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