by Harry Dobermann –

When Dr Who reveals in the less than classic episode Black Orchid (an episode best watched with the commentary on so you can hear the star Peter Davison reminding you of every flaw) that as a boy he always wanted to drive a steam train, he nails the hidden destiny of Doctor Who.

British Railways was the state owned railway operator between 1948 and 1997. The British Broadcasting Corporation is the British public service broadcaster, established under Royal Charter in 1927. In 1955, British Rail began a programme of modernisation, replacing steam engines with new diesel locomotives. In 1961, the BBC hired Sydney Newman, to reinvigorate its drama output. Dr Who was one of Newman’s innovations.

In 1942, Ian Allan , a clerk in the Southern Railway publicity section at Waterloo had responded to increasing requests for information about locomotives by publishing the ‘ABC Southern Locomotives’. This led to a series of booklets covering all regions of the United Kingdom, and in 1945, he left Southern Railway to set up Ian Allan Publishing . The company would become the world’s leading transport publisher. Allan also set up the ‘locospotters club’ , organising the ad hoc pastime into a community of 230,000 members pledging not to trespass or misbehave on railway property.

In 1965, the William (Dr Who) Hartnell Fan Club was created, rejuvenating into the Doctor Who Fan Club in 1967 . The original fan club was encouraged and financially supported by the BBC up until the Tom Baker era, when it was succeeded by the independent Doctor Who Appreciation Society. Membership of the DWAS appears to have been on a much smaller scale than the ‘locospotters club’ – a membership of three thousand reflecting the fact that Virgin books would print and sell around 25,000 copies of each novelisation and home video cassettes sold between 20,000 and 50,000 copies.*

Richard Beeching IS The Doctor

In 1963, physicist and engineer Dr Richard Beeching of the British Transport Commission, published a report which advocated addressing falling revenue by cutting a third of passenger services and over half the existing train stations. The proposals were opposed by both unions and the rail travelling public. In 1985, BBC1 controller Michael Grade addressed falling viewing figures by proposing the cancellation of Doctor Who. In response to public outrage, the series was at first “rested” and returned after 18 months with a new lead actor. It was finally “not-renewed” in 1989.

With the 1955 modernisation plan replacing steam with diesel and electric locomotives, and lines being closed as a result of the 1963 Beeching report, a new breed of enthusiast emerged to preserve what was disappearing . These enthusiasts were not content just to record facts about the trains. They wanted to drive the trains. And they wanted to maintain the trains and preserve the lines. The Bluebell Line – opened in 1960 – was the UK’s first standard gauge (ie full size) passenger railway, run by volunteers and reopening part of the Lewes to East Grinstead Line. Today, millions travel on our preserved railways. Many would not consider themselves locospotters or enthusiasts. The preserved railways are just another industry open to the public.

With Doctor Who no longer supported as TV show, it became similar to a redundant train line. Enthusiasts now ran the show. In 1989, Virgin Books had exhausted most of the TV episodes which could be novelised and negotiated the rights to publish original novels. These had more adult themes and a greater imaginative reach than what had been appearing on TV. In 1999, the audio company Big Finish produced an original full-cast Doctor Who adventure The Sirens of Time. This company became very much the equivalent of a Railway Preservation Society. They employed former Doctor Who actors in the same way that the early preserved lines employed former railwaymen to use their skills. Doubtless if things had gone differently, Big Finish would have become the official successor to the BBC in preserving the heritage of Dr Who.

But the BBC began to realize that – while Dr Who had no value as a TV show – it was a valuable merchandising property. As Miles Booy put it in 2012*, “a fan born in the late 60s…has been collecting sets of Doctor Who in some format (novelisations, video, DVD) for literally as long as they could remember. T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock counted out his life in teaspoons – I’ve spent mine waiting for The Sun Makers to come out.” This reflects the experience of railway enthusiasts. As Nicholas Whittaker notes** “At the serious end of the collecting business a stout chequebook is essential”

There’s still life in the old boy yet

In 1993 Virgin proposed to formalise the continuation of TV Doctor into book Doctor with a regeneration into a new doctor “played” (on book covers and personal appearances) by David Troughton. The BBC vetoed it. In 1996 they licensed a film to be made by Universal for the Fox network and the BBC starring Stephen McGann and in 1997 the BBC took back publishing of the New Adventures. Ironically, in 2005 the BBC brought back Doctor Who as a TV show under iconoclastic writer-producer Russell T Davies. This new series strongly reflected the approach of the Virgin New Adventures. As Miles Booy puts it, “Who products which had been precision exercises in niche marketing in the 1990s now constituted a massive Research and Development Division for what became a massive mainstream hit.”

More than this – the new Dr Who was written, directed, produced and acted in by former fans (most prominently Peter Capaldi – fanzine writer in the 1970’s and Dr Who himself in the 21st Century). This reflects the railway experience which Nicholas Whittaker observed: “In the fifties and sixties trainspotting was the Bash Street Kids versus British Rail… grumpy stationmasters and porters…. BUT ever since British Railways took up advertising jobs in the ABC spotting books, the railways have been staffed by former trainspotters. Not only do they get their chance to drive trains and whistle trains off, they welcome fellow enthusiasts with open arms.”

The BBC had realised that there was a commercial advantage in controlling the direction of the character. Again, the application of capitalist instincts reflects the railway experience. Nicholas Whittaker ** notes that by 1994, “Privatization had already reared its ugly head…under the new rules locomotive owners must pay Railtrack for the privilege of travelling its rails. An extra cost that’s too much for some of the preservation groups.”

The question in 2020 is not whether Dr Who has a future, but what direction that future might take. If there comes a time when the BBC can no longer support Dr Who as a TV show, will they “privatise it” and license it to a company like Netflix? Or will they hand it over to the preservationists?

I originally wrote “only time can tell” at this point, but was challenged by a correspondent*** who said that the question was irrelevant because the BBC had already attempted to privatise Dr Who with the TV movie. A good point, but I would argue the commercial environment was very different then. Despite the existence of of American Dr Who fan clubs watching old Jon Pertwee episodes on PBS, there was not a sizeable audience ready to embrace the McGann TV movie. Whereas now, a substantial worldwide audience has embraced the new-style Dr Who. So, could there come a time when the home grown BBC audience no longer justifies the BBC making the show – but the merchandising and worldwide audience make it attractive enough for the BBC to license the actual production of the series, so that the BBC can just sit back and benefit from the royalties?

*-Love and Monsters:The Doctor Who Experience 1979 to the Present – Miles Booy, I.B.Tauris & Co, 2012

**- Nicholas Whittaker Platform Souls: The trainspotter as 20th century Hero, Icon Books 2015 (Gollancz 1995)

*** Thanks Tomalak