10 years on, and it’s hard to remember what a nail-biting moment it was. As fans we’d been let down by the TV movie, and made to feel like weirdos by the BBC. 45 minutes later, it was almost just a relief that Russell T Davies hadn’t mucked it up. At the time I just thought, ‘thank God it was good’.
Subsequently, Rose has become probably the most picked-over 45 minutes of television ever. Probably had been even before The End of the World broadcast, because by 2005 internet fandom was properly established, and the episode leaked online before transmission.
In retrospect, Rose isn’t a hugely surprising episode for anyone familiar with Davies’ previous work, including Damaged Goods, or for anyone aware of the way Doctor Who had been developing since Survival. I’ve already covered making the ‘Wilderness Years’ for a new audience in the Scream of the Shalka post.
What is surprising is that, of all the options open to the BBC – making a feature film, co-producing with an American partner, or just rebooting the show – a continuation of the 1963 series was one of the least likely. Especially when there was a consensus view that among the TV movie’s biggest mistakes were including Sylvester McCoy and an info-dump of arcane mythology.
So Rose has to answer the question: how do you resurrect a long-running TV programme where the past is widely seen – including by the production company – as a bit of a joke? How do you simultaneously make Doctor Who Season 27 and Doctor Who Series One.
Davies’ solution is the Time War, clearing the decks of the mythology – of rival Time Lords and regeneration limits – that stifled the TV movie. The Time War isn’t a BBC Books’ style continuity reset, a negation of the past. Everything is still there. It’s just time-locked, safely segregated from the rest of the universe. It doesn’t prevent Davies from telling stories about Gallifrey and the Master. But it’s a way of closing the door on the past, from keeping it from impinging on the new series until Davies is ready. It is even used (bizarrely, for long-term fans) as a justification for his not going back for Sarah Jane. The Daleks and the Master are explicitly said to have escaped the time-lock, slipping through the cracks – which also allowed the Parallel Cybermen into our universe. The Sontarans and the Nestenes are said to have been affected by the war, even if not directly involved. In The End of Time the Doctor says, ‘If the time-lock’s broken, then everything’s coming through.’ He mentions the Horde of Travesties and the Skaro Degredations but he might as well add the Borad, the Quarks and Faction Paradox. The time-lock is there to keep them all safely contained. Anything returning from the show’s own history is explicitly linked to the Time War, which therefore becomes the watchword for pre-2005 Doctor Who.
The shadow of the past becomes one of the most interesting aspects, both of Rose and the whole of the Davies ‘era’. The ninth Doctor isn’t just the only survivor of the war. He was part of it, soaked in blood. He’s tainted by association with the past. We’ll learn he committed double genocide on the Daleks and the Time Lords. In Rose, the Auton killing spree happens because the Doctor blunders into the Nestene base and causes the Consciousness to accelerate its plans for conquest. Clive, the only speaking character in Rose to get killed off, becomes just another in ‘the ranks of the Doctor’s fallen extras’ as Davies called them back in Damaged Goods. Earlier in the episode, he’s predicts his own fate when he tells Rose: ‘The Doctor is a legend woven throughout history. When disaster comes, he’s there. He brings the storm in his wake and he has one constant companion. Death.’
This theme runs across the Davies series. The Doctor might be wonderful, but he’s also ‘the storm in the heart of the sun’. Dozens of people die in 1913 because he hides there ‘on a whim’. Even Martha becomes wary of him, telling Donna, ‘He’s wonderful, he’s brilliant, but he’s like fire. Stand too close and people get burnt.’ It’s summarised in Boom Town, when Margaret Blaine challenges the Doctor:
Only a killer would know that. Is that right? From what I’ve seen, your funny little happy go lucky little life leaves devastation in its wake. Always moving on because you dare not look back. Playing with so many people’s lives, you might as well be a god. And you’re right, Doctor. You’re absolutely right. Sometimes you let one go.
The Doctor has no glib answer. And I think it’s because neither does Davies: these are questions about the Doctor that trouble him, he keeps replaying Margaret’s criticism – through Joan Redfern and Davros and Adelaide Brooke. These ideas were there as far back as Damaged Goods, and they’re definitely there right from Rose. Again and again through Davies’ scripts, we see a character torn between being a ‘vengeful god’ and a human – ideas raised in Davies’ first collaboration with Eccleston, The Second Coming.
At the end of the season, Rose says the Doctor showed her ‘a better way of living your life’. But I think she does the same for him. All along, the Doctor’s needed us ‘stupid apes’ – to stop him from going too far, from braining a caveman to exterminating the Racnoss. The tension between the Doctor as the lonely god, the last of the Time Lords, the ‘Time Lord victorious’, and the Doctor as a ‘man of peace, never cruel or cowardly’ runs right through to the end of Davies’ tenure, when he realises that there’s no point having epic adventures if he can’t save one old man.
