Delving into the Darkness

This week Whovian Leap traces the causes of the 1985 hiatus. 

Steven Moffat has responded to criticism that Series 8 of Doctor Who was too dark. In a recent interview with TV and Satellite Magazine he said, “Go and discover what children are reading now. Harry Potter’s very dark. All the Young Adult literature is very dark. And children are very dark and serious people”. This is especially true of Doctor Who fans who grew up in the late nineteen eighties, the dying days of the classic era. They had a lot to be dark and serious about.

Nowadays it is almost unthinkable that Doctor Who used to be unpopular. In 1985 the show was put on “hiatus” – meaning that production was postponed, for those lucky enough not to know what the dreaded word means. Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989. How could this have happened?
Late in the Seventies, the magical, wonderful and enchanting Tom Baker ruled the roost. His dominant presence was stamped all over Doctor Who. Humour and silliness were much in evidence – Doctor Who could have been called “The Tom Baker Show”. Tom was keeping Doctor Who alive in times of massive inflation and financial crisis. The show had also just seen its dramatic wings clipped, after violence in the highly successful Hinchcliffe period had led to complaints from the highly vocal Mary Whitehouse and her viewers’ association. Phillip Hinchcliffe had now been moved to another show. Doctor Who under his successor Graham Williams and Douglas Adams was now wittier and more inventive. But often sillier.

At the beginning of the eighties William’s successor John Nathan Turner decided to revamp the show and give it a new burst of life. Doctor Who looked polished and new. Yet JNT too was part of a chain of events which would eventually lead to the show’s demise. All silliness was cut from scripts, but this resulted in Tom Baker seeming doom-laden and dour. The “high concepts” of the new stories were intellectually stimulating, but some found the plots themselves a little boring. There were also the first warning signs of an impending costume disaster, with the introduction of question marks on the Doctor’s shirt collar. 

Composer Dudley Simpson was replaced with a team of synthesiser whizz-kids. They gave the theme and incidental music a distinctly modern feel, but they were arguably no rival to their predecessor. With his dramatic and atmospheric scores Simpson had been able to create tension in the dullest of tales. Perhaps worse, JNT abandoned the howling time tunnel in the credits, a much-loved trademark of the show. 

When Peter Davison became the Doctor, JNT did not give him humourous scripts, fearing that the show would return to its silly days. As we have recently seen in “The Fivish Doctors”, Davison has an exquisite talent for comedy, but this was not exploited during his time on the show. The Fifth was a calmer and less unpredictable Doctor. Davison’s wit was not given room to flourish.

The Fifth wore striped pyjama-like trousers and a long cream-coloured coat, but they, along with the celery on his lapel, were further warning signs of the costuming madness lurking round the corner. 

BBC executives shook their heads in despair as they watched the embarassingly bad Myrka and the silly karate kicks Ingrid Pitt performed against it in “Warriors of the Deep”. The baffled execs began to wonder what they were actually spending the licence payers’ money on. Yes, the show had just enjoyed a highly successful 25th anniversary story, but “The Five Doctors” nostalgia-fest further had also proved how good the show used to be and how current episodes compared unfavourably in comparison. 

After three years as the Doctor, Peter Davison left on a high note in probably the best Doctor Who story ever – “The Caves of Androzani”, whose quality put all the other stories around it to shame.

What comes after a quiet, sensible Doctor? When Colin Baker was introduced to the public at a press call, he cut a fine figure in his unbuttoned black shirt and dapper striped suit. With short hair and lean physique he looked like Daniel Craig’s James Bond. An intelligent move would have been to make the Doctor mysterious and brooding, with – dare I say it – a sexy charm. 

But the production crew turned the Sixth Doctor into a wild raving and dangerous lunatic to contrast the Fifth’s calmness. This Doctor was unlikeable. He infamously tried to strangle Peri! The question marks, the pyjamas and the celery made their natural progression into the Sixth Doctor’s hideous rainbow monstrosity of a costume, which looked ridiculous and distracted the viewer from the story. 

