Timed Travel

Ian Jones on Doctor Who in the TV schedules

First published July 2000

The association of Doctor Who with Saturday teatime and in turn with some kind of golden vintage line-up of weekend evening television belies the fact that the show was actually one of the last to slot into BBC TV’s first fully-realised Saturday night schedule. Its first episode went out after Grandstand at 5.15pm on 23 November 1963 joining a line-up that now reads as a role call of great 1960s television: 5.40pm The Telegoons, 6.05pm Juke Box Jury, 6.35pm Dixon of Dock Green, then the Saturday film, 9.35pm Comedy Playhouse, then the news and at 10.20pm That Was The Week That Was.

But all of these respective series were long established; since 1957 and the end of the so-called “Toddlers Truce” (when BBC TV shut down every night between 6pm and 7pm), early Saturday evening TV comprised initially of just the pioneering music programme Six-Five Special; Juke Box Jury succeeded it from August 1959, which within three years was attracting audiences of 12 million. JBJ segued directly into Dixon of Dock Green, present on Saturday nights since July 1955, and these two series stayed locked together in the schedules for six months of every year for over a decade. Comedy Playhouse began in December 1961; TW3 – after a one-off pilot on 29 September 1962 – every week from November ’62. The Telegoons, meanwhile, was simply a puppet-realised version of the radio institution that had begun right back in May 1951.

The fact Doctor Who then became as much a part of Saturday night TV as all of these respective series can be put down to a number of factors. First, the ruthless promotion and marketing of the show by the BBC itself, capitalizing on the popularity of its simple time travel premise coupled with the enormous interest in the programme’s main “monsters”, the Daleks (who first appeared on screen on 21 December 1963). Secondly, the show’s frequency of transmission; the first series ran uninterrupted for no less than 42 weeks through to September ’64, and returned in under two months for another 39 week run. The third series, the longest ever, lasted 45 episodes. It soon felt as if Doctor Who had always been on Saturday teatime TV, and, moreover, if it went away, it would be back very soon.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Doctor Who always went out – bar a few exceptions (when Grandstand overran) – within a very narrow window of transmission times; no episode beginning earlier than 5.15pm or later than 6pm for 13 years. Although the show moved quite freely within this 45 minute zone (jumping amongst seven different start times between September ’65 and July ’66) it crucially never strayed outside it. That this remained so for such a long time obviously rendered the show a staple, regular, anticipated feature of BBC1 (as the channel became in April ’64). It became, simply, what was always “on after Grandstand“; Doctor Who was BBC1 at teatimes on Saturday. Even when the episode length of each series was dramatically reduced from the mid-40s to the mid-20s in 1970, it still meant the programme was on telly half the year round. Consequently it built up the audience those other Saturday evening fixtures enjoyed for so long, and in turn became an important tool in itself for attracting viewers to other newer programmes scheduled around it.

Doctor Who imposed its own rules on Saturday evening television. It was implicit, for instance, that the main early evening news on BBC1 should always be broadcast after Doctor Who – as if to symbolize a divide in the evening between absolutely all-age family viewing and the rest of the line-up. Similarly, having secured an audience thanks to Doctor Who, the rest of BBC Saturday night television could then develop and vary from that classic mid-’60s schedule. In July 1968, for example, Doctor Who and the news were followed by The New Lucy Show, Lucille Ball’s epic follow-up to the similarly endless I Love Lucy, here nearing the end of an incredible 130 episode run on BBC1 (not all on Saturday nights, however). After a brief sports highlights package, Dee Time at 6.35pm resembled an (often surreal) alternative to JBJ with Simon Dee alternately giggling at and insulting his musical and showbiz guests. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. at 7pm, followed by The Black and White Minstrel Show, a Saturday Thriller film strand, the Royal International Horse Show and In My View (the forerunner to Did You See …?) hosted by Robert Robinson completed the line-up effortlessly.

