Throughout it’s 50+ years on our TV screens DW has become famous for many things; consistently offering a unique blend of Sci-Fi and drama, wobbly set pieces…and seemingly being forever on the verge of cancellation.
By many accounts, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the Classic version lasted as long as it did. There is an opinion among many Whostorians that various dissenters within the BBC, regarding the show as silly or embarrassing have been advocating it’s cancellation almost since Day 1. Others claim the series faced the same challenges and periodic lack of interest that any other long running program would encounter.
Wherever the truth lies, there have been moments when DW (both the Classic series and NuWho) was on the chopping block. Here’s 5 times the Doctor’s TV lives nearly ran out…
HARD ON HARTNELL/1965
DW had been riding high since it’s debut in 1963, recovering from an abysmally rated premiere to regularly pulling in excess of 12 million viewers per episode.
Ratings were still strong in 1965, but behind the scenes the show was in trouble; William Hartnell was at odds with new producer John Wiles over the direction of the series and his health had begun to fail, causing him difficulty in remembering his lines. Wiles suggested replacing Hartnell and even proposed a storyline in The Celestial ToyMaker by which they could cast a new actor, but was overruled by the Head Of Serials.
In the months following it became evident Hartnell could not carry on in the role, and even as the DW team developed a means to recast The Doctor (ultimately resulting in the Regeneration concept) a few BBC executives advised the Head of Serials to consider ending the series. They feared that recasting the popular Hartnell would be too confusing and controversial for viewers; and further predicted the changes would do so much damage to ratings that the show would have to be cancelled anyway, so it made more sense to proactively clear it out of the schedule and make way for a new series.
Luckily, nobody listened to the suggestion and Patrick Troughton arrived to usher in a new era and formalize the means to keep the series going.
DW went through a reboot to kick off it’s 8th season; Jon Pertwee emerged to replace Patrick Troughton and the series was permanently re-set on Earth (to reduce costs) with the Doctor’s adventures springing from his new role as the Scientific Advisor to UNIT.
The initial “UNIT” series wasn’t well received by audiences, and the ratings dipped to their lowest levels since the show’s first episode. The usual suspects at the Beeb complained that the show had run it’s course and should be scrapped, and Producers Barry Letts and Terrence Dicks were so convinced the show would get the axe they had begun pursuing replacement projects.
Fortunately, the guys in charge opted to give Pertwee and the Brigadier another go, and the series popularity bounced back to ensure many more years of production. Well, maybe not fortunately for Caroline John, who was unceremoniously dumped after just one series due to her character Liz Shaw being universally hated by the cast and producers. But we digress.
FOR BUCK’S SAKE/1981
There is some debate among Whodom how close the Beeb really was to canning the series when Tom Baker announced his departure. It’s true that the series had taken a significant hit in the ratings due to the popularity of Buck Rogers on ITV, and some inside the Corp. felt that Tom Baker’s popularity would be difficult to replicate. One story that surfaced in the late 90’s claimed that a disgruntled Baker (upset with being pushed out of the show) was actually the one behind these cancellation rumours; but he’s since denied those claims. The truth will probably never be known for certain…
In early 1985, rumours began circulating that Dr. Who was in deep trouble; reports claimed the show had been cancelled, or was on permanent hiatus with no date set for a return. When it was finally confirmed that season 23 was being delayed, a whirlwind of press and fan reaction unlike anything the show had seen ensued. Fans threatened to pickett (with cardboard Daleks) the House of Commons, papers ran campaigns demanding the show return and News programs aired round table discussions about the future of the series. Things got so emotionally charged a (horrible) charity single called “Doctor In Distress” featuring Colin Baker and a laundry list of D celebrities was produced by superfans. somehow this was considered “helpful”
There seemed little doubt the show was on the way out, particularly since BBC controller Michael Grade had gone on record as calling the show “foolish” but somewhat remarkably the hiatus was eventually lifted and 18 months later, Dr. Who returned for season 23. To this day nobody will say for certain how close the show was to never coming back, or what impact the massive uproar had on the BBC’s decision. In retrospect, it’s probably very fortunate the series came back at all, let alone for four more seasons…especially when you listen to the “song”
Even though NuWho has been a roaring success since it returned to our screens in 2005, it hasn’t been immune to the threat of cancellation. Even before the first series went to air, there were stories floating that the BBC was committed to just a single season and would be looking to pull the plug within days of the final episode.
Unlike some of the almost cancellations we’ve touched on, this last one was far from a rumour. In fact the near death was confirmed by none other than showrunner Steven Moffat himself earlier this year.
Moffat revealed that when Tennant announced he was leaving the part in 2009, the powers that be within the mother Corps were very close to pulling a plug on the entire show, which had been running for 5 seasons at that point.
5 years is a good run for most series, and the thinking was (similar to sentiments about Tom Baker leaving the series in ’81) that Tennant was so popular in the role nobody would come close to replicating his success, so the thing to do was wrap up with Tennant’s departure.
According to Moffat, the only reason the show continued was down to Russel T Davies insistence they carry on with a new Doctor. Reportedly, he flat out said “you cannot cancel the show”
And so Matt Smith was brought into the fold and the show has continued to flourish.
What did you think of our mini-history lesson? Let us know in the comments~!