The Origin of Doctor Who

William Hartnell as Doctor Who

In 1962, with the BBC suffering from the success of the independent stations, Sir Hugh Greene, the Corporation's Director General approached Canadian born producer Sidney Newman for the post of Head of Drama. Newman had already had great success with ATV as producer of its hugely popular drama series Armchair Theatre and the science fiction anthology series Out Of This World.

Newman's first task at the BBC was to break up the existing structure of the Drama Department and reform it into the Drama Group. This new section covered three new departments; Series, Serials and Plays. Under the old system a Producer was expected to produce, direct and liase with the writer on his script. Under the new system each Producer was allocated a Director and Story Editor, leaving him free to oversee the production in a far more strategic manner. By 1963, with the restructuring in place, Newman was free to develop new programmes for the BBC to challenge what was quickly becoming ITV's supremacy.

One of the first programmes that Newman suggested was a tea-time drama series aimed at the Saturday gap between the highly popular sports programme Grandstand and the equally popular pop music programme Juke Box Jury. "I vaguely recall a children's classic drama series that filled the slot." Said Newman. "Charles Dickens dramatisations, that sort of thing. I decided that this could be moved to Sunday afternoons if the Drama Department could come up with something more suitable. So we required a new programme that would bridge the state of mind of sports fans (viewers of Grandstand), and the teenage pop music audience (viewers of the programme that followed Grandstand - Juke Box Jury), while attracting and holding the children's audience accustomed to their Saturday afternoon serial."

That serial was to pass into television legend. It was Doctor Who.

Newman described his basic outline for Doctor Who thus; "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. 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." According to Newman he passed a memo on to Donald Wilson whom he'd appointed as Head of Serials and told him "Here's a great idea for Saturday afternoons."

Donald Wilson, who had joined the BBC in 1955, had by 1960 established the Monitoring Group, later to be called the Survey Group, the objective of which was to study and report on other media such as radio, films, stage and books (and even more importantly, the enemy: Commercial Television) in order to keep up to date with current trends and in particular to identify any new talent that could be used by the Corporation. In March 1962 (before Sydney Newman joined the Corporation) Eric Maschwitz, the Head of Light Entertainment asked Wilson to report on the literary genre of science fiction to evaluate its potential for a series of single dramas. Wilson had eight scriptwriters and ten writer/adapters working for him (as well as a team of junior readers and researchers) but in the end he assigned Donald Bull and Alice Frick of the BBC Survey Group to complete a report to determine the viability of science fiction for television.

Bull and Frick presented Wilson with a three-and-a-half-page report. It is not clear how long they had to complete this but the opening line of the report states: "In the time allotted, we have not been able to make more than a sample dip." Utilising studies made by prolific authors Brian Aldiss, Kingsley Amis and Edmund Krispin they claimed that they were able to give a fair view of the subject. Alice Frick also spoke personally to Aldiss, at that time editor of Penguin Science Fiction and Honorary Secretary of the British Science Fiction Association, who promised to make suggestion for further reading (it is not known if he did). The report remarked that "SF is overwhelmingly American in bulk" and "largely a short story medium" and the more sophisticated type of story relied on the "Threat to Mankind, and Cosmic Disaster" narrative, which was more favoured by British authors and the most suitable for TV adaptation. They did, however, have reservations about using British writers of the genre stating that their choice would be "exceptionally narrow, boiling down to a handful of British writers."

The report added that: "It is interesting to note that with Andromeda, and even with Quatermass (two science fiction series previously made by the BBC), more people watched them than liked them. People aren't all that mad about SF, but it is compulsive, when properly presented." The report appears to support TV science fiction calling it a "most fruitful and exciting area of exploitation" but is cautionary in its assessment that the genre has thus far "not shown itself capable of supporting a large population." The report concludes that it is "not an automatic winner" and suggests that perhaps future audiences will get a taste for it. On page 3 of the report, it advises that if taken up TV dramatists rather than science fiction writers should write it. "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." Apart from some reservations the report read in its entirety did find the genre interesting and intelligent and this was enough for Donald Wilson, in spite of the fact that Bull and Frick had written in their report "we cannot recommend any existing SF stories for TV adaptations", to ask Frick and her Script Department colleague John Braybon, to do just that.

