Writing the foreword to Doctor Who: The Vault in 2013, the programme’s boss, Steven Moffat, revealed the hardest thing about writing for the show. “Doctor Who takes place in a completely different world from ours,” he wrote, “and the difference isn’t the spaceships or the time travel or the monsters or the fact that the universe is kept safe by a loon with comedy hair, it’s just this: the Doctor’s adventures happen in a world where there isn’t a television show called Doctor Who. Which sometimes makes it a bit difficult to write.
“It’s not the scenes where people from our world gasp in astonishment at their first sight of a Dalek or a Cyberman, when of course everybody knows what they are, because I can cope with that. No, it’s the Tardis. It’s the Tardis disguised as a police telephone box. A police telephone box which would have been forgotten by everyone except for the fact that the Tardis looks like one.”
In the 51 years it’s been on (and indeed, off) air, Doctor Who has developed a wibbly-wobbly cause-and-effect relationship with the country and the culture it was born into. You could claim that it has lasted so long – aside from simply being one of television’s brilliant ideas – because it has moved with the times and reflected our culture. But in lasting so long, it’s also had its own effects on the country and culture around it. And for the past 51 years, the story of Doctor Who has been the story of the UK.
The birth of Doctor Who is a well-worn tale, brought beautifully to life in Mark Gatiss’s 2013 biopic, An Adventure in Space and Time. And it’s the sort of thing that could only have happened in the 1960s.
Canadian maverick Sydney Newman was hired by the BBC to run its drama department and one of his first orders of business was to devise a programme to hold the audience between the football results and Juke Box Jury. The idea was an adventure serial designed to teach children about history, but Newman also realised that science-fiction was “a marvellous way – and a safe way, I might add – of saying nasty things about our society”.
A colourful Jewish man, Newman was formidable and renowned for his work, but going into a BBC that was managed by an army of buttoned-up sergeant major-ish types, he was not so much against the grain as pummelling headlong into it. As his producer, he hired 28-year-old Verity Lambert, a move that raised eyebrows within the BBC ranks. Directing the first story, a series of four episodes that introduced the cast before swiftly zapping them into the Stone Age, was Waris Hussein who, as well as being just 25, was the BBC’s first Indian director. Debate has raged ever since about whether Doctor Who is a progressive show in its nature. But what is undeniable is that the show’s genesis was bound up in this dynamic.
“I was the first Indian-born director in the drama department,” Hussein said last year. “We are dealing with a time when the show had a female producer. Women in those days were secretaries or PAs. They were not the producers of the kind that Verity was. Sydney Newman was a Canadian. Three outsiders working on a project that nobody had any faith in. We were, I think, the first crack in the glass ceiling. That little sliver of a crack being shaped. I think it was a forerunner. None of us realised at the time.”
Russell T. Davies, the man who would one day bring the programme back from near-extinction, once described Doctor Who as “five of the best ideas in the history of television”. But looking at the show on paper, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Like the decade that birthed it, it was progressive and psychedelic, but it was also engaged with wider social anxieties. The Daleks, created for the second serial by writer Terry Nation, with their fanatical dreams of racial purity, were clearly informed by the recent memory of the Nazi threat. Their second appearance, in 1964’s The Dalek Invasion of Earth, took place in a dystopian future.
As Dr Matthew Ashton, politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University and student of the show, told BBC News: “That was one of the very contemporary sci-fi ideas, which was ‘what if the Nazis had won the war?’ And Daleks have often been used as a metaphor for the Nazis within Doctor Who. For instance, this idea of biological ethnic purity, they’re always talking about that within various stories. But what would have happened if the Nazis invaded, and what would that have meant for Britain?”
Yes, Doctor Who was born into a decade of radical change, but it’s worth remembering that it was only born into the start of it.
Speaking last year about Gatiss’s An Adventure in Space and Time, Steven Moffat said: “I thought the star of this for me would be the re-creation of the old episodes, but it wasn’t. What [director] Terry McDonough has done is really evoked the era that Doctor Who was born into. The sheer post-warness of the early ’60s. It’s not even the ’60s properly yet, it’s just post-war Britian, on a bit. This incredibly bleak, occasionally colourful time, it evokes that clearly. You are really quite moved by what a different world Doctor Who was born into.”
By the dawn of the 1970s, Doctor Who found itself going through one of the most seismic shifts in its history. For a show to change its lead actor, from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton through the conceit of ‘regeneration’ was revolutionary in itself. And Troughton’s reading of the role – as a kind of ‘cosmic hobo’ – was to many fans the one that defined who the Doctor really was. Yet with regeneration established as a formula, even bigger changes were on the way. For a start, Jon Pertwee’s term saw the show broadcast in colour for the first time.
