The Wilderness Years
By Paul Scoones
When the new movie finally entered production, not long after the announcement of Paul McGann's casting in January 1996, it brought to a close a period of just over six years during which time no new Doctor Who had been made. During those six years, one man, Philip Segal, doggedly pursued his vision to get Doctor Who back into production. Although his eventual success has so far failed to result in a series, it is perhaps remarkable, looking back over the many frustrating hurdles that Segal had to deal with, that the movie ever got made at all. This overview of the 'wilderness years' - that long stretch during which no new Doctor Who stories were produced, is written with the advantage of hindsight; in many cases facts about the behind-the-scenes dealings of television executives were often not made public at the time, and once widely-reported 'news' can now been overlooked as unsubstantiated rumour.
Towards the end of this year, when Season 26 was still being screened on British television, Philip Segal first approached the BBC about obtaining the rights to Doctor Who. Segal's initial enquiry was ignored. At a press conference in October, the BBC's Head of Series, Peter Cregeen, said 'Doctor Who has lasted 26 years and I can't see any reason why it shouldn't continue. The BBC is committed to more Doctor Who in the future.' A month later, the series' future was in grave doubt. Cregeen said to the Radio Times in November, 'There are no plans to axe Doctor Who,' but added 'There may be a little longer between this series and the next than usual.' Cregeen also issued a press statement saying that 'The best possible way to take the series through the nineties will... involve having it made outside of the BBC.' The announcement that the BBC were looking into the prospect of Doctor Who being made by an independent production company resulted in approaches from a number of prospective independent producers.
Philip Segal continued to lobby the BBC for the rights to the series, but he now had competition from British and American companies. Among those reportedly registering their interest included a partnership of Terry Nation and Gerry Davis with backing from major American television companies, Victor Pemberton's Saffron Productions and original producer Verity Lambert's Cinema Verity (although the company and Lambert herself later denied putting in a bid). 1989 ended with the BBC Press Office's announcement that a decision on the series' future would probably be made very soon.
The first year without Doctor Who in production since the show began was largely devoid of any progress on the series' future. Early in the year, Peter Cregeen said 'We are looking for a format to keep Doctor Who on our screens for the next ten years. This could mean using an independent production company but as yet no tendering process has been instigated, although several interested parties have come forward with their own proposals. ' These so-called 'interested parties' met with what Victor Pemberton described later in the year as 'a wall of silence' from the BBC.
The BBC's apparent disinterest inspired a group of British fans to organise a 'Day of Action, a phone-in campaign to the BBC protesting at the lack of new Doctor Who. Between 700 and 1000 calls were logged on 30 November. In the wake of this protest BBC representatives issued two contrasting statements on 1 December. The BBC Press Office said 'Just because he has not been on for a year does not mean we have closed the TARDIS door on the Doctor.' However James Arnold Baker, Head of BBC Enterprises, seemed to contradict this, saying 'The property is an old one, it's had its day and is no longer commercially viable.' BBC Enterprises later distanced itself from Baker's views, but did say that if Doctor Who came back as a TV programme at all it would not be before 1992.
The fans believe that the BBC, despite assurances to the contrary, will never bring the series back. The BBC maintains that it is having discussions with independent production companies and insists Doctor Who will eventually return. A spokesman said: 'A short break cannot be seen as shutting the door on the Doctor.'
The Independent, 30 November 1990
The Day of Action might have damaged the show's chances of returning by angering those who decided the series future but Peter Cregeen continued to issue statements that pointed to the show's return. 'It's been a highly successful series in the past and we are considering how it should be made in the future, so that it retains its popularity,' he said early in the year.
A highly-publicised auction of Doctor Who props and costumes around the middle of the year gave rise to increased fears that the show had gone for good. The BBC responded with an announcement in July that independent production would start in 1992. This news was greeted with mixed reactions ranging from sheer delight to outright scepticism. Former producer Derrick Sherwin revealed that his independent production company had put in a bid but had not received a reply from the BBC. Terrance Dicks, commenting on the undecided fate of the series, offered the following advice: 'Never put down to conspiracy that which can be explained by incompetence.'
A second major attack on the BBC was launched in October. Calling themselves 'The Doctor Who Action Committee', a group of elder statesmen' British fans launched a legal campaign against the BBC with the intention of taking the corporation to court for failing to make Doctor Who. Their spokesman, lawyer John Giacobbi, explained that the legal attack was based in part on the premise that as the viewers provide for the BBC's funding through the licence fee system, that the Corporation had a fiduciary duty to produce what the viewers wanted. The money to finance this legal battle was to be raised by fund raising ventures, beginning with a raffle, later changed to a competition, with prizes being highly sought after items from the show's history. The Action Committee ultimately failed to raise the funds they needed to sustain a legal bid, and instead the money was to be diverted into a major publicity campaign through the British press in mid-1992. This campaign never eventuated.
