Return of the time lord

18th March 2005 at 00:00
In an era before special effects, time travel with a dash of reality made Doctor Who the nation's favourite sci-fi hero. Patrick Mulkern looks at a popular culture classic that mixed enlightened debate and alien bashing

Who is the Doctor? Where does he come from? What is a TARDIS? What is Doctor Who? These are some of the questions that will no doubt be asked by a whole new generation of viewers when the famous Time Lord returns to BBC1 this month.

These questions were first being asked 42 years ago. Few of those who settled down to watch the start of the tea-time serial in November 1963 could have imagined they were witnessing the dawn of an international science-fiction phenomenon that would still be with us in the 21st century.

Certainly, the early scriptwriters would have been amazed to see their neologisms "TARDIS" and "Dalek" ending up in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The original Doctor Who ran on BBC1 for 26 years, with seven actors in the leading role, before finally running out of steam in 1989, apart from a one-off return in 1996, starring Paul McGann. Now BBC Wales is about to re-launch the show with Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper, so it seems the good Doctor has never completely gone away. But what accounts for his enduring appeal? Fortunately, many of the early editions still survive in the BBC archives and have been released on video and DVD, so it is possible to look back and examine how the series got off the ground.

The very first episode - transmitted the day after the assassination of John Kennedy - established the basic premise of the show quite brilliantly, and remains 25 minutes of classic British television. In An Unearthly Child, two London schoolteachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, are concerned about one of their pupils, a teenage girl who seems preternaturally bright in some subjects (the French Revolution) but bafflingly wrong about others: she believes the UK is already using decimal currency. On a cold foggy night, they decide to check out Susan's home background, which appears to be a rundown junkyard where she lives with her grandfather, a mysterious doctor.

Before long, Ian and Barbara have pushed their way into the old man's Police Box, where they think he is holding Susan captive, and have stumbled upon the secrets of the TARDIS. The Doctor and Susan reveal they are from "another time, another world" but are now cut off from their own civilisation. The Doctor refuses to let the teachers go and activates his ship, taking them far away from their familiar world of 1960s London. It was the start of what Radio Times billed for many years as "an adventure in space and time".

Although groundbreaking fantasy in its day, Doctor Who still fulfilled the Reithian remit to educate and entertain. Alongside trips to far-flung alien worlds, there were many stories set during Earth's colourful past, which took maximum advantage of Ian and Barbara's specialised subjects. As a science teacher, Ian would struggle to get his head round the mindboggling concepts of space-time travel, so instantly facilitated by the TARDIS.

Barbara, a history teacher, was the first to identify Marco Polo when the TARDIS landed on the Pamir Plateau in 1289. That was the start of a long trek across the Gobi desert to the court of Kublai Khan in a seven-part serial unfortunately wiped by the BBC many years ago. In a later story, for which tapes do exist, Barbara was delighted to arrive in 15th-century Mexico: "The Aztecs were my speciality." Hailed as a goddess, she decided to put an end to their tradition of human sacrifice, in the hope it might save the civilisation from the Spanish conquistadors. But the Doctor was quick to oppose her: "You can't rewrite history. Not one line."

From the beginning, the series enjoyed exploring themes of moral ambiguity, rarely portraying a situation in black-and-white terms of good versus evil.

In their first adventure, set during the Stone Age, Ian has to prevent the Doctor from finishing off a wounded caveman who is impeding their escape back to the TARDIS - showing the alien from the future to be just as capable of brutality as early man.

On another occasion, when Ian questions his motivations, the Doctor responds: "One man's law is another man's crime." Gradually, through his association with modern humans, the Doctor became less selfish and a more moral individual; he evolved from an enigmatic anti-hero into the genial hero we recognise today. Played by Patrick Troughton in the 1967 adventure The Moonbase, the Doctor's ethos was made clear: "There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things that act against everything we believe in. They must be fought."

