Doctor Who

Tagged: TV

UK tv series (1963-current). BBC TV. Created by Sydney Newman, Donald Wilson. First-season producer Verity Lambert, story editor David Whitaker; the Doctor played by William Hartnell, November 1963-October 1966; see below for his many successors. Theme music by Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. 26 seasons in its first incarnation; 695 episodes to December 1989, mostly 25 minutes per episode. Seasons 1-6 black and white; subsequent seasons colour. Then an 89-minute tv movie, Doctor Who (1996), and six further series to date, plus specials (2005-current), mostly 45 minutes per episode.

In this longest-running UK sf television series for (at least ostensibly) children, the Doctor – eventually revealed as a Time Lord – travels back and forth in Time and space in his Time Machine, the TARDIS. For convenience he is generally known as Doctor Who in echo of the show's enigmatic title; this is not actually his name. The Doctor is accompanied on his Time-Travel journeys by various passengers or companions – sometimes children, sometimes men, usually young women. Stories have varied in length from one to 14 episodes, the most common length through 1974 being six episodes, and subsequently four.

The first episode (23 November 1963) concerns a young girl who puzzles two of her schoolteachers with her unusual knowledge of history. They follow her into what appears to be a police telephone box but is in fact a time machine (whose interior is many times larger than its exterior) owned by her irritable and eccentric grandfather, the Doctor. As the machine cannot be properly controlled, they are all whisked off to the Stone Age, where they remain for the following three episodes of Prehistoric SF.

The series had only a modest following at first; it was not until the second storyline, The Mutants (21 December 1963-1 February 1964), written by Terry Nation, that it achieved mass popularity, mainly because of the introduction of the Daleks. This storyline has also been called The Dead Planet – "The Dead Planet" being the title of its first episode – and is now generally referred to as The Daleks to distinguish it from the later (Jon Pertwee era) story also called The Mutants (8 April to 13 May 1972). Until 1990 the series returned to UK television every year; it was not introduced to US television until the episodes with Tom Baker as the Doctor that were played there in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it quickly developed a cult following. (A previous attempt in the 1970s to export the programme to the USA – a package of the Jon Pertwee episodes – had flopped.)

Because the Doctor has the ability periodically to regenerate his entire body (see Regeneration), the series was able to outlast its original star, the crusty William Hartnell, and to introduce a succession of new leading men: Patrick Troughton (November 1966-June 1969), Jon Pertwee (January 1970-June 1974), Tom Baker (December 1974-March 1981), Peter Davison (January 1982-March 1984), Colin Baker (March 1984-December 1986) and Sylvester McCoy (September 1987-December 1989 and the suspension of the series, returning for a 1993 charity special and, briefly, a 1996 made-for-tv movie of which more below). Peter Cushing took the role in two films, Dr Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966); Richard Hurndall took the place of the late Hartnell in "The Five Doctors" (23 November 1983 US); and Michael Jayston played the Doctor's evil incarnation from the future in the 14-episode The Trial of a Time Lord (6 September-6 December 1986).

While the black-and-white episodes featuring Hartnell and Troughton are spikier and stranger, the show probably hit its first peak between the Pertwee and Davison versions, with Tom Baker's long-lived, Harpo-Marxish Time Lord the most popular of all, and the writers of the 1970s gradually revealing more of the secrets of the Time Lords that had been hinted at since the first. In the late 1980s the show lost direction (some say thanks to the tiredness of John Nathan-Turner's regime as producer, which began in August 1980) and the BBC experimented with it – lengthening it, moving it from its long-established Saturday teatime slot to a weekday, and, finally, putting it into an indefinite suspension where, neither officially cancelled nor renewed, it remained until 2005. A thirtieth-anniversary television programme planned for 1993 was shelved at the last minute, though there was a Doctor Who radio drama in 1993: The Paradise of Death (27 August-24 September 1993). While early seasons were ten months long, in the 1970s most seasons were of six to seven months, and from 1982 they were three months.

Although by now the programme had long since settled into a pattern, with stories usually featuring at least one Monster, there remained plenty of room for experiment. The authors unblushingly pirated hundreds of ideas from Pulp-magazine sf, but often making intelligent and sometimes quite complex use of them. It seems probable that, certainly in the 1970s, the programme attracted as many adult viewers as children. With the increasing sophistication of the scripts and the expertise of the special effects and make-up – from which many other programmes could learn a great deal about what can be done on a low budget – Doctor Who became a notably self-confident series, juggling expertly with many of the great tropes and images of the genre. It is the most successful Space Opera in the history of television, not excluding Star Trek. Storylines often featured political Satire. At its worst merely silly, at its best it has been spellbinding.