So Davies makes the Time War/history of Doctor Who more than a convenient piece of backstory. It’s like the Big Bang – the thing that the entire universe, including the Doctor, is rushing away from. The ninth Doctor’s first word is, ‘Run!’ And he never stops running. This forward momentum is typical of Davies’ writing, which is both fast-paced (the biggest innovation of Rose is its speed, so much quicker than any previous Doctor Who in any medium), and looking to the future. Of 31 episodes Davies is credited for, only two are historicals (both set in Victorian Britain). That’s six per cent, compared with 40 per cent of Moffat’s 31 episodes to date. This might just mean Davies is less interested in writing historicals. He clearly doesn’t have a massive issue with them, he just prefers to give them to Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts or Moffat. But it’s interesting because I think we can infer something of Davies’ mindset about ‘the past’ in general: he doesn’t have a problem with it, but he’s not much interested in revisiting it.
I think it’s also representative of Davies view of what Doctor Who should be: exciting, pioneering and optimistic: ‘You never take time to imagine the impossible, that maybe you survive.’ History might therefore seem a bit dull. On the rare occasions the TARDIS goes back in time, it’s to go to pop concerts or plays: the running gag in Series One and Two is the Doctor trying to take Rose to see Venice, or Ian Drury and the Blockheads or Elvis and getting it wrong. Davies’ Who is both more grounded in the real world, and more interested in adventures that demonstrate the excitement of human endeavour. Rose ends on a Next Time trailer for The End of the World, which says a lot about the tone of the new series: Ian and Barbara met the first humans, Rose gets to meet the last one.
Though the first companion to get her name in the titles, Rose isn’t exactly unprecedented: every one since Grace has been the Doctor’s equal. But she’s more solidly ‘ordinary’ than any of them. The gets at the other thing I think Davies strives for: authenticity. Rose is a shop girl with no A-levels, who left school because of a boy. She’s sexualised – ‘Any excuse to get in the bedroom’ – and she drinks. She feels authentic, grounded in real life.
Equally, the ninth Doctor has an authenticity to him that’s beyond the frock coats and eccentricities of his predecessors. Not even the Shalka Doctor foreshadowed this version. The northern accent adds to this sense of bluff honesty. It’s probably a coincidence that these authentic leads are pitted against monsters made of plastic, with its connotations of artificiality and fakeness, defeating them through a mix of Rose’s practical gymnastics and the Doctor’s anti-plastic. But it fits a trend. Next episode, the villain’s a plastic surgeon’s wet dream, and throughout the season the Doctor and Rose get pitted against fake space refugees, fake politicians, even fake Daleks. Davies was candid about wanting to avoid stories set on ‘the Planet Zog’, which lacked realness or relevance to a contemporary audience. In Damaged Goods and Rose the only thing that makes the lingering after-effects of a Time Lord war important is the effect it has on the real life of people on a council estate.
This real-life ‘authenticity’ is something new, albeit the direction Doctor Who was moving towards in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While a backdrop of mainly present day Earth / future spaceships might recall the Pertwee era, Davies’ Doctor Who has practically nothing in common with it. Instead, the entirety of time and space becomes a social commentary on early Twenty-First Century England.
In Rose, there’s one character out of step with this: Clive. On one level he’s clearly a parody of the BBC’s view of Doctor Who fans. By killing off Clive – and only Clive – you could uncharitably argue Davies is demonstrating that this series is no longer for old-school Doctor Who fans, and he’s “killing” their influence on the show. He’s always been candid, not least in The Writer’s Tale, about his unsentimentality, of always putting the good of the programme first.
But that’s not quite how Clive is positioned. He is the link to the past of Doctor Who – quite literally to its beginning, when he shows Rose a photo of the ninth Doctor at the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd 1963. By overtly referencing the day before Doctor Who started, and putting the ninth Doctor there, Davies is connecting Rose to An Unearthly Child, and the previous 42 years of the show. Through Clive, fans are reassured this series is a continuation, not a reboot.
I think the real purpose of killing Clive is to kill off the BBC stereotype of a Doctor Who fan, putting a bullet through the head of the sniggering condescension of stuff like Doctor Who Night, which portrayed fans as slightly unsavoury middle aged men. The clincher for me is that Clive is a nice man who never deserved to be treated he was. I think there’s a flash of anger in his death, Davies’ veiled criticism of his new employers’ failure to cherish the show.
The other thing is, Clive is always right. When he says of the Doctor, ‘I think he’s immortal. I think he’s an alien from another world’ he’s absolutely on the money. So, it’s a lovely, generous gesture that Clive’s last words are, ‘It’s true. Everything I read, all the stories. It’s all true’, I think in that line Davies is acknowledging everything that’s gone before. The Sensorites; the Myrka; Timewyrm: Genesys; the Chelonians; Paul McGann; War of the Daleks; Beep the Meep: all of them are in the canon, all of them had value, they’re all part and parcel of the 2005 revival. It’s a measure of the inclusiveness of Davies’ vision of Doctor Who. This is absolutely for old-school Doctor Who fans like Clive, or Russell, or me. It’s just, now it’s for everyone else as well.
Next Time: ‘Now they’re all gone. All gone. None of them could understand… Perhaps I should go home, back to my own planet. But I can’t. I can’t.’ – The Runaway Bride
August 2004. Doctor Who is returning to TV in seven months. By the time Scream of the Shalka finished broadcasting on BBCi in December 2003, the ‘Wilderness Years’ were over and we were just marking time until the new series started.
