With the 50th anniversary of the longest running science-fiction television series in the world less than a week away, now is the perfect time to reflect on some of those moments when the international cult phenomenon we all know and love might have gone off in an entirely different direction.
Somewhere out there in the multiverse, there's a version of the Doctor who's Welsh, never encountered the Daleks, never regenerated, lost his memory (and his clothes), was ordered to go to a disco by Margaret Thatcher, got involved in a love triangle with himself, and wears a toothbrush in his left breast pocket. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's time to take a step sideways in time, as we bust through the regeneration limit and take a look back at 14 strange moments of Doctor Who might-have-been.
Let's begin at the beginning. Actually, a bit before the beginning, during the early pre-pre production stages of Doctor Who, when series creator Sydney Newman appointed a man named Rex Tucker from the Children's Drama department to the role of in-situ producer, where he would oversee the basic day-to-day needs of the project prior to the hiring of a full-time production staff. Had events played out differently, Tucker would have likely stayed on to direct the first block of filming, and would have been the man tasked with bringing the very first episode of Doctor Who to life instead of relative newcomer, Waris Hussein.
At any rate, it was common enough practice at this time for producer-director's to have creative control of the series they were overseeing, so unbeknownst to Sydney (who was off on vacation), Rex Tucker had begun to do just that; working on several design aspects of the show, which including at least tentatively offered the titular role to his friend Hugh David, a 37-year-old Welshman best known for his portrayal of suave crime-fighter Stephen Drummond in the popular Granada drama series Knight Errant Limited.
Nobody quite knows why Tucker offered the part to David, as he was about as far away from Newman's description of a "frail old scientist" as you could get. It's also hard to imagine Newman ever allowing such a casting choice to go through, but it ended up being a moot point anyways, as David turned down the role, having grown uncomfortable with the amount of public attention he was receiving from Knight Errant Limited, and not wanting to play another leading man. Still, had he accepted (and been accepted), he would have been the youngest actor to portray the Doctor until Peter Davison took over in 1981. Interestingly enough, David's association with Doctor Who didn't end there. He moved away from acting a short time later to pursue a career as a director— a career which would see him step behind the camera for two of Patrick Troughton's most memorable stories, The Highlanders and Fury From the Deep.
By all rights, the Doctor's most memorable adversaries never should have existed, and we owe nearly as much to Verity Lambert and David Whitaker for sneaking them onto our screens as we do Terry Nation and Ray Cusick for designing them.
The Mutants (aka The Daleks) was a late game substitute for another story, The Masters of Luxor, which was fully scripted and ready to go, when the production order changed. Script editor David Whitaker had been impressed with Terry Nation's work on the sci-fi anthology series Out of This World, and asked him to submit scripts for a 7-part serial involving the mutated survivors of a nuclear war for later in the season. Terry turned in his scripts so quickly and ahead of schedule, they were literally the only ones ready to fit into that now vacant second production slot, which was just as well, as BBC head of serials Donald Wilson reportedly hated them enough that he called Verity Lambert into his office and demanded to know if she had anything else that could be put on in their place. Luckily, Verity wasn't about to be dissuaded, and Wilson was unable to voice his dissatisfaction to his direct supervisor, Sydney Newman, who just happened to to be off on holiday again. Sydney had given the production team a standing order of "no bug-eyed monsters," but due to this fluke of timing, completely missed out on seeing any scripts or production designs for this serial, only encountering the Daleks when they finally appeared on his television screen at home. (At which point he was livid... at least until the ratings came in, that is.)
