How Doctor Who Began

We now get to take a look at how all of this started. How did a BBC Science Fiction show that would last 60 years and counting come into being? There are more detailed explanations, but here is the short version.

A Canadian by the name of Sydney Newman had come to England to work at ABC Weekend Television, an independent channel. There he created a fantastic spy fiction series called The Avengers. This is still one of my favorites, and I have a box set of the series when Diana Rigg was part of the cast. That alone would be enough to make his reputation, but then he was lured to the BBC where he became the Head of Drama. It is there that he had the idea for Doctor Who. He had always been a Science Fiction fan, and when he got to the BBC he was determined to shake things up. When he was approached by BBC management to fill a hole in the schedule, he thought a Science Fiction show would be the way to go. He had the initial ideas of a time machine that is bigger on the inside, and that it would star a mysterious character known only as “The Doctor”.

And that is, in fact, the only name he goes by. We know from a Nu Who story called The Silence in the Library that he must have revealed his name at least once, to River Song, and later we learn that in fact he had married her, but now is not the time to get into that tangled story line. Doctor Who is not the name of a character, it is the name of a show, and it is intended to be read as a question. In the very first episode Ian refers to him as Doctor Foreman, since the TARDIS is standing in Mr. Foreman’s junk yard, and the Doctor replies “Doctor Who?” because he is not named Foreman at all.

So Sydney Newman had a great idea, but when he took it to the BBC, none of their established producers wanted to take it on. After all, it was a Science Fiction show aimed at children and not anything prestigious. So Newman tapped a production assistant from his days at ABC Weekend Television, a young lady named Verity Lambert. She had never produced, written, or directed previously, but agreed to take on the production of this new show. This came up in the Nu Who story Human Nature, when the Doctor, who had gone into deep disguise as a human, said that his parents were named Sydney and Verity. In any case, it was an inspired choice. Although she was the first female producer at the BBC, as well as the youngest, she made the show a success and went on to a very successful career as a film and television producer.

“I think the best thing I ever did on that was to find Verity Lambert,” he told Doctor Who Magazine in 1993. “I remembered Verity as being bright and, to use the phrase, full of piss and vinegar! She was gutsy and she used to fight and argue with me, even though she was not at a very high level as a production assistant.”[

Hearn, Marcus (22 December 1993). “The Dawn of Knowledge”. Doctor Who Magazine. Marvel UK (207): 8–18.

Lambert had a number of decisions to make. First, she hired Waris Hussein to direct the initial story. Then she needed to cast the show, and the most important role was of course the Doctor. For this, she picked William Hartnell, a 55 year old British actor known chiefly for playing military roles in TV and movies. So the role of the Doctor was quite a change for him. He was uncertain about it, but Lambert and Hussein convinced him. He came to love the role and how he went from a “heavy” in his roles to a beloved grandfather figure.

Then the Doctor needed companions. A young lady named Carole Ann Ford was cast to play his granddaughter Susan. Susan was a teenager in the show, though Carole Ann Ford was 23 years old, already married, and had a child. Susan was enrolled in the Coal Hill School under the name of Foreman, and had two teachers there. One was Barbara Wright, played by Jacqueline Hill, who was a History teacher, and the other was Ian Chesterton, played by William Russell, who was a Science teacher. These were not accidental choices. The show was started on the premise that they would feature both historical dramas and science fiction dramas, so these teachers could provide insights into the situations.

in 2013, for the 50th anniversary of the show, a “docu-drama” was created to show how Doctor Who came together, and interestingly Sacha Dhawan, who would play the Master opposite Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, was cast as Waris Hussein. This “docu-drama” was called An Adventure in Space and Time, and it is really a good look at how this unlikely hit came together. It nearly didn’t. They filmed a pilot, and it wasn’t quite right. Sydney Newman didn’t like it, and you would normally expect that to be the end of it; they would just write off the investment and move on to something else. But Newman did the unexpected: he gave them his critique, and told them go back and redo it. They did, and on November 23, 1963 the first episode, An Unearthly Child, was broadcast. Now if that date gave you a momentary pause, that is because it was one day after US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Hardly the best time to debut a new show and grab an audience. But the BBC rebroadcast it the following week right before the second episode, The Cave of Skulls, part of the story 100,000 BC.

The Unearthly Child of the first episode is Susan Foreman. She took the name Foreman from name of the owner of the Junk Yard that the TARDIS was in, and we don’t know anything else about her name. She is a student at the Coal Hill School, an institution that reappears in Doctor Who and spin-offs. Two of her teachers find her very strange. She seems to be unaware of things that other teenagers would be expected to know, and then claims to have knowledge of things that would seem impossible. In History, she reads about the French Revolution, and then says that the history book is wrong, it didn’t happen that way at all. The teachers decide to investigate further, and follow her back to her “home” when she leaves school. They track her to the junkyard of I.M. Foreman and go inside, where they find a blue police call box, which is not what one normally finds in a junkyard. As they observe, they see an older man, and when they confront him, he is somewhat hostile. Eventually they force their way into the call box, and discover that it is much larger inside than it could possibly be. Susan explains to the older man, who she calls Grandfather, that these two are teachers of hers. Eventually this man says that he is called the Doctor, and he locks the doors and takes off. Then the TARDIS lands, and we see it in a kind of desert landscape, where an ominous shadow of a man appears, and then the episode is over.

A characteristic of Classic Doctor Who is that it was broadcast as a serial. The first story is composed of 4 episodes of 25 minutes each, and what we just outlined was Episode #1. You wanted people to keep coming back each week, so you would end each episode with a cliffhanger so that they would come back to see how it played out the following week. And often they would put a cliffhanger at the end of a completed story to get people to come back for the next story. Now sometimes the cliffhanger was the Doctor being in danger, and you had to know that he would get out of it somehow, but you would still want to know how he did it.

Well, if you came back the following week you would have discovered several things. The first is that the Doctor is upset to see that the TARDIS still looks like police call box. Apparently it is supposed to blend in with its surroundings, and while a police call box blends in nicely in 1963 London, it is out-of-place wherever they are. It turns out the TARDIS is supposed to have a Chameleon Circuit, but on this TARDIS it is broken. And it has stayed broken through all 60 years of the program. By now it is famous, but all along it had the useful characteristic of allowing them to reuse the prop without spending more money. And then they are captured by cavemen, and dragged back to the cave they all inhabit, called the Cave of Skulls. The Doctor had been seen lighting a pipe, and they are all desperate to discover the secret of making fire. Now I tend to think that by 100,000 BC people knew how to make fire, in fact the date of 1 million BC seems more accurate. But lets not nitpick. Over the next 3 episodes the Doctor and his companions manage to avoid being killed and eventually make an escape. One notable incident is during the escape when the Doctor attempts to kill one of the cavemen and is stopped by Ian. This is notable because the Doctor generally avoids doing things like that as the show went on through the years. I think at this point people were still figuring out who the Doctor would really be, and it hadn’t quite gelled yet.

We will pick up the pace from here. I want to look more at the First Doctor (William Hartnell) and his stories, but I think I can cover them more briefly now that cast is set and the basic premise is in place.

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