A sense of anticipation hangs over all of the tie-in ranges. The Eighth Doctor Adventures are in their terminal phase, having moved to bi-monthly publishing from September 2002, and concluded their final major ‘arc’ in January 2004. There are only three more books to go. Meanwhile, Big Finish had just planned to exile the eighth Doctor, Charley and new companion C’rizz to a divergent universe when the news of the new series broke. They have to accelerate the story arc and bring forward the Doctor’s return to ‘our’ universe.
And while the books and audios are in turmoil the DWM strip quietly slips in, just as it had in 1998, the last time the ‘main range’ started to lose its momentum. The final eighth Doctor strip, The Flood, ran for eight months, its last instalment coming out the same month Rose aired on BBC One.
The DWM strip was in a unique position in 2004. Whereas Big Finish didn’t have the rights to use the ninth Doctor (and would have been unlikely to get Christopher Eccleston in any case), and the books were changing format to tie in to the new series, the strip was continuing – just as it had in 1985, 1989 and 1996. Which is perhaps why Russell T Davies chose it as the medium to show the eighth Doctor’s regeneration into the ninth.
The Flood is one of the best strips. Without having seen the new series, Scott Gray manages to capture its aesthetic remarkably well, including several plot elements that presage images or characters in later Davies and Moffat episodes:
- Cybermen appear as ghostly figures, in a pub
- A huge spaceship descends over the Houses of Parliament
- The global danger is illustrated with clips of international landmarks
- A British organisation protecting the country from alien menaces without involving UNIT
- A female scientific advisor who’s the Doctor’s biggest fan
- The Cybermen plan to use rain to facilitate the conversion of humankind
- In his final moments, the eighth Doctor ‘visits’ all his previous companions
Most of all, The Flood feels contemporary in the same way as Scream of the Shalka: not, like the old UNIT stories, set ‘a few years hence’, but bringing the alien menace to Earth, today. But while Shalka was set in a Lancashire town, off the beaten track and deliberately overlooked by the media, The Flood is in your face in London: brash and bold. In its final panels, the eighth Doctor touches everyone in the world in the kind of universalism we’re going to see in the Davies series finales. The strip got a lot right – but that’s not surprising, because Davies loved the strip. He loves cartoons. In the ‘making of’ stuff for Series One there’s even a little picture of Lady Cassandra he drew to illustrate his script. Of course he was going to offer the regeneration scene to DWM.
But when DWM, which had the gall to ‘regenerate’ the eight Doctor as a stunt in 1998, was given the chance to do it for real, it backed away. The Flood ends not with Christopher Eccleston lying on the floor in a post-regenerative haze, but with the eighth Doctor and Destrii wandering into the sunset. Clayton Hickman’s explanation, in The Flood trade paperback, elaborates why DWM turned down the chance to show the regeneration. It’s a fascinating essay, but it’s most telling when Hickman writes, candidly:
This was our eye-opener… Our cosy little cottage industry was now a fully-fledged brand. It was a major, multi-million pound BBC One series with clever people at the helm, and we were short-sighted to think we could cling on to what had gone before.
Essentially, Davies politely but firmly ended the DWM strip’s semi-detached relationship with continuity. It was going feature the ninth Doctor and Rose. The eighth Doctor novels were going to end. Big Finish continued, but was not allowed to use any elements of new series continuity. The fan-led ‘Wilderness Years’ are officially no more. For the first time since Peter Darvill-Evans, someone’s taking charge.
The culture shock of 2005 was huge. Some fans still haven’t got over the fact that ‘their’ series is now the property of fangirls and children and Americans. The saddest thing about Doctor Who between 1991 and 2004 is that the series that was radically and brilliantly reinventing itself, but the only people who cared were the fans. On 26 March 2005 this is going to change. The ‘Wilderness Years’ are coming to television. Doctor Who is coming home.
Next Time: ‘It’s silly, isn’t it? I feel frightened. As if we’re about to interfere in something that is best left alone.’ – Rose
November 2003. Doctor Who will be returning to BBC television in 16 months. This fact inevitably overshadows Scream of the Shalka: the BBC’s first bid to broadcast a new series of ninth Doctor adventures.
It’s an aberration, a footnote to the ‘Wilderness Years’, not even a false start because there was never any possibility of a follow-up. Even its entry in the fortieth anniversary coffee table book, Doctor Who: The Legend is undercut by a paragraph about the exciting announcement that Doctor Who was coming back to TV in 2005.
Richard E Grant’s ‘era’ didn’t even coincide with his single appearance. It started on 9 July 2003, when BBCi announced:
Doctor Who is back. This time he’s fully animated, he’s got a new body… and he’s on BBCi. Richard E. Grant will play the ninth incarnation of the Time Lord. He described his interpretation as something of a “Sherlock Holmes in Space,” and said he immensely enjoyed recording the story.
And it ended on 26 September 2003, when the BBC announced that Russell T Davies would be creating a new TV version for BBC Wales.