Other notable cast members over the years have included Carole Ann Ford (the Doctor's granddaughter), Frazer Hines (Jamie), Anneke Wills (Polly), Michael Craze (Ben), Deborah Watling (Victoria), Wendy Padbury (Zoe), Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier), Katy Manning (Jo), Roger Delgado (the Doctor's great enemy, the Master), Elizabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane), Louise Jameson (Leela), John Leeson (the voice of K-9, the Doctor's robot dog, one of the most successful of the media's cute Robots), Mary Tamm (Romana), Lalla Ward (the regenerated Romana), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa), Janet Fielding (Tegan), Nicola Bryant (Peri), Anthony Ainley (the Master again), Bonnie Langford (Mel) and Sophie Aldred (Ace). Producers of the series after Verity Lambert (who lasted into the third season) have included Innes Lloyd, Peter Bryant, Barry Letts, Philip Hinchcliffe, Graham Williams and John Nathan-Turner. Story editors, all of whom have written episodes, have included Dennis Spooner, Gerry Davis, Derrick Sherwin, Terrance Dicks, Robert Holmes, Anthony Read, Douglas Adams, Christopher H Bidmead, Eric Saward and Andrew Cartmel. Other writers have included Terry Nation, David Whitaker, John Lucarotti, Brian Hayles, Kit Pedler, Malcolm Hulke, Don Houghton, Robert Sloman, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, Robert Banks Stewart, David Fisher, Stephen Gallagher, Johnny Byrne, Terence Dudley, Peter Grimwade, Pip and Jane Baker, and Ben Aaronovitch.

The series generated many spin-off books, ranging from episode guides through annuals, encyclopedias, scholarly studies and published scripts to a TARDIS cookbook. There is a magazine, Dr Who Magazine, founded in 1979 and still running, with well over 400 issues. All but three stories of the original series were novelized, with 151 titles published from the 1970s through late 1990. (The remaining un-novelized scripts are "The Pirate Planet" by Douglas Adams – of which a novelization is expected in 2016 – "Resurrection of the Daleks" by Eric Saward and "Revelation of the Daleks" by Eric Saward.) In 1991, most existing scripts having been novelized, a post-tv sequence of releases, The New Doctor Who Adventures, was instituted, the first sequence being the Timewyrm series: Timewyrm: Genesys (1991) by John Peel, Exodus (1991) by Terrance Dicks, Apocalypse (1991) by Nigel Robinson and Revelation (1991) by Paul Cornell. This was a harbinger of things to come. During the years after 1989 when the series was off-air, a number of authors who had grown up with the series began creating stories that experimented with and darkened the mythos. Other authors in this series included Mark Gatiss and Russell T Davies.

In 1996, the series returned briefly as a one-off tv movie, Doctor Who (1996) funded jointly by the BBC and the American companies Fox and Universal Television. This briefly featured the last incumbent Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, before showing his regeneration into the next, Paul McGann. Although it was successful on its own terms, it represented an uneasy hybrid between the values of UK and US television. For instance, a revelation that the Doctor was in fact half-human seemed intended to turn the series into the kind of family romance it had so far avoided being. In any case, the movie did not lead – as was hoped – to a full television series.

Nevertheless Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, under the charge of "showrunner" Russell T Davies. Using the model that had served US writers such as Joss Whedon, Davies was Executive Producer, author of a number of episodes, and oversaw the tone of others. For the first season of his tenure, the Doctor was played by Christopher Eccleston (March-June 2005), succeeded by David Tennant from November 2005 (a charity special preceding the new series) to January 2010. After that Davies stepped down and his place as showrunner was taken by Steven Moffat, with Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor (April 2010-May 2013) followed by Peter Capaldi as the twelfth (Christmas 2013-current). Companions in the series have included Rose Tyler (played by Billie Piper, 2005-2006 and subsequent cameo appearances), Captain Jack Harkness (played by John Barrowman, 2005), Martha Jones (played by Freema Ageyman, 2007), Donna Noble (played by Catherine Tate, 2008), Amy Pond (played by Karen Gillan, 2010-present) and Rory Williams (played by Arthur Darvill, 2010-present).

The approach that Davies and his colleagues took to the series was to preserve its core premise – the Doctor as a perpetual nomad exploring the universe with his human companions – but to treat a number of aspects, especially the emotional ones, very much more seriously. So the 2005 season featured "Father's Day" (14 May 2005) by Paul Cornell, exploring the old Time Paradox of going back to prevent a loved one's death, in this case the death of Rose Tyler's father. "Dalek" (30 April 2005) by Robert Shearman thoroughly reinvented the Doctor's old adversaries, taking meticulous care to dispense with every reason why they might be risible. Steven Moffat's "The Girl in the Fireplace" (6 May 2006) explored the Doctor's own romantic yearnings. It is one of six Doctor Who stories – four by Moffat plus "The Waters of Mars" by Russell T Davies and Phil Ford (15 November 2009) and "The Doctor's Wife" by Neil Gaiman (14 May 2011) – to have won a Hugo award as best dramatic presentation (short form). The series has not shied away from references to its past when they can usefully serve its story-telling needs. For instance, Neil Gaiman's "The Doctor's Wife" argues that the true marriage undertaken by the Doctor is that with his TARDIS (here incarnated in a similar fashion to that in Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang [coll of linked stories 1969]), and that the balance of power between them may not be as it seems.

