Doctor Who: “Seeing patterns in things that aren’t there”

How a '90s Doctor Who might have been uniquely Doctor Who while differing greatly from what it actually ended up becoming.

Reading Doctor Who: The TV Movie as Pilot

The 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie (hereafter TVM) holds a divisive place in Doctor Who fan culture. Before the “The Night of the Doctor” mini-sode and “The Day of the Doctor” (33.14) 50th anniversary celebrations, which cemented the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) firmly in the mythology and history of Doctor Who, there remained an uncertainty as to the canonicity of this post-Classic but pre-New Who Doctor. The notion of canonicity, discussed by Doctor Who novelist Lance Parkin in his piece “Canonicity Matters,” means that some things are considered part of the official Doctor Who universe (i.e., the TV episodes), while other things may be considered outside the official BBC-authorized narrative (e.g., the novels written between the end of the Classic series in 1989 and the start of the New in 2005). Officially, the BBC holds no canon of Doctor Who, meaning that any professional text created of Doctor Who material might be considered official (such as the Big Finish audio adventures), but also that any text might not be considered official. Canonicity matters not because there is a right or a wrong answer, but because determining “canon” means determining what the individual fan thinks is part of the Doctor Who universe.

The TVM was situated in a nebulous region of this canonicity debate because it has some characteristics of the Classic series but also diverges from the Classic in major ways. From a production point of view, the TVM was not made solely by the BBC — as all the Classic episodes were — but as a co-production between the BBC and American network Fox. The UK researcher Peter Wright has written about the TVM as an example of American imperialism, particularly because there are aspects of the movie — the character of the Doctor is a more conservative figure rather than a liberatory one, for example — that seem out of step with British sensibilities. Craig Owen Jones argues in his chapter “Life in the Hiatus” that the character of the Master represents a change from the portrayals that came before, as the “macho”, “leather-clad”, and American Eric Roberts “clashes” with the suave and puckish portrayals of Roger Delgado in the 1970s and John Simm in the 2000s (as well as Anthony Ainley in the 1980s). From a textual standpoint, there are also a number of discrepancies: the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) has a sonic screwdriver and eats Jelly Babies, aspects of that incarnation that never appeared in the Classic series (although these signifiers help reclaim the movie as semantically connected to the original series). Perhaps most dramatically, there are elements of diegetic history — the story of the Doctor in the universe of Doctor Who — that are incompatible with what we know of the character and his story. The most obvious of this, and the one that is probably the focus of most fans’ arguments, is the fact that the Doctor claims to be half human (on his mother’s side) in the TVM. Yikes. Hard to take that one back.

The point here, and the argument that I’ll be making in this chapter, is not that the TVM fits, or does not fit, into the Doctor Who canon — an argument can be made either way, but at this point the TARDIS has flown on that discussion. Rather, I’m interested in a more overtly hypothetical argument about the TVM. The fact that the Doctor Who TVM was intended as a pilot for an American/British co-production of a new series of Doctor Who has been well established by scholars such as David Butler, Peter Wright, Tat Woods, Matt Hills, and Craig Owen Jones. The reasons why that new series never materialized, while the 2005 the new series as we know it today did, are often discussed and debated by Doctor Who fan groups and aficionados. This chapter takes a slightly different look at the Doctor Who TVM and asks, what if? What if it had been picked up? How would professional Doctor Who have dealt with the early days of the web? What would a late 1990s/early 2000s Fox/BBC co-production have looked like?

Thus, I want to use a historical view of American television at the cusp of what television scholar Jason Mittell calls “complex television” to examine how a 1990s Doctor Who might have been uniquely Doctor Who while differing greatly from what it ended up becoming. I discuss the intersection of story arcs and “monster-of-the-week” episodes within the series, the use of “stunt casting” as a way of generating ratings (something both the Classic series and New series of Doctor Who have also done), and the influence of ’90s television auteurs such as Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Chris Carter (The X-Files) on the series. I uncover aspects of a series that never was, arguing that such an analysis helps us better understand the historical context for the changing media environment at the cusp of the 21st century. Such an analysis may seem superfluous and an experiment in what Doctor Who expert and media scholar Matt Hills calls “fanwanking” (inventing context to explain gaps in cult television) (Triumph of a Time Lord), but I believe there is value in exploring what might have been: it not only helps us better understand the role the Doctor Who plays in our contemporary media landscape through a comparison to the past, but it also helps us develop greater historical context for the television we watch today.

