29 August 2013

Four Hundred False Dawns, Part Two ('Doctor Who', 1997-2004)

After the failure of the 1996 television movie, at least in the United States, it seemed unlikely for a time that we would be getting any televised Doctor Who ever again. By 2003, with the Daleks reduced to ‘humorous’ advert appearances and the show only surviving via novels or audio, it was a bleak time to be a fan – indeed, at this point, I’d moved on to 24[1]. In fact, the late 1990s and early 2000s were not a great time for science fiction all-round.


So, let us cover the second part of the hiatus years, where the show took some interesting potential turns and then the biggest news of all dropped…




‘Stargate SG-1’ started its ten year run, first on Showtime and then Sci-Fi[2]. In addition, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ began its TV run on UPN (now merged with the WB to form the CW); with Joss Whedon’s show being cited as a major influence on ‘Doctor Who’ post-2005 [3]. Channel 5 launched in the UK; the station still imports most of its dramas and has produced nothing of note in the sci-fi field.

This year saw the BBC take a new tack at time travel, combining it with a cop show in the Carnival Films-produced Crime Traveller starring Chloë Annett (best known for her role as the second Kristine Kochanski in Red Dwarf) and Michael French written by crime and espionage writer Anthony Horowitz, well known for a lot more things since then e.g. Alex Rider and Foyle’s War. This only lasted one season – a change of management at BBC Drama meant that the show fell through the gaps and was not renewed.

Default Films approached the BBC with a pitch for a cartoon version of Doctor Who, claiming to have the involvement of Barry Letts – he just says he has been in discussions. They show fifteen slides of development art at a US convention… and that is all we ever hear about the project.




Richard Bacon became the first ‘Blue Peter’ presenter to be fired after being caught by a tabloid newspaper taking cocaine; then BBC children’s head Lorraine Heggessey goes on the show to explain things to the kids. She would have better announcements to make in the future. The Children’s Channel ceases broadcasting after 14 years.


Science-fiction on the BBC this year was again pretty unsuccessful – their co-production of a six-part miniseries with Sci-Fi called Invasion: Earth went by with a dull thud, being pretty much unremembered. In addition, after what was arguably its poorest season, the corporation put sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf into stasis after eight runs on BBC2[4].


Two possible film versions of the show reared their heads at this time. The Cannes Film Festival saw head of BBC Films David Thompson announce the BBC was looking to make a cinematic version of the film, a move dismissed by a BBC Drama spokesman. Meanwhile Chaos Films started to look for a business partner to get the rights to the unmade third Peter Cushing movie (which would have been based on “The Chase” but was canned due to poor receipts for the second film) and approaches Michael Sheard, best known as Mr Bronson from Grange Hill and with six guest appearances on Doctor Who, as a possible Doctor. Nothing comes of it.


Finally, Bob Baker, creator of K9 and now a writer for Aardman Animations (Wallace and Gromit, plus other films in that Claymation medium) starts  trying to develop his K9 series; it would take him over a decade to get it made.




Granada Television produced a six-part post-apocalyptic drama for ITV called ‘The Last Train’; largely forgotten, it has not been released on DVD.


1999 saw the debut of Big Finish’s audio range, featuring the Fifth, Sixth and Seven Doctors. Gary Russell, who would later work on the TV show clearly stresses that they are not going to do a brand new Doctor, just make stuff featuring the old ones. Fourteen years and many audios later, they’re still going strong.


The first rumours of the involvement of Russell T Davies, known to fans as RTD, (whose gay drama Queer as Folk was airing on Channel 4 at this time and had done some good stuff for Granada – definitely a cradle for non-London talent over the years) in a possible TV revival surfaced; however, the BBC decided to focus on a movie version of the show which involved director Paul Anderson, production partner Jeremy Bolt and Artisan, the studio that produced The Blair Witch Project. Bolt said that an international name would need to take the lead role for this. The project stalls over lack of money; with televisual special effects having improved considerably since 1989, the show would need a major BBC investment or foreign production assistance.


We did get some televised stuff on the BBC however. Firstly, there was Doctor Who Night on BBC2; a batch of documentaries, some episodes, the full TV movie, plus three sketches - involving two obsessive fans kidnapping Peter Davison. All three of these featuring Mark Gatiss[5] and David Walliams, the former who would write for the revived show (as well as appear in “The Lazarus Experiment”) and the latter who would appear in “The God Complex”.


Secondly, we had the first new Doctor Who on TV since 1996; but not in the way fans would have hoped…


The Curse of Fatal Death (19 minutes, spoof for Comic Relief)


The history of Doctor Who spoofs/parodies is a long and not always glorious one, ranging all the way from Clive Dunn in a First Doctor costume sending Television Centre into space in December 1963 through to Inspector Spacetime in Community. People like Rod Hull, Lenny Henry and most notably Jon Culshaw have done takes on the Doctor, especially Baker’s one. The skits have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous to the offensive – Spike Milligan’s “Pakistani Dalek” from 1975 takes the prize for that last one. Yes, before you ask, there has been porn.


