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Big changes in store as Doctor leaves the BBC

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1990-01-15 Canberra Times.jpg


DOCTOR WHO, one of the mainstays of the British Broadcasting Corporation, is preparing to say goodbye to the BBC television studios which have been its home for 26 years.

In one of the most surprising management decisions of a recent BBC shake-up, Doctor Who is to be tendered out to an independent production company. Six companies have put in bids, and the result of the tender will be known in the near future. One of the BBC's conditions is that it be made on film, at least for location work — as it must be "a quality product".

"The BBC don't want to make Doctor Who," says Sylvester McCoy, the current (seventh) actor to play the Doctor. "They aren't interested in a series that has lasted 26 years."

It seems difficult to fathom the idea of Doctor Who being produced anywhere but on the cheap BBC sets and — for alien planet scenes — the ubiquitous BBC quarry. In Britain, the lead character of the series is regarded as being in the same class as Sherlock Holmes or James Bond. It is a series with enough dedicated viewers to warrant the existence of over a hundred fan clubs and almost five hundred amateur fan magazines throughout the world;

Although billed as a children's series, 60 per cent of its audience is made up of adults.

Nevertheless, recent ratings have been disappointing. The first episode of the latest season, shown in Britain in September, had an audience of 3.1 million people — the lowest figures in its history. These would be respectable figures for BBC-2, but is unusually low for an established BBC-1 series. Audience for the rest of that story (titled Battlefield) rose to four million — still no great improvement.

Members of the Sydney-based Australasian Doctor Who Fan Club believe that these figures are due partly to lack of publicity. "Programs on the BBC have to find their own publicity," wrote club president Dallas Jones, who keeps regular correspondence with the show's producers. "Due to the strikes that plagued the season, the budget was stretched to the limit — so very little money was available for pre-publicity."

Numerous other reasons can be pointed out, not the least of which is that Doctor Who competed in its timeslot with ITV's Coronation Street — Britain's highest-rating series — and, in the case of the first episode, with the BBC-2 screening of World Cup soccer.

Despite all this, Doctor Who's audience has been dwindling for the past few years. People lost interest, according to many fans, because Doctor Who did not have the brilliance or the vitality of the sixties and seventies. Inventive scripts had been replaced by a concentration on big-budget sets, expensive special effects, popular "guest stars" and laboured publicity gimmicks. That might be how Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers managed to grab the ratings in the late seventies, but Doctor Who is apparently different. It was the cosy simplicity which has made it so successful in the past.

John Nathan-Turner, producer since 1981, attests that the show had not gone downhill. "I think that is absolute non- sense. I mean, the show is so successful now; it's more successful than it's ever been. It produces a lot of revenue for the Corporation in terms of merchandising, novelisations, many other books, not to mention the foreign sales."

The BBC shake-up is not the first major production hassle to effect the Doctor since Nathan-Turner took over. The series was "axed" by the head of BBC Production, Michael Grade, on February 26, 1985. (It had just suffered ratings of under six million, which had been its lowest since 1966.) Within days, the BBC set the record straight and explained that the series was simply being suspended for about 18 months due to low ratings. The reports of "death" had been an exaggeration.

This did virtually nothing to fade the public outcry. One theory played with the idea that this was a deliberate move by the BBC to get more funding from the government. An American Doctor Who fan club offered the BBC $US2 million to produce the next season. Within a fortnight, a group of musicians and actors were brought together to record Doctor in Distress, a single using the Band Aid concept. The record squeezed into the top 100, for less than a month. Profits were to go to the BBC, but were instead donated to Cancer Research. Actor William Hartnell — the first Doctor — had died of cancer in 1975.

Instantly, Grade became very unpopular around fan circles. He defended himself by bravely accepting invitations to fan gatherings, where he was greeted with polite applause.

"Never fear," he told one of these gatherings, "Doctor Who will be back — better than ever."

"I suppose it has improved recently," admits Jon Hartson, a pseudonymous fan who once published a Doctor Who fan magazine. "They got rid of Colin Baker, the Doctor at the time — which was a good idea. Nothing against the actor, but the character wasn't right for the series. Apart from that, they've gradually improved on the scripts."

The Doctor is now being portrayed by 44-year old Sylvester McCoy. He has stated that "big changes" will accompany the move to an in- dependent producer, although even he is unaware of what they will be. The changes will result in another production delay — so that it will not return to air in Britain until late 1990 or 1991. In the meantime, filming of a motion picture, Doctor Who: The Time Lord, begins in March.

After a slow start, McCoy has won the acceptance of viewers. As Hartson admits, "I think the show is better than it's been for years. The scripts arc very good and McCoy is probably the best Doctor since Tom Baker. Baker was incredibly popular, of course, so people have been unwilling to accept McCoy because he's not Tom Baker — but they have to put up with changes."

Truer words have rarely been spoken. With the Doctor leaving BBC Studios, it would seem there are big changes in store.

Caption: The current Doctor, Sylvester McCoy.

Caption: The most popular Doctor, Tom Baker.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Juddery, Mark (1990-01-15). Big changes in store as Doctor leaves the BBC. The Canberra Times p. 34.
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  • Chicago 15th ed.: Juddery, Mark. "Big changes in store as Doctor leaves the BBC." The Canberra Times, edition, sec., 1990-01-15
  • Turabian: Juddery, Mark. "Big changes in store as Doctor leaves the BBC." The Canberra Times, 1990-01-15, section, 34 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Big changes in store as Doctor leaves the BBC | url= | work=The Canberra Times | pages=34 | date=1990-01-15 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=9 August 2022 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Big changes in store as Doctor leaves the BBC | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=9 August 2022}}</ref>