Tuesday 22 October 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary - Reflections on the Eighth Doctor and the Wilderness Years

The years 1990 to 2005 are known among Doctor Who fans as the “wilderness years”, the years when, with only one brief exception, the show was off the air—well, “off the air” in the sense that no new episodes were being made. For much of the 90’s, here in Canada, YTV continued to air repeats of the show, albeit in ever later and later time slots. It moved to 1:30 a.m. five days a week for a while, and then 2:30 a.m. seven days a week—a slot it stayed in for a few years before they stopped showing it altogether.

It was an exceedingly annoying timeslot, as I was desperate to get all the episodes on tape—again. I had taped them all previously, but large chunks of them had ended up with commercials in them. The 1:30 slot wasn’t so bad as it was a time I could pretty much guarantee being home at and I was always something of a night owl. But 2:30... Ugh. Even for me, staying up till 3 in the morning was exceedingly late, and as it was seven days a week, it wasn’t even possible to get a weekend relief. And I was in university and had classes. But I was dedicated and a fool. At least I was successful. I eventually replaced all my commercial-filled copies. Of course, by then, the release schedule for the official tapes had picked up somewhat and I began replacing them all again. Then later, VHS got replaced by DVD. Sigh. That’s something I’ve had enough of, these days. If ever the series is re-released on a new medium, I won’t be getting them again. I’ll keep my DVDs until they wear out and only replace them at that time.

While there may not have been any new television episodes, there was nonetheless new Doctor Who coming out—novels! For the longest time, Doctor Who novels were just novelizations of television stories, but as the television series came to an end, Virgin Books began The New Adventures, a monthly series featuring the seventh Doctor that continued on from where the TV show had left off. I fell in love with these books right off the bat, and they continued to get better as they went along.

I’ve rarely been into TV or movie tie-in books. I find they tend to be poorly written and are little more than an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the programme they were about. Over the years, I’ve read a few Star Trek and Star Wars books, Dragonlance or various other Dungeons & Dragons-related books, and books for various other series, and I have pretty much always been disappointed (with a few notable exceptions). I expected much the same from The New Adventures. Yet they surprised me. They were better than other tie-in books. The weren’t necessarily masterpieces (especially several of the early ones), but they were well-written and enjoyable. In some ways, I actually started to prefer the books to the show. They could do things that would have been impossible for the TV series to pull off—not just in terms of special effects, but also the style of storytelling. The New Adventures could delve into topics and issues that there just wasn’t time to deal with on TV. More than that, the characters developed in ways that they rarely had on the TV show. They had story arcs and they grew as people. Actions—even and especially the Doctor’s actions—had consequences later on, and the characters had to face these consequences.

Eventually, Virgin Books also started The Missing Adventures, novels featuring earlier Doctors, and now there were two new Doctor Who novels per month. These pretty much sated my need for more Doctor Who, and so, even though it seemed less and less likely all the time that the show would ever be coming back, I was content with the state of affairs. After all, Doctor Who had had twenty-six seasons, more than any other science fiction show in the world. It was pretty impressive and nothing lasts forever.

I was at the University of Western Ontario (now called Western University) for much of the 90s, originally taking astronomy. Doctor Who hadn’t started my interest in science and outer space, but it had certainly contributed towards it, and I had dreams of being a cosmologist one day. Yet, as many people at that age do, after starting down this road, I discovered it really wasn’t what I wanted after all, and after a couple years of astronomy, I switched to English. During those first couple of years, I had become involved in a number of things I discovered just held far greater interest for me, and the English programme allowed me to focus more on them, even if it wasn’t directly related to them.

I had helped to create a radio play comedy series that aired on the campus radio station. It was a Star Trek spoof called Star Struck: The Redundant Generation. We only actually produced four episodes of that at the time (with a fifth produced a couple years later), but for a while, it was a significant part of my life. I also helped with the formation of a new on-campus science fiction fan club. I’ve commented a couple of times in these reflections that London, Ontario was not a place friendly to science fiction, so I suppose it’s not that surprising that Western didn’t already have a science fiction fan club. Still, many people attending Western were not from London, so you might think that at least a few of those would be interested in science fiction or fantasy, but it seemed not enough of them had been to start a club about it.

