Up-words - Doctor In Distress

Up-words- The Best of the Paper Issues of This way up 2002-10

Doctor in Distress - the Doctor Who cancellation crisis of 1985

May 2003 (with occasional 2012 edits)

by John Connors

The history of Doctor Who is littered with skirmishes and battles, none of which involve Daleks, Cybermen or that jackanapes The Master. In fact, given the creative and financial challenges and the cross departmental involvement it’s a wonder much got made at all but often the end result was achieved only after considerable stress and trouble. Right from the early days, it was a controversial programme within the BBC, whether due to inter departmental sniping over who should take ownership of it or the fact that the first producer was a young woman with little experience. This was the world of the early 1960s; male dominated and union controlled. With so much at stake it’s perhaps unsuprising that the series seemed to endure rather a lot of `6th floor` interference down the years. Ratings success with the Daleks may have ensured it’s shelf life exceeded the proposed 13 weeks, but there were to be many instances when it’s content was the source of internal strife and or public criticism. Even the pilot episode had to be remade when declared bobbins by BBC high ups.

Once the series was established and Verity Lambert moved on, her successor John Wiles found himself unable to push the show in the direction he would have chosen and instead it slowly became a monster show. Historical stories were phased out and sci-fi stories were definitely in. When the Cybermen were introduced, there was an outcry. “The Cybermen? Quite amazingly scary, wouldn’t you say?” David Coleman possiby said as an edition of Talkback` featured young mites terrified by the metal meanies. By the late 60’s though, Doctor Who was facing it’s first big external crisis and until the mid 1980s this was as near as it got to finishing. The monsters and baggy trousers of the era had failed to light the ratings touchpaper perhaps because each story was the same and they all ran for 103 episodes so BBC bosses were seriously considering replacing the show with something new and dynamic. And in a way, they did. The Doctor Who of 1970-73 is almost like another series with its’ earthbound settings and Havoc action sequences. Clearly inspired by The Avengers, Derrick Sherwin revamped the show and it was the charms of Jan Putrid and the Old Silurian that saved the day.

In the 1970s the series enjoyed it’s biggest success but it was that combination of realism and horror that got it into trouble; first after `Terror of the Autons` saw questions being asked in the House of Commons and then, in 1976, the `Deadly Assassin` controversy when a shot of the Doctor drowing caused such a furore that Philip Hinchcliffe was `moved on` to another series. His replacement, Graham Williams, was told to cut out the gratuitous elements but he managed to do more than just that. If there was ever a man who saved the series it was Williams. Had his version of the show flopped it would surely have been curtains but by bolstering up content to a more studenty level, Willaims and the great Douglas Adams ensured that rather than drop Doctor Who as they got older, viewers from the early 70s went to University with their long scarves and revelled in the delights of the most alien, madcap Doctor of all.

The theme till now has clearly been that whatever flak Doctor Who attracted, however low things got or however fraught then production process was, the programme sailed on because of the fondness for the show that developed within the BBC and the way it bounced back changing styles and lead actors and thereby capturing new generations of viewers. Unfortunately by 1985, it wasn’t like that anymore.

The 1980s had started off well enough. A new producer and script editor had again done a turnaround job, fitting the show up to face a new era and it certainly worked for a while. In subsequently casting Peter Davison as the Doctor the team had also successfully cirumnavigated the problem of replacing Tom Baker whose lengthy tenure had made him the definitive Doctor for many. Davison has his own following which he brought to any programme he made; little wonder he was often filming two shows at a time. He was nearly as popular then as David Jason is now.

However he left the TARDIS after three years and his following went with him. The show started to flit around the schedules, taken away from it’s traditional Saturday evening slot but never really given another strong place to thrive. The casual viewer began to turn off, frustrated by increasingly un linear storylines that baffled many, as did an increasing reliance on old motifs and continutity by the barrel load. In place of spectacle and dark corners came nasty violence and darker themes that were epitomised by an unsympatheticly written Doctor whom kids simply did not like. In the corridors of power at the BBC too attitudes towards the series had changed. Whereas it was once viewed as a fixture, it’s zigagging around the schedules was symptomatic of a new generation of executives who did not really feel the same enthusiasm for it, who saw it as old hat and tired. So, when the ratings started to fall alarmingly for the new season beginning at the start of 1985, Doctor Who was already vulnerable. But other circumstances had conspired to make that position worse.

