Bigger On The Inside: A Quick Start Guide To… The Eighth Doctor
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR MEDIA BLASPHEMY.
It can’t have escaped your attention that Doctor Who is about to celebrate its landmark 50th anniversary. The world’s longest running sci-fi show began in 1963, and has run on and off to this day. After thirty-three seasons, its 800th episode or so will be simulcast to 75 countries and hundreds of cinemas nationwide on November 23rd. Clearly, there’s a lot going for it, but the sheer size and scope of the show can make it impenetrable for first time viewers.
So if you’ve never seen an episode, or you only started watching it because David Tennant was a bit dishy, here’s the first in a twelve part series giving you a quick over-view of each Doctor, each companion, big name monsters and stories to snog, marry and avoid. We’ll even throw in the spin-offs that ran (mostly) in recent years, to let you know if they’re worth a look. So get your sonic screwdriver at the ready, and delve into articles which we hope… are bigger on the inside…
THE EIGHTH DOCTOR: PAUL McGANN 1996 & THE WILDERNESS YEARS 1990-2004
When Doctor Who went into limbo in December 1989, few could have predicted it would ever return. The BBC had pushed for its demise for some time, and with ratings at an all-time low, love for the show was at its lowest ebb.
Sci-fi lovers were now being satiated by big budget US imports, spearheaded by Star Trek: The Next Generation. Shot on single-camera film with a huge ensemble cast, the show really did go bodly where Doctor Who had never gone before, tied as it was to a theatrical tradition of television production on low-budget video.
Throughout the early 1990s, a number of attempts to get hold of the rights to the series were made by external production companies, pushed on by the Conservative government’s budget squeeze against the BBC. Forced to outsource an increasingly large number of productions, there was a glimmer of hope that, through BBC Worldwide, a deal could be brokered to bring the show back with a bang.
Behind the scenes, a mooted film production stalled countless times, and attempts to prolong the option by hastily shooting some test material with Leonard Nimoy, no less, risked putting Doctor Who on ice forever via a hefty rights battle.
The catastrophe was halted by lifelong fan and television executive Philip Segal – an ex-pat working in America first at Columbia Pictures Television, then at Amblin, where he began working on his own proposals for the show.
Elsewhere, as the thirtieth anniversary loomed, BBC Worldwide had realised how much money the video releases were raking in, and elected to produce a spin-off film entitled Lost in the Dark Dimension. Planned to focus on the most popular Doctor of all, Tom Baker’s fourth incarnation, the special would also feature Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy in smaller roles, alongside a number of old companions and a villain played by Rik Mayall.
With legendary Who director Graeme Harper signed on to direct, the special got tantalisingly close to being made, and BBC One controller Alan Yentob – who had recently began a series of successful repeats of classic Doctor Who serials – even pumped cash into the project to get the rights to air it on BBC One.
Once again, Philip Segal stepped in, declaring the script terrible, and convincing the BBC that his bold new vision for the show, under the thumb of Steven Spielberg himself, was the right way to go. In the end, fans had to make do with a 15 minute mini-episode turned charity sketch featuring the various stars of the show interacting with the cast of Eastenders in a 3D romp set in Albert Square for Children In Need. At least there were a few documentaries and more repeats to savour, but for now, proper new Doctor Who was still a pipe dream.
Where the show really lived on at this time was in spin-off material. Doctor Who Magazine continued to develop its comic strip pages, getting writers from the show itself involved. Virgin Books began publishing The New Adventures series: a string of stories featuring the Seventh Doctor in darker, more mature stories – some of which were written by those who would go on to mould 21st Century Doctor Who, such as Gareth Roberts, Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss and Russell T. Davis, but more on those another time…
Fans were also taking the show into their own hands, forming production companies such as Reeltime and BBV to produce interview video-tapes and straight-to-vhs dramas starring former Who actors in different roles.
