Since the late 1960s, there have been many attempts to bring Doctor Who back to the big screen – and some got a little closer than others.
In the 1960s, the BBC TV favourite Doctor Who generated two big screen feature films. They starred Peter Cushing as the Doctor and featured plenty of colourful Daleks. But the plan had been for a trilogy of sorts. Still, Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg’s attempt to produce a third Doctor Who feature film in the 1960s, to be based on the television serial The Chase and provisionally entitled Daleks v Mechons, was scuppered by Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD‘s somewhat disappointing box office return.
Furthermore, whilst ‘Mechons’ was perhaps a clumsy renaming of the TV serial characters the Mechanoids, it was also a tad too close to Mekons for the creators of the comic hero Dan Dare (the Mekon being Dare’s nemesis in the strips). With Subotsky and Rosenberg believing Dalekmania was over and Dalek creator Terry Nation taking his creations to America in 1967, removing them from the TV series in the process, the idea of another Doctor Who feature film seemed dead in the water.
And it was. For quite a long time.
Fast forward then to almost a decade later, and a possible film treatment was written by the-then current Doctor, Tom Baker together with his friend and Who co-star Ian Marter. The two conceived Doctor Who Meets Scratchman, whilst filling time during rehearsals. Baker is on record as being no fan of the Cushing movies, considering them “poor” and not really delivering on the potential of the series on the big screen. He was keen to develop something closer to the television series but with genuine big screen appeal.
Vincent Price and Twiggy (Lesley Hornby) had at various times been mentioned as possible co-stars: Price would play Harry Scratch/Scratchman, essentially the Devil in disguise and Twiggy would be the Doctor’s companion. Though Elisabeth Sladen was undoubtedly first choice to reprise her role from the TV show when the script was first written, by 1976 she was deliberately distancing herself from the series.
The antagonists in the film would include the Daleks, Cybors and villainous scarecrows, an idea later used very effectively in excellent modern Doctor Who episodes Human Nature/Family of Blood. Erstwhile director of The Avengers, James Hill was intrigued by the proposed Doctor Who film project and offered his services. Following a working holiday in Italy to flesh out the idea, Baker and Marter – through Baker’s agent Jean Diamond – managed to convince BBC Enterprises the project had legs. However, there was difficulty in getting funding and after several years Baker reluctantly abandoned the idea. Ian Marter’s death in 1986 meant the film would probably never happen. Tom Baker, having been reunited with the long lost script, eventually published a novel based upon the idea, co-written with James Goss in 2019.
Douglas Adams, script editor on Tom Baker’s penultimate season as the Doctor, had separately drafted a script idea called Doctor Who And The Krikkitmen and submitted it to the Doctor Who production office in the mid 70s. Adams was rewarded with the chance to script the 1978 TV serial The Pirate Planet. Adams returned to his idea, which he now saw as a potential film script, upon leaving the script editor’s chair. He attempted to interest Paramount Pictures. Eventually all his efforts came to nothing and struck by writer’s block, Adams decided to recycle some of the Krikkitmen ideas for a pivotal chapter of Life The Universe And Everything, the third book in his Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series.
Another potential Doctor Who movie had run aground.
By the mid 80s the TV show was losing ground on UK TV to The A-Team from across the pond and HTV’s popular Robin of Sherwood. A film company called Coast to Coast (the first of several guises of a consortium called Dalteneys, whose investors reportedly included Bryan Ferry) tried to create a buzz for a potential big screen Doctor Who.
Several names were mentioned as potential Doctors: John Cleese, Michael Crawford, Donald Sutherland and Eric Idle, whom, his fellow Python, Michael Palin suggested “looked good in a scarf”. Even Michael Jackson had apparently shown “great interest” despite having little awareness of the TV series.
While funding from America proved elusive, with a change of company name in 1990 to the more hopeful Green Light, Dalteneys finally released a poster for the film project entitled Doctor Who – The Last Of The Time Lords. Around 18 months later, they struck a deal with Lumiere for three films, potentially starring Alan Rickman with Leonard Nimoy as director. However in 1993, Lumiere pulled out amid rumours of a “major cinematic name” taking an interest just as the TV series celebrated its thirtieth anniversary.
In the 1993 BBC documentary Thirty Years In The TARDIS, newly-installed BBC 1 controller, the more science fiction-sympathetic, Alan Yentob, was asked about the involvement of Amblin Entertainment headed by Steven Spielberg, in a potential remake. However, it was the tenacity of ex-Amblin employee and Who fan Philip Segal that was the catalyst that led to the 1996 television movie starring Paul McGann. Segal’s first choice, Michael Crawford, proved unavailable.
The rights to develop a Doctor Who film had returned to the BBC in 1994, ending Dalteney’s protracted attempts to create something workable.The resulting television movie was made through Universal and did well in the UK, but didn’t capture the lucrative US market, which was conditional to the programme returning as a full TV series. The film rights, now controlled by the newly-established BBC Films, were once again available to other potential investors with viable ideas and sufficiently impressive acting and directing contact books.
1999 saw talks between Mike Phillips of BBC Films and the writer and director, Paul W.S. Anderson. He was well known for genre movies Mortal Kombat and Event Horizon and had founded Impact Pictures. Phillips was encouraged by a treatment Anderson had written and felt the it could make a “saleable mainstream film”. Impact felt “an internationally known name” was required to play the Doctor. Denzel Washington, if they could secure his services, was seen as possibly providing a genuinely fresh take on the Doctor.
Anderson had worked with several names, any of whom could have also taken the Doctor mantle: Sean Pertwee, Jude Law, Jason Isaacs (hello!), Christopher Lambert and Laurence Fishburne. The project could have been the most interesting take on the franchise in years, however, it had delayed two potential BBC TV revivals by one Russell T Davies in 1999 and 2002.
In 2003 the rights to Doctor Who (long mired in complexity from the days of the 1996 Universal television movie and various subsequent BBC Films negotiations) finally deferred back to BBC TV to allow Davies to bring the show back to television.
A huge TV success once more, a Doctor Who film was no longer seen as a viable proposition or indeed something the public necessarily wanted. The nature of the show is in many ways far better suited to the small screen. Of course, that didn’t stop the rumour mill! In 2012 David Yates, the director of four Harry Potter films controversially claimed to be helming a new Doctor Who film project, which would embrace scripts from both the UK and the US. Yates suggested he was heading up a fresh attempt to get Who on the big screen. Steven Moffat, the then TV showrunner, rubbished the claim and adamantly stated Yates was not involved in any potential movie. Yates has mentioned this project since and Moffat has continued to refute the claim.
With production on the TV series currently delayed due to coronavirus, is the time now ripe for another attempt at a Doctor Who movie albeit with an inevitably extensive lead-in time? With production notoriously difficult on any potential Who venture for the big screen, could something be in cinemas in time for the 60th anniversary at the end of 2023?
One way or another, the lucrative potential of a big screen version of the series – if handled well – remains too enticing not to happen, eventually. To quote The Doctor: Time will tell… it always does.”
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