We all remember the improbability of Doctor Who’s return in 2005 after sixteen years off screen, barring one semi-canonical TV movie in 1996. It seemed, for fans, an impossibility after years not only in the wilderness but in the perceived rear window of television history. Doctor Who was cheap, cheesy and passe in the post-modern world.
Russell T. Davies entirely reinvented the series and changed that perception from the ground up once he unveiled Christopher Eccleston as a stripped-back, modern Doctor with a jolly northern brogue, dress sense like your semi-trendy uncle, and the brooding angst beneath of a man who was transformed from the eccentric old man with flamboyant costumes into the last of the Time Lords. Taking the stylistic precepts British viewers had grown used to with a decade of American pop cultural imports, ‘RTD’ made Doctor Who relatable, likeable, down to earth and even a bit trendy in a way it probably had never quite been before.
We know this story. Some of us might even know the backstory of how the revival was produced, of how Davies and Bad Wolf productions turned BBC Wales in Cardiff into a 21st century TV producing powerhouse. It is all well documented. Less so is the premise of The Long Game: 1996-2003 – The Inside Story of How the BBC Brought Back Doctor Who, in which Paul Hayes does what the book says on the tin and sketches out a lost chapter in Doctor Who history. One of numerous reasons his book is a resounding success is for just how much he brings to light a story most of us won’t even necessarily know we wanted, yet it turns out to be a compelling, widespread tale not just about Doctor Who, but a much wider television landscape.
After reading The Long Game, you really will never quite look at Doctor Who again in the same way.
Cards on the table time. I have never seen the original run of Doctor Who.
That’s a partial fib. I have seen the very first episode. I randomly remember watching bits of Pyramids of Mars years ago on UK Gold. And I did watch the 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann some years ago, after the 2005 revival. Beyond that, my knowledge of the pre-2005 era of the franchise remains extremely limited. For several reasons, I intend to correct this over the next couple of years. This is simply to state, however, that my love of the Doctor and their adventures comes thanks to the show RTD relaunched and, therefore, my approach to The Long Game comes from more of a modern perspective as opposed to that of a legacy fan.
Hayes himself is clearly more of a seasoned veteran of the franchise and this becomes very clear at as he begins a story he modestly suggests has always been there and he simply compiled the necessary pieces. This, to me, perhaps undermines just what he manages to bring together for such an informative and simultaneously entertaining read. Beginning with the 1996 TV movie, co-produced with the BBC and Universal in the United States, Hayes begins the story of Who fandom balanced on a pin of hopefulness and despair. The movie wasn’t enormously well-received and it becomes clear relatively quickly that it’s a one and done for Universal, who are unlikely to continue their option on film rights sold their way after Who’s cancellation in 1989.
The Long Game manages from this vantage point to sketch in the movements of Doctor Who’s slow return to small screen success from a variety of areas that overlap and come together, be it aborted attempts to consider another McGann adventure from American producers and theoretical feature film scripts, to radio plays of varying scope and quality in the shadow of the emergence of Big Finish audio who remain today the gold standard of Who audio fiction. Hayes even manages to frame these developments, theories and false dawns through the prism of the nascent internet, charting the emergence of sites such as Outpost Gallifrey and how they contributed to Who remaining current in popular culture, never entirely disappearing as the world seemingly moved on around it.
For me, Hayes strikes gold in how he uses the development, and often the complete ignoring, of Doctor Who as a means of exploring the evolving role of the BBC in public service broadcasting and the changing winds of drama production. Having been a teenager in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the point I was discovering a lot of television and becoming interested in the wider forces behind how it was made, these chapters were a fascinating joy. Hayes successfully prospects for information through interviews with key personnel not just behind producing Who—such as Julie Gardner—but also important BBC higher ups of the time, such as Mal Young and Lorraine Heggessey, who help The Long Game reveal itself as a potted history of not just Who but BBC Drama as a whole during this era.
There is a follow up tome screaming to be written on this rich topic.
Utilising not just primary but also secondary sources, Hayes skilfully manages to move through a seven year period with remarkable detail, compiling facts and theories like a dogged detective to piece together an era less marked by the scourge of Doctor Who being considered a relic never to be revived, and rather a public-loved jewel whose return to grandeur was less a probability and instead an inevitability. It was the long game indeed and this book will add to the historical texts of how one of the world’s most beloved science-fiction series grew in scope, stature and reverence.
Not just a key text for Doctor Who fans, The Long Game is essential for anyone interested in how making television works, and the enduring primacy of the stories and characters we love the most, even when their futures seem bleaker than a cloister bell ringing TARDIS on Trenzalore. But that’s another story…
Paul Hayes was kind enough to answer a few questions about the making of the book…
A. J. BLACK: Tell us about how the book came to be. You talk in the introduction about piecing together the sources for this unexplored era of Doctor Who history but when, and how, did it all come together for The Long Game?
