Doctor Who was off-air for most of the 1990s, but that’s not the whole story. Mark Donaldson revisits fandom’s “wilderness years” and the TV movie starring Paul McGann.
Many fans hold that Doctor Who is the best idea for a TV series ever conceived. Now approaching its 60th anniversary, the BBC’s flagship sci-fi programme may not have always lived up to that, but over the last six decades, it’s a show that has had at least as many incarnations as its title character.
In this weekly series, three Doctor Who fans go through the greatest show in the galaxy, decade by decade. This time, it’s Mark Donaldson’s turn, with a tour of the 1990s ‘wilderness years’…
Part Four: The 1990s
“Pickled in time, like gherkins in a jar.”
Looking back at the TV schedules in the 1990s, it’s mind-boggling that Doctor Who didn’t take its place alongside shows like BUGS, Crime Traveller, and Jonathan Creek. There was clearly still a place for genre television on primetime Saturday night BBC One, but Doctor Who was conspicuous by its absence.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying, as BBC Two regularly trotted out repeat runs of classic serials while various plans to revive Doctor Who were being considered from almost the moment the Seventh Doctor and Ace headed towards cities made of song.
The 1990s is often referred to as Doctor Who's “Wilderness Years” but this isn’t true. Someone’s wilderness years refers to their time out of the public eye, stripped of influence, and failing to make headlines. Despite there being no ongoing original series on TV in the 1990s, Doctor Who never went away, and instead expanded into a media multiverse.
Far from being abandoned, the franchise had a creatively vibrant period that ultimately laid the groundwork for the 2005 reboot. There were multiple official and unofficial attempts to bring the Doctor back, using animation, the printed word, radio drama, and comic books. For reasons of brevity, however, this trip through Doctor Who's 1990s will largely stick to the official projects designed for the screen.
Lost in the Dark Dimension (1990 – 1993)
Perhaps learning from the 1985 debacle and hoping to avoid another charity single (never Google “Doctor In Distress”), the BBC never officially cancelled Doctor Who in 1990, but instead refused to be drawn on its future. In response, the Doctor Who fanzine DWB called for fans to make at least 20 phone calls to the BBC during the day of 30th November, 1990.
The reason that they didn’t choose the anniversary on 23rd November was that it would clash with the annual Children in Need telethon. With that in mind, an army of angry Doctor Who fans diverting valuable resources away from helping needy kids wasn’t likely to help their case. Such a clear self-awareness and sense of perspective in Doctor Who fandom now feels like a relic of a bygone era.
Animated Doctor Who?
While the Day of Action (not a Terry Nation episode title) failed to resurrect the show in 1990, the following year did see some positive signs of life. In Canada, animation company Nelvana were finally moving forward on an animated series, which, if it had been successful, would have been Doctor Who's most overtly “kids’ TV show” incarnation.
Like its contemporaries, the animated series would have been directly tied into the toy market. American company Tyco planned to make a range of toys including, predictably, action figures of the Doctor, K9, the Master, the Daleks, and the Cybermen. In a 1993 market dominated by Barbies and Talkboy, how would a TARDIS playset and the dubiously titled “Doctor Who’s Time Stick Weapon” (RRP $7.99) have fared?
Ultimately, this rampant consumerism was distasteful to the BBC, who pulled the co-production deal citing their discomfort around the levels of creative input and control from Tyco.
The BBC’s desire to retain overall control of the brand is an example of the internal clash of ideals between the corporation’s original public service remit and their commercial aspirations via BBC Enterprises. Later rebranded as BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s commercial arm certainly understood the appetite for Doctor Who in the home entertainment market.
To this end, they employed former executive producer John Nathan-Turner to oversee a raft of exclusive VHS releases, ranging from a feature-length edit of the Sylvester McCoy classic The Curse Of Fenric, to a reconstruction of the unfinished Douglas Adams serial Shada. It was while promoting the Shada VHS release that Tom Baker hinted a desire to return to the role of the Doctor, setting in motion the most ambitious and notorious project that BBC Enterprises ever embarked on.
Baker’s desire to return to Doctor Who neatly dovetailed with BBC Enterprises’ interest in producing an original straight-to-video adventure, perhaps for the 30th anniversary. Enterprises hoped to enlist past writer and script editor Douglas Adams to write the film, but instead hired Adrian Rigelsford, a Doctor Who fan and 23-year-old staffer at Columbia Pictures who was known for turning round a script quickly.
