I, like most of Doctor Who fandom, consider the Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes era (Seasons 12 to 14) to be the golden era of the show. There were a remarkable number of excellent stories packed into those three seasons.
There’s The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars, Brain of Morbius, Seeds of Doom, Robots of Death, and Talons of Weng-Chiang, to name but a few. Exciting, dark, gripping tales with rich characters, evil gods, psychotic villains, luxurious settings, and grisly ends. At the center of the each, the Doctor (Tom Baker), Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen), and Leela (Louise Jameson). Audiences couldn’t get enough.
The show had never been as popular, ratings were sky high, all was right with the world. Almost.
The fly in the ointment was professional busybody Mary Whitehouse. Her mission to “clean up TV for children” had fired some warning shots over Doctor Who‘s bow, regarding some scenes she considered too scary for kids. The thing is, every time she’d register a complaint, the rumour was that the publicity would garner more viewers. At the same time, it really didn’t seem like anyone else was very bothered by being scared. Certainly not the kids, who usually enjoyed being frightened out of their wits as they watched with their parents.
Bottom line, this didn’t really seem to be much of a problem.
After Talons and the end of Season 14, it had been my understanding all this time that Philip Hinchcliffe had decided it was time to move on to other things and so Graham Williams was brought in to replace him. When doing so, he had a mandate to lighten things up, maybe add more comedy. Since they were changing things up, maybe try and appease Mary Whitehouse. But evidently, it didn’t happen quite that way.
It wasn’t entirely Hinchcliffe’s decision to move on.
While watching an interview with Hinchcliffe on the Season 14 Blu-ray collection, I was stunned to learn the truth. Maybe the Brits out there knew this, but I did not.
As far as he was concerned, Philip Hinchcliffe thought he was staying on for Season 15. He’d even started planning his fourth season with Robert Holmes, talking over possible storylines, apparently with the Doctor “being like a colonial explorer, with a pith helmet out in the jungles”, akin to Indiana Jones (albeit earlier than that film series). And why not? Doctor Who was at its creative peak, with excellent ratings. Let’s keep it going!
Then it seems, one day, Graham Williams appeared in Hinchcliffe’s office, informing him that he, Williams, was the new producer of Doctor Who. Philip was to be moved over to a new show called Target.
I don’t know who exactly, in the Beeb made the decision, but evidently, someone must have either been feeling the heat from Whitehouse, or maybe someone like head honcho Bill Slater just didn’t want to deal with all the hassle – and those previous seasons had been expensive, so it’s not a shock that budgets were tightened and Hinchcliffe and Holmes were victims of this. I don’t know, but somehow, some way, someone decided a change was needed.
Doctor Who was a big show, but at the same time, it was only part of a big Saturday night line up. Perhaps the powers that be figured that as long as Baker was in there, Doctor Who was Doctor Who, and that switching producers wouldn’t hurt things. At the same time, lighten things up and get Whitehouse off their backs.
Well, I’m sure Whitehouse was happy, as Doctor Who veered slowly from gothic horror to slapstick.
Season 15 wasn’t horrible, as we still had Robert Holmes in the mix for part of the season, but the production definitely took a step down on the whole.
Boy, ignorance really is bliss, because now I wonder what might have been, if the Beeb hadn’t caved in. If Hinchcliffe and Holmes had been able to give us a fourth season. Would they have ended as strongly as they did with Talons? What villains might we have seen, what classic literature might they have taken and twisted into new horror? Remember, after Season 12, with Barry Letts overseeing the transition and suggesting the return of old villains, once they dug in, Hinchcliffe and Holmes gave us all new villains and monsters with every story. They weren’t keen on bringing back the old rogues’ gallery. Odds are, we would have got six further stories, with all new villains, psychos, gods, and monsters.
In fact, if the decision to stay or leave were left entirely up to Hinchcliffe, we have no idea how long he might have stayed. Four years? Five? More?
And had he stayed for a few more years, who knows how that might affect the evolution of the show going forward? Timing is everything, after all. Perhaps Williams doesn’t come in until Season 18 and John Nathan-Turner is put on something else? Or maybe Hinchcliffe stays through Season 16 and JN-T comes in a year earlier with 17. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Hinchcliffe and Holmes stay the full seven years with Tom. And… if things are still golden — does Tom stay even longer?
I guess we’ll never know.