There was no love lost between BBC1 Controller Michael Grade and Colin Baker. Explaining that the show had become violent, Grade dealt the show a heavy blow by postponing production for eighteen months and saying that the show needed a rethink. Would he have done so if popular household name Davison had still been at the helm? We will never know. 

Grade humiliated the show and made it seem vulnerable in the public’s eyes. Everyone up to that point had assumed that Doctor Who was invincible and would go on forever, but now the press and public started to openly criticise the show, as if all the kids were ganging up against the weedy kid in the playground. When fans came out in number to protest, they were portrayed as sad and ridiculous. Maybe they were – being a nerd wasn’t so cool back then.

Eighteen months later the show returned but attempts to soften the Doctor’s persona in the new series had come too little too late. Grade cut the number of episodes per season from twenty six to fourteen. Ratings were poor. Nobody wanted to watch a publicly derided and distinctly untrendy show. Grade then dealt another blow against the show and sent it reeling. He sacked the Doctor.

A new Doctor came along and the show radically changed direction. In the Seventies concerns about excessive violence had led to an increase in humour to replace it, and now history was repeating itself. The naturally silly and inventive Sylvester McCoy played the Doctor for laughs and the change in the show’s tone was massive. 

For long term fans it was impossible to make the adjustment. They too started to bash the show in public. In the Seventies the injection of comedy had been less obvious as the Doctor remained the same, but this time with a new actor at the helm the shift was very much “in your face”. It was further confirmation in the public’s mind that the show had become a silly shadow of its former self. Monsters such as the cleaning robots and Kandyman hardly helped.
John Nathan Turner would often play the canny trick of “stunt-casting” to keep the show on the front pages of the tabloids. But hiring Bonnie Langford was arguably a false step. Although she gave a bubbly and enthusiastic performance as Mel, she was too well-known for show business and variety; she alienated both fans and public alike by coming across as her real life celebrity persona in what was supposed to be fiction. 
The show was becoming invisible with only fourteen episodes a year and placed in the schedules against übersoap “Coronation Street”. With hardly any publicity for new episodes, the majority of the viewing public didn’t even realise that the show was on the air.

But was there light at the end of the time tunnel? With the arrival of a talented young script editor, Andrew Cartmel, the show started to feel fresh and new. However, it was too late. The BBC management didn’t notice or just didn’t care. They were still embarrassed by Doctor Who. The show quietly disappeared off our screens in 1989. No announcement. No hullabaloo. No farewell vworp vworp. Just an interminable silence.

Summing up, we can trace the decline of the show right back to Philip Hinchcliffe’s departure from the show and the subsequent excessive humour under Graham Williams. Heavy handed attempts to quash any silliness prevented Peter Davison’s Doctor from being funny and witty. The dangerous idea to contrast the Fifth’s enforced sobriety with an abrasive and obnoxious Sixth was a waste of a talented actor. His colourful attire, the attacks on the show from both BBC executives and vocal fans, the silly monsters and the unwise stunt-casting led to the show losing credibility in the eyes of the public. Despite a minor renaissance under Andrew Cartmel, the lack of support from the BBC, both financial and moral, led to lack of visibility, poor ratings and the eventual dematerialisation of Doctor Who from television.

Difficulties arose for Doctor Who when the pendulum swung too far towards either violence or humour, or when there was unwanted external interference in the making of the show. Unwise decisions by the production crew also played their part. Are there any lessons to be learnt for Nu-Who? The idea of Capaldi’s new “trickier” Doctor might make an older fan worry, as we haven’t quite forgotten the last time the Doctor was “tricky”. 

Can we breathe a sigh of relief now that Series 8 has aired? Plots were dark but again did the pendulum swing too far? The Doctor and Clara suffered. Danny and the Brigadier were horribly cybernised in scenes worthy of Torchwood. The Christmas special, although frightening, was lighter in tone and provided moments of fun for our time-travelling duo. 

And what of Series 9? Will it delve further into the darkness? I would urge caution. 


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