Thursday, January 27, 2011

Genesis of the Doctor

It began with a Canadian and a vacant time slot. In December of 1962, Sydney Newman, a Canadian television executive and producer who had previously overseen projects at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and England's ABC Television, became Head of Drama at the BBC. Newman was a science fiction fan, and the BBC had been considering developing a science fiction series for most of that year. Newman began looking for a slot that would accommodate just such a series.
Sydney Newman

He became aware of a gap in schedule; there was room on Saturday evenings between sports show Grandstand and pop music showcase Juke Box Jury. Newman felt that a science fiction series, aimed at children but sophisticated enough for the rest of the family, would be perfect. He began meeting with Donald Wilson, Head of the Script Department, and staff writer C.E. "Bunny" Webber to develop a viable idea.

Early on, the central concept of a crew adventuring through time and space in a fantastic machine was settled on. While Wilson and Webber did the nuts and bolts writing and came up with the core of the central characters and concepts, it was Newman who suggested the idea that the time machine would be larger on the inside than it appeared from the outside, and that the central figure of the show would be a mysterious old man known as "the Doctor". Newman even provided a title for the series; Doctor Who.

In the role of producer, Newman had originally selected Rex Tucker, but other commitments forced Tucker to drop out before the pilot was even filmed. To replace him, Newman went with an unusual and groundbreaking choice; Verity Lambert. Being a woman and only 28 years old, Lambert was definitely an outsider.  However, Newman had worked with her at ABC Television, and he believed in her. Assigning veteran staff director Mervyn Pinfield to be a mentor to the inexperienced Lambert eased some of Newman and others' concerns, and novelist and screenwriter David Whitaker was chosen to serve as Script Editor.
William Hartnell
The central idea behind the programme was that it would be largely educational, with stories alternating between ones with an historical setting to teach about history, and ones with a science fiction setting to teach about actual science. There were to be no overtly science fiction tropes, especially "bug-eyed monsters", which Newman deplored. The time travel ship had originally been intended to disguise itself to any era or place, but that was deemed too expensive. It was instead decided that the Doctor's ship would remain fixed in the form of a 20th century police box.

Like many programmes on the BBC, Doctor Who would be a serial. Each episode would be part of a larger adventure, broken into multiple parts, each leading into another. The series would largely be shot on video and inside a studio in a process similar to live television. An episode would be rehearsed and prepared by the director and actors for a number of days, often in a rented church hall as the BBC had no assigned rehearsal space. Then, at the end of the week, usually Friday, the team would move into the studio. There would be a camera rehearsal, mostly to prepare the visual effects and establish lighting, and then the entire 23 minute episode would be filmed in a few hours in the evening, with recording scheduled to end at 10:00 pm.

Lambert would turn to veteran film and character actor William Hartnell to portray the title role of the Doctor. Hartnell was famous for playing tough army figures, but it was his sensitive performance in the film This Sporting Life that made Lambert choose him for the role. Carole Ann Ford would play the Doctor's mysterious granddaughter Susan, and Jacqueline Hill would take on the role of Barbara, one of the 20th century schoolteachers shanghaied by the Doctor. The other teacher, Ian Chesterton, would be played by William Russell, recent star of The Adventures of Sir Lancelot for ITV.

With the cast and script in place, and Waris Hussein chosen to direct, Doctor Who recorded its pilot episode. But Newman and Lambert weren't entirely happy with the result. There were some technical issues, and some of the characters, particularly Susan and the Doctor, were played too dark and mysterious, risking a lack of audience investment. So a second pilot was recorded two days later, with these problems corrected, and the series debuted at 5:15 on November 23, 1963.

From left to right: Carole Ann Ford, Jacqueline Hill, Verity Lambert,
William Russell and William Hartnell

Initially scheduled only for 13 episodes, the programme would become a sensation following the second serial, due to the first appearance of what would become the series' signature villains, the Daleks. They were frightening, brilliantly designed and realised, and the epitome of Newman's dreaded "bug-eyed monsters". But their success was too massive to ignore, and Doctor Who's immediate future was secured. Throughout the 1960s, the programme would film over 40 episodes per season, and though greater location pre-filming would be added, it would still very much be studio-bound.

For now, the series was still in its infancy, and it was about to take viewers on an adventure throughout all of time and space.

Next up, the journey begins with the debut serial, An Unearthly Child.


  1. Sydney Newman previously was Supervisor of Drama Production at the CBC in the mid-50's where he oversaw the creation of a Canadian version of Howdy Doody, with copies of the original puppets and original human characters. One original puppet characters was Mr X, who traveled through time and space in a gadget called the Whatzit Box, and was intended to educate young viewers about science and history. However, after parental complaints that he was too scary for children, the character was phased out.

    When Newman came to the BBC, and they wanted to create an original children's program combining themes of science fiction and history, all he had to do was re-tool the concept of Mr X and his Whatzit Box.

    And that's how Howdy Doody inspired Doctor Who. In a way.

    (Another note: both William Shatner and James Doohan appeared on the CBC version of Howdy Doody.)

    1. As I've always said, you want anything done right, have a Canadian involved! Thanks for the additional info. I knew some of that stuff, but had forgotten about Mr. X and his Whatzit Box. Fascinating! And wasn't Shatner Ranger Bob or something?