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DOCTOR WHO for Newbies: The Eighth Doctor & The Wilderness Years

DOCTOR WHO for Newbies: The Eighth Doctor & The Wilderness Years

In 1989, the BBC pulled the plug on Doctor Who after 26 years. It was the network’s intention to bring the show back after a few years had given it some perspective, but it would be seven before any kind of Doctor Who briefly returned to screens and a further nine before it would be back again. It is this period, known as “The Wilderness Years,” that the fans were able to take over the reigns and a great deal of what New Who would become was forged. Despite the relatively low ratings of the final season, the show was still a British institution and cultivating a small but loyal fan following worldwide. In fact, the show was so popular that even the fact that it wasn’t on anymore couldn’t stop people from demanding more from their favorite Time Lord.

First New Adventures Novel

In 1991, Virgin Publications began releasing “Doctor Who: New Adventures” novels, a series of – you guessed it – new adventures featuring the Seventh Doctor and various companions, starting with Ace. The tone of these novels was, from the beginning, much darker and more grown-up than the show, and they drew some controversy for depicting sex, violence, and bad language. It was clear from the outset that the “New Adventures” novels were no longer aimed at young people and instead were focusing on keeping the now-grown fans the show already had. Virgin got some of the television series’ writers to pen the novels, including Seventh Doctor writers Marc Platt, Ben Aaronovitch, and Andrew Cartmel, and even the legendary writer and script editor Terrance Dicks. The novels also featured a bevy of up-and-coming writers who would eventually become prominent writers of New Who, including Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts, Paul Cornell, and even Russell T. Davies. One of Cornell’s novels, Human Nature, was eventually adapted into the Tenth Doctor television story Human Nature/Family of Blood, making it to date the only television adventure to begin life as a spin-off novel.

The overarching storyline of the novels furthered the so-called “Cartmel Masterplan,” the proposed future of the Seventh Doctor had the series continued with Andrew Cartmel as script editor. In it, the Doctor was revealed to be a much more powerful and calculating being, even going so far as to make him one of the architects of Time Lord everything. The character of Ace was also furthered in her journey and became a much more hardened and cynical character. She also had sex a lot. While it’s totally fine to develop characters to a deeper and more adult place, Ace’s promiscuity in the novels smacks of fanboy slash fic. But that might just be me. In total, 61 “New Adventures” novels were released between 1991 and 1997, 60 of which featured the Seventh Doctor.

Throughout the history of the series, there had been original comic strips featuring the current Doctor published in a number of weekly magazines and papers. By the time the show’s cancellation, the comics were almost exclusively limited to Doctor Who Magazine and, like the “New Adventures” novels, established their own running continuity, though eventually, to keep things straight, the novels and comics began to use roughly the same basic continuity. Some of the spin-off characters even grew in popularity in their own right, as in the instance of 26th Century archaeologist and Seventh Doctor companion Bernice Summerfield, first introduced in Paul Cornell’s novel Love and War. Bernice was so popular that she spawned her own series of “New Adventures” novels and comic strips.

The horror....the HORROR!!

Print media is perfectly fine, but what about more television stuff? In 1993, a Children in Need special was produced to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the show. It was entitled Dimensions in Time and featured all five living actors to play the Doctor as well as a slew of old companions and characters from EastEnders for no reason other than that show was popular. The two-part special (running a total of 13 minutes) is as disappointing a thing as ever a fan could hope for. I’m not saying you can find it and watch it online, but if you were masochistic enough, it’s possible it may appear in a Schmoogle schmideo search or on SchmouTube.