In Genesis of the Daleks (1975), Tom Baker's Doctor was sent back to avert the creation of his arch-enemies, but - as he held their destiny in his hands - he asked: "Do I have the right? If I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent life form, then I become like them." The Daleks were largely responsible for the initial success of Doctor Who. They made their debut in the sixth week when a script fell through and Sydney Newman, the BBC's head of drama who was credited with conceiving the series, was far from pleased; he had stressed right from the start that he abhorred the sci-fi cliche of "bug-eyed monsters". However, as Verity Lambert, the first producer, recalled: "The Daleks were such an immediate success that in a way they put the whole of Doctor Who on the map."

Newman's qualms were appeased when viewing figures had more than doubled by January 1964. Historical settings remained intrinsic to the format for several years, taking in the Emperor Nero, Richard the Lionheart, Cornish pirates, the building of the Pyramids, the Fall of Troy - but gradually the science fiction element won out and by the 1970s the Doctor was saving Earth from alien invaders on a weekly basis.

A more serious approach to science had been initiated in the mid-1960s, when the production team invited Dr Kit Pedlar from the University of London to act as scientific adviser on storylines. He introduced the contemporary concerns of computerisation, machine logic and cybernetics, which resulted in the Doctor's second most feared opponents, the powerful, unfeeling Cybermen.

As the alien threats became more convincing and children cowered even further behind their sofas, clean-up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse of the Viewers' and Listeners' Association started railing against disturbing aspects of the programme, especially the chilling cliffhangers. The House of Commons, too, heard a complaint about a Jon Pertwee story which featured murderous aliens disguised as policemen and a hideous child's doll that was seen to strangle an adult.

The tone of the series evolved as personnel changed, both behind and in front of the camera; as well as the different approaches taken by the lead actors, there were nine different producers and innumerable writers. In the mid-1970s, a succession of horror-genre pastiches delivered some particularly grisly effects and, after renewed criticism, the team were ordered to tone down the chills.

The result was to build on the humorous aspects of Tom Baker's portrayal.

Although this approach was popular in some quarters, it was hotly contested in fan circles. In the 1980s, the house-style veered markedly towards camp, and seemed to revel in contributions from comic guest stars such as Beryl Reid, Bonnie Langford, Richard Briers, Alexei Sayle and Ken Dodd.

In 1996, an American co-production deal resulted in a feature-length pilot starring Paul McGann, but despite healthy viewing figures in the UK, the drama was not well received in the US and a hoped-for series came to nought. The rumour mill kept turning, until in autumn 2003 the BBC announced that the Time Lord would be given a new lease of life under the aegis of Russell T Davies, a lifelong Doctor Who fan. Davies had won much praise for Queer As Folk, Bob and Rose and Second Coming; now he would be executive producer and would write eight of 13 new episodes.

But how will the new Doctor Who compare with the old? Davies says: "The perfect viewer is the eight-year-old who's transfixed by the aliens, danger and fun. It can't be denied that if you switch on UK Gold, there's the old show, staring you in the face. But children are very canny about that - they know what's a repeat, what's a remake and what's a reboot."

The revamp has been shot in and around Cardiff, and this time a considerable budget has been allocated, rumoured to approach pound;1 million per episode. A far cry from the original episode, An Unearthly Child, which had to conjure its illusions from a measly pound;2,746.

Simon Callow is to play Charles Dickens in a Victorian ghost story; another adventure is set during the Blitz of 1941; and new companion, Rose, will travel back to the 1980s to meet her long dead father. Davies describes part of the enduring appeal of Doctor Who as: "the fact that it's rooted in the ordinary world. As an eight-year-old, I would imagine walking home from school, seeing the TARDIS and getting on board, in a way that I could never imagine doing with the Starship Enterprise. The Doctor's companions are ordinary men and women. It could be you!"

Who played Who?