Scream of the Shalka haunts the end of the ‘Wilderness Years’ like the Could’ve-Been King. In many ways, it’s the pay-off to 12 years of development, as fans of the classic series became professional writers, producers and editors, honing their skills and getting employed in the kind of positions that allowed them to create this: an officially-sanctioned ninth Doctor that, had circumstances been different, would have become the ‘current’ incarnation in the BBC Books and DWM strip. If that had happened, Grant, like McGann, would have been hard to ignore if anyone chose to revive the series on TV. If anything, unfortunate scheduling relegated Grant to ‘unbound’ status.
Watching Scream of the Shalka now is a curious experience. It hardly feels like a lost opportunity, because it’s so close to what we got on TV in 2005. Right from the start, it’s obvious that this is a series that owes a heavy debt to the Pertwee era, even if it’s ambivalent towards it. The titles feature the coloured swirls of the 1970-73 credits; UNIT plays a significant role; the plot – which begins with a meteor shower and features a race of cave monsters – has obvious antecedents. The animation is limited, but there are some neat visual nods to movies like Jurassic Park and Aliens, and a visual storytelling that owes something to the big splash pages of the comic strip.
This ninth Doctor is a curious mix of slightly snobbish distance, largely during the first two episodes, and wild excitement. He can tell a lot by sniffing, a trait Cornell re-uses in 2007 for the Family of Blood. He’s running from a traumatic event in his past, which has left him angry, wounded and reluctant to make personal connections, although he’s able to drop the posh accent and attitude when he meets a homeless woman, implying they’re just an act to keep people at a distance. He keeps claiming, ‘I can’t do this any more’ as though he thinks he’s no longer up to the job. A theme of the story is his rediscovery of his mojo. Grant’s performance, which has had mixed reviews, works well in this context, his flat delivery in the first episodes picking up and coming alive just as the Doctor starts rediscovering his joie de vivre.
His new companion, Alison, is a young black woman whose dreams are being stifled by a needy boyfriend who wants to keep her in the small town of Lannet rather than the big city. She ‘gave up a degree in history’ to spend her life with Joe, and regrets it. She sees the TARDIS as her way out of the rut she’s in. We see more of her domestic set-up (her job, her house, her boyfriend, her mother’s house) in the first two episodes than we’ve seen for any previous companion. This is a Cornell innovation of the ‘Wilderness Years’, a theme he started when Bernice brought a determinedly ‘domestic’, human viewpoint to the seventh Doctor and Ace’s epic space adventures. Alison pushes the idea further by because she’s clearly grounded in the real world of 2003. This level of domesticity, of actually putting the monsters in front rooms – ‘You’re on every street, you’re in their homes’ – is something that we associate with the Yeti-on-the-loo approach, but in reality rarely happened in the past (Terror of the Autons and Survival are the most obvious exceptions).
Other elements that Cornell inserts, such as the ultra-topical references to WMDs and ‘regime change’; the Doctor’s mobile phone, the danger of climate change, and the shift from a local to a global threat (with scenes of possessed humans in America, Siberia and China) are incremental changes. They’re exactly what you’d expect a contemporary version of Doctor Who to do. Brilliantly, the Doctor defeats the monsters by singing show tunes, which is both a clear and deliberate killing blow to the Saward and guns school of Doctor Who, and more Russell T Davies than the man himself.
When Scream of the Shalka was issued on DVD in 2013, some of the reviews noticed ‘surprising’ similarities between it and the TV revival. But there’s nothing surprising about them at all. The point is: Rose is absolutely the outcome of the ‘Wilderness Years’. Any history of the series that treats them as a brief paragraph that’s mainly concerned with the TV movie is, frankly, as wrong as trying to jump from The War Games to Robot.
Scream of the Shalka is evidence that the new series didn’t leap, unprecedented and fully formed, straight from Russell T Davies’ brain in 2003, but was instead a distillation of themes and ideas that had been developing for 11 years. It’s what you get when you’ve kept up with Doctor Who since 1989 (the TV movie is what you get when you haven’t). Why should it be surprising that two New Adventures authors were able to independently re-launch Doctor Who with the principles of the novels, combine them with the sensibilities of the Big Finish audios and the style and pace of the comic strip? Given their authors’ shared background, it would be much more remarkable if Rose and Scream of the Shalka were radically dissimilar.
We’re at the end of the ‘Wilderness Years’. They were a strange time, often frustrating, and frequently disappointing. But they also bequeathed the 2005 series five writers who weren’t only up to the job of bringing Doctor Who back, but also a whole approach to telling Doctor Who stories that was only partly suggested by the 1963-89 TV series, but which was wholly contiguous with the way they developed in 1991-2003. ‘Wilderness Years’ is a misnomer: they were abundantly productive and the nucleus of modern Doctor Who.
