It's the world's longest running science fiction TV series and with Peter Capaldi now starring as the ever-reliable Time Lord, the BBC's Doctor Who continues to be popular with fans old and new alike. What initially started out as an
idea in the mind of Canadian Sydney Newman -- who was BBC Head of Drama in the early 1960s -- went on to become a cultural phenomenon; not only in its native Britain but also around the world.
Doctor Who was first transmitted on BBC1 on Saturday November 23rd 1963. The show continued to be broadcast until Wednesday December 6th 1989, which saw the final episode of the story Survival broadcast to an audience of roughly five million
viewers. To say that the BBC's interest in the series had lagged somewhat during the 1980s would be a bit of an understatement, and sometime after the broadcast of Survival at the end of Doctor Who's 26th season, the Doctor Who production office was
officially shut down; despite there being tentative plans for a 27th season. Other than a mini two-part story that was made for Children in Need in 1993, new episodes of Doctor Who remained off of British screens until the May of 1996 when a TV
movie was transmitted, which was a British-American-Canadian co-production. Originally intended as a backdoor pilot, the movie failed to find an audience in the United States, although its UK broadcast was well received with over 9 million viewers.
The series did not return properly until 2005 when Russell T. Davies brought back the show with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, and to this day Doctor Who continues to be a success with audiences around the globe. The show was no stranger to
controversy, however, and in this special edition episode of Cutting Edge, we'll be taking a look at some of the censorship that Doctor Who has encountered during its 52-year history.
A number of stories and programmes related to Doctor Who
during its tenure have been subject to censorship from various parties. For example, many of the 1960s stories that were shipped overseas to countries such as Australia and New Zealand were subject to numerous cuts for violence for the censors in power
at the time. [embed wiped] Cases such as these are very well-documented, particularly in Richard Molesworth's excellent book, Wiped! Doctor Who's Missing Episodes, which Cutting Edge highly recommends to fans of the show. As a result, a discussion
of these particular cuts will not be covered in this month's article. What we will be taking a look at, however, is the various edits made to Doctor Who by the BBFC in the UK, as well as edits that were undertaken by BBC management and the show's
production team for a variety of reasons.
Our first such case concerns the Fourth Doctor story, The Deadly Assassin from 1976, which starred Tom Baker and aired as part of Doctor Who's 14th season. The climax of Episode Three sees the treacherous Chancellor Goth fighting with the Doctor
in the virtual reality world of the Matrix. The final seconds of the episode show Goth holding the Doctor's head underwater, with the latter apparently lifeless as the closing credits begin.
At the time of its broadcast, the episode was the target of strong criticism from Mary Whitehouse; president of the pressure group The National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (now known as Mediawatch-UK ). Speaking of the scene in 1993
for the documentary More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS, Whitehouse recalled her concern about the effect the episode would have had on young viewers:
I can see it still in my mind's eye... The final shot of the
episode was Doctor Who drowning. That's how it finished. And the image left in the minds of the children, and quite early in the evening when you'd still got the youngest of children viewing. These sort of images, the final shots of the programme, were
the image that was left in the mind of the child for a whole week.
The late John Nathan-Turner, who served as the producer of Doctor Who from 1979 until its cancellation ten years later, seemed unfazed by the attention the NVLA
brought to the show, however:
Quite often I would pray that Mrs. Whitehouse had watched the programme and thought it was too violent, 'cause it automatically put two million viewers on our audience figures.
A myth still perpetuates to this day that Doctor Who is a "children's show", which is entirely not the case. Doctor Who was always made by the BBC's drama department, not the children's department. As former Doctor Who producer
Philip Hinchcliffe (who worked on The Deadly Assassin ) later stated:
I always felt that Mary Whitehouse thought of Doctor Who as a children's programme, and it wasn't... so she was really coming at the show from the
wrong starting point.
I remember thinking quite carefully about how long we could hold the shots [of the drowning] and all the rest of it, and thinking that was fine.
The story's director, the late David
Maloney, thought differently, however:
In retrospect, I think maybe -- and I had children of my own at the time -- we were going maybe a little bit too far.
