In the mid-to-late eighties, Doctor Who was famously – or infamously, if we’re being honest about it – neither the BBC nor the wider viewing audience’s favourite programme. The fact that it had recently found itself attracting the greatest amount of attention it had met with in years as a consequence of at least partly disingenuous boardroom politics had hardly helped its public standing, although in turn the fact that it had made itself an easy target by allowing itself to become badly adrift of changing audience tastes and broadcast industry practices hardly helped either, but ultimately neither had a more significant impact than the one inescapable truth that even now fans seem to conspicuously want to avoid acknowledging – by 1987, the average ordinary everyday viewer simply did not care about Doctor Who. You can shout, you can plead, you can argue that they had a nerve if they were simultaneously avidly following the dull zoo vet-based tediousness of One By One, but the blunt fact of the matter was as true then as it is now. If they don’t want to watch something, they won’t, and there’s nothing that you or The Mogarians can do about it.
In 1987, however, the production team did try to do something about it. In fairness they had also tried in 1986, but the over-arching ‘story arc’ was way too ambitious a conceit for that point in time – especially as it somehow involved even more dialogue than usual – and the lower-key arrangement of the theme music just didn’t catch on, and so the following year they just went straight for an entire overhaul. New music, new opening titles, new Doctor, new writers, and they probably even had their sights set on The New Shmoo given the amount of peculiar celebrity stunt-casting that was involved. After an uneasy start, Doctor Who really did quantifiably improve and few could reasonably dispute that it put up a decent fight in the face of widespread apathy.
There is a widely-held acceptance that this reversal of fortunes – even if it didn’t quite manage to reverse out of its parking space and probably replaced that backing up beeping sound with an orchestra hit while it was at it – began with the twenty fifth anniversary run in 1988. There is in fairness a vast degree of truth to this, and in fact you can find more of my thoughts on the contrast between that extraordinary defiant artistic turnaround in the face of overwhelming indifference and the fact that Doctor Who clocked up an almost unprecedented landmark anniversary for a television series and barely anyone either noticed or cared here. What if, however, you had watched that first relaunched escapade back in 1987 and, free of any sense of ‘agreed’ opinions and critical consensus, had really really enjoyed it? What if, in short, you like Time And The Rani even if nobody else does? Well then you have no other option than to write a huge multi-part feature explaining exactly why you like it and never mind what anyone else has to say on the matter. This is a an updated version of my epic defence of Time And The Rani and It really is ‘a journey to an altogether more far flung shore’ – and in fact you can find a massively expanded version of the entire collected instalments in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here – but to start with, here’s the original introduction recalling the sheer degree of technically and chronologically precise viewing strategy that had to be fully tactically deployed before Doctor Who had even started…
Wogan, the BBC’s one-time flagship early evening chat show, was a regular fixture on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between 1982 and 1992. Doctor Who, their occasionally flagship early evening family adventure serial, was – for the most part – a regular fixture on Saturdays between 1963 and 1986. When Doctor Who finally slipped out of the Saturday evening schedules for good the following year, the two ran up against each other in what can only be described as one of television’s less distinguished ratings battles.
Having tried to quietly cancel Doctor Who back in 1985, only to find that ‘Doctor Who fans’ and ‘quietly’ are concepts that are as alien to each other as The Shrivenzale is to The Voord, the BBC had been forced against their better judgement to bow to public pressure – and it’s always worth pointing out that there actually was some sane, rational and mainstream public pressure as well as all the buffoons picketing Colin Moynighan’s house dressed as Vega Nexos or whatever it was – and bring it back. As they hadn’t particularly wanted to bring it back, and an initial attempt at recapturing its Saturday night audience had failed spectacularly and taken Roland Rat with it, there was only one realistic option left open to the BBC – to shove Doctor Who away where nobody would really notice it, and where it could just sort of fade from view like a badly-rendered mid-seventies Tardis dematerialisation. So it was that from its puzzlingly low-key yet high-profile relaunch in 1987 to its quiet gurgling down a plughole at the very end of the eighties, Doctor Who was scheduled on Monday and/or Wednesday evenings directly against Coronation Street.