The 2005 revival of the show has been, in commercial terms, an astonishing success. Despite the pull of multi-channel viewing on television audiences, it has sustained high ratings in the UK. In addition to spin-off books and DVDs, it has also been more successful than any of its earlier incarnations in exports to other countries: one estimate put its value to the BBC as a brand in the hundreds of millions of pounds. Currently, the series's focus seems to be on the longstanding problem of building a fanbase in the USA. Moffat and others have made appearances at the San Diego Comic-Con, and the 2011 series has made use of funding from BBC America – perhaps a necessity when the BBC's UK funding is under severe constraint. The reinvention of Doctor Who since 2005 has led to two spinoff series, The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007-2011) and Torchwood (2006-2011).

Although Doctor Who passed its 50th anniversary in 2013, it retains an astonishing degree of consistency from its old days. (To take one almost trivial example, the sound effect used to denote the Daleks' control room is the same now as it was in their 1963-1964 debut.) This is surely because of its underlying format, which allows radically different tones and settings from story to story while retaining the same figures with whom the audience can identify. The Doctor is unarguably a hero of the Scientific Romance rather than the US tradition of sf. Unlike, say, James T Kirk of Star Trek, he is very much a whimsical figure rather than a competent man: he wants to observe the universe, not bring it into some encompassing federation or Galactic Empire. Elements of the work of Verne and Wells are surely present in the show's conception of inventor-as-hero. Yet, by now, its mythos has become a world with its own tone and rules. Although complacency of the kind that affected the show in the mid-1980s may recur again, there seems no reason to think that Doctor Who could not, in the right hands, continue indefinitely. [GS/JB/PN/KN]

see also: Captain Z-Ro; Dreamwatch.

further reading

series

The Black Archive

Each volume devoted to the episode or episodes designated by its title.

  • Jon Arnold. Rose (Edinburgh, Scotland: Obverse Books, 2016) [nonfiction: first shown 26 March 2005: Black Archive: pb/Blair Bidmead]
  • James Cooray Smith. The Massacre (Edinburgh, Scotland: Obverse Books, 2016) [nonfiction: first shown 5-26 February 1966: Black Archive: pb/Blair Bidmead]
  • L M Myles. The Ambassadors of Death (Edinburgh, Scotland: Obverse Books, 2016) [nonfiction: first shown 21 March-2 May 1970: Black Archive: pb/Blair Bidmead]
  • Philip Purser-Hallard. Dark Water/Death in Heaven (Edinburgh, Scotland: Obverse Books, 2016) [nonfiction: first shown 1-8 November 2014: Black Archive: pb/Blair Bidmead]
  • Simon Bucher-Jones. Image of the Fendahl (Edinburgh, Scotland: Obverse Books, 2016) [nonfiction: first shown 29 October-19 November 1977: Black Archive: pb/Blair Bidmead]
  • Jonathan Dennis. Ghost Light (Edinburgh, Scotland: Obverse Books, 2016) [nonfiction: first shown 4-18 October 1989: Black Archive: pb/Blair Bidmead]
  • Andrew Hickey. Mind Robber (Edinburgh, Scotland: Obverse Books, 2016) [nonfiction: first shown 14 September-12 October 1968: Black Archive: pb/Blair Bidmead]
  • Ian Millsted. Black Orchid (Edinburgh, Scotland: Obverse Books, 2016) [nonfiction: first shown 1-2 March 1982: Black Archive: pb/Blair Bidmead]
  • Paul Driscoll. The God Complex (Edinburgh, Scotland: Obverse Books, 2016) [nonfiction: first shown 17 September 2011: #9 in series, cover numbered in error: Black Archive: pb/Blair Bidmead]
  • Jon Arnold. Scream of the Shalka (Edinburgh, Scotland: Obverse Books, 2017) [nonfiction: first shown 13 November-18 December 2003: Black Archive: pb/Blair Bidmead]
  • Simon Guerrier. The Evil of the Daleks (Edinburgh, Scotland: Obverse Books, 2017) [nonfiction: first shown 20 May-1 July 1967: Black Archive: pb/Blair Bidmead]
  • Kate Orman. Pyramids of Mars (Edinburgh, Scotland: Obverse Books, 2017) [nonfiction: first shown 25 October-15 November 1975: Black Archive: pb/Blair Bidmead]
  • Philip Purser-Hallard. Human Nature/Family of Blood (Edinburgh, Scotland: Obverse Books, 2017) with Naomi Jacob [nonfiction: first shown 26 May-2 June 2007: Black Archive: pb/Blair Bidmead]

individual titles

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