Doctor Who (1963-89, 1996, 2005- )
The Story So Far…
In case you’ve lived under a rock for the past 53.5 years, Doctor Who is a British tv series about a mysterious Time travelling alien that first aired on Saturday 23rd November, 1963. The series was the brainchild of Canadian born tv exec, Sydney Newman, although it was the young & spirited lady that he entrusted the series to in the form of Verity Lambert (making her the BBC’s first female producer) who championed the show during its fledgling years.
A show about an enigmatic alien who travels the universe of Time and Space in a bigger-on-the-inside Police Box known as the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension in Space, for the Pub Quiz win), the weekly serial was a pioneer in the newly popular tv genre of science fiction. Following the success a decade earlier of The Quatermass Experiment and its successors, a BBC commissioned report suggested the broadcaster further explore the genre, which fitted perfectly with Newman’s pet project that he had been considering for some years.
William Hartnell, the original, you might say
Verity cast William Hartnell, known at the time for playing tough soldier-types, in the lead role of “Dr. Who” - a cranky, dottery grandfather of remarkable knowledge and unknown origins. To tackle the action, they cast William Russell, who recently finished playing Sir Lancelot in his own tv series, as science teacher Ian Chesterton. Rounding out the cast were Jacqueline Hill as history teacher Barbara Wright, and Carole Ann Ford as the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan. Originally pumping out 39-45 half-hour episodes per year, the serial sought to both entertain and educate its audience, with a near equal mix of alien worlds and historical settings.
Newman’s one firm resolution was that the series did not go down the path of “bug eyed monsters”. He was thus very critical when he was shown the Doctor’s first onscreen encounter with an alien race…
It was nonetheless the Daleks, which very openly borrowed from the Nazis, that helped seal the show’s fate, quickly boosting ratings and demanding repeat performances, going on in fact to appear in dozens of future stories, spawning two spin-off cinematic movies, and creating their very own merchandising mountain. As was policy at the time, writer of the first Dalek story, Terry Nation, held the rights to the creations, and attempted to break into the US market with a series of their own adventures, however this ultimately failed to gain traction. His estate remains fiercely protective of the famous “pepperpots”.
After just over one year, Carole Ann Ford decided to leave the show, having found the role to be less intellectual and interesting as had originally been presented to her. So began one of the recurring trends of the show - the Doctor may be the lead, but his companions come and go. The very next story after Susan’s departure saw her replaced with Vicki (Maureen O’Brien), who suitably filled the gap. Hartnell however took umbridge at Ford’s decision, accusing her of breaking up the family. Talking of working with Hartnell in later years, Ford said they had an incredibly strong bond whilst working together, although he tended to treat her like the 15 year old child she was playing, rather than the 23 year old woman she really was.
By the end of its second season, Hartnell was the only original cast member remaining, and Lambert had also moved on, feeling it was time to allow someone else to bring fresh ideas into the show.
During it’s third year the series faced a huge hurdle. Hartnell was suffering from arteriosclerosis, which was increasingly affecting his ability to learn his lines. The difficult decision was made to replace him, but rather than a simple re-cast (as had been seen in film and tv series of the day), the Doctor’s alien nature was used as a set-piece to explain the change.
In what would be Hartnell’s last story in his run as the Doctor, the show’s second most iconic villain was introduced - the Cybermen. Created by scientist Kit Peddler, and writer Gerry Davis, the Cybermen depicted the extreme of what was at the time a science in its infancy - cybernetics. With his body “worn out” during the encounter with the emotionless metal men, the Doctor that fans around the world had come to love and enjoy over the past 3 years fell to the floor of the TARDIS, and something magical happened.
The now familiar term “regeneration” would not actually be coined in the series until the Third Doctor’s finale. This process of rebirth however ensured the series’ continuation, with character actor Patrick Troughton taking the lead. Bill Hartnell was devastated at the decision to replace him, having fell in love with what the Doctor stood for, and adoring the fact that he had become a hero to children around the world. He did however comment that if anyone was going to take over as the Doctor, then Patrick would be the best man to do it.
The Cosmic Hobo
It was entirely unknown whether this transition would be accepted by the audience, with many feeling the change would see the series fail within a matter of weeks. But Troughton’s portrayal of a completely different, and yet in essence very similar Doctor kept the curious audience’s attention. As has become the pattern throughout the years - whilst some fans fell away due to the loss of “their” Doctor, the majority stayed watching, and new fans were drawn into the series. The fact the show is even remembered today, nearly 54 years later, and indeed still in production (albeit with a few gaps along the way) is totally indebted to Troughton’s acting, creating a character that was soon coined “the cosmic hobo”, and which would be viewed as the template for several future Doctors.
