Back in 1985, Doctor Who was in a bad state. With accusations of poor production values and wobbly sets, violent storylines and an unlikable new Doctor in the form of Colin Baker, it was placed on an 18 month hiatus by BBC1 Controller Michael Grade and Head of Drama Jonathan Powell at the end of its 22nd season in March 1985. Following a maelstrom of negative publicity for the Corporation from Doctor Who fans worldwide, the series was handed a stay of execution when a new series for autumn 1986 was planned to revitalise this faltering television institution. To reflect the behind the scenes drama, it was to be a fourteen part mini-series entitled “The Trial of a Timelord”, with a Dickensian twist that would see the Doctor on trial for his actions in front of the Time Lord High Council on Gallifrey for his supposed crimes in the past, present and future, culminating in a battle to the death with the mysterious prosecuting council, The Valeyard.
And we thought Brexit was complicated.
But with a destructive argument of creative differences causing tension between Producer John Nathan Turner and Script Editor Eric Saward that would result in the latter’s resignation half-way through the series, with lead writer Robert Holmes passing away midway through writing the finale, disappointing ratings and an even more disappointing new companion in the form of Bonnie Langford, the programme began its death spiral and would be cancelled in 1989, returning to our screens for one underwhelming TV movie with Paul McGann before returning properly with Christopher Eccleston in 2005.
But Michael Grade gave the show one last chance on the 16th September 1986. He paid the show’s co-creator in 1963, Canadian Television pioneer Sydney Newman, to return to the production office for one month and produce a report on the way forward for Doctor Who, for a meagre fee by today’s terms of £1000. Delivered to Grade on 6th October 1986, the pitch harks back to Doctor Who’s roots as not only an adventure serial, but also an educational one. “Our Earth, both present and past,” Newman stressed, “is just as exciting as outer space, when creatively explored. The wonders of technology, science, medicine, the green earth movement…are hot subjects today…Doctor Who could somehow do battle with cancer cells in a child’s body, find trouble inside a NASA shuttle, or even fight mutiny on Christopher Columbus’ ship….experiencing adventures which in addition to their peripheral educational values, engage the concerns, fears and curiosity of today’s audiences of all ages.” It is not hard to see why Newman wanted to ground Doctor Who’s storylines back in educational adventures that touched on current affairs and human nature, as the series which he was reviewing on air at the time featured battles in the Time Lord Matrix with the Valeyard (which looked more like an old Victorian Mill and a grubby stretch of beach), royal intrigue with Brian Blessed as the vocally endowed King Ycranos and a cheap Agatha Christie rip-off in space with some alien vaginas, the Vervoids (and if you don’t believe me, watch the cliffhanger for episode 1 of Terror of the Vervoids and I’ll give you a year’s supply of Jelly babies if you can keep a straight face).
But ever the old populist provocateur, Newman did not stop at urging a radical change in Doctor Who’s storylines, but also in the character of the Doctor. Like the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, the new Doctor should be the lovable, “not-quite-there tramp from outer space” and “would be metamorphosed into a woman.” And he was serious too. He recommended that “this change requires some thought – mainly because I want to avoid a flashy Hollywood ‘Wonder Woman’ because this kind of heroine has no flaws – and a character with no flaws is a bore. Given more time than I have now, I can create such a character.” And there, in that ever so adorable clumsy wording, Newman is ahead of his time by three decades, for he identifies the key to casting not only a female Doctor, but any Doctor, of any gender. The Sonic Screwdriver is not a Walter Pistol. It’s a tool. The Doctor should be a quirky, brave but flawed protagonist who doesn’t always save the day. Who needs his or her companions to learn life lessons from rather than spiriting them away on adventures to impress them and caress his or her own ego.
Who doesn’t always save the day and fly off in a 1960s Police Box, but always does the right thing. The moral thing. The good thing. Steven Moffat wrote the line for the Twelfth Doctor “Am I a Good Man?” in 2014, and in the same episode, “Into the Dalek” he made sure he was the hero who saved the day, but in doing so explored the question…”at what cost?” And this should never be the question the Doctor asks – “Am I a Hero” would be a far better one. Terrance Dicks, the grand old master of Doctor Who writers, conceptualised that the Doctor should “never be cruel or cowardly, should never give up, should never give in.” And perhaps in 2017, as in 1986, the show had moved away from that.