Following Whitehouse's complaints about
The Deadly Assassin , the BBC took the drastic measure of editing out the closing moments of the episode on the original master tape of the story (which totalled about six seconds of footage), and for many years the story was only seen uncut on its
original BBC transmission in 1976. However, the missing footage was later restored for its VHS and DVD releases by reinserting footage from off-air U-matic recordings made at the time of the original UK transmission. The BBFC passed the story uncut with
a PG rating in July 1991, and it remains at PG to this day.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
Another Season 14 story, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, also received cuts after its original broadcast. When BBC Enterprises first began releasing Doctor Who on video in the 1980s, stories were edited into
an omnibus format; in effect, retaining the opening credits of episode one and the closing credits of a story's final episode whilst removing the other episode breaks between to create a story that played in a continuous "movie-format". The
Talons of Weng-Chiang was submitted in this omnibus form to the BBFC for a video rating in 1988. Although the story had aired uncut on its original broadcast in early 1977, the BBFC's director at the time, James Ferman, stipulated that cuts had to be
made so as not to breach his rather bizarre policy on martial arts weaponry, which we've touched upon in previous Cutting Edge episodes.
Cut Scenes: Nunchaku
Early in the story, the Doctor is set upon by a group of Chinese enemies; one of whom is seen wielding a pair of nunchaku. In the cuts list sent to BBC Enterprises, Ferman stated:
In fight between Dr Who and Chinese henchmen, remove all sight of chainsticks produced and used in attempt to strangle Doctor.
This cut version was passed with a PG rating and was the only version available to British buyers for the next 15 years, until the original episodic version of the story was released for the first time on DVD as part of Doctor Who's 40th
anniversary celebrations. It was submitted in its uncut form to the BBFC, and with the Board's policy on martial arts weapons now rescinded, The Talons of Weng-Chiang was passed with all of its previous cuts waived on March 27th 2003 with a PG rating
Some mild violence and infrequent drug references.
Attack of the Cybermen
By 1985, Colin Baker was playing the Doctor and his second story, Attack of the Cybermen, aired in early January of that year. The story contains a lot of violence and horror for a family show that
originally aired at 5:20 in the afternoon and during post production, director Matthew Robinson felt he had gone a little far in the violence department.
Cut Scenes: Lytton pained
One particular occurrence that the story is infamous for is a scene where the character of Lytton is tortured by the Cybermen. In a particularly sadistic moment for the show, two Cybermen
crush Lytton's hands in an attempt to gain information from him. Lytton's hands bleed and he cries out in pain before dropping to the floor. Matthew Robinson had originally shot the scene in quite a gruesome manner, as he recounted in an interview on the
Attack of the Cybermen DVD features:
We had a lot more blood and more cracking of bones and more of [Lytton's] face getting really pained. But we took some of it out in the editing. I think it was OK. Looked at now, I
don't think it was too strong what was left in. Definitely what we shot was too strong.
With the scene having being cut down and tailored for transmission, the original version of the sequence no longer exists and has thus never been officially released. As seen in the final version of the story, there are no sound effects of crushing
bones or visible sight of blood oozing from Lytton's hands, but the sequence does appear somewhat jumpy as Lytton's hands go from being unwounded to having bloodstains on them in matter of seconds.
Attack of the Cybermen was unavailable on home
video until it was released on VHS in November 2000. Despite the story containing instances of decapitations, electrocution, gore, body horror and the aforementioned crushing of hands, in what seems to be a huge oversight the BBFC classified the story
uncut with a U certificate for:
Mild violence, threat and scene of injury detail.
The story was rereleased on DVD in 2009 with the same U rating, although it had not been resubmitted for a
contemporary BBFC classification. It is perhaps fair to argue that under current BBFC policy, Attack of the Cybermen should be rated PG in today's climate.
In Australia, the usually more liberal censors gave the story an M15+ rating -- the same rating as the Arnold Schwarzenegger film
Predator , which received an 18 rating in the UK in 1987.
Revelation of the Daleks
Another Colin Baker story from the same season, Season 22, also received changes by the production team before its UK transmission.