Whilst the Daleks had been Hartnell’s main foe, the Cybermen returned to face off against the Second Doctor in four more adventures. Two of these stories took part in Troughton’s second season, remembered fondly by fans as the year of “bases under siege”. Catacombs, a space station, Tibetan monastery, London’s Tube Stations - the list goes on - all isolated communities under attack from threats such as Cybermen, Ice Warriors, and robotic Yeti.
(The BBC was denied permission to actually film inside the London Underground. As a result, the production team re-created a station and tunnel section for the story. After the episode went to air, an angry Underground official made a complaint to the BBC, believing they had ignored the directive to stay out of the Tube!)
Toward the end of his third season, Troughton decided it was time to move on (at least - his wife felt he was too good an actor to waste on a children’s television show), and his final story - 6 years after the series began - finally saw some of the Doctor’s history revealed. He was a Time Lord, an incredibly powerful race of people who opted only to watch the universe unfold rather than to interfere, no matter how dire the circumstances. It was this inaction that lead the Doctor to “borrow” a TARDIS and leaving his home world to explore the universe.
(The second season’s final story in fact offered a huge surprise as the audience was introduced to “the Meddling Monk”, another traveller known to the Doctor and who also possessed a TARDIS. This man returned in the third season, but ultimately we learned little new about the Doctor’s past.)
Placed on trial by his own people for his interference in other worlds, the Doctor was exiled to Earth, and forced to change his appearance once more. Unlike last time, we did not see the Doctor regenerate at the end of Troughton’s swansong - merely saw him spinning away into oblivion.
When the show returned, it was in colour, with new actor Jon Pertwee literally collapsing out of the TARDIS and into his new role. (Pertwee’s first story is the only original era adventure to be released on BluRay, because the story was entirely recorded on film due to a strike pushing them out of the studio - thus offering high resolution source material to create a BluRay master print.) Joining Pertwee over the next 5 years were the UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) “family”, that would include over the years - Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart (following 2 appearances during the Second Doctor’s era), Liz Shaw, Sgt Benton, Cpt Yates, and escapologist Jo Grant. The decision to ground the Doctor on Earth was a fiscal one - allowing the production team to avoid expensive alien sets, and re-use actors. They also gave the Doctor a recurring villain to fight in the form of “the Master” - another of the Doctor’s own race, but a completely malevolent one.
(Pertwee and Delgado were in fact great friends, which helped the rather complex relationship between the Doctor and the Master on screen. What was going to be the Master’s last story had to be abandoned when Delgado was in a fatal car accident. The character would however be revived in later years.)
Pertwee’s Doctor is often dubbed “the man of action”, likely due to the fact that during his 5 year duration he raced around in a yellow Edwardian Roadster named Bessie, he frequently rode motorcycles and helicopters, even hovercrafts including his specially commissioned “Whomobile”! What many probably do not know however is that during WWII Pertwee served in Naval Intelligence, reporting directly to Churchill, training spies in escapology and other essential skills. (Just picture “Q” from James Bond!)
Since Doctor Who began, studio sessions had been recorded on video, and location work on film. Video Master Tapes were then created for UK broadcast, before being “telecined” (copied) onto 16mm film for both archiving and to strike copies for BBC Worldwide to sell abroad. The video masters were then wiped and re-used to save costs. With archives dating back to the beginning of television, the BBC’s costs were skyrocketing as more and more content was produced, and yet due to powerful unions, it was nearly impossible to re-screen this footage (due to royalty fees/permissions). At the time home video machines did exist, but were incredibly expensive. As such, the decision was made to destroy history.
From approx 1967 - 78 the BBC destroyed nearly every recording it held of Doctor Who (and a great deal of other footage, including local footage covering the 1969 Moon Landing, for example), until by chance a fan discovered what was happening, and helped bring the practice to a stop (literally just in time to save the only prints of the first ever Dalek story!). BBC Worldwide held copies of some of the stories, however they had been destroying their own “back catalogue” of titles that were no longer of interest, assuming that the BBC still held the originals. Hundreds of episodes were missing. The search began across the globe to find and recover these episodes, and continues today, with 97 still absent, including Hartnell’s final instalment, and most of Troughton’s first year.
