the show was moving back to 25-minute episodes, that experiment having been deemed to have failed – but there was a bigger issue. There would only be 14 of them, something finally confirmed to the team in June 1985. This basically meant that the entire original plans for Season 23 got chucked out of the airlock.
Season 23 – how it could have been
As the original plans were quite a way along and the scripts at various stages of completion, we have a good idea of what might have gone out on screen. Three of the stories were novelised by Target and Big Finish recently did audio versions of three of the likely stories, along with two ideas that were dropped before the hiatus.
The originally recorded ending of “Revelation of the Daleks” was the Doctor saying to Peri “I’m going to take you to Blackpool”. When the hiatus was announced (before transmission), the last word was cut off and replaced with a freeze frame in the edit – transmitted as “I’m going to take you to…”
The confirmed stories were:
· “The Nightmare Fair” by Graham Williams, which would have been set in Blackpool and featured the return of the Celestial Toymaker
· “The Ultimate Evil” by Wally K Daly [That sounds made up – Ed.], where an arms dealers use a “violence ray” to try and start a war.
Probably included would have been:
· “Yellow Fever and How to Cure It” by Robert Holmes: A three-parter planned to feature the Autons and have location filming in Singapore, this only got to one episode and a synopsis.
· “Mission to Magnus” by Philip Martin, featuring the return of a villain from “Vengeance on Varos” as well as the Ice Warriors making their first appearance since Season 11
· “The Hollows of Time” by Christopher H Bidmead, involving reality-altering experiments in a sleepy English village.
· “The Children of January” by Michael Feeney Callan.
· An unnamed tale by Bill Pritchard.
After the hiatus, Pip and Jane Baker were commissioned for a story called “Gallifrey” but that too was cancelled.
Season 23 – Levine, Saward and a lawyer
The new plan was suggested by Glen McCoy, writer of “Timelash”. Since the show was on trial, then the Doctor should be on trial, accused of interfering in the cosmos by the Time Lords. Three separate four-part stories would be used as ‘evidence’ (one in the ‘past’, one in the ‘present’ and one in the ‘future’, inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) with the trial providing a framing device, along with a two-parter to finish things off. An evil Time Lord called The Valeyard (an old term for a doctor of law) would serve as the prosecution, with Linda Bellingham ,best known for her role in a series of adverts for OXO stock cubes, playing lead judge The Inquisitor.
It was decided that Peri be killed off and a new companion introduced – the casting of Bonnie Langford causing unofficial continuity advisor Ian Levine to walk out on the programme.
The first and last bits of the longest tale in the show’s history were given to Robert Holmes. However, this is where the really serious problems began to set in. The third segment went through three distinct versions, the second being “Paradise 5” by PJ Hammond (creator of cult ATV sci-fi show Sapphire and Steel) – Saward having to then commission Pip and Jane Baker, because while he did not like them, they could at least produce something quickly. Holmes completed his first part and then become seriously ill with liver problems – he only completed a first draft of Episode 13 and an outline of Episode 14 before dying.
All this, combined with increasing tensions with JNT, led to Eric Saward’s decision to quit as script editor – he would not handle the editing of the third segment, which JNT did – there is no script editor credit on those four episodes. However, Saward was persuaded by Nathan-Turner to finish off Holmes’ conclusion. Then things got nasty.
The original plan as agreed by Saward, JNT and Holmes was for a cliff-hanger ending, with the Doctor and the Valeyard trapped in a time vent, locked in combat. However, JNT realised that might just give the BBC an excuse to can the show in its entirety. He wanted to change the ending and Saward disagreed. Saward not only refused, he withdrew permission for any of his script for episode 14 to be used on pain of legal action – with locations scouted and rehearsals beginning! To cap things off, he then aired a great deal of dirty laundry in a highly publicised interview with Starburst magazine, a move that many fans have never forgiven him for.
Now without a final part, JNT had to call in the Bakers again and ask them to write another episode with only a copy of episode 13 to guide them - a lawyer being present to make sure that no information on Saward’s script was given out. They got the draft done in three days, JNT again editing it with no credit.
It is no surprise that JNT was hoping to be reassigned at this point – but he would have three more seasons to go.
“The Trial of a Time Lord” was broadcast as a single 14-part story with continuity announcements from episode three to help viewers follow the plot. However, the division of the story into four distinct segments, each with their own working titles (as the decision for one title was fairly late in development) that were used for their novelizations, means that the story is best approached in this manner. For one thing it is easier to watch - I saw it this way on a UK Gold broadcast in the late 1990s.
Location footage was filmed on Outside Broadcast video from this point on, with film only being used for major special effects sequences. In particular, the most expensive such sequence in the classic era, a 45-second shot of the TARDIS being plucked out of space into the Time Lord space station that cost £8,000 – and still holds up well today.