Titled Lost In The Dark Dimension, Rigelsford’s story revolved around the machinations of the villainous Hawkspur (to be played by Rik Mayall), who had meddled with history to ensure that the Fourth Doctor never regenerated.
The storyline fulfilled the brief that Tom Baker’s incarnation should be front and centre but did so by suggesting that the 1980s never happened. Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy were understandably insulted by this. Imagine if Doctor Who celebrated its 60th anniversary by bringing back David Tennant and ignoring Christopher Eccleston, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi, and Jodie Whittaker.
A dispute between the BBC’s Drama Department and BBC Enterprises over the Dark Dimension's budget and its commercial return led to the project being cancelled on 9th July 1993. With just over four months left, plans for Doctor Who's 30th-anniversary special had to be drastically reduced.
Nathan-Turner, who had first suggested the idea of a straight-to-video Doctor Who movie in 1990, had worked on potential storylines with writer David Roden. Once The Dark Dimension was cancelled, it was Nathan-Turner and Roden who the BBC asked to provide something that reunited all of the surviving Doctors for that year’s Children in Need telethon. And so, we got Dimensions In Time.
The plot, such as it is, involves the Rani trapping the Doctors and their companions inside three decades’ worth of EastEnders. Compared to a 90-minute movie starring Tom Baker and Rik Mayall, Dimensions In Time never stood a chance of being accepted by fans.
The self-awareness and sense of perspective that had stopped fans from jamming the BBC switchboards during Children in Need 1990 went out the window when their big 30th-anniversary present was a choice between Mandy or Big Ron as the Doctor’s saviour in Part Two.
Fans who wanted a more substantial team-up of the Doctors had to go down an unauthorised avenue. Produced by independent company BBV and written by future Dalek voice actor Nicholas Briggs, The Airzone Solution is a feature film starring Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy. There’s also an early role for future New Who guest star Alan Cumming.
Playing like a cross between Torchwood and The Bill, this competent environmental thriller features a lot of Doctor actors interacting with each other, even if the central conceit of their characters’ psychic connection makes no sense within the fiction.
It wasn’t until Torchwood proper came along in 2006 that the Whoniverse would officially get to fourth base, The Airzone Solution is notable for an incredibly awkward soft-focus love scene between Colin Baker and his former co-star Nicola Bryant. And yet, it would be something far more chaste that set Doctor Who fandom ablaze three years later.
“He’s Back, and it’s About Time“ (1993 – 1996)
According to Phillip Segal, the producer of the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie, one of the reasons for the cancellation of the Dark Dimension project in 1993 was that he vetoed it.
Segal made this claim in a 1995 interview with Dreamwatch Magazine, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. No deal had been signed between the BBC and Amblin at the time of The Dark Dimension being scrapped, and it was another three weeks before the producer was contacted about a potential co-production being agreed by the BBC board.
Rather ambitiously, Segal hoped that this brand-new season of Doctor Who could make it to air in Autumn 1994, but the complexities of the co-production deal, and problems with the pilot script led to some substantial delays.
It’s hilarious that so many Doctor Who fans believe that the TV Movie was too incomprehensible for new viewers, given what might have been. Prior to writer Matthew Jacobs coming aboard, the first episode alone would have involved Daleks, the Master, a plot to kill Hitler, and the introduction of the Doctor’s father. Compared to that, the story of a “John Doe” gun-crime victim who miraculously turns into a handsome romantic hero overnight doesn’t sound all that confusing.
Among the big names considered for this handsome romantic hero included Peter Capaldi, Derek Jacobi, and Rowan Atkinson – all names that featured more prominently in Doctor Who yet-to-come.
Finally, Paul McGann was cast, and his charismatic, breathlessly enthusiastic portrayal of the Eighth Doctor is a joy throughout the TV Movie and in his subsequent audio adventures for Big Finish Productions.
1996’s Doctor Who, or the TV Movie, or The Enemy Within, depending on your naming conventions) is exactly the version of the show you would expect from a decade in which The X-Files was in the zeitgeist. The relationship between Grace and the Doctor owes a huge debt to that of Dana Scully and Fox “Spooky” Mulder in The X-Files;with Grace as a sceptical medic, paired with someone who totally changes her worldview.