Next Time: ‘I absorbed all the energy of the Time Vortex, and no one’s meant to do that. Every cell in my body’s dying.’ – The Flood
June 2002. The end of the second series of Paul McGann audios. For the first six months of the year, the eighth Doctor plays have taken over Big Finish’s main range in the audios’ most ambitious ‘arc’ yet. In response, the comic strip has deployed the Daleks, in the highly-acclaimed Children of the Revolution, and BBC Books’ Eighth Doctor Adventures have embarked on their own ‘arc’ focusing on the vulnerability of time in the wake of the Time War, with a mysterious villain called Sabbath bedevilling the Doctor, Fitz and Anji. But the Big Finish main range is where it’s at.
The halcyon days for Big Finish really lasted from mid-2000 – when McGann’s return was announced and the novels thoroughly trashed their own continuity in a fit of self-loathing, hovering anxiously waiting for the audios’ next move – to 26 September 2003, when it was announced Doctor Who would be returning to TV. By the time Neverland’s belated (and lukewarmly received) follow-up Zagreus was released in November 2003 in time for the fortieth anniversary, events had already overtaken the eighth Doctor plays, and McGann’s incarnation was a dead man walking. So this moment marks perhaps Big Finish’s high watermark.
That’s reflected in the writing credits for McGann’s second year: three of the authors (Mark Gatiss, Robert Shearman and Paul Cornell) went on to provide scripts for the 2005 TV series, and three (Nicholas Briggs, Justin Richards and Alan Barnes) were the head writers or editors of the audios, BBC Books and DWM comic strip respectively. In other words, this was a series written by the ‘Wilderness Years’’ most experienced hands. In many ways, it’s the culmination of 13 years of non-TV Doctor Who, the Abbey Road of the ‘Wilderness Years’, a definitive statement of what fans could achieve without a new series. If you can get to Neverland without a TV show, imagine where you could go with one.
It’s also the culmination to a two-year storyline. Storm Warning introduced the idea that Charley Pollard had cheated death in escaping from the doomed airship R101. But, as in Final Destination, death can’t be so easily avoided. There’s a price to pay for eighth Doctor’s casual attitude towards it, evident since his resurrection of Grace and Chang Lee in the TV movie. That price is explored across the six 2002 audios, where it becomes clear that Charley’s continued existence when she should be dead is fracturing the web of time. Across the series, the stakes have gradually risen from the claustrophobic horror of The Chimes of Midnight, which explored the impact of Charley’s death/survival on those she left behind, to The Time of the Daleks, which featured history breaking down. Neverland is the pay-off: the Time Lords (still alive in Big Finish’s continuity) are now alerted to the danger Charley poses, and have hunted down the TARDIS to bring her paradoxical existence to an end.
Neverland also follows through on the development of the eighth Doctor’s character. The TV movie casts McGann as a fairly straightforward romantic hero – charming Grace, enthusing about shoes and revealing outrageous secrets. However, it also posits the Doctor and Grace as a kind of screwball comedy double act, a partnership of equals with Grace disrupting his world as much as he does hers. This idea of a partnership was followed through by the audios, with strong female characters – Charley, Lucie and Molly – that drop into the Doctor’s world and disrupt it.
And then there’s the snogging, which prior to 1996 was taboo, and post-1996 is de rigeur. The New Adventures had to make the seventh Doctor human to give him a love story, and then played the eighth Doctor’s newfound libido as the humorous punch-line to The Dying Days. The Eighth Doctor Adventures had Sam express an embarrassing teenage crush, and the amnesiac post-Time War Doctor start a tentative relationship with Mary Minett during the First World War. But the audios were the first to explore the idea of a Doctor/companion romance, most fully in this series, and particularly in Neverland. This element, I think, makes McGann more like the Twenty-First Century Doctors than the Twentieth
Like the season finales of the TV revival, Neverland creates a big, epic backdrop for a pretty simple choice for the Doctor: does he sacrifice his best friend, the woman he loves, to save the world? It’s a moment that the New Adventures and the Eighth Doctor Adventures have been reaching for, but never quite so explicitly as here:
CHARLEY: It’s all right, Doctor. I’m not afraid. It’s like I said in the Tardis. My time is up. There is no alternative. Oh, Doctor, you rescued me from the R101. You gave me these last few wonderful months. The things that I’ve seen, the places I’ve been. I’ve lived more than I ever could dream of, and all thanks to you. And you’re the sweetest, the kindest, most wonderful man I’ve ever met. And I’m sorry it’s come to this, and I’m sorry it has to end like this, but if the Web of Time is destroyed then all the time I’ve had, everywhere I’ve been, all those fabulous, fantastic things we’ve done, they won’t ever have happened at all. Don’t let those times be taken away. Don’t let it all go to waste. I know it’s an awful, terrible thing, but I want you to do it. Oh, Doctor, please do it before it’s too late.
DOCTOR: Charley, I can’t. You’re my friend, and I love you. I can’t look you in the eye and shoot you no matter what.
CHARLEY: Doctor, I love you too, and this is no way to say goodbye, but please, please! Oh, what’s wrong with you! You’ve saved the universe before, so do it again, the only way how.
This is the moment Russell T Davies will replay in The Parting of the Ways and Doomsday; the moment Steven Moffat will replay in The Forest of the Dead:
RIVER: If you die here, it’ll mean I’ve never met you.
DOCTOR: Time can be rewritten.