The club actually began life when a friend decided he wanted to start a Star Trek fan club, and I agreed to help. He tried to encourage me to start a Doctor Who fan club as well, which I contemplated, but ended up deciding I’d never find enough people to join it to reach the minimum membership required for an “official” campus club. This was perhaps prescient, since as popular as Star Trek: The Next Generation was at the time, managing to get people to join a Star Trek fan club proved incredibly difficult. When we did our first membership drive in the fall of 1992, we barely got the minimum number needed to become an official club—and while I don’t remember exactly what that minimum number was, it was something pretty small, in the vicinity of twelve or so. One may wonder, why not just be a club without official status? Well, being official gave us access to campus facilities. We could book rooms, even A/V equipment, for meetings, something we wouldn’t have been able to do without that official status.

Although at the time, it was a Star Trek club, most of the members we ended up with were interested in much more science fiction than just Star Trek. As such, we didn’t stay a Star Trek club for long. After only the second or third meeting, we voted to officially change the name of the club to Science Fiction Western (or just SFW for short). I actually missed that meeting and didn’t get to partake in the vote, but the outcome was quite pleasing to me. While I liked Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was never really a Star Trek fan, and this change of focus meant I could push for more Doctor Who coverage by the club.

For five years, that club was a significant part of my social life. For all five of those years, I produced the club’s monthly newsletter, where I passed on not just club news, but science fiction news in general and published club members’ reviews, thoughts, and fiction. I was also on the club’s executive in some form every year, although in a multitude of different positions. In my second-last year there, I was president. The following year, I swapped places with my vice-president and she took over the presidency for the next year. This was a mutually agreed decision between the two of us. I should point out that this was a diplomatic club, and officially, we held elections for executive positions. However, in the entire five years I was there, we only ever held a vote once. There was never more than one person wanting to run for an executive position, so everyone was always acclaimed (except that one time). Even after we trimmed the executive size down from five people to three (president, vice president, and treasurer), we had trouble getting enough people interested. This was, I suppose, just a reflection of the difficulty we had getting people to join the club at all. There was one year where we actually had about sixty members officially on paper. Even then, we only had about ten or so regular members coming out to meetings. Most years though, we struggled to meet that minimum number.

But honestly, as long as we had that official number on paper, I wasn’t bothered about the small numbers coming to meetings. The people who did come out were loyal, and many of them became good friends. For the first time in my life, I was actually part of a group of people with the same kinds of interests that I had. Many of them were even Doctor Who fans!

It was during these years with SFW that word began to spread of the return of Doctor Who. Of course, there had always been rumours of some kind of return. Numerous movie rumours had made the rounds over the years. But then came the rumours that Steven Spielberg had acquired Doctor Who. That turned out to be not quite accurate. Rather, the rights had been obtained by Philip Segal, who had worked for Amblin Entertainment, which was owned by Steven Spielberg. But the important thing was that the kernel of truth there led to the announcement that Doctor Who really was coming back—as a co-production with FOX in the United States and starring Paul McGann.

I have to say, I and most of the people I knew were wary of what the co-production would do to the series. We worried that it would attempt to reinvent the show in a way that would ultimately ruin it. We worried that the show would not be recognizable as Doctor Who.

Nevertheless, the return of the show was a big event for me and others in Science Fiction Western. When the day finally came, my girlfriend of the time and two other friends joined me at my place to watch. It was unprecedented. I was actually watching new Doctor Who with other people!

I had mixed feelings about the TV Movie at the time. I still do, although some of my likes and dislikes have since switched places. I was very happy that it kept continuity with the original series, having been very worried that it would simply reboot everything anew. As such, I loved that Sylvester McCoy was in it. His regeneration into Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor cemented that this was a continuation of the show I had loved for so long. I also loved that McCoy looked physically older, hinting that his incarnation had lasted a long time since the end of the original series. Today, I actually think McCoy’s inclusion was an example of the things the TV Movie did wrong (as much as I still love Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor), although I am still glad that the show kept continuity with the original series.

