Mark Harrison

Aug 24, 2017

When have tabloid rumours got it right about Doctor Who, and when have they got it, er, less right?

“Look Who’s the Doc’s new assistant!” On Tuesday, the Mirror‘s front page trumpeted an exclusive reveal that Bradley Walsh would be Jodie Whittaker’s companion in the new series of Doctor Who.

The one-time Sarah Jane Adventures guest star would be the first companion actor to have hosted a quiz show with the same name as a 1960s serial, but beyond trivia, the report has been fairly well received as far as we can see – Walsh is a decent actor, who’s worked with incoming executive producer Chris Chibnall before on Law & Order UK, and a fun screen presence. But given the source, might it all be a load of bobbins?

It’s one of those tabloid rumours that could go either way – it doesn’t read like some of the stuff they cobble together from fan forums, which has been published by certain tabloids since Doctor Who was recommissioned in 2003. The idea of casting Walsh was so far from anyone’s radar that it has to have come from somewhere. Nevertheless, there’s a history of column inches being filled by false or straight-up fabricated stories about the perennial sci-fi show.

We’ve discussed previously that this level of publicity, going on 15 years later, is good for the show. There are few other British drama series that can generate this much coverage, positive or otherwise, and as with spoilers for upcoming soap episodes, reporters sometimes get it right whether the producers want plot and casting details to get out or not. Few outlets are absolutely infallible on this stuff, but there’s been a range between actual spoilers and utter tosh.

So, please enjoy our brief Doctor-by-Doctor history of tabloid reportage since Doctor Who returned to screens – the good, the bad and the weird…

The Ninth Doctor

Doctor Who and tabloid rumours: what the papers said

When Russell T. Davies finally got the BBC to greenlight a new series of Doctor Who in September 2003, the first order of business was to make people take the brand seriously again. Since the show had gone away, there had been persistent reports of the show making a comeback with such acting luminaries as Ainsley Harriott and Paul Daniels set to take over the TARDIS.

Christopher Eccleston’s casting was a big part of that – the actor emailed Davies asking to audition, hoping to work with him again. But in the run-up to the reveal, actors linked to the role by tabloid speculation included Alan Davies, Anthony Head, Eddie Izzard and Richard E. Grant, the latter of whom played an alternative Ninth Doctor in BBCi’s abortive animated continuation Scream Of The Shalka, which was released after it had already been announced that the show was coming back properly.

The Sunday Times reported that Bill Nighy, on a hot streak as the BAFTA-winning star of Love, Actually, had been approached by Davies to play the Doctor in the new series. Then on 20th March 2004, the Daily Mail ‘confirmed’ this casting, and included further insider details about a Joan of Arc-centric story in series one, to star Audrey Tatou and Alfred Molina. This was debunked less than a fortnight later when Eccleston was officially revealed.

“I will say that I was approached,” said Nighy clarified in a much later interview with the Daily Express. “But I didn’t want to be the Doctor. No disrespect to Doctor Who or anything, I just think that it comes with too much baggage.” That year, the Mail was handed a Shafta award for poor tabloid journalism in recognition of the scoop.

Speculation about story details continued as the first series entered production, usually with a couple of truths buried in the more erroneous reports. For example, the Daily Record reported that Aliens Of London would feature the return of the Autons, and that the Nestene Consciousness would animate Madame Tussauds’ waxworks of stars like David Beckham, Brad Pitt and Madonna to menace humanity.

In August 2004, many outlets ran reports that the Daleks would not appear in the new series, following a dispute with creator Terry Nation’s estate over creative control. This was actually true, so the Sun launched one of their campaigns (as they’re so fond of doing) to ‘save’ the Daleks, enlisting children, naked women and MPs in their crusade.

Doctor Who and tabloid rumours: what the papers said
Doctor Who and tabloid rumours: what the papers said

Dr. Who (sic) without Daleks is like fish without chips,” said then-Shadow Home Secretary Tim Collins. “It’s important the BBC does a deal.”

A number of stunts involving a model Dalek took place in the following month, such as picketing BBC Television Centre with a bunch of kids, going to pubs and, of course, getting snapped with a Page 3 model. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the BBC and the Nation estate were already figuring out an agreement to bring the Daleks back properly – in this case, it woz the grown-ups wot won it.

Doctor Who and tabloid rumours: what the papers said

And of course, the week after Rose aired, the BBC revealed that Eccleston would leave the series after just 13 episodes, after journalists contacted the press office to ask if he’d be returning for a second series. The corporation later admitted to falsely attributing a statement that he left the role because he was afraid of being typecast. Eccleston’s real reasons for leaving remain private to this day, but his Doctor’s success made the show what it is today…

The Tenth Doctor

Doctor Who and tabloid rumours: what the papers said

With Doctor Who cemented as a hit once again, it was open season on reports about the next series. Stories of stunt casting have been consistently popular with tabloids since the show became a national talking point, especially during David Tennant’s era, which marked a high point in the series’ ratings.

