By Matthew Kresal
On the sixth of December 1989, viewers of BBC One watched the third and final episode of the Doctor Who serial Survival, featuring Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor and Sophie Aldred's Ace facing off against the Doctor's old foe The Master in Ace's home turf of Perivale. At the episode's conclusion, McCoy's Doctor delivers a short monologue ending with "Come on, Ace, we've got work to do!" The end credits played, and viewers might reasonably have expected Doctor Who to return to screens in 1990.
Except, of course, that it didn't. Even as the series was to have a continued life through novels, audio dramas, comics, and its official magazine, new episodes of Doctor Who were all but missing from TV screens for more than a decade. Its only appearances outside of repeats in the 1990s amounted to the 30th-anniversary Children in Need piece Dimensions in Time, the 1999 comedy short The Curse of Fatal Death for Red Nose Day, and, the most high profile and budgeted, the 1996 tv movie co-produced with the US network Fox and Universal Television.
Not that it had to be that way. The 27th season of Doctor Who had already been taking shape in the minds of its production team. So what might it have been like if the adventures of the Seventh Doctor had continued into 1990? It's a question whose answer stretches across 15 years and the changing fortunes of the series itself.
Doctor Who Magazine (DWM) was among the first to take a crack at answering the question in 1997. That summer's issue, number 255, featured an article by writer Dave Owen entitled "27 Up". Owen turned to many of those involved with the McCoy era, including script editor Andrew Cartmel, writers Ben Aaronovitch and Marc Platt, and producer John Nathan-Turner. Owen featured their commentary on the planned season, its untitled serials (which Owen would name for the sake of readers), and what the future beyond it might have looked it.
Season 27, as laid out in "27 Up," was described by Cartmel as something which tonally "would have been far more realistic," citing the influence of season 26's Survival upon his thinking. Even so, the season would have opened with a space opera penned by Ben Aaronovitch. Christened Earth Aid by Owen, Aaronovitch (who had previously written the opening serials for seasons 25 and 26) would also have introduced a new samurai-inspired race of warrior insects known as the Metatraxi. It would have been a big, bold start to the season as a whole.
From there, "27 Up" postulated a more Earthbound season, building upon previous seasons and the BBC's experience with historical and present-day settings. It was here that the show would get a major shake-up with the exit of Ace from the series and the introduction of a new companion. Marc Platt, who had penned the serial Ghost Light for season 26, was set to do the second serial of the season. Ice Time, as Owen coined it, was to take place in the Swinging London of the late 1960s and featuring the return of the Martian Ice Warriors, unseen in the series since the 1970s. Ice Time was also set to introduce a new recurring character, whom Platt described as an "underworld hippy character." This figure, whom Owen named Sam Tellinger, would also be the father of the eventual future companion as the serial would conclude with Ace ending up enrolled in the Prydonian Academy on the Time Lord's home planet of Gallifrey.
And what about that future companion? Dubbed Kate Tellinger by Owen in "27 Up," Cartmel described her as "a kind of slinky debutante cat-burglar type." In terms of who might have played the part, Cartmel mentioned Julia Ormond and Elizabeth Hurley as examples of who he was considering. Owen, in the accompanying speculative article appropriately titled "What If?" put Julia Sawalha, who had been starring in the series Press Gang in 1989-90, in the role as Sawalha had received an audition request before the Doctor Who production office closed down in 1990. Whatever her name and eventual performer, the character's introductory serial, christened Crime of the Century by Owen, was to have been the third story of the season.
From there, other serials had been under consideration by Cartmel. Writer Robin Mukherjee's storyline Alixion was a strong contender for the final slot, having been in development since 1987, featuring the Doctor's discovery of a group of monks, giant alien beetles, and an intelligence-boosting elixir. David A McIntee had a Lovecraft-inspired serial called Avatar in the scripting stage involving alien bodysnatchers which could only inhabit the dead, while Neil Penswick was scrippting Hostage, which the writer described in "27 Up" as "Doctor Who meets Predator and Aliens." Writer Edward Young had been working on Night Thoughts, featuring university academics trapped in an isolated house in the winter, unaware of a murderer in their midst. Meanwhile, special effects team member Mike Tucker and writer Robert Perry were developing a Cybermen story set among the London Blitz called Illegal Alien. Last but not least, Cartmel himself was considering writing a serial given the name Animal by Owen, potentially involving lab animals though the idea was at best vague.