1 William Hartnell (1963-66): an Edwardian grandfather figure, a man of mystery with a crusty exterior but soft centre.

2 Patrick Troughton (1966-69): a scruffy Chaplinesque bumbler who adored getting into trouble.

3 Jon Pertwee (1970-74): an heroic adventurer who loved gadgets, dressed like a dandy and practised martial arts.

4 Tom Baker (1974-81): a benevolent alien with detached emotions and disarming wit, famed for his long scarf and penchant for jelly babies.

5 Peter Davison (1982-84): in contrast to his predecessors, a youthful, more vulnerable interpretation, particularly skilled at cricket.

6 Colin Baker (1984-86): a brash, mercurial character who dressed in garish clothes and constantly bickered with his assistants.

7 Sylvester McCoy (1987-89): began as a buffoon but developed into an enigmatic manipulator of events.

8 Paul McGann (1996): a sensitive, curly-locked romantic who was still finding his feet in his one and only adventure.

9 Christopher Eccleston (2005-?): an alien loner seeking companionship; wise and funny, cheeky and brave. The first incarnation to wear modern clothes - including a leather jacket.

* Versions of the first Doctor were also played by Peter Cushing in two 1960s cinema films and by Richard Hurndall in a 1983 special, The Five Doctors.


Created by scriptwriter Terry Nation in 1963, the Daleks quickly guaranteed the early success of Doctor Who and, with their battle cry "Exterminate!" they became a cultural phenomenon in their own right.

Their debut was in Doctor Who's second adventure. On the distant planet of Skaro, two humanoid races had been almost completely wiped out by nuclear war; of the survivors, the Thals evolved into beautiful blond pacifists, whereas the Daleks became hideous mutations and retreated into robotic casings for protection.

The "gliding pepperpot" look was conceived by the BBC's Raymond Cusick. His classic design, coupled with the grating voices, firmly established the Daleks in the nation's psyche and viewing figures shot up above 10 million.

Following this success, there were to be many return matches between the Doctor and the Daleks over the decades, including invasions of Earth, and several encounters with their fictional creator, the evil scientist Davros.

The Doctor's perennial opponents will return in the new series, but executive producer Russell T Davies has resisted the temptation to rethink the iconic 1960s design: "We've kept them true to their origins. Just because something's old, it doesn't mean it's outdated. A redesigned Dalek might as well be called a Droid. We made them a bit more robust - what our designer calls 'Mini-Coopering', which means keeping the essential design and shape but modernising the edges."


First transmission: An Unearthly Child, November 23, 1963

Last transmission: Survival (Part 3) December 6, 1989

One-off TV-movie: Doctor Who - The Movie, May 27, 1996

Stories so far: 158

Episodes so far: 696

New series: 13 episodes

Time Lords

A highly advanced race from the planet Gallifrey who observe cosmic events and occasionally police them. They enjoy a long lifespan thanks to two hearts and an ability to regenerate their bodies entirely when worn out (only 12 times, though).

The Doctor

A renegade Time Lord who stole a TARDIS to explore the universe, he gradually became a crusader against evildoers. He developed a great affection for Earth and its people. Now more than 900 years old, he is in his ninth incarnation.


An acronym for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, TARDISis a vessel capable of crossing the "space-time vortex" in seconds. Its interior exists beyond normal dimensions, while a "chameleon circuit" allows the exterior to blend in with any landing site. Unfortunately, the Doctor's TARDIS became stuck as a police box in London in 1963.


A generic term for the many regular characters who've assisted the Doctor, including his granddaughter, her two teachers, a Trojan handmaiden, a Scottish Highlander, a secretary, a sailor, a savage, two mathematical geniuses, four soldiers, numerous orphans and aliens, two robots, and one "Time Lady" who changed her appearance several times.


The Doctor's arch-foes remain, of course, the Daleks. Other recurring menaces include the Master (a villainous Time Lord), Cybermen, Sontarans, Yeti, Ice Warriors and the Autons (animated shop-dummies which reappear in the new series). New opponents will include the Gelth (ghostly gas-monsters) and the mysterious, ageless Cassandra, played by Zo Wanamaker.

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