Stay Tuned? The public didn't in 1985.
On Wednesday 27 February 1985 London's daily newspaper 'The Evening Standard' received a phone call from a never identified source at Thames Television repeating a rumour they'd heard to the effect that Doctor Who was being taken off the air "for at least 18 months". This was not a new rumour. Producer John Nathan Turner had already heard it himself the previous week from both lan Levine (his unofficial script consultant) and Robert Holmes (who'd been commissioned to pen a third Auton story) but he had, publicy at least, dismissed the idea. It's almost certain that the stories originated from one of many fans who were employed at the BBC and it was wishful thinking on the producer's part to ignore the signs of a television programme in crisis; signs that had been apparent for two months.

Episode 1 of 'Attack of the Cybermen' had garnered impressive ratings of 9 million but they had tumbled to 7 million for the second part. By 'Mark of the Rani' part 1 they'd dropped alarmingly to 6.28 million; a fall of almost a third in less than 8 weeks. This fall had been noticed by the press who were on alert for a cancellation/crisis angle, a situation heightened by rising complaints about the level of graphic violence in the season which had been voiced publicly in the 'Radio Times' and on Points of View. Inside the BBC, Head of Series Jonathan Powell had singled out 'The Two Doctors' for particular criticism - the stories' lack of focus, glossy but empty content and seemingly gratuitous acts of violence making it a perfect example of the series decline even before it reached the viewing public. Powell had made all this clear to Turner during a private meeting but if the latter's  DWM memoirs, published during 1997, are to be believed the producer did not see the inevitable until the storm hit.

Twelve years later Nathan Turner was still running with the official explanation that Powell gave him when informing him that the 23rd season would not go into production until 1986 at the earliest. He says he was told by Powell that the BBC needed to commit a large amount of money towards expanding it's daytime programming and that in order to fund this, other programmes were being cut back or postponed until the following financial year. This is by no means untrue; many other series were affected -Juliet Bravo for example suffered a curtailed season, Pop Quiz and Crackerjack were cancelled and never returned - but it would also be accurate to say that had Doctor Who been seen as an ongoing success it would not have been such an easy target.

'The Standard's story that day dwelt on the financial angle but added that the show was only being "rested" and would be back "next year". They also had quotes from the Doctor Who Appreciation Society (DWAS) who were "shocked" and Levine who said “Doctor Who was "more than just a TV programme. For 22 years it's been a way of life" presumably speaking up for all those Time Lords resident on Earth! Just to stoke things up the paper reminded everyone how the BBC had been forced to back down over Dallas, the popular U.S soap that they'd hinted they wouldn't be able to afford to buy anymore until a tabloid led revolt made them think again, It was to be this precedent that leading fans would use as a benchmark for their actions in the next few days.

The floodgates were well and truly open as the cancellation featured on that evening's news bulletins and the next morning, February 28th saw every national newspaper carry the story including 'The Sun's now renowned DR.WHO AXED IN A BBC PLOT headline that occupied a third of the front page, a prominence that the 'Daily Express', 'Financial Times', 'Daily Telegraph' and 'Guardian' also gave it. Had the 'Sunday Sport' been around they would no doubt have run the story as REAL AUTONS ARE IN THE BBC. 'The subject was mentioned in several of that day's news and chat shows and it quickly became clear that the decision was unpopular with many people who worked at the Corporation. Lots of Who luminaries were wheeled out for a quote including an unusually outspoken Patrick Troughton ("He should stick to acting" fumed Michael Grade later) and Jon Pertwee who took the opportunity to suggest they brought each of the former Doctors back for a year, an idea that presumably delighted Colin Baker! By that afternoon the Dr Who Fan Club of America had even offered to raise the money to pay for the BBC to make season 23 that year. Darker sources across the Pond even hinted that Grade could be `taken out` - and they didn’t mean for lunch!

"Heh, heh, heh, you are doomed Doctor"

The blanket coverage from the press was far from the spontaneous outcry that it appeared to be however, as Levine had spent the previous day working overtime to stoke up the tabloids with the help of Nathan Turner who officially had nothing to say. Levene was convinced that unless there was a big enough backlash against the suspension the series would never return and he, Nathan Turner and BBC Press officer Kevin O'Shea pooled ideas to try and "suggest ways of getting the programme back in production sooner rather than later" as JNT put it in the fan magaziine DWM. In a 1992 interview, Levine went into detail about the way this worked using the example of 'Sun' journalist Charles Catchpole; "(JNT) told me that there were codenames within the BBC that Catchpole would know so I phoned him and said I worked on the 6th Floor under Michael Grade and that my name was Snowball. I said that there was a plot to get rid of Doctor Who." Assuming that the journalist's response wasn't a sarcastic "Well you'd better call UNIT then", Levine went on to detail how much money the show made for the Corporation from overseas sales and merchandise.The trio had realised that while the series' plight would make a big entertainment story it wasn't front page material unless it was given a wider angle and the notion that the affair was part of a wider BBC gambit involving finances was just the ticket. Stunts like Levine pictured smashing his television set also gave the fans a passionate angle even if the idea was JNTs and the set was found on a scrapheap. Perhaps Levine should have smashed his gold discs instead?

