Doctor Who – The Golden Years
1993 – 2003
The mid 90s was a time of significant change for Who fandom – VHS had meant wide availability of stories that previously had existed only as Nth generation copies in fan bookcases. Many fanzines were moving towards more professional publication standards – DWB was partway through a transition to being a more general science fiction magazine. Tapezines were largely on the way out and new Who material largely centred on the novels and DWM.
At the time, 1993-2003 seemed like a wilderness – the show had been off the air since 1989, and in those years before the Internet, there was a dearth of ‘new’ information available, with fans left to look backwards with little or no prospect of new visual material likely. However, despite this, the decade managed to become one of several false starts and the accompanying dashed hopes.
The decade started with some promise as the BBC produced a documentary celebrating the 30th anniversary of the show, including comments from Alan Yentob suggesting there were still senior people within the BBC who held some affection for the show that had once been held in such esteem by the Corporation.
After four years off-air, an official BBC-made anniversary special in 3D didn’t seem like something we could hope for back in 1993. However, ex-Producer JN-T somehow managed to call in sufficient favours to make this happen, including filming on the East Enders set. Featuring all the living Doctors, monsters galore and companions from every era of the show, CGI being used to recreate Hartnell and Troughton, and Daleks and Cybermen on the streets of London once more, this might have been so many things, but the scope of the vision was limited by the capabilities of the time (And for those who think hyperbole is a recently invented concept, the ‘state of the art’ 3D technology rendered the First and Second Doctors as floating Spitting Image heads).
1996 saw a proper return for the show, with the TV movie obtaining a respectable audience of 9m in the UK – more than sufficient to launch a series from, had it been a BBC-only initiative. Unfortunately, as a co-production, the BBC’s partners needed to see substantial local performance in the US, and with that being seen as disappointing, a series was not forthcoming, though the circumstances surrounding the TV movie cast a shadow over the BBC’s own attempts to restart the show for several years.
Whilst Universal continued to hold some rights to TV Who following the TVM, these remained unused and eventually expired in 1997 and reverted to the BBC. Nothing further happened until the arrival of Mal Young at the Corporation, who was keen to bring the show back as a flagpole to Saturday night viewing. Unfortunately, the notion the BBC had to make a Who film continued to put the brakes on its return to television. However, this was the time when RTD had his initial meetings, and the wheels of the Corporation continued to turn slowly.
After seven years of Virgin publishing new Who novels, the BBC decided to pull licenses back in house at the time of the TV movie, and started to publish their own range of original novels. Whilst these received some adverse feedback, they were largely written by the same stable of authors as the Virgin novels, and tended to continue to push the boundaries of the show’s format.
Outside of the television realm, after a successful run of Benny Summerfield material, Big Finish obtained the license to produce officially sanctioned new audio plays featuring Doctors 5-7, and started with a multi-Doctor adventure “The Sirens of Time”, leading to a successful run that continues to this day, and has branched out into a multitude of genre shows.
Although it had not been a continuing series for a decade, Doctor Who was still a popular icon with the British public, and the idea that it might occasionally pop up in some form or other as part of a charity event was not beyond possibility. This turned out to be a ~half-hour story for Red Nose Day 1999, written by Steven Moffat (who would later go on to write the next multi-Doctor charity sketch) and featuring many of the fan favourite wishes for Doctors (Rowan Atkinson, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Richard E Grant), which both treated the source material with respect (Rowan in particular played the role totally straight), and gently poked fun at some of its foibles and oddities.
When Peter Salmon was replaced as Controller of BBC1 in 2000, there were fears that the impetus would fade away; but his successor, Lorraine Heggessy proved to be even keener to bring the show back in some way, making several statements to that effect, though usually citing rights issues as the delaying factor.
Whilst work continued behind the scenes to find a way to bring the show back, the outside world saw little progress on the TV front. Meanwhile, Big Finish continued to turn out their range of ‘Classic’ Doctor stories, including notable titles such as “Spare Parts” and “Jubilee” (elements of which were subsequently retooled into the new series’ “Dalek”).
2003 was a year when the BBC finally decided to move on from Paul McGann – there seemed no likelihood of any continuation from the TV movie and a fresh start was perhaps called for. Like buses, though, fresh starts don’t always come along in ones. The first was in the official fully-animated Doctor Who story “Scream of the Shalka” where Richard E Grant was introduced as a rather sarcastic ninth Doctor who kept a robotic Master (played by Derek Jacobi) in his Tardis (with a bit part played by some Tennant chap). Had circumstances been different, further such stories would have followed, with the show’s official future moving to web-based animations.
But then, on September 26th 2003, everything changed… Doctor Who was returning to TV once more…