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The Context of 'Doctor Who' Part 1


For a show that has lasted over fifty years, involving hundreds, if not thousands of people including several dozen different writers and producers, it’s hardly surprising that there have been many changes of direction, mood and purpose in Doctor Who. Sometimes these changes have been intentional and sweeping, particularly taking advantage of the ‘regeneration’ of a lead actor to bring in a whole host of new ideas; sometimes the changes have crept in over several storylines as the programme’s component parts altered one by one. The basic premise of the series - a time-and-space travelling hero, accompanied by one or two usually human companions, gets involved in a wild variety of adventures - has helped to keep the programme fresh, alive and able to absorb these occasionally monumental shifts to form a more-or-less cohesive whole. When the show has teetered towards oblivion it is when these elements go out of equilibrium.

Three fundamental patterns emerge: one is to do with how the Doctor himself is interpreted by the writers and producers; another is to do with the nature of the narrative, i.e. what shape the story itself takes; and the third is to do with the way in which times change around the show through the decades, with resultant visible and no-so-visible effects on its content and style. These occasionally overlap, and in such cases become clear to see.

A fourth, lesser factor also plays a part: the BBC’s budget for Doctor Who. This has always been limited, producing what were obviously recycled bits and pieces of studio equipment in earlier episodes (the Tardis itself was ‘bigger inside than out’ because the budget wouldn’t stretch to a grander spaceship exterior) before graduating to the slightly more convincing CGI-based adventures of the modern series. But low budgets failed to make a dent in the programme at its height, and aren’t really a major consideration for fans.

In what transpired to be a magical combination, Ron Grainer’s theme, arranged by Delia Derbyshire, and performed by the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, coupled with experimental and eerie opening credits, broke new ground when the programme was launched in 1963, setting it apart from anything else on television at that time. And this was all overseen by a young producer, Verity Lambert, the BBC’s first woman in that role.

What we get over the long-term is a show which captured the early 60s zeitgeist perfectly, tracked with it in all kinds of ways throughout the rest of that decade, re-invented itself with a wholly different mood and political perspective for the 70s, then gradually lost its way and became introverted and misguided in the 80s, ending with its ‘death’ in 1989. However, just like its lead character, it regenerated into a totally different format in 2005 and again managed to ‘inhabit its era’ almost perfectly, thriving in the 21st century with updated special effects and a romantic heart. The underlying trends of the interpretation of its protagonist and the shape of each story had been significantly transformed but had not escaped their roots: the programme continues to bounce around within distinct parameters which this article hopes to make clear.

In the early 1960s, the BBC’s remit was the same as it is now - ’To enrich people's lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain’ - but it was taken more seriously back then, it seems. Stanley Newman, credited as the instigator of Doctor Who, envisioned the programme as bridging between Saturday afternoon time-slots and also between the ‘inform, educate and entertain’ functions, being partly a historical drama and partly pure entertainment, and this is how it began, with its first adventure opening with trendy 60s music and then taking ‘kidnapped’ companions Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright back to the days of cavemen and tribal violence. Newman and Lambert tried to work with the official BBC edict, ‘no bug-eyed monsters or tin robots’ allowed, planning to alternate between episodes set in the future and ones chronicling real historical events, but by accident, Lambert ended up with only one workable script, ‘The Daleks’, that she could film in time for broadcast as the second storyline. Audience figures rocketed, to everyone’s surprise, with the appearance of the evil, robot-like exterminators in the second adventure: the faceless pepper-pot design of the creatures combined with their Nazi-like rhetoric (given that the Second World War had only concluded 18 years previously) created a surge of interest that rocketed the show forward for the next five years.

