When Doctor Who died, the Doctor didn’t.
Plenty of ‘cult’ television shows have survived long after the production of their final episode has come to an end. Fans keep the spirit of the show alive by meeting in groups, through the mail or, more recently, on the Internet, debating the minutiae of the series, writing fan fiction, following the careers of favourite actors after the show, and so on.
Doctor Who was well placed to survive its cancellation in a similar fashion. It had a large and loyal fan base on at least two continents. Fanzines and fan fiction were already a feature of the fandom. Indeed, Doctor Who’s very structure made it remarkably easy to craft Doctor Who fan fiction. The program, at its root, is about a wizard dressed in science-fiction clothes, who lives in a magical cabinet that can take him to any place and any time in the universe. He is a portable hero that can be inserted in to any situation, which makes the program the most flexible format in fiction. And just as that enabled the show to adapt and change over its twenty-six seasons, it made for a wealth of fan fiction, ranging in quality from the charmingly amateur to the remarkably professional. It’s no accident that I found myself writing for and editing Myth Makers and Trenchcoat during this period. The cancellation served as a wake-up call to fans, convincing them that their favourite show wasn’t limited to the television medium.
Among the remarkably professional examples of fan fiction was the Audio Visuals series.
The Audio Visuals Series
By 1985, a group of fans were producing Doctor Who radio plays. The Audio Visuals productions starred Nicholas Briggs (who fans today know best as the voice of the Daleks; he’s also appeared in a number of productions, including the Torchwood mini-series The Children of Earth) and featured quality story telling and superior production values. Production on these radio plays continued into the early 1990s, over four seasons, and were aided by the BBC’s benevolence towards such fan projects. The BBC’s attitude at the time appeared to allow for non-profit productions such as the Audio Visuals to continue — and went further in stating that if funds raised from the sale of these radio plays were channelled back into the project’s production values, productions like the Audio Visuals remained a non-profit venture.
The BBC weren’t being neglectful of their copyright, either, for their laissez-faire approach did not extend to music, where rights issues were rigorously enforced. So the Audio Visuals had to write their own theme tune for the series, and pay a license for the use of the TARDIS dematerialization sequence (since it was played by rubbing a key across a piano string, it was technically classified as ‘music’).
The Audio Visuals were able to produce some of the best stories that Doctor Who could offer. They had fun playing with the history of the show, giving us intriguing takes on the Daleks (see The Mutant Phase) and taking the Cybermen to their dramatic heights (Sword of Orion), while at the same time establishing its own continuity (see Conglomerate and the Justyce season). Some tales played with the limitations of the genre (again, see Congomoerate), while others were truly epic achievements (see Endurance).
The Audio Visuals proved that not only could Doctor Who thrive on an audio medium, it was possible for original Doctor Who to thrive outside of the television series full stop. The Audio Visuals took the season-dominating plot concept, which had previously only been applied to the Key to Time series and Trial of a Time Lord, and ran with it, such that the tactic was taken up by subsequent fan and professional productions, and by the television series itself when it returned in 2005.
And when the Audio Visuals closed up shop in 1991, the people behind it didn’t fade quietly away. Producer Bill Baggs started producing videos, including stand alone movies featuring Colin Baker as a mysterious Doctor-like individual known as “The Stranger”. When the time came for the BBC to license the production of audio plays, Bill Baggs picked up such a license for his company Big Finish Productions. Producers, actors and writers from the Audio Visuals series can be found on the audio plays produced by both the BBC and Bill Baggs, with some of the Audio Visuals stories remade into licensed Doctor Who productions starring the original actors from the television series.
But some of the most exciting developments in Doctor Who occurred in book format.
The Virgin Books’ New Adventures
When Doctor Who ceased production in 1989, the bulk of new, officially licensed material found itself in the hands of Target Books, by then an imprint of Virgin. Target’s novelizations of the televised Doctor Who episodes had proven to be a pretty lucrative business. In the age before the widespread use of video cassette recorders and DVD players, these novels were the only way for fans to experience older episodes on demand. However, by 1991, Virgin Books had nearly exhausted its supply of episodes to novelize. So it took what might seem to us to be an obvious step but which was, back then, revolutionary for Doctor Who: they started to write stories of their own.
Carrying on from the end of the series, the New Doctor Who Adventures extended the seventh Doctor’s era of the program over dozens of books, introducing such companions as Bernice Summerfield and Chris Cwej alongside Ace. By the time they and their successors at BBC Books were done, the Doctor had passed Sherlock Holmes as the world record holder for the fictional character having the most books in print.
The New Adventures took their cues both from Andrew Cartmel’s vision of the program, and the Audio Visuals similarly experimental approach. Writers from both the Andrew Cartmel era and the Audio Visuals contributed stories to this series, along with a bunch of new authors discovered by editor Peter Darville-Evans. The result was a series with far more mature sensibilities than the television show had yet undertaken, and this was controversial for many fans, some of whom felt that the Doctor Who concept had been twisted into something other than what had brought them aboard as fans. But you also got novels that function as strong science-fiction literature in their own right. Ben Aaronovitch’s The Also People is remarkable in its scope, in its imagination, and in the fact that it’s quite funny. Kate Orman’s novels are known for pushing the Doctor through personal horrors well beyond what television was able to show.
Then there’s Paul Cornell, whose book Timewyrm: Revelation launched a full writing career that eventually led to the production of Human Nature as an episode of Doctor Who in 2007, and much more. It’s also from the New Adventures period that a number of other contributors of the Doctor Who revival start to appear. Steven Moffat’s first contribution to Doctor Who is the short story Continuity Errors. Russell T. Davies’ first professional Doctor Who credit was the New Adventures novel Damaged Goods.