The biggest question hanging over any potential 27th season was the future of Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor. The 1990 season, if made, was to have been his fourth in the role, and making him the third longest-serving Doctor behind Tom Baker (seven seasons) and Jon Pertwee (five seasons). Would McCoy have stuck around for a fifth season, or would late 1990 have seen him exit the role? If McCoy had left the series, producer John Nathan-Turner (who himself might not have been around to produce season 27) mentioned that he had been considering Richard Griffiths to be the Eighth Doctor. Could the final serial, such as Robin Mukherjee's Alixion, have ended with a handover from one Doctor to the other?
The unmade 1990 season came up once more a decade later. Endgame, a documentary featured on the 2007 DVD release of Survival and the later Blu-Ray release of season 26, picked up the story of Doctor Who's final days and the unmade season. Featuring interviews with Cartmel and Aaronovitch as well as McCoy, Aldred, and behind the scene staff such as special effects team member Mike Tucker and composer Mark Ayers, it likewise delved into some of the unmade stories of the unmade season. It included the opening scenes of Earth Aid, featuring a Star Wars-inspired shot of a massive spaceship moving overhead before cutting to Ace on the bridge of the ship as its captain, only to go to her cabin and inform the Doctor that his latest plan isn’t going to work. It also included a depiction of the debut scene for the new companion, involving finding the Doctor having locked himself inside a massive safe that the character had been safecracking. Aaronovitch was quick to mention that, despite the appearances perhaps given by the DWM article, “You have to understand that, at that point, season 27 was a series of scenes we’d like to see.” Cartmel echoed that sentiment saying that, despite how developed the ideas were, “Nothing was absolutely nailed down.”
Beyond potential stories, changes to the show itself featured in Endgame. These ranged from McCoy hoping to make further changes to his costume, such as removing the question-mark pullover he'd worn since his debut, to a possible TARDIS console room re-design by Mike Tucker involving the console suspended from the ceiling. Ayers, having composed the scores for three of the later Seventh Doctor serials, picked up on John Nathan-Turner's discussion of a new arrangement of the theme tune, an opportunity he would have welcomed.
The timing of Endgame's release on the Survival DVD came at an intriguing moment in the history of Doctor Who. By 2007, a number of the proposed season 27 stories had appeared in other forms. Avatar and Hostage had been re-imagined by McIntee and Penswick as the novels White Darkness and The Pit for the Virgin New Adventures range of the early 1990s. Perry and Tucker's Illegal Alien had become one of the first Past Doctor Adventures novels from BBC Books in 1997. In 2006, Young's Night Thoughts became an audio drama from Big Finish Productions (the UK-based company that had been producing Doctor Who audio dramas and spin-offs since 1999) with McCoy and Aldred reprising their roles alongside new companion Hex. Also, Doctor Who itself had returned to screens with a highly successful 21st-century regeneration at the hands of Russell T Davies. Season 27 was now a historical curiosity, looked upon perhaps more as a might have been rather than the future ripped away from the fans. And despite featuring both in an article and a documentary, this wasn't to be journey's end for it.
In 2008, Big Finish began a new range of releases under the banner of Doctor Who – The Lost Stories. Initially adapting unmade serials from the Colin Baker era, it soon became apparent that there would be stories from other Doctors brought to life. With Cartmel returning to the role of script editor and with McCoy and Aldred reprising their roles, the season 27 Lost Stories came out as four separate CD releases between April and July 2011.
