This week marks the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. Sunderland academic John Paul Green tells Craig Thompson how the errant Time Lord is now one of the world’s greatest cultural icons.
THE shadowy figure of the Doctor as played initially by William Hartnell was certainly more anti-hero than Kirk-like champion of the universe.”
John Paul Green, principal lecturer in Film, Media & Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland, is a self-confessed Dr Who fanatic.
And he loves to talk about the series.
Doctor Who first materialised on BBC1 on November 23, 1963 – just a day after the assassination of JFK.
The show was the BBC’s attempt to compete with ITV’s successful action adventure shows, but with added education to fulfil its public service remit.
The programme was the brainchild of Canadian producer Sydney Newman, who’d had great success on ITV, notably with The Avengers.
While the BBC had enjoyed earlier science fiction success with Nigel Kneale’s three adult-orientated Quatermass serials, Doctor Who was aimed squarely at a family audience.
This would be a time travel show, where kids could learn about history through entertainment. We first meet the Doctor in the story An Unearthly Child.
“Let me get this straight. A thing that looks like a Police Box, standing in a junkyard, it can move anywhere in time and space?” So asked companion Ian Chesterton – played by Sunderland-born William Russell – essentially encapsulating the premise and magic of the series.
“They created an incredibly flexible format,” says John Paul. “One irascible scientist, a young granddaughter and two travelling companions who happen to be teachers – history and science – you have the beginning of one of the most successful, and certainly longest-running science fiction shows in TV history.”
Much of the action was taken up by the younger companion Ian, while female companions inevitably got captured or into other such scrapes.
“As the series continued the character of the Doctor softened and became the genuine core of the series,” says John Paul.
“But had the series continued to simply tell thrilling stories about moments in Earth’s history, we’d not be celebrating its 50th anniversary today.
“It was the second story that genuinely secured the programme in the hearts and minds of the British audience, with the arrival of the Daleks.”
Against all of producer Sydney Newman’s wishes, series producer Verity Lambert commissioned a story featuring BEMs – bug-eyed monsters – thus propelling the programme into the arena of cult status.
“These bio-mechanical creatures would become a mainstay of the show and opened the floodgates for an A-Z of enduring Doctor Who monsters, from Autons to Zygons. The ‘behind the sofa’ moment was created, another key to the series’ success.
“An aspect of the show that has helped keep Doctor Who fresh over 50 years, is the concept of regeneration,” explains John Paul.
“William Hartnell’s failing health and inability to take part in much of the action, or remember his lines, meant that the show couldn’t continue with him in the lead role.”
The writers came up with the novel idea of the Doctor renewing his body. He was, after all, an alien, and could do what we couldn’t.
After battling the Cybermen for the first time, the Doctor’s crippled body begins to change. Enter a younger Doctor, Patrick Troughton.
“His incarnation was more the mad uncle than grumpy grandfather,” says John Paul. With a Beatles-style haircut and a set of younger companions, his era seemed to reflect more attitudes of the late 1960s.
From this moment, the idea of regeneration would allow the series to renew itself every few years, breathing new life into the show, when it began to flag or the actors decided to move on.
“Each generation has their favourite Doctor,” says John Paul, “And you can usually tell a person’s age by the Doctor they loved the most. For the record, I’m a Tom Baker fan through and through.
“The casting of a new Doctor is important. It makes the national news. When Matt Smith decided to hang up his fez a few months ago, both TV and the press covered the story in great detail up to and beyond Peter Capaldi being named the new Doctor. Speculation of who the new Doctor may be is as popular a game as guessing the next Bond. And it isn’t just the Doctor who changes.”
Throughout the series’ history, our hero has had many companions, from the screaming damsels in distress, to the savage-like Leela, through to the stronger 21st Century companions such as Rose and Clara. The companion is the identification figure, the bridge between audience and the Doctor.
There’s even been a robotic dog, one of only three companions to have their own spin-off show, the others being Sarah Jane Smith and Captain Jack Harkness.
Between 1963 and 1989, Doctor Who was effectively on air continuously.
“When it ended, with Sylvester McCoy in the role, the BBC had lost faith in the show, having relegated it from the Saturday tea-time slot to a later mid-week position,” says John Paul. “It seemed as if the Time Lord would not return.”
Fans were given a momentary reprieve in 1996, with the TV Movie, an American co-production starring Paul McGann – the George Lazenby of Doctor Who – but it seemed that big budget US science fiction programmes were making modest British fare redundant.
However, you can’t keep a good Doctor down, and during the show’s prolonged hiatus, Doctor Who did continue – in novels, magazines, fan-produced films and in the hearts of the new players in television.
Enter the likes of Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies. These fans turned producers would soon turn their childhood love of the show into something very special indeed.
Doctor Who had already been name checked in Russell T. Davies’s Queer as Folk, while Sedgefield-born Mark Gatiss was using his League of Gentlemen to drop in Who-related gags where possible.
“There was a time in the late 90s, that being a Doctor Who fan was something to be embarrassed about,” admits John Paul. “Being a fan was akin to being in the closet.
“But in 2005, with the massively successful relaunch of the show, the closet doors were blown off their hinges. With a trusted showrunner/writer in the shape of Russell T. Davies and a proper actor in the role, Christopher Eccleston, Doctor Who came back to a new adoring audience. The classic elements were in place – the TARDIS was still bigger on the inside and could travel anywhere in time and space.
“The Doctor was still a little malevolent and the monsters could still send kids behind the sofa.
“A whole new generation have their own actors to call their favourite and can weep when they see them ‘die’ only to be replaced with a new one, who they’ll love even more – we fans are a fickle bunch.
“The faces change, the companions come and go but the mad man in the blue box remains. Each week, Doctor Who can transport us to any time and to any place.
“It taps into any and every genre and runs the gamut of emotion. It still has the power to surprise and to captivate. If it gets a little tired, so what – it has the power to change. “The show continues to refresh itself and continues to fire our imagination. If it’s a children’s show then it speaks to the child within us – that part of us that still likes to be transported away even if for just 45 minutes.
“So let’s step into that TARDIS for another 50 years – don’t worry, there’s room for all of us. It’s still bigger on the inside.”