It seems hard to believe now that Doctor Who’s phenomenal revival was all thanks to a simple Flash animation.
Picture the scene: it’s 2003, and Russell T Davies’ constant lobbying for a TV resurrection is beginning to bear fruit. He’s had to compete with Matthew Graham, Dan Freedman, and Mark Gatiss, and he’s beaten them off. The BBC have finally caved in, and hell, it seems, is about to freeze over. There’s just one problem – Doctor Who’s already back. Sort of.
Because in the absence of anything on the box, Muirinn Lane Kelly has produced an animated story: Scream of the Shalka, starring Richard E Grant as a rather grizzly Ninth Doctor, facing off against a bunch of noisy insects in a Lancashire village. Told in six parts, it’s only been on the internet until now – so how will it fit into the BBC’s plans to resurrect the show?
Davies describes it as ‘one of those crossroads moments’. “I had to make the hardest of decisions,” he says. “Because part of me – a big part – wanted to tear down everything that had the BBC had spent years protecting – religiously, almost – and start again. It was going to be my Batman: Year One. I’d have had homages to the past, of course, and recurring monsters, but I thought a rebranded, more accessible Doctor would have worked better with people who were seeing it for the first time.”
Rebranded? “It’s not as extreme as it sounds,” Davies insists. “There was plenty of scope for a show that was Doctor Who, but not as you know it. But then…”
There’s no need to finish his sentence, which as everyone knows (or really ought to, seeing as it’s a convention staple) concludes with the words ‘I saw Shalka’. The moment he did, Davies knew what he wanted. And thus, Paul Cornell’s TV adaptation of Scream of the Shalka was born.
“They’d put so much effort into it – the quality of the animation, the writing, the characterisation of the Doctor – that I really felt that to trample over all that would be criminally unfair. And they’d got Withnail as the Doctor. Withnail!”
Withnail, indeed, would go on to play the Doctor for three more years after his initial outing – which, of course, wasn’t his first time in the TARDIS. Years before, Grant had briefly portrayed the character in a Comic Relief sketch written by future showrunner Steven Moffat.
“Richard and I sat down at an early stage and talked about his turn on Curse of Fatal Death,” says Davies. “It’s a thirty-second appearance but he was wondering exactly how much it should inform the Doctor he was playing now. When I sketched out where we wanted to take him I told him that the Fatal Death Doctor was the one he should get out when he wanted to be charming, but that the wine-loving cynic from Shalka was basically going to be the default. I’d had an inner concern that he wouldn’t be on board with this, but as it turned out he loved the idea of a darker, slightly ambiguous Doctor – and so we went with that.”
When it came to adapting Shalka for the screen, Cornell found it rather less straightforward than he thought it would be. “I had to condense 70-odd minutes of narrative into just under 50,” he says. “That’s not so bad if you cut out the cliffhangers, which were no longer needed – but we did lose some of the characterisation in the process. Certain bits – exchanges between Alison and Joe, for example – I was able to slot into some of the later episodes as flashbacks, but the end result was slightly less even than I’d have liked. But that’s the price you pay when you switch mediums – you have to compromise.”
Compromise, indeed, was the name of the game, particularly when it came to casting. “I really, really wish we’d been able to use Sophie Okonedo for Ali,” says Davies, “because she did such a smashing job on the web series. But she was just a little bit older than how I’d imagined the character being. Judy Garland just about got away with it in The Wizard of Oz, but audiences have grown a little less forgiving since then.”
We could nitpick whether or not he’s onto something about this. But in the event, the role of Ali – poor, tragic Ali – went to Naomie Harris, who would play the character over two series before her tear-jerking farewell at the end of Heaven’s Light. (So traumatic was her departure from the show that fans took to bulk-buying plush toy rabbits streaked with fake blood, in homage to that final scene.) It wasn’t the end of Okonedo’s association with Doctor Who – she managed to snag a recurring role as Ali’s half-sister Claire, even getting a brief trip in the TARDIS in the critically acclaimed Rise of the Myrka.
“Ali was great,” Cornell reminisces. “She was empowered, feisty and independent – curious and sometimes headstrong, but also grounded, very taken with the Doctor but also very frustrated with him. She takes most of her cues from Ace, who in many ways was the prototype for all the female companions we’ve had since.”
In fact, it was this sense of looking back that informed much of the direction that the creative team chose to adopt. Creations like the Borad and Sil made repeat appearances. And unanswered questions that had surfaced during Sylvester McCoy’s time on the show – what became known as ‘the Cartmel Masterplan’ – were finally resolved. The net result was a series that, while not the earth-shattering ratings winner that Davies had hoped for, did sufficiently well for the BBC to grant a second. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I think we may not have been quite as accessible for newer viewers as we’d thought,” Davies admits. “But it turned out that there were plenty of older ones left, and they became the core audience. And the younger, less familiar share of the audience grew organically, and very steadily. It became like hearsay – there were people asking each other ‘What’s this great show everyone’s watching?’. But it took a while.”
There are so many wonderful stories in that first series – Scott & Wright’s Feast of the Stone, Shearman’s The Dalek Conundrum, and the Moffat-penned Things That Go Bump all spring to mind – but one of the highlights was Blood of the Robots, from veteran Who writer Simon Clark. “I had a lot of fun with that,” Clark says. “Some of the ideas for the robots had to be scaled down due to budget constraints, but it was incredibly rewarding seeing your work up on that screen. Plus kids loved it, even though half the cute robots wind up as scrap!”
And what of the Master – the Doctor’s nemesis, now shoehorned into the TARDIS as a (largely) benevolent android? When asked about him, Davies gives a rueful smile. “I think that’s the part of the show that didn’t really work to the extent that it should have,” he admits. “It’s no reflection on Derek Jacobi, who did a phenomenal job. But the problem is that once you put the Master into that sort of situation, there really isn’t much you can do with him. To all intents and purposes, he was Kamelion Mark II – a narrative dead end.”