The most curious aspect of all is that it was Michael Grade who was blamed for everything. At the time to was easy to see why, especially as he had once said that if he were ever to become BBC controller he would scrap “tired old rubblish like Doctor Who”. Even DWB which was relentless in it's attacks on the quality of the series at that time (something the DWAS almost ignored) and seemed well informed as to what was going on, failed to identify Jonathan Powell as anything other than one of a series of BBC execs to whom letters could be written. Grade, despite that earlier quote, was far more ambivalent to the show than Powell (who was on record as hating the programme) yet got all the flak and was even pursued on a skiing holiday and for months afterwards to the point where cancelling the show is one of the best known things he supposedly did at the BBC. Many years later he did  dump the series into the imfamous Room 101 much to fans ire, but one suspects he’s probably just fed up hearing about it altogether.

On March 1, press coverage entered it's second day as both 'The Sun' and the 'Daily Star' launched 'Save Doctor Who' campaigns and there was the emergence of what must rank as the most embarrassing Doctor Who related project ever, an all star single the proceeds of which would go towards funding season 23 though it later became a charity record.

After Band Aid the previous year the idea of getting pop stars together for a cause was still fresh in people’s minds but protesting against a TV show being taken off the air for longer than usual is pushing it as far as worthy causes go. Paul Mark Tams, a former DWAS exec member was the mastermind behind this idea. By that afternoon however the tide turned. The BBCs managing director Bill Cotton decided on some damage limitation issuing a statement to the effect that the series would be back in 1986 and was "definitely" not cancelled for good and it would be returning to it's "traditional" 25 minute format. He even took time to phone up DWAS Co-ordinator David Saunders to tell him in advance of the statement, presumably to stop the fan network giving the press any more stuff for the next day's editions and it worked like a dream.

Ian Levene- he's not happy. Again.

For the tabloids the statement was confirmation that the show was saved and the story had run out of mileage. In actual fact the BBC had said nothing new but the wording gave the impression of a compromise and allowed fans the satisfaction of having won. It was thus a strange situation for leading fans to find themselves in when they met on March 3rd to discuss a crisis that had seemingly ended. Yet there was agreement to continue letterwriting campaigns, urge local groups to pursue publicity and write again to Bill Cotton to gain assurances. The meeting was attended by the DWAS exec, various genre magazine editors, DWB, Ian Levine and Paul Tams and it was to provide the basis for a period of reasonable agreement between the factions though an incident in which it was discovered DWB editor Gary Leigh was secretly taping the meeting was an indication that this truce was to be short lived. As time went on fandom was split both by the way the response to the crisis was handled and by the content of the forthcoming season 23. This was nevertheless a vibrant time for fans at all levels. The next few days saw the story fade from the national press though Grade was finally cornered and stressed the need for the series to appeal to a British audience suggesting that strong overseas sales were not considered of importance. He also poured scorn on fandom's noisy response to the situation describing them as a "small interest group" and the fuss in the papers as "a storm in a teacup".

`Doctor In Distress`,the charity single was recorded on 7/8 March and despite Tams' earlier claims that a good proportion of the period's top pop stars would be involved, the woeful celeb count actually amounted to members of Ultravox and The Moody Blues, the ex drummer of The Jam, all of the artists Levine produced (few of whom were known outside the dance music world) plus stars from the show including Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, Anthony Ainley and Nick Courtney. To be fair, they had the best intentions but the song itself was a lamentably ordinary Hi NRG workout with awkward lyrics that betrayed a lack of copyright clearance, hence K9 becomes "a canine computer" and so on, though Ainley's contribution is priceless! Released under the unfortunately appropriate moniker of Who Cares, the song was banned by the Radio 1 on the grounds that the lyrics couldn't be heard though it was probably for the best. “I felt faintly embarrased by it” commented Clolin Baker later, claiming he was persuaded to take part by JNT.