For this new era, the show became Earth-bound, the Doctor having been exiled by the Timelords, and now working as scientific adviser to the extra-terrestrial division of the United Nations. There were two main reasons for the change. The pressure on the lead actor was becoming apparent, and so bringing in the ‘UNIT family’, as they were known, would allow the ensemble cast to lighten the load. And basing the Doctor’s adventures in a regular set would free up money to spend on other things. For the first time, the Radio Times did not bill the show as ‘an adventure in space and time’.
Charged with implementing this new format was new producer Barry Letts, considered by fans to be one of the great heroes of Doctor Who. A former actor and sometime director, he was also a keen Buddhist and a nascent environmentalist, and under his rule, the show went through perhaps its most topical ever period. Perhaps it’s obvious that shackling the series to Earth would concern it more with what was going on down here.
The connections were often overt enough to be apparent even to those not looking for them. Doctor Who held up a mirror to the concerns that gripped the psyche of Britain like no other: Europe, strikes and environmentalism. Letts was probably the first voice to use the programme as a soapbox.
As he conceded: “Talking about moral passion might sound a bit pompous, but being aware of it makes for good storytelling. When people used to come up with a story, or Terrance [Dicks, script editor] and I thought of a story, and we couldn’t quite see where we were going with it, we would say, ‘Let’s go back to the basics and ask ourselves, what is the story about? What point is the story making?’ If it’s just an adventure chase-about then it’s very difficult to make a good story because all you’re doing is inventing new incidents. On the other hand, if you go back to brass tacks and say to yourself, ‘The point of this story is, for instance: just because a chap has green skin doesn’t mean he should be treated as an inferior’, then immediately things start to fall into place, so that if an incident arises within the plot, you can ask, ‘Is this leading the story in that direction?’ It is an enormous help in the structure of stories to have a point or a theme to the whole thing’.”
Three stories in particular demonstrate his point. In 1972’s The Curse of Peladon, the Doctor and Jo visit a planet (the exile was up by then) on the tentative verge of joining something called the Galactic Federation, with the young King Peladon keen to join up, while the elder High Priest Hepesh wants to preserve the status quo and keep the planet independent. The story has been widely read as a political satire on one of the big political issues of the day – the decision over whether the UK should join the European Economic Community.
A snippet from Uncle Wikipedia’s helpful story synopsis shows that they may well have a point:
“Jo also tries to convince the delegates to intervene, but although Izlyr agrees that the death of the Doctor (as the delegate from Earth) will mean war, they cannot. Alpha Centauri and Arcturus both want to leave, in case hostilities do break out. Jo leaves in disgust, but Izlyr explains to her in private that all votes must be unanimous by Federation law and Izlyr has voted to stay and save the Doctor, to repay him for saving Izlyr’s life.”
In the end, Hepesh is defeated and Peladon joins the Federation, just as Britain would join Europe the following year. It remains to be seen whether Steven Moffat is planning to return to Peladon again, with one of its High Council based on Nigel Farage. But two years later, the planet would be used as a canvas for UK politics once more, in The Monster of Peladon. This time, writer Brian Hayles chose to ‘tackle’ the miners’ strike of 1973, a stand-off between the then-Conservative government and disgruntled coal miners that led to the loathed austerity measure of the ‘Three Day Week’. Returning to Peladon, the Doctor found himself in an industrial dispute between the authorities and miners of the mineral trislicate. Failing to convey as strong a message as its predecessor, the story is widely considered to be far less successful, despite using many of the same elements and costumes.
But when Doctor Who did thump tubs, it made few bones about doing so. 1973’s The Green Death wore Letts’s concern for ecology on its sleeve. This was the dawn of the environmental movement. Greenpeace was founded in 1971 amid a glut of oil spills, and the story fondly dubbed ‘the one with the maggots’ has at its root the stand-off between a multinational called Global Chemicals and a group of activists in rural Wales. The killer maggots are, of course, the result of chemical pollution, and GC are working on the orders of a malevolent computer named BOSS. The line is drawn in the sand. At the end, Jo leaves the Doctor for a life of Earthbound do-gooding with her new love interest, Professor Jones. “But Doctor, don’t you understand?” she asks the clearly distressed Timelord. “This Professor Jones, he’s fighting for everything that’s important. Well, everything that you’ve fought for. In a funny way, he reminds me of a sort of… younger you.”