Surely, this can’t be the final appearance of Doctor Who on television, right? Won’t someone make a legitimate new story? Well, this was the question producer Philip Segal continually asked anyone who’d listen in the early ‘90s. For years, he’d been trying to mount an American version of Doctor Who, but the Fox Network, the only network that showed the slightest bit of interest, was only prepared to make a single television movie. It was Segal’s hope that such a production could be used as a backdoor pilot whose staggering success stateside could be used to persuade Fox to greenlight a proper series. Did this happen? Well, don’t lets get ahead of ourselves. First they had to make the thing. In order to get the proper funding for the shoot, and to obtain the rights to use the character in the first place, the production needed some outside assistance and in the end was a co-production between Fox TV, the BBC, and Universal Television. Since the Beeb owned the series, they wanted to ensure the character remain British (and good for ‘em). Segal hired writer Matthew Jacobs, a British writer and huge fan of the series, to pen the telemovie and the search was on to find the Eighth Doctor.

Among the slew of names being bandied about, whether seriously or just fictitiously, for the role were Tim Curry, Eric Idle, Billy Connolly, Michael Palin, Jonathan Pryce, and Anthony Stewart Head. Apparently, all of them said no or were unavailable and eventually the part went to Paul McGann, a young actor best known for playing the role of “I” in the 1989 film Withnail & I.

The Eighth Doctor is a romantic whose wide-eyed exuberance and youthful glee masked a much older soul. He dressed in a pseudo-Dickensian garb, taken from a locker room after a costume party, and sported a Fob watch. He is quick with a funny remark and seems to be, in the TV movie at least, the most naïve and innocent of the incarnations. He’s also one of the most outwardly caring Doctors and is often seen giving people hints at their possible futures in an attempt to encourage them into going forward with the adventure.

The TV movie was entirely meant to be the next chapter in the story, so Sylvester McCoy returned to play the Seventh Doctor for the beginning and regeneration. Jacobs, indeed, wrote the movie almost entirely for fans of the original show, and included many references and plot elements that needed a great deal of previous knowledge for them to be meaningful (and were completely unnecessary for the story to work). Fox insisted that a name actor be cast so American audiences would have a recognizable face, so Showtime original movie staple Eric Roberts was hired to play the Master… does that make sense to anyone else?

Story 156 – The TV Movie (aka The Enemy Within)
One 90 minute movie
The story begins with the Eighth Doctor narrating that his arch-nemesis the Master had been captured and sent to Skaro (!) to stand trial for “a list of evil crimes.” After he is convicted by the Daleks (!), he is sentenced to execution, but the miraculously kindhearted mutated killing machines allow the Master a request, which is to have his remains to be returned to Gallifrey by his old enemy, the Doctor. The film proper opens with the Seventh Doctor reading H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and snacking on jelly babies. The TARDIS interior is now enormous and resembles a Steampunk mansion. The ship hits some kind of turbulence, and the box containing the Master’s remains to fall over and break, allowing the oozy Master-remnants to escape and seep into the TARDIS control, causing it to make an emergency landing in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the last days of 1999. Without checking to see what was outside the TARDIS, the Doctor exits, only to be caught in a gun battle between Chinese gang members and a young Chinese-American boy named Chang Lee.

The Doctor is almost immediately shot and falls to the ground. Lee calls for an ambulance. After he’s taken to the emergency room, the surgeons find the Doctor has two hearts, something they immediately assume to be a failing with the X-ray machine. They call in cardiologist Dr. Grace Holloway (played by Daphne Ashbrook) to examine the strange little man. As she begins to operate, he wakes up and tells her he needs a beryllium atomic clock (like you do) and then seizes, eventually flatlining.

Holloway declares the Doctor dead and takes him to the morgue. Chang Lee steals the Doctor’s possessions, including the TARDIS key, and runs away. Meanwhile, the Master-ooze, which had hidden itself on the ambulance, attacks and possesses the ambulance driver, Bruce, played by the aforementioned thespian, Mr. Roberts. The Master, having control over Bruce’s faculties, murder’s the poor man’s wife when she asks why he’s acting weird. Later that night, in the morgue, the Doctor finally begins to regenerate, in a scene reminiscent of James Whale’s Frankenstein. It’s reminiscent because the morgue attendant is watching that film and we can draw comparisons.