As for the run itself, it’s a mixed bag and has divided the opinion of reviewers over the years. I personally feel that it has many good moments, but it could have been better.
The Mysterious Planet (Part One to Four)
The prosecution case starts with the Doctor and Peri on the planet Ravalox, a planet that is actually a world a lot more familiar to the travellers.
The first appearance of the last Holmes double act – mercenaries Sabalom Glitz and Dibber – I personally found this tale more than a bit silly at times.
Mindwarp (Part Five to Eight)
The two encounter their old adversary, the reptilian Sil ("Vengeance on Varos") on Thoros Beta. The leader of his race is looking to transfer his brain into another body. To stop him, they team up with a warrior king and a group of resistance fighters.
The best bit of the story in my opinion, this one is best known for the appearance of Brian Blessed, probably the hammiest actor in Britain. That and a brilliant final scene that is rather undermined later on – it probably should have been left as was.
Terror of the Vervoids (Part Nine to Twelve)
As his defence, the Doctor presents a tale from his future (bear with us here), where he and new companion Melanie Bush have to deal simultaneously with a bunch of killer planets and a mutiny on a space liner.
Guest starring Honor Blackman of Goldfinger and The Avengers fame, this interesting whodunit features the Doctor actually committing a full-blown act of genocide and also the ‘debut’ of a character who in her first episode, screamed in the key of F, allowing it to segue into the closing theme…
Last of the Screamers – Melanie “Mel” Bush
A cheery keep-fit red-haired fanatic from Pease Pottage, West Sussex at the turn of the 21st century, Mel (her surname was only given in the credits) was bossy to both her Doctors and prone to screaming loudly, if only temporarily. She’s not a particular popular character among the fandom – who prefer the other companions of this era and aren’t too keen on her actor. Mel is certainly the last of the ‘screamers’ – her successor is nothing like her, nor are any of the modern companions of either gender with the possible exception of Rory.
Mel was played by Bonnie Langford (1964-present), the only companion actor in the classic era born after the show started. Langford was a child actor, winning talent show Opportunity Knocks at age 6 and later appearing in LWT’s Just William as Veronica Bott (“I’m going to scweam and scweam…”) and classic children’s musical Bugsy Malone. Most of her work, however, has been on stage before and after the show – she is a panto stalwart and has done a lot of ‘principal boy’ roles over the years, having concluded a run of Peter Pan when she was cast as Mel.
In 2006, she was a contestant on ITV’s celebrity ice dancing show Dancing on Ice, coming third – that run also featured John Barrowman (Captain Jack).
The Ultimate Foe (Part Thirteen to Fourteen)
The truth behind the trial is revealed and the Doctor must enter the Matrix to stop the Valeyard…
The Holmes episode is very good, but the last one shows the signs of being a rush job and does not really work.. Notably, this is the final on-screen appearance of the Time Lords until 2009.
The verdict on Season 23 – guilty with extenuating circumstances. ITV put their big American import, The A-Team, against the show and the result was a mauling. Season 23 averaged only 4.8 million viewers, the lowest ratings in its history and well down on Season 22.
In October 1986, BBC1 Controller Michael Grade agreed to renew the show – on one condition…
Tom Baker and Lis Sladen had appeared in character in a schools programme called Exploration Earth, but “Pescatons” was released on LP.
They have not made any further appearance in the show proper since then, although they were mentioned in “The Waters of Mars”.
Starring Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, the latter currently known for playing “Ducky” in NCIS, this weird and cryptic involved two mysterious inter-dimensional operatives who investigate strange events.
Best known for his role in Flash Gordon (“GORDON’s ALLLLIVVVVEEEEEEEE!”), but he’s even done Shakespeare over a long career. Gets a lot of voiceover work for his big booming voice (which he is so well known for that Gallifrey Base’s swear filter turns his name into BRIAN BLESSED) – most recently the Money Supermarket adverts. He also climbs mountains.
We see the first time the Doctor meets Mel later in this story, but she has already met him at this point. Mel’s first meeting with the Doctor was left for the expanded universe in the BBC Past Doctor Adventure Business Unusual. No further exploration of this unusual out of time meeting is attempted in the series proper, as we shall see.
The Britain’s Got Talent of its day, the show started as a radio show on the BBC Light Programme in 1949, then moved to Radio Luxembourg, one of the earliest commercial stations broadcasting to the UK (for a good while the only legal one - it was responsible for getting a good deal of the music of the 60s to British and Irish listeners ). It ended up running in no less than three television formats, starting with Associated Rediffusion in 1956, then ABC followed by Thames Television for its second run (1964-1978), then the BBC for a revival in the late 1980s. Best known for its ‘just for fun’ clap-o-meter’, it gave breaks to a variety of British talent including Paul Daniels, Les Dawson and Pam Ayres.