Keen to ‘balance the books’, producers insisted on a number of simple, historical stories with no science fiction elements, exploring the times of Marco Polo, the French Revolution and the Wild West in the First Doctor’s era, which was largely constructed around the character of the Doctor as a total enigma: no one (even the writers) knew who he really was nor where he had come from, and in the first few stories audiences were left guessing about even his motives and nature as a character. William Hartnell played up the occasionally spiteful and cowardly aspects of the role at first, making the Doctor multidimensional and fascinating, but gradually he slipped into and fleshed out the easily-fitting archetype of the ‘wise old man’, allied to the forces of good and often knowing much more about what was going on than everyone else.

It’s important to note, though, that for the first few years the Doctor wasn’t really the hero - companions Barbara and Ian are kidnapped to keep them from revealing his true identity. As school teachers, their knowledge would help the crew get out of situations while being ‘educational’, whereas the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan had curious relationship with the audience, being both ‘unearthly’ and ‘childlike’. The Doctor himself was thus one step removed from audience empathy from the beginning, which ended up strengthening his original role as the ‘wizard’ or elderly mentor.

Coupled with this interpretation of its central character, the narratives evolved. After an early tentative experiment in exploring the characters theatrically (in ‘The Edge of Destruction’ storyline, in which the Tardis’s inhabitants spend a tense time squabbling with each other rather than having an actual ‘adventure’) the stories tended to stick to a format in which an ongoing series of events is acted upon by the arrival of the Tardis crew as catalysts. Thus they appear in the land of the Aztecs, in revolutionary France, in ancient Rome and at the time of the Crusades, for example, entering well-known historical narratives without any need for a science fiction factor other than themselves as time-travellers. This displaced the Doctor from audiences again: instead of being the ‘star’ of the storyline, we saw a series of events taking place which was speeded up by the arrival of outsiders, of whom the Doctor was perhaps the wisest but by no means always the most central.

Later in 1965, the show makes its first real excursion ‘inwards’ by focusing on events centred on the Doctor and his companions rather than on the framework into which they materialise: both ‘The Chase’ and ‘The Time Meddler’ refer to elements within the show - the Daleks’ antipathy for the Doctor and the ‘Meddling Monk’s’ use of a Tardis-like machine - which mark the beginning of an inward trajectory in the story-telling. Instead of merely arriving and ‘interfering’, as it were, in an ongoing sequence of already-established historical events, the tales revolve around an audience’s knowledge of things within the show’s history. This is a centripetal pull, as opposed to a centrifugal one, and it recurs throughout the programme from this point.

Furthermore, some other programme elements helped, consciously or unconsciously, to capture the mood of the early 60s: the ramshackle police box exterior of the Tardis was still a symbol of help, fading though it might have been even by 1963. The sharp contrast between this trusted but run-down wooden disguise and the shining, white and very strange interior, larger in dimension than it should have been and also structured like no spaceship interior that had been seen until then, may have reflected some of the mood of the times, sitting as they did on the cusp of the old deferential society and the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ as Prime Minister Harold Wilson had put it.

Then Hartnell became so ill that he struggled to maintain the role and the show could have ended there. Producers, however, took a revolutionary and fascinating step and replaced Hartnell, not with an elderly archetypal mentor figure, but with a mischievous, mercurial clown-like character, topped with a Beatles’ hairdo. Nothing like this had ever been done before; it was on a par with the Tardis’s ‘bigger inside than out’ originality, and was perhaps partly born from the same earthly, budget-minded motives: no one wanted to cancel a show that was so popular.

It was a big risk. Whereas Hartnell was often imperious, grumpy and demanding, Troughton’s Doctor was self-effacing, friendly and jolly. Would Doctor Who make the leap into the late 60s with this literally out-of-the-box move? Or would audiences reject this change of character? This was made even more dangerous because by now the Doctor himself had shifted slightly more into the protagonist role: he was less of a ‘wise old man’ removed from audiences by centrally-active fellow travellers. These companions had come and gone so many times that audiences viewed the Doctor as the remaining constant. Pulling a stunt like this could have collapsed the entire show.

Stay tuned for the next exciting part in the Context of Doctor Who!

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