• 4th April 2016 • Feature by Dewi Evans •
“It’s funny, I thought, if you could hear me, I could hang on, somehow. Silly me. Silly old Doctor. When you wake up… you won’t even remember me. Well, you’ll remember me a little. I’ll be a story in your head. But that’s OK…”
What happens in the last ever episode of Doctor Who?
Silly question, of course – Doctor Who never ends. Indeed, now that we’re past the Doctor’s allegedly final regeneration, we can categorically say that the show needn’t end. Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat both seem pretty confident that it will be with us forever in one form or another and I certainly wouldn’t want to contradict them.
But we fans love an ending. Nowadays it seems that no sooner is a new Doctor or companion announced than we start wondering when they’ll leave, and the same attitude seems to extend to the higher-profile members of the production team as well. This isn’t a vindictive trait – at least not necessarily. After all we then spend the next fifty years anticipating just as feverishly if and when they’ll come back. Even the return of Matthew Waterhouse’s much-maligned Adric in 2014 (courtesy of Big Finish Productions) was met with widespread glee.
I expect it’s got something to do with the fact that Who fans love a bit of nostalgia. Indeed, in a show about time travel, especially one that’s lasted as long as Who, a sense of elegy could be said to be woven into the very fabric of its ethos. When a major aspect of the show is a hero who can never, ever belong anywhere and lives in perpetual exile then the idea of an ‘ending’ is integral to what the show is fundamentally about – new story, new friends, all finished, move on. The show is built around endings and new beginnings; a new adventure pretty much every week; and the genius idea of the Doctor’s ability to regenerate means it need never actually reach a final, definitive end. I expect it’s this assurance that makes imagining a final destination for the show all the more intriguing – after all, what we’re imagining is the unthinkable and nothing could be more fascinating than that. (And that’s before you even start on the body of literary criticism that argues that the very ability of stories to pleasurably entertain relies on an endlessly deferred, but always desired, closure.)
There have been a few notable occasions, however, across the show’s fifty-year multimedia history when various creative teams have, for various reasons and in various guises, imagined, or been forced to imagine, the ‘end’ of the never-ending Who saga.
Here, for your delectation, are eight such occasions.
Needless to say, there are major spoilers.
1: “Yes, well we don’t want to bear a grudge for a few hasty words, do we?” – Inferno (1970)
One might imagine that the first time the end appeared to be in sight for our Time Lord hero was at the conclusion of the William Hartnell era – but actually this doesn’t seem to have been the case. True, the idea of cancelling the show in 1966 when it became clear that Hartnell was too ill to continue in the lead role must have seemed a natural move to some at the BBC. Three years of near-continuous broadcast isn’t a bad innings, after all. All the accounts I’ve read, though, seem to indicate that the decision to continue the show with a new actor was arrived at fairly quickly by the production team – even if only as a short-term experiment. Fortunately for the show, the experiment (later known as ‘regeneration’) was a tremendous success.
The end of Patrick Troughton’s tenure was a different story, however – falling viewing figures, as well as an exhausting forty-week-plus production schedule and increasingly constrained budgets all needed to be addressed. The answer came in the form of a new look for the show – shorter seasons (and longer stories) were the order of the day, with an earthbound setting, action-adventure antics courtesy of the Doctor’s regular job at UNIT and a transition to recording in colour. This was designed to bring the show a new lease of life, whilst easing the pressure on the actors and on the show’s budget. Today, we’d call it a “reboot”. The new formula proved popular and with the commissioning of Season 8, the show’s future seemed assured.
But paperwork from the time indicates that Doctor Who was very much on trial at the turn of the 1970s and we have Barry Letts, Terrence Dicks, Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin (not to mention Jon Pertwee, Caroline John and Nicholas Courtney) to thank that the show didn’t literally go out with a bang during episode seven of apocalyptic thriller, “Inferno”. It certainly wasn’t intended as the show’s last story – but had the new format not met with popular approval, there’s a distinct possibility it may well have turned out that way. Which is just as well, really. “Inferno” may be one of the Third Doctor’s best outings, but the spectacle of Jon Pertwee sheepishly returning from an unexpected and undignified jaunt to a rubbish tip would not have been the most heroic note on which to bid farewell to the programme.
2: “All right. I’ll take you to–” – Revelation of the Daleks (1985)
Doctor Who was actually cancelled in 1985, by Jonathan Powell (Head of Drama) and Michael Grade (Controller of BBC1). When it finally returned in late 1986, several parties (including then-producer John Nathan-Turner) claimed that this longer rest between seasons had always been the intention of those in charge BBC drama, the aim being to give the production team time to rethink what was seen to be a tired format.