In a document handed in on Wednesday 25th July 1962, they reported back that having read "hundreds" of science fiction stories "over the last eight weeks" they had chosen some potentially suitable stories because - "They do not include Bug Eyed Monsters; The central characters are never Tin Robots; They do not require elaborate settings, and; They provide for genuine characterisation. "We consider that two types of plot are reasonably outstanding, namely those dealing with telepaths, see Three to Conquer* in the attached list, and those dealing with time travelling, see Guardians of Time**. This latter one is particularly attractive as a series, since individual plots can easily be tackled by a variety of script-writers; it's the Z Cars of science-fiction."

On the basis of the follow-up report, the BBC - already familiar with the audience pleasing potential of science-fiction, due to the huge reaction to the aforementioned Quatermass and Andromeda serials, as well as their stunning adaptation of Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty Four - moved ahead with the active development of potential new genre projects. This culminated in a four-part serial called The Monsters, written by Drama Script supervisor Vincent Tilsley in collaboration with playwright Evelyn Frazer, and directed by Mervyn Pinfield.

Newman arrived at the BBC on December 12th 1962. In early March 1963 he met with Donald Baverstock (Chief of Programmes) and Joanna Spicer (Assistant Controller (Planning) Television) to discuss potential programmes to fill the early Saturday evening slot. As a result of this meeting Baverstock asked Donald Wilson to come up with a suitable format for a 52-week science fiction series comprised of shorter serials. On March 26th 1963 a meeting was called by Donald Wilson which was attended by Frick, Braybon and Script Department writer/adapter, Cecil Edwin Webber, an experienced staff member who had been responsible for many successful children's drama, most notably adaptations of writer Richmal Compton's Just William novels. Webber was more generally and informally known within the BBC by the affectionate nickname 'Bunny'. The ultimate aim of the meeting was to discuss ideas for the possible new series using the Survey Group's 1962 report on science fiction.

On Wednesday 29th March Alice Frick sent a memo to Wilson formally detailing the main story suggestions, which arose from the meeting. Briefly, these included the following core concepts:

1. Time Machine: Which Wilson suggested should be used for not only travelling backwards and forwards in time, but also into space and all kinds of other matter. (e.g. a drop of oil, a molecule, under the ocean, etc.).

2. Flying Saucer: Frick favoured this especially, amongst other things on the grounds that it might be seen as a more modern device, and held the advantage of conveying a group of people. (e.g. a regular cast of characters). 3. Computer: This suggestion was quickly dropped when Wilson pointed out that it was basically the same central story device used in the Andromeda serials.

4. Telepathy: All concerned agreed that this was an "okay notion" in then modern science, and a good device for dealing with extraterrestrials who have appropriated human bodies.

5. John Braybon put forward the idea that the series should actually be set in the future. Expanding it to suggest that a good dramatic device would be a world body of scientific trouble-shooters, established to maintain control of scientific experiments for political or humanistic reasons. (This particular idea of Braybon's is an excellent illustration of how a basically sound dramatic theme will eventually find an outlet. Over a decade later Gerry Davis and Dr. Kit Pedler developed a variation of Braybon's suggestion into the highly regarded BBC science-fiction thriller series, Doomwatch.)

As to regular characters for the embryonic series, Wilson himself felt that what was needed was a core group from which individual characters could be rotated in such a way that certain ones would feature in central roles in certain stories while taking a background role in the others. He further suggested that two of the characters should be teenagers, given the timeslot earmarked for the series. However, Alice Frick, supported by both Braybon and Webber argued against the idea on the grounds that children are almost certainly more inclined to be interested in older characters, often in their early twenties, than in those of their own age group.

All present were in agreement that the major format difficulties which needed to be overcome were how to actually involve characters from the core group in a series of widely diverse adventures, while effecting their transport to the varied locales called for as believably as possible within the series fictional framework. The meeting ended with Bunny Webber being asked by Wilson to submit a document outlining a set of viable characters. The writer's initial character sketches were delivered to Wilson as an attachment to Frick's report on the 29th, under the heading 'Science Fiction'.

"Envisaged is a "loyalty programme", lasting at least 52 weeks, consisting of various dramatised S.F. stories, linked to form a continuous serial, using basically a few characters who continue through all the stories. Thus if each story were to run six or seven episodes there would be about eight stories needed to form fifty-two weeks of the overall serial."