Sadly, Sydney Newman was not given the time nor resources to implement his plan. John Nathan- Turner, the tired Producer of Doctor Who, had worked on the show in one form or another since The Space Pirates in 1969, moving from diverse roles such as Assistant Floor Manager to Assistant Production Manager and eventually Producer in 1980. Rather than give Doctor Who a new lease of life in 1987 based on Newman’s daring proposals, Nathan-Turner chose his new Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, watching a National Theatre production of The Pied Piper in January 1987.
Imagine if we’d had a female Doctor when Doctor Who returned in September 1987! Perhaps Newman may have cast Dawn French or Jennifer Saunders (who parodied The Trial of a Timelord on their sketch show using the actual sets in Doctor Who), Frances De La Tour or Jenny Agutter, Celia Imrie or maybe even Victoria Wood! Instead, we were treated to guest appearances from Knotty Ash resident Ken Dodd and Dynasty Diva Kate O’Mara, a sci-fi parody of the Perry and Croft ’80s hit sitcom Hi-De-Hi set in a ’50s holiday resort and double take of Sylvester McCoy dangling off an ice-cliff with a question mark umbrella. Hasn’t it dated well?
But if we look at it from the other point of view, perhaps Newman’s vision of a female Doctor in the 1980s may not have dated well either. A sexy male companion would have undoubtedly been cast, the Tardis may have been given a makeover (and indeed, it 1988, it briefly turned pink in an episode where the monster turned out to be a satire of confectioner Bertie Basset, so it’s no stretch of the imagination), and a female Doctor would have undoubtedly fielded a barrage of criticism from the tabloids. But I wish they had tried it out. Not only would the ageing Newman have been breaking new ground, he would have been paving the way for a Female Doctor three decades before Jodie Whittaker stepped into the Tardis in a top-secret forest (signposted just past the top-secret bunker). He would have made mistakes, but the show would be all the more diverse for it, and perhaps the cancellation wouldn’t have been so abrupt in December 1989.
And with the first four episodes of Jodie Whittaker’s new series of Doctor Who, it can be argued we’ve seen a faithful implementation of Newman’s plan for the series back in 1986. The Doctor is flawed and vulnerable; she couldn’t save her companion Ryan’s Mum, she struggled to ensure Rosa Parks’s era-changing act of civil disobedience for the civil rights movement was not tampered with by a time-travelling Stormcage criminal, and she has little to no control over the Tardis’ destination. The series has ensured that despite still looking toward outer space for inspiration, real issues tempered with peripheral educational values such as acting against racism, coping with grief, and highlighting environmental concerns over waste disposal inform the core plot points of the story each week.
Which is why I’m bemused by current reactions to the new series of Doctor Who. For those who’ve said it’s a bold new departure, a completely new ethos, a direct departure from the entire 55 year history that preceded it, the series is merely returning to its roots, the long way round. And for those who say that a female Doctor is sacrilege, a prime example of BBC leftie liberal bias, a sin which you can never forgive the modern era for, then I recommend you scrap all those copies of the very first episode. “An Unearthly Child”, with William Hartnell, was written by Anthony Coburn, an Australian writer, based on the premise drafted by Sydney Newman and Donald Wilson in 1963, the former encouraging the advent of the female Doctor over three decades before it came to our screens. And for those of us who think Doctor Who has been the reserve of middle-class white men and their chums such as Steven Moffatt, Mark Gatiss and Russell T. Davies, and that Chris Chibnall, Malorie Blackman and Jodie Whittaker are bucking this trend, take a look at the production sheet for “An Unearthly Child” in October 1963. Directed by gay Indian director Waris Hussein and produced by the first female producer at the BBC, 28 year old Verity Lambert, Doctor Who was a groundbreaker from the start.
Fast Forward to the 23rd November 2028: Doctor Who themed Trivial Pursuits. Back to the same old question again…who was the first female Doctor Who? Could it be Pauline Greaves, who played Doctor Who in a children’s revue called Merry and Bright at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool in June 1965? Although Pauline mimed to the voice of actor Henry Lytton, in every respect this was an all-female production, with the Doctor’s friends and foes, Barbara, Vicki, Ian and the deadly Daleks played by the girls of Joan Davis’ Dance School. Or could it be Joanna Lumley, who played the Thirteenth Doctor in a Comic Relief special written by Steven Moffatt when Hugh Grant gained two etheric beam locators mid-regeneration? Or was it Arabella Weir, who starred as the Doctor in a 2003 radio play made by Big Finish Productions (at the time licensed by the BBC as the official continuation of Doctor during its wilderness years of cancellation) who had given up roaming the universe for a job in Sainsbury’s after scorning the High Council of the Time Lords? Or could the answer be as simple as Jodie Whittaker?