Was Doctor Who rubbish in the 1980s?


Watch Shaun Ley's full Newsnight film on the challenges faced by Doctor Who in the 80s

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Doctor Who is 50 this year and has plenty to celebrate. But just like chart-topping bands with albums they wish they had never released, the veteran sci-fi TV show has had its share of turkeys. Why is the 1980s the decade so many fans love to hate?

It started well. John Nathan-Turner, the new producer, revamped the opening titles. He cast a new doctor, Peter Davison, and cut the jokey tone.

Other changes were out of his hands.

Sylvester McCoy: 'Even though I was on it, my children would rather have watched The A-Team'

Doctor Who was evicted from its Saturday time slot, the itinerant Time Lord roaming the TV schedule in an increasingly desperate search for an audience.

At the same time the big budget sci-fi cinema seen in films like The Empire Strikes Back was being emulated by US TV imports such as Battlestar Galactica.

But what didn't change was the way Doctor Who was made. Complex special effects had to be conjured up in evening studio recordings, a way of producing TV more suited to courtroom drama or soaps.

Sylvester McCoy, lead actor from 1987 until the programme was cancelled in 1989, laments that there was never enough time to do the special effects well - a Time Lord unable to turn back the clock.

The case for the prosecution? Colin Baker, McCoy's predecessor forced to wear possibly the most distracting costume ever devised for a leading man, the casting of celebrities (including Beryl Reid, Richard Briers and Ken Dodd) as well as minor pop stars in guest roles, and forgettable baddies, like a green sea monster called The Myrka.

Doctor Who script writer Andrew Cartmel rates the programme's 1980s special effects

The actors inside the costume had managed to give some character to the pantomime horse in the children's programme Rentaghost, but even they couldn't save The Myrka from plumbing the inky depths of TV special effects.

The demise of the Myrka was played on Room 101 to illustrate Michael Grade's antipathy to 1980s Doctor Who. As Controller of BBC One, he suspended the show for 18 months in 1985.

"I thought it was rubbish. I thought it was pathetic," Grade told the programme, "cardboard things probably clonking across the floor, trying to scare kids. You just sit and laugh at it."

Hang on, though. 1980s Doctor Who doesn't have a monopoly on imaginative ideas that don't work.

Colin Baker as Doctor Who Colin Baker's Doctor Who costume was a garish mix of colours

The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964) was apparently carried out by wobbling flying saucers which wouldn't have been out of place in the classic cinema flop Plan 9 From Outer Space.

The Talons of Weng Chiang (1977), an evocative slice of life on the seedy side of Victorian London, is marred by a laughable giant rat costume.

Years later, the costume designer, James Acheson, given more money and time on feature films like Dangerous Liaisons, deservedly won three Oscars.

So why do stories from the 1980s routinely get such a hard time?

Production techniques and effects budgets could not match feature films. Even video games made Doctor Who look dated. BBC bosses of the time now admit they did not know what to do with the programme, and rather hoped it would go away.

John Nathan-Turner tried to keep Doctor Who in the public eye, with a series of bold attempts to generate publicity.

In 1986, Bonnie Langford was cast as the Doctor's sidekick. She made headlines, though fans were appalled.

At the start of the 1980s they had adored John Nathan-Turner, or JNT as he was known, and he enjoyed the adulation. But pleasing the fans and satisfying the casual viewer simultaneously was hard to pull off.

At the end of the decade, though, having survived an 18 month suspension, Doctor Who was on the up.

Sheila Hancock as Helen A. in the Dr Who adventure 'The Happiness Patrol'. Sheila Hancock played her Doctor Who role as a Thatcher-like bad girl

Effects may still have been hit and miss - contrast The Destroyer ("Battlefield") with the Cheetah People ("Survival") - but scripts were more sophisticated, exploring race and sexual identity, and passing critical comment on 1980s Britain.

The performance of Sheila Hancock as Helen A in The Happiness Patrol was a homage, of sorts, to Mrs T.

Too late to save it, though.

As one former BBC insider told Richard Marson, author of a biography of JNT, to be published later this month, by putting it out at the same time as Coronation Street was airing on ITV, in 1989 Doctor Who was "scheduled to death".

The 1980s are being re-lived at the British Film Institute right now, as part of the programme's anniversary celebrations. First, Russell T. Davies and now Steven Moffat have made the 21st Century version both a critical and popular success.

The lesson of the 1980s, though, is not to take it for granted. A powerful producer can drive a programme forward, but in time can also become a barrier to change. Fans can buoy you up, but pleasing them can leave you deaf to the wider audience.

Doctor Who in the 1980s may not have won awards, but behind the latex and laser guns, there were some bold ideas fighting to be heard.

Watch Newsnight's Doctor Who film on Wednesday 29 May 2013 at 2230 on BBC Two, and then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    Dr Who's in danger of fizzling out again with Moffat at the helm. His stories are boring and keep revisiting the same themes, his humour and fantasy are lacking and if I see another episode set in Victorian London...