PAUL HAYES: It sort of happened in stages, really. Back in 2015 I decided, purely for my own amusement, to put together a timeline of that period, 1996 to 2003 – putting together all of the pieces in order. I think it was very much inspired by the wonderful ‘Production Diary’ section in The First Doctor Handbook by David J. Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker, which I have really loved ever since I first read it. I very much enjoy the sense of narrative and something slowly but unstoppably building that you get from that timeline, and I wanted to put together something like it.
As I mention in the introduction to the book, by then there’d been a lot of sources which talked about bits and pieces of this story, various documentaries and interviews and articles and podcasts and so forth, but nothing which I felt really brought it all together in one place. Things like Cavan Scott’s The Way Back series of articles for Doctor Who magazine in 2013, and the DVD extras like Doctor Forever: The Unquiet Dead and Carry on Screaming from the same year. All of which were excellent and important sources, but which I felt could contribute to a bigger picture.
So I put this timeline together and put it up online in August 2015, putting the link on various forums as I was rather pleased with it. In an updated and adjusted form, the timeline survives as an appendix in the book, which is nice! The oldest part of it! Lots of people were very nice about it and said how much they liked it and what a useful resource they found it, and that made me think, “Hmmmmmmmmm, could there be a book in this…?” Which again, I just started writing purely for my own amusement, because I wanted to read it and it didn’t seem to exist!
I ended up writing a short, 55,000-word draft in 2015-16, which I quite liked but I hit a brick wall with because I could only get one person to talk to me back then. Thank you, Colin Brake! It wasn’t that a lot of people said no – I just didn’t even get replies from most of them, when trying to write to the various companies for which they worked and so forth. So my draft back then was pretty much entirely drawn from secondary sources.
I did think about maybe trying to self-publish it on Lulu or something for anyone who was interested, and I also put together a sort of half-arsed submission to one of the small press Doctor Who publishers, who quite rightly pointed out that I really needed to have talked to some of the people involved myself if it was going to go anywhere. So I just sat on it, as I always thought, “I could go back to it and make a proper job of this, one day…”
Then in 2020 I finally did that, making a new effort to get in touch with people. I was greatly helped in this by the journalist Graham Kibble-White, who I’d got in touch with back when I was first writing it to ask for his help with trying to establish the date of a particular event. He’d really liked the idea and been very kind about it, and said if I ever wanted his help with trying to contact some potential interviewees he may be able to provide some introductions, which he very kindly then did. So in 2020 I researched and wrote the new version, and this year was lucky enough to find a publisher for it in the wonderful Ten Acre, run by Stuart Manning. Graham is a friend of Stuart’s and had mentioned the book to him, and Stuart said he was interested in it. So when it was eventually ready I sent it to him, and he said yes pretty much straight away, which was extremely flattering!
AJB: I throughout kept wondering about your own affiliation with Doctor Who fandom – were you around on the Usenet groups & early days of Outpost Gallifrey? What was your fandom like in the time period you’re writing about?
PH: I was online, but only really towards the end of the period covered by the book. We didn’t get online at home until towards the end of 2000, and I’m not sure how long after that it was when I was taking part in the Doctor Who forum at Outpost Gallifrey. Shaun Lyon, who ran the site, says in the book he opened the forums there in 2001, but I don’t think I was posting there until 2002. Usenet was pretty much a spent force after that forum launched, but I was on there a little bit from 2003, mostly prompted by the excitement of the show’s return and wanting to talk about Doctor Who in as many places as possible!
I was able to perform one service to online archaeology which later proved extremely useful in the writing of the book, when I saved the original “Doctor Who is coming back!” thread from Outpost Gallifrey from September 2003 – I think I saved it just before Shaun closed and wiped the forums in 2009, although that thread was back on the old ezBoard forum, which was before the one Shaun eventually shut down. It stayed online for several years as a readable archive, and I used to like going back and looking at that thread occasionally, so I made sure I saved it. I don’t know whether anyone else did, but I’ve certainly never seen it quoted anywhere other than when I’ve put bits of it online for various things from time to time. So that was very useful to have for the final chapter of the book!
I made lots of notes and things back in the early days of the new series recommission and production, too, and kept other bits and pieces I saw… I don’t know whether I ever thought I was going to write a book about it, but I certainly liked archiving bits which have subsequently turned out to be very handy to have!
That 1996 to 2003 period covers a lot of change in my life, as I went from being a 12-year-old boy in my first year at secondary school at the time when the TV Movie was shown, to being a 19-year-old student just starting my second year of university when the announcement of the recommission came. I was always desperately hoping the show would come back, and soaking up any little scrap of information or rumour that might come out of the news pages of Doctor Who Magazine or later on the Outpost Gallifrey news page. So a lot of the stories from those seven years were deeply imprinted on me in a way that perhaps they wouldn’t be for other eras of the show, which is why in some ways it felt like such a natural book to write.