In fact, though, Grade and Powell intended initially that the show be cancelled permanently to free up money for something called ‘daytime television’. That the show did eventually return was only due to the enormously antipathetic reaction from fans and from the British press. So Colin Baker’s tussle with Davros and his evil Skarosian creations may have ended up being the show’s last stand. Having been forced to scrap their plans for a rematch with the Toymaker at the beginning of the originally-scheduled Season 23, the production team deleted the last word of the “Revelation of the Daleks” script to elide the specific destination promised by the Doctor to his companion Peri. This means that if the show hadn’t returned in 1986, the Doctor’s last onscreen appearance would have been characterised by a frustrating inability to utter the word “Blackpool”.
3: “Come on Ace! We’ve got work to do!” – Survival (1989)
From 1990 to 1996, despite hopes that the show might return as an independent production, a new season of Who on TV seemed an unlikely prospect. Having discovered that Season 26 would be the last one for quite some time (and possibly the last one ever) an elegiac speech, beautifully written by script editor Andrew Cartmel and recited by Sylvester McCoy, was added as a voiceover to the last scene of Rona Munro’s “Survival”, mere days before the final episode was due to be broadcast. The baton was taken up by the rather marvellous New Adventures series of novels, but on TV, at least, this looked like the end of the line.
Thus, while the show had come close to cancellation in 1970 and had actually been cancelled in 1985, Cartmel’s poetic epitaph was the first time the production team had taken the opportunity to provide a fitting end to the show on screen – the first time the moment had (albeit hastily) been prepared for.
4: “Nothing lasts forever…” – the hypothetical Ninth Doctor (early 1990s)
In 1997, Doctor Who Magazine published an article speculating on what the TV show would have looked like if it hadn’t been cancelled in 1989. The article began on fairly firm ground, presenting the story arc for the next two series as Andrew Cartmel had envisaged it, plus particular stories known to have been in the works from Ian Briggs, Ben Aaronovitch and Marc Platt. The idea is that Ace would have left to become a trainee Time Lord, while the Seventh Doctor would have gained a new companion, in the form of an aristocratic safe-cracker, whose father (a reformed gangland boss) would also have become a recurring character. These stories were actually produced on audio by Big Finish in 2011 (as, it seems, most things eventually are).
But, Cartmel’s plans had only been made up to a point – and the article gets into the realms of fantasy to some extent, when it stretches beyond the plans for Season 27. That’s not to say some of the ideas aren’t really cool though, the best one being that McCoy’s regeneration at the end of Season 28 would have been due to incurable insanity rather than physical injury. Another nice idea is that Richard Griffiths would have been the Ninth Doctor. Less optimistic was the prediction that the show would have probably run for a couple of seasons with Griffith’s Doctor in the role, before retiring gracefully, having truly run its course. The last line of the last story, the article surmises, might have been the Doctor’s: “Nothing lasts forever.” How likely such a scenario might actually have been is impossible to tell, but the article proved influential on fans’ ideas about what a potential continuation of the show in the early 1990s might have looked like – and is an interesting take on how it might have ended.
5: “Oh no! Not again!” – The TV Movie (1996)
If a new series on TV seemed an unlikely prospect in the early nineties, by the early noughties it seemed an impossible one. For eighty-eight minutes in the mid-nineties, Paul McGann was the Doctor – as he continued to be in books, comics and audio dramas. The first two seasons of Big Finish’s McGann plays, released in 2001 and 2002, were the closest thing to an official continuation of the show. Performed by actual actors and written by writers who’d go on to work on the revived TV show, these were largely very good indeed. It’s ironic, then, that many fans kind of accepted that Doctor Who on TV had ended for good with the Doctor leaving San Francisco on New Year’s Day, 2000 whilst desperately trying to fix an audio recording that’s stuck on repeat.
6: “Together they pressed the button.” – The Well-Mannered War (Virgin Missing Adventures Novel, 1997)
Although it wasn’t to be, the hope was that the TV Movie would prove successful enough to launch a full series of Doctor Who as a co-production between the BBC and Fox. These hopes were dashed when American viewers proved elusive, but the BBC had already decided to bring all the licenses for official spin-off media in-house in anticipation of a presumed revival of interest in the show. This meant ending the Virgin Books series of New Adventures (relating the continuing adventures of the Seventh Doctor and his companions) and Missing Adventures (stories featuring past Doctors and set between previous onscreen adventures).