Anyway, moving to Comic Relief.


Founded in 1985 by Richard Curtis (Blackadder, Four Weddings and a Funeral etc.) and Lenny Henry as a response to the famine in Ethiopia[6], Comic Relief is a campaigning anti-poverty charity that primarily focusses on Red Nose Day, a biannual charity telethon which like Children in Need, is best watched the following morning with major use of the fast forward button. The next one of these will be in 2015; the idea has been copied in other countries. This is accompanied by the usual charity fundraising and selling of comedy red noses.


In 1999, they did their first take on Doctor Who, which saw the Master (played by Jonathan Pryce, perhaps best known as a Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies – he even wears the same tunic, brought in from home) planning to exact revenge on the Doctor and companion Emma (played by Julia Sawalha). As for the Doctor, he starts off being played by Rowan Atkinson, then ends up regenerating into Richard E Grant, then Jim Broadbent, then Hugh Grant… then finally Joanna Lumley[7] – the regeneration music from both “Logopolis” and “The Caves of Androzani” turns up in it (those music cues are very well known among fans; in fact, the former turned up in the medley at the 2013 Doctor Who Prom).


I didn’t like this one at the time (perhaps not realising the spoof nature fully) and for this post decided to re-watch it; it is available on VHS, iTunes and YouTube. It’s OK, but drags a bit longer than it should have done. Some of the humour and dialogue foreshadows post-2005 Doctor Who, as it’s arguably best known for its writer, who you’ve almost certainly heard of…


Steven Moffat – The Terror from Scotland


Steven Moffat (1961-present) is the current ‘showrunner’ of Doctor Who, one of its triumvirate of executive producers and its lead writer. He is known for scaring the living daylights out of kids with some of his creations and the multiple Hugos he was won for his scripts.


Born in Paisley (same town as David Tennant), he worked on his student TV station, produced two theatrical productions and was a teacher before his head teacher father pitched a TV series to some producers using his school set around a school newspaper; when asked for a script, Bill agreed if Steven was allowed to write it. Moffat’s script was superb and the result was Press Gang. Central Television produced five seasons of the show from 1989 to 1993 for the CITV block on ITV; the second season won Moffat the first of so far four BAFTAs[8] – it also gave early roles to Dexter Fletcher, Julia Sawalha and of all the people in the world, Gabrielle Anwar (Fiona in Burn Notice) [You really do learn something every dayEd.]. After Press Gang, Joking Apart and his first marriage all ended, he did a sitcom called Chalk (renewed for its second season based on studio audience reactions alone), then came another sitcom for BBC2 called Coupling.


Based on the relationship of Moffat with his second wife Sue Vertue (a television producer) down to the character names (Steve and Sue), Coupling lasted four seasons from 2000 to 2004 and got a US remake for NBC, although that one got cancelled after four episodes.


In 2005, he wrote his first episodes for Doctor Who proper – “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”. They were so successful that he was asked back again, and again… then tapped by RTD as his successor as showrunner. Before this he also did a BBC1 miniseries take on a certain novel called  Jekyll (starring James Nesbitt and Gina Bellman, the latter known for her role in Leverage, which would have a lot of Doctor Who references in its five year run) and wrote the script for the first of a Tintin live-action movie series. However, when faced with a choice between Hollywood and Cardiff, the long-time fan answered the call of the blue box.


“The Moff” now helms two big BBC1 shows – Doctor Who and modern day Sherlock Holmes adaptation Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch[9].




‘Big Brother’ launched on Channel Four in the UK, while Judith Keppel became the first person to win the British version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ after getting the name of the English King married to Eleanor of Aquitaine correct – there were allegations that the timing of the show was fixed to lure viewers away from the final episode of the popular Richard Wilson comedy ‘One Foot in the Grave’, which saw his character Victor Meldrew killed in a hit-and-run. The ITC ‘don’t belieevveee it’ and clear ITV of any wrongdoing. That channel also brings an end to ‘Inspector Morse’ killing off the detective as per the final Colin Dexter novel – it would then order a sequel ‘Lewis’ featuring his sidekick and later a 1960s set prequel ‘Endeavour’.


Plans for a TV revival took a further back seat when Peter Salmon was moved from his post as Controller of BBC One; his successor Lorraine Heggessey appeared enthusiastic about the show, but frequently commented about “rights issues” – possibly the attempts to make a movie or the TV movie stuff with FOX and Universal – blocking a new TV run.