Cut Scenes: Syringed
In the second episode of Revelation of the Daleks, Tasambeker takes her revenge upon the slimy Jobel by stabbing him with a syringe full of embalming fluid. The story's director, Graeme
Harper, had originally conceived of the scene showing Tasambeker thrusting the needle into Jobel's body and then depressing the syringe. During the editing process, however, this was reduced to show only the stabbing of the instrument and Jobel
collapsing onto the floor, which creates a slight continuity error in the final edit.
Again, the uncut version of the scene has never officially surfaced, and the pre-cut version is the only version that was ever transmitted or made available on home video. Following further audio edits to remove a Jimi Hendrix song on the soundtrack
for legal reasons, Revelation of the Daleks was released on VHS in 1999 and on DVD in 2005, and was passed uncut with a PG rating by the BBFC for:
Occasional, mild fantastic violence.
Doctor Who: The Movie
Paul McGann portrayed the eighth incarnation of the Doctor in the 1996 TV movie. In an effort to maximize sales in the UK, the VHS release of the story was originally intended by BBC Television to be released
in Britain on May 15th 1996 (the day after its TV broadcast in the USA). However, whilst the story aired uncut in the United States on its initial premiere, the BBFC in the UK decreed that edits had to be made to the film in order for it to receive a 12
rating, with the Board stating that the film contained:
...scenes of irrelevant violence which would have been unacceptable in Britain for any category lower than 15.
The necessity of cuts had the
unforeseen effect of delaying the UK VHS release of the TV movie by a week, and this cut version of the film was the version that was broadcast by the BBC on its initial premiere on May 27th at 8:30pm, with the BBFC cuts toning down the story's violent
content for a pre-9pm watershed timeslot.
Cut Scenes: Street shooting
The first cuts made occur during the scene where Chang Lee first meets the Doctor (played by Sylvester McCoy in his seventh incarnation) who is accidentally shot when exiting the TARDIS. A
hefty amount of material that totalled about 40 seconds was removed, along with the substitution of some footage, with the first BBFC cuts demanding:
Reduce gunplay in street scene to brief establishment only to
explain accidental shooting of the Doctor.
Along with the removal of gunshots aimed at a departing car, the sight of two of Chang Lee's friends being gunned down by a rival gang was also cut, as well as some threatening material as
two gang members aim at Chang Lee before the TARDIS materializes.
Cut Scenes: Operating theatre panic
After being taken to hospital, Grace and her team of surgeons attempt to save the Doctor's life but due to the non-terrestrial nature of his body and the actions of the hospital
staff, the Doctor apparently dies on the operating table. For this sequence, the BBFC stated:
Considerably reduce hysterical panic in operating theatre as the Doctor dies on table.
The cuts made to
this sequence involved the removal of material concerning a probe that becomes stuck in the Doctor's body; the probe snapping off during the procedure; the resultant attempts to resuscitate the Doctor and his final scream before he dies.
Cut Scenes: The death of Chang Lee
One final cut was made by the BBFC towards the end of the film, when the Master kills Chang Lee:
Remove sight of neck break by the Master to Chang
This creates an awkward moment in the cut version, where the Master is seen to be holding Chang Lee's head before there is a sudden cut to the Doctor shouting as Chang Lee simply falls to the floor.
With cuts made, Doctor Who: The Movie was passed with a 12 rating after 66 seconds of cuts on May 20th 1996.
This was the only version available to British buyers on home video until the DVD release which followed some five
years later. However, the uncut version had been screened on television by the BBC as part of its Doctor Who Night in 1999. For the DVD release, BBC Worldwide submitted the full, uncut version of the film to the BBFC for a classification in 2001, and the
film was passed with all of its previous cuts waived with a 12 rating for:
Occasional moderate violence and some sci-fi horror.
This uncut version has since become the standard version available to
British consumers on home video.
