This needn’t have been the case1. In Doctor Who the BBC had a programme that had various uses. It could be made, as had been proven during the late 80s (and earlier), on a meagre budget and to a reasonably high quality. It was a cheap show that could be sold abroad, giving the BBC a source of income to invest into other projects that were considered more important and worthwhile. The show’s nature (one standing set for fourteen episodes and four stories per year, at the time of cancellation) was also a good setup for fledging writers, directors and producers and everyone else involved with making a TV show to hone their respective crafts. There are plenty of examples from any era of the “classic” show you care to choose of people working on the show having to figure out how to actually make it within their allocated resources. They didn’t always succeed but it provided them with experience that they could use on future jobs.
All of this made me think about what direction the show would have taken had it continued into the 90s. The 1990 series probably wouldn’t have looked that different from season 26 the year before. In reality Andrew Cartmel moved on to script edit Casualty. The timing of his appointment there would have made his involvement in another series of Doctor Who unlikely. Ben Aaronovitch, as one of the McCoy era’s more celebrated writers and a man on good terms with both Cartmel and producer John Nathan-Turner would likely have replaced him.
The basic shape of the four stories proposed for a 1990 season are well documented at this point. One would have seen the return of the Ice Warriors. One would have introduced the new companion and her crime boss father. One would have tackled global warming or deforestation or whaling or something, being written by Cartmel himself (presumably edited by Aaronovitch). The fourth and final story would have seen Ace leave the Doctor to study on Gallifrey, the implication being that she would go on to become a Time Lady. It’s not an awe-inspiring line-up but it likely would have been decent enough.
McCoy has said he’d have done one final series and then left. That would have given the production team a year to cast a new Doctor for a brief appearance in an end of series regeneration story, setting up a 1991 series. Meanwhile Sophie Aldred, companion since 1987’s Dragonfire, has said her contract only required her to do two more stories. It’s possible she’d have agreed to extend her contract in order to leave alongside McCoy or contribute a story or two the 1991 season but it’s unlikely. Every interview in which she’s discussed the subject has made it seem pretty clear she was ready to move on from the show by the time it was cancelled.
The big question is whether JNT would have stuck around. In all likelihood he probably would have. The guy had nowhere else to go at the BBC and didn’t have any significant contacts at ITV. If he had he’d have left Doctor Who years earlier. I think he’d have ended up overseeing a 1990 season and possibly a further few as well. But sooner or later he’d have taken another opportunity within the TV industry or become fed up with his lack of opportunities and moved into a different business altogether. Whenever he left I expect he’d have been replaced by the sort of first-time producer mentioned above.
Assuming things would have been done right I think the show’s standing could have gradually improved throughout the 90s. Its format may have morphed into something more akin to the 2005 relaunch, perhaps shifting away from three and four parters to two parters or solo episodes. As American shows like The X Files, Buffy and Star Trek: The Next Generation became more prominent they almost certainly would have had an influence on the way Doctor Who was made. It’s also pretty safe to assume that some of the names who have worked on the show since 2005 would have been involved much earlier. And we may even have had TV contributions from some of the Virgin New Adventures authors who haven’t ever directly contributed to the TV show2.
Beyond this I think the only thing that can be looked at realistically is the casting of future Doctors. Which is what the rest of this article is dedicated to predicting, in list form (for ease and simplicity). I’ve restricted myself to British and Irish actors as I thought that seemed more authentic, and I’ve assumed in most cases that an actor would take the role for three years and then move on (The Troughton Rule). Each proposed Doctor era features a name I think would have been the most likely casting choice followed by some other suggestions. For realism I’ve stuck to availability (referencing those oracles of the internet IMdB and Wikipedia) for all of these names.
Many thanks to Jim Hall for suggesting several names.
1991 to 1993
When casting for a 1991 series would have taken place he would have been a well-known name desperate enough to take the role and the show would have been poisonous enough in TV circles for those making it to have to resort to considering him. I think he’d have won out over others due to his name value and availability: he’d done very little besides live off his Python work and was years away from Spamalot becoming a musical sensation.