Radio 4 green lit a pilot script for a radio Doctor Who starring Sylvester McCoy, but there is little more than rumours in the press and on the Internet for the rest of the year, with Stephen Fry, Alan Davies and Tom Selleck linked to the role.




The BBC’s remake of 1960s ITC series ‘Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased)’ about a private detective and his ghost partner, featuring Tom Baker in a minor role, was cancelled after two seasons.


The Daleks appeared in an advert for Kit-Kat where people do things not normally associated with them – in case chanting “Peace and Love” while chasing after people. The ad was pulled after the Nation estate complained about a breach of copyright.


The rumours about a Doctor Who movie got silly (£250m budget, Sean Bean starring). Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts and DWM editor Clayton Hickman made their own pitch for a TV series to the BBC, getting nowhere. “Death Comes To Time” as the radio pilot is now known is rejected by BBC4 and eventually released online, where it gets 1.6 million downloads in two days; that’s impressive even in the days of YouTube. The story’s ending kind of precludes it from being made into further Doctor Who, but it does eventually get its non-canon series, The Minister of Chance.




‘Firefly’ came and went on FOX. ITV eliminated all the regional branding from its primary network – it was now simply ITV1 and would remain so until 2013, when it reverted to ITV – the channel also launched ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!’, which would later have Colin Baker appear on it. John Leslie and Angus Deayton were both sacked (by Granada and the BBC respectively) over allegations of rape and cocaine use respectively; Leslie was cleared of the former but his career has not recovered.


John Nathan-Turner passed away; he would never get to see a show he clearly loved back on television. There were no real developments in the TV or film world this year; things seemed to have gone quiet.




Three people were convicted of cheating to win “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” by strategic coughing – a cinematic adaption about this written by Russell T Davies was cancelled when he took another job…


There had been no TV Doctor Who for four years (seven not counting spoofs), UK Gold were stopping with their re-runs and as the 40th anniversary approached, it seemed the only thing we would get that wasn’t a book or an audio would be a semi-animated online drama; “Scream of the Shalka” starring Richard E Grant as the Ninth Doctor, Sophie Okendo as companion Alison Cheney, Derek Jacobi as the Master and David Tennant as a caretaker[10], produced by Cosgrove Hall. When this was announced in July, it appeared this would be the official continuation of the show and plans for a sequel were already underway.


However, behind the scenes, better things were afoot. In September 2003, Lorraine Heggessey took a look at the rights situation, concluded there was nothing stopping the BBC from producing a new show if it wanted to and the only obstruction was Worldwide’s film plans. She persuaded them that the movie wasn’t going anywhere and to step aside; she then got Head of Drama Jane Tranter to approach Russell T Davies again.


The Corporation had been trying to get Davies back with them for a while; but he’d made it clear that the only way he was going to them would be to helm a new Doctor Who. That was now a reality and he signed up quickly; although his contract with Red Studios meant he couldn’t start straight away – he also brought his Casanova idea from London Weekend Television. Phil Collinson would be the day-to-day Producer, with Julie Gardner and Mal Young being the other two Executive Producers, although Young left the BBC before transmission. The game was on – and it would be played in Wales, as this would be a BBC Wales production.


The news was first confirmed by the Daily Telegraph and then the other British papers at 00.01am British Summer Time on 26 September, although the head of Outpost Gallifrey, J Shaun Lyon, was privately tipped off a couple of days beforehand by someone only called ‘Stop Press’ and a number of those in the expanded universe world got early notice. As a result, American and Australian fans had been celebrating for hours while the British ones were largely still asleep. There was a strong welcome, albeit cautious in some quarters – some tabloids wondered if the Doctor would be gay.


“Shalka” went out in November; however, plans for anything bar a short story were canned shortly afterwards. Paul Cornell, its writer, did get to do episodes for TV though. RTD stopped the BBC from closing Big Finish’s operations, but made it very clear the new series was off limits to them.




Granada took over Carlton and formed ITV plc; with only STV and UTV still holding out, the unification of Britain’s third TV network is complete. Celebrity dance competition Strictly Come Dancing launched on BBC1 and became a huge hit for the channel; it got sold to over 40 countries, becoming Dancing with the Stars in the US.


As 2004 began, the British press went into speculation overdrive over the show, especially over who would be the new Doctor and his companion. Hugh Grant was approached by RTD but declined to audition; a large number of names were bandied about, mostly from the light entertainment world – it’s a testimony to the show’s success that every name for the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors was that of a serious drama actor. The Daily Mail made itself look foolish [no change there then – Ed.] by announcing in its 20 March edition that Bill Nighy had got the role… the same day that the BBC confirmed Christopher Eccleston in the part; Panini literally stopped the presses on Doctor Who Magazine to get a small piece in on the announcement. Piper’s announcement as Rose Tyler also got a great deal of tabloid interest.