RIVER: Not those times. Not one line. Don’t you dare. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s not over for you. You’ll see me again. You’ve got all of that to come. You and me, time and space. You watch us run.
This is the moment the ‘Wilderness Years’ have been leading to: a Doctor who openly admits to loving his companion; a series where the epic and the personal are all the same. This is Doctor Who with the emotional tug of a good soap opera and the scale of a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s Doctor Who for the age of Joss Whedon.
‘Where do we go from here?’ sang the cast of Buffy at the end of the last undisputed masterpiece of that series. Neverland leaves us with the same question. Like the makers of Buffy, the audios don’t have a convincing answer. But finally, it seems, the BBC might.
Next Time: ‘I just though I’d slip into something more comfortable. Result? Cute, sexy and lick-the-mirror handsome’ – Scream of the Shalka
February 2001. Since The Burning, the Eighth Doctor Adventures have had one of their most-admired runs: a linked series of novels set over the course of the Twentieth Century with an amnesiac eighth Doctor trapped on Earth without companions, returning monsters or even a TARDIS. Meanwhile, the big news is Paul McGann’s return to the role he last played five years previously: Big Finish’s own Eighth Doctor Adventures launched in January 2001 with Storm Warning, which introduced the new companion Charley Pollard in a story written by DWM editor Alan Barnes.
There was a real buzz in fandom at the start of 2001: the books were improving, DWM’s eighth Doctor strip switched to full colour and gained a new companion, and the first ‘season’ of McGann audios deservedly went down a storm. People seemed to be pulling themselves out of their fin de siècle blues. It was a very happy moment.
Unlike BBC Books or DWM, Big Finish’s first eighth Doctor story didn’t put him face to face with old enemies but instead spent its time establishing what the Doctor and Charley might actually be like. Storm Warning begins with the Doctor getting excited about his library, accidentally getting caught up in a time crash, losing the TARDIS and finally bumping into Charley, who’s in a spot of bother. It’s a scene that has some parallels with the beginning of Rose, four years later. The Doctor even introduces himself – after he and his soon-to-be companion have already had a back-and-forth conversation – with the line, ‘I’m the Doctor, by the way’.
Barnes’ eighth Doctor is familiar from the strip – romantic, expansive, with a tendency to blurt things out, like his spiel about his time ship the TARDIS that he blabs to Charley in their second exchange. These are characteristics Barnes, like most of the writers of the novels and strip, have extrapolated from the TV movie. In January 2001, this, so far as most of us were concerned, is what the eighth Doctor was like.
But the thing is, they’re not really how McGann is going to play his Doctor. It’s a similar problem, on a bigger scale, to the one Colin Baker faced in 1985, when the only thing the writers had to go on was The Twin Dilemma, and they were producing scripts that were written for a Doctor Baker wasn’t much interested in playing. Interestingly, in that case, Pip and Jane Baker’s generic Doctor of The Mark of the Rani became Baker’s favourite of the season.
The second eighth Doctor audio, Sword of Orion, similarly gives a better indication of how the eighth Doctor’s run is going to develop (not least because it’s written by Nicholas Briggs, who’ll become the steward of most of McGann’s tenure). McGann’s Doctor is revealed in the bits of the TV movie that weren’t as noticed – the Doctor’s impatience with Grace (‘Yes, very witty’); his pessimistic streak (‘I’ve a horrible feeling we’re already too late’), and his sarcasm towards the Master (‘Time enough to change’). In the audios, he plays the Doctor as the John Lennon of Time Lords: sardonic, detached, passing dry comment rather than getting excitable.
When the series started, the Doctor was a Gandalf kind of figure: a crotchety, mysterious and slightly disreputable wizard who crashes into the comfortable lives of Ian and Barbara and gets them embroiled in adventures. Through the 1960s series both Hartnell and Troughton continued in this vein: there was always a young hero – Ian, Steven, Ben, Jamie – to be the traditional juvenile lead. The third Doctor was similarly conceived as a whimsical, guitar-playing guru, as we saw in Spearhead from Space, with Courtney due to be the more straightforward hero. Pertwee’s big innovation was to hog both roles, becoming the hero wizard, Merlin and Arthur combined. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks planned to revert to the earlier format with an older Doctor and Harry as the young hero, but Tom Baker’s casting put paid to that. And while Davison might have been cast as a less domineering Doctor, Adric and Turlough weren’t written as heroes. It wasn’t until McCoy came along and Ace got the traditional ‘hero’ stuff, that the show got close to the original concept. Despite the TV movie, McGann prefers to play his Doctor lackadaisically horizontal, a far more reluctant hero than the twirling enthusiast that the novels and strips between 1996 and 2001 suggested.
While Storm Warning was expressly written for this consensus of what the eighth Doctor would be like, Sword of Orion is an adaptation of an Audio Visual from the late 1980s, specifically picked, according to The New Audio Adventures: The Inside Story, because it didn’t require much rework. While undoubtedly Briggs must have refreshed it, the fact that the script features a relatively generic part for Doctor conversely allows McGann to bring much more of himself to it. As Charley, India Fisher is all bouncy enthusiasm at her first trip into outer space, and McGann plays off this, providing a nicely laid back counterpoint. This is how their partnership ultimately develops: Charley’s wide-eyed excitement and romantic fancies balanced with the Doctor’s slightly cynical edge. McCartney and Lennon.
