Whereas once it had commanded the airwaves and helped to win the war, by the late 1950s the BBC was under siege from independent television, which, unrestricted by the corporation’s remit to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ had wooed audiences by focusing on simply entertainment. In 1962, Sir Hugh Greene, the Corporation's Director General took the war for audiences back to the independent sector and offered Canadian-born producer Sidney Newman, who had already had hits at ATV with the hugely popular drama series Armchair Theatre and the science fiction anthology series Out Of This World, the post of Head of Drama.
The first thing Newman did was to break up the Drama Department and remake it as the Drama Group, embracing three new departments: Series, Serials and Plays. Newman had seen immediately that the old system, in which a Producer was expected to produce, direct and work with the writer on developing a script, was hampering strategy and forethought. Under the new system each Producer had a Director and Story Editor, leaving him - and it was ‘him’ at that time, all Producers being male - free to oversee the whole production. Of course, this freed Newman himself up too. By 1963, he was developing new programmes for the BBC to draw audiences back from ITV.
Newman saw potential in the gap between the highly popular sports programme Grandstand and the equally popular pop music programme Juke Box Jury. What could bridge those two sets of audiences? Juke Box Jury appealed to a younger generation, some of whom might also be watching sport. The slot was filled at that time with Charles Dickens dramatisations, which had no direct appeal to either group. Strategic thinking was coming into play: Newman recognised he needed something that would work on ‘attracting and holding the children's audience accustomed to their Saturday afternoon serial.’
‘It had to be a children's programme and still attract both teenagers and adults. Also, as a children's programme, I was intent upon it containing basic factual information that could be described as educational, or, at least, mind opening for them,’ Newman stated later. ‘So my first thought was of a time-space machine with contemporary characters who would be able to travel forward and backward in time, and inward and outward in space. All the stories were to be based on scientific or historical facts as we knew them at the time.’
There was a parallel movement too, beginning prior to Newman’s involvement. Donald Wilson, whom Newman had appointed as Head of Serials, had joined the BBC in 1955, and had by 1960 established the Survey Group, whose job it was to study and report on other media such as radio, films, theatre and, significantly, commercial television. In March 1962, Eric Maschwitz, the Head of Light Entertainment asked Wilson to report on the potential of science fiction for a series of single dramas. Wilson chose Donald Bull and Alice Frick of the BBC Survey Group to report on the viability of science fiction for television and they presented him with a three-and-a-half-page report, probably put together fairly quickly. Frick had spoken personally to Brian Aldiss, at that time editor of Penguin Science Fiction and Honorary Secretary of the British Science Fiction Association, and something of an expert in the field, but the report suggested that science fiction was ‘overwhelmingly American in bulk’. The ‘Threat to Mankind, and Cosmic Disaster’ narrative, the report said, was more favoured by British authors and the most suitable for television but warned that the choice of writers would be ‘exceptionally narrow’.
‘People aren't all that mad about SF, but it is compulsive, when properly presented’ the report went on to say, sounding as though it was walking a conservative line between recommending the genre and warning about possible failure. In a similar tone, the report said that science fiction was a ‘most fruitful and exciting area of exploitation’ but had ‘not shown itself capable of supporting a large population’. One key recommendation was that trying to employ science fiction writers to devise a serial was probably not workable. ‘There is a wide gulf between SF as it exists, and the present tastes and needs of the TV audience, and this can only be bridged by writers deeply immersed in the TV discipline,’ the report said, concluding though that it could not propose ‘any existing SF stories for TV adaptations’. Frick and her Script Department colleague John Braybon were asked to read further and they apparently did, describing to Wilson in July 1962 that they had read widely and had selected some stories because they ‘do not include Bug Eyed Monsters’. Frick and Braybon particularly favoured time-travelling stories ‘since individual plots can easily be tackled by a variety of script-writers; it's the Z Cars of science-fiction.’ Z Cars was the hugely popular and ground-breaking police drama series of that time, clearly something to emulate if one could.
This was when Newman arrived at the BBC. In early March 1963 he discussed his proposals for the Saturday evening slot with Donald Baverstock, the Chief of Programmes and Joanna Spicer the Assistant Controller (Planning) Television which resulted in Baverstock asking Donald Wilson to develop a 52-week science fiction series consisting of shorter serials. Further meetings took place involving Wilson, Frick, Braybon and Script Department writer/adapter, Cecil Edwin Webber, who had been responsible for many successful children's drama programmes. By the end of March, Frick sent a memo to Wilson outlining some concepts, the first of which was a time machine also capable of travelling in space and into other forms of matter such as sub-atomic space or into a drop of oil. Frick preferred the idea of a flying saucer of some kind which might contain a crew, a regular cast. Other ideas included telepathy and the idea that the series should actually be set in the future, perhaps involving world body of trouble-shooting scientists who oversaw all science experiments in order to protect the planet. Discussions revolved around proposals for these characters who would be incorporated into the weekly drama: could they be teenagers, to try to capture the teen audience on that particular time-slot? Or would it be better to have a slightly older age grouping?
Webber was then asked by Wilson to come up with some characters. Webber wrote:
‘Our basic set-up with its loyalty characters must fulfil two conditions:
1. It must attract and hold an audience.
2. It must be adaptable to any SF story, so that we do not have to reject stories because they fail to fit into our set-up.’
Webber suggested a handsome young male protagonist, thinking that this would hook in both sexes in the potential audience. Coupled with this fairly standard protagonist was a well-dressed heroine, to try to include the older female component in the audience.
In the light of what was to come, Webber’s comments about further characters take on an immense significance with hindsight. He proposed that there should be a third character, an older man with some kind of ‘character twist’:
‘Nowadays, to satisfy grown women, father-figures are introduced into loyalty programmes at such a rate that TV begins to look like an Old People's Home: let us introduce them ad hoc, as our stories call for them. We shall have no child protagonists, but child characters may be introduced ad hoc, because story requires it, not to interest children.’
However, Webber envisaged these characters working together as ‘the partners in a firm of scientific consultants known as “THE TROUBLESHOOTERS”’ composed of specialists in given fields. Webber saw that the two male characters might need to be grounded occasionally by the female. These Troubleshooters would have a base of operations and meet a selection of antagonists; the stories would be character-driven; they would have to have a ‘feminine interest’; and they should deal with serious moral issues of the day.
Sydney Newman, on seeing the notes about all of this, rejected Alice Frick's flying saucer idea. It was ‘Not based in reality’ he wrote in marginal notes and ‘Too Sunday press.’ The whole trouble-shooters idea was given a simple ‘No’. Newman added ‘Need a kid to get into trouble, make mistakes’ and drew on his original notion that the series should be somewhat educational. In the characters he had been presented with, he pointed out that there was ’no one here to require being taught’.
Newman was seeing through the restricted, hierarchical and somewhat dry BBC machinery to something a little more unconventional and lively. Coming from a commercial background, he was aware of the attractive power of cliffhangers in stories, making audiences linger and return. But he did like one idea: the time-space machine.
He also approved of the handsome young protagonist and well-dressed heroine, but wanted a teenager added to the crew. However, his key suggestion was the replacement of the vaguely ‘mature man’ with a distinctly older, frailer and crabbier male figure, someone who had stolen the time machine from his own people, an advanced civilisation on some far distant planet. It was Newman who called this figure simply, ‘the Doctor’.
The unknowns surrounding that character would soon activate such a pull that everything else about the programme would go into orbit around them.