Jacobi’s Master was famously written out at the end of Grant’s first series, in the fiery inferno that was Liquid Gold, and it would be a few years before he returned – looking rather different.
“I’ve never had so much hate mail as I got the week Jane Horrocks first turned up,” Davies says. “Twitter practically imploded. There were calls for the writer’s head on a platter, which is dreadful for poor Mark, who turned in such a cracking script.”
There were three people on Davies’ casting shortlist for the new Master, but Horrocks was top of the bill. “She fired off so wonderfully against Anna [Maxwell Martin],” former producer Julie Gardner remembers. “I was there at that first read-through and the chemistry between them was absolutely electric.”
“It’s standard practice now, but you wouldn’t believe the controversy it caused at the time!” Davies remembers. “The Mail ran a headline that read ‘DOCTOR WHO IS DEAD’, or similar. Thing is, we’d already regenerated the Doctor into a woman – but this had the people upstairs wriggling in their seats. They were telling us we were going to kill the show.”
Not that certain executives would have seen this as a bad thing. “It’s no secret that the Series 3 ratings were pretty dismal,” Gardner acquiesces. “There was a sense that the show might not last much longer. It was 1986 all over again. They agreed to give Russell one more season as long as he changed Doctor. Which just meant that we felt bad for Richard, who’d been so great.”
Davies concurs. “I think, in the end, that people just got tired of a bitter, cynical Doctor with a drinking problem,” he says. “There was a certain novelty value to it at first – it brought back some of the mystery to him that Bill Hartnell pioneered and Sylvester continued. I think people gave us a bit more slack than perhaps we deserved during those first two series, purely because it was Doctor Who and it was back – but by the end of Richard’s run they were switching off in droves, which is no reflection on him, more on the direction we’d taken with the scripts. The annoying thing, of course, is that Paramount went down the same route with Iron Man some years later – and everyone loved them for it!”
But in the end, Martin’s casting – though controversial with purists – was to be the salvation of the show, earning her a BAFTA in 2009. Audiences loved her, and so did the critics. “Anna Maxwell Martin practically sizzles with other worldly wonder,” Dan Martin wrote in The Guardian. “You instinctively want to take her hand and follow her into the flames of death, on any planet. It’s hard to imagine anyone else as Doctor Who.”
And what of Martin herself, and her reputation as ‘the second Tom Baker’?
“She did have a reputation for being difficult on set,” Russell Tovey – who played the Tenth Doctor’s first companion, Pete Winstead – admits. “But most of it was press sensationalism. She believed very strongly in the character and what it stood for, and sometimes that passion became a little inflamed when we were up against a deadline. But I never saw her act unprofessionally through all the time we spent together. It was probably the happiest year of my working life.”
It’s impossible to think that the revived Doctor Who – now in its 53rd year and showing no signs of slowing down – could have been produced any other way. Looking back, does the creative team have any regrets?
“I do wish we’d cracked the U.S.,” Gardner says. “I sometimes wonder how things might have been different if we’d gone for a slightly fresher approach that didn’t rely so much on existing continuity. But then that’s Doctor Who – it’s built on continuity.”
Davies agrees, at least up to a point. “I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that Doctor Who hasn’t worked in America because it’s still relying too much on its past,” he argues. “I think they’ve just got enough TV to be going along with. I’ve toyed with spin-offs, in case one of them piques an American network’s interest. At one point we were thinking about going back to Sarah Jane, but I wanted to road test her in Who first, and we never got our calendars in sync – although I do sometimes wonder if she wasn’t sure about the direction we’d taken. And then, of course, it was too late.”
However much we speculate on what could have been, there’s no doubt that despite the current furore over Mackenzie Crook’s contract, the revived Who has been a golden age, with the show enjoying a popularity in the UK that it hasn’t managed since the Hinchcliffe years. In amidst the highs and lows (“I think we can all agree,” says Davies, “that Triumph of the Daleks was a mistake”) it’s still rip-roaring entertainment, as well as providing a showcase for a wealth of talented actors. People like David Tennant, who made his on-screen Who debut in Shalka playing a caretaker, and who – at five appearances as we go to press – is one of the most prolific recurring guest performers.
“David’s great,” Russell says. “He’ll do whatever you ask him and he always inhabits the characters completely. He wears them like a skin. When we cast him as Abshento in Siege of the Ice Warriors, he was outstanding. Look at that scene where he interrogates Richard and Richard turns the conversation on its head. That’s some of the best acting from the pair of them that I’ve ever seen, and that’s due in no small part to David.”
Is there any danger that viewers will become confused at the same actor in multiple roles? Davies scoffs at the notion. “I’m so tired of certain parties expecting the BBC to dumb down,” he says. “It didn’t bother people in the ’80s and it shouldn’t bother them now. Viewers are smart enough to know the difference. No one ever complained about Michael Sheard.”
And what about the possibility of David one day inheriting the mantle from Mackenzie, just as Colin Baker did from Peter Davison? On this front Davies is apparently hedging his bets. “He’d love to, I’m sure,” he says. “He’s been a fan for decades. But he’s one of the busiest actors in the business. After the third series of Blackpool, things just took off for him, particularly in theatre. His Benedick [opposite Miranda Hart, playing Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, summer 2011] was so well-received, I think that’s where his heart lies, at least for the time being.”
He offers another grin. “Still, you never know, right?”
An Entirely Fictitious Account of The Richard E Grant Years
It seems hard to believe now that Doctor Who’s phenomenal revival was all thanks to a simple Flash animation.