Doctor Who stories are not easy to make, and over the years there have been many episodes that have come close to cancellation. What are they, and how did they survive against all the odds?
Ironically, one of the first Doctor Who stories to suffer problems was an early one – 1964’s ‘The Daleks’ (or ‘The Mutants’) written by Terry Nation. And yes, we can chortle at the notion of the Daleks being exterminated by the BBC, but had this serial never gone before the cameras, Doctor Who history might have changed forever.
At the time, the Head of Drama at the BBC stated (in no uncertain terms) that Doctor Who should have no “bug-eyed monsters,” and when the show’s producer Verity Lambert showed him the scripts to ‘The Daleks,’ he hated them passionately – so much so that, if anything else had been ready to film, ‘The Daleks’ would never have gone into production.
Fortunately, ‘The Daleks’ went on to become one of the most important – and popular – Doctor Who stories of all time, not only solidifying the show’s long-term success, but also leaving an indelible mark on popular culture. Ex-cell-ent.
Many Doctor Who stories have had a turbulent journey to the screen, and this is certainly true with ‘Warriors’ Gate’ from 1981. The new producer John Nathan-Turner was keen to try out innovate new directors, and he certainly found one in the shape of Paul Joyce, who embraced this quirky serial with passion. Indeed, such was his enthusiasm, Joyce became (possibly) the first director in Doctor Who history to commission concept art for the show, and treated ‘Warriors’ Gate’ as if it were a film.
Unfortunately, ‘Warriors’ Gate’ wasn’t a film. According to the BBC’s making-of documentary, Joyce’s approach to directing (which was based around hand-held cameras and the notion of “constructing a shot”) didn’t gel with the multi-camera, studio-based Television Centre, whose production methods were geared more towards light entertainment. Because of this, Joyce fell dangerously behind while trying to make ‘Warriors’ Gate,’ even to the extent that – at one point – he was fired on the spot by John Nathan-Turner, and floor manager Graeme Harper was brought in as a temporary stand-in.
Fortunately, ‘Warriors’ Gate’ did make it across the line, and Joyce was re-instated. Over the years, there have not been many Doctor Who stories that have been cancelled midway through production (to date, the only one is ‘Shada‘) but ‘Warriors’ Gate’ certainly came close.
The Trial of a Time Lord
‘The Trial of a Time Lord’ is one of the longest Doctor Who stories ever (depending on how you look at it) and it came at a time when the axe was looming over the show. The BBC had pulled Doctor Who in 1985 for an 18 month rest, but there was genuine belief amongst the production team that the show might not come back at all.
As we all know, ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’ did finally air in autumn 1986, but it ran into problems quite early on when one of its writers – Robert Holmes – tragically died, meaning that script editor Eric Saward had to pen the finale in his stead. However, he and the producer couldn’t agree on how the serial should end; Eric Saward was pushing for a cliffhanger ending (in line with Holmes’ original vision) whereas John Nathan-Turner felt that, after a 14 week saga, the viewer deserved a more satisfying conclusion.
As a result, Eric Saward quit the production team and refused to let John Nathan-Turner use any of his scripts. And with filming fast approaching, Nathan-Turner was forced to draft in Doctor Who stalwarts Pip and Jane Baker to write a new finale at lightning speed, based on scant notes and a handful of photos. It’s hard to imagine what might have happened if they’d been unable to deliver.
Fewer Doctor Who stories have had a longer journey to the screen than the TV movie. Indeed, it took the producer Philip Segal some seven years to get it made, and even when the adventure was being filmed, the script was still a point of contention.
This was because, unlike other Doctor Who stories, the TV movie had a number of disparate parties invested in its outcome – namely the BBC, Fox and Universal Studios. And each of these had different ideas as to what the movie should look like. Segal notes in the BBC DVD documentary The Seven Year Hitch that none of his notes ever gelled, and pleasing people became impossible.
That being said, these discussions were mere niggles compared to the problems that Segal faced in getting the movie commissioned. Whilst the BBC had been open to the idea of an American co-production, Segal struggled to find a studio in the States that would take the project on, particularly after one of the biggest parties (Amblin) pulled out in the early 90s.
Unlike some of the other Doctor Who stories in this list, 2006’s ‘Fear Her’ didn’t have a troubled production, per se. Rather, it was a last-minute replacement for a script by Stephen Fry that had proven too complex to make in the time available. Had Fry been able to perform the necessary rewrites on his tentatively-titled ‘The 1920s,’ then ‘Fear Her’ would never have been made.
And whilst it’s certainly one of the more “Marmite” Doctor Who stories, ‘Fear Her’ does everything that it needs to do – tell a simple story with a limited cast, a small budget, and minimal visual effects. The alternative would have been for the production team to simply cancel Fry’s script and not replace it, giving the new Doctor David Tennant a curtailed first season. Had they done this, ‘Fear Her’ would never have graced our screens – for better or for worse.
Can you think of any other Doctor Who stories which nearly didn’t make it? And which adventure is your favourite on this list? Let me know in the comments below.
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