This week marked the 30th anniversary of Sylvester McCoy’s first appearance as Doctor Who. It was a difficult time for the show. Three years earlier the BBC bowed to public pressure and turned cancellation plans into an eighteen-month suspension. They halved the number of episodes and after a dismal Season 23, sacked the sixth Doctor Colin Baker despite his strong performance. His successor, McCoy, was given the graveyard slot opposite the popular Coronation Street, one of the few ongoing programs that began before Doctor Who. The era was set up to fail, but became the catalyst for a new approach.
After three more seasons, the BBC quietly cancelled the show, having learnt that it is best not to announce bad decisions. Soon afterwards Virgin Books began a series of New Adventures with the Seventh Doctor. In 1997 there was a TV movie, with McCoy regenerating into Paul McGann. The BBC took over the books, leading eventually to a new series in 2005. This took many ideas, including one adaptation, and writers from the books. My personal favourite of all the New Adventures is Warlock by Andrew Cartmel, McCoy’s script editor, and the man who kept Doctor Who alive with two brave decisions.
The first was to hire new writers. Logic suggests experience was required but only McCoy’s debut story was written by someone who had worked on the show before. Many were new to television. The second was to commission non-traditional or oddball stories. In a short season, a failed story stands out more and the press were not slow to criticise. My own take is that every one of McCoy’s televised stories works better as a novel. Freed from the production constraints of a BBC that was trying to erase its favoured child, they blossom in prose and paved the way for the New Adventures to take Doctor Who into new territory.
Sylvester McCoy’s legacy is the continuation of Doctor Who. Thirty years ago, that looked an impossibility.