The seven days that shook the world of Doctor Who were over but the aftershocks would go on for the next 18 months and beyond. DWB spent the time dreaming up ways of keeping the campaign going spurred on by developments they were the first to reveal - in particular the next season's reduced episode count and Eric Saward's dramatic walkout- their coverage ranging from accurate scoops to outright paranoia and a line of distinctly distasteful personal abuse. An article in the September 1985 issue is a typical example of the scattershot approach. "Season 23 will almost certainly be the very last" it announces proceeding to justify the statement with the fact that there were no repeats scheduled for that summer and that all protest letters about the suspension were being passed to JNT to answer. Most of all, scorn was directed at the DWAS for doing nothing in case they upset the BBC "The day will come" the article concludes menacingly "when questions will be asked and a lot of heads will be on the plate." Rumours that DWAS exec members took to travelling in bullet proof cars cannot be confirmed! In truth the Society was in a difficult position and the accusation of being unwilling to upset the BBC that Leigh often made was partly true though only because the Society had to look at the bigger picture. As it was now certain that there would be a season 23 in some form, the best option would surely be for fans to help promote it in the most positive way which is what CT did. That does not mean that behind the scenes the situation wasn't being monitored and assessed or that there was no strategy; in fact the next year a plan was drawn up for use in the event of any future cancellation crisis.

"And you're sure it's not my fault..?"

Apart from the sniping that it created the different approaches meant that fans were well served; they could rant and rave along with DWB while being sure that the DWAS was maintaining a dialogue with the production office and the 6th Floor. At the time a lot of fans were frustrated by what they saw as the DWAS' lack of action and perhaps the most contentious issue was to be the episode count of the next season. As early as April 1985 rumours had begun to circulate that season 23 would not contain 26 episodes. At the DWASocial 5 event that month, during a tense, edgy panel Levine addressed the audience to claim that there would only be 20 episodes and urged them to renew their campaigns. The same day, Nathan Turner denounced Levine's claims describing them as "rabble rousing". The DWAS’S newsletter `Celestial Toyroom` then printed a review of the event describing Levine's speech as akin to a "Hitler rally" under the headline 'Who Do You Believe?' Nathan Turner was then upset by this inference that there was any doubt about what he'd been saying!

The actual occasion was just as heated as it sounds and only Colin Baker's presence helped diffuse the tensions though it should be mentioned that some people applauded both Levine and Nathan Turner with equal enthusiasm! In a subsequent interview Levine claimed that JNT apologised for publicly denouncing him but said "I will decide when the fans know not you". It's also worth noting a letter published by CT and dated l7 April (after DWASocial 5) in which Jonathan Powell stated that the number of episodes that the next season will comprise of has "not yet" been decided. It wasn't until September 1985 that any further evidence was forthcoming thanks to a telegram sent to the series' American distributors Lionheart but received accidentally by Ron Katz, head of the American fan club which stated that there would only be 14 episodes.

Meanwhile the rest of 1985 saw plans for next season being formulated although script editor Eric Saward later alleged that not a lot was done with the extra time. The radio play 'Slipback' was made and, true to form, Nathan Turner ensured that there were sundry photo opportunities and even a parachute jump to keep the press involved. In the autumn Michael Grade commented again on the show re-iterating his views on the weaknesses of last season and saying that the ratings for the next one would decide the series' future. December 18 saw the BBC finally officially announce the 14 episodes presumably hoping everyone was too busy 'doing' Xmas to be bothered protesting. Coming hard on the heels of the final closure of the Blackpool Exhibition it was a bleak time for fans. Colin Baker was reported to be "upset, angered (and) disgusted".

Fans, meanwhile. were dumbfounded when on January 23 1986 it was announced that Bonnie Langford was to be the next companion replacing Nicola Bryant halfway through the upcoming season. For those with any sense of occasion, this was the first public indication that the much vaunted revamp of the series was not going to be what people expected. A respected stage performer, Bonnie Langord had little experience of television drama and a reputation based, rather unfairly on her childhood roles. Yet it was to be an adult version of that persona that her character of Mel was written as. While 'The Sun' described her as "the last hope" for the series. Ian Levine denounced the casting as "the last straw" and severed all connections with the production office.

Years later in `Doctor Who Magazine` John Nathan Turner went out of his way to defend Bonnie whom he described as "a fine performer" who he said he'd cast due to her "enormous talent" and to gain publicity. Even his staunchest supporters –and for that matter Bonnie herself later on – would suggest that this was miscasting at a time when the show needed a fresh start. Nathan Turner’s own position, debated by fandom for years was strange though. By this time he was the only remaining staff producer working for the BBC and had he been moved from the series, there was no other job for him. His stark choice was to remain producing the series indefinitely or be out of a job altogther. Is it then any wonder he was casting and taking decisions purely on the basis of the publicity he thought the series could get? Bonnie herself soon regretted the move which she thought would give her a chance to break away from her twee image but instead played on it,

Her arrival was to turn the tide too for many who'd supported JNT thus far and at a time when Michael Grade was publicly calling for the show to strive for the production standards of the likes of Robin of Sherwood showed how out of touch with modern television JNT was becoming and it was perhaps the producer's greatest folly to believe in that old adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Doctor Who was becoming a machine that had no function other than to feed itself; the survival of the show had become more important than maintaining it's status as a challenging and entertaining programme.

