Probably one of the greatest crimes in the history of British television is the 1989 suspension of the longest-running science fiction television show to that date, Doctor Who. For years, Doctor Who’s ratings had declined steadily after the departure of the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, in 1984. The new Doctor, played by Colin Baker, was portrayed quite differently from previous incarnations. More snarky, angry, even violent at times, Baker tried to portray the Doctor as a true alien, one who’s motivations and personality were decidedly “unhuman” to viewers. Such was Baker’s full intention, as it was that of then executive producer of the show, John Nathan Turner. This portrayal, however, was heavily criticized by fans and higher-ups at the BBC alike. Baker was promptly fired after just two years of his initial three year contract and replaced by Sylvester McCoy, a relative unknown at the time. Sylvester’s portrayal of the Doctor was substantially lightened up, almost to the point of clownery, which was drastically toned down
in subsequent seasons. As far as the big wigs in the BBC were concerned however, especially to then Controller of BBC1 at the time, the absolutely humorless Michael Grade, Doctor Who was on the ropes. It was sabotaged by being put up against a show called Coronation Street on ITV, the most watched program in Britain at the time. The thing was, the show was certainly turning things around regarding scripts and acting; it had found its voice again after years afloat in a sea of hackneyed stories written by burned out veterans of the series. It was these final two seasons of Doctor Who that would ultimately seal its doom and yet reprise its vitality in a different medium. That being full-length original
Near the end of the classic series’ demise, an untried script editor was brought in to shore up a new direction for the show. Andrew Cartmel was a relative newbie to television, which John Nathan Turner saw as a definite plus—someone to breathe new life into this fading institution. Cartmel had decided that Doctor Who lacked the mystery surrounding its lead character and tried to inject this back into the show. He devised what fans have since dubbed “The Cartmel Masterplan,” a plan to paint the Doctor as a more powerful being than previously thought. The show’s mythology had been retconned before, albeit by writers disrespecting what came before them, reinventing aspects already cemented as lore by fans. At one time the Time Lords didn’t have names (being referred to as the Doctor, the Master, the Monk or “that one guy who gives the Doctor a time ring and tells him to destroy the Daleks”), just skulking about like omnipotent gods in control of everything in the universe.
Later in the seventies, the Tom Baker era, the Doctor’s backstory was being divulged in full detail. For the first time, viewers saw Gallifrey and all of a sudden the Time Lords were portrayed as a premodern society—in Gallifrey’s terms that is—complete with political parties, universities and even names like Spandrell, Drax and the ever-puzzling Romanadvoratrelundar, or Romana for short. As the show’s writers visited the Doctor’s home planet and divulged more and more of his once mysterious origins, the Doctor became less mysterious and more run of the mill. This is what Andrew Cartmel had rightly concluded, and set forth with his Masterplan to bring back the question marks that the Doctor had worn so proudly.
It was put forth that perhaps Rassilon and Omega had help so long ago when creating modern Time Lord culture, bringing technological advancements that would propel the Gallifreyans into true Lords of time. Cartmel surmised that this “Other,” as his name had been lost to history, was none other than the Doctor, or more precisely, a different version of the Doctor. Throughout the final two seasons, hints were dropped to this fact, and, had the show survived, may have culminated in bringing back questions as to the Doctor’s motivations, but also to his allegiances and to whom, if anyone or anything, the Doctor answered. All of this was set to be explored in the future of the show but alas, history unfolded as we now know it; Doctor Who was put on “indefinite hiatus.” But this was not the end of Doctor Who, nor the Masterplan.
When I found Doctor Who as a twelve-year-old uber geek, Colin Baker was just being fired. PBS stations in the U.S. were still showing Tom Baker and Peter Davison on regular repeat, every once in a while going back to the Jon Pertwee run. There was so much of Doctor Who that I didn’t know about because, of course, there was no internet! I know. My fevered fandom of Doctor Who was relegated to dishing out ten dollars a month for Doctor Who Magazine, which is how I ultimately found out about the show cancellation.
