No long running creative endeavor – whether it is a book or television or film series – is immune from making a fundamental error that jeopardizes the continued existence of that property. No one goes out with the aim of making a bad product – to say anything else is sheer foolishness. But there is no doubt that after a time, whether it is a failure of collective memory, the buildup of creative entropy, or sheer bad luck, mistakes happens. Doctor Who, despite all its collective successes and goodwill over three generations of viewers, is not immune to leaping into the abyss.
Again – none of the people involved in the decisions I’m about to describe woke up one morning and thought, ‘Yeah, let’s drive this baby over a cliff.’ But for one reason or another, their actions led to some of the biggest mistakes in the show’s long history.
1. The Twin Dilemma
Or, more accurately, the decision to broadcast it when they did. The Twin Dilemma itself is a bog-standard action adventure that was long a staple of the series. What it did do, however, is set up the new era of Doctor Who, with Colin Baker in harness, for failure.
It is telling that after the sublime ‘Caves of Androzani’, series’ producer John Nathan Turner (or JNT to just about everyone) thought that ‘The Twin Dilemma’ was the better story. JNT was many things – a man with a long history on the production side of things with the BBC, who had steadily risen up the ranks from the 1960s until he was tapped on the shoulder to take on the producer’s mantle for Tom Baker’s last season. He had never directed an episode, never written a script, nor edited one. His abilities lay in making sure the trains ran on time, that they ran to budget, and that there was something watchable to broadcast each week during a season’s time on air.
Creatively, though, JNT wasn’t up to scratch. For the most part, he followed, where his script editors led. But ‘The Twin Dilemma’ was his baby, and the casting of Colin Baker his decision, as was the decision to burden Baker’s Doctor with a truly awful costume and personality.
The cumulative decisions in the lead up to Colin Baker’s debut story damned his brief tenure in the show. Putting aside the two stories at the beginning of season four way back in 1966 that were the tail end of William Hartnell’s time in the lead role, all new actors to play the Doctor began afresh, with a new season. JNT decided to allow the audience to get an eyeful of Colin Baker – brash performance and brash coat, before the program went off air for nine long, long months.
While undoubtedly a brave idea in terms of trying something different, having a new Doctor who belittled and tried to strangle his companion, who was deliberately played as a jarring counterpoint to his soft spoken predecessor, and who seemed to sneer at the audience in the last lines of episode four ‘No matter what else happens, I am the Doctor… whether you like it or not!’ was in the end, too brave by half. Letting those attitudes linger in the audience’s collective memory for such a long time very likely soured it on the new lead.
Admittedly, when the next season opened, the first episode of ‘Attack of the Cybermen’ had an impressive viewing audience two million more than the last episode of the previous story. After that, the audience figures fell away and never really recovered. The leadership of the BBC had long planned a purge of older programs to free up the budget for new material. The excesses of the Colin Baker era – the brashness, the tendency to violence, the sheer coarse gaudiness of the production (which all find their birth in The Twin Dilemma) – made the decision to (at first) cancel the series, then (after a tabloid led fan backlash) announce it was merely being rested, an easy decision to make.
2. The Timeless Child
Or how to squeeze all the fun out of something until it’s nothing but a lifeless husk you desperately want someone else to toss in the bin.
It’s long been argued by people smarter than me that Doctor Who can be anything – really, really anything. It’s not, actually. What it has long been is a fun romp through a whole garden of tropes, with a tendency (in its best years) to be quite a scary show for the kids, and overall a jolly good adventure program.
What Doctor Who isn’t is an hour long effort to strip away all mystery about the character and leave the Doctor somehow a lesser person. Doctor Who shouldn’t be about the Doctor. It should be about the fun, the exploration of time and space, of fighting the good fight against evil, and retiring to the late afternoon summer sun and a spot of nice, refreshing tea.
‘The Timeless Child’ looks great and the acting overall is fine. It’s a perfectly good representation of modern Doctor Who in terms of production value. At its heart, though, ‘The Timeless Child’ is a grand mistake. Sure, script editor Andrew Cartmel in the late 1980s decided to add a little mystery into the character of the Doctor. There was a hint (elaborated at great length in the tie in fiction that rose out of the ashes of the series in the 1990s) that the Doctor was more than just a Time Lord, that he played four dimensional chess against a range of opponents who were playing checkers. But that approach served to add mystery to the character – sure, there were darker edges, but also an extra layer of ambiguity.