In a large part that’s why they the McGann and Fisher have become the classic eighth Doctor team – the one selected for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations in both The Light at the End and Destiny of the Doctors. It’s also Big Finish’s edgier eighth Doctor that Steven Moffat elects to bring back for The Night of the Doctor – a version of the character that would have been inexplicable if we only had the TV movie for reference. It’s not for nothing that Moffat uses the chance to explicitly ‘canonise’ the McGann audios.
That edgier interpretation really begins in the hugely influential Sword of Orion, a play that brings back the Cybermen in their classic form, and draws its imagery from the military SF of Aliens and the New Adventures, with its more-than-human androids, space wars, and returning monsters. This overtly spawned the Big Finish Cyberman range, but also, in its focus on ‘the future of human society in all its grim and grimy glory’, became the template for so much of the eighth Doctor’s audio ‘era’, particularly during the later Lucie Miller plays and the Dark Eyes series. And, latterly, Briggs has developed these themes out further in his Fourth Doctor Adventures. As such, Sword of Orion is Big Finish’s The Web of Fear, its Yeti-in-the-loo template.
Next Time: ‘I could save the world but lose you.’ – Neverland
August 2000. In their three-year run to date, the Eighth Doctor Adventures have failed to settle on a particular style or approach. In Alien Bodies, Lawrence Miles came up with a genius idea, but because the BBC wasn’t cultivating its pool of writers, no-one really picked up on it for another year. Then, when authors did start experimenting with Miles’ new mythology he was publicly dismissive of their efforts, seriously undermining attempts to build a Virgin-style creative community. It didn’t help that range editor Stephen Cole commissioned a linked series of novels that were meant to lead up to the Time War: the kind of tight, plot-driven ‘arc’ that Virgin had abandoned pretty much after the Timewyrm sequence in favour of looser, thematic ‘cycles’. It became harder to dip in and out of the range: you had to read all or nothing.
As all this is happening, Big Finish has launched its own range of Doctor Who stories featuring past Doctors. In an environment where fans have to pay for their Doctor Who, each CD cost about the same as buying both the monthly eighth and past Doctor books. The comic strip, slotted away in a £3.30 DWM, was never likely to be direct competition for fans’ cash. The audios are. Plus, the BBC has started to reissue the series on the new DVD format. Suddenly, the books’ future seems less secure. And then Big Finish drops the bombshell: Paul McGann has agreed to appear in a new series of eighth Doctor audios which started recording in May 2000.
This is the context behind The Burning, the big re-launch of the Eighth Doctor Adventures written by their new editor, Justin Richards. In the previous novel, The Ancestor Cell, outgoing editor Stephen Cole and co-writer Peter Anghelides wrapped up the ongoing Time War mythology by basically blowing it all up, exploding Gallifrey, exterminating the Time Lords and wiping the eighth Doctor’s memory: as clear a case of ‘taking the nuclear option’ as you can get in TV tie-in fiction. Bidding farewell to all that, and consigning practically every element of the first 50 per cent of the Eighth Doctor Adventures series to the dustbin of history (the one exception being companion Fitz Kreiner, who most people thought had worked out reasonably well), The Ancestor Cell was a decisive full stop.
When Doctor Who finally returned in 2005 with a Doctor who is the last of the Time Lords, the sole survivor of a fallen planet, fans who’d stuck with the Eighth Doctor Adventures through the ‘Wilderness Years’ were quick to point out the books did that first. In reality, there’s not much comparison. Davies’ destruction of Gallifrey is a horrific event the Doctor is fleeing from, that haunts him, informs his character and creates a suitably dramatic mythology for the new show to drip-feed. In the novels, Gallifrey falls as a convenient way for the books to try to win a new audience. The Doctor isn’t tortured by it because he can’t remember it. He can’t remember anything, in fact: the solution to ‘too many continuity references’ isn’t just to edit them out, but to preclude them altogether. The Ancestor Cell resets him to the books’ 1997 factory setting: a blank slate eighth Doctor, one apparently Richards wants to reinvent from the ground up.
The Burning is a pretty good re-launch: there’s a lot it gets right, introducing the Doctor as a mysterious and potentially dangerous outsider investigating a creature from the fires of the Earth in a north England town, much as the ‘ninth Doctor’ appears in Scream of the Shalka. He’s written, for the first time, as the ‘Byronic hero’ we were promised. And it’s a smart and deliberate move on Richards’ part to keep the Doctor vague and unknowable (even to himself) at this point, and for the next few books. He knows Paul McGann will soon be reprising the role and giving writers much more to build on than the TV movie. The Doctor’s amnesia is a ploy to buy them time to hear how he’ll play the part so they don’t seem to be at odds with the audios.
