Over its 50 years, Doctor Who has had plenty of mortifying incidents here and there. But things could have been way, way worse. Here are 10 occasions where Doctor Who narrowly avoided a shattering disaster.
1. Sydney Newman's Instructions
One of the main creators of Doctor Who was Sydney Newman, a brash Canadian executive who pushed for a science fiction TV show. Newman helped the show avoid one major pitfall — at one point, there was a proposal for the Doctor to be an anti-science crusader who fights to prevent any cultures from developing science or technology — but Newman wanted to impose his own problematic idea on the show: no bug-eyed monsters. That would have meant no Daleks, and basically none of the scary creatures that are the show's hallmark. Thank goodness producer Verity Lambert went against Newman's wishes.
2. The Son of Doctor Who
As we've covered before, the show's original star, William Hartnell, had an idea that he was pushing pretty hard in 1964: What if the Doctor had a son, who looked just like him? And the Doctor's son had his own TARDIS, and was evil?
Basically, it would have meant Hartnell playing two roles, confronting his wicked "son" in a series of adventures... that might well have brought the show to an early end. (Although now we're picturing the Doctor regenerating into Patrick Troughton, but the Doctor's son still looking like Hartnell.) There was also a story idea being batted around, in which Hartnell's Doctor would meet God. Which brings us to...
3. Doctor Who Meets Scratchman
This was the film project that Tom Baker was trying to get off the ground in the mid-1970s, in which the Doctor basically meets the Devil, played by Vincent Price. And British supermodel Twiggy would have been in it. There would have been scarecrows coming to life and terrorizing a small community, and the "Cybors," cybernetic goblins, coming out of the ocean. And they meet the Greek god Pan at one point. Also, the Doctor winds up playing a gigantic pinball machine, with huge flippers bouncing balls around, and the fate of the world at stake. You can read a ton about this project here. You never know, it might have been lovely — but it had a lot of potential to be dreadful. Tom Baker also famously pitched having the Doctor's next companion be a talking cabbage.
4. The Unaired Season 23
When Doctor Who was put on hiatus in the mid-1980s, there were a number of scripts in production which never got made. And based on the novelizations and audio adaptations that have been put out, this is a very good thing. In particular, Philip Martin's "Mission to Magnus" would have been one of the worst stories in the history of the program, with a particularly sexist take on the common SF trope of the "dystopia where men and women live on different planets," ending with the independent women having to accept male domination once more. Also, Robert Holmes — who had written the Asian stereotype-laden "Talons of Weng-Chiang" — was working on a story set in Singapore, with the not-terribly-promising title of "Yellow Fever and How to Cure It." Also, there was "The Nightmare Fair," where the Celestial Toymaker makes video games come to life. All in all, probably for the best that this season was scrapped. Image via Stephen Reynolds.
5. The Cartmel Master Plan
This one will be a bit controversial, because a lot of fans have been curious about Andrew Cartmel's "master plan" for Doctor Who — which was cut short when the show was canceled in 1989. And to the extent that Andrew Cartmel was bringing back the Doctor's mystery and also making the Doctor more of a dark, manipulative figure again, this was a very, very good thing. But if we had ever actually gotten the answers that Cartmel and the show's writers were dangling in front of viewers? That probably wouldn't have been as good of a thing. Especially the notion that the Doctor was "More than just another Time Lord," which could have gone very wrong.
Based on the novelization of "Remembrance of the Daleks" and the novel Lungbarrow, we would have found out that the Doctor was somehow a new form of "the Other," a mystery figure who was part of a triumvirate with Rassilon and Omega at the dawn of the Time Lords. Which sort of puts an end to the notion that the Doctor was just a Time Lord who decided to steal a TARDIS and have adventures, because he was curious to see the universe. Anyway, by all accounts, the "Master Plan" was left extremely vague, which is probably for the best.
6. The Dark Dimension
In 1993, for the show's 30th anniversary, BBC Worldwide commissioned a special direct-to-video movie (which was going to be broadcast at one point, as well), starring Tom Baker — with cameos from the other surviving Doctors. The basic storyline, in which Tom Baker's Doctor failed to regenerate and is slowly falling apart, isn't necessarily a terrible idea. But by all accounts, the actual script is pretty terrible, and it includes so many elements (including every past monster, and four Doctors popping up) that it probably would have been an epic mess.
7. The Donald Sutherland Movie
If you ever want to feel hideously depressed, sit down and read the book The Nth Doctor by Jean-Marc and Randy L'Officier. It's a pretty quick read, and it'll make you want to shoot yourself — basically, it covers the long years between the show being canceled and the 1996 TV movie, and all the different versions of a Doctor Who movie or TV series that were floated during that time.
Including the movie which would have starred Donald Sutherland and Caroline Munro, in which the Doctor fights Jack the Ripper and teams up with Amelia Earhart. I read a detailed synopsis years ago in DWB, and it seemed like it might have destroyed Doctor Who forever. There was also the abortive TV version where Rassilon is the Doctor's grandfather who lives inside the TARDIS console, and the Doctor is searching for his father.
8. Paul McGann's TV Series
There's a lot to like about the 1996 TV movie — in particular, McGann is lovely, and the production design is fantastic. But let's all be glad it didn't get made into a TV show, particularly on Fox in the mid-1990s. It would have lasted one season at most, and instead of a footnote in Doctor Who's history, it might well have been the final chapter.
9. The Young Doctor Adventures
This may just be a rumor — but it was reported that the reason Russell T. Davies pitched The Sarah Jane Adventures to the children's channel CBBC was to head this idea off at the pass. Supposedly, the CBBC wanted to make a kid-friendly show about the Doctor as a teenager on Gallifrey, inventing the sonic screwdriver and getting into wacky scrapes with his teenage friends. Including, one presumes, a teen Master. So RTD offered to develop a show around Sarah Jane Smith instead. If this story is true, RTD deserves a knighthood.
10. Rose Tyler: Earth Defence
There was just this moment where Doctor Who was spawning a million spin-offs, including Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures, plus that Australian K9 show. In any case, this Rose Tyler spin-off, showing her defending the alternate-universe Earth from alien invaders, got pretty far before being scrapped, and Russell T. Davies said canceling it "cost [him] a fortune." It reportedly would have included alternate-universe versions of Captain Jack, Adam Mitchell, Gwen Cooper and some dinosaurs and Slitheen. And it would have been a series of TV movies, rather than a weekly TV show. Davies called it "a spin-off too far," and he was right.
Additional reporting by Alasdair Wilkins.