The Unquiet Dead
When Christopher Eccleston took over the role of the Doctor for the relaunch of the series in 2005, the show hit a couple of bumps along the way due to the series' violent and horrific content. The BBC received over 100 complaints
following the broadcast of the episode The Unquiet Dead , due to the story featuring scenes of corpses coming back to life in Victorian Cardiff. The BBC countered the complaints by arguing that Doctor Who was not intended for very young children,
and that the horror and scares were counterbalanced by the "laughter and bravery" shown by the Doctor and his assistant, Rose:
Doctor Who has never been intended for the youngest of children and in line with
the BBC's scheduling policy, the later a programme appears in the schedules, the less suitable it is for very young children to watch unsupervised... While the monsters may be scary, the content is carefully considered for a pre-watershed audience. The
programme sets out to balance the right amount of humour, drama and suspense.
The Unquiet Dead was later passed uncut with a 12 rating by the BBFC, after the BBC decided against releasing the episode with a
We would have preferred a PG rating but we were not willing to re-edit the episodes to obtain that -- we wanted to release the episodes exactly as they had been seen on TV.
The BBFC were later mocked in the British press when the Board classified the episode Dalek with a 12 rating for its UK DVD release, due a scene where the Doctor electrocutes a captive Dalek. A spokesman for the BBFC was quoted as
We were concerned at the use of violence to resolve problems. The Doctor is a role model for young children but he takes out his anger on the Dalek. A good role model should not use torture to satisfy his
desire for revenge. It is not an acceptable way to deal with problems of power.
Once again, the BBC refused to cut the episode for a PG rating, and Dalek was passed uncut with a 12 rating by the BBFC for its
The Empty Child
An episode further along in Eccleston's series was subject to a small cut before its original transmission. The Empty Child saw the Doctor and Rose landing during the Blitz in London.
Cut Scenes: Breakout
Towards the end of the episode, the character of Dr. Constantine succumbs to the effects of alien nanogenes that cause his face to painfully transform into the form of a gas mask. The initial
version of the scene featured the sounds of cracking bones as the mask forced its way out of Constantine's face, but management at the BBC forced the Doctor Who production team to tone down the" scene shortly before it was transmitted. As Doctor Who
producer Phil Collinson was quoted as saying in the May of 2005:
The whole sound effect was a lot more visceral. We watched it for the first time and said that was crossing over the line because it was a bit too
All subsequent home video releases on DVD and Blu-ray feature the pre-cut version of the episode, and the original has never been transmitted or released to date. Although it is arguably a scarier episode than the
previously-discussed Dalek , the BBFC later passed The Empty Child with a PG rating for "mild horror" for a UK DVD release on September 20th 2005.
Individual episodes of Doctor Who were not the only aspect of the series that were subject to censorship, however. British law dictates that special features on UK DVDs and Blu-rays must be classified by the BBFC before being given a release. As a result
of this, some special features on Doctor Who DVDs have also been subject to BBFC cuts. One such example is the changes made to the documentary, Remembering the Aztecs as seen on the DVD release of the 1964 William Hartnell story, The Aztecs.
Around 18 minutes into the feature, the actor Ian Cullen discusses how actors in the 1960s used to secure the opportunity for a retake if they fluffed their lines. As part of this discussion, he uses strong language on two occasions. BBC Worldwide
had requested a U rating for the DVD features, but naturally the language was not permissible at such a low category. The BBFC offered the company a 12 rating, but the distributors refused, so the BBFC made two seconds of cuts so that the desired U
rating could be awarded:
As actor talks about fluffing lines, remove (or completely bleep out) both uses of the word 'fuck'.
The cut version of Remembering the Aztecs was
passed with a U rating by the BBFC on October 7th 2002 and is the only version available on all DVD releases of The Aztecs , with the cuts also carried over to the American Region 1 release of the same story.