Certain other things became clearer; this would not be a reboot, the new Doctor would be the Ninth Doctor (making McGann canon and Richard E Grant not[11]) and it would be a Saturday evening drama in the show’s traditional timeslot – with a proper drama budget. The run would be 13x45’; this was designed to boost the show’s overseas sales chances and indeed the show was picked up by the ABC in Australia and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Canada (the leak of an unfinished version of “Rose” came from a CBC-linked company – the employee responsible was fired), the two networks who had shown it in the past.


However, behind the scenes, some potential issues arose that could have derailed the project; of course it may have not done so considering how far along it had gone and the very public embarrassment that might have followed a cancellation.


The Hutton Inquiry (into Iraq War intelligence, BBC reporting of such and the death of a government WMD expert) cost both the Director General of the BBC and Chairman of the Board of Governors their jobs. The full-time replacements were Mark Thompson and Michael Grade respectively – neither man particularly liked Doctor Who. Indeed, Grade had put the show on hiatus back when he was controller of BBC One and got Colin Baker fired, although he couldn’t do anything in his oversight role. Thompson on the other hand could and actively asked the production team if they could terminate the project. The answer to that was that they could not.


More dangerous was some market research from BBC Worldwide that suggested significant hostility to the show in general (although a revival question was not asked) among the British public; although it did very well in polls on shows that should be brought back. When asked about the research, Tranter lied and said they didn’t have any research. On the subject of market research, that suggested that family TV viewing in general was dead and this show wouldn’t work.


On 18 July 2004, the show began recording its first production block (“Rose” and “The Aliens of London/World War Three”), but the production of “Dalek” was under threat when it was announced two weeks earlier that negotiations with Terry Nation’s estate over using the Daleks had broken down apparently over editorial control issues. RTD offered Rob Shearman an alternative monster (which Davies would in fact reuse as the Toclafane later on, it seems) and an alternative script was but the situation was sorted out in time.

As 2005 began, hints and teasers were coming about the new show – but would it work? With a lot riding on this, Easter Saturday, 26 March 2005, would be another pivotal day in the show’s history…

[1]One of the few multi-season shows that I’ve watched every episode of, it was actually the first universe that I RPed in, admittedly not very well…

[2]Considering what other things Show-your-body-time has aired in recent years, the full-frontal nudity bit in “Children of the Gods” does not come as a surprise, even if this did not carry on from there.

[3]Three Whedonverse stars (Mark Shephard, James Marsters and Anthony Head) have appeared in Whoniverse shows. There is also a decent amount of Firefly/Doctor Who crossover fiction out there on the Internet.

[4]After a failed attempt to make a movie, the show was picked by Dave and given a three-part pilot called Back to Earth, the de facto ninth season. A tenth six-part season followed and an eleventh is all but confirmed – it’s just a case of sorting out the schedules of Craig Charles (who has a regular role in Coronation Street) and Danny John Jules (who appears in the BBC1/France Televisions cop dramedy Death in Paradise, a show that loves the Accusing Room). I plan to do a Cult TV article on Red Dwarf for The Burning Question.

[5]Among his credits is “The Idiot’s Lantern”, which he started writing not knowing who would play the Tenth Doctor. During a rehearsal for a live production of The Quatermass Experiment in 2005 with David Tennant, the latter got the microphones switched off during a break… then told Gatiss that he would be the Doctor, making the writer one of the first to know.

[6]The same one that resulted in Live Aid and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

[7]The possibility of a female Doctor has reared its curly head every regeneration since Tom Baker joked about it in 1980; it’s perhaps no surprise that Steven Moffat had Matt Smith say “I’m a girl!” in the final scene (which he wrote) of “The End of Time, Part Two”.

[8]The first episode was repeated on the CITV channel during a special weekend to make 30 years of the brand; I watched this and could see clear Moffat style in there.

[9]When CBS did Elementary, the BBC looked at their legal options and ultimately took no action. Holmes is now effectively a public domain character (since 2000, all of the works are out of copyright in the UK and only a few stories from 1921 onward remain non-public in the US) and the concept of a modern day Sherlock Holmes story isn’t new; indeed, Basil Rathbone fought Nazis etc. in fourteen films from 1939 to 1946 – indeed four of those works did not have their copyright renewed by  Universal in the 1970s, becoming openly available.

[10]As well as Tennant, all three of those got big guest roles in the revival.

[11]A decision taken in the back of a car in LA by the producers; they had merely been referring to Eccleston as “the Doctor” to this point, but decided that the other eight were going to be listed anyway, so they might as well make him number nine… something that Steven Moffat appears to be altering majorly come the 50th anniversary special.

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