Come the 1970s, the Saturday night line-up changed more dramatically but forever in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way; and the template always remained the same, with variations on existing formulae or completely new long-running series continuing to secure BBC1′s domination of the schedules. The spring 1970 series was followed by the familiar US import (The Debbie Reynolds Show, which ran through to August), news, variety (It’s Cliff Richard, with Una Stubbs, Hank Marvin and Norrie Paramor and his Orchestra), stranded films (a High Adventure season of action movies), more variety (The Val Doonican Show), drama (such as the Beeb’s own adaptation of Vanity Fair), then sports highlights and distant descendants of TW3 (Braden’s Week: Bernard Braden attempting to satirically review the week with Esther Rantzen, Sean O’ Reilly and John Pitman). By 1973 the giants of ’70s Saturday TV were in place and a new family of weekend programmes had arrived, such as The Generation Game (at 6.35pm, after Doctor Who, the news and another US import, usually Disney real-life films), and of course Parkinson at 11pm, a solid, irremovable fixture at the end of the evening. But filling the gaps were still exactly the same programming: variety (The Harry Secombe Show) and stranded films (this time, a Men of Action series).

The 1975 series, the 13th, was the last Doctor Who to be shown before 6pm. Already it had slipped back behind the early evening news and the Disney short to 5.45pm, though the US import (Kojak), variety (Dick Emery Show), stranded film season (Saturday Night at the Movies) and Parkinson were all still present. As if recognizing the importance, at last, of the rival ITV Saturday night schedule, coupled with the show’s current production team self-consciously driving it towards a more darker, violent and adult tone, Doctor Who now began – very slightly – to be manipulated for the sake of ratings and good PR. These autumn ’75 episodes were up against an ITV line-up of Shang-A-Lang at 5.30pm, a tatty but popular imitation of those early ’60s music showcases; The Summer Show at 6pm, a spin-off from the invincible New Faces; and the power of Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man at 6.45pm. Then, from the 14th series in 1976 until August 1980 Doctor Who was – save for a very few exceptions – broadcast after 6pm, sometimes falling back as late as 6.30pm. While not a drastic development, this subtle shift ultimately upset the long-established balance of Saturday teatime TV; it meant not least that after Grandstand there would now be cartoons, then the news, and, memorably from 1980, The Dukes of Hazzard instead. Where had Doctor Who gone, wondered the youngest of the young fans? But though this switch may have augured a reform of the whole Saturday schedule traditions, the same kinds of programming persisted through the rest of the evening: still the US import (in ’78 Starsky and Hutch), still the stranded films, still Parky, still (in the 1980 autumn run) The Generation Game (revitalized by host Larry Grayson).

The 1980 series was back before 6pm, sandwiched between Hazzard and Larry Grayson, before Juliet Bravo and the inevitable film. Still a very strong line-up; and easily outplaying ITV’s half-hearted offerings of Mind Your Language at 5.15pm, The Crowther Collection at 5.45pm and the ridiculous misfire (and obvious attempt at a Who spoiler) that was the over-hyped, overlong Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (the first episode scheduled unbelievably at 6.15pm through to 8pm). Only later, with Sale of the Century, From Here to Eternity and, after the news, Tales of the Unexpected at 9.45pm did ITV boast a powerful, engaging line-up. But despite the hiccup of that late ’70s shuttling either side of 6pm, Doctor Who seemed safe on Saturdays, with absolutely no reason whatsoever to remove it from teatime. Saturday nights and Doctor Who were, thanks to history, entwined on countless generations of viewers’ minds.

So when the programme was suddenly moved from Saturday for the start of Peter Davison’s first series in January 1982 to utterly new transmission times – on both Monday and Tuesday evenings – the consequences could only be dramatic. For one thing, it immediately undermined the viewing rituals and patterns of a generation by asking audiences to remember to tune in on a day other than Saturday, and then twice a week rather than simply the once. What mattered now was how and whether the show could firstly establish itself as a natural fixture on a weekday evening on BBC1 (and as part of a weekday, rather than weekend, evening line-up); and secondly how it would fare up against rival programming on other networks – both factors that would increasingly dog the entire production and success of the show, and factors which it must be remembered only became issues once Doctor Who was moved from Saturdays.