As for The Masters of Luxor; the story has subsequently been released as a Big Finish audio adventure, but sufficed to say, it's not even remotely in the same class as Terry Nation's television masterpiece. The plot, such as it stands, is a fairly uninspired adventure involving the TARDIS crew investigating a seemingly abandoned planet full of robots called Derivatrons, who decide to build themselves an android version of Rocky from The Rocky Horror Picture Show called "The Perfect One" because they need somebody with free will and gloriously shiny pecs to order them about... or something. The Perfect One is physically perfect, but he's not "alive"; a fault he tries to remedy by strapping scientists to tables and disintegrating them to isolate their "life essence." Oh, and for some reason, he has an atomic bomb wired up to his brain, so if he falls and hits his head on a coffee table, the entire planet blows up. (Alas, I'm not kidding about this bit. It's the cliffhanger to episode 4) You can read a full plot synopsis here, but trust me, it's six episodes of mind-numbing tedium, and would have made a poor followup to Anthony Coburn's other contribution to Doctor Who, the script for An Unearthly Child. (Plus it's hard to imagine any child getting excited about finding a vinyl Derivatron playsuit under their Christmas tree)
There's no question that the Daleks are pivotal to the success of Doctor Who, and one of the factors contributing to their lasting fame is their distinctly non-humanoid shape, as designed by Ray Cusick. However, Ray was not the original designer attached to the first Dalek serial. The job was originally assigned to another young man working in the BBC design department by the name of Ridley Scott. Yes, that Ridley Scott. It was only due to a last minute scheduling conflict that Ridley was forced to back out, and Ray was given the unenviable task of designing an iconic new alien menace on a meager BBC production budget. In desperation, he turned to Terry Nation for advice, who mentioned seeing a performance by a Russian ballet troupe who wore extremely long dresses which gave the impression of gliding smoothly along the floor. Had that conversation not taken place, the Daleks would have certainly looked quite different from how they do now, though with Ridley Scott an their creator, one wonders if the poor pepperpots would have ever made it past the BBC censors.
Once Verity Lambert left her role as producer following the second season, her replacement, John Wiles, wanted to take the series in a darker direction, which irked the already upset William Hartnell, and led to several conflicts both on and off the set. It didn't help that Hartnell was still reeling from the loss of his co-stars, and the passing of the aunt that raised him (who's funeral he wasn't even able to attend because the shooting schedule on The Myth Makers was so tight) not to mention suffering from arteriosclerosis, which was beginning to impact both his mobility and speech. Wiles became so frustrated with Hartnell's behavior that he reportedly sought to have his contract terminated and replaced by another actor during the pre-production stages of The Celestial Toymaker, presumably during the protracted sequence where the 1st Doctor is rendered invisible and forced to play the Trilogic game by the Celestial Toymaker.
Fortunately, the idea was shot down by BBC head of serials, Gerald Savory, who ultimately chose to have John Wiles replaced instead. Had Wile's proposal gone through as planned, then the impact on the series would have been huge... No regeneration, and presumably the replacement Doctor would have been a Richard Hurdall style imitator, doing his best to play the same old man as Hartnell for another season or two until the series got cancelled and become just another forgotten sci-fi classic of the 60's.
While we could spend all day talking about how the show would have been different, had one of the other actors considered for the part of the Doctor been given the job instead, I cant help but mention an actor named David Langton, who was originally chosen by director Douglas Camfield to play a one-off supporting character in one of Troughton's 5th season stories, but backed out prior to production so he could perform in a television play instead.
Luckily for us, that meant that the part had to go to another actor, and Nicholas Courtney found himself receiving a hasty promotion from Captain Knight to Colonel Letherbridge-Stewart, (narrowly avoiding his second on-screen death in Doctor Who) and a recurring role which would last the next 43 years. If Langton had not declined the part, we would have undoubtedly seen a very different take on the Brigadier. Langton was 17 years older than Courtney, had served in the British Army as a major, and was best known for playing very dry and formal cabinet ministers and members of the British peerage (most notably the character of Richard Bellamy on the series Upstairs, Downstairs.) At the time, he was also a far more recognizable actor, so it's questionable whether he would have been willing to commit to coming back for The Invasion or as a series regular during the Pertwee era.