What ‘The Timeless Child’ did was strip everything away – everything we know about the Doctor, and replace it with a shivering naked thing that on closer inspection, wasn’t worth the effort.
Look, I know where Chris Chibnall is coming from. We know too much about the Doctor. We know all about his relationship with his people, we seem to know all his foibles and tics. At times, the character is less your favorite uncle or aunt, and more a neighborhood tramp that refuses to just go away. But when the production team comes together and decides to remove all the mystery, and spend the last hour of a series doing so, well, you have to wonder what’s in the water in the production office.
And how long will it last? Ten gets you twenty that Chibnall and the production team will completely ignore it when the show returns in 2021. And I’ll lay even better odds that any new showrunner will work their guts out to reverse it and bring a new sense of real mystery to the Doctor.
More revolution than evolution, ‘The Timeless Child’ was set up to be a mind-blowing moment in the series’ history, a chance to overturn everything we understood about the Doctor and strike out in a new bold direction. I’m not entirely sure they succeeded, and worse, I’m not sure something vital about the show and its lead character wasn’t fatally damaged.
3. Hiring Sylvester McCoy to appear in the 1996 TV Movie
Just because it feels good doesn’t necessarily mean you should do it. As in life, so in television. After seven long years in the wilderness, Doctor Who was back on television. Through the tireless efforts of Executive Producer, Philip Segal the BBC had agreed to allow a television movie to be made, filmed in Vancouver, broadcast on Fox TV and then sold around the world.
The icing on the cake, for many fans, was the return of Sylvester McCoy to the role, to help usher in the Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McCann. While McCoy’s era wasn’t universally loved by the fans, and largely greeted indifferently by the viewing audience, his casting was an important link back to the classic series, and gave this new effort greater heft.
In hindsight though, the fifteen or so minutes McCoy appeared on screen (with very few lines) were fifteen or so minutes that was taken away from establishing the new actor in the role. Almost ten years later, Russell T Davies would take the approach that should’ve been taken with TV Movie – just drop the new actor into the role from the opening moments, and credit the audience with having enough understanding to go along with what is happening on screen.
Instead, Segal’s decision fatally crippled the television movie. Not only were American audiences left bemused by the decision to kill off the leading actor in the opening act, and then they had to try to come to grips with a resurrection of that character, this time with a new face! Paul McGann is a wonderful actor – his performance in ‘Withnail and I’ helps anchor the movie around Richard E Grant’s pyrotechnic display of acting. But expecting even great actors to do much with roughly 60 minutes of screen time, where they have to cram in the obligatory post regeneration confusion (another mistake) and then establish a character, is a bridge too far. McGann does a great job with limited material, but imagine if the Eighth Doctor was in harness from the opening moments (McGann provides the opening narration, for goodness sake!). The TV Movie would’ve been stronger for it, and while there are those of us who love the fact the Seventh Doctor appears, it was a mistake to include him at all.
4. John Nathan Turner stays for more than three years
As I mentioned elsewhere in this article, John Nathan Turner (JNT) was a very good producer’s producer. He got the show made, got the talent in front of the screen, worked very hard to squeeze as much out of the budget as possible, and made sure the show was in the papers at every opportunity. He was loved by his closest friends, and could be enormously generous when the mood took him. His relatively early death was doubly tragic because it was so unexpected, and because it felt like a final blow at the end of a long downturn in his life and career. If only he hadn’t hung on to the producer’s job for so long.
Nine years is a long time to be in one job. It’s probably the equivalent of two lifetimes in television terms. That’s how long JNT stayed. He was given many opportunities to move on, to pitch new ideas, to do something else better suited to his talents. Yet, whether it was out of a sense of duty to the show (the knives were out for it from about 1984), or a feeling of inferiority that he wasn’t up to doing anything else, JNT stayed.