The last Virgin novel to be published was Gareth Roberts’ The Well-Mannered War, the third of a trilogy of books by Roberts featuring the Fourth Doctor, the Second Romana and K9. It’s a pretty special book by any standards, but the most remarkable thing about it is the ending. Having apparently defeated a hive of super-intelligent flies intent on swarming through all time and space, the Doctor and his companions find that this was only one facet of a greater plot by the Black Guardian, who has finally caught up with them after the events of Season 16. Stranded in the vortex and knowing that re-entry into normal space-time will bring about the end of everything, the Doctor and Romana decide to activate the emergency switch and remove themselves from space and time altogether, speculating that they may well end up imprisoned for all time in the land of fiction, becoming fictional characters rather than real people.
When Big Finish adapted the novel for audio recently the final few moments were perceived by listeners new to the story as a cliffhanger. In fact, the novel makes it clear that the ending is just that – an ultimate ending not only to the Virgin range but also to all of Doctor Who. The Black Guardian (in dialogue missing from the adaptation) makes this clear:
“I have been tracing your path through all time and space, your past and your future, choosing my moment. I was at your side when you fought the wizard of Avalon, when you united the Rhumon and the Menoptera against the Animus, when you brought down Lady Ruath and her vampire hordes and when you fought the Timewyrm on the surface of the moon.”
These references to a slew of Virgin Who novels from both the MA and the NA ranges (as well as an unseen future adventure involving the “wizard of Avalon”) clarify that the Black Guardian is choosing to wipe from history any future adventures the Doctor might have. The exclusive references to literary adventures, however, also make it clear that this is an attempt to draw a line under the Virgin range – to bookend it as a distinct ‘era’ that can never be unwritten, precisely because anything after it is necessarily a different continuity altogether. The whole passage is playfully self-referential, however (“You’re dabbling with the forces of continuity,” complains the Doctor; “I care nothing for such abstract concepts,” snorts the Guardian) and the gesture is not so much a swipe at the BBC novels, nor to Seasons 18 to 26 on TV. Rather, Roberts seems affectionately to be emphasising that this is the end of an era – on TV in 1979 and for the Virgin style of Who prose fiction in 1997.
Season 17 is obviously an era which Roberts holds in great affection – an endless summer of fun before the seriousness to follow. If this sounds like the kind of loss of innocence associated with the end of childhood, then I think that’s deliberate too. Indeed, in the strangely moving series of short stories, “Special Occasions”, co-written with Clayton Hickman and featured in the 2001 anthology Short Trips and Side Steps, Roberts seems to cement this idea of the end of seventies Doctor Who as a metaphor for the end of a particular kind of childhood innocence, literally transforming Romana and the Doctor into toys that have to be put away in adulthood – lovingly treasured but never again to be played with in quite the same way.
The novel has long been out of print, but it’s well-worth seeking out. Because it really is something very special.
7: “Even Time Lords die…” – Death Comes to Time (BBCi Webcast; 2001)
Death Comes to Time is an audio drama, produced for the cult section of the BBCi website. Originally, the first episode was produced as a pilot for an ongoing radio production of Doctor Who. When the pilot was not taken up by BBC Radio, the remaining episodes were produced and broadcast in weekly instalments on the BBC’s website (the whole process is discussed in detail in an entertaining documentary on the Scream of the Shalka DVD).
The epic storyline involves the evil machinations of General Tannis, whose plans for universal domination threaten not only the Earth but also the Time Lords. Only when the Doctor ends up sacrificing his life to save everyone during a climatic battle at Stonehenge, however, does the serial’s real agenda become apparent. For this is actually envisaged as a finale for the whole of Doctor Who. Presumably writer/director Dan Freedman wasn’t a fan of the TV Movie, choosing to end the Doctor’s timeline, Guardian-like sometime between Season 26 and the beginning of the New Adventures. In later interviews, Freedman has explained that the idea was to provide a final and fitting end to the Doctor’s story, to be succeeded by the adventures of The Minister of Chance – a wide-eyed Time Lord innocent with an insatiable wanderlust, endearingly played by Stephen Fry. The plan, in short, was to retire one national treasure in order to replace it with another. A sort of Legacy of Doctor Who, if you will.
Understandably, this proved controversial. Yet, in 2001, when Doctor Who‘s reputation with the general public was, at best, that of a fondly-remembered national institution that had had its day and, at worst, a televisual laughing stock, this must have seemed a rather neat way of rebooting the Who universe without the taint of the Doctor Who label. Through the eyes of the ersatz-Doctor, the Minister, audiences would have enjoyed new adventures across time and space, whilst being reintroduced to familiar concepts (such as the Daleks) – ostensibly for the first time. In the end, we got the best of both worlds. Against all the odds, Doctor Who did return to the screen in 2005, while the Minister’s travels continue in an unofficial series of audio adventures from Radio Static productions (in which the Minister is played by Julian Wadham).
