Last updated 19 November 2023

Doctor Who: Doctor Who: The Wilderness Years

Doctor Who: The Wilderness Years

No of Episodes: 1

Radio 4 (United Kingdom):
First Broadcast: Sunday 19th November 2023
Running Time: 28 minutes

In 1989 - after 26 years on TV, 694 episodes and seven different Doctors - Doctor Who, the longest running series in the history of British television, was quietly exterminated by the BBC. It remained off air for 16 years until the series was revived in 2005, quite spectacularly under the auspices of Russell T Davies with Christopher Eccleston as The Doctor.

But the period between 1989 and 2005 was a very special interregnum. Known as the 'Wilderness Years’, they belonged to the true keepers of the flame, Doctor Who fans - and never had a ‘wilderness’ proved so fertile.

Fans had campaigned to stop the show being cancelled as early as 1985, when it was first in peril. There was a song, Doctor in Distress, featuring members of Bucks Fizz and sponsored by The Sun, winning the show another four years of life. But, by the late 1980s, it had fallen from the heights of its 1970s popularity with Jon Pertwee and then Tom Baker playing the Time Lord. Ratings had been falling steadily and, for many viewers, the writing was becoming more improbable, culminating in a monster made of Liquorish All-Sorts. It was widely felt the programme was unloved by the BBC.

Doctor Who’s cancellation was monumentally traumatic for fans of the show. But this was no ordinary show, and Doctor Who fans are not ordinary fans. After the initial waves of disbelief and protest against the decision died down, a kind of creative and moral transfer of ownership took place - as one more militant Whovian put it, ‘If the BBC wouldn’t make Doctor Who…we would. We were not going to let it die’.

What followed was an incredible period of invention, imagination, pathos, delusion, devotion and wish-fulfilment; a genuinely strange – but totally critical - period in Doctor Who’s history. There were new adventures in books published by Virgin, new video and audio, animation and computer games, even experiments in theatre. There were magazines and bulletins, fan-made documentaries, a proliferation of Doctor Who conventions and even a canonical 1996 TV movie with a new Doctor, played by Paul McGann. Far from being a ‘wilderness’, this intensely creative period became a bridge between the original series and its 21st century comeback, the momentum behind the Doctor's triumphant return.

Writer and broadcaster Matthew Sweet tells the story of the longest hiatus in one of TV's longest running series and the extraordinary willpower of a community who could not - would not - allow that flame to die. We hear from the writers, actors from multiple eras of the show, editors and architects of the 'Wilderness Years' - and also from the agitators, the fans who financed their own audio and video adventures of the Doctor, his companions and the TARDIS.

Rich with archive, this programme explores the love, pathos, occasionally unhinged devotion, creative endeavour and bloody-minded determination that made the 'Wilderness Years' some of the richest, oddest and most inventive in Doctor Who's 60 year history.