Labour MP and fan Tom Harris told the BBC’s Daily Politics; “It’s an iconic episode partly because of those maggots, which were actually made of condoms. They were extremely scary, but not only was it about environmental issues, it was also the first time that a corporate entity, a corporate company became the Big Bad. So it was all about how big companies manipulate communities, which was the first time that was done.”
Yet as Dr Matt Ashton notes on his blog, “Every so-called liberal story had its counter-balance. The Green Death was about the need to stand up to large corporations (and insane computers) wanting to pollute the Earth, but a year later Invasion of the Dinosaurs was about the dangers of environmentalism taken to extremes. The fact that the third Doctor so often teamed up with the military force UNIT, and wasn’t above using his Venusian Aikido on unsuspecting aliens, might even call his alleged pacifism into question.”
The rest of the decade saw several different eras, ranging from gothic horror to camp, colourful whimsy. Under its successive producers, Philip Hinchliffe and Graham Williams, it would rarely become so overtly topical again. Perhaps it didn’t need to, because the common element throughout this period was one Tom Baker, creating the most iconic of all the Doctors. Here was the show’s greatest imperial phase, and it’s difficult to picture the late 1970s without visions of him, of that scarf, of K-9. Baker even found himself in cereal boxes.
At the start of the decade, events in the country were shaping Doctor Who. By the end of it, Doctor Who was shaping the country.
Thinking back to the 1980s, one might have two immediate reactions: of things being gaudy, which Doctor Who certainly was, and of certain people having lots of money, which Doctor Who certainly didn’t.
With a new lead actor, Doctor Who began the decade in relatively rude health. Peter Davison’s more youthful, enthusiastic version of the Doctor revitalised the show to an extent, and, while the lack of money was becoming increasingly apparent, the show still continued to trade in big ideas. But for some, it was still not enough.
Certainly, the high-ups at the BBC seemed to think so, and by the time Colin Baker arrived in 1985, it had faced one attempt at a cancellation. It didn’t help that Baker’s more abrasive Doctor was meeting a decidedly mixed reaction from fans. Indeed, Russell T. Davies has since branded Baker’s famously lurid costume as “one of the single worst decisions in television history”. The show was at least reflecting the decade’s hindsight reputation as being one of bad fashion.
However, it was still not beneath taking a biting topical slant at times. For the show’s final three years, new script editor Andrew Cartmel arrived with Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor. Together they made perhaps the most overtly political stories in the show’s history – and perhaps one of its most misunderstood. 1988’s The Happiness Patrol is certainly lurid, and revels in camp. As the Doctor and his companion, Ace, arrive on the planet Alpha Centauri, they meet a society where melancholy is outlawed. They come face-to-face with a monster made of glucose called The Kandyman, as well as the planet’s fanatical leader. Helen A, played by Sheila Hancock in a red fright wig, would punish those who resisted her enforced happiness by death. The character was widely believed to have been modelled on Margaret Thatcher.
According to Graeme Curry who wrote the story: “I won’t deny that Margaret Thatcher was probably at the back of my mind when I was writing Helen A, but I wasn’t trying to write a satire on Margaret Thatcher dressed up as a Doctor Who story, I was trying to write a Doctor Who story with a credible and interesting villain… Although it would be ridiculous of me to say the whole thing was completely co-incidental, I think Shelia Hancock obviously played it as a Margaret Thatcher figure.”
Meanwhile, while right-wing critics of 1980s Doctor Who have pointed to a nest of left-wing dissidents within the BBC, the allegory was not one intended to suggest any murderous intent on Thatcher’s part. Rather, here was a character so certain in her beliefs that she took them to extremes. After being overthrown by the Doctor, Helen A’s final undoing comes when faced with the body of her beloved dog, Fifi, when she is no longer able to contain her immense sadness behind a perfectly maintained exterior.
As Andrew Cartmel explains: “Helen A was a terrific character, and I’m not sure at what point we got the notion that it’d be good to write her like Margaret Thatcher, but I think it probably came from Graeme, and I did nothing but encourage it. We didn’t brief [Hancock], we didn’t take her aside. She saw right away what we were getting at and boy, did she run with it. She gave a magnificent performance.
“John Nathan-Turner might have said, ‘we could get into a little bit of trouble over this’, so I said to Graeme, ‘while I’m delighted and proud of what we’ve done, when you’re doing interviews about the show, never say we’re doing a satire of Thatcher.’ So Graeme would go to conventions and Sheila Hancock would be there and Graeme would waffle and [deny it], and Shelia would say ‘of course she was! Of course she’s supposed to be Margaret Thatcher!’ Just fearlessly identifying it, and of course, it was.”