The Eighth Doctor smashes open the door to the morgue, adorned in a plastic dead person sheet and looking all too much like Jesus emerging from the tomb. It’s been over twenty minutes of screen time before we actually see the hero of the piece in his current form and, in a 90-minute adventure, is incredibly late. The new Doctor steals some clothes and follows Dr. Grace Holloway out of the hospital, not entirely sure who he is, and convinces her (!) that he is the same man she operated on. It’s also worth noting that because of this operation, she was just now fired from her job. Apparently in San Francisco, surgeons never kill anyone, lest they get handed their walking papers. She believes the crazy man in the green velvet coat and takes him to her home, where she is informed that her boyfriend has broken up with her. Helluva New Year’s Eve for her, eh?

Elsewhere, Chang Lee has returned to the TARDIS and enters, using the key. There is he met by the Master who convinces the young man that the Doctor is a nasty piece of work who stole the time machine from him, as well as his body which he wants to retrieve. I usually don’t trust the sneering man in the dark clothes and sunglasses immediately, but I’m not Chang Lee either. The Master convinces Lee to open the Eye of Harmony located inside the TARDIS (!) by looking into the eye scanner. It seems only people with a human retinal pattern can open it (!) and once it’s opened, the entire world will be sucked into it if not closed by midnight. The Doctor regains his memory and convinces Grace of ALL of this stuff and she agrees to help him. Together they race toward San Francisco’s atomic clock, unaware that the Master is closer than they think.

Eric Roberts? REALLY?

Why it’s important:

Well, it’s the one and only appearance by the Eighth Doctor on television. It’s also the only new episode made in a 15-year period. On the surface, that might be the only things worth mentioning about it.

As a story, the TV movie is a mess. It was written by a fan in the worst way. I have no doubt Matthew Jacobs indeed adored the original series, but he completely missed the boat on WHY it was often as great as it was, which was interesting, innovative storytelling. All the inside references and continuity-jumbling is fine over the period of several seasons, but to try to cram all of it into one 89-minute television movie at the expense of coherent plot or proper character development is nothing more than fan-wanking to the Nth degree.

Perhaps the most controversial of anything introduced in the TV movie is the notion that the Doctor is half human (on his mother’s side) and his romantic kiss with Dr. Grace Holloway. For years after, fans and spinoff writers have been trying to find a way to retcon that nigh-throwaway statement of his semi-humanity, but in the end it was a plot thread that we can assume would have been explored had the series been picked up, but should really be entirely ignored. Don’t harp on it, folks. The kiss, on the other hand, was picked up and run with by the next regime of showrunners and not a single Doctor since the Seventh has escaped kissing a companion at least once.

One must take the TV movie with a grain of salt and gloss over the more outrageous moments and just enjoy McCoy’s last moments as Doctor and McGann’s only ones. The lasting importance of the TV movie is that it showed Russell T. Davies what NOT to do when he brought back the show in 2005.  Zero time was spent on the regeneration or the setting up the world this strange hero inhabit; instead, everything was unfolded naturally through the eyes of the new companion who, like a great many people who’d be watching the show, was experiencing all of these things for the very first time.

That seemed like it would be that for the Eighth Doctor. In the UK, the ratings for the TV movie had been quite high (9.1 million) but in the States, they were abysmally low, and, as such, no further Fox episodes were produced and McGann has never appeared onscreen as the character again. The Eighth Doctor’s visage was, however, licensed in official spinoff material, including a new set of novels, called the “New Eighth Doctor Adventures,” and Doctor Who Magazine comic strips. In fact, the Eighth Doctor was the official and current Doctor until 2005, just before the series returned to screens, making him, technically, the longest serving Doctor.

And if you want to argue about it, you can, but there’s something else to consider: in 2001, British company Big Finish Productions began a long-running series of Eighth Doctor audio adventures featuring new stories with Paul McGann returning to the role he’d only played on screen one time. I’ve listened to several of these in my research and it truly makes me wonder what could have been and makes me appreciate the Eighth Doctor all the more.

