How Doctor Who Conquered TV
By Brian J. Robb
Oldcastle Books Copyright © 2013 Brian J. Robb
All rights reserved.
BDL[ADVENTURES IN TIME & SPACE
Who created Doctor Who?
Reading the credits of the current incarnation of the series will not tell you the answer to that question. If you rely on an early edition of the quiz game Trivial Pursuit, which claimed Doctor Who was created by one-time Tony Hancock scriptwriter Terry Nation, you'll be no better informed. That assertion has continued to surface, even in the Guardian obituary of the first Doctor Who producer Verity Lambert late in 2007. Earlier histories of the show often credited the 1960s Head of BBC Drama, Canadian Sydney Newman. The truth, however, is that the national institution that is Doctor Who was the product of a committee working within another national institution, the BBC itself.
Hugh Carleton Greene became BBC Director General at a crucial time of change in the corporation's history. Brother of author Graham Greene, he'd been a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph before joining the BBC in 1940. In and out of the BBC throughout the next two decades, Greene held a variety of important posts that allowed him to succeed Ian Jacob to the top position in 1960. He was now running an organisation with a unique history. Founded in October 1922 by John Reith, the British Broadcasting Company (later Corporation) had a responsibility (as stated in the BBC Charter of 1927) to 'inform, educate and entertain' the nation. The BBC was – and still is – funded through a licence-fee scheme, paid by all who own a television. This often left the organisation open to political manipulation by the government of the day. Experimental television broadcasting had begun in 1932. A regular service started in 1936, but was interrupted by the Second World War before resuming in June 1946. The BBC established many of the basic 'ground rules' of television broadcasting, and has often evinced a very paternalistic attitude, resulting in the nickname 'Auntie'.
As Director General, Greene had a clear mission statement: to drag the BBC out of the complacent 1950s (some might say the 1940s) and to ensure that the Corporation's output kept pace with the dizzying social and political change of the 1960s. The big threat the BBC faced was ITV, the independent commercial broadcaster started in 1955, which had found popular success and acceptance as the 1960s began. In comparison with this dynamic young commercial operation, the bureaucratic and hidebound BBC appeared to be a relic from a bygone age. Deference was out and protest was in as the 1960s began to truly swing. It was Hugh Carleton Greene's job to reflect this sea change in British culture in the programmes that appeared on the BBC.
Among the innovative programmes that debuted on his watch (which extended until 1968) were melancholic situation comedy Steptoe and Son, gritty police drama Z-Cars, and late-night biting political and social satire That Was The Week That Was (or TW3). All were long-running (except TW3, axed amid electoral controversy, although its satiric approach to news and politics lived on through the work of David Frost and others) and significantly developed their respective evolving genres. These three shows all began in 1962. They were to be joined by another groundbreaking series in 1963: Doctor Who.
In order to compete with ITV, Greene approached one of the rival broadcaster's key creative figures to become the BBC's new Head of Drama. Sydney Newman had come to ITV from a successful career in his native Canada where he'd started out as a film editor for the National Film Board. After working in American television in the early 1950s in New York, Newman returned to Canada to take up a post with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation where he became Supervisor of Drama Productions in 1954. By 1958, Newman was in Britain, having been hired by ITV regional franchise ABC (serving the English Midlands and the North) as a drama producer. Newman, brash and forthright like the independent broadcaster he was joining, rapidly rose to become ABC's Head of Drama. He was directly responsible for the creation of Armchair Theatre, a weekly show that presented the work of a new breed of 'angry young men' playwrights to large audiences, and gritty drama Police Surgeon, which developed into the more fantastical The Avengers.
Looking to revitalise the BBC's moribund drama department and under instructions from Director General Hugh Greene, the BBC's Director of Television Kenneth Adam hired Newman to become Head of Drama at the BBC. He took up the post as soon as his ABC contract expired in December 1962. Resented by many in the BBC – due to being younger, better paid, outspoken, and (maybe worst of all) 'foreign' – Newman was quick to make his mark. He split the unwieldy drama department into three units – series, serials and plays, headed by Elwyn Jones, Donald Wilson and Michael Bakewell respectively. All three reported directly to Newman, whose arrival was a sign of big changes to come at the BBC throughout the 1960s.
