As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, we’ve looked back at some of the important, fan-favourite tales of all of time and space, taking on one Doctor each month, including The Ark in Space, Vengeance on Varos and The End of the World. And it all concludes with this month’s An Unearthly Child…
Eleven incredible Doctors; the loss of cast members; ever-changing production teams; controversies; cancellation; renewed hopes; missing serials; new directions: Doctor Who’s genesis is a long and winding journey.
And although Doctor Who celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, its origins arguably lie much earlier – on 22nd September 1955.
Battling The Competition With Little Green Men From Mars
The BBC Television Service launched in 1936 and was the sole broadcaster until 1955 when its first competitor, the commercial ITV, hit the airwaves. The Queen’s Coronation saw an upsurge in viewing figures and in March 1953, 2,142,452 TV licenses were given, compared to 1,457,000 in 1952. Television wasn’t just a brief phenomenon.
1954’s Conservative Government’s Bill proposed an end to the BBC’s broadcasting monopoly; a commercial station, run by the Independent Television Authority, aiming to be “predominantly British in tone and style and of high quality, and nothing was to be included which [goes] against good taste or decency or which was likely to encourage or incite crime or to lead to disorder or to be offensive to public feeling.”
The Television Bill passed in mid-1954 and one year later, ITV launched, rolling out from London, into the Midlands and the North before fourteen regional stations opened in 1962.
To cope with the competition, Director-General Edward Ian Claud Jacob was replaced with Hugh Carleton Greene, now known for modernising the corporation. Under his watch, groundbreaking shows like Cathy Come Home, Steptoe and Son, and Up the Junction hit screens, and, suggested by Eric Maschwitz (the Assistant and Advisor to the Controller of Programmes), science fiction was investigated as a potential genre to explore.
Science fiction had been broadcast before, of course: R.U.R. (that’s Rossum’s Universal Robots) was the very first piece of sci-fi TV, back in February 1938, followed by the live transmission of The Time Machine. Given the limitations of filming, sci-fi was hard to effectively achieve, though it seems an obvious choice for TV now. Fahrenheit 451 writer, Ray Bradbury famously said:
“Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself… Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about.”
But the findings of the Survey Group tasked with exploring the possibility of broadcasting sci-fi concluded that “the vast bulk of SF writing is by nature unsuitable for translation to TV.”
Nonetheless, in 1962, ITV began showing Out of this World, a sci-fi spin-off of their popular Armchair Theatre – commissioned by Canadian producer, Sydney Newman…
Out of this Whoniverse
Many episodes of Out of this World were adaptations of stories by well-known writers like Philip K. Dick (The Man in the High Castle; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Rog Phillips (Amazing Stories; World of If), and Isaac Asimov (I, Robot; The End of Eternity). The Survey Group also approached science fiction’s potential as a series of adaptations, but they actually concluded that any sci-fi writers like Arthur Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey; The Fountains of Paradise) and John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids; The Chrysalids) should only be collaborators, and that dramatists who specialise in characterisation should be employed first and foremost.
Out of this World was met with positive reactions, with the first episode being watched by 11 million people and beat even the ever-popular Z-Cars in the charts.
Previous sci-fi ventures on the BBC – including Nigel Kneale’s works, The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass and the Pit, and his take on Nineteen Eighty-Four – were also popular, though the Survey group warned that:
“SF is not itself a wildly popular branch of fiction – nothing like, for example, detective and thriller fiction. It doesn’t appeal much to women and largely finds its public in the technically minded younger groups. SF is a most fruitful and exciting area of exploration – but so far has not shown itself capable of supporting a large population.”
It’s certainly interesting to compare Doctor Who to the Survey Group Report on Science Fiction.
The report noted that sci-fi is “overwhelmingly American”; Doctor Who is a British institution, filled with memorable iconography. The report found that “inherently, SF ideas are short-winded”; Doctor Who, as an idea, is simple, but certainly not short-winded. Whilst the Survey Group found characterisation “sparse,” Doctor Who focuses heavily on character – especially the lead. And of course, Doctor Who’s popularity is incredible. Then there’s the Report’s dismissive attitude towards the work of C.S. Lewis, whose Narnia series inspired 2011’s The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe and whose magical tone lends itself to Who perfectly.
The group also stated that sci-fi fell into “fairly well-defined genres,” and though Doctor Who cannot be easily defined, they go on to explain that the sub-genres include “simple adventure/ thriller” and “the Threat to Mankind, and Cosmic Disaster” – all of which describe our favourite show ably. It furthermore notes that Quatermass and A For Andromeda work solely because they give audiences relatable characters; that it’s only compulsive when “properly presented.”
The report bravely throws out the idea that science fiction might not be an instant fit for TV audiences “until perhaps [viewers] can be trained to accept something quite new.”
Sydney Newman joined the BBC as Head of Drama in December 1962; he already had a history of producing hit television, including The Avengers, Pathfinders in Space, and Out of this World precursor, Armchair Theatre. But he’s most widely recognised as the ‘father’ of Doctor Who.
Newman, like Greene, was a breath of fresh air, head-hunted by BBC Director of Television Kenneth Adam, and was granted a 40% budget increase for the Drama Department in order to accommodate for the newly-launched BBC2.
A gap in the Saturday evening schedules soon opened up between Grandstand (popular with Dads) and the ‘youthful’ Juke Box Jury; a family-friendly serial spanning 52 weeks was needed, and Newman, a fan of science fiction, instructed the head of the Script Department, Donald Wilson, to work on a format. A meeting was set up, attended by Wilson, his colleague, C. E. Webber, and two members of the Survey Group who investigated the possibility of sci-fi on TV, Alice Frick and John Braydon. Plans were drawn up on The Troubleshooters, a show about Sherlock Holmes-esque scientists featuring ‘The Handsome Young Man Hero’, ‘The Handsome Well-Dressed Heroine’ and ‘The Maturer Man’, all designed to appeal across genders and generations. These characters obviously translate into Ian, Barbara and the Doctor respectively, though the latter is noted as a ‘father-figure’, aged 35-40! He is, however, also to have a ‘“Character” Twist.’
Their Headquarters might also be a forerunner to the TARDIS, consisting of a laboratory filled with eclectic objects gathered from previous adventures, as well as a homely office.
One advantage of sci-fi is, of course, that you can comment on real-life situations either overtly or subtly. Webber elucidated some possible areas for exploration in the memo following the meeting:
“What sort of people do we want? What sort of conditions do we desire? What is life? What are we? Can society exist without love, without art, without lies, without sex? Can it afford to continue to exist with politicians? With scientists?”
But this idea – and further notions of flying saucers and telepathy – were rejected by Newman, coining them “corny” and “not based in reality”. The Troubleshooters was met with a definite “No.” Instead, Sydney expanded on the ‘Maturer Man’ notion, creating a frail old man, a runaway from a distant planet. He explained:
“Doctor Who was really the culmination of almost all my interests in life: I wanted to reflect contemporary society; I was curious about the outer-space stuff; and also, of course, being a children’s programme, it had to have a high educational content. Up to the age of forty, I don’t think there was a science fiction book I hadn’t read. I love them because they’re a marvellous way – a safe way – of saying nasty things about our own society. I’d read H.G. Wells, of course, and I recalled his book The Time Machine. That inspired me to dream up the time-space machine for Doctor Who. It was a great device which allowed my audience to be taken to outer space, to elsewhere in the world today, or back into the past.”
Sydney gave this mature character a simple name: The Doctor.