What made these lo-fi productions more enticing was that wherever a character or an alien design wasn’t owned by the BBC, they became free reign to appear in these productions, with BBV putting Liz Shaw (Caroline John) in charge of Mark Gatiss series P.R.O.B.E., and John Levine returning as Sgt. Benton in Reeltime’s production, Wartime. They weren’t quite Who, but they were the closest fans thought they would ever get again.
Except Segal hadn’t given in, even though interest from Speilberg and Amblin waned. Attempts at developing a brand new series bible resulted in a dire suggestion that The Doctor and The Master would be the children of Ulysses, on a quest to find their father, and the BBC became more actively involved in getting it right. Enter Jo Wright, who insisted the character be British, and the show stay true to its roots, even if she was adamant she didn’t want Sylvester McCoy to return.
After shaky beginnings, the project found funding from Universal and a greenlight for a backdoor pilot from Fox Television. Liam Cunningham, Tony Head and John Sessions were all considered for the role of the Eighth Doctor, but the responsibility fell onto respected character actor Paul McGann.
He was perhaps best known to film fans as the “I” in Withnail and I, though American audiences knew him from films such as Empire of the Sun, The Three Musketeers and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him-because-they-cut-all-his-best-bits role in Alien 3.
In May 1996, for one glorious night, McGann’s charming, sincere Doctor blazed across the screen – or rather, for just under an hour, at least.
To placate the show’s diehard fanbase, the team elected to allow Sylvester McCoy to return for the opening act of the pilot, barely speaking, until the meddlings of The Master forced him to land in the middle of a gangland gun-battle in San Francisco. Fatally wounded, he is killed during a botched operation by surgeon Doctor Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) as The Master steals yet another body (Eric Roberts) and attempts to bring about the end of the world.
When he finally arrives, McGann is magnificent. His Doctor is a timid soul, prone to sudden bursts of excitement, and teasing premonitions about everyone he meets. He’s charming, persuasive, and passionate about life, and for the first time kisses his new friend Grace passionately, several times, causing fan uproar that’s laughable in retrospect.
Yet the pilot was doomed before it aired, when its American broadcast was scheduled against the season finale of Rosanne, then the biggest show on television. Ratings were lacklustre, and not even a strong showing in the UK could save it. Doctor Who was dead again, and with both Fox and Universal having a natural option as part of the agreement to make the pilot in the first place, it would have to be some time before the show could return once more.
In the meantime, the spin-off materials kept on coming. Virgin were phased out by BBC Books, who took over printing past Doctor novels and new adventures for the Eighth Doctor, who also took over the comic pages of Doctor Who Magazine.
A few years later, diehard fan Gary Russell formed Big Finish, initially producing audio spin-offs before being granted the license to make genuine, official Doctor Who starring the original cast members. Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy were quick to sign on, as were most of their companions, with Paul McGann joining the party not long afterwards to develop the Eighth Doctor that never quite got to be.
By 2013, Big Finish is still going strong, with Tom Baker now involved, and a series of spin-off projects keeping the passion alive, even with the new series wowing audiences on television. A huge part of this is down to the way they kept the dream alive, at a time when Doctor Who seemed otherwise gone for good.
A few other projects turned up post 1996, with a Rowan Atkinson led Comic Relief spoof written by Steven Moffatt turning up in 1999, and a series of web-cast animations in the early 21st century culminating in a brand new, official Ninth Doctor for the show’s fortieth anniversary in 2003.
Richard E. Grant was cast as The Doctor in Paul Cornell’s story, Scream of the Shalka – a 90 minute animation told across six flash-animated episodes on the BBC website. To all intents and purposes, this was the only way the show was ever going to continue forging ahead outside of Big Finish.
Yet just before Shalka was released, news leaked out that Queer as Folk creator Russell T. Davies had been tasked with bringing the show back to television over at BBC Wales, and the almost immediate casting of Christopher Eccleston gave the show a much needed boost of interest. By 2004, at long last, Doctor Who was back in regular production…