My fandom was mostly quite solitary, although from 1998 I was a member of the Brighton Area Doctor Who Appreciation Society, BADWAS, and would go to their monthly meetings. That was a lot of fun and I made some good friends there, although most of them were a lot older than me and quite cynical about whether the show would ever return!
AJB: There is a lot in the book about rights issues between Universal and the BBC, and how administration holds up the show returning. But would the suggested movie at the time ever have happened? And what do you imagine such a project around the turn of millennium would have looked like?
PH: More perceived rights issues than actual ones, of course, and obviously there’s a certain amount of disagreement in the book between those who worked for BBC Television and those who worked for BBC Worldwide about how much Worldwide held up the process!
There are disagreements too about how likely the film ever was to happen. David Thompson, who was running BBC Films at the time, is of the view that there was never really a particularly good idea for it, or at least one that would have been good enough to justify making it a big, high-profile thing. Whereas Mike Phillips, who was really pushing the film from the BBC Worldwide side of things, was really excited by the pitch – or the opening sequence, at least, I don’t think it ever amounted to more than that – which the screenwriter Ed Solomon came up with for them. He insists the reason it didn’t happen was because Universal and the BBC couldn’t come to an agreement over the merchandising and so forth, at least not before BBC TV finally decided to get the film version knocked on the head and go their own way.
As to what it might have looked like… I’m not sure. I suspect it might have been a lot more like Doctor Who than many people feared, but probably also not a million miles away from the TV Movie, just on a far grander scale. Whether it would have relaunched Doctor Who as successfully as the TV version did, I have my doubts.
AJB: How accessible were your interviewees? You’re quite open in the book about certain people—such as RTD—who politely said no, but how did you work to gather your impressive primary sources with decades distance in some ways? And what were your experiences in interviewing these people?
PH: I was extremely lucky in getting to speak to as many people as I did for the book. I was hugely surprised that almost everybody I asked said yes. Because I’m a complete nobody when it comes to Doctor Who – I’ve written a handful of pieces for Doctor Who Magazine, but that’s about it. None of them knew me from Adam! I could have just been a mad fan with a crayon! But so many of them seemed to trust, and I’m incredibly grateful to them all.
As I mentioned above, Graham Kibble-White provided introductions to a few of the interviewees for me, which was very kind of him. The rest I just approached in any way I could – some via social media, some via the companies for which they worked, one even via working out she was probably friends with a certain person who ran a certain production company given they’d worked together in various places, and writing to that friend’s company to ask if they would please pass on the request! One or two of them I had to politely chase a little bit after not initially getting a reply, but as I say, almost everybody turned out to be happy to talk to me, which was exceptionally kind of them.
They were also very open and honest and very happy to answer any questions I had. Mal Young had been a little bit reticent to talk, purely because he prefers to let the show stand on its own merits and speak for itself, but he eventually agreed – and as it turned out, we had the longest chat of any of the interviews I did; we were chatting on Zoom for about two hours! I was a bit nervous about delving deep into BBC drama department history with people who were actually there when I of course wasn’t. But they did on the whole seem to be pleased and impressed that I had done the research, and at least vaguely knew my stuff!
There were one or two where it was a bit like having to turn an oil tanker – they were telling me what they thought I wanted to know about Doctor Who, perhaps because it was what they’d always been asked about before, rather than answering the questions I had actually asked. But if you’re patient in interviews like that you can usually eventually direct the discussion into the area you really want to explore!
I think I was lucky with the timing of speaking to Julie Gardner and Jane Tranter. I talked to them in the summer of 2020, whereas if I were working on the book now that they’re actively involved in Doctor Who again, I’m not sure perhaps whether they’d feel they’d be able to speak to me. I did say to Julie Gardner at the start of our interview that the period I was researching only went up to the recommission, so I assured her I wasn’t going to ask her about exploding sofas or Christopher Eccleston or anything like that, and she laughed and said she was happy to talk about all of it. Maybe I ought to have taken her up on that!
AJB: It was fascinating just how much the story here turns out to be a potted history of the BBC’s entertainment & drama output at the time – there feels like a whole other book in that you could write! Was this always intentionally your plan for the book or did this deeper exploration of the wider transformation of BBC drama over this time naturally evolve as you wrote?
PH: It was very much something that I wanted to do with the book. I really wanted it to help provide the background and context to readers of what was going on in the BBC, and particularly in the drama department and at BBC One, at the time. I think it really helps to give an understanding of how or why certain things either happened or didn’t happen, because no series develops purely in isolation at the BBC, or indeed anywhere.