Also considered...Dermot Crowley
He’s the first of several names on this list that could be slotted in anywhere but here felt most natural because he auditioned for the role of the Seventh Doctor. Very badly.
Brian GloverFans more diehard than me will immediately know he played Griffiths in 1985 continuity-extravaganza Attack of the Cybermen. He was usually cast as a henchman (see his work as Castle Henchman in 1991’s Kafka for a perfect example) because of his northern origins and air of intimidation but he had a pretty good range as actors go. Also worth noting is that the casting of a northerner worked out pretty well for the show in 2005.
Graeme GardenNot exactly a thespian but a man known to the British public, with the requisite kookiness required to play the Doctor at the start of the 90s. You could probably consider Tim Brooke-Taylor and even Bill Oddie for the same reasons. But let’s not go that far.
Windsor DaviesDuring the years I’m looking at there are only three jobs listed on his IMdB page (and one of those was just voice work). By 1997 he was playing Windsor Davies Badger on the massively enjoyable but not exactly high profile Harry Hill Show on Channel 4. What this tells us is that the former It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum star was not exactly in demand. He was a known quantity with nothing to do in 1991, which would probably have got him an audition by an outgoing JNT.
Richard GriffithsDuring the 90s John Nathan-Turner stated in interviews that he would have cast Griffiths as McCoy’s replacement. I think that’s wishful thinking on JNT’s part. In ’91 Griffiths was getting steady work and likely wouldn’t have wanted to be tarred with the Doctor Who brush. By the end of the 90s, when I’m assuming the programme’s credibility would have been restored, he’d have been unavailable. And even if he was available he was not a man built for long shooting schedules involving rigorous movement.
Jon PertweeYeah, really. Pertwee. He’d expressed an interest in returning to the show and would do so, on radio, a few years after it became clear it wasn’t returning to television. It’s not inconceivable the BBC would have brought him back in an attempt to restore the programme to its former glory. It’s a move that would have failed. The show’s budget had decreased, Pertwee had aged considerably, and the British public’s tastes had changed. There would probably have been nostalgia-spurred interest in the stunt but I can’t imagine a Pertwee return would have done much good in the long run.
1994 to 1995
Yeah he may have a cushy number in life now, providing voiceover work and half-heartedly slouching about as the token Englishman in big budget Hollywood films (and, inexplicably, his own HBO series) but it was a different story in 1994. Back then he’d just left Lovejoy and was typecast in the lovable rogue role. Probably wouldn’t have done more than two series here for fear of being typecast again but the role would have been suitably different to Lovejoy to make it appealing. For the production team’s part McShane was a well-known actor coming off an inexplicably popular TV show and would have generated interest in DoctorWho.
Also considered...Richard O’Brien
He finished filming the Crystal Maze in 1993, the year he would have agreed to become the hypothetical Ninth Doctor. No, he’s not much of an actor. But he’s eccentric. A glance at any of his Crystal Maze episodes demonstrates he was more than naturally strange enough to make an interesting Doctor, just not necessarily a well-acted one.
Gorden KayeHe did no TV or film work between ‘Allo, Allo’s end in 1992 and Revolver in 2001. He was known to the BBC and is niche and undesirable enough to be a consideration at this point in the show’s history.
Ralph BrownReally, he’s another guy who could be put in any of the also considered entries. He’s worked solidly in film and TV since the eighties, appearing in everything from Jonathan Creek to Star Wars. He’s a good enough actor who would presumably have been well connected enough to get an audition. But it’s hard to imagine him getting further than that.
Nicholas Lyndhurst1993 was the year he took on Goodnight Sweetheart in addition to his Only Fools work. That would have also been the year the Doctor Who production team would have been looking for their new boy. If Lyndhurst was getting offers from ITV to play a time-travelling electrician it’s easy enough to assume the BBC would have offered him their own similar part.