Again, there were nuggets of truth in the inaccurate ones. The press were accurate in reporting the return of Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane, along with K9, in the second series. There was also definitely a story called The Satan Pit, but it’s difficult to imagine at what point in development BBC Wales were looking to cast Billie Piper’s ex-husband Chris Evans as the giant CG Satan.

“We’ve already got some great celebrities lined up for the next series, but having Chris Evans would be the icing on the cake,” a Daily Star ‘source’ revealed.”Having him as Satan would be a hoot and we’re sure he’d relish the role. And we know Billie would find it a giggle.” Elsewhere, the Star also reported that Britney Spears would play “an entire race of lusty, sex-mad alien clones who all look identical to the twice-wed beauty.”

The threshold for this was Kylie Minogue in Voyage Of The Damned, a casting which caught everyone by surprise (not least Russell T. Davies, if you read the excellent behind-the-scenes book The Writer’s Tale). The News Of The World scooped this story, but incorrectly reported that she would play a “sexy Cyberwoman”, perhaps getting confused with the Torchwood episode from the previous year. Also confirmed by The Writer’s Tale was the unlikely sounding casting of Dennis Hopper, who was slated for the same episode, to play either Mr. Copper or Max Capricorn, but was ultimately unavailable.

But Kylie’s casting really heralded silly season for casting rumours. Over the rest of Tennant’s run, it was reported that David Bowie would play an alien kidnapper in The Unicorn & The Wasp, Ben Kingsley would rock up as Davros in the finale, and, during the specials year, Tennant’s RSC Hamlet co-star Patrick Stewart would play the Meddling Monk.

The Rani is a character that only seems to have been kept in the public consciousness via tabloid reports, but the Sun, in particular, was like a dog with a bone reporting that various different actresses were in line to play the part in the new series, from Footballers’ Wives‘ Zoe Lucker to the legendary Joan Collins.

Doctor Who and tabloid rumours: what the papers said

In behind-the-scenes news, the Sun also got their wires crossed and announced that Doctor Who would be AXED (another word they’re fond of) in 2008 after Davies moved on, which prompted an earlier-than-planned release about the BBC’s plans for the show after the fourth series.

“The BBC is powerless with the press,” Davies says of press leaks in The Writer’s Tale. “No one can control the papers, they’ll print what they want, and we need them, so threatening to withhold or punish simply doesn’t work.

“But the central problem is that the BBC is a public service broadcaster, funded by the public, and we are Not Allowed To Lie… I’ll lie all I like if it safeguards the stories we’re telling. They can’t stop me. But there’s little point when [BBC director general] Peter Fincham has to tell the truth.”

Meanwhile, Tennant was consistently dogged by false rumours that he was quitting for more or less the whole time he was in the role. These stories have proliferated with subsequent Doctors too. In the end, it was impressive that they ultimately managed to keep his proper departure a secret up until he accepted the National Television Award for Best Actor in 2008, and announced he was leaving live on ITV1.

There aren’t many heroes is the entrepreneurial fan who claimed on the letters page of Doctor Who Magazine that they falsely tipped the Sun that Woody Allen would play Albert Einstein in Voyage Of The Damned. They paid for it and printed it as “Woody Alien” and the fake news tipster pocketed a couple of hundred quid for observing a booming market of bullshit.

The Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who and tabloid rumours: what the papers said

Tennant is undoubtedly the most popular Doctor of the modern era and the search for his successor was a hot topic in the time before Matt Smith’s casting was announced, especially as the 2008 Christmas special The Next Doctor teased that David Morrissey would be the next incarnation in all of the promotional materials.

Nevertheless, in one of our favourite bits of nonsense, the People reported that none other than DoG favourite Jason Statham was the top choice for the role.

“It will be Doctor Who meets gangland,” said the People‘s ubiquitous insider. “He will do a lot more thinking with his fists and will be a sure-fire winner with the ladies… Doctor Who is still seen as a bit geeky but Jason will add sex appeal and give the character a more dangerous edge.”

Aside from Steven Moffat’s first full series of Doctor Who, 2010 also saw the first series of Sherlock, which was an instant hit with audiences in the traditionally quiet summer season. Ever since, fans and entertainment journalists alike have speculated about the possibility of a crossover between the Doctor and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes.

Cumberbatch was also in the frame to play either the Doctor or the Master at various points, but the actor has since clarified that he wasn’t ready for such a commitment (“I didn’t really the whole package – being on school lunchboxes”) at the time.