At that time, when a Doctor left, the producer left, or if they didn’t, they only stayed around long enough to hand the reins to the new team. JNT had the same opportunity when Peter Davison bowed out in 1984 to the greatest acclaim, his turn in his last adventure the highpoint of his tenure. JNT thought about it, but then elected to stay, and in doing so, became the longest serving producer in the show’s history.
This failure to lead by leaving meant that the show trundled along for a good few years. The Colin Baker era was a series of high highs and really low lows. By the time the relationship between JNT and the then script editor, Eric Saward, turned utterly toxic, the show was on its knees – a collapse in audience figures after being given a second chance, the sacking of Colin Baker, and the casting of a new Doctor without a script editor (or scripts actually) all pointed to the program’s eventual demise.
How much of this could’ve been avoided with a new, energetic producer, is open to question. As mentioned elsewhere, the show was on the nose with the leadership of the BBC. But with someone new at the helm, someone willing to take risks and go in a new direction, the show might not simply have faded away, but made the leap into the 90s.
By the time he finally left the organization, several years after the show ended, JNT was the last salaried producer with the BBC, which had moved to contracting out television production to different houses. JNTs last years with the BBC were spent overseeing the release of a number of ‘Best of’ VHS releases, which strip mined the archives on certain topics – Daleks! Cybermen! – to a diminishing effect. Hardly the end many, including, one strongly suspects, the man himself, would’ve hoped for.
5. The War Doctor
Christopher Eccelston is very much his own man. A brilliant actor, with strong views on a range of social issues, he has looked back on his time in the role fondly, though with serious reservations about what occurred on set during the opening weeks of production. This goes a long way to explaining why he refuses, bar the odd convention appearance, to have anything to do with the show.
Of course, a little detail like that wasn’t going to stop showrunner Steven Moffat from trying to convince Eccleston to come back to the role of the Ninth Doctor in the 50th anniversary story, ‘The Day of the Doctor.’ No sirree. While Moffat later admitted he was unsure at the time whether bringing the Ninth Doctor back was a good idea, he nevertheless pursued it until Eccelston bowed out. At this point, the fanboy in me pushes up against a talented showrunner’s desires.
From my viewpoint, if the Ninth Doctor wasn’t going to be the incarnation that destroyed the Time Lords and the Daleks, and condemned himself to a period of depression and PTSD (which we see on screen), then it was the Eighth Doctor (as depicted by Paul McGann) who should’ve played the part. Indeed, Moffat goes a little way to admitting this, when the production team released a 7 minute short in the lead up to the 50th anniversary, ‘The Night of the Doctor’, featuring a returning McGann to the role he made his own in the 1996 television movie. Moffat’s version of the Eighth Doctor is an incarnation who has done all he can to avoid becoming involved in the Time War – and pays the ultimate price for doing so. It’s a solid, valid interpretation many can get behind.
And yet…I can’t.
I’m not alone in thinking inserting the Eighth Doctor into the Time War as a protagonist makes the most sense. Think about it – the handsome, devil may care Eighth Doctor, so full of life from the beginning, brought undone by the effects of fighting the Time War through eternity, and driven to engage in a monstrous act of genocide as a last howl of despair.
But Moffat went another way, and cast John Hurt to play the War Doctor, an incarnation between McGann and Eccleston. And while Hurt’s casting was undoubtedly a massive coup for the BBC and the program, it feels…unnecessary. It’s a dangerous thing these days to say you like your Doctor Who canon to line up neatly, when any right minded fan understands that with over a dozen production teams, a similar number of lead actors, and a small army of writers and script editors, the notion of an orderly continuity is bonkers. And yet – I tend to think inserting a new incarnation where one doesn’t fit undermines my understanding of the character. It suddenly increases the odds that other incarnations can suddenly spring up where there wasn’t one before and makes the character of the Doctor less coherent and more at the whim of a production team eager for a quick sugar rush of interest and controversy.
So in terms of this article, not casting Paul McGann is a misstep in that it would’ve been a nod to the show’s past that Hurt could never achieve, would’ve rewarded long term fans who have been baying for his return and brought back to the television a thoughtful, charismatic actor who deserved much more than just 60 minutes in the role over a decade before.