For many, the 1990s were a golden age. But what there wasn’t a lot of was Doctor Who. The show had spluttered out of life just as the previous decade had, snuffed out by an unsupportive BBC, the final death knell being its scheduling opposite Coronation Street.
What we can learn from Doctor Who in the 1990s is how its fortunes mirrored the evolution of television itself. Fandoms are now fierce and powerful entities, armies who can exasperate producers out of adoration for the shows they are producing. Yet long before the age of Tumblr, one of the first of these fandoms to rise was that of Doctor Who, and it did so out of necessity. Faced with the cancellation of their favourite programme, they simply turned round and said, ‘actually, no’. Doctor Who was kept alive in various forms, including audio plays and the legendary, monthly pub-based support group at London’s Fitzroy Tavern. It would jolt back to life with two charity skits: the unfortunate 1993 Children in Need special, Dimensions in Time, which pitted classic Doctors against the cast of EastEnders, and 1999’s knowing Comic Relief skit, The Curse of the Fatal Death, starring Rowan Atkinson and Julia Sawalha, and penned by future showrunner Steven Moffat.
But the most notable iteration of Who life-support came with the New Adventures novels, original adventures that continued where the series had left off. The series began with the four-part Timewrym arc. On Paul Cornell’s final chapter, Revelation, Russell T. Davies told Doctor Who Magazine in 2001: “I bought a copy of Revelation to while away a train journey and arrived at Euston three hours later feeling jealous as hell. Paul bloody Cornell gave us Doctor Who, but he made it real. I mean, real people, laid bare, exposing all their anger, passion and, dammit, nobility. People with histories and hopes and flaws, existing in a world where Chad Boyle, the school bully, is more terrifying than some super-evil Timewyrm.” The books would become increasingly adult in tone, verging occasionally erotica, but they were doing a crucial job. Cornell, Davies, along with Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts and Matt Jones were all New Adventures alumni who would go on to write for the series itself. And with 61 novels, they were awarded a Guinness World Record for the largest fictional series based around one principle character.
One fan who made it his business to keep the Doctor alive actually managed to revive him. Philip Segal was a British-born TV producer who had climbed the ranks of US broadcasting to a senior role within Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. Here was a man with enough clout to make the BBC listen when he said he wanted to make Doctor Who.
A long and drawn-out process of negotiation eventually led to a 1996 TV movie, starring Paul McGann as the Doctor. A co-production by the BBC Worldwide, Universal Studios and 20th Century Fox, many fans hoped it would lead to Doctor Who returning as a big, transatlantic, properly-budgeted series. And speaking in 1996, Segal was optimistic. “In terms of tailoring it to an American audience, we’ve really created two movies. We have a science-fiction movie for the fans, which is a wonderful adventure for the Doctor, but we also have a love story wrapped into it, very much reminiscent of Romancing the Stone in feel. I think we’ve done a lovely job of kissing the past, bringing it into the ’90s and evolving the concept into a story and show that I think can appeal to a broad audience.”
There was some consternation over this new direction, and a kiss between McGann’s Doctor and his companion provoked controversy. But the film was actually remarkably faithful to the canon. There was no attempt at a reboot. In fact, the decision to bring back McCoy for a regeneration scene probably worked against it in the end, the whole process being truly alien to its new viewers. Viewing figures were respectable in the UK, but a series never transpired. In 2001, Segal admitted he was being pulled in too many directions. Needing to keep one foot in the established canon, while remaining part of the emerging golden age of American drama, ultimately led to its falling between both.
“Its Britishness is what makes it work,” he said. “The eccentricity of it makes it work. You can take that and plug it into any world, but you have to protect it and you have to leave it alone. Those American elements and the romance and all of the things that I was being forced to do… I think in some ways actually hurt the character.”
Still, the kissing would make its way into the series when it was eventually revived in 2005, as would the more Earth-bound, urbanised approach. But to fans who remain aghast about the Doctor’s admission that he is half human on his mother’s side, there is a simple explanation: he was kidding.
In 2003, it was announced that Doctor Who was to return to television, under the industry’s writer-of-the-moment, Russell T. Davies. Davies had become a wunderkind following his groundbreaking gay drama, Queer as Folk.
Unsubstantiated legend has it that the BBC were so keen to secure his services that he was able to force their hand, joking to his agent, “I’ll go and work for them if they let me bring back Doctor Who!” It’s probably just a lovely story best left to fantasy, but it underlines the boldness of his vision.