Davison’s first series began on Monday 4 January at 6.55pm, following the Evening News and Nationwide – a reasonably solid enough lead-in guaranteeing the backbone of an audience for at least the start of any weekday’s prime-time TV. But 6.55pm was later than any series had been scheduled ever before; children wanting to see the return of the Doctor would’ve had to wait a yawning gap of 75 minutes since Blue Peter finished. Worse, these Monday episodes had to contend with rubbing up alongside such invidious fare as The Rockford Files and then, scheduled bizarrely at 9.25pm, a new series of Last of the Summer Wine followed by the prototype fly on-the-wall series Police at 9.55pm on nine months in the Thames Valley Constabulary, then Film 82 and repeats of Now Get Out of That: a line-up that seems hopelessly ordered and ineptly sequenced.

ITV’s schedule pivoted around the programme that would become the bane of Doctor Who‘s existence in the 198Os: Coronation Street. Besides being more sensibly timed (on the hour and half hour), the ITV 1982 Monday evening schedule was totally based around the transmission of this soap opera, a fixture on Mondays for aeons (in the same way, and with the same significance, as Doctor Who had been on Saturdays). The line-up evolved naturally, a gentle flow up to Coronation Street (the News at 5.45 and regional news at 6pm followed by Mr and Mrs hosted by Derek Batey and Wish You Were Here …?) At 8pm, the short-lived Johnnie Mortimer/Brian Cooke Thames sitcom Let There Be Love starring Paul Eddington bridged the half hour to another Monday stalwart, World in Action. One-off drama was shown at 9pm, either side of News At Ten and ahead of the ITV regions’ respective pre-closedown packages. A respectable, incredibly varied and well ordered evening. More pertinently, even though Doctor Who wasn’t head to head with Coronation Street, habit would dictate a natural tendency to watch Wish You Were Here …? simply because it was the programme on before Coronation Street.

Television was watched as a family on Saturday evenings; weekday evenings were not and are not family oriented times simply because of the post-school, post-work rituals of everyday life. When Doctor Who, an ostensibly family show, was moved to a non-peak family time this meant it was now on too early for parents late in from work or off out to evening engagements, on at the wrong time for school kids either out or eating or elsewhere, and most importantly on at a time when kids are being persuaded by parents into doing homework simply because, to them, kids TV programmes finished over an hour ago. The move to weeknights, in other words, was militating against Doctor Who maintaining any kind of family ethos or audience whatsoever.

Each of Peter Davison’s three series were kept on weekday evenings, shuttled variously between 6.45pm and 7.05pm but typically never the same time every day every week. Come the 1983 series, a fourth channel was now jostling for the wandering viewer’s attention. On the first day of the ’83 series, Channel 4 had an inspired line-up typical of the station in its very early days: I Love Lucy at 6pm, a few dozen episodes into C4′s 141 episode rerun; a documentary on adult literacy shot in Guatemala, Tanzania and Britain; Don’t Do It Mrs Worthington, an hour long preview of the making of the forthcoming (and soon to be infamous) series Mini Pops; an experimental musical video drama by Mike Batt at 8pm (Zero Zero); The Comic Strip at 9pm (the excellent War), then Keith Allen’s hour long hit and miss Whatever You Want.