But this is the nub of the books’ problem: now McGann is coming back, what are they for any more? Arguably, just telling stories is enough – more good Eighth Doctor Adventures were published in the second half of the range than the first. But there’s a reason why, in The Night of the Doctor, the eighth Doctor remembers Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin and Molly, but not Sam, Fitz, Compassion, Anji and Trix. This is it. The Burning unmistakeably marks the moment when Peter Darvill-Evans’ vision of the novels pulling Doctor Who forwards is quietly abandoned, and Justin Richards concedes that they aren’t the main range any more. From now on, they’re second fiddle to Big Finish, which actually has the eighth Doctor himself appearing in new adventures.
Next Time: ‘See, there’s the thing. I’m the Doctor, but beyond that, I just don’t know. I literally do not know who I am. It’s all untested. Am I funny? Am I sarcastic? Sexy? Right old misery? Life and soul? Right handed? Left handed? A gambler? A fighter? A coward? A traitor? A liar? A nervous wreck?’ – Sword of Orion
13th November 1999. The Eighth Doctor Adventures continue to be published monthly, to mixed enthusiasm. In August, Lawrence Miles’ magnum opus, the two-volume Interference, is released, expanding on the ideas of Alien Bodies and kicking off a year-long story arc that will eventually end in Gallifrey’s destruction at the Doctor’s hand on the last day of the Time War. Meanwhile, the DWM strips have brought back Grace and the Master from the TV movie, plus Beep the Meep and Kroton the Cybermen as the strip kicks off its own second big story arc. On TV, in March, Steven Moffat’s Curse of Fatal Death airs as part of the BBC’s Comic Relief. It’s a hint of some of the ideas Moffat’s going to seriously present in the 2010s, as he ploughs through the Doctor’s remaining lives, brings back the Master with breasts, and has the Doctor’s adoring companion beg the universe to resurrect him during his final battle with the Daleks. And in November, 36 years after it first aired, Doctor Who is back on the BBC. For one night only.
All the above makes 1999 sound like the series is finally getting its act together. But it didn’t feel like that at the time. The Curse of Fatal Death is an affectionate pastiche, not Moffat’s bid to resurrect the programme. It’s clearly much, much better than Dimensions in Time – but John Nathan-Turner’s intent was to make an epilogue to the show he’d made in the 1980s, not to look back at Doctor Who as a slightly tatty, but loved old kid’s programme. I laughed a lot at The Curse of Fatal Death, but I also recognised the undertone that Doctor Who was a thing of the past.
So when the BBC announced Doctor Who night, it was hard to get too excited. Particularly when the trailers featured a nonplussed little girl on the sofa with her balding, middle-aged father hiding behind it (the implication: Doctor Who is something that only odd middle-aged men are much interested in). The scheduling reinforced the point: this really was a Night, starting at 8.55pm on BBC2. Even the continuity announcer seemed slightly disdainful: ‘Once sandwiched between Grandstand and The Generation Game, tonight you get a whole night to hide behind the sofa’.
The night’s schedule is modelled on the format of BBC2’s Star Trek Night, broadcast to celebrate Trek’s thirtieth anniversary in 1996, which featured a mix of science shows, comedy sketches, documentaries and the BBC premiere of Voyager. Doctor Who Night similarly mixes a couple of documentaries, Adventures in Space and Time and Carnival of Monsters, with two science documentaries focusing on regeneration and building TARDISes, three infamous comedy sketches from Mark Gatiss plus the final episode of The Daleks and a repeat of Doctor Who: The Movie. The night’s end credits even feature a woman warbling in the style of the Star Trek theme.
This says a lot about how the BBC saw Doctor Who in 1999: as a sci-fi franchise, with creepy fans who’d like to know how to build a TARDIS, if they weren’t off kidnapping Peter Davison. Whereas in my experience the Venn diagram crossover of Doctor Who and Star Trek fans is surprisingly small. We care more about how the costumes and scripts are put together than the imaginary technology behind trans-dimensional engineering.
So even though I laughed at Gatiss’ sketches (particularly The Pitch of Fear’s description of the later Doctors as ‘any old fucker with an Equity card’, which, in a feat of Soviet revisionism, has since been stricken from the record). Even though I enjoyed seeing Tom Baker playing himself playing the Doctor. Even though, actually, a couple of the documentaries were quite interesting, I knew this was a one-off. Doctor Who‘s lack of popularity was cruelly hammered home when a heavily-trailed new season of BBC2 repeats planned for all the colour episodes starting with Spearhead from Space petered out after just three stories.
For me, 1999 was probably the nadir of Doctor Who: it felt like the BBC thought it a slightly weird obsession for a young man to hold. I was like Vince, in Channel 4’s Queer as Folk, attached to some old camp nonsense from his childhood. Had I not met a group of like-minded, talented, inspiring friends at university and the monthly Fitzroy Tavern meets in London, I think this might have been the point when Doctor Who and I parted ways.
Fortunately for me, and for Doctor Who, there were some very talented fans in a position, if not yet to revive the show on TV, then to reinvigorate it in other media. 1999 was the low point. From now on, things are starting to look up.
Next Time: ‘You all burnt, all of you. Ten million ships on fire. I watched it happen. I made it happen.’ – The Burning