The End of Doctor Who: An Adventure in the Wilderness
Guest contributor Levi Cohen-Kreshin looks at how fans survived after Doctor Who’s cancellation.
Introduction: The End of ‘89
The twenty-third of November, 1989 – Doctor Who’s twenty-sixth anniversary: Sylvester McCoy records a melancholy monologue to be played at the end of an episode. The sixth of December, 1989: the third and final part of Survival, Doctor Who’s last “classic” serial, is broadcast. Sophie Aldred as Ace – and Anthony Ainley as the Master – will never be seen on screen again in those roles. August, 1990: the Doctor Who production office at the BBC closes down for the first time, having been in operation since 1963. As the last of the Target novelizations were made, many fans thought that that was the end of Doctor Who, even as the BBC attempted to maintain that it would only be another hiatus. Ace and the Doctor had walked off into the sunset with “work to do”– the story, and the magic, was over. The so-called Wilderness Years had begun…
The New Adventures
June, 1991: John Peel’s Timewyrm: Genesys was published. It was the news no one expected and everyone rejoiced over: Virgin Publishing had been given a license to continue the Doctor’s adventures offscreen. Soon enough, the Virgin New Adventures (often called New Adventures, or NAs) were popular enough to be monthly publications. Writers familiar to “New Who” had their Doctor Who beginnings in this 61-book long line of novels: Russell T Davies wrote Damaged Goods, Paul Cornell wrote 5 (including his later adapted Human Nature), Mark Gatiss’s first piece of professional writing was Nightshade, and Gareth Roberts penned, among others, The Highest Science.
A parade of companions followed the manipulative and brooding Seventh Doctor, the principal players being Ace, the everpopular Bernice “Benny” Summerfield, Chris Cwej, and Roz Forrester. The books were occasionally criticized (and in some places rightly so) for being too mature. Some authors went overboard on the sex, drugs, and violence (including our own Russell T Davies), but overall the consensus was clear: Rassilon thank Virgin for keeping Doctor Who alive.
But all good things must come to an end. In March of 1997, Lungbarrow by Marc Platt was published, featuring Chris, Ace, Leela, Romana, K9, and a resolution to the “Cartmel Masterplan” surrounding the Doctor’s origin begun in the 80s. It was the last Seventh Doctor novel written for the NA line. One more book was published by Virgin starring the Doctor: The Dying Days, written by Lance Parkin, featuring Bernice Summerfield… and the eighth incarnation of our favourite Time Lord.
Pilots, McGann, and Licensing Issues, Oh My!
Let’s backtrack a little bit. Philip Segal, an Essex-born expatriate working for Columbia Pictures’ television branch in the US, acted on behalf of the BBC in looking for an independent production company to relaunch the show with. Although he began in July 1989 (while the final season was still being produced), Segal’s search dragged on, nearly enticing Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment to commission the series but having no such luck. Eventually, Trevor Walton of the Fox Network at Universal Studios was interested, being an Englishman familiar with the series himself. Unable to get a full series commissioned, Walton managed to get a one-time television movie produced that theoretically would act as a backdoor pilot (acting as a piece of material on its own that showed the concept of a series).
The movie, simply called Doctor Who by Universal (later known as either “The TV Movie” or The Enemy Within), was unique for continuing the British television show in America, as opposed to starting from scratch. The idea of scriptwriter Matthew Jacobs, his method was fairly simple: roll out Sylvester McCoy, kill him off, and have him regenerate. The new Doctor was cast as Paul McGann, Segal’s first choice for the role, although the Fox Network – and McGann himself – were not originally interested. Fun fact for trivia hunters: Jo Wright (no relation to Barbara, of course), an Executive Producer of the BBC, wanted Tom Baker to be the regenerating Doctor, as Tom Baker’s era was much more popular amongst the British public. Segal, luckily, managed to convince her of the timeywimey error of her ways.
14 May, 1996: the Fox Network broadcasts Doctor Who, with BBC One following suit thirteen days later. In the US, it drew in a paltry 5.5 million viewers, as compared to a very solid 9 million in the UK. Although the television movie itself received mixed reviews, Paul McGann’s joyously effervescent Doctor received great acclaim. One fantastic performance, however, wasn’t enough strong evidence against the low US figures for Fox, and no series was ever commissioned.