Davison’s 1984 series was hindered by having to follow on from the ghastly Sixty Minutes, the ill-conceived replacement for Nationwide. But here on a Thursday, the show could have found something of a home in a strong-ish schedule, followed as it was by both Tomorrow’s World and TOTP. Three veteran BBC series in a row; a tantalizing prospect and a fond trio for BBC sentimentalists and devotees, but a no-go area for anyone sick of old predictable programming and after something new and exciting. Once more the Beeb frittered away the significance of this line-up by following TOTP with programmes like The Showmen (Paul Heiney on Ordinary People who like doing dangerous things). Not all Davison’s episodes were always on Coronation Street nights; his first series was on Mondays and Tuesdays; his next, confusingly, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This third series appeared on different nights again: Thursdays and Fridays. This was perhaps the best of a bad bunch, hitting weak ITV nights each time; Thursdays offering up only Take the High Road at 7pm followed by variously Knight Rider, the dull series Hotel, Shelley and others for primetime viewing. Of more significance was Crossroads, on from 6.35pm to 7pm and effectively spoiling the start of Doctor Who. But really the show should’ve had its best chance for weekday success in this year; even Channel 4 could only offer Gardeners’ Calendar half an hour before its main 7pm news as an Thursday evening alternative (ahead of a better selection of Treasure Hunt and another epic US sitcom rerun, this time all 92 episodes of Soap).

But then Alan Hart, one of the worst BBC1 Controllers ever, after idly ferrying Doctor Who between any number of weeknights, now perversely moved the show back to Saturday evenings from 1985 while at the same time doubling the duration of each episode, thereby ruining another important factor to the programme’s history – its standardized familiar dramatic arc of 25 minutes transmission length. By the time this new series went out, Hart was replaced by the one of the best BBC1 Controllers ever, Michael Grade, who tried to offset the effect of this weird episode duration, plus the unpalatable portrayal of the Doctor by Colin Baker, plus worst of all a strengthening ITV Saturday evening line-up, by surrounding the show with familiar Saturday relics. So for this series, the shortest ever (just 13 episodes, albeit each 45 minutes long), it was back to the old post Grandstand and News slot of 5.20pm, followed by Jim’ll Fix It and The Little and Large Show. More lengthy, expensive drama series – from the UK, the zoo vet series One by One starring Rob Heyland, from the US, Dynasty – were to preface the news, the evening film and sports highlights packages (filling the gaping hole left by Parkinson‘s bolt to ITV). This collection of odds and ends seems a brave attempt to recreate a memorable, family enticing line-up, but there’s clearly too much drama (where are the quizzes?); over on C4 yet another of its archive reruns – this time the best so far, Danger Man – offered a far more profound and evocative mixture of action and fantasy than Doctor Who could muster at this time, while either side sat the now firmly fixed Brookside omnibus, sport and the regular Seven Days.

But it’s on ITV that a profound change had taken place: now there’s Blockbusters at 5.05pm; then a cheap but sensible themed strand of Disaster Movies leading into Parky’s LWT series All Star Secrets at 7.15pm (Kenneth Williams, Janet Brown, Roy Kinnear – what more do you need for a Saturday evening?), then the charmless harmless TJ Hooker, before the titan that was The Price is Right at 8.40pm – the monolith of ITV Saturday evenings in the immediate years before Blind Date. Here Doctor Who was caught up in a time warp, trying to hark back to its glory days as post-football results family fun, but instead appearing so badly acted, too long and confusingly written that naturally people switched off. Grade cancelled the show’s usual reappearance 12 months later, wisely concentrating on consolidating the new EastEnders and other ventures, whilst totally reworking the schedules to remove silly starting times (such as five minutes to the hour) and building up Saturday night again.

When Doctor Who was allowed back it was September 1986, for 14 episodes, but now back at 25 minutes length – now really the shortest amount of new episodes ever – and still on Saturday evenings. Grade had worked hard and it showed – there was the new Basil Brush for post-Grandstand enjoyment (Roland Rat) before Doctor Who at 5.45pm, followed by the much needed quizzes (Telly Addicts, Every Second Counts), the ubiquitous variety (The Russ Abbot Show) and, most significantly of all, strong new contemporary drama (Casualty). All this was over and done with by 8.40pm, moreover, when the inevitable film turns up; yet there’s still time come 10pm for the news and sports highlights, then another film before closedown. A busy, bustling, mixed line-up; pity it was having to go up against Blockbusters and above all The A-Team at 5.35pm. Why watch dull, wooden, cheap and unimaginative science fiction while there’s fast, obvious and violent destruction at the same time on another channel? From The A-Team into Blind Date, then to Copy Cats, then the supreme 3-2-1, the news, and then Dempsey and Makepeace … the BBC came close, but somehow seemed to fail again to sustain a tangible flavour to the evening which would make you stay tuned to that channel no matter what.