Alright, likely-not-sports-fans, I’m back in the saddle now and will return in a week or so with the next installment in the series, the Ninth Doctor and the birth of New Who.

Images: Virgin Publishing/BBC/Fox/Universal/Big Finish

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!

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  1. Kamilshka says:

    Great summary post. Happily enough, you can adjust this post now to say that the Eighth Doctor’s audio adventures *are* officially canon, as the Doctor saluted his audio companions in the Night Of The Doctor mini episode! Great news for all of us enjoying all of the Eight audio adventures!

  2. Tara says:

    Oh, I don’t know, Mad Jack. Have you listened to Dark Eyes, or the last episode of series 3 (called “Panacea”) of the Gallifrey spinoff series? While they’re not allowed to *expressly* touch the Time War, that hasn’t stopped them from hinting and pushing and building their corner of the Whoniverse towards that event.

    As for the audios being canon, there was something in an issue of DWM that said they are. Don’t remember which off the top of my head, but they do count. (At least, until they’re directly contradicted by the TV show.)

  3. Mad Jack says:

    Tony: The Last Great Time War is a fully NuWho invention. It never happened in the 8th Doctor’s time line. The Doctor destroyed Gallifrey in the Ancestor Cell back in 1998 and none of the LGTW that Davies told us about had anything to do with it. The audios have yet to explore it and Nick Briggs says they would rather keep it that way. Since D8 showed up in a flash on the series finale, I highly doubt any of it will be explored with him. We shall see though!

  4. Mad Jack says:

    Actually the ratings in America were fairly decent, but a huge hit over here had it’s last farewell episode on the same time. Difficult. On your invitation to an argument about the audios, I MUST point out that there is no “canon” for Doctor Who. The closest thing we can get is “what is current is canon”. IOW the current TV run takes precedence, what ever producer is in charge. Without a TV to take said precedence, Doctor Who is fair game. If the BBC say it’s Doctor Who, then it’s official, full fledged Doctor Who. Cheers!

  5. Tony says:

    Ugh! My excitement got the better of me, and I didn’t even get around to asking the question I meant to ask! I know that by the end of the 1996 TV Movie, the great Time War between the Darleks and Time Lords hadn’t happened yet. But by the start of the 9th Doctor’s run in 2005 (the first episode of which, The Doctor indicated he’d only just recently regenerated) the Time War had ended. My question is: in all the 8th Doctor’s novels, comics and audio stories, was the Time War mentioned at all? Or was it a completely new thing invented for the 2005 Christopher Eccleston reboot?

  6. Tony says:

    So this article was written in December 2010, it’s now June 2013 and this article is about to be a VERY worthwhile read for any Doctor Who fan in the interim period between now and the 50th Year Anniversary episode in November. We’ve been left on a cliffhanger with Matt Smith’s (11th) Doctor speaking to a mysterious, unknown ‘dark’ Doctor, the episode ending with the words “Introduction John Hurt as The Doctor” – what does it all mean?? Current leaks and speculation point to it possibly being a “brushed under the carpet” regeneration between McGann and Eccleston, making John Hurt the 8-and-a halfth Doctor (whose acts are so un-Doctor-like that he doesn’t deserve the title ‘Doctor’, explaining why Eccleston, Tennant and Smith can still be called the 9th, 10th and 11th Doctors). It would mean the Gallifreyan/Time Lord we call The Doctor has one less regeneration up his sleeve than we thought.

    THIS I ALL PURE SPECULATION and I’m sure come November, 66% of what I’m saying will probably be laughably wrong. In any event, I’m excited!!

  7. Steve says:

    Garrett, if you’re still out there reading, I’ve bought, listened to and enjoyed every Eighth Doctor audio episode on this list:

    Liked them so much, in fact, that I’m about to take advantage of the sale Big Finish is running this month and scoop up some more.