Back to Virgin Publishing. The BBC decided to revoke Virgin’s license to produce Doctor Who novels after the TV Movie. 61 New Adventures were produced by Virgin (all but the last featuring the Seventh Doctor), as well as 33 Missing Adventures (starring previous Doctors). Virgin’s line of New Adventures continued with the Paul Cornell created character of Bernice Summerfield, who was not owned by the BBC and thus was allowed to star in her own, Doctor-free series. Much like their last novel’s name, this was the NA line’s dying days. Of course, the Wilderness Years weren’t over; far from it, really. The Eighth Doctor was about to take the reigns.
In With the New
Virgin’s license wasn’t renewed due to BBC Books taking back the rights to publish original Doctor Who fiction. In June of ‘97 (merely one month after the last Virgin book was published), the BBC began two novel lines: the Past Doctor Adventures with the Third Doctor’s The Devil Goblins from Neptune, and the Eighth Doctor Adventures with the (admittedly lacklustre) The Eight Doctors. The “PDAs”, as they’re known, continued until December of 2005, a good six months after the New Series returned; they ended with the Seventh Doctor in Atom Bomb Blues.
The EDAs ceased in June of ‘05 in Lance Parkin’s The Gallifrey Chronicles, with January’s To the Slaughter being the last novel in which the Eighth Doctor was the “current” Doctor (Rose aired in March). 73 novels were produced, featuring McGann’s incarnation with companions Sam, Fitz Kreiner (technically one of the longestserving companions), Compassion (who has a very interesting story arc), Anji Kapoor, and Trix MacMillan.
Although the NAs had their fair share of long plotlines, arcs like those in New Who are easily identifiable in the EDAs, including (but not limited to) a long-running amnesia storyline, an arc concerning a mysterious character named Sabbath, the organization known as Faction Paradox, and a certain plot occurrence that all New Who fans should find very familiar indeed. The EDAs also introduced Paul Magrs’s brilliant Iris Wildthyme, a troublesome character that would later be voiced by Katy Manning (yes, Jo Grant herself) for several Big Finish audios of her own.
The EDAs were never quite as popular as the NAs, although my love and respect for them has only multiplied with each novel I read. Many detractors call them boring or badly written; on the contrary, this is some of the best Doctor Who writing in the expanded Whoniverse (more on that in the recommendations section below). Another factor in the unfortunate lack of interest may be the introduction of another medium for the Eighth Doctor to shine.
Big Finish, Small Beginnings
If you haven’t heard of Big Finish… shame on you!
Just kidding. There have been several articles on this website about Big Finish, and I’d definitely recommend you go check them out. As for its history, the company began with a group of people who had collaborated together on the unlicensed fan series of Doctor Who Audio Visuals. Twenty-six of these were produced, with Nicholas Briggs (better known to 21st century audiences as the voice of the Daleks) starring as the Doctor. The BBC chose to look away from the copyright violation, thankfully, and the group formed during this period stuck together in forming a serious science fiction audio company.
Big Finish’s beginnings were with a series of fullcast audio plays adapted from Virgin books. Because a license hadn’t been given to the new company to create new Doctor Who, any stories with the Doctor in them were rewritten sans Time Lord, and starred Bernice Summerfield instead. Five of the six adaptations were done by the marvelous Jacqueline Rayner, and Benny Summerfield was given a voice at last by Lisa Bowerman, who had played the cheetah person Karra in Survival.
On the 19th of July, 1999, Big Finish Productions released The Sirens of Time, a four-part story starring Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy. Yes, Big Finish had received a license from the BBC for producing Doctor Who, and decided to begin it with a multi-Doctor story written and directed by Nicholas Briggs. While I wouldn’t recommend the story (and neither would many others), it was a landmark for Doctor Who in the Wilderness Years. Davison, Baker, and McCoy sounded virtually the same, and the audio plays that followed showed that stories often more engaging than those produced by the television show could be made without visuals.
January, 2001: Storm Warning, the sixteenth in Big Finish’s monthly Doctor Who range, is released. It was the first audio to star Paul McGann as the Doctor, and introduced a new companion, Charlotte Pollard, for him to journey around the stars with. Paul remained the incumbent Doctor up until 2004’s The Next Life, which ended a long arc taking place in a different universe. His next audio was released after Rose had aired, as well as after Christopher Eccleston had regenerated into David Tennant.
Big Finish has created many companions for the 80s Doctors, often bridging gaps between stories with several (or quite a lot of) audio adventures. Among them are Erimem for the Fifth Doctor, the wonderful Evelyn Smythe for the Sixth, Hex Schofield for the Seventh, and Charley Pollard, Lucie Miller, and Molly O’Sullivan for the Eighth. Big Finish is not a company to be missed, and we have the luck of having both its Wilderness Years output – much of which is deliriously imaginative – and its current offerings. Hey, they’ve gotten Tom Baker on board to do his own audio series, and that’s nothing short of a minor miracle.