    On topic, if you tell a good story well then viewers, especially sci-fi viewers, will usually go with you in spite of maybe lacking budget and production values.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    It seemed to me at the time that there must have been an agenda to drive the ratings down so that it could be scrapped. I mean, McCoy and Langford? A giant Bertie Basset?

    Poor effects never mattered; the stories were great. Cliffhangers kept you excited all week.

    Then it all went wrong. The last couple of seasons of the 80s were awful.

    The modern hammy, pantomime is only slightly better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    The current series' episodes are too short. I remember each series as being far longer when I was young and the storylines carrying through several episodes allowing the characters to develop more and the viewer to get pulled into the story. This historical aspects shown with some of the older Doctors also made you want to find out more about the period.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    Oh come on. It's still rubbish today

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.


    Thanks for the reminder, 'The Tripods'. Still had dodgy effects but so right, the whole series should have been completed.

    Like Dr Who & Blakes's 7, the poor effects do not matter if there is a well written story and the Tripods had that in buckets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    It has nothing to do if programmes were good or bad because that is subjective. People remember the programmes they watched as kids because it is nostalgic. That's why kids born in the mid 1980s will look upon the 1990s with fondness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    McCoy and his sidekick Ace were the worst Doctor and assistant ever. Colin Baker might have been interesting, but wasn't given a chance. And the series suffered from a general lack of investment in decent storylines, costumes and fx. Mind you, some of the storylines foisted on us by the sainted Russell T. Davies were fairly crap as well, so it's not just an 80s thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    Rubbish in the eighties? It's still rubbish, and objectionable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    I have always enjoyed the programmes - some good, some bad. What will always be in its favour however is that it is not a US import (like almost everything is now) but rather part of our history, imagination & creation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    I was a massive Dr Who fan, read all the books when I was a kid and enjoyed most of the TV progs, I even let them off from the 8th doctor (Time lords get 7 Lives) but they really, really need new baddies, I am sick to death of the enemies that have been utterly, totally and completely destroyed multiple times being ressurrected. The Daleks have been annihilated at least 8 times now pack it in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    I have watched Dr Who right from the beginning with William Hartnell; the Daleks & Cybermen really scared me then. When the Daleks came back with the ability to travel up stairs it freaked me out! I think each Dr brought something to the show. I still love it, & watch it with my 18 yr old daughter. We laugh at the cheesy monsters & sets but enjoy the program together. That's what's great about it

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    As a child in the 80's I remember it all being rather nightmarish. Maybe the cheapness actually helped with that (not that a 7 year old noticed is was cheaply made). I loved it though. Peter Davidson was my favourite.

    I've never actually watched it since the 80's, other than the odd glimpse. Dare I say it, it still looks a bit naff now, just a more expensive naff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    Oh dear, oh dear BBC... you really should do your homework. You mention Colin Baker and then The Myrka.

    Don't you know the myrka featured in a Peter Davison story commonly known, among some Who fans, as 'Warriors on the Cheap'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    To say the 80's were bad for Doctor Who is appallingly misleading. The Caves of Androzani is one of the best ever - and consistently voted strongly in polls which include the revamped show on air now. Other 80's stories like Logopolis also do the series credit. The main problem was in hammy Colin Baker and unlucky Sylvester McCoy being handed dire scripts and slashed budgets by an uncaring BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    I loved Sylvester McCoy, I think he was my first Doctor that I remember. Also loved Sophie Aldred as Ace. I think my fave episode was The Curse of Fenric. I just loved the atmosphere. I like the new Dr Who but find all the emotional angst and sexual tension a bit tiresome. Blink is the best ever episode in recent years in my opnion. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    good interview - i would have loved to have seen mccoy in some darker story lines, with higher production values, i think he'd have been great

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    I wish I could say I enjoyed Dr Who past the age of about 10, but alas I cannot. I find it just as embarrassing and turgid today as it ever was. I'm aware of how massively I'll probably get down-voted for that. Sorry Who fans!

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    The only thing that really gripse me with the new Series is this format (for most of them) of 1 story per episode with an intangible "story arc".

    I prefered the previous 4-7 episodes per story style.

    May be it was a bit rubbish but I was a kids and I enjoyed it! I still do despite the above comment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    Tom Baker was the definitive Doctor Who....he made the role all his own and out his slightly insane slightly bonkers spin on him.

    I recall watching the Cybermen in the mid 1970's with trembling horror, aged 5 in 1976, and when Tom left the role I was really upset.

    Davidson did a good job, but Baker was supreme!

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    Yes I admit it, I saw the first one and yes we had a sofa that I would peer over once the Daleks had gone. The "special effects" were simple enough to allow any child to join in that had a sink plunger and a torch. I missed the eighties (working) but do recollect that the ones I did get to see were pretty poor. But lets face it, if it had ave dragged on then it may have been buried for good.


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