8: “How many more lives does this bastard have left?” – Doctor Who: Unbound (Big Finish audio series, 2003)
For Doctor Who‘s fortieth anniversary, audio drama producers Big Finish Productions came up with a novel way of celebrating that indefinable something that makes Doctor Who unique – a series of six plays in which the Doctor would be portrayed by six actors new to the part, in a series of hypothetical situations which, had they been seen onscreen, would fundamentally have changed the ethos of the show. Thus, the first play in the series, Marc Platt’s Auld Mortality, featured Geoffrey Bayldon as the Doctor and envisaged what would have happened if the Doctor hadn’t left Gallifrey; while, in what is basically a kind of Turn Left for Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, Jonathan Clements’s Sympathy for the Devil imagines what would have happened if the Doctor hadn’t been there in the seventies to help out as UNIT’s scientific advisor. The effect is often difficult to listen to as our beloved show is turned inside out, becoming totally unrecognisable to us. But that’s entirely the point – by showing us the Doctor unshaped either by important onscreen events or by the core ideas that make up his particular brand of heroism, the Unbound series actually ends up defining what appears otherwise to be indefinable.
Three Unbound adventures in particular, all of which envisage the end of Doctor Who (in one case before it’s even begun), really bring this home. David Bishop’s Full Fathom Five imagines what the Doctor would be like if he wasn’t opposed to violence. It doesn’t end well. Still on the side of right but ruthlessly pragmatic and willing to go to any lengths to secure what he believes to be the correct outcome, David Collings’s version of the character ends up lying on the floor, gunned down by his own companion, whose sheer hatred for her former friend leads her coldly to ponder how many more times she’s going to have to kill this man. Gary Russell’s He Jests at Scars… wonders what would have happened if the Valeyard had succeeded in stealing the Doctor’s remaining lives at the end of “The Trial of a Time Lord”. Apparently, he becomes so disenchanted with the show’s continuity that he throws a bomb at it and ends the universe – a response anyone who’s ever tried to solve the UNIT dating conundrum is sure to identify with.
Perhaps the most fascinating Unbound however, in both concept and execution, is Robert Shearman’s Deadline, which stars Derek Jacobi as Martin Banister – an embittered, elderly writer who, back in the 1960s failed to get his idea for a sci-fi show called Doctor Who off the ground. Shearman’s play is a rather uncomfortable listen. In this universe, Doctor Who only exists as a persistent glimmer in the mind of a failed writer, whose promising career was tarnished by his dabbling in popular TV drama. The point is obvious, but double-edged – this is a world in which no-one appreciates the pleasures of the imagination, in which popular fiction is denigrated as a cheap means of escaping from real life, rather than a way of looking at it in a new, more enriching way. That is what Doctor Who epitomises and what a world without it would look like. At the same time though, there’s no question that Banister’s life would be much richer if he’d spent his life engaging with the people around him, or with the more obviously intellectual pleasures of ‘serious’ work. It’s an unsettling listen for a long-term Doctor Who fan, in that it acknowledges the way in which Doctor Who is a series like no other – but also acknowledges the bitterness, despair and selfishness that a failed idealism, too rigidly followed, can foster.
??: “The walls of reality closed. The worlds were sealed. And everything became a bit less kind.”
Listing these examples shows how, over time, Doctor Who has become more than just a TV show – so much so that by 2003 you could write an amazing play convincingly pointing to what the world might look like if it had never been made. Never before has one series encapsulated in such a fun and accessible way the need to understand and respect the difference of others; the rewards of looking beyond that which is familiar; not only the horror, but also the sheer silliness of injustice and tyranny in any form. Doctor Who encapsulates the recognition that life, for everybody and in whatever form, should always be an ever-changing adventure in which every day is different from the last – never quiet, never calm, but definitely the trip of a lifetime. To paraphrase an episode which, had the 2005 revival not been a success, might well have been the show’s last: it’s not just a TV show, it’s a better way of living a life – a life that’s finite, fragile and potentially beautiful. It’s an idea that Doctor Who encapsulates brilliantly; on the most important level, it’s what the show is. As Shearman’s audio play demonstrates, to contemplate a world without it is also to contemplate what sort of baby you might be throwing out with the proverbial bathwater.
“We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know, it was the best: a daft old man, who stole a magic box and ran away. […] The cracks are closing. But they can’t close properly ’til I’m on the other side. I don’t belong here anymore. I think I’ll skip the rest of the rewind. I hate repeats. Live well.”
What happens in the last ever episode of Doctor Who?
Silly question – Doctor Who never ends.