Yes, that’s Coronation Street, the perpetually ratings-conquering ITV soap opera that had not long celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in a very loud fashion indeed, and was so popular that plans were already afoot to bring in a third weekly instalment. Doctor Who on the other hand had just waded through two messy series featuring its least popular lead actor by some distance, so it wasn’t so much not a fair fight as not anything even resembling a fight to begin with. Doctor Who got the polarity of its neutron flow comprehensively reversed by Brian Tilsley and company and there was nothing that anyone could do about it. The fact that even most of its supposed fans were gleefully sticking the boot in didn’t exactly help, admittedly, but all the same you can’t avoid wondering how much of the carping about ‘pantomime embarrassment’ and sneering at Sylvester McCoy fighting a cardboard monster made of a rubber wall or something actually came from people who wanted to make sure that they got to watch Coronation Street in colour.
The average household in 1987 would more than likely have had a single colour television set and a black and white portable in the ‘other room’, and a combination of majority rule, passive aggressive occupation of armchairs and argumentative tactics learned from the soaps themselves usually resulted in the more mainstream-leaning members of the family getting their way and, well, getting to watch in colour. The hapless Doctor Who fan would therefore have to fiddle about with that crackle-prone tuning dial thing on the portable until they got a halfway decent enough signal to allow them to watch the latest exploits of Mr. Ratcliffe and The Kandyman in glorious monochrome. True, it wasn’t quite as unfair as when poor old dad was forced to watch the snooker in black and white, but you can still hear the massed fumings of injustice reverberate to this day. In the hope of preventing armed revolution in the living room, an uneasy truce was usually arrived at whereby the Doctor Who fan was allowed to video the show instead to watch in colour at some later date, and that’s where their practical problems began.
With blank videotapes costing a comparatively disconcerting amount, available recording space at a premium – if you worked it out correctly you could fit seven episodes on an E180, requiring a budget-friendly two tapes per series – and little realistic hope of seeing any of the new episodes again otherwise with the BBC having released approximately two and a half Doctor Who stories on video and repeat showings an indescribably unlikely prospect, getting the whole episode and nothing more on tape was of paramount importance. What’s more, due to the associated need to flit between two rooms in order to accomplish this – nobody upon nobody had the video hooked up to their ‘other’ television – it was to prove a very tricky operation indeed. Thus it was that from about half past seven every Monday and/or Wednesday evening, a nation’s hallways were filled with Doctor Who fans nervously listening out for the closing comments and closing music of Wogan, and trying to work out the precise moment when they could press record with minimal tape-wasting collateral damage yet without missing those crucial opening seconds of the opening titles. Mind you, you do have to feel for those fans who actually liked both Doctor Who and Coronation Street… but that’s another story.
Though you wouldn’t know it from the average autopilot cut-and-paste history of the show or indeed grandstanding John Nathan Turner-bashing forum swear-off, belittled and embattled Doctor Who did actually put up a good and admirable fight against the cat-heralded behemoth on the other side. Though only those few faithful who actually bothered to stick with Doctor Who in 1987 will be able to attest to that…
Buy A Book!
You can find a massively expanded version of the complete Time And Tide Melts The Snowman with additional tales of having to watch on the black and white portable in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Ideally one of those mugs of ‘BBC Coffee’ that caused Wearisome Wogan such frustration.
It Would Make Your Tea Sweet? is a look at Doctor Who‘s 25th Anniversary and one particular scene in Remembrance Of The Daleks; you can find it here.
There’s more about a happier occasion when everyone was watching Doctor Who on the colour television in Looks Unfamiliar here. There’s also a chat with Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell about Terry Wogan’s eccentric playlist on his Radio 2 show here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.