Another example of Doctor Who special features receiving cuts concerns the DVD release of the Patrick Troughton story, The Moonbase. The surviving episodes of this partially-missing story feature an audio commentary from various members of the
cast and crew, moderated by Toby Hadoke. As originally recorded, Hadoke reads from the diaries of English playwright Joe Orton at one point, and the speakers make jokes about the actor Fraser Hines, who played Jamie in The Moonbase. The commentaries were
submitted to the BBFC with a request for a PG rating by 2 Entertain Video, but the BBFC demanded 47 seconds of cuts to remove some sexual references from the soundtrack. The rather specific cuts list sent by the BBFC to the distributors states:
After commentator reads from Joe Orton's diaries, in which Orton says there's a 'young boy' in the programme who's "worth looking at", remove subsequent reading from Orton's diary: "I mentally undress him,
I'm sure the BBC would be horrified if they realised that even a science fiction series can be used erotically". Also remove commentator's subsequent comment to Hines: "So you feature, Fraser, in the Joe Orton diaries, as an object of lust for
one of the most famous playwrights in the English speaking world". Also remove subsequent references to: discussions about the possibility of Hines appearing in 'Entertaining Mr Sloane'; Hines saying he's glad he didn't because of the prospect of
being chased around the rehearsal room by Joe Orton; and joking reference to Hines revealing this in his proposed autobiography, entitled '49 Shades of Fraze'.
Commentary moderator Toby Hadoke was equally bemused and disappointed in the BBFC cuts made to The Moonbase audio commentary, as he explained to Cutting Edge in April 2015:
I was hugely pissed off about [the] cut.
Perfectly innocuous banter -- I question whether they would have cut it if it had been a heterosexual man saying he fancied a woman or a woman a man. As it is, it means a historically interesting moment is excised because of the rather backward views of
the individual censor.
In the end, 2 Entertain decided to remove all reference to the Orton diaries, which resulted in a total of 74 seconds of cuts being made, and the commentary for The Moonbase was classified by the BBFC with a PG
rating on December 4th 2013. At the time this episode of Cutting Edge was written, the status of the commentary on the American Region 1 DVD is not known. Given the situation surrounding the cuts made to Remembering the Aztecs , and the extra cost that
would be incurred in producing two different audio masters for the UK and the US, it is reasonable to assume that the commentaries on the US disc of The Moonbase are the same censored versions as heard on the UK release. It is worth noting, however, that
the Region 1 DVD of The Moonbase was incorrectly converted from PAL to NTSC, resulting in the undoing of the extensive video cleanup done by the Doctor Who Restoration Team. The story thus plays at an incorrect, slower speed and the image quality is
reported to be somewhat smeary. As a result, the Region 1 disc cannot be recommended to fans of the show.
Robot of Sherwood
Edits to Doctor Who have not always been done for reasons of violence or horror, however. In at least one instance, cuts have been made due to sensitive political reasons. The eighth series of the show saw Peter Capaldi beginning his reign as the Twelfth
Doctor, and his third story, Robot of Sherwood, was cut just days before its original UK transmission on September 6th 2014. During the final showdown between the Sheriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood, the Sheriff was originally seen to be
decapitated and revealed as a robot. However, following the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff at the hands of Islamic State militants in August and September of that year, the BBC decided to cut the beheading scene in
Robot of Sherwood out of respect. The episode had been shot during February, long before IS hit the headlines, and its eventual broadcast at such a sensitive time was purely a case of bad luck. The cut version of the episode was also used for its
American transmission, and it is this cut version that was later released on DVD and Blu-ray.
In closing, Doctor Who fans have little to complain about when it comes to the censorship of their beloved series -- BBFC cuts once made to certain
stories on VHS are now restored on DVD, with the Doctor Who DVD range boasting incredible restoration work and exhaustive special features that are unrivalled by releases of any other television series. With uncut pre-broadcast versions of stories that
will never see the light of day, and only minor BBFC trims to certain DVD special features, Doctor Who's situation with regards to censorship is the best it has ever been for fans of the show. English-speaking fans can pick up either the British- or
Australian DVD releases to enjoy the show in its native PAL format, or the Region 1 DVDs in NTSC format; safe in the knowledge that they can all enjoy the same content -- wherever they may be in time and space.
to Toby Hadoke for his contribution to this episode of Cutting Edge.
Cutting Edge Video Episode 25: Doctor Who Special
All articles are original works compiled by Gavin Salkeld, with occasional help from a small team of researchers. Particular thanks are due to the BBFC for their diligent and helpful explanations of