Charlie Jane mentions this one on her list of 10 Biggest Dodged Bullets in Doctor Who, but if you've never heard of the project, this was a proposed film co-written by Tom Baker and Ian Marter, which would have fit into the continuity of the ongoing series, starring Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan as companions, and Vincent Price as the intergalactic embodiment of evil known as Harry Scratch. (Admittedly, with a name like Harry Scratch, your only real job options are maniacal villain or mustachioed porn star.) It featured killer scarecrows, moth guns, the god Pan, a chase through the TARDIS involving 50 yard jigsaw puzzles and a grandfather clock bigger than Big Ben, business executives with light-up spheres for heads, and a final confrontation between The Doctor and the Devil on a giant pinball table, playing for the fate of the universe. You can read a full synopsis of the plot here, and I highly recommend you do, if only so you feel a little bit of sympathy for all those Doctor Who directors who had to put up with Tom's frequent suggestions for how their shooting scripts might be "improved."
Modern fans might be forgiven for thinking that the very first Doctor Who Christmas special occurred in 2005 with David Tennant in The Christmas Invasion, but it actually happened in 1965, slap-dab in the middle of the 12-part epic The Dalek Master Plan, with a lighthearted pantomime romp called The Feast of Steven. (The one where the first Doctor may or may not have been hitting the sherry a bit to hard and infamously breaks the fourth wall to offer up a Christmas toast to the viewers at home) This special Christmas outing was also supposed to be the series' first cross-over with another BBC franchise, the popular police drama Z-Cars, however, the producer of that series withheld his permission, and the TARDIS crew were forced to obtain their own police station for the story.
Another potential crossover nearly occurred in 1979, when Blake's 7 and Doctor Who were both hitting their stride. Both Tom Baker and Gareth Thomas had voiced an interest in seeing it happen, and Terry Nation's original proposal for the Blake's 7 second season finale, Star One, was to reveal that the mysterious alien force lurking just outside the Federation's border ready to attack Earth was none other than his own famous creations, the Daleks. Alas, the idea was shot down by Blake's 7's producer (who probably shuddered at the thought of mailing Terry Nation yet another royalty check), so instead we got a slightly less threatening invasion of the small bathtub wind-up toys and fake plastic vomit.
The one crossover event that did end up happening, occurred in 1993, as part of the annual Children In Need charity fundraiser event. It was called Dimensions in Time, and it's pretty much the litmus test by which all terrible Who is judged. Go ahead and watch it for yourself.... I'll wait.
Yeah. Sorry about that. But shared suffering brings us closer together.
Filmed on the set of the long running soap opera EastEnders, and featuring several of the series' regular, it was a confusing mess starring all five of the remaining living Doctors (and floating bug-eyed wax heads of the first two), multiple companions (including The Brigadier's only meeting with the 6th Doctor), every available monster suit they could dredge up, and The Rani, who for reasons best known to herself, decides to capture all of the Doctor's incarnations and "lock us away in a dreary backwater of London's East End, trapped in a time-loop in perpetuity." While it's doubtful it would have made a shred of difference, the original script apparently would have featured either Anthony Ainley as The Master or Michael Gough reprising his role as The Celestial Toymaker, and a sequence where the 5th Doctor squared off against The Daleks in a dockside warehouse (which was never filmed due to a dispute with Terry Nation over whether they had to pay royalties for using the Daleks during a charity event.) The role of the Rani's companion was also first offered to Sir Ian McKellen, who rather unsurprisingly, discovered that he has something much more important to do with his time.
At some undisclosed point in the 80's, the Canadian animation company Nelvana (best known for producing Care Bears, Eek The Cat and Beetlejuice) proposed an animated series based off of Doctor Who, which judging by these early concept sketches would have involved a bizarre amalgamation of the first four Doctors, with Real Ghostbusters hair and John Nathan-Turner's penchant for slapping question marks on everything. He also would have been joined by a redesigned K-9 who possibly morphs into a doctor's bag (remember, it was the 80's) and his most fearsome foes, the Daleks, would have been transformed into bulbous pear-shaped things with tank treads, vacuum cleaner arms, and Madonna breast cones.
