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Reviewed: The Long Game (1996-2003) — The Inside Story of How the BBC Brought Back Doctor Who

Paul Hayes’ new book, The Long Game, is an impressively researched and very enjoyable account of the attempts to bring Doctor Who back after the TARDIS spun off into franchising limbo at the end of the 1996 TV Movie.

The Long Game is based on interviews with some 30 of the key people involved in trying to resurrect Doctor Who in the years between 1996 -when the TV Movie was screened – and 2003, when the announcement was finally made that Doctor Who was returning and that Russell T Davies was to be the showrunner. Hayes interviews such people as Julie Gardner, Jane Tranter, Lorraine Heggessey, Alan Yentob, and Mal Young; he unearths a wealth of new material, and, in short, unfurls the Black Scrolls of Rassilon to reveal the truth of what really went on at the BBC in the Wilderness years.

Although The Long Game focuses on Doctor Who, the book is a treasure trove of information about how a broadcasting organisation of byzantine complexity works. The tales of lack of communication and simple mess ups will be familiar to anyone who has worked in a large organisation – like a school, a company, or the NHS – and who will recognise that some things happen simply because people don’t talk to each other or become so busy with other things that important projects (like bringing back Doctor Who) just slip through the gaps. It’s the most interesting book I’ve read about a television company since The Fifty Year Mission: the Next 25 Years by Altman and Gross – which details the jaw-dropping horrors of behind-the-scenes work on the Star Trek franchise – and the book provoked the same response: shaking my head slowly from side to side in wonder and disbelief.

Who fans from 1996-2005, write Hayes, tended to scour the press for names of who was up or down at the BBC and labelled them as friendly or antagonistic to the show: the We and the Not We, if you will. Yentob was one of the good guys; fans weren’t sure about some of the others. Yet Hayes demonstrates that there aren’t really any heroes or villains here (with perhaps one exception… grr), but just people trying to do their jobs.

(The exception? Yes, it was dear old Michael Grade, who arrived back in the BBC as Chairman in 2004. The new Director General, Mark Thompson, presumably mindful of Grade’s antipathy towards Doctor Who, asked Lorraine Heggessey if plans for the show’s return could be halted. Heggessey rightly said, “Well, it was too late for that!”: with plans very publicly announced and pre-production underway, a u-turn and cancellation would have a public relations disaster and a huge waste of money.)

The Long Game is basically divided into three parts. The first part focuses on the attempts of BBC Worldwide/BBC Films to develop a film, or series of films, of Doctor Who. There were some interesting ideas and plot outlines and casting ideas, and an endless coupling and uncoupling of various American studios with BBC Worldwide in an attempt to get the film off the ground.

The second part focuses on those who kept the flame alight while the BBC went round in circles. There is an extensive look at the fortunes of Doctor Who Magazine, which continued to sell well even when there was no show to generate new material; at the BBC Books range, which took over from Virgin when the BBC wanted to move Who books back in-house after the TV Movie; at Big Finish; at the emerging presence of Doctor Who on the internet with sites like Outpost Gallifrey; at the BBC’s own internet sites and the production of Death Comes to Time and Scream of the Shalka, which, as Hayes explains, played their own parts in facilitating Doctor Who’s return.

The third part of the book focuses on the attempts to return Doctor Who to television. Much of this comes as a revelation, thanks to Hayes’ careful research and the frankness of his interviewees. In contrast to the received fan wisdom of the time – that the BBC hated Doctor Who and was glad to be shot of i t– Hayes describes a BBC which was full of fans of the show, many of whom had gone into television because of their love of it. These fan professionals were enthusiastic about bringing the programme back but were hampered in various ways, until they (or people sympathetic to the programme) gained positions of sufficient power in the BBC to get things moving.

Hayes goes into greater detail about the conflict between the two simultaneous and parallel attempts to bring Doctor Who back: as a movie or as a TV show. Fans have known that Lorraine Heggessey eventually lost patience with BBC Films’ attempts to make a movie, cried, “Enough!”, and went ahead with recommissioning a television show anyway. Hayes goes into much greater detail, exploring how Worldwide would veto any proposed television revival by stating that it had the rights and it was going to make a film, so a TV version was a no go.

Fans also know that there was confusion at the BBC about the rights to the programme: did Universal still have residual rights after the TV Movie, were the rights with BBC Worldwide, in short – could the BBC actually make Doctor Who at all? When fans asked about the show’s return after the TV Movie, the standard BBC response was that there were all sorts of legal problems with the rights, which prevented production going ahead. This wasn’t just flannel to turn aside enquiries; Hayes shows that it was actually true, and that one reason the show failed to come back for so long was that the BBC genuinely didn’t know whether it was allowed to make it or not. The talk about Russell T Davies in 1999 – that he would be writing the show and that it would be called Doctor Who 2000 – wasn’t just talk, it was genuine (although it was never going to be called Doctor Who 2000). Heggessey, and her predecessor as Controller of BBC1, Peter Salmon, had wanted to bring Doctor Who back in 2000 with Davies as head writer but were stymied by rights issues and BBC Worldwide. There wasn’t a hostile conspiracy at the BBC to prevent the return of Doctor Who: there were just busy people with many other responsibilities on their plates, and there was a failure or communication between one part of the organisation (BBC Films), another part of the organisation (BBC Worldwide), and a third part, BBC Television. Mess up, rather than conspiracy.

Hayes also looks at some of the independent bids to return Doctor Who to the screen, focusing on a bid from Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts, and Clayton Hickman, which was new to me. He brings The Long Game up to date by noting that Russell T Davies is to return as showrunner, with the programme transferring to Bad Wolf Productions. Bad Wolf is headed by Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner, who are frank and forthcoming in their extensive interviews for the book and whose love of the show breaths through every quotation. If we want to guess what the future of Doctor Who is to be under Bad Wolf – in effect, under its original 2005 production team – we should look no further than Paul Hayes’s excellent book, The Long Game. All three knew how radically the show needed to change to meet the needs of television in 2005; all three, I suspect, know how much the show needs to change again in 2021 if it is to become an international franchise. Big changes were afoot in 2003; big changes are, I think, afoot again.

The Long Game is a detailed and entertaining analysis of a cultural phenomenon. Buy it. Read it. Enjoy it.

The Long Game (1996-2003) — The Inside Story of How the BBC Brought Back Doctor Who is available now from Ten Acre Films.

Frank Danes

Reviewed: The Long Game (1996-2003) — The Inside Story of How the BBC Brought Back Doctor Who

by Frank Danes time to read: 5 min
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