I was also familiar with a cafeteria lunch lady at the time who also loved the show, and we would talk for as long as we could about it. I prodded her [mentally, not physically] about information, for which she was a bastion of information, regaling me with the news that there was indeed a Seventh Doctor, he was Scottish, and he had a companion who for some reason called him “Professor.”
Hearing this and not seeing it firsthand really made this Doctor seem so foreign from what had come before; until I finally got to see this Seventh Doctor, and subsequently fell in love with him. I loved what they were doing with the show, throwing out little lines of “what the fuck did he just say?” type dialogue, blowing my mind as to where this could be leading to. And then I got the DWM issue that pronounced Doctor Who as no more.
What the hell was I supposed to do now? I kept up trying to find and watch all I had not seen before, this somewhat staving off the horrible notion that new Doctor Who was probably most likely never to be seen again. One day I went to Waldenbooks at the local mall intent on buying this sweet Cybermen reference book that cost thirty dollars, three months of saving for this drip (“saving” consisted of looking through all the pockets of my six-person nuclear family’s front hallway closet on a weekly basis—a job of sorts). I traversed to the spot in Waldenbooks I went every time I was there, directly to the section of science fiction-nonfiction, just before the science fiction-fiction section.
It was on the highest shelf, but I wasn’t afraid to go and grab that stool they had somewhere in the store. I was all set to just grab the Cybermen book and go, but when I looked up it was gone, presumably bought by some other fan’s front closet thievery gains.
I was crestfallen; now just content on finding anything of worth for me to read. So I looked around the science fiction section as I always did with mild intent to purchase, and found something which made my heart leap. A novel, in the “ongoing series” section of the science fiction-fiction section, called Timewyrm: Genesys. It had a little Doctor Who logo on the spine. I quickly picked it up and stared at it with eyes so wide you would have thought I was tripping on acid. That is when I found out I could still shit my pants.
Next to it was 2 other Doctor Who novels, unfortunately out of order but there, in my hand I had 3 new-to-me Doctor Who books, which were, as the back cover blurb denoted “produced with the approval of BBC Television.” It was then that I saw the disembodied torso of the cafeteria lunch lady, with closed eyes and crossed arms, nodding at me in a seemingly Obi-Wan Kenobi moment, telling me I had just found what I was truly looking for: new Doctor Who stories.
The New Adventures, as these new Doctor Who Books were called, were published by Virgin’s publishing wing. Virgin had bought Target Books, the previous publisher of Doctor Who material, mostly being novelizations of the series. Then fiction editor Peter Darvill-Evans knew that they were running out of
televised stories to novelize so he asked the BBC if they could start to print original stories. The BBC originally said no, but after the cancellation of the show, Virgin was granted the Doctor Who license. The idea was to publish new material, continuing the story of the Doctor from the point when the TV series had ended.
The New Adventures were broader in scope, decidedly more adult in content, bringing sex, drugs, alcohol, adult language, and other mature situations that Doctor Who was not able to portray as a children’s show on the BBC. The writers, some of whom had been script writers for Doctor Who past and present, came along for the chance to write for the new range.
The first arc was the Timewyrm saga spanning four novels. They were tasked to John Peel, author of many a
Target novelization, Terrance Dicks, also a Target author and former script editor and writer for Doctor Who, spanning most of the show’s existence, Nigel Robinson, previous editor of Target’s book range, and Paul Cornell, an up-and- coming television writer and Doctor Who fanzine contributor.
The range was successful right out of the gate and went from bimonthly to monthly, even adding the Missing Adventures range of previous Doctors’ adventures in time and space. The New Adventures range was somewhat loosely divided into seasons. The Cartmel Masterplan was used and explored throughout the range, more as a theme than an overarching plot. Hints were dropped in many of the range’s books, culminating in the last Seventh Doctor’s New Adventure, Lungbarrow, a story first conceived for the final televised season of Doctor Who.
