Doctor Who - The Beginnings
The British Science Fiction Series Doctor Who broadcasted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a series that has become well-known and well-loved by many people living in Great Britain as well as all around the world. It is a show with a unique concept which has managed to capture the interest of multiple generations and made it possible for the original series to run from 1963 to 1989 and even to revive the show in 2005. Seeing as how big of a cultural phenomenon Doctor Who has become, it is my interest to trace it back to its roots and find out how the concept of Doctor Who, and in particular the first episode of Doctor Who called “An Unearthly Child”, came into existence.
The main reason why the BBC needed a show like Doctor Who in its television schedule was that the BBC found itself in a position where it had to compete with a new commercial network called Independent Television (ITV), which aired in 1955.1 In calling itself Independent Television, this network emphasized that it was different than the BBC in the aspect that it had to depend on ratings to finance itself rather than being run by the state. The implication was of course that ITV would therefore provide more genuine and innovative television than the BBC.2 Therefore, to be certain to keep its audience ratings, the BBC had to counteract. One method used was the hiring of ITV-employee Sydney Newman who was to become the head of drama within the BBC and therefore play an important part in the development of Doctor Who.3 In March 1963, there was a meeting to discuss the need for a new show which would eventually become Doctor Who. The “early-evening scheduling gap [was] between the live afternoon sports programme Grandstand and the pop-music review show Juke Box Jury”4, which meant that the show that was to be broadcasted in between these shows had to have the ability to keep the older audience of Grandstand watching while also attracting the younger audience of Juke Box Jury to turn the television on earlier. Being a gap- filling show also meant that the format was predetermined from the beginning: each episode had to have a duration of twenty-five minutes.
One reason why this show “with the modest goal of filling a gap in the schedule”5 ended up being a science-fiction show, was definitely Newman´s “affinity for science fiction”6 and experience with the genre. Secondly, the BBC had already started to consider “developing a series of literary science-fiction adaptations since early 1962”7 and instructed the writing of “a report on literary science fiction that might be suitable for television adaption”8. This report mentioned traits like the necessity of a connection between a science fiction story and a current, well-known situation or other familiar characteristics, to make it easier for the audience to identify with the content and the characters, which is something we can find in the concept of Doctor Who as well. One item, for example, that was familiar to every family watching the show in the 1960s is the space ship used for the travelling in space and time - it is a 1960s blue police box. After reading this report, Newman requested the development of a science-fiction concept for the show and the development of Doctor Who began.
It was decided early on that “the show must be built around a central group of continuing characters”9 which would become the characters of The Doctor and his companions. The development of the companions seen in the first episode “An Unearthly Child” was influenced by Newman`s ambition to use the concept of time travel for “lessons in history as well as in science and technology”10, that is to make the program educational. The BBC was also interested in this aspect, as its charter is “to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ the nation”11. This is one of the reasons why the first two human companions of The Doctor are the teachers Ian and Barbara. They provide an educational, adult point of view and also serve as “audience surrogates, […] human beings struggling to understand what is happening to them”12.
The necessity to appeal to a broad audience and especially families, led to Newman`s statement the show had to have “a kid to get into trouble, make mistakes”13. The manifestation of this “kid” is The Doctor´s granddaughter Susan. With her “dual status […] as an alien and a schoolgirl”14, she was able to serve as an identification figure for teenagers and adolescents watching, who were like her in between two states - in their case the state of being a child and being an adult - and not really belong to either of them. This notion was amplified by Susan´s typical teenager behavior.
The character of The Doctor can be seen as the personification of the cross-generational appeal of the show. The Doctor is an “old man who has stolen the time space machine from his own people […] [, a] civilization on a faraway planet”15. His age would definitely define him as an adult, but the stealing of a machine is just one example of his often child-like behavior, which is why he could also be seen as an identification figure for children or adults who miss being a child. This undisclosed identity makes him a contradictory figure. He is the center of the show and deliberately sketched as a mysterious character with secrets, for example to make speculations possible and keep the audience in suspense and guessing, which is also a way to assure that the audience will keep watching the show. One very essential mystery of The Doctor and therefore of the show is the refusal to give him a name. This leads to a recurring question that also gave the show its title: Doctor Who?
After the development of these essential characters, the casting of the roles was the next important step. The most essential choice was the one of the actor who was to play The Doctor. After making a list of possible choices, William Hartnell, then fifty-five years old and “best known to TV viewers for his role as the irascible military man in [the] comedy series The Army Game”16, was auditioned. Interestingly, he was not invited to the audition because of this well-known role, but based on his role in the film This Sporting Life. He had often portrayed criminals or similar rough characters, but wanted to take on a different role at this point and thus “break out of the typecasting”17. After he was casted as The Doctor, the rest of the essential characters - the companions - were also casted without major problems: Caroline Ann Ford took on the role as The Doctor`s granddaughter Susan, Russell Enoch became the science teacher Ian and Jacqueline Hill the history teacher Barbara. Despite this ease of casting, Doctor Who had to face a lot of obstacles until it aired: technical issues, a small budget, and necessary script revisions delayed the filming of the first episode for a while, which lead to the senior managers at the BBC developing doubts about the future of this show and becoming more and more certain of its inevitable failure. The first recording of the episode “An Unearthly Child” can be described as chaotic and with a lot of flaws in all areas18 and hence had to be reshot. Another unfortunate event which worried the BBC concerning the success of show was the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 - the day before the pilot episode of Doctor Who was broadcasted.19
However, all of these issues and events did not restrict the effect Doctor Who had - and continues to have - on its audience. The first screening of “An Unearthly Child” was seen by 4.4. million viewers, the repetition of this episode followed by the second episode a week later was watched by 6.4. million viewers.20 Later, at its peak of popularity, the original series had “110 million viewers in fifty-four different countries”21. The attempt to appeal to several generations which was essential to the story and character development has created a certain ambiguity of the show as well as many discussions about who the show was actually fit for22, but it may well be possible that it is exactly this tension and blurring of boundaries as personified in the character of The Doctor that has been key to the show`s success and its high ratings.
Leach, Jim. Doctor Who. Detroit, Michigan, 2009.
Robb, Brian. Timeless Adventures: How Doctor Who Conquered TV. Harpenden, Herts, 2009.
1 see Leach, Jim. Doctor Who. Detroit, Michigan, 2009: p. 3, l. 29 - 33
2 see Leach p. 3, l. 33 - p.4, l.8
3 see Leach p. 4, l. 31 - 34
4 Robb, Brian. Timeless Adventures: How Doctor Who Conquered TV. Harpenden, Herts, 2009: p.19, l. 30 - 32
5 Leach p.1, l. 15
6 Leach p.4, l. 26/27
7 Robb p.21, l. 1/2
8 Robb p. 21, l. 7/8
9 Robb p.23, l. 29/30
10 Leach p.5, l. 8 - 10
11 Robb, p. 18 l. 1
12 Leach p.10, l. 16 - p. 11, l. 1
13 Robb p.24, l. 26/27
14 Leach p.10, l. 4/5
15 See Robb p. 24, l. 32 - p.25, l. 2
16 Robb p. 34 l. 12 - 14
17 Robb p.34 18/19
18 See Robb p.37, l. 30 - p.38 l.1
19 See Leach p. 1, l. 1 - 8
20 See Robb p. 41, l. 20 - 31
21 Leach p. 1, l. 21/22
22 See Leach p. 11, l. 23 - 27
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