In the case of Pertwee’s era, the stories were broadcast in colour in the UK, but then b&w copies were made for foreign distribution, as places like Australia didn’t change over to colour transmissions until 1975. As such, many Pertwee stories only existed in b&w due to the junking. Over the years, due to the huge popularity of Doctor Who on home video, BBC Worldwide invested a lot of time and money to find ways to restore all of Pertwee’s stories, finding various ways to recover the colour tracks.
(In some instances they had American NTSC off-air copies, which alone were too low quality for commercial use, however by overlaying the colour print over top of the b&w master, they were able to produce an acceptable result. Later, by complete chance, they learned that what was assumed to be random interference in the picture, was in fact “chroma dots” - a pattern that encoded the colour signal into each frame. By using some reverse engineering, they were able to restore colour to all but 1 episode of Pertwee’s b&w stories. For that final 25 minute instalment, the BBC engaged a fan prolific on YouTube for colouring old b&w clips of Doctor Who. Over an entire year “Babelcolour” (with the help of 1 other person) coloured every frame of the episode. Now that’s dedication!)
In 1973 Doctor Who turned 10 years old. To celebrate, the production team planned a story that would not only see the Time Lords return, and explore their history, but would see the return of the two previous incarnations of the Doctor as well. Calls were made to Hartnell and Troughton, and scripts began for this celebratory outing. As the time drew nearer, Hartnell’s wife contacted the team, confused by Bill’s impression that he would be returning to the role he had created so many years ago. Whilst they had earlier caught him on “a good day”, the reality was that Bill was a very ill man, with severe dementia caused by the arteriosclerosis. A big re-draft was undertaken, and Bill’s part reduced to accommodate his abilities. This was to be Hartnell’s final acting role; he passed away in 1975.
With the UNIT “family” starting to disband by the end of his fourth year, Pertwee made the decision to make his next season his last, and so the production team once again was tasked with finding a new actor to play the Time Lord. It was during this last year of the Third Doctor - 11 years after the show began - that we finally learned the name of the Doctor’s home planet - Gallifrey.
One day, Tom Baker was furiously throwing pitch forks at his father-in-law. The next he was a bricky’s labourer. And the day after that, he became an international tv star as he stepped in to helm the TARDIS following Pertwee’s departure. In his first season Baker’s Doctor faced off with Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans, giant bugs and bug-eyed giants, but most infamous of all was the debut of the Dalek’s creator - Davros.
(Terry Nation had allowed the Doctor Who team to occasionally use their own writers for Dalek stories, but on this occasion penned the script himself. What he originally offered however was deemed “more of the same” by script editor Robert Holmes. Nation was therefore nudged toward doing a “creation” story, and thus Genesis of the Daleks was born.)
Whilst Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elizabeth Sladen, had snuck aboard the TARDIS during the Third Doctor’s era, it was during her time with the Doctor who was “all teeth and curls” that her relationship with the middle-aged alien truly blossomed, with the chemistry between Baker and Sladen leading to their Doctor/Companion relationship often being considered the best pairing of all time.
And yet things were only just getting started for this new “bohemian” Doctor.
Tom became an imposing force in the creation of stories, known for wildly flinging scripts and insults across the room if he felt his opinions weren’t being heard. He came to have his own strong feelings regarding the direction of the show, and always strived to ensure that the younger audience members were not forgotten. Indeed, whenever appearing publicly in costume he very consciously presented himself as a figure above reproach - because that’s what the Doctor would do.
As production commenced each year, Tom would ask the team if his time had come - if he should move on. Each time the team would beg him to stay another year. In 1980 however, when Tom asked his question of newly appointed producer, John Nathan-Turner, all he received was silence. Tom’s epic 7 year run as the Doctor ended as his last story went to air in March 1981.
End of Logopolis, 1981, captured on my Mac Quadra 840AV
(During the course of his final two seasons, Tom and then companion actor Lalla Ward (Romana) became romantically involved, and in fact wed at a registry office in 1980. The relationship however did not last for very long.)