People often mourn the Wilderness Years. They speak of the never-produced Season 27; of the uncompleted Cartmel Masterplan; of the possible companions the Seventh could have had; of the feeling of disjunction the Whovian community had. I respond to these points with ease. Big Finish created adaptations of Season 27, Virgin finished the Cartmel Masterplan, and the Seventh’s had more companions than even the First (who’s been known to hoard TARDIS teams).
As for that feeling of falling apart, the Wilderness Years actually brought the community closer together. Only those truly dedicated to Doctor Who remained, and they managed to overcome the roadblock of the show not being made in a variety of ways. Novels, unlike the show, could be taken everywhere, as could audios; in a portion which I have not covered, the comic strips, Doctor Who Magazine morphed from being a kid’s insider to another method of holding the fandom together.
What I’m trying to say is that the Wilderness Years let Doctor Who breathe. They released it from budgetary constraints, from vehement protestors like Mary Whitehouse, and from BBC controllers who had a grudge against the show. They allowed it to try entirely new ideas and allowed a wealth of new talent to come to the fore. And, most of all, they showed that Doctor Who is a show – a universe, even – unlike any other. I’m having trouble coming up with any other show that dealt with cancellation by providing even more content than what was being produced before.
So take a moment before you jump from 1989 to 1996 to 2005. Don’t think of it as the gap, the divide between Classic and New Who. Think of it as an era all of its own, one that deserves to be lauded and discussed just as much as any of the others. It’s the era of the fans that would not give up, of the companies who saw too much value in Doctor Who to just let it die.
Let yourself find the Lost Years.
Now, this is tough, because I’ve discussed many different lines of work to sample. So, to simplify things for myself (and you all), I’m going to select three-five books from each range and a nice grab bag of audios from Big Finish. However, as with any part of Doctor Who, I’d seriously recommend going in order for the NAs and EDAs. The pay-off is great. And if money’s tight, the books especially can be found in second-hand stores and in used copies on Amazon (that’s how I get all of mine).
Virgin New Adventures (NAs)
- Love and War, by Paul Cornell
- The Left-Handed Hummingbird, by Kate Orman
- Human Nature, by Paul Cornell
(Note: I’d recommend Lungbarrow, but finding it at a cheap price is rather difficult these days. Just look at Amazon’s prices!)
Virgin Missing Adventures (VMAs)
- The Romance of Crime, by Gareth Roberts (4th Doctor)
- Managra, by Stephen Marley (4th Doctor)
- Cold Fusion, by Lance Parkin (5th and 7th Doctors)
Eighth Doctor Adventures (EDAs)
- Seeing I, by Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum
- The Year of Intelligent Tigers, by Kate Orman
- The City of the Dead, by Lloyd Rose
- The Tomorrow Windows, by Jonathan Morris
Past Doctor Adventures (PDAs)
- The Witch Hunters, by Steve Lyons (1st Doctor)
- The Shadow in the Glass, by Justin Richards and Stephen Cole (6th Doctor)
- The Algebra of Ice, by Lloyd Rose (7th Doctor)
- Fear Itself, by Nick Wallace (8th Doctor)
- The Time Travellers, by Simon Guerrier (1st Doctor)
Big Finish Productions
- Doctor Who and the Pirates (6th Doctor)
- Jubilee (6th Doctor)
- Storm Warning (8th Doctor)
- The Chimes of Midnight (8th Doctor)
- The Kingmaker (5th Doctor)
- Solitaire (8th Doctor)
- Home Truths/The Drowned World/The Guardian of the Solar System (1st Doctor)
- Find and Replace (3rd Doctor)
- Peri and the Piscon Paradox (5th and 6th Doctors)
Eighth Doctor Adventures:
- Blood of the Daleks (Parts 1 and 2)
- Max Warp
- The Scapegoat The Cannibalists
Fourth Doctors Adventures:
- The Wrath of the Iceni
- The Justice of Jalxar
- Phantoms of the Deep
- Love and War (an audio adaptation!)
- Bernice Summerfield: Oh No It Isn’t! (another book adaptation, but a great one)
I’d also seriously recommend Big Finish’s Jago & Litefoot spinoff series, starring the legendary duo from The Talons of Weng Chiang. Seriously, all of the stuff you can get from these lines of books and audios is great. I hope I’ve been able to shed some light on all things Expanded Whoniverse, and provide a sort of entryway into the Wilderness Years.