The big problem with the TV Movie that I didn’t really fully clue into at the time (and McCoy’s inclusion was symptomatic of this) was that it opened with everything from the reverse angle to what it should have. The viewer should not see things through the Doctor’s eyes—at least not to start. The Doctor has too much backstory to reveal all in one go. Instead, he should be a mystery encountered through the eyes of the companion. We should learn about him in bits and pieces, just as the companion does. Instead, the TV Movie presents us with Time Lords, the Master, and Daleks all in the opening monologue. We see the TARDIS from the inside first before the outside, instead of the other way round. While the TV Movie does have strengths to it, it is pretty much the poster child of how not to do the first episode of a Doctor Who series. It seems it was a lesson well learned when “Rose” premièred nine years later.

At the time, however, these were things that I really liked because they played to my fan love of nostalgia. It would take some time for me to realize that appealing to the fans from the first episode was the wrong way to go about things. The story had virtually no chance of hooking in new viewers, and it was new viewers the show needed in order to survive.

The problems I had with the TV Movie at the time were focused more on the obvious things like the Doctor being half-human (something mercifully ignored ever since) and—gasp!—the Doctor kissing his companion (something that has since become rather commonplace, and if I have to be honest, I’d say was handled in the TV Movie better than most occasions it’s been done since). I adored Paul McGann’s Doctor, however, and had nothing but praise for him in a review I wrote for SFW’s newsletter. The story itself was rather weak and nonsensical, and I have always been disproportionately bothered by the fact that midnight somehow manages to occur simultaneously around the world. Yet the TV Movie does manage to be entertaining and kind of charming in its own way. And despite the problems I had with it, I was excited about the prospect that it could lead to a whole new series.

But it didn’t.

I actually wasn’t all that surprised—not because I felt it wasn’t very good, but rather because it had been very poorly advertised in North America. Hardly anyone tuned in because hardly anyone even knew it was on. And without the viewing figures to support it, FOX didn’t sign on to a full series, and without FOX’s support, there was no series.

While I wasn’t surprised that a new series didn’t arise from the TV Movie and a small part of me was kind of glad (I dreaded what they might do with the half human thing), I was disappointed because the failure of the TV Movie was pretty much the final nail in Doctor Who’s coffin (at least so it seemed to me and many others at the time). It seemed pretty much final that Doctor Who as a TV show was gone for good.

At least there were still the books. Of course, there was a big change coming there too. With the advent of the TV Movie, the BBC did not renew Virgin’s licence, instead deciding to publish its own series of books. Virgin published only a single eighth Doctor story before continuing The New Adventures as a series for popular companion Bernice Summerfield. I continued to read those, but the books became harder and harder to find. The same was true of the new BBC eighth Doctor and past Doctor adventures. I successfully found and bought many of the early ones, but as fewer and fewer showed up on store shelves (either in London or in Montreal, which I soon moved to—see below), it meant I had more and more gaps in the series. I eventually stopped reading the ones I had, simply because I had missed out on what came before it. To this day, I have a bunch of eighth Doctor novels that I have never read because I have never been able to fill those gaps.

In the spring of 1997, I graduated from University, and it was time to move on from Science Fiction Western. In fact, by that time, almost all of the original members had moved on and the few who were left were graduating with me. This included the executive, which had remained the same (apart from swapping president and vice president positions) for the last two years. We did manage to find people to take over for us, although until then, they had been members who had only come out to one or two meetings here and there, and I worried about how the club would carry on without at least one previous member to help the transition from old members to new. It was hard leaving the club. I had put a lot of time and effort into it, and I and just a few others had kept it going for the last few years. I felt like I was leaving a major part of me behind, but there was no other choice. I was moving to Montreal in the fall, so there wasn’t even the option to stay on as a non-student member.