First, let’s look at what Jason Mittell calls complex television, and how the 1990s prefigured much of the long-term stories that we see today (including Doctor Who). For Mittell, a complex television series narrative includes both serialized elements (that is, parts of the story that extend beyond the episode and link up to create story arcs) and episodic elements (that is, stories the begin and conclude in the same episode). So, for example, in a quintessential 1990s narratively complex television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, almost every episode had a stand-alone plot: a monster-of-the-week against which Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her Scooby gang would battle. In the classic episode “Hush” (4.10), the Gentlemen appeared at the start, and by the end, the team figured out how to defeat the wordless villains and regained control of Sunnydale. The Gentlemen were single-episode villains, never heard from (if you will forgive the pun) again. But there were narrative elements of “Hush” that continued past the end of the episode: Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Anya’s (Emma Caulfield) relationship troubles, Spike’s (James Marsters) ongoing tiff with Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), Buffy and Riley’s (Marc Blucas) romance, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara’s (Amber Benson) burgeoning relationship, and even the growth of Willow’s magical powers.

The fact that television was becoming more complex during the 1990s is an important element of the growing narrative complexity within the American television landscape. Buffy is not the only show that featured narrative complexity; shows as different as The X-Files, The West Wing, ER, Dawson’s Creek, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Xena: Warrior Princess embraced this narrative model. Most often, the episodic narrative was heavily plot-centric (with a typical Aristotelian beginning–middle–end structure) while the arc narrative was heavily relationship-centric (with ongoing relationships taking a more soap-opera-like structure).

So what would a Doctor Who television series that started in 1997 have looked like? Given that at the end of the episode the Doctor left proto-companion Grace (Daphne Ashbrook) and anti-companion Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso) back on Earth, one might imagine that their stories were completed, and from a relationship standpoint, their story arcs wouldn’t have continued. In the Classic series, this would certainly have been true: with the exception of only a few companions (e.g., the Brigadier [Nicholas Courtney], Tegan Jovanka [Janet Fielding]), once a companion was gone, they were gone. In the New series, however, this has not been the case. The Doctor has (re)visited almost all of his companions, including Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), Mickey Smith (Noel Clark), Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), Amy Pond (Karen Gillian), and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman).

In other television from the 1990s, characters that disappeared in one season might come back in others. Although The West Wing fans created the tongue-in-cheek Mandyville — a place where characters disappeared to when actors left in between series, named after Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly) — many series did feature characters returning. In Buffy, Jonathan (Danny Strong) was a minor character during the series’ high school years, who came back in later seasons as a pseudo-villain. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon Five, many minor characters from early seasons came back in later seasons to play ever-deepening roles as the narrative complexity and character relationships expanded.

It’s not too much of a stretch then, to see Grace (and possibly even Chang Lee) returning in later episodes. Perhaps the Eighth Doctor returns to Earth (he always comes back to Earth, after all) and looks her up. There were numerous textual moments when the character’s future was mentioned, as when Grace asks him “what will I become”? and the Doctor is hesitant to answer. Perhaps these small, throwaway lines from the TVM would have become narrative elements later in the series. Perhaps Grace would have been a guest in the finalé?

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Paul Booth’s essay is excerpted from New Worlds, Terrifying Monsters, Impossible Things: Exploring the Contents and Contexts of Doctor Who (footnotes omitted). More smart writing about the Terrifying Whoverse by PopMatters writers can be found in the book, available online here.

To read more of Paul Booth’s speculation of what might have been for the Doctor in another time, another place, the rest of this chapter and more smart writing about the Doctor and his cultural ramifications can be found between the pages of New Worlds, Terrifying Monsters, Impossible Things: Exploring the Contents and Contexts of Doctor Who.

Paul Booth is a professor at DePaul University in Chicago, and the author of the books Game Play (2015), Playing Fans (2015), Time on TV (2012), and Digital Fandom (2010). He is the editor of Fan Phenomena: Doctor Who (2013) and a lifelong Doctor Who fan.