"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."

Then after reiterating the received wisdom that child characters don't appeal to children older than themselves, young heroines don't appeal to boys but young heroes do engage the interest of girls, Webber made suggestions for a group of characters designed to ensure the highest level of blanket coverage amongst the target children and teenager viewing audience:


Webber noted that whilst this character would automatically engage the interest of the child/teenaged audience of both sexes, what was needed to involve the older female section was the provision of:


With these important groups covered, Webber then turned his attention to the adult male section of the intended audience with the following comments: "Men are believed to form an important part of the five 0'clock Saturday (post-Grandstand) audience. They will be interested in the young hero; and to catch them firmly we should add:"


Bringing his notes on the proposed central characters to a close, Webber summated a number of the key points as being of importance to the developing series success: "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."

Webber them moved on to a proposal for the basic fictional backdrop to the characters based upon John Braybon's scientific investigation format, under the heading 'What are our three chosen characters?' His main suggestion for this was that the regular characters should be: "the partners in a firm of scientific consultants known as":


Webber's concise concepts expanded faithfully upon Braydon's original idea, once again co-incidentally foreshadowing the later Doomwatch, in it's detailing of a group where each character was a specialist in a certain field, but all carry an acute awareness of the social/human implications of cases they investigate. Interestingly, a key component of the character dynamics envisioned by Webber was that if the two male characters sometimes became too pure in their scientific thinking, the woman would be on hand to always remind them that, ultimately, they are dealing with human beings. (A task that would be carried over into Dr. Who as an often-integral part of the character makeup of Barbara Wright.)

Following a brief sketch of the team's base of operations, and the suggestion that villains should be created on an ad hoc basis unless a recurring adversary emerged during the development of the stories, Webber's document concluded with a section headed 'Overall Meaning of the Serial', which carried echoes of the 1962 reports stressing that television science fiction should be more character based than in literature. It also noted that it should have some "...feminine interest" and added that it should also "consider, or at least firmly raise" serious philosophical and moral questions. Following Wilson's reading both Frick's report and Webber's notes were forwarded to Sydney Newman for comment.

During early April 1963, after considering Frick and Webber's notes, Newman made a number of hand-written annotations to key sections of the document. These include his dislike of Alice Frick's Flying Saucer suggestion on the grounds that it was: "Not based in reality-" and even more damning: "Too Sunday press." The team of scientific trouble-shooters idea he dismissed with a curt and unequivocal: "No", while in the margin beside Webber's initial character suggestions he noted succinctly: "Need a kid to get into trouble, make mistakes." Taking up his deeply held conviction that the series should contain a genuine educational element, he proceeded to point out that within the proposed characters of a scientific team there was: " one here to require being taught." He then dismissed Webber's ideas on possible villains as being: "corny."

His ultimate reaction to the ideas and suggestions contained in the documents prepared by Wilson's team was that they were too highbrowed, unimaginative and set very much in the restrictive mould of the BBC's traditional family drama from which he very much wanted to make a break. Newman's own format ideas favoured the approach of his own Pathfinders productions for ABC, which continued the old cinema tradition of using cliff-hanger's as an integral part of children's adventure fare. Newman did approve one suggestion: the idea of a time-space machine.

While giving approval to Webber's suggestion for the 'Handsome Young Man Hero' and 'Handsome Well-dressed Heroine', Newman insisted that not only must a young teenager be added as an integral part of the character set, but also in place of Webber's 'Mature Man', he set forth the character of a frail and grumpy old man. A man who had stolen the time machine from his own, unnamed people who belong to an advanced civilisation on some far distant alien planet. The name given to the character by Sydney Newman was as ambiguous and mysterious as his character's true origins. The name was simply, "the Doctor", and with it he became the focal point of the entire series.

With the closing down of the old Script Department, Newman appointed Donald Wilson to the post of Head of the new Serials Department, which would actually be responsible for the production of the new serial.



Sources of reference:
BBC Archives online at
The Doctor Who Handbook - The First Doctor by Howe-Stammers-Walker published 1994
DWB interview with Sydney Newman by Tim Collins and Gary Leigh - August 1986
Interview with Rex Tucker by Paul R Jackson - Doctor Who Magazine Issue 221 1995
Wikipedia online at
Various Internet sources