In short, an abomination and affront to all mankind; but possibly one that could have had a significant effect on the main series, had it been allowed to continue. Considering that around this time BBC higher-ups like Michael Grade were looking for any excuse to cancel Doctor Who, it isn't too difficult to picture them latching on to a cheap Canadian import (especially one that they didn't have to pay for) as a way of mollifying fans when the axe came down on the live action version. A Doctor Who cartoon might very well have spelled no Seventh Doctor at all, and a vastly different future for the series that lived on in books and comic strips during the long seven year gap between Survival and the 1996 TV Movie.
Oh man. This one brings back painful memories. I once mailed $20 to a guy on Prodigy who said he could hook me up with a bootleg audio cassette recording of this 1989 stage play. Several weeks later, the cassette arrived, and I was heartbroken to find that the garbled dialogue was nearly unintelligible over the sound of audience members shushing small children and shifting uncomfortably in their seats. I now know this was a blessing in disguise, having since experienced both the Big Finish audio version and some of the personal video recordings that have made it onto YouTube.
The Ultimate Adventure was an ambitious attempt to bring Doctor Who directly to the fans, via a live stage show that utilized the greatest technology the late 80's had to offer— mainly lasers, enormous glittery shoulder pads, and awful rock-opera power ballads. Unlike previous stage plays, this one boasted the full backing of John Nathan-Turner, a script penned by Terrance Dicks, and John Pertwee and Colin Baker both taking their turn at playing their respective Doctors. It also featured a somewhat one-sided alliance between the Daleks and Cybermen (if you've seen Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, you can probably guess who the bitch was in this relationship), the reappearance of the Emperor Dalek last seen in Evil of the Daleks, a faaaabulously dressed mercenary-for-hire with the sinister name of Karl, plus several other miscellaneous monsters from the television show including a Kraal, a Draconian, and a Vervoid, all of whom apparently enjoy knocking back a pint or two at the Bar Galactica.
Did I mention it had musical numbers? Well it did. Two of them. (Three, if you count the Doctor singing his Venusian lullaby to unhypnotize a brainwashed civil servant) And the plot was mainly a rehash of elements cribbed from previous stories, most notably Day of the Daleks, where the Daleks' cunning plan involves planting a bomb at a peace conference, framing the British envoy for the crime, and then waiting around to mop up the survivors after the ensuing thermonuclear war. If you want the full story, the play has its own fan site, or if you're a real glutton for punishment, you can watch the entire thing on YouTube.
Ultimately, it was one of many attempts to carry on the spirit of Doctor Who while the BBC's interest in it was waning. I have no idea whether it was a financial success or not, but many people seem to have fond memories of seeing the Daleks and Cybermen duke it out on stage, and who knows... maybe in a parallel universe these things are now as popular as Disney on Ice, and Colin Baker is still bringing in the punters with his companions Jason, Crystal, and their furry friend Zog.
10) That time the 6th Doctor forgot who he was or where he parked the TARDIS and fought an evil magic clown at a cocktail party
Look, I'm not proud of it, but the long lonely stretch between 1989 and 1996 was rough on us die-hard Whovians, and after several years without any fresh material to watch, some of us had to get a little.... ahem... "creative" when it came to fulfilling our needs. Enter BBV, a home-grown video production company which scraped up just enough money to cobble together a few extremely low budget direct to video titles starring Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant as "The Stranger and Miss Brown." They were more or less exactly what you'd expect... thinly scripted Doctor Who fan films, minus the TARDIS or anything else the BBC held licenses to, but featuring the original cast, hoping to god that their agents rang up with something better next month so they wouldn't have to appear in any more of these turkeys.