Work on the season was then further complicated by the death of Robert Holmes, which left the last episode unfinished. Eric Saward had already left to return to freelance writing but having become friendly with Holmes and his wife felt obligated to return to complete the script. When he turned in a sombre offering that concluded with the Doctor and the Master tumbling into an abyss, the smiley shwobiz instincts of JNT were appalled and he rejected the offering. Colin Baker later described Saward’s version of episode 14 as “full of Eric’s personal angst….and his distaste for the programme”.  The producer felt this was all too negative and that there should be a clear message that "the show was back in business" and handed the reins to Pip and Jane Baker and their cartharis of spurious morality. The trial concept itself was quite liked by Michael Grade though not by Jonathan Powell (who hated 'Mysterious Planet' especially) but the show's dirty laundry was dragged into the public domain when Saward was interviewed in 'Starburst' magazine and slammed recent developments going as far as claiming Nathan Turner spent script conferences looking out of the window. The producer later described this interview as "hurtful". Saward also stated that he felt Baker had been mis-cast from the start, something which didn’t square with the script editor’s often poring out his troubles ot the actor at his home. “Eric was a complex character” Baker commented in 2002 “I hadn’t realised that…he wasn’t at ease with his job or what he was doing”.

Everything faded into the background when season 23 debuted on 6 September 1986. The DWAS held their PanoptiCon event that weekend and screened the episode live in what must rank as one of the all time best convention moments. Over 700 attendees became increasingly excited as 5.45 grew closer and just before the episode began hundreds of party poppers and streamers were let off. Dominic Glynn's re-working of the title theme was greeted by thunderous applause as the 18 month gap was over at last and the huge screen made the impressive opening model shot even more stunning. Of course you had to be there. All these years later we're more familiar with 'Mysterious Planet' as the wordy, rather dull and meandering story it actually is. Yet the euphoria persisted with rumours that 10 million people had watched it.

The truth was that the whole season was a ratings disaster. That first episode only got 4.9 million viewers and this dropped to 3.92 the next week. The highest rated was 5.94 for 'Terror of the Vervoids' part 3. Action was swift and in November Colin Baker was sacked, a move that the press had already anticipated speculating it was because he had been outspoken during the suspension but Grade claimed that 3 years as the Doctor was standard (?!). There was sympathy for the actor but his Doctor is nowadays generally seen as the least effective though he also had the highest proportion of poor scripts to work with. Like Saward before him Baker made his grudges public, wittering on to `the Sun` about Michael Grade ignoring him in the lobby and even speculating as to whether his ex-wife had somethingt to do with it all! All of which simply added to the impression of Doctor Who as a series in terminal decay.

As we know, the show lasted another three years,even staging something of a creative revival in it’s last two seasons and offering a far better choice for its final Doctor in the impish and unpredictable Sylvester McCoy. Turner lasted till the end; his annual resignation and re-instatement was taken as read by then as people did not know the facts behind it. He took much of the flak while it was another script editor, Andrew Cartmel who seemed to be conceptualising the series’ new dark graphic novel direction. Oddly enough, soon after season 23 had finished there was a rumour that only three more seasons would be made and then the show would be scrapped for good. Whether there was really anything in that is a moot point but conspiracy theories that the series was deliberatly sabotaged would seem an unusually proligate method when they could have just cancelled it. Whatever was going on, the ratings failed to impress, thanks to almost impossible scheduling Coronation Street` while the advent of`Star Trek- The Next Generation sounded the death knell for a homespun studio bound series like Doctor Who. Whether its true or whether we believe it or not, the fact is that Doctor Wh` is now percieved as something that needs a big budget and the hardware to compete with the glossy US shows and this may be the real reason for the TARDIS’ grounding. The show was created, developed and thrived in a television world very different to the one we have in the UK now; maybe the likes of Powell and Grade could foresee this in the mid 1980s?

In the end, the original series of Doctor Who died an ignominious death without fireworks, ailing and well past it’s prime. It was shelved while the BBC claimed to be looking for an independent programme maker to produce it. The Coporation itself was being devolved, making fewer shows in house and instead hiring others to make them. Despite some public and private horse trading, nothing happened until 1996...but that’s another story.