Set on New Year’s Eve 1999, the TV Movie is action-packed, with some decidedly gnarly moments of horror, gun violence and, most shockingly and horrifically of all, a kiss between the Doctor and their companion.
The hugely exciting return of Doctor Who in 1996 was a major event for UK fandom, with high-street retailers hosting midnight openings so that fans could buy the VHS before it was shown on BBC One. On the week of its UK broadcast, the Radio Times had McGann on the cover and a pull-out primer for the entire history of Doctor Who from William Hartnell to Sylvester McCoy. A weekly Eighth Doctor comic strip debuted in the listings magazine the following week.
Sadly, the excitement for Doctor Who's heroic return to BBC One was undercut by the sad news of Jon Pertwee’s death just six days earlier. Between 1993 and 1996, Pertwee had become the de-facto Doctor, appearing on light entertainment programmes in-character. He also reunited with Nick Courtney, Lis Sladen, and Barry Letts for two new adventures for BBC Radio that harked back to the golden age of the UNIT family.
When the TV Movie was broadcast on BBC One on 27th May 1996, Pertwee was memorialised with a dedication at the end, a touching reminder that nobody ever stops being Doctor Who, whether they played the Doctor for five years, or in the case of Paul McGann, one night only.
The hangover (1996 – 1999)
The TV Movie partied like it was 1999, but the years leading to the actual new millennium felt like one of those long hangovers that triggers an existential crisis. As the high wore off, there was an increasing sense of doom about the show’s future.
In the UK, Doctor Who was watched by 9.81 million viewers, only a million shy of the ratings for Christopher Eccleston’s debut nine years later. Sadly, however, it was the American audience that the TV Movie had to impress, and it was only watched by 5.6 million viewers – nine percent of the viewing audience. With such a poor performance, Fox declined the option to pick up Doctor Who for a full series order, McGann’s contract expired, and the show was back in limbo.
Excitingly, BBC Films announced a desire to bring Doctor Who to the big screen at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998.
The following year, Event Horizon director Paul WS Anderson told Total Film that his next project was likely to be the mooted Doctor Who movie. Speculation on who Anderson would cast as the Doctor veered wildly from two-time Academy Award nominee Denzel Washington to Coronation Street actor Linus Roache, who was just embarking on his Hollywood career.
Frustratingly for fans, negotiations over the potential movie obstructed attempts by the BBC to bring Doctor Who back to TV. In the meantime, fans had to make do with retrospective programming such as 1999’s Doctor Who Night, which featured classic episodes, a new documentary, and comedy sketches, tied together by fruity links that were delivered with gusto by Tom Baker. (“Curry sauce all over Uranus. Delish!”)
Doctor Who Night marked the 36th anniversary and launched a short-lived series of weekly repeats of colour episodes, which swiftly abandoned the Pertwee era in favour of Genesis Of The Daleks, before disappearing from the schedules altogether. If there was still an audience for Doctor Who, they wanted brand-new adventures, and had no desire to wallow in the past.
The highlight of 1999 for fans was the extended Comic Relief sketch, The Curse Of Fatal Death, a brand-new traditional Doctor Who four-part serial with jokes, written by sitcom writer Steven Moffat.
Rowan Atkinson and Julia Sawalha are perfectly cast as the Ninth Doctor and his companion Emma. Building on the romance of the TV Movie, this Doctor and companion are unequivocally in a relationship. (“The only companion I ever had”, indeed.)
In a behind-the-scenes documentary, Moffat stated that Fatal Death was likely his only chance to write Doctor Who, and it shows. Every schoolboy sex joke, wasted regeneration, and timey-wimey set piece from the Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi eras get their first airing here. It’s essentially a dry run for Moffat’s era of “Doctor Who with jokes in” a decade later. There’s also genuine melancholy in the Doctor’s dying words, which would later be repeated by the Twelfth Doctor in a 2015 minisode:
‘Look after the universe for me, I’ve put a lot of work into it.’’
However, The Curse Of Fatal Death wasn’t the year’s only sneak peek of Doctor Who’s future. Moffat, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts, Paul Cornell, and Russell T Davies all took part in a Doctor Who Magazine feature about the future of the show.
