How the Time Lords Invented TV: 50 Years of Doctor Who

Like television itself, Doctor Who has consistently confronted limitation with ingenuity, cancelation with rebirth, constraint with transcendence.

The Heart of the TARDIS

On the 23rd of November 1963, an old man stepped out of a box that most people had written off as garbage, and casually remade the world. That's a big claim – a laughably hyperbolic claim – but it's true. Everything about this man and his box was incongruous, paradoxical. Appearing innocuous, almost banal, in actuality both man and box bristled with depthless potential; and together, over the course of the subsequent five decades, they would go on to upended every expectation, every convention, every limitation that they faced. And so, 50 years later, that same man stepped out of that same box (for some viewers literally, as it was filmed and screened in 3D) and did it again.

First Doctor, William Hartnell

The man, both then and now, was known only as 'The Doctor'. He looked and sounded like Ebenezer Scrooge, but was adept at twiddling the dials of the universe's most technologically avant-garde (if temperamental) mode of transportation, and batted away the laws of physics like a tedious housefly. He was a contradiction. A conundrum. His name itself would prove to be a mystery (Doctor Who?); so much so that for the next half century he would gather people in his wake – assistants, companions, enemies, viewers, fans – all of whom would run desperately to catch up, hoping to glimpse the truth behind this enigma.

And that box from which he emerged? That magical, sprawling, illogical box that is bigger on the inside and is the source of so many of his magnificent powers? That box that can be anywhere and anywhen? That allows him to traverse the stars and to jaunt across time? To travel with friends and defend against foes? To view and review and rewrite history? To alter the very fabric of the universe? The one with the eclectic design scheme and the inexplicable round bits that look cool, but don't appear to do much?

No, not the TARDIS.

The other magical box. The real source of the Doctor's powers.


Because if Doctor Who is anything – and it is many, many things – it's a product of, a response to, and a celebration of television. Consequentially, on this 50th year anniversary, 'The Day of the Doctor' was a love note, not only to that marvellous, inscrutable alien, but to the frequently maligned box that gave him life – an audio-visual canvas of vast breadth and scope, of endless evolving potential.

'Let There Be Light'! Television's Unearthly Child

Like television itself, the Doctor's magic box was flexible enough to bounce from historical costume drama to high-concept sci-fi, from adventure tales to parody, from anti-utopian think pieces to schlocky horror, from thrillers to war fiction to political satire to broad fantasy, love stores, action, farce.
For a show so concerned with history – how it repeats; how it shapes and defines us; how it is apparently lousy with alien bug-monster invasions – it's no wonder that when people speak of the beginnings of Doctor Who, they frequently reference the way in which it premiered under the cloud of a momentous international tragedy.The day before the show's launch, United States President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, leaving an experimental little show about a space-faring vagabond to barely make a splash amidst all the din. It was only when the program was repeated the next week that the greater portion of its audience even discovered it.

Understandably, what is less frequently acknowledged is that the show also premiered just as television was becoming the most influential and ubiquitous popular culture medium in the western world, establishing itself as a unique delivery format for entertainment, news coverage, and social discourse. Programs like The Andy Griffith Show, Coronation Street, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Avengers were becoming cultural touchstones, establishing new serialised formats distinct from the cinema, theatre and radio that preceded them.

Live reportage of Kennedy's assassination, and his televised funeral, were some of the first global satellite broadcasts; his accused killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was murdered live on air. In May of 1964, only months before the Doctor left Earth's atmosphere, images filmed from a manned space capsule, the Faith 7, were screened on NBC. Able to reach into the homes of millions of people, uniting them all with a shared experience, television was swiftly becoming the new campfire around which society could gather to hear its stories retold.

Despite its evident potential, the medium was not without its detractors however. Indeed, although recent critical darlings like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Arrested Development have helped silence the debate about the legitimacy of the medium's storytelling potential and reward for audience investment, for the majority of its lifespan narrative television has been largely derided or ignored. Often seen as mere sugar coating for the commercials that really payed the bills (admittedly not a criticism applicable for the BBC's television licensing arrangements); television was accused of being derivative; gratuitous; and of borrowing too much from other forms.

Sitcoms were little more than the cheap vaudevillian theatre from which they sprang (and that laugh-track still lingers like a vestigial limb), weepy drama series were merely overblown radio soaps ('Brooke, what do you mean you're having an affair? Let me just stare into the camera and awkwardly emote about this...'), and there was a cavalcade of cheesy wannabe genre series, aping cinema, stifled by their dwarfed budgets, shonkier effects, and a narrative constraint that dictates everything has to return to a relative status quo at the end of the hour.

Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton

As early as 1961, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow, in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters famously declared television a 'vast wasteland' for these very same reasons. He was referring to American television in particular, but the criticism has resonated for the entire medium:

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, cartoons. And endlessly commercials – many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

The original version of Minow's speech was said to have read 'a vast wasteland of junk', but he decided to shorten the line when he delivered it. In hindsight, the edit is a shame because when speaking of Doctor Who it is curiously prescient; after all, it is literally from a junkyard that the Doctor and his fantastical, logic-defying box emerge...