To tackle the task of sending Tom off, JN-T (more accurately, script editor Chris Bidmead) crafted a trilogy that would see the return of the Master, and cover the last two stories of Tom’s run, and the debut of his replacement. The Master had in fact first returned following Delgado’s death in an earlier Tom story, that had revealed another important piece of Time Lord mythology - they can only regenerate 12 times (ie 13 lives). The Master was played by Peter Pratt in the earlier story, and then Geoffrey Beevers in the first part of this new trilogy, before “stealing” a new body in the form of actor Anthony Ainley, who would remain in the role for the rest of the original run.
My Sarah Jane
JN-T ambitiously hoped to expand upon Doctor Who by way of a more adult spin-off series. He managed to convince Elisabeth Sladen to reprise her role of Sarah Jan Smith, and in an odd combination, shoe-horned a new K9 into the mix to create “K9 & Company”. The new project never made it past a pilot episode, however Sarah and K9 appeared together several more times in the future.
The Wet Vet
JN-T realised that he needed to cast someone in vast contrast to replace Tom’s long lasting, authoritative, manic Doctor. He opted for the youngest actor to date to play the role in the form of 29 year old Peter Davison, known at the time for playing Tristan, a vet in All Creatures Great and Small.
In a clever move, Davison’s season was recorded out of order, allowing him to get a hold of the character in several adventures before tackling what would be screened as his debut story. Inheriting 3 companions from Tom was not an ideal situation, which owed itself to the fact that JN-T had decided on the spur of the moment to keep the character of Nyssa in the TARDIS. This was not the first time such a decision was made - the longest lasting companion of all time - Jamie McCrimmon, who starred alongside Troughton in all but one of his stories - was originally only going to feature in one story as well.
The crowded TARDIS however was soon thinned out when, for the first time in the series’ history, one of the Doctor’s companions was killed. Actor Matthew Waterhouse found out about his character’s demise for the first time when he was given the script to read, and reportedly did not speak to JN-T for several weeks as a result. The storyline did however show the audience that jaunting around the universe with the Doctor was not without risk.
(Katarina and Sara Kingdom were both killed during epic First Doctor adventure “The Dalek Masterplan”. Whether or not they count as “companions” is up for debate, but ultimately both only appeared in the show for 6 weeks, unlike Adric who spent more than a year in the TARDIS. As such, he was effectively the first meaningful companion to get the chop.)
With 20 years of Doctor Who approaching, JN-T wanted a story featuring “all” of the Doctors. Initial drafts however had to be abandoned when it became clear that Tom Baker would not be taking part. His comments at the time were that he still felt very proprietorial over the role, and thus returning as “one of” the Doctors was too much to bear. He has since stated he regrets that decision. To fill in for his absence, JN-T used footage from the unseen story, Shada, which had failed to reach completion due to strike action. Hartnell’s First Doctor was re-cast, and a number of past companions made appearances. The special was aired after the 20th season as part of the Children In Need telethon.
After 2 years of what he felt were at best average quality stories, Peter Davison made the decision that his 3rd year would be his last as the Doctor. In hindsight, he says it was a shame he had to make the decision at that point in time, because his 3rd year was an absolute highlight, undoubtedly reaching a pinnacle with the climactic fan favourite Phantom of the Opera inspired Caves of Androzani.
The Second Baker
JN-T did not have far to look for his next Doctor - he had just recently cast him as a Gallifreyan guard in Davison’s second season. Colin Baker delighted at the idea of becoming the next Doctor, and agreed with much of JN-T’s vision for the character, with just one major difference - clothing.
This was how Colin wished to be attired:
Instead, he got this:
Baker2’s Doctor ruffled feathers from the very beginning, when due to a bad regeneration, he attempted to strangle his companion. Baker2’s interpretation of the Doctor was of a man who saw the universe differently to a human - he may for instance step over a dead body without a thought, but cry over a wounded butterfly. Ratings meanwhile had been declining throughout the Fifth Doctor’s era, and as that trend continued, BBC Controller Michael Grade felt the time was perfect to bring the series to a close. The news made headlines around the world, and resulted in 1 million letters from fans insisting on the series’ reinstatement.
With much disgust, Grade restored the show, however saw its production scaled back by half. Now only 14 episodes per year, compared to the average of 20-28 that had been the norm since 1970. When the show resumed, it bore a season-long story title of “Trial of a Timelord”, an openly metaphysical reference to the fact that whilst the Doctor may have been standing trial again with the Time Lords, so the show was also on trial in the eyes of the BBC.
Having now been producer for over 5 years, JN-T made clear his intentions to leave the show. Management accepted, however he was told that his final job would be to fire Colin Baker, due to a lack of confidence in his suitability in the role. After executing that order, he then learned that if he did not return, then neither would Doctor Who.