1996 to 1998
Fresh off of Bottom, with The New Statesman, Drop Dead Fred, Jackanory, and The Young Ones, as well as less celebrated items like Carry On Columbus, on his CV, Mayall would have been the ideal man to cast as the Doctor in the mid-90s. Assuming the show would have regained some small level of credibility thanks to Ian McShane it’s feasible Mayall could have been persuaded to take the role. I’m sure he’d have been popular. People weren’t desperate to see him cast as the Celestial Toymaker for nothing.
Hey, they could have cast Ade Edmonson as the Master too. That would’ve been a laugh. Possibly.
Also considered...Roger Daltrey
An obvious tabloid headline and a keenness on the part of Daltrey to get into acting in a significant capacity would have been enough to secure him an audition.
David CollingsHe was getting very steady work until 1995 and then there was an abrupt nine year gap. It’s the kind of thing that invites him being added to this sort of list, as does his previous involvement in the show, being bothered by droids in Robots of Death and playing at being a Time Lord in Mawdryn Undead. On the recommendation of Jim I watched him in a couple of episodes of Sapphire & Steel (there are compilation runs on YouTube, for the record) and his performance there demonstrates that he’d have made a very watchable Doctor.
Robbie ColtraneWell, y’know… Cracker. That was a big hit that had ended the year before. He’s the sort of name they’d have reached out to because his casting would have created interest. IMdB reveals he wasn’t exactly swamped with starring roles in the years following Cracker finishing so it’s possible he’d have accepted.
Tim McInnerySeven years after Black Adder (and Doctor Who, in real life) had ended McInnery hadn’t actually done much of significance. He’s another man who could be slotted into any of the also considered entries but this one feels best as he actually did audition for the role of the Eighth Doctor opposite Paul ‘Get Out! Get Out!’ McGann.
He’d left Casualty the previous year and had been around long enough to be known to The Right People. The only thing that he was missing in 1999 was a breakthrough role (that would come later in Peep Show). He was a good, safe actor that’s been keen to play the lead role since the show was brought back in 2005. Everything about him indicates he’s a fan and would like to play the Doctor whether the show’s a massive hit or not. He’d have been an ideal casting choice, and still would be.
Also considered...Brian ‘Foggy’ Wilde
Left Last of the Summer Wine in 1997. As he only did one TV gig after that (a narrating role on kids show Microscopic Milton, completed in ’97) it’s safe to assume his intention was to retire. But he was an available, established character actor, the sort of person we’ve been assuming throughout this article would’ve been near misses for the Doctor Who lead role. I can imagine he’s the sort of man who’d have received a call to make up the numbers in an audition and could have ended up a surprise casting.
David JasonIMdB reveals that this period was surprisingly slow for one of the most prolific actors in British television. I don’t think he would necessarily make the best Doctor ever but it’s hard to deny his emotional depth and comic timing. Casting him could have been used as a relaunch technique for the show after a decade rebuilding itself into something reliable and watchable.
Marc WarrenYeah, Elton Pope from Love & Monsters. Like Paterson Joseph he was years away from anything approaching a breakthrough role but he’d been around long enough and would probably be the sort of name that could sneak through to the final two or three in a casting process. Maybe a bit too similar in appearance to (proposed) outgoing star Rik Mayall though.
Alan DaviesThey’d have wanted him because of Jonathan Creek, but they wouldn’t have got him because it was too important to the BBC. He wouldn’t have wanted to do it anyay, because he’s still happy to churn out subpar Creek sixteen years after the show’s prime.
Caroline QuentinShe may have had a call for her work on the same show. The difference is that she was more likely to accept. She’s a great actress who anchored Jonathan Creek dramatically and made Alan Davies’s performance there work. If a female Doctor was going to be cast during the 90s it absolutely would have been Caroline Quentin.
1 An important disclaimer here: I think it was the right decision to take the show off the air at the end of the 80s. Although I enjoy the McCoy era it seems pretty clear that any success that’s to be found there is attributable in large part to McCoy, Aldred and Cartmel. They all would have left the show before or by the end of a 1990 series and it’s unlikely a new team would have had even their limited success. The show, its fans, and the BBC benefited from its sixteen year rest.
2 Like Lawrence Miles. Y’know, just as an example.