Though it might seem odd given the property's current success, Doctor Who was axed by the BBC in 1989, but what lead to this monumental decision? Beginning in 1963, Doctor Who is the world's longest-running science fiction TV series, with the adventures of the titular Time Lord captivating British viewers throughout the second half of the 20th century before going on to dominate internationally. Currently, Doctor Who is a franchise phenomenon, exported across the globe and continuing to break new ground in a world of smartphones, social media and spoiler warnings. The lead role has become a particularly coveted acting gig, and is currently occupied by Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to ever play the Doctor.
But things weren't always so rosy. Before resuming in 2005, Doctor Who ran from 1963 to 1989 and was somewhat akin to a common pond duck - relatively calm and graceful on the surface, but frantically working to stay afloat behind the scenes. Doctor Who was always an ambitious proposition and, despite sustained periods of great success, interviews with cast and crew in more recent years have revealed that the fate of the series was often uncertain, with deadlines and budget restrictions causing constant issues.
Eventually, Doctor Who was cancelled after its 26th season while Sylvester McCoy was at the helm of the TARDIS. Looking back from the safety (or otherwise) of 2019, this might seem like a farcical decision, especially since UK television at that time didn't have the same quickfire cancellation culture that is prevalent in the industry today. Why on Gallifrey would the BBC cancel a series that has since reached the pinnacle of geekdom, while also boasting a strong mainstream presence as the network's premier franchise?
Doctor Who's Troubles Were A Long Time Coming
In order to understand the reasons behind Doctor Who's 1989 cancellation, it's vital to consider the difficulties faced by the series throughout its classic run, as for every victorious peak there was an equal and opposite low, whether viewers could see it at the time or not.
Doctor Who first found popularity in December of 1963 with the airing of The Daleks, a story that almost doubled the show's viewership during its 7-episode duration. But the first time Doctor Who's future was called into question came in 1966 when it was decided William Hartnell could no longer continue in the title role due his deteriorating health mixed with rigorous production demands. With their lead character set to depart, the BBC considered dropping the series altogether. Anneke Wills, the actress who was playing one of the First Doctor's companions at the time, revealed in a 2007 interview that there was much debate over whether a replacement actor for the Doctor would be accepted by audiences, and with viewing figures falling by as much as 50% in Hartnell's final season, Doctor Who's survival was far from guaranteed. Of course, this eventuality was fortunately avoided thanks to the novel concept of regeneration introduced by producer, Innes Lloyd, and script editor, Gerry Davis.
With Patrick Troughton stepping in to the main role, Doctor Who's success continued, but when Troughton decided to move on for fear of being typecast, Doctor Who's future was thrown into turmoil yet again. Ratings had fallen somewhat during the Second Doctor's final season and the BBC was switching to color for a brand new era of television. Late Doctor Who writer and script editor, Terrance Dicks, has confirmed that the BBC were unsure whether Doctor Who had a place in this brave, new, colorful world. Thankfully, the likes of Dicks, Derrick Sherwin and Barry Letts reinvented the Doctor for a this emerging era, casting Jon Pertwee as a new, action hero Doctor in a run of adventures based strictly on Earth...at least for the time being. Despite improved ratings, Sherwin has asserted that cancellation was also a threat following Pertwee's debut season but, as the Time Lord himself did at the end of every episode, Doctor Who somehow managed to avoid certain doom.
Why Doctor Who Was Cancelled In 1989
Throughout the 1970s, Doctor Who enjoyed unparalleled success with both Pertwee and his successor, Tom Baker, and although some viewers did drop out with the arrival of Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, the figures weren't low enough to generate any serious concern. Indeed, it wasn't until Colin Baker was cast as Doctor Who's eponymous Time Lord that viewership began to slump fatally, dipping to previously unseen lows.
While there was absolutely no question over Colin Baker's acting nous, the Sixth Doctor spent most of his debut season being thoroughly unlikable, forging the most dysfunctional dynamic yet between Doctor and companion. This, combined with growing concerns over violence on TV, contributed to the BBC putting Doctor Who on an extended hiatus, but fan demand ensured Baker's eventual return. Flashes of brilliance and an improved characterization in his second season were unable to save the actor from the chop, however, and Sylvester McCoy was drafted in as a replacement. Doctor Who's ratings would never recover, however, with McCoy's final run posting some of the lowest figures in the show's long history. According to an internal BBC document that has since surfaced, McCoy's Doctor, his assistant Mel and Doctor Who's stories were also all scoring abysmally with test audiences.
There were other factors behind Doctor Who's cancellation, aside from the sliding viewing numbers. Senior figures within the BBC (primarily Michael Grade) had come to see Doctor Who as an old-fashioned, fanciful blight upon their schedule and later seasons weren't afforded the same prominence or coveted time slots they once were. If it weren't for the heavy backlash from fans, it seems incredibly likely that Doctor Who would've been cancelled after season 22. Additionally, the 1980s saw an exponential rise in rival networks, giving UK viewers more choice than ever before in a market that had previously been dominated by the state-funded BBC. Challenged seriously for the first time, the BBC found themselves spending more money to keep up with their new competition and anything that was deemed to be flagging had to be cast aside in order to make the necessary savings.
The Road To Doctor Who's Regeneration
Other, less era-defining TV shows can live on after cancellation through fan campaigns or hashtags calling for their return, but Doctor Who managed to survive in the truest sense of the word. Despite being absent from screens for the very first time, the adventures of the Doctor continued in books, magazines and audio adventures, some of which were so popular they would later be worked into canon. The BBC took notice of such an active fandom and attempted a transatlantic comeback in 1996 with a TV movie starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, but a number of deviations to the format and a decidedly cheesy faux-Hollywood tone ensured the project wasn't developed further.
Nevertheless, fans still weren't deterred, coaxing Doctor Who into the new millennium and even embracing McGann's Doctor away from the confines of his poorly-received movie. The Virgin New Adventures book series proved to be a pivotal and incredibly popular continuation of the Doctor Who TV series, with some stories penned by names who would ultimately become key figures in Doctor Who's revival, such as Russell T. Davies and Mark Gatiss. Elsewhere, Big Finish Productions began releasing high-quality audio stories that remain active even now and attract actors from across Doctor Who's history to lend their vocal talents. This quiet but constant fan momentum across a variety of mediums was instrumental in driving Doctor Who back onto television screens and proving that demand hadn't faded.
Finally, after several false starts, it was Davies who would pitch the concept for a proper television continuation of Doctor Who, maintaining the continuity of the classic series, but giving everything else a contemporary overhaul, from single-episode stories to a darker, more dramatic tone. With enough elements carried over from the old days to keep existing fans happy and a modern sheen attracting a new generation of frightened youngsters to the franchise, Doctor Who began a new era of prosperity that continues to this day.
Doctor Who season 12 premieres in 2020 on BBC and BBC America.