Card Up His Sleeves
Feeling he had no choice, JN-T resumed his role of producer, and cast Sylvester McCoy to replace Baker2. The choice was possibly a big statement toward BBC management, with McCoy arguably the least likely choice for the role. With only 4 stories (of 3-4 episode duration) to get a feel for his character, McCoy struggled through his first year, but by the time he dumped carry-over companion Mel (Bonnie Langford), and picked up Ace (Sophie Aldred) on Iceworld, the Seventh Doctor was in full swing. His last 2 years as the Doctor saw at least 2 stories emerge as fan favourites, that would top the charts for years to come.
The 26th season’s opening story saw the return of the Brigadier, in what would be his final appearance on Doctor Who. Nicolas Courtney had first appeared alongside Hartnell’s Doctor playing a space agent. He then returned in Troughton’s second year to create the role of (then Colonel) Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart, going on to appear alongside all but Baker2’s Doctor from the original era of the show. Although he never returned to Doctor Who, Courtney did reprise the role one last time for Sarah Jane’s second spin-off series. After Courtney’s death, his character was also retired via a telephone call to the Eleventh Doctor, advising of the character’s passing away in a nursing home.
After finishing production on Season 26, JN-T contacted McCoy to call him back into the studio on 23 November, 1989, to record a voice-over to be played at the end of the season’s final story, Survival - due to air in just a few weeks time. Although nothing had officially been said, JN-T suspected that this was to be Doctor Who’s last story. He was correct.
There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do!
Michael Grade had however learned from his previous experience, and this time there was no announcement, no press, no official word. By the time fans realised what was happening, it was all over - the Doctor Who production office was closed for business.
And BBC Worldwide were furious!
In October 1983 BBC Worldwide (or whichever name it was using at the time) released the first ever Doctor Who title on home video - the Fourth Doctor classic, Revenge of the Cybermen. More releases followed over the years, and by 1990 sales of Doctor Who contributed to a major part of the distribution arm’s revenue. When word broke that the show was not returning, management at Worldwide were furious, because they knew this would hurt their sales of the show, without current stories on air to keep people’s interest. Whilst JN-T had sought to leave Doctor Who, after its axing he became involved with Worldwide, helping to put together several special releases showcasing different eras of the show.
Such was their interest, noting that the show was approaching its 30th anniversary, Worldwide sought to create a once-off straight to video movie featuring all of the (remaining) Doctors. They even managed to convince Tom Baker to become involved with the project, named “The Dark Dimension”, which eventually gained further support from BBC Film, with the project moving to becoming a cinematic release. The fans were excited! Before contracts could be signed however, the BBC scuppered the project without explanation. The fans were furious! Instead of a cinema outing, the BBC agreed to a 12 minute (in 2 parts) production titled “Dimensions in Time” that once more aired as part of the annual Children In Need telethon.
Attempted Take Overs
During the 80’s, and early 90’s, several people had approached the BBC to discuss the future of Doctor Who. The show’s creator himself, Sydney Newman, long since retired and returned to Canada, approached the production team around the time of the first cancellation, with a manifesto of ideas for how to turn the show around. His key ideas were to add a pair of younger companions, to more heavily push contemporary concerns such as environmentalism, and to recast Patrick Troughton (!). One thing he was keen to see was the addition of his name at the start of every episode as the show’s creator, akin to Star Trek’s references to Gene Roddenberry. None of his ideas made their way into the series during its production.
Another who stepped forward after the show ended was Verity Lambert, the series’ first producer. By now a very well established powerhouse in British television, she suggested outsourcing the show to her company. It’s not known exactly what she had in mind for the show, but one can’t help but think it may have been exactly what was needed to revive the Doctor’s story and bring it back to its origins.
Ultimately however, what fans finally learned in bits and pieces over the years to follow, was that a US based, British born producer by the name of Philip Segal had contacted the BBC in the late 80’s to discuss the idea of a BBC/USA co production. One of his suggestions was that the show, which as the BBC recognised was no longer as popular as it had been during its golden age, should be shelved to allow time for absence to make the public’s heart grow fonder. This potentially contributed to the series’ quiet cancellation. Certainly, when Segal heard about The Dark Dimension venture, he wrote to the BBC, asking that the project be halted - hence the sudden ending to that project.