As controversial as some of the New Adventures novels might have been, I think it’s safe to say that Doctor Who could not have survived in its current form through its long downtime without the passionate attention of the editorial staff at Virgin Books. They kept interest in the series alive while the BBC took its time realizing that they had an intellectual property that they didn’t need to be ashamed of. The fact that Virgin Books was producing what had become the “official” new Who gave the remaining fandom a sense of focus it might not otherwise have had, preventing the continuity from fracturing in ways that could have prevented Russell T. Davies from launching a series that managed to take the old continuity aboard.
Indeed, without the presence of the Virgin Books series extending the life of the seventh Doctor beyond the show’s cancellation in 1989, the show’s return in 1996 might have been very different.
The Paul McGann Movie, the Eighth Doctor BBC Books and Audio Plays
It took a while, but the BBC eventually realized that they had a money-generating property on their hands. As fan interest in the show remained active in the years following the cancellation, the BBC entertained serious offers to co-produce the series, including from Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. There were disappointments — the planned 90 minute special to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the program fell through, replaced with an incoherent, fourteen-minute-long monstrosity called Dimensions in Time — but the BBC’s attitude eventually changed, particularly as the guard that had been so hostile to the program retired.
Efforts to revive the series eventually coalesced around a made-for-TV movie co-produced by the BBC and Universal Studios, which was shown on Fox Network in May 1996. Starring Paul McGann, the movie brought back Sylvester McCoy to reprise his role and regenerate into an eighth Doctor that was directly linked to the original series. While this approach was welcomed by the fans, it may have backfired with the general audience, who were confused as to what was going on. Note that when Russell T. Davies brought the show back, he was careful to reintroduce the concept of regeneration at the end of the first season, allowing the audience grow to like and care about Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor before he was suddenly written out. Whatever the case, though the movie was a ratings hit in the United Kingdom, the ratings were far poorer on Fox (where it had been scheduled up against Rosanne), and the “back door pilot” failed to generate interest in a subsequent series.
But the movie did launch the Paul McGann era of the program, and it was an actual era. Though Paul McGann didn’t reprise his role as the Doctor again on television, the BBC were interested enough in the franchise to buy back their license to produce new books, and also to produce audio plays. Essentially, both the New Adventures and the Audio Visuals series were now in the BBC’s hands, and Paul McGann’s face (and voice) fronted both. The Paul McGann audio adventures were entirely separate from his book adventures, but the two were careful enough not to contradict each other, and thus a bevy of new eighth Doctor companions appeared to join Grace from the movie, including Sam, Charlie, Compassion and many more.
This was also the period where the BBC commissioned original Doctor Who audio plays featuring the older Doctors, including Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. These were instantly popular, and featured some quality work. The audio play Spare Parts, was listed on at least one fan survey as not only the best Doctor Who audio adventure, but the best Doctor Who story of all time. Here, Marc Platt tackled the genesis of the Cybermen. While fans often salivate at the prospect of a Cyber equivalent to Genesis of the Daleks, and while there is much drama inherent to the Cybermen’s origin story, Marc still had to manage the risk that comes with all origin stories, where the sense of tragic inevitability sacrifices critical suspense. Platt’s story is remarkable because his depiction of events makes the creation of the Cybermen not only tragically inevitable, but coldly logical as well.
Death Comes to Time and The Scream of the Shalka
As Doctor Who approached its fortieth anniversary, it was confident in its place off of British television. It was a successful books series and a successful series of audio plays. Then a new venue opened up for the franchise. The BBC commissioned two Doctor Who productions that would debut on the Internet. The first, Death Comes to Time, was primarily an audio play featuring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred reprising their roles as the seventh Doctor and Ace. The Internet component allowed the BBC to pair the words with a set of images that changed during the course of the production.
Then, in late 2003, the BBC commissioned Scream of the Shalka, written by Paul Cornell and starring Richard E. Grant as a new ninth Doctor. Using Flash, this production was closer to a proper animated adventure, and was somewhat whimsical in its approach. Fans were alternately confused or delighted by the presence of the Master, played by Derek Jacobi, acting as a robotic gentleman’s gentleman in the TARDIS console room.
With the success of Scream of the Shalka, fans were looking forward to new adventures of the Richard E. Grant ninth Doctor. So they were surprised and little bit upset to hear that all subsequent productions of the Internet series were cancelled. How could the BBC do this? What were they thinking? There was considerable disbelief when rumours started circulating that the BBC were thinking of reviving the series for television, that Russell T. Davies had secured permission to go forward, and that a new ninth Doctor had been cast. We’d heard these rumours before, and we were sick of being disappointed. But the rumours didn’t go away, and started being coupled with official confirmations, and then photos from the film shoots. Then, finally, on Easter 2005, the series was back on air, and it was glorious.
The arrival of the new televised Doctor Who meant an end to the BBC Books’ eighth Doctor adventures, and many mourned its passing. The new novels that have taken these books’ place have been subservient to the show, and no novels featuring any of the older Doctors have been published since 2005. Fortunately, the audio series have continued under the BBC license, so the fruits of the long dark period between 1989 and 2005 haven’t entirely disappeared.
This is fitting, perhaps, given that without these fruits, there may not have been enough of a fan base for Russell T. Davies to bring the show back to life in 2005. He may not have been able to connect the new series so strongly to the old, and have been forced instead to perform a complete reboot. The thirty-first televised season of Doctor Who debuted on April 3, 2010, but we are still in the forty-seventh year of continued life of the mysterious man known only as the Doctor.