The first couple of Stranger videos tried very hard to pretend they were Doctor Who, and the TARDIS "transport" was just over the next hill. However, by the time the third one rolled around (written by Nicholas Briggs; now better known for voicing the Daleks and his work on the Big Finish line of Doctor Who audio adventures) they had pretty much given up on that pretext, revealing Colin's amnesiac character's had his own name and backstory.
BBV subsequently went on to produce a number of more direct Doctor Who tie-in films, with larger budgets and characters licensed from the estate of Robert Holmes, though as with the Stranger videos, no mention of The Doctor or events from actual televised episodes are ever made. The P.R.O.B.E. series (written by Mark Gatiss) featured Liz Shaw investigating demonic activity as part of the "Preternatural Research Bureau," while Auton and it's two sequels (written by Nick Briggs) involved U.N.I.T. personnel battling a reactivated Nestene Consciousness. Another of Holmes creations, the Sontarans, would also appear in their own spin-off, Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans, (starring Carol Ann Ford, Sophie Aldred, and a bunch of Blakes 7 regulars) but for legal reasons, they had to be painted bright yellow and given horrible grandma wrinkles, as the BBC still maintained the rights to their physical appearance.
The BBV (and related company Reeltime Pictures) releases started to slowly peter out around the early 2000's, right about the time that Big Finish obtained the rights to release officially licensed audio adventures starring classic Doctors. Only one BBV story, Zygon, was released following Doctor Who's ressurrection in 2005, though had Big Finish not received the blessing of the BBC, and had Russell T. Davies not been on the scene to give the Time Lord a new lease on life, you might still be watching badly CGIed Krynoids or Wirrn stalking an aging Sgt. Benton and members of the UN Task Force around the local gravel quarry right now.
11) That time the 4th Doctor and Ace battled a Cyberman with Wolverine claws and Rick from The Young Ones
The Dark Dimension was the first of many well-intentioned attempts by the BBC to resurrect the franchise, and was slated for a direct to video release in conjunction with the series' 30th Anniversary. It would have been directed by Graeme Harper, featured all the surviving Doctors (well, until 5 & 6 got in a huff at only being given bit parts, while Tom Baker got to hog the majority of the screen time), as well as the Brigadier and Ace, and several "darker" version of monsters from the show's past, including Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, and Yeti, all manipulated by an evil villain named Hawkspur portrayed by Rik Mayall. The Cybermen in particular, were redesigned to be more skeletal and Geigeresque, and there was even a special animatronic one built by the Henson Creature Workshop which "had holes in its knuckles and there was a point where it held up its hand, made a fist, and six-inch blades shot out of its knuckles!"
Plagued with problems from day one, you can read more about the whole sorry mess and how it fell to pieces here, but sufficed to say, no matter how awful or convoluted The Dark Dimension might have been, it still would have been a better 30th Anniversary present than Dimensions in Time.
12) That time the 7th Doctor and the Brigadier spent 5 minutes fighting Cybermen and setting fire to a vicarage... for charity.
There's not much to go on with this one, but somewhere between The Dark Dimension and Dimensions in Time, John Nathan-Turner approached a writer named David Roden about creating a 5-minute sketch for Children in Need with the cheery title Destination: Holocaust, which would have featured The Seventh Doctor meeting up with his old pal The Brigadier in order to head off to a U.N.I.T. reunion. Along the way, they witness a green fireball crashing into local vicarage, and stop to investigate. Outside, they find the local vicar, frantic to get his wife out of the burning building, however, The Doctor spots a line of silver figures emerging from the flames, and he and the Brigadier make for the cover of the nearby church as the poor vicar gets blasted by a beam of blue light. Inside the church, they find the remains of a badly damaged Cyberman splayed across the altar, and The Doctor concludes that it must have been their ship that crashed. The sketch ends with the Doctor and Brigadier being captured by the Cyber Leader (presumably played by David Banks) who announces that the Doctor shall soon witness the destruction of Earth and "when dawn comes, we shall be the new masters." Fade to black. End scene. Cut to audience reaction shot of small children crying.