Donald Baverstock, the BBC Controller of Programmes, met with Newman in March 1963 to discuss the need for a new show to fill an early-evening scheduling gap between the live afternoon sports programme Grandstand and the pop-music review show Juke Box Jury, which led into the prime-time Saturday evening schedule. The slot had been previously filled by a variety of short-lived shows and serials, including a Francis Durbridge thriller, a six-episode sciencefiction serial The Big Pool and comedy series The Telegoons. Newman and Baverstock wanted a new drama show for the slot, something that could potentially run all year round (with short seasonal breaks) and could attract a loyal family audience, keeping the older Grandstand viewers tuned in, yet also appealing to the younger, hipper audience attracted to Juke Box Jury. Newman proposed and considered a variety of ideas, including a drama set in a boys' school.
However, for as long as he could recall, Newman had been a fan of literary science fiction. 'Up to the age of 40, I don't think there was a science-fiction book I hadn't read,' he claimed. 'I love them because they're a marvellous way – and a safe way, I might add – of saying nasty things about our own society.' Newman was aware of, and embraced, science fiction's ability to comment on contemporary politics and society in the disguise of fiction about the future. While at ABC he'd commissioned the science-fiction drama-anthology series Out of This World, as well as the serial Pathfinders in Space and two sequels, Pathfinders to Mars and Pathfinders to Venus. The Pathfinders shows featured juvenile characters as a point of identification for the younger target audience and were co-created by Malcolm Hulke, later a key, politically motivated contributor to Doctor Who. Introduced by classic -horror-film icon Boris Karloff, Out of This World dramatised the work of key science-fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov, John Wyndham and Philip K Dick, whose Impostor was adapted by screenwriter Terry Nation, later to create the Daleks for Doctor Who. These previous Sydney Newman shows combined elements that would be central to Doctor Who: an anthology-series format, with strong 'audience identification' characters (as the BBC described them) carrying forward from story to story.
Newman's interest in science fiction was fundamental to his thoughts on filling the Saturday scheduling gap, but the BBC had already been actively investigating the possibility of developing a series of literary science-fiction adaptations since early 1962. Always on the lookout for material to adapt, especially literary material, the BBC had an in-house 'survey group' that monitored film, radio and theatre productions for material that might be of use to television. Donald Wilson, then running the BBC's script department, and Head of Light Entertainment Eric Maschwitz commissioned a report on literary science fiction that might be suitable for television adaptation. The report, compiled by drama script editors Donald Bull and Alice Frick, was submitted in April 1962. The pair had read and evaluated a selection of then-current science -fiction novels and short-story anthologies, and had met with some authors, including Brian Aldiss. The report labelled the genre as particularly American and ideas-based rather than rooted in character. Various sub-genres were identified, from simple thriller plots, to technology-driven narratives and 'big ideas' like cosmic threats to mankind and cosmic disasters. Interestingly, one of the sub-genres identified was described as 'satire, comic or horrific, extrapolating current social trends and techniques', a description that could be applied to much of Doctor Who's output over the next 45 years. This was key to Newman's belief that science fiction was a worthwhile genre.
Previous significant science-fiction ventures by the BBC had included the 1950s Quatermass serials (Quatermass, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit) by Nigel Kneale and the two Andromeda serials (A For Andromeda in 1961 and The Andromeda Breakthrough, broadcast in 1962); these both fell into the 'cosmic threat to mankind' sub-genre the BBC report had identified. The report suggested that ideas-driven narratives were not enough; to succeed, a new television drama would have to attach the 'magic' of its science-fiction content to 'a current human situation'. Also, 'identification must be offered with identifiable human beings'. This remit would be closely followed into the twenty-first-century version of the show.
Frick and her drama-department colleague John Braybon were asked to investigate the subject matter further in a second report itemising specific literary science-fiction titles the BBC could adapt. By July 1962, the pair had devised some rules for TV science fiction that might appeal to the BBC and had some definite suggestions of stories to be adapted. The 'rules' were simple: no bug-eyed monsters; no 'tin robot' central characters; no 'large and elaborate' settings, such as spaceship interiors or alien planets. They must feature 'genuine characterisation' and rely on the audience having to 'suspend disbelief on one fact only'. Frick and Braybon settled on stories dealing with telepaths or time travel as being most suited to adaptation to television on an inevitably limited BBC budget. They described the time-travel concept as 'particularly attractive as a series, since individual plots can easily be tackled by a variety of scriptwriters. It's the Z-Cars of science fiction'.