I wanted to help try and explain to people how production methods had changed, how the whole landscape of BBC television drama was different to when the show had gone off-the-air in 1989. Obviously the story I tell in The Long Game picks up in 1996, but the changes are really kicking into gear then – within a few short years, by that point the old multi-camera studio production methods had pretty much disappeared, almost everything was going onto single-camera film, independent production had started to come in, etc.
I think there is a danger sometimes with Doctor Who that people do look at it purely through the Doctor Who microscope, without appreciating the broader landscape. See, for example, the slightly panicked or confused reaction in some quarters when it was recently announced that Doctor Who was now going to be produced independently for the BBC by Bad Wolf – I genuinely think a lot of people didn’t realise that most of the drama they see on the BBC now is made by independent production companies, and not by the BBC itself.
So a lot of the Doctor Who sources don’t really deal with this, or they do it in broad strokes or as a side issue. And of course the sources which cover the BBC during this period aren’t at all interested in the impact it had on the eventual return of Doctor Who – things like Georgina Born’s book Uncertain Vision, which is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the BBC at the turn of this century and I highly recommend to anyone who wants to know more about it, or John Birt or Greg Dyke or Will Wyatt’s autobiographies. All of which were extremely useful, as well as ploughing my way through archives of the likes of Broadcast magazine or the old Media Guardian supplement, where all this sort of news and analysis used to come out!
AJB: Some of the alternative false starts for Who returning are fascinating—and more than a little bit strange at points! Would any of them, the Freedman or even Gatiss team takes, actually have worked? Or would their traditionalism at the time consigned Who to even greater obscurity?
PH: Well, that’s the tantalising thing about things like that, isn’t it? It’s impossible to know! ‘The road not taken’ is always interesting to consider.
Perhaps some of the ideas might have seemed either too ‘safe’ or too ‘fannish’. But on the other hand, if you’d said to someone in the late 1990s that one day Doctor Who would come back, it would be a direct continuation of what came before, a prime time BBC One series, Sarah Jane Smith would feature as a recurring character, and things like the Macra would appear…! I think you’d have been laughed at. That was the great thing about what Davies did – he made a fresh and appealing show, but one which also had those little extra touches to excite everyone who’d loved the show all their lives.
It is a tricky balancing act to do, of course. And relies on good writing at the heart of it – that’s the difficult part. I don’t want to fall into a ‘build it and they will come’ sort of cliché, but I think at the centre of it all if the scripts are good and engaging and entertaining, then whatever you want to either dress the show up with or strip it back to, people will want to watch it and will enjoy it.
Clayton Hickman admits in the book that Davies was perhaps braver than them in seeing Doctor Who as a mainstream, Saturday night show, and Freedman was very clear at the time that he believed that it could only be revived as a cult programme. But it was possibly Davies’s reputation and ability that convinced the BBC they could make it that big, brave, prime time effort, in a way they might perhaps not have had the conviction for with others.
AJB: What’s next for you? Do you have any follow up works in the Doctor Who historical lexicon to come? Or do you have plans to branch out into other areas?
PH: I can’t imagine ever writing another non-fiction book, either Doctor Who or otherwise. But you never know! If I am struck by a good idea for one I might give it a go. Certainly in Doctor Who terms, I think pretty much anything else I might want to write about has already been very well researched and written about by other people. Whereas with The Long Game I knew I had something new and a bit different which hadn’t formed the basis of a book before. If I ever think of something else like that, I might have another try!
But hopefully I will still be lucky enough to write the odd piece for Doctor Who Magazine every now and again, if I can keep thinking of interesting ideas for pieces for them! And back in the 50th anniversary year in 2013 I was lucky enough to get to make some Doctor Who items in my day job as a BBC radio producer, with which I was very pleased, so perhaps I’ll have another chance to do a bit of that in 2023.
The thing is, ever since I was tiny, all I have ever wanted to be is a novelist. But I’ve yet to write a novel which is publishable; or indeed, even readable! I’d love to get some fiction professionally published, somewhere, but I think I am much better at writing non-fiction. With an article, or something like The Long Game, I can see the route through it very clearly – I know how to tell the story, to get from A to B to C in what’s hopefully an engaging way. But with fiction I don’t have that clarity; it all tends to be a bit foggier.
Someone very kindly told me they enjoyed The Long Game and that it “reads like a thriller”. I only wish I could write a thriller! I suppose it’s easier when you’re researching a real story, rather than creating your own, although of course there is the argument that all non-fiction narratives are artificially constructed to some extent.
But anyway, I feel incredibly proud and privileged to have had a book published at all, and for it to have done so well and been so well-received. And I am hugely grateful to Ten Acre for making it happen, and thankful to everyone who has bought it.
Huge thanks to Paul for his time.
The Long Game is now available from Ten Acre and all good booksellers.
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