While still more coherent than any of the other proposed 30th anniversary projects, JNT vetoed the script as being too expensive, as it would have entailed night filming, snow machines, blowing up a car, and crashing a space ship into a church. Rogan quickly came back with another proposal called Endgame, but that was also abandoned when it became apparent that the BBC wanted to do a light-hearted crossover with EastEnders instead.
I occasionally have to dust off my copy of The Nth Doctor whenever I'm feeling let down by the quality of script writing on NuWho, just to remind myself that yes, Doctor Who can sink much, much lower than Love and Monsters or Journey's End. The book is a virtual treasure trove of all the bad ideas that got tossed around during that period prior to the 1996 TV movie, when several production groups showed an interest in bringing back Doctor Who— provided of course, that the finished product didn't bear any resemblance at all to that stupid old TV show, Doctor Who.
One of the worst script treatments mentioned in the book began with an evil Time Lord meddling with the Doctor's time stream, "shunting the Doctor's life span into a temporal dead-alley. One that will cause his body and mind to self destruct in a very short period of time" (ie: meaning that they now have a completely different actor playing the character), while simultaneously framing him for the crime of... erm... attempting to murder himself. This older "eccentric" Doctor is convicted of "meddling with the sensitive mechanisms of time" and gets sent to Time Lord prison, but of course he manages to escape, and flees Gallifrey in a stolen TARDIS, landing in present day New York, where he sets about attempting to repair the damage to his time stream, only to accidentally end up conjuring a separate younger headstrong version of himself.
Back on Gallifrey, the evil Time Lord dispatched a skilled assassin to finish the job, and because of all the temporal timey-wimey plot convenience stuff going on, the older Doctor will cease to exist if his younger version is killed, and the younger Doctor will die if the older version is killed. (Because we say so, dammit. And yes, we did just turn Doctor Who into a Freaky Friday odd-couple fugitive comedy.) Enter new companion and love-interest Mallie Jordan, who finds her life turned upside down by the two bickering versions of the Doctor. In a brilliant bit of characterization we soon discover that she "may have a weakness for Young Doctor's body, but time and again finds herself bowled over by the sheer vaulting brilliance of Old Doctor's mind" and "her big problem is to reconcile how she feels about loving two men, one old, one young, both in reality the same man, but only one of whom she wants to make love to."
Luckily for our heroine, the two Doctors defeat the evil assassin, fix the TARDIS, return to Gallifrey together to unmask the baddie, and get their time streams recombined to form a new Doctor who is "neither young, nor old" who returns to Earth to sweep Mallie off her feet and embark on all new adventures together, presumably when they're finished wearing out the bed springs in the TARDIS.
Well, for a while in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip during the late 1990's at any rate.
It's possibly the most brilliant bait-and-switch in Doctor Who history, and they got tons of letters from pissed off fans who were outraged when the 8th Doctor appeared to regenerate into a balding man with a penchant for dental equipment formal wear. And bless their hearts, the DWM editors stuck to their guns and played everything completely serious for four whole months, even showing off a few publicity photos of Nick in costume as the new "face of Doctor Who," before the comic finally revealing that the 8th Doctor had punked us all, and it was only his buddy Shayde pretending to be a newly regenerated version of The Doctor, so the real Doctor could move around unobserved behind the scenes!
Okay, so maybe it's not true alt-history, but part of me wonders what would have happened if they'd just let it ride, and allowed Nick Briggs to carry on. It certainly would have made things easy over at Big Finish... he could have played everybody! And who knows... maybe 15 years later it would have been him making a surprise guest appearance in Night of the Doctor instead of Paul McGann.
(Art by PaulHanley)
That said, I would personally like to walk up and shake the hand of anybody brave enough to cosplay this version of the Doctor at their next Doctor Who convention.