The Doctor of the Virgin books had grown darker and more manipulative since the end of the show. Seen as “Time’s Champion,” he seemed to be doing the bidding of Time herself, manipulating and moving people around like chess pieces, all for the greater good of the universe, and the overall timeline. The books explored the Doctor not only as a Time Lord, but rather “the” Time Lord, an almost godlike being, who seemed to be in control at all times, knowing what was to come and how to make that reality happen.
Writers of the line built up the myth of who the Doctor was, reworking continuity but also not pissing all over it. New worlds were explored; old worlds from the show had their lore expanded. New aliens were introduced, along with classic enemies and old threats from the show, brought back to do battle with the Doctor. New companions were introduced as well, with one of the more popular ones being Bernice “Benny” Summerfield. He was so popular, in fact, that when the book range was ended, Benny received her own line of books continuing her adventures.
After the 1996 Doctor Who television movie, starring the newly-regenerated Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, the BBC decided not to renew Virgin’s license for Doctor Who. All told, the New Adventures lasted for 61 books and the Missing Adventures for 33 books. The last book in the range, The Dying Days, was the last of the Virgin line and also the first novel to portray the Eighth Doctor. The New Adventures line was a successful follow-up to the cancelled show, up until the very end. It gave an opportunity to many new writers to write about Doctor Who, and many of them still write about Doctor Who—Kate Orman, Lance Parkin, Gareth Roberts, Justin Richards, Andy Lane and Gary Russell, to name a few. In fact, one of the New Adventures novelists, Russell T. Davies is the man responsible for bringing Doctor Who back to the airwaves, and for being the revived show’s first executive producer.
The New Adventures series was looked upon so favorably that one of the best of the bunch, Human Nature by Paul Cornell, was adapted into a two-part adventure in season three of the new show. Other New Adventures have been adapted for the line of Doctor Who audio dramas produced by Big Finish, including a whole range of audio dedicated to Benny Summerfield.
After the demise of the Virgin Doctor Who range, the BBC brought the license in house, beginning their line with a novelization of the just-aired Doctor Who television movie. The first original Eighth Doctor Adventure, as the line was now called, was written by long time Doctor Who writer, Terrance Dicks, and featured all eight Doctors in a kind of “jumping on” point for new readers and fans of Doctor Who. Just as in the New Adventures range, new companions, aliens and worlds were introduced, expanding the lore and history of Doctor Who. No longer was the Doctor a “string puller” or “Time’s Champion.” In this range of novels, the Doctor was back to his adventuring, exploring self, taking after the tone of the Eighth Doctor, from the 1996 television movie.
Many of the same writers from the Virgin line came to the BBC line, even bringing concepts and characters from the Virgin line of books. One of these writers, a personal favorite, was Lawrence Miles. Lawrence Miles was responsible for a few of the overarching plot threads that would run throughout the series of novels, and for some of the drama involving some of the ranges writers. Miles’ book Alien Bodies introduced readers to the Faction Paradox and the looming threat of a great “time war” (sound familiar, Doctor Who fans?). These elements would culminate into his next entry in the series, a two-book set entitled Interference. Miles, in many interviews since, has stated that he did not think that the Virgin line and BBC line belonged in the same universe of Doctor Who.
Miles created a bottle universe, a sort of universe-within-a-universe concept in Interference, which put the Virgin New Adventures line in a pocket reality that one could still visit, but was wholly different from the universe that the Eighth Doctor resided in. The thing was that other writers who also had characters, planets and such from Virgin’s line began bringing them into The BBC line. Miles claims he had no idea that they were the same universe, and that he simply tried to create a point where the writers could go off on this new direction, with bolder stories than the “crap,” as Miles put it, that had been released so far in the range of books.
