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Doctor Who: the frontier years

November 23, 2013
mcgann

Do you know who this is?

When I was looking for ideas for the 50th anniversary Doctor Who article that Eric wanted me to write for his Movie Waffler site, I solicited some friends of mine for ideas of what they would like to see for such an article. While I ended up doing an article on the foundation of the series international success my friend Richard Chamberlain over at the Monster Movie Kid suggested an article on the frontier years of the series. What exactly are the frontier years of Doctor Who? This was the time from 1990 to 2004 when, with one all too brief exception in 1996, Doctor Who was no longer on the air. Since I agreed with Rich that an article on this time period was a good idea I decided to write it and put it here. I’ll note that it is a touch off topic given that it is going to focus preliminarily on spin off material but, it does cover one of the most successful genre shows of all time so, I hope you’ll bear with me.

Before I get into this time period I need to set up Doctor Who’s first appearance in book form with the Target novelizations. In 1973, the tenth year of the classic series, a company called Target published three novels based upon First Doctor stories. For my younger readers, one has to remember that this was a time period without DVDs or even video tape so these novels where effectively the only way to revisit these older serials. They proved successful enough for target to continue with them and ultimately cover all but five of the serials. In come cases they were not perfect adaptations. For example, The Daleks actually includes an introductory chapter that gets the Doctor, Ian and Barbara together as if it was the first serial of the show. They also became somewhat redundant when video tape became available in the 80s. In fact, when John Peel wrote his novel for The Chase, he decided to base it upon the original script which was noticably different as opposed to what was filmed given the ease of access to the original serial itself at that point. These books ran until 1994, at which point the company had switched its name to Virgin Publishing, but they established an important legacy for what was about to follow.

Jumping to 1989, the BBC announced that it was not going to be requesting episodes of Doctor Who for the 1990 television season. This was a de-facto if not direct cancellation of Doctor Who which was probably an attempt to avoid the fan outcry the previous time that the BBC had actually released a cancellation notice for the series. When people say that Doctor Who had never officially been cancelled by the BBC this is what they are talking about. Regardless, it did mean no new Doctor Who on television for the foreseeable future.

Timewyrm_GenesysThis takes us into what is the first of two parts that the frontier years can be logically broken into. Target was bought by Virgin Publishing a little earlier and had expressed an interest in publishing original Doctor Who novels not based upon the television serials. The BBC said no to this until the series was no longer being produced. With the halt in production came the green light for Virgin to begin publishing original Doctor Who adventures. They began in 1991 with a four novels called the Timewyrm series that was based upon an idea from the classic series final producer John Nathan Turner. This launched a series of 60 novels that continued the adventures of the Seventh Doctor as well as one Eight Doctor novel. It is during this run that author Paul Cornell would introduce a new companion named Bernice Summerfield who would go on to be the Doctor’s most popular non-televised companion. Based upon the success of this series, that was titled The New Adventures, Virgin would three years later launch a second series of Missing Adventures novels that each featured one of the previous six Doctors which would run for a total of 33 books. Target had sort of established a precedent for this with their publication of three un-produced scripts from the Sixth Doctor’s run on what would have been the 23rd season, had the BBC not attempted to cancel the series, which carried the banner The Missing Episodes. The difference with the Missing Adventure line is that the books where all original adventures not based on un-used series scripts which is, at the time, what I personally would have preferred. Instead each was an original story that fit between the television serials.

These would continue until we reach the break point in the frontier years with the release of the 1996 American Doctor Who pilot which is sometimes referred to by its unofficial title Enemy Within. The pilot featured the introduction of the Eight Doctor in the form of Paul McGann and also laid a lot of the groundwork for what the modern series would ultimately look like nine years later. At the time, however, the pilot failed to draw enough ratings for any further episodes. What it did do was to get the BBC interested enough in the show that, through their BBC books company, they would take over Doctor Who in the print medium. This brings us to part two of the frontier years.

8dBBC books started their line by publishing the novelization of the Doctor Who pilot in the same year. At the same time, the BBC ended the agreement with Virgin Publishing allowing them to produce original Doctor Who novels. Virgin’s final New and Missing Adventure books would be published in 1997 but, Virgin would continue the New Adventures line, sort of, with a number of novels featuring Bernice Summerfield on her own as the central character which would become significant later. Getting back to BBC books, they launched a series of Eighth Doctor Adventures starting with The Eight Doctors penned by long time Target novelization author Terrance Dicks. Following Virgin’s example, they also simultaneously started a Past Doctor Adventures series featuring original stories based upon the, now, seven previous Doctors. The Eighth Doctor books ran for 73 titles and the Past Doctor books for 76 with both series being cancelled in 2005 with the launch of the modern series. Actually, the numbers should really be 74 and 75, respectively, as the final Eight Doctor novel Fear Itself was published as part of the Past Doctor series due to the Eight Doctor Adventures being cancelled months earlier. BBC books is still active today publishing original stories for the modern Doctor Who series.

Sirens_of_TimeThis brings us to the final player in the Doctor’s frontier years, that being the company Big Finish productions. And this is how Bernice Summerfield becomes important. Big Finish does audio dramas that are sometimes straight up radio plays and sometimes a mix of drama and audio book which works a lot better than it probably sounds. In 1998, they started a series of Bernice audio dramas initially based upon the Virgin New Adventures books. One year later they began doing monthly Doctor Who audio dramas beginning with The Sirens of Time which was a multi-doctor story featuring the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors (Big is part of their name after all). This series has continued to this day and is currently at 180 episodes and climbing. According to Russell T. Davies, the reason for Big Finish’ ability to continue with this line, when the BBC has frowned upon such competing works in the past, has to do with action, or more appropriately inaction, on his part. Apparently, back when the modern series was first being launched the BBC licensing people at some meeting stated that they would obviously have to address their arrangement with Big Finish Productions with regards to the Doctor at which point Mr. Davies said that he would take care of that. The BBC people relinquished and Mr. Davies, being ok with Big Finish, basically did nothing which allowed the audio dramas to continue. Big Finish has also done a number of other Doctor Who related series including my favorite The Lost Stories some of which I have written about here and here. One further series I want to mention, even though it is outside of the timeframe of this article is the Eighth Doctor series that was done by them, and ultimately broadcast on BBC radio, which I feel was significant in legitimatizing the Eighth Doctor as well as Paul McGann’s portrayal of him.

So, as you can see, even though the Doctor was missing from the television for sixteen years, there was still plenty of licensed material to keep the fan base alive and hungry for the Doctor’s inevitable return to the television medium.

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