There is no question of Doctor Who being abandoned. It is an important programme and when the time is right it should return. However, the show's popularity over the years has waned in the United Kingdom, with an average audience of four million. In a competitive market environment where BBC TV Drama is required to produce a wide range of programmes at an economically viable price, one cannot continue to support a programme that is not able to achieve a target audience. A decision was taken to rest the programme for an extended period so that when it returns it will be seen as a fresh, inventive and vibrant addition to the schedule - rather than a battle-weary Time Lord languishing in the back-water of audience popularity. Doctor Who is too valuable a property for us to relaunch until we are absolutely confident of it as a major success once again.
Alan Ayres, BBC Drama publicity, August 1991
The year began with fresh promise of a new series with news of an independent production company calling themselves 'Dark Light Productions' who were allegedly close to securing a deal with the BBC to make Doctor Who. Test filming had apparently already been carried out and storylines and designs for sets and monsters had been prepared. The team behind Dark Light includes fan writer Adrian Rigelsford and director Graeme Harper. The company proposed a pilot episode featuring a new Doctor, updated Cybermen and the destruction of Gallifrey, followed by three seasons of hour-long episodes. Following these revelations, the prospective producer Alan Jonns, was prompted to release a statement saying 'No episodes have been signed; no actor has been signed on as the Doctor; any form of contract with the BBC are still unsigned. Among the many rumours that surrounded the 'Dark Light' project, the most persistent was that actor Brian Blessed was favoured to play the new Doctor. Ultimately all this came to nothing. Jonns released a second statement in April, saying that decisions regarding the show were still in the hands of the BBC and that the show needed to change to some extent if it is to survive in the current hostile market of television production. Nothing more was ever heard from 'Dark Light'.
Meanwhile, Philip Segal had persisted in his approaches to the BBC. Unlike other widely publicised bids for Doctor Who, Segal's efforts went unnoticed and unreported by fans and media alike. By the middle of the year, Segal had made contact with Tony Greenwood at BBC Enterprises. The Enterprises division of the BBC was responsible for marketing the BBC's productions in the form of merchandising such as books, magazines and videos. Greenwood was very aware of the large amounts of revenue generated by Doctor Who, and in Philip Segal he found someone enthusiastic and determined to breathe new life into the series. Segal, with the backing of Columbia Pictures, and later of Amblin Entertainment, quietly entered into negotiations with the BBC.
The year of Doctor Who's thirtieth anniversary was, in retrospect, a turning point in the road to getting Doctor Who back into production. BBC Enterprises began promoting the show's impending anniversary with a press conference in April attended by four of the Doctors. Although the conference was designed to promote merchandising aspects of the show such as the increasing range of Doctor Who video titles, the inevitable focus for the media was the absence of the show itself. Around this time, Alan Yentob was appointed Controller of BBC1. In his previous position as Controller of BBC2, Yentob had shown himself to be a keen supporter of Doctor Who by initiating seasons of repeats on the second channel. Following his new appointment Yentob publicly promised to reassess the future of the show, and at the April press conference Tony Greenwood reaffirmed that a new production of Doctor Who was under consideration.
The reality of the matter was that the BBC was juggling two Doctor Who productions in the planning stages. One was of course Philip Segal's project, and the other was the brainchild of BBC Enterprises Home Video department. Inspired by the huge sales success of the Doctor Who video range producers David Jackson and Penny Mills had begun in late 1992 to plan a Doctor Who story, to be made by BBC Enterprises for exclusive video release. Adrian Rigelsford wrote the script and the director was Graeme Harper, both of whom had previously been involved in the 'Dark Light' bid. The ninety-minute special, entitled The Dark Dimension had apparently been inspired in part by Tom Baker, who had approached BBC Video following his involvement in their projects such as The Tom Baker Years and the reconstruction of Shada, and expressed his desire to play the Doctor once more. Rigelsford wrote a story which starred an older version of the Fourth Doctor and featured isolated cameo appearances for the other four living Doctors.
In May, Alan Ventob gave his approval to the project and allocated a slot on BBC1 for The Dark Dimension to be shown close to the show's thirtieth anniversary. In June, news of the project was made public, but less than a month later The Dark Dimension was cancelled. Various reasons were offered for the cancellation. David Jackson of BBC Video said that 'due to the constrictions of our budget and the time available the production has been cancelled.' The press seized on the dissatisfaction expressed by actors such as Colin Baker and Jon Pertwee over the relatively insignificant nature of their roles, claiming that a dispute over this issue forced the abandonment of the project. The BBC Drama department, alarmed at the prospect of BBC Enterprises producing their own drama projects, apparently persuaded the BBC's Board of Governors to order the cancellation. Although each of the above explanations has some validity, another factor that went unpublicised at the time was the growing influence of Philip Segal at the BBC.
Philip Segal was not pleased that the BBC were planning to make their own new Doctor Who feature whilst negotiations for his own relaunch of the series continued to take place. He later said 'If anyone is to blame for the demise of the 30th anniversary programme it was me. I'll stand up and take the blame for that one, if I have to. The reality of it was we were in the process of negotiating the rights for the show. The problem is, if you're launching a new series, it is confusing to the audience and difficult to deal with if something is sandwiched between the old and the new. It wasn't a good script it was rushed. It was the wrong way to bring the show back.' Segal apparently helped to convince key figures at the BBC such as Alan Yentob that The Dark Dimension was not in the best interests of the big revival of the series that Segal was planning. In place of a new production, Yentob gave his blessing to the retrospective documentary 30 Years in the TARDIS to celebrate the anniversary.
