Doctor Who's wilderness years: How fans kept the flame alive after it was cancelled in 1989

Between 1989 and 2005, Doctor Who was kept on life support through books, audio dramas, fan-made films and a TV movie

Doctor Who fans were kept on a lifeline during the wilderness years through books, a TV movie, and fan made shorts. (Target/BBC/YouTube)
Doctor Who fans were kept on a lifeline during the wilderness years through books, a TV movie, and fan made shorts. (Target/BBC/YouTube)

Doctor Who may have officially made it to its 60th anniversary, but it wasn't all smooth sailing.

On 9 December, 1989, the Seventh Doctor and Ace strolled into the sunset at the end of the latest episode of Doctor Who — apparently for the last time — having just defeated the Master (again!) in the final episode of Survival. And that was it.

The sci-fi show, the BBC promised us at the time, would return one day but as a co-production. But with ratings for that last series cratering at 3.1 million, they seemed in no hurry to marry it off.

Doctor Who, as it turned out, would have no place in the next decade, apart from a one-shot TV movie in 1996. But nature abhors a vacuum, especially where Doctor Who is concerned, and fans were hardly starved in the 16 years before the show came back in 2005 under the stewardship of Russell T Davies.

Read more: Doctor Who at 60: A bluffer's guide to the show

This then is the story of Doctor Who’s wilderness years, and of those plucky fans who, in those dark, Doctor-less days, kept the flame burning…

Target books

London, UK.  4 May 2016.  Doctor Who: The Target Books Artwork exhibition, currently on at the Cartoon Museum in Holborn, celebrates the original cover artwork from the classic Target Books series of the 1960s and 1970s and is the first time that the artwork has been publicly exhibited.  Target Books were the only way that fans could revisit an episode after it had aired. Credit:  Stephen Chung/Alamy Live News
An exhibition celebrating Doctor Who: The Target Books Artwork was held at London's Cartoon Museum in 2016. (Alamy Live News)

Target Books had been adapting Doctor Who stories since the 1970s, but with Virgin acquiring the imprint in 1989 and with no fresh episodes to novelise, here was a chance to do something they’d never attempted before – original Doctor Who fiction.

The idea, which came to be known as Doctor Who: The New Adventures, was that they would be, in the words of former script-editor and author of three books in the range Andrew Cartmel, “more adult and harder-hitting”.

Sixty Seventh Doctor-centred and one Eighth Doctor-featuring novels were published by Virgin, some by established Doctor Who scribes such as Terrance Dicks and Ben Aaronovitch and others by newbies brought in from the fan scene, whose names — including Russell T Davies, Gareth Roberts and Mark Gatiss — would one day become wedded to the revived series.

In fact, one book by future TV writer Paul Cornell (Human Nature) would later be adapted for the show’s third season. In 1994, Virgin added The Missing Adventures to their range, allowing for stories featuring past Doctors and companions. Three years later, Virgin lost the Doctor Who licence, with BBC Books picking up the mantle with Terrance Dicks’ multi-Doctor epic, The Eight Doctors.

Virgin did, however, manage to keep the world of the New Adventures alive by spinning off the Doctor’s NA assistant, archeologist Bernice Summerfield, for a series of novels culminating in 1999’s Twilight of the Gods.

The 'spin-offs'

Doctor Who’s first unofficial spin-off landed in 1988 with Wartime, an Andy Lane and Helen Stirling-penned and Keith Barnfather-directed short featuring a returning John Levene as UNIT grunt John Benton (Barnfather was able to use the character as the rights to Benton and UNIT — a fictional military organisation in the show that deals with paranormal and extraterrestrial threats — belonged to former producer Derrick Sherwin and not the BBC).

But it wouldn’t be until the 90s for there to be an explosion in fan-made Doctor Who-inspired films, some featuring non-BBC copyrighted Who characters and actors (the Brigadier and Sarah Jane-headlining Downtime, the Sontarans-starring Shakedown et al) and others that simply used familiar Doctor Who faces in otherwise unconnected SF dramas (The Airzone Solution, The Stranger).

Continuing beyond the return of the series in 2005, there was even an erotic, Doctor Who-adjacent thriller, Zygon: When Being You Just Isn't Enough, that was once described as “almost certainly the only Zygon-based soft-porn film ever to have been made.”

Audio dramas

Behind the scenes of The Sirens of Time with Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Peter Davison. (Big Finish)
Behind the scenes of The Sirens of Time with Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Peter Davison. (Big Finish)

In 1996 fans Jason Haigh-Ellery, Gary Russell and Nicholas Briggs came together to form Big Finish, a company with ambitions of producing officially approved Doctor Who audio stories.

Knowing they were unlikely to win over the BBC without any product, they first licensed the character of Bernice Summerfield from Virgin, putting out a series of CDs featuring the Doctor’s erstwhile New Adventures companion.

A suitably impressed Beeb duly granted Big Finish permission to produce brand new audio Who, with the multi-Doctor adventure The Sirens of Time (starring Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy) kicking off the range.

Nicholas Briggs (creative director of Big Finish) at the launch of the first release at the 10th Planet store in London. (Big Finish)
Nicholas Briggs (creative director of Big Finish) at the launch of the first release at the 10th Planet store in London. (Big Finish)

Then-reigning Doctor Paul McGann joined their roster in 2001 with Tom Baker following in 2012, David Tennant in 2016 and Christopher Eccleston in 2017.