The first episode of Doctor Who, 'An Unearthly Child' may have become somewhat overshadowed by the one that followed, 'The Daleks' (in which audiences were introduced to the universe's most fearsome pepper shakers) but 'An Unearthly Child' is a marvellous expression of the show's central conceit. The plot, such as it is, is elegantly simple, and offers an arresting metaphor for the revolutionary intellectual and imaginative journey about to take place. Thus this introduction fittingly plays out like an episode of The Twilight Zone – with a sense of nagging curiosity pervading the action, propelling its minimalist narrative.

Two high school teachers, Ian and Barbara, each representing the practical, objective world that seeks to shape young minds in the pursuit of facts and figures (one teaches history, the other science), are intrigued by the odd behaviour of one of their students, and follow her home to glean some answers. In doing so however, they meet an impossible man who shows them a wider universe of wonder that blows their quaint, objective worlds apart, offering them a means to explore a universe of new questions, heretofore inconceivable from their limited perspectives.

In quick succession we move from the rational, recognisable world, where two teachers are swapping anecdotes about their weird student, to the utterly fantastical: they discover she lives in a junkyard with her grandfather; that they live inside a police box (that's bigger on the inside!); that they are aliens; that they are hiding in a space ship; that can travel through time and space! After a brief scuffle, where Ian and Barbara thrash about trying to convince Susan that this is all nonsense, a few buttons get pressed, a soon-to-become-familiar groan of the engines kicks in, and they are all suddenly transported back to the dawn of human civilisation, where a cluster of cavemen are squabbling about who can make fire, similarly showing the difficulty in adapting to a new age of (this time literal) enlightenment.

Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee

For the remainder of the episode, while caught in a prehistoric turf war, The Doctor, although begrudging and irascible in this first incarnation, acts as a Promethean figure for humanity. He widens Ian and Barbara's sense of their place in the universe, and he actually gifts humankind with fire (the episode even contains the line, 'With fire it is day'). But 25 minutes in (the first of the four-part tale) and the show had already articulated the infinite wellspring of imaginative possibility that inspires all speculative fiction, and that has remained at the heart of the Doctor Who mythos throughout the entirety of its run. It taps into the fundamental truths that children, and the child within us all, instinctively recognise: imagination is more powerful than fact; do not accept anything at face value.

Things are bigger on the inside.

'Run!' Keeping up with the Doctor

This capacity to thwart preconceptions, to upend expectation, extended beyond the confines of the narrative to become a mission statement for the program itself. If television was the junkyard that Minow had accused it of being, rather than seeing this as a failing, Doctor Who exploited it as a boon. Given the plasticity of its premise, the show proved that it could go anywhere, be anything. Like television itself, the Doctor's magic box was flexible enough to bounce from historical costume drama to high-concept sci-fi, from adventure tales to parody, from anti-utopian think pieces to schlocky horror, from thrillers to war fiction to political satire to broad fantasy, love stores, action, farce.

It reappropriated (some would say ripped off) an eclectic mix of source material to inspire its stories: a healthy smattering of H.G. Wells, Sherlock Holmes, C.S. Lewis and Arthur C. Clarke, genre films, historical record, and myth. One week the characters were bumping up against Marco Polo, the next they might be negotiating a political struggle between moth people and telepathic ants. But it was this repurposing that inspired the writers to explore narratives that it would take decades for other fictions to articulate; Doctor Who had riffs on the plots of James Cameron's Terminator, Ridley Scott's Alien, and the Wachowski's The Matrix years before they were devised.

Doctor Who was new – startlingly, audaciously new – and was willing to innovate and experiment both on screen and behind. It's producer, Verity Lambert, was the youngest and first female producer for a drama series on the BBC. It's theme music, a concoction of composer Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, was an unprecedented experimental wonder – the first theme to ever be made entirely from a harmony of electronic distortion. It's title sequence was swirling optical illusion created by toying around with the cameras and monitors.

Although it may be hard to perceive now, looking back, Doctor Who was frequently at the forefront of television special effects and practical design. Some of the earliest serials created otherworldly effects with camera lenses and perspective shifted sets. Even the later years of the original series (where budgetary restraints are more evident) can be resplendent with unique design and costuming, emulating M.C. Escher drawings, sleek modern sterility, or Gothic decay, in service of the tone of the story.

Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker

Originally aimed at children, its writers never talked down to their audience, and pitched concepts and references for any age (I hereby redact the name 'K-9' from my memory), utilising its wide canvas and endlessly malleable form to reflect its audience's society and play out myriad ideological and philosophical debates. Thus, in the wake of the Second World War and in the midst of Cold War paranoia, invasion stories and monster tales became commonplace (particularly so under the second and third iterations of the Doctor); Daleks became squawking, dispassionate fascists; the Cybermen embodied our fears of an increasingly automated, dehumanised world.

Environmental sustainability, totalitarianism, determinism, communism, nuclear power, governmental conspiracies, multiculturalism, consumerism, apartheid, even taxation, all were played out in expansive metaphors through which the Doctor, ever curious and swayed by compassion, would ramble. Over the course of its 50 year run, with the rise of a more progressive view of women in society, companion characters like Sarah Jane Smith, Romana, Leela and Ace helped break the tired mould of the helpless damsel-in-distress in adventure tales (although it did require one of them to be wearing a revealing loin cloth to do so, and the show would occasionally lapse back into 'damsel' territory). Diversity, sexuality, equality were respected; class divides, cruelty, intolerance were staunchly condemned.

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