The stories listed in this second report that were considered suitable for adapting were time-travel adventure Guardians of Time by Poul Anderson, alien-invasion drama Three to Conquer by Eric Frank Russell, immortality tale Eternity Lost by Clifford Simak, trick story Pictures Don't Lie by Catherine McLean (aliens invade in tiny ships and drown in a puddle, later satirised by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), a Frankenstein-type tale No Woman Born by CL Moore, the humorous The Cerebrative Psittacoid by H Nearing Jr and a story of adventure and exploration, The Ruum by Arthur Forges.
Sydney Newman's own interest in science fiction, combined with the 1962 reports, which Baverstock and Donald Wilson brought to his attention, resulted in him issuing a brief to the drama department. He requested that they develop a full proposal for a science-fiction anthology series, consisting of a number of self-contained, short serials, to run for 52 weeks of the year, to fill the early-evening Saturday slot. The development of Doctor Who had begun.
Responding to Sydney Newman's directive, Baverstock and Wilson put together a committee to build upon the survey group's 1962 findings and develop a proposal for the Saturday-early-evening, sciencefiction, family show. At the initial meeting on 26 March 1963 were Wilson, two of the authors of the 1962 report, Alice Frick and John Braybon, and script -department adapter Cecil Edwin Webber. According to Frick's notes of the meeting, Wilson suggested a series based around a time-travelling machine and those who used it. Crucially, Wilson maintained that the machine should not only travel forwards and backwards in time, but also into space and even 'sideways' into matter itself (suggesting other dimensions). Frick herself preferred the idea of a 'flying saucer' vehicle, very in vogue since the phrase was coined following US pilot Kenneth Arnold's sightings of 1947. She felt the saucer would be a better ship as it could contain a group of people, unlike (she assumed) a time machine that, in the style of HG Wells' time traveller in his novel The Time Machine, would only allow an individual to travel. Wilson wanted the new show to steer clear of anything computer-related, as this had featured quite heavily in the BBC's recent Andromeda serials. The telepathy idea from the original report was reconsidered, but not thought to be central to any possible series. Braybon suggested basing a future-set series around a group of scientific trouble-shooters who would investigate rogue science and scientists (this idea would later surface in slightly different form on the BBC in the 1970s as Doomwatch and in the twenty-first century as US TV show Fringe). Each individual serial within the overall series could be devoted to exploring the impact of a single scientific idea, suggested Braybon.
In developing a format for the proposed early-evening series, Wilson explained that the show must be built around a central group of continuing characters. Different members of the group could come to prominence in different serials, with others dropping into the background (a very modern drama structure now followed by soaps and TV drama). He felt that, in order to ensure the younger audience tuned in, at least two of the characters should be teenagers, while Frick felt that the teen audience would prefer to watch characters slightly older than themselves, possibly in their 20s. Two key problems were identified: how would the group be exposed to 'wildly differing' adventures and how would they be transported to the different settings and environments that the serial nature of the show dictated? CE Webber was tasked with coming up with a cast of characters who could form the central group that would feature in the series.
Within the core of the subjects discussed at this meeting are the roots of Doctor Who as it would eventually come to the TV screen in November 1963, but the specifics were lacking. The committee approach, building on the previous work, came up with the idea of a group of characters travelling through time and space in a vehicle of some sort and enjoying/enduring a variety of different adventures each week. The task now would be to add the detail of the characters and pin down some of the specifics of the concept. Webber's subsequent character notes suggested a 'handsome young man hero', a 'well -dressed heroine aged about 30', and a 'maturer man with a character twist'. Webber's notes also went on to explore in more detail the scientific-trouble-shooters concept.
In April 1963, the notes from these meetings were given to Sydney Newman, who promptly annotated them in his regular brusque manner. He discounted the idea of a flying-saucer vehicle, and next to the trouble-shooters concept he simply scribbled a curt: 'No.' Next to Webber's character list he added: 'Need a kid to get into trouble, make mistakes.' Newman approved of Wilson's time-space machine idea and added that the show should be more like the exciting 1930s and 1940s cinema adventure serials than the old-fashioned and worthy traditional BBC children's dramas. Newman latched on to Webber's older man character, suggesting he should be older than the suggested 35–40, perhaps a frail, grumpy old man who has stolen the time -space machine from his own people. Perhaps he could come from an advanced civilisation on a faraway planet? This character would be called 'the Doctor'. In this synthesis of the survey group's ideas with his own off-the-cuff inspiration and his knowledge of socially relevant literary science fiction, Sydney Newman had devised the flexible and lasting concept of Doctor Who. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Timeless Adventures by Brian J. Robb. Copyright © 2013 Brian J. Robb. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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