Another change of actor, another move in the schedules; from September 1987, and for its three remaining series, Doctor Who was moved back to weeknights again, but to a timeslot that was the most perplexing and unfathomable of all – directly against Coronation Street on Monday evenings. Did the BBC expect people to video one and watch the other, or that no-one interested in Doctor Who would want to watch Coronation Street? The schedule into which the 1987 series of Doctor Who was dropped was at least a more ordered and logical one than those it had been buckled to in the early ’80s; most pertinently, the show followed on directly from Wogan, BBC1′s thrice-weekly blarney with Terry and guests. It’s possible to see how a Wogan/Who partnership would’ve worked; a strong early-evening combination that turned up regularly at set times, the one a distillation of BBC early evening weeknight TV, both shows even sharing similar looking opening titles for a while … But it never happened. Wogan ran from 7pm till 7.35pm, the last five minutes an attempt to spoil the start of Coronation Street and hold viewers to the BBC. Clearly audiences didn’t fall for such a cheap trick and left the Beeb in droves, as they still do, the minute half seven arrived.

And then the rest of the autumn 1987 Monday evening Beeb schedule, though well paced and sequenced, was decidedly pallid: after Doctor Who, repeats of Hi-De-Hi! (ahead of a new, and last, series to start on Boxing Day), the second series of Dear John, then after the news Rough Justice, Lovejoy (on at 10.10pm, a curious timeslot) and Film 87. As an attempt to offer a mix of primetime TV in the vein of those famous Saturday night line-ups from the ’60s and ’70s, it’s creaky and contrived, and of course Doctor Who is still on too late. ITV relied on The Krypton Factor to secure viewers from 7pm throughout the autumn (and Sporting Triangles in most regions from 6.30pm), and from 8pm offered up various mini-series and two hour dramas through to the News at Ten. The contrast between two hour block scheduling on ITV as opposed to half hour sequencing on the BBC probably helped the Beeb but only after 8pm.

The 1988 series saw Doctor Who moved onto Wednesday evenings, still up against Coronation Street and after Wogan. The choice between Home James (ITV) and Miss Marple (BBC) at 8pm probably resolved itself in the BBC’s favour; but like an annoying fly buzzing around its weary head, BBC1 seemed to be continually trying to swat Doctor Who away and suffocate it in nightmarish transmission times. For the first few weeks of the 1988 series, if you didn’t like Doctor Who or Coronation Street, there was C4 news or Political Party Conference reports on BBC2, and that was it.

The 1989 series, Doctor Who‘s last, was on the same day and time, this time segueing into repeats of the latest series of Bergerac, followed by the news, Inside Story and Sportsnight (another Wednesday night fixture). The last episode went out on 6 December 1989, though probably not many people noticed – and why should they? The show’s broadcast was no longer something of an occasion; it certainly wasn’t a family show anymore and hadn’t been for many years; ferried around between a multitude of days and times, it didn’t deserve the attention and respect it had been able to cultivate and feed off through the ’60s and ’70s. Killed off by three years of scheduling against Coronation Street, its transmission time too late in the day, the series shortened to a mere 14 episodes each for the last four years (as opposed to the half-year duration of the show up to 1982) – it’s hard to see any positive logic behind these developments. Though of course it wasn’t just the scheduling that was the problem, as typified by the two series in the mid ’80s back on Saturdays; ultimately it came down to quality and quantity of the actual programmes. If the BBC had thought Doctor Who worth broadcasting at a time when it would attract a large audience, then they would have moved it from its slot against Coronation Street. But patently they didn’t. As it was, the black art of scheduling would finally do for the Doctor where a host of colourful and more exciting foes had failed.