The show returned in 2005 needing to prove itself to an audience who had grown up without Doctor Who in the ether. That it became such a huge and immediate hit was down to two shrewd strategies. In one sense, Davies changed virtually nothing. Again, the series was a continuation of the past rather than a reboot, and key elements that many producers may have redesigned – like the Pepperpot Daleks and the spaceship shaped like a 1960s relic – stayed the same. It brimmed with nostalgia while taking itself as seriously as it needed to. Christopher Eccleston, an actor of gravitas, was cast as the Doctor, and dressed in a battered leather jacket that was as far from Colin Baker’s technicolour dreamcoat as one could imagine.
Davies’s vision of the show was more rooted in contemporary Britain than any since the UNIT days of the 1970s. The companion, Rose, was a shop assistant living on a council estate, and the Doctor’s arrival into her life saw her open her eyes and live up to her potential, without ever doing down the ordinary world she came from. Real world references were everywhere – the British government made several appearances – and when backbench MP Harriet Jones ascended to Prime Minister in 2005’s The Christmas Invasion, she incurred the Doctor’s wrath by shooting down the retreating Sycorax ship, in scenes reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s sinking of the Belgrano.
John Simm’s Master actually posed as the next Prime Minister, Harold Saxon, and villains were as motivated by greed as by a quest for world domination. In many ways, the Davies era of Doctor Who could be read as foreshadowing the financial crisis. But speaking to the Telegraph in 2009, he expressed displeasure with any notion of ‘evil bankers’.
Expanding on the notion, he reflected, “[The Master] has never been called evil – he’s insane, in need of help. All these people are driven by money, or lust, or greed – you’ve got to motivate them. Just to call somebody evil stops any understanding of them. I think that’s true of murderers, peadophiles. The moment you say someone is evil, you’ve stopped any understanding of them or any chance of helping them, or any chance of reducing their numbers. It’s a really wrong thing to do. Other writers will put the word ‘evil’ in, and I absolutely tell them to take it out.”
And of the suggestion of an anti-capitalist agenda within the show, Davies insisted, “I was listening to this teen demonstrator on Radio 1 and she was saying ‘I’m anti-capitalist’. And I thought, ‘yeah, you’re saying that as you’re tweeting and wearing leather shoes, and you’ll go home and watch telly online on your laptop. A lot of those people are kids, basically. I’m not anti-capitalist. Look at me, I’m wearing clothes, I own a house, I’m about to catch a train. That’s what capitalism is, it keeps the whole thing running. I’m anti-greed any day. But it’s not a bad society – it’s not that bad. There are worse!”
As our journey through time hurtles towards landing in the present, something else remarkable starts to happen. As we’ve seen, the Doctor has been a part of British life for 51 years, even at times when he wasn’t on screen. But it looks as if he is no longer satisfied with just the UK.
Since the dawn of this decade, when the show returned once more with a new Doctor in the now recently-departed Matt Smith and a new showrunner in Steven Moffat, it has become a truly global proposition. There were always pockets of fandom worldwide. But as well as maintaining its viewing figures domestically, no mean feat for a show that has been back for nine years, its international reach is only growing. It now records a global audience of 77 million, and last year’s 50th anniversary special was simulcast in 98 countries. To launch the 2014 series, Doctor Who is attempting its most audacious promotional campaign to date, with a world tour visiting seven cities in five continents over 12 days. Actors Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman will be meeting fans in Cardiff, London, Seoul, Sydney, New York City, Mexico City and Rio de Janiero.
Since 1963, the Doctor has defended the Earth from forces seeking to conquer it. Now he is on the verge of conquering it himself...
Deep Breath, the first episode of the eighth Doctor Who series, will be broadcast on BBC One and released in UK cinema on 23 August 2014.
Discover more Doctor Who at bfi.org.uk/doctorwho
Photographs © BBC. Titles available on BBC DVD.
An Unearthly Child (1963); The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964); The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967); The Invasion (1968); The Mind Robber (1968); The Curse of Peladon (1972); The Green Death (1973); Robot (1974); Genesis of the Daleks (1975); The Caves of Androzani (1984); The Happiness Patrol (1988); Remembrance of the Daleks (1988); Doctor Who: The Movie (1996); Bad Wolf (2005); The Christmas Invasion (2006); The Girl in the Fireplace (2006); Blink (2007); The Time of Angels (2010); The Rings of Akhaten (2013).