The rumours of a movie version reared their head as well, thanks to an ill-advised quote from Harry Potter director David Yates. On the red carpet, Yates said he was going to make a Doctor Who movie with “a radical transformation” of the property, without asking anybody at BBC Wales first. Despite staunch denials all around, the tabloid press bandied around casting suggestions like Johnny Depp and Robert Carlyle for a few months thereafter.

Doctor Who and tabloid rumours: what the papers said

The Sun‘s Dalek made a comeback too, when the BBC put out a call for old Dalek props for use in the episode Asylum Of The Daleks. Naturally, they ran a story about how the Beeb didn’t have the budget for their own Dalek, so the paper would selflessly be stepping up again.

It feels like there were fewer story leaks ahead of time through Matt Smith’s run, particularly where the 50th anniversary special The Day Of The Doctor had plenty of surprises that could have been spoiled in advance. But then again, there were those of us who remembered stuff like “Chris Evans IS Satan” and discounted the early reports that A Christmas Carol would have the Doctor face off against flying sharks, but that’s why it’s worth remembering that not all of these reports are frivolous.

The Twelfth Doctor

Doctor Who and tabloid rumours: what the papers said

Looking back on the speculation over the Twelfth Doctor, the frontrunners in the conversation were Rory Kinnear and Ben Daniels, with the former eventually ruling himself out in an interview with the Independent, admitting he had never watched an episode. There were plenty of thinkpieces about casting a female Doctor too. There was nothing to match the glory of the Statham story from last time, but the Star might have hit a new low in their front page splash about Paris Jackson, Michael’s daughter.

“Jacko’s Girl Lined Up To Be New Who”, they reported in 2013, on the basis of a social media post. Paris, then 15 years old, tweeted “omg i wanna be The Doctor they said any age & gender, right?” and the Star reported that the BBC were considering her for the role.

Ultimately, the news of Peter Capaldi’s casting leaked a few days before the grand announcement on BBC One, and was covered by various outlets. Although there were definitely leaks of both scripts and actual rough cuts of episodes from Capaldi’s first run, plot details continued to pop up in the press.

The Mirror revealed that Davros would return in series nine many months before the series actually aired, which sadly spoiled the incredible pre-titles sequence of episode one for some fans despite most publicity going to some lengths to keep the character’s return a secret.

There were plenty of reports about Jenna Coleman’s departure too, although this was in part due to the actress changing her mind. Her initial departure in Death In Heaven was carried over into Last Christmas, when she was supposed to leave for good. However, she decided at the eleventh hour to do another series, which meant there was some later clarification from both Moffat and Coleman with regard to these conflicting reports.

More unfairly, rumours about the Doctor’s regeneration reared their head again, uglier than ever. As viewing patterns change, the show’s overnight ratings haven’t matched the incredible peaks of the Tennant era, even though consolidated ratings and iPlayer figures show it’s still popular.

Unfortunately, certain tabloids were eager to blame the lead actor for the paradigm shift. The repetitive, entirely false narrative that Capaldi is too old and was pushed out by the BBC in order to bring in a younger, hunkier lead was upsetting to see. It’s the sort of things that comes from the kind of faulty reasoning and cynicism in TV reporting that still prizes overnight ratings in 2017, and here’s hoping it goes away before Capaldi’s swansong at Christmas.

The Thirteenth Doctor

Doctor Who and tabloid rumours: what the papers said

“Kris Marshall IS The Doctor”, the headlines squawked for months before Jodie Whittaker was finally named during the men’s singles final at Wimbledon. The Sunday Mirror‘s big Easter Sunday scoop named the Death In Paradise star as the next Doctor, and even suggested that he would appear before the end of the series in a timey-wimey regeneration twist.

As others have remarked, you have to feel for Marshall, whose supposed casting provoked a loud and mixed reaction for absolutely nothing, but the bookies followed the story for a long time. The only other major frontrunner in the speculation was Fleabag‘s writer and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who was under the spotlight for a while when she was mooted as the first female Doctor.

“It was just amazing that Phoebe Waller-Bridge had all that and she dealt with it all so amazingly and gracefully,” Whittaker told Dermot O’Leary on his BBC Radio 2 show. “And at no point could I just text her and go, ‘I’m so sorry’ – because I was under the radar the entire time until the last few days.”

The Mirror‘s proximity to the Marshall rumour (and subsequent attempt to save by suggesting he was actually in the frame to be the companion) might give fans pause when it comes to the Bradley Walsh story, but as we’ve said throughout, there are usually some nuggets of truth in these stories.

Filming on the eleventh series of Doctor Who is set to start before the end of the year, and there will surely be plenty more stories about casting, guest stars and plot details as production ramps up again. As the pull of clickbait intensifies, stories about the show remain a hot commodity and as fans, we should be happy it’s getting the attention, but as we’ve seen, it’s best to take some of them with a whopping pinch of salt.


Press clippings taken from The Doctor Who Cuttings Archive.