Headlined “We’re gonna be bigger than Star Wars!”, it’s full of fascinating insights like RTD’s desire for a revival to be more emotionally real, and Steven Moffat’s assertion that they’d know they got Doctor Who right if adult fans ‘muttered that it was no longer serious drama like it was when they were 11’. The article signs off with Davies’ reflections on the eventual custodian of Doctor Who’s future by saying:
‘God help anyone bringing it back – what a responsibility!’
And as 1999 gave way to the year 2000, RTD would soon learn just how much of a responsibility it was to bring back Doctor Who.
One day, they will come back…
Various elements from the TV Movie recur in the modern series, from all that kissing to the vast retcons of the Doctor’s past. To this day, it’s hard to figure out what upset fans more – the prospect of the Doctor being half-human, or the concept of the Timeless Child. McGann himself reappears in the regeneration minisode The Night Of The Doctor and alongside the classic Doctors in 2022’s The Power Of The Doctor.
The idea of a female Thirteenth Doctor (played by Joanna Lumley) was also introduced in The Curse Of Fatal Death, as was the electric sexual chemistry between the Doctor and the Master. And even Dimensions In Time is only the first of many EastEnders references in Doctor Who.
However, the big takeaway from the 1990s is the fans that had grown up to become acclaimed screenwriters; Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat, and Mark Gatiss all came to prominence during the 1990s, and each of them played a vital part in the writing of Doctor Who’s glorious 2005 return.
Six more brilliant things about Doctor Who in the 1990s
1. Mark Gatiss and David Walliams’ Doctor Who Night sketches may have been controversial for the now-excised “Equity card” gag about the 1980s Doctors in The Pitch Of Fear, but they’re very funny. Plus, The Web Of Caves is the closest we’ll ever get to Gatiss’ interpretation of the Doctor, and it’s as perfect a subversion of the character’s apparent godlike status as anything in the Moffat era.
2. The 1993 documentary More Than Thirty Years In The TARDIS is a beautifully evocative celebration of Doctor Who. The sequences of the little boy hiding from Daleks, Autons, and Cybermen on empty London streets are a great depiction of the childhood imagination sparked by Doctor Who. Also, it has new-wave legend Toyah Wilcox talk about the Cybermen’s fetish-wear costumes, what more do you want?
3. In 1995, the unofficial Doctor Who spinoff film Downtime was released on VHS. With a script by Ghost Light writer Marc Platt, it effectively forms the third part of a Great Intelligence and Yeti trilogy that began in the 1960s. As well as bringing back the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), Victoria Waterfield (Deborah Watling), and Professor Travers (Jack Watling), the film was also the first onscreen appearance of the Brig’s daughter, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Beverley Cressman), who’s played by Jemma Redgrave in New Who.
4. A group of Brighton-based Doctor Who fans including David V Clarke, Ashley Nealfuller, Stephen Cranford, and Tony Garner set out to make their own fan film, Devious, which was set between The War Games and Spearhead From Space. They quickly had to up their game when they secured the services of Actual Jon Pertwee, and they rose to the challenge of making new Doctor Who. In fact, it’s their Dalek and TARDIS props we see in The Curse Of Fatal Death, loaned to the BBC especially for the occasion.
5. Blue Peter devoted an entire episode to Doctor Who in 1999, when it felt like the show was never coming back. In an attempt to keep it current, the episode was focused on how the internet was creating a brand-new generation of fans. A wonderful, innocent window into when talking about the Whoniverse on the internet wasn’t utterly exhausting.
6. And then there’s Jon Pertwee’s in-character “Crank Up Your Granny” segment on short-lived Saturday night game show Happy Families. At the instruction of the competing families, the Third Doctor cranked a lever to raise two old women trapped inside their very own granny-size roll cages to hair-raising heights. Feels like more of a Master move, if we’re honest.
Mark Donaldson is a writer, podcaster, and freelance film programmer based in the North East of England. He has co-hosted the Doctor Who watch-through podcast On The Time Lash since 2014 and he’s also currently working on a documentary about fandom in the 1990s.
Oh no, not again. Feel free to share your favourite things about 1990s Doctor Who in the comments…
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