In late October, newspapers began reporting that Steven Spielberg's production company Amblin Television and Universal Television were involved in negotiations with the BBC to produce a new series of Doctor Who. The BBC responded with caution, saying, 'We have had tentative discussions with Spielberg, but it has gone no further.' In actual fact Philip Segal had after four years of negotiation, persuaded BBC Enterprises (later renamed BBC Worldwide) to join in a co-production deal with Amblin Television and Universal Television to bring back Doctor Who.
A BBC spokeswoman said Wednesday the project was under discussion with Amblin as a possible co-production... United International Pictures spokesman Jerry Lewis confirmed that talks were going on between Amblin, the BBC and Universal but stressed that negotiations were at "a preliminary stage." UIP is the international distribution arm of Paramount, Universal and MGM.
The Hollywood Reporter, 20 October 1993
Having secured a co-production deal with the BBC, Philip Segal's next step was to interest a major American network in buying the screening rights. In the first half of the year Segal held discussions with CBS. John Leekley, a writer/ executive producer for Universal, was hired to write the script for the movie-length pilot episode. Leekley also compiled a 45-page bible outlining the concepts of the Doctor Who series they hoped to make, to show to various network executives. Leekley's bible and script combined several ideas that made it through to the finished production, notably the idea that the Doctor is half human.
Philip Segal, John Leekley and producer Peter Wagg (who left the project in 1995), flew to the UK for talks with BBC heads including Alan Yentob and Michael Waring, and at this time also approached Paul McGann to play the Doctor. McGann was always Segal's first choice for the role, although he had also considered another actor called Liam Cunningham. At this stage, McGann refused the offer, believing himself to be unsuited to the part, and was also unwilling to sign on for a five year series. Segal was undaunted, and continued trying to persuade McGann to reconsider.
In May, after several months of negotiations, CBS pulled out of the project having decided that it would not be a ratings success. Segal had also tried and failed to interest the BBC and NBC, the other two major American networks, but they had also dismissed the show. The syndication-based network Fox were however interested, but only in financing a pilot episode, rather than an entire series.
John Leekley's finished script was delivered in September, and was almost immediately rejected as being too serious and not quite the right direction for the show. A rewrite was commissioned from another writer, Robert DeLaurentis, who delivered his first draft in December.
The rumours still abound regarding the British actor to play the Doctor - at PanoptiCon'94 Sylvester McCoy revealed that his good friend Paul McGann (The Monocled Mutineer etc) had been approached but had turned the role down as he had been asked to sign a five-year deal to make a series if the pilot was successful. This was confirmation in McCoy's eyes that neither he nor Sophie Aldred were likely to he involved in the new series, although he did say he would be happy to record a regeneration scene if necessary.
Doctor Who Magazine issue 219, November 1994
Philip Segal pitched the DeLaurentis script to John Matoian the head of the series division at the Fox Television Network in January 1995, but Matoian turned down Doctor Who because it was seen as not mainstream enough and too expensive to produce on a regular basis.
Despite this major setback, Segal and the BBC remained committed to producing new Doctor Who. Making a guest appearance at an American Doctor Who convention in February, Segal displayed preliminary design sketches and said that he was hopeful of being able to officially announce shortly that Doctor Who would be back on track, not as a pilot but as a two-hour made-for-television feature, which could still eventuate as a regular series.
What Segal was referring to was his newfound support from Trevor Walton of the Fox Television Networks made for TV feature division. Walton liked Doctor Who and was prepared to order a feature which might give rise to a later series. BBC Worldwide and Universal signed a script deal with the Fox Network in April. The BBC, Walton and Segal all felt that the feature should have closer links with the original BBC television series, and it was at this point that they decided that the movie should open with a regeneration sequence, and that Sylvester McCoy should be rehired to play the Seventh Doctor. A new script was commissioned in May, and although Terrance Dicks was a serious contender, Matthew Jacobs was ultimately hired because of his American film and television writing experience. In mid-1995 Amblin merged with Spielberg's new entertainment company Dreamworks SKG, and Segal left Amblin at this point taking Doctor Who, to which he personally owned the rights, with him. Jacobs delivered the first draft of his script in August 1995.
In the latter half of 1995 Jacobs' script was polished and approved by the BBC, Universal and Fox, and Segal finally persuaded Paul McGann to take the part of the Doctor. Six years after the show ended in 1989 and after numerous promises and failed proposals, Doctor Who finally returned to production.
I can now officially confirm that Paul McGann is the Eighth Doctor and a regeneration scene will be shot that will allow Sylvester McCoy to pass the baton to Paul. Let's wish them both well.
Philip Segal, 9 January 1996
This item appeared in TSV 50 (February 1997).