Except that this wasn't quite the season as laid out by Owen in his 1997 article. Cartmel, along with writers Platt and Aaronovitch, had developed their ideas, causing a change in running order and plans. Platt's story, now called Thin Ice, started the season split between 1967 Moscow and London, with the new companion's mother now being a Soviet woman involved with the London underworld figure described by Platt while the Ice Warriors still featured. Elsewhere, Aaronovitch's earlier proposed opener Earth Aid now closed the season. Between the two, Cartmel penned Crime of the Century and Animal, the former bringing in the new companion. Crime of the Century also became the introduction story for the Metatraxi, featuring them involved in a war modeled on the Soviet-Afghan conflict of the 1980s. In developing these middle audios, Cartmel had wanted to change the titles, with Animal nearly becoming Blood & Iron. Speaking to the influence of "27 Up" and how Owen's titles had become firmly entrenched in the fan lore, Big Finish ultimately elected to keep them.
Elsewhere, many of the ideas reappeared, though character names differed as Owen had put his own into the article. The new companion became Raine Creavey, played by actress Beth Chalmers (who also voiced the character’s Russian mother in the first story), while her father became Marcus, played by Eastenders alumni Ricky Groves in the first two stories. Animal, set at the fictional Margrave University involving animal rights activists and aliens, also featured the return of UNIT and Brigadier Winifred Bambera from the season 26 opener Battlefield, a development that came out of Cartmel developing the storyline rather than definite plans from the 1989-90 period.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the season 27 Big Finish Lost Stories came from its treatment of Ace. After more than two decades and opposing departures from the series for Ace in comics and prose (including infamously being killed off in the DWM comic strip Ground Zero), fans had hoped this would be the definitive exit. Instead, Platt and Cartmel chose to end Thin Ice with Ace's rejection by the Time Lords, her learning of it before appearing to leave, only to rejoin the Doctor on his travels. It was a move that might have frustrated some fans but also spoke to how the Lost Stories (such as the later released First Doctor story The Masters of Luxor) now had to fit into the series canon. They were no longer the cutting edge but filling in a gap while also existing alongside the ongoing TV series and other spin-off media.
Cartmel himself expressed surprise at the controversy around the audios. Speaking to the current author in a 2013 interview in issue 15 of The Terrible Zodin fanzine conducted at Chicago TARDIS 2012, the former script editor compared the fan criticisms to "medieval church scholars (who) used to argue about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin." He also noted that given season 27 "was a season that never happened, and only existed in the most rudimentary form amongst myself and the writers I was working with, it seems extraordinary for other people to second guess it and to disapprove with what we did with it."
Whatever the changes they did or didn't make to the planned season, there's no doubt that they're well-made productions from both an acting and production standpoint. McCoy and Aldred, perhaps from reprising their roles at Big Finish for much of the previous decade, slipped back into them with little effort. Chalmers, who has proven to be one of Big Finish's most versatile performers, was excellent casting for both Raine and her mother, capturing the "slinky debutante cat-burglar" quality of Raine that Cartmel had described in 1997. The casts of the four stories were strong, with Earth Aid notably featuring one-time Eleventh Doctor contender Patterson Joseph as an aid worker and Ingrid Oliver (who would begin playing UNIT scientist Osgood starting in 2013) as a member of Ace's crew. The music and sound design of Simon Robinson capture the feel of the last season well, channeling Ayers' scores in particular for underscoring while perhaps offering a more cinematic soundscape than the TV series could have provided. What these Big Finish audios offer up then is a flavor of the season as it might have been, if nothing else.
In the final analysis, and despite articles, documentaries, or audio dramas, that 27th season remains lost to us. So, too, does the answer to another question. As Anthony Wilson and Robert Smith? noted in their 2019 book Bookwyrm, the novels of Doctor Who's off-air period had a wide-influence on its 21st-century return, including adapting Paul Cornell's 1995 novel Human Nature for the screen in 2007. Something only made possible by the series having gone off-air in the first place. What might Doctor Who have looked like if the show had continued into the 1990s? Would it, if it had disappeared from TV screens a season or two later as Owen speculated in DWM 255’s “What If?” in 1997, have ever had the triumphant return it had in 2005?
The answer to that question is as speculative as the unmade season itself.