One play, 2003’s Jubilee, impressed incoming Who boss Russell T Davies so much that he asked its writer, Robert Shearman, to rework it for the revived show’s debut season (going out under the title Dalek).

Twenty-four years on from The Sirens of Time, Big Finish is still going strong, announcing in December 2021 that its licence had been extended until 2030.


English actor Tom Baker, as the Doctor from the BBC science fiction TV series 'Doctor Who', poses with the Doctor's arch enemies, the Daleks, at BBC TV Centre, London, March 1975. Baker plays the fourth incarnation of the character. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)
Tom Baker posing with the Daleks at BBC Centre in 1975. (Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Though new Doctor Who was conspicuous by its absence on television screens through the 1990s and early 00s (except the TV movie, natch), that’s not to say that schedulers had totally forgotten about it.

In 1992, BBC2 repeated The Time Meddler, a black and white William Hartnell four-parter not seen since 1965. Other vintage repeats swiftly followed – 1972’s The Sea Devils, 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks et al – but BBC2 was only skimming the surface of the show’s past compared to BSB.

The short-lived Sky rival had launched in March 1990 and was busy screening Doctor Who from the very beginning, even devoting an entire weekend to the show in September ‘90.

Meanwhile, over at the BBC, while negotiations were going on with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, BBC1 broadcast 30 Years In The TARDIS, a lovingly assembled 50-minute documentary to mark the show’s pearl anniversary, a programme that went down better with fans than Dimensions in Time, a horribly misconceived crossover between Doctor Who and EastEnders that had screened as part of Children in Need three days earlier.

There was yet another charity Doctor Who skit in 1999 when future showrunner and fan Steven Moffat penned The Curse of Fatal Death for Comic Relief, headlining Rowan Atkinson as the Doctor with guest spots from Hugh Grant, Joanna Lumley, Jim Broadbent and Richard E Grant.

UNSPECIFIED, ENGLAND:  Jonathan Pryce, Julia Sawalha and Rowan Atkinson during the filming of Dr Who: The Curse of Fatal Death
Jonathan Pryce, Julia Sawalha and Rowan Atkinson during the filming of Dr Who: The Curse of Fatal Death in 1999. (Mauro Carraro/Comic Relief via Getty Images)

A few months on from that, in November ‘99, BBC2 hosted Doctor Who Night, an evening of documentaries, repeats and, most memorably, a series of comedy sketches from fans Mark Gatiss and David Walliams.

The TV movie

At the end of 1993’s 30 Years In The TARDIS, director Kevin Davies could be heard asking the BBC1's then controller Alan Yentob about rumours that the BBC was in negotiations with Steven Spielberg over the return of Doctor Who.

“You might think that,” Yentob responded, quoting House of Cards, “I couldn’t possibly comment.”

Paul Mcgann, Yee Jee Tso & Daphne Ashbrook Film: Doctor Who (1997)   Director: Geoffrey Sax 12 May 1996   **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of BBC and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company and can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To BBC is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company.
Paul Mcgann, Yee Jee Tso and Daphne Ashbrook in the Dovtor Who TV movie. (Alamy/BBC)

In the end, it wouldn’t be the Jurassic Park director that the BBC would buddy up with, but Universal, for a 90-minute television film that both companies hoped would work as a backdoor pilot to a possible series.

Deciding against a complete reboot, the movie instead carried on from the BBC series, with reigning Doc Sylvester McCoy returning for a largely dialogue-free cameo before regenerating into Paul McGann’s easier-on-the-eye Eighth Doctor.

Although a ratings success in the UK it failed to find an audience in the US (just 5.6 million tuned in), scuppering any chances of it going to series.

The webcasts

Though Big Finish’s DW audio dramas were BBC licensed, 2001’s Death Comes to Time could at least claim to be the first BBC-produced Doctor Who since 1996’s ill-fated TV Movie.

Available through the BBC Cult website, this six-part, crudely animated webcast reunited Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor with Sophie Aldred’s Ace and boasted a cast that included such names as Stephen Fry, Jon Culshaw, David Soul, Anthony Head and John Sessions.

Three other webcasts followed – the 2002 Big Finish-produced Real Time (with Colin Baker) and a 2003 adaptation of the unfinished Tom Baker serial Shada, recast with Paul McGann.

As for the third…

The Scream of the Shalka

In mid-2003, plans were set in motion for a brand new Doctor Who story, albeit a Flash-animated webcast to be released through the BBC’s Doctor Who website. Richard E Grant (who had already played the Doctor, albeit for less than a minute, in 1999’s Curse of Fatal Death sketch) was cast as what the BBC confirmed was the Ninth Doctor – officially.

Except a few months later came the news that Doctor Who was returning to TV, and suddenly The Scream of the Shalka’s status as canon was in question. Eventually released in November ‘03, it’s best to see this six-part story as a curiosity and an intriguing 'what if'.

Grant would eventually return to Doctor Who, not as the Doctor, but as the Great Intelligence, in three episodes of Matt Smith’s swansong series.

The Doctor Who 60th anniversary specials start on Saturday, 25 November 2023 on BBC One and iPlayer and continue on 2 and 9 December.

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