Miles always had a certain opinion of Doctor Who, and of the other writers involved in building the universe. He cared for Doctor Who, and certainly tried very hard, harder than many other writers, to put ideas and concepts into the mythology of Doctor Who that would keep it relevant with other sci-fi properties, and make it viable enough to return once again to television, in his opinion as an animated series. The other writers, however, namely then head editor Stephen Cole, apparently did not take to this idea, as Miles’ ideas were subsequently retconned into oblivion in Cole’s own book, The Ancestor Cell.
In an interview years later, Miles seemed to accuse Cole of stealing some of the plot to The Ancestor Cell from a series of books Miles had pitched before any of this had occurred. Miles himself stated that although there is material present in The Ancestor Cell that may be of his creation, there was not enough of it to claim plagiarism. It is obvious that the retconning of his plots pissed him off to a certain degree, seeing as how he went off to a different publisher and created his own Faction Paradox line of books and audio dramas, continuing his ideas while coopting aspects of Doctor Who into his own universe, and some would say, the same universe that Doctor Who resides. This brings up the sticky point of any science fiction universe’s continuity: canon.
More so than any other sci-fi property, Doctor Who’s canon has been a very large stick in the butt of many fans. The classic show itself continually pooped on its own chest in regard to its continuity, reinventing itself decade after decade, obscuring or forgetting details along the way. Now you put the novels and the audio dramas into play and you ask “does any of this count?” The short answer is yes. Doctor Who is different from other sci-fi properties in the fact that the BBC has never outright discussed what is and is not canonical in the Doctor Who universe. Star Trek wranglers CBS/Paramount have publicly stated that whatever happened in the numerous Star Trek television shows and movies is Star Trek fact where everything else, such as novels and comics, are Star Trek Fiction. Same goes for Star Wars as well as recently stated by its new owner, Disney. But Doctor Who has no such mandate from the BBC to rely on its canonical approach. That is why canonicity in Doctor Who is almost a moot point. Even Paul Cornell, a very prolific Doctor Who writer for much of his career, has felt he should answer this sticky question with an article on his blog stating that “there is no such thing as Doctor Who canon.”
I have a different opinion. I say all of Doctor Who is canon. This is time travel we are talking about. Large events have happened all throughout the long history of Doctor Who, in all of its mediums. So many things could have been changed by this or that. For shit’s sake, there have been two frakking time wars; anything can happen. Anything can go wrong! But I could refine my thought a bit further. In the revived series’ mini-episode “The Night of the Doctor,” the Doctor, before he regenerates, name drops a bunch of previous companions who were part of the Big Finish line of audio dramas. By saying these names, Steven Moffat has declared that the audio dramas are canon, and since Big Finish has adapted several of the Virgin New and Missing Adventures along with the Benny audios, it is safe to assume that these stories are canon as well. It was even stated publicly and on the back cover of the New Adventures that these stories were endorsed by the BBC and that the last production team of the cancelled classic series also considered these books a direct continuation of Doctor Who continuity. We can further lump in the Eighth Doctor Adventures from the BBC simply because they were produced by the BBC. Doctor Who has a long and messy history. There are going to be contradictions and continuity flubs all over the places. There is even a book by Lance Parkin [AHistory: An Unauthorized History of the Doctor Who Universe] that tries to tie it all together as nicely as possible. At the end of the day however, it’s really up to the reader’s perception. Take what you want, leave what you don’t. Doctor Who is so large at this point that the canon really is at the mercy of the person enjoying or not enjoying it.
As stated before however, I believe the books are canon. The New Adventures, the Missing Adventures, the Eight Doctor Adventures and the Past Doctor adventures were so very important to me after the classic show ended that I couldn’t dare discount them when compiling my own personal Doctor Who timeline. I loved them so much that I used elements and names of some of these books as titles and lyrics for songs I wrote and bands I was in. Look up Managra in a search engine and you will get the gist. Ask anyone I toured with what I did with my free time as we drove to the next show and they will tell you that I had my nose in a Doctor Who book 99 percent of the time. I would definitely implore any fan of Doctor Who, old series or new, to search out these novels and read them voraciously and to enjoy them as I did and still do. They are a part of my canon, why not yours?