    Hope this helps.

  8. Garrett says:

    I know it’s been a long while since this was first posted, but I’d like to see a list of the best Big Finish audio adventures featuring Doctor #8. He is woefully under-represented in the Who-niverse, and I really liked Paul McGann’s take on the Doctor in spite of the frankly awful movie in which he starred. Can I hope for such a list?

  9. Ben says:

    I agree the movie wasn’t great but I would would have liked to see more of #8. I think Moffat should do a movie with Mr. McGann about the Time War and the destruction of Gallifrey culminating in the regeneration into Chris Eccleston… just saying.

  10. Eric says:

    What? No one wants to bitch and moan about the TV Movie being aired against an NBA game and an episode of Roseanne that centered on the possible death of one of the main characters? No one wants to bring up that DW was the most-taped show that week? No one wants to reveal just how bitter they were at FOX for years and years afterwards? Just me?

  11. Dave says:

    What makes the movie tolerable is Paul McGann being brilliant. My memory might be enhanced by listening to the radio programs.

    I secretly hold hope that he and Sheridan Smith will show up for a guest spot on one of the TV shows.

  12. tuffhippy says:

    I was recently driven to seek out this movie after seeing Paul McGann’s excellent performance in the BBCAmerica miniseries “Luther.” I remember being incredibly disappointed in the Doctor Who/Fox movie when it originally aired, but age has mellowed me. Upon further reflection (and repeated viewings in 15 minute clips on youtube), I have come to the conclusion that all Who is good Who.

  13. I'm Astro, not K-9! says:

    I’m no expert by any means, only picking up the series in ’05, but I’ve read that there are more than a few current series eps based on books and/or audio series. Am I wrong?

  14. Tara says:

    One minor quibble with your article. Grace wasn’t fired, she quit after her boss tried to get her to keep quiet about what she saw.

  15. Scott says:

    I saw Enemy Within when it was first broadcast, then I saw it again a few months ago. A lot of the problems with it are problems I have with the Christopher Eccleston season, and the beginning of David Tennant, the show feels more American-style than the classic ones did, a different sort of action and feel to the stories. I’m still anxiously awaiting more articles about the new doctors, though, even though I didn’t like Christopher.

  16. Kyle Anderson says:

    I like that answer, because it means people can pick and choose what they want, and I’m with you about Big Finish, I think all of it should be considered true.

  17. Rob: Here’s Shada for you to be getting on with:

    Here’s a link to Big Finish:

    And just to reiterate what Mark says, unlike Paramount with Star Trek and Lucasfilm on Star Wars, the BBC have never officially ruled on what is and isn’t canon with the Moffat quote above as close as anyone has got. In other words, the audios, novels and comics are canon and relevant if you want them to be, and I do. To me everything is canon. Even Dimensions in Time. To say they aren’t knocks the scaffolding out from protecting the new series. Which means that when Rassilon mentions the Doctor in The End of Time flashback, it’s the Eighth Doctor I have in my head.

  18. Rob says:

    Great article! I am especially interested in the Dr. Who Radio Programs. Where did you find them?

  19. Matthew C says:

    The wilderness years were the best! Being a fan really meant something back then.

    The Virgin New Adventures totally rule!

  20. Mark says:

    “and I know they don’t count because they aren’t officially canon,”
    The showrunners (RTD and Moffett) find this notion nonsense, btw.
    And being any notion of “canon” can only derive from an “authority” and never from a fanbase..

    “It is impossible for a show about a dimension-hopping time traveller to have a canon.”
    – Steven Moffat, San Diego, 2008.

  21. Kyle Anderson says:

    you can find all the articles along with everything I’ve written by going to or just use the key word search thing on the main page and go “Doctor Who.” Cheers!

  22. EdW says:

    Is there a page with links to all of these Who articles?

  23. Gabriel says:

    I’m looking forward to the release. I was in college when the movie was released and I missed it. So I will see it for the first time.