Science Fiction Western didn’t last much longer after that. I heard through the grapevine that it folded a year or two later. I was very sad to hear that. I was very attached to that club and I had really hoped it would continue to have a life after its early core members had moved on. I have no idea if Western today has a science fiction club. I hope it does. I hope somebody came along, noticed the lack of one, and decided to start one.

I lived in Montreal for the next five years, and those five years are the years of my life that are probably the most distant from Doctor Who. By that, I don’t mean that I gave up on the show or in any way abandoned it. It’s just that without new episodes or books (apparently the lack of books was a North America-wide distribution problem or something; whatever the case, they remained incredibly difficult to find), there was little to do that was Doctor Who related. I kept buying videos from time to time (although I couldn’t afford to buy every single one) and I followed news online and frequently read (though rarely participated in) rec.arts.drwho on usenet.

When Big Finish started their series of audio Doctor Who adventures, including eighth Doctor stories, I would have loved to have bought and listened to them. Alas, I simply couldn’t afford them. I didn’t have much money at the time and so I had to make sacrifices. It is one of my Doctor Who disappointments that, to this day, I still have not heard more than a couple of Big Finish audios. Even when getting them became more financially feasible, the backlog that had developed by that time was intimidating. Then money problems hit again. It remains a series that I hope one day to catch up on (as the few I’ve heard have been very good), but one that must, for now, go unlistened to. It does mean that I’ve missed out on so much of Paul McGann. To this day, I really only have the TV Movie to judge him by, and I judge him very well by that. I wish there were more of him for me to watch.

I think it’s a terrible shame that Paul McGann is not involved in the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor”, as of all the past Doctors, his is the Doctor I would have most liked to see in a multi-Doctor story, especially this one. While I’m sure John Hurt will do a fine job and will make a compelling Doctor, I don’t see the point in creating an entire forgotten incarnation of the Doctor when there’s an already existing one that has had so little of his story told. And I think it would make far, far more of an impact if it were revealed that whatever the Doctor did that was so horrible was done by an incarnation we already knew (even if only a little) rather than by one we’ve never known before. An unknown incarnation makes it too easy to dismiss his actions because we haven’t learnt to care about him. But one we do know and care about... There’s so much difference. But “The Day of the Doctor” hasn’t aired yet, so I may be judging prematurely. I’m also digressing somewhat from the topic at hand...

With no new Who or even much old Who to take up my time in the 90s, I moved on to other shows. Babylon 5, in particular, grabbed my attention, as did The X-Files for a while (although I grew bored of that after a few years). Star Trek: Deep Space Nine also became the first Star Trek series that I was really enthralled by. Yet throughout it all, I never lost Doctor Who. It was always there. I had my big collection of tapes that I could slip into the VCR any time I wanted, after all.

Oddly enough, Doctor Who’s wilderness years were kind of my own wilderness years, too, especially my time in Montreal. The 90’s as a whole were a period of discovering myself, as I moved from astronomy to English (which I got my degree in), then to music, then acting, then teaching. Only some writing on the side remained as any sort of constant throughout it all. As I’ve looked back on things over that past few weeks of writing these reflections, I’ve noticed that many of the periods of my life, especially the last couple decades, mirror periods on Doctor Who. It’s kind of weird and even a little spooky. The new series arrived shortly after I re-established myself in Toronto after my time in Montreal. The Steven Moffat years began right at the same time as another major upheaval in my life. Of course, I know this is just pure coincidence. In the words of the eighth Doctor, I’m simply “seeing patterns in things that aren’t there.” Nonetheless, it’s rather eerie.

One thing that is true though, is that when the new series started in 2005, Doctor Who took over my life again, perhaps more so than it ever had previously.


  1. Those novels (Virgin and BBC) kept me going when the show was off-air, and McGann is doign very well in the audio plays. I love the direction his Doctor has gone, and I can't wait for their anniversary special when he teams up with Tom Baker's Doctor. That's going to be spectacular.

    1. Yeah, those books made a huge difference in my ability to cope with the show being off the air.

      And it looks like you don't have to wait any longer for McGann's team-up with Tom Baker (and Davison, Colin Baker, and McCoy) since Big Finish has released it early!