The Origin of Doctor Who Part 2

William Hartnell as Doctor Who

In early May of 1963, Veteran producer/director Rex Tucker attended a meeting with Sydney Newman and Richard Martin, a young director who had recently completed the internal directors training course and was now assigned to the Serials Department. Newman asked Tucker to take charge of the new series pending the appointment of a permanent producer under Newman's newly instigated production team system.

Tucker had began his career at the BBC in the nineteen-thirties in radio, before transferring to TV in the fifties where he had specialised in the demanding areas of children's drama and classic serials. One of the main outcomes of the meeting was the expectation that Tucker would direct the fledgling series' first story, with Martin helming a number of other early episodes. Later discussions ultimately led to the, as yet unnamed series acquiring the title Dr. Who. At a later date, a friend of Tucker's, actor/director Hugh David, would make the claim that it was Tucker himself who originated the world famous title. However, Tucker himself would strenuously dismiss the assertion maintaining vigorously that the credit for the title belonged wholly to Sydney Newman. "I remember coming home and talking to my wife, Jean, about this new project and telling her I did not particularly want to work on it, but as I was due to go on holiday I decided to help out with the casting sessions." Tucker told Doctor Who Magazine in 1995.

Meanwhile, Newman's wide-reaching changes continued inexorably towards their final realisation, with the final remnants of the old Script Department becoming the Television Script Unit. Bunny Webber, in the meantime, was continuing his active involvement in the series development. Around the time that Newman was drafting Rex Tucker onto the project, Webber had drafted a document what was essentially intended to be a prospective 'series bible', under the heading General Notes on Background and Approach. It opened by reiterating the basic format which had been established for the series: "A series of stories linked to form a continuing serial; thus if each story ran six or seven episodes there would be eight stories needed for 52 weeks of the serial. Within the overall title, each episode is to have its own title." He then went on to briefly sketch the basic standard template for the overall episode structure which was destined to endure unchanged for decades: "Each episode of 25 minutes will begin by repeating the closing sequence or final climax of the preceding episode; about halfway through, each episode will reach a climax, followed by blackout before the second half commences (one break)."

Webber then went on to offer prospective writers valuable basic advice on production requirements: "Each story, as far as possible, is to use repeatable sets. It is expected that B.P. (Back Projection) will be available with a reasonable amount of film, which will probably be mostly studio shot for special effects. Certainly writers should not hesitate to call for any special effects to achieve the element of surprise essential in these stories, even though they are not sure how it should be done technically: leave it to the effects people." He then closed the section on a cautionary note, which would become almost a constant watchword for the future: "Otherwise work on a very modest budget."

Webber's document then went on to offer brief sketches of the series' quartet of central characters.

BRIDGET (BIDDY)

A with-it girl of 15, reaching the end of her Secondary School career, eager for life, lower-than-middle class. Avoid dialect, use neutral accent laced with latest teenage slang.

MISS MCGOVERN (LOLA)

24. Mistress at Biddy's school. Timid but capable of sudden rabbit courage. Modest, with plenty of normal desires. Although she tends to be the one who gets into trouble, she is not to be guyed: she is also a loyalty character.

CLIFF

27 OR 28. Master at the same school. Might be classed as ancient by teenagers except that he is physically perfect, strong and courageous, a gorgeous dish. Oddly, when brains are required, he can even be brainy, in a different sort of way.

These are the characters we know and sympathise with, the ordinary people to whom extraordinary things happen. The fourth basic character remains always something of a mystery, and is seen by us rather through the eyes of the other three....

DR. WHO

A frail old man lost in space and time. They give him this name because they don't know who he is. He seems not to remember where he has come from; he is suspicious and capable of sudden malignance; he seems to have some undefined enemy; he is searching for something as well as fleeing from something. He has a "machine" which enables them to travel together through time, through space, and through matter.

Webber's 'bible' then went on to give outlines of the other main aspects of the series, which, in his opinion, were essential components. These included such considerations as quality of story where Webber impressed upon prospective writers the somewhat odd notion, given the core concepts of the series, that: "...we are not writing science fiction. We shall provide scientific explanations too, sometimes, but we shall not bend over backwards to do so, if we decide to achieve credibility by other means." He continued thus: "Neither are we writing fantasy: the events have got to be credible to the three ordinary people who are our main characters, and they are sharp-witted enough to spot a phoney."

Webber's next observation served to illustrate not only an important consideration for the success of future stories, but also his own deep and wide-ranging experience in the children's drama field: "I think the writer's safeguard here will be, if he remembers that he is writing for an audience aged fourteen...the most difficult, critical, even sophisticated, audience there is, for TV. In brief, avoid the limitations of any label and use the best in any style or category, as it suits us, so long as it works in our medium." He brought the section to a close in the form of a question to be posed by any writer working on the series. "'Besides being exciting entertainment, for 5 o'clock on a Saturday, what is worthwhile about this serial?'"

Webber then turned his attention to the series main mode of transport with the following: "When we consider what this look like, we are in danger of either science-fiction or fairytale labelling. If it is a transparent plastic bubble we are with all the low-grade space-fiction of cartoon strip and soap-opera." With his next suggestion, Bunny Webber, in all seriousness advised something which, had it been adopted, would have deprived Dr. Who of its most recognisable and much loved icon even before the series' television premiere. "If we scotch this by positing something humdrum, say, passing through some common object in the street such as a night-watchman's shelter to arrive inside a marvellous contrivance of quivering electronics, then we simply have a version of the dear old Magic Door. Therefore, we do not see the device at all; or rather it is visible only as an absence of visibility, a shape of nothingness (Inlaid, into the surrounding picture)..."

The machine is unreliable, being faulty. A recurrent problem is to find spares. How to get thin gauge platinum wire in B.C.1566? Moreover, Dr. Who has lost his memory, so they have to learn to use it, by a process of trial and error, keeping records of knobs pressed and results (This is the fuel for many a long story). After several near-calamities they institute a safeguard: one of their number is left in the machine when the others go outside, so that at the end of an agreed time, they can be fetched back into their own era. This provides a suspense element in any given danger: can they survive till the moment of recall? Attack on recaller etc. Clearly Sydney Newman liked this storyline as he commented in handwritten notes "Good stuff here"

At this point Webber turns his attention to what he calls The Second Secret of Dr. Who. "The authorities of his own (or some other future) time are not concerned merely with the theft of an obsolete machine; they are seriously concerned to prevent his monkeying with time, because his secret intention, when he finds his ideal past, is to destroy or nullify the future." Sydney Newman's reaction to this is summed up in one handwritten word; "Nuts."

Webber's format document went on to address other aspects of overall continuity of story and character, before being deemed ready for submission to Sydney Newman for approval. Once Newman eventually received his copy, as with the documentation that preceded it, he once again furnished his reactions via hand written annotations.

His reaction noted at the close of the opening paragraph was that each episode must end on a "very strong cliff-hanger". While the section Webber had entitled 'Quality of Story', he deemed to be "not clear". The suggestion for the depiction of the Time Machine caused him concern on the grounds that it was "not visual", before he reiterated his feeling that when it comes to the machine a "tangible symbol" was needed. Ultimately, as with the earlier documents, his main reaction is negative, as his closing summation clearly illustrates: "I don't like this much - it reads silly and condescending. It doesn't get across the basis of teaching of educational experience - drama based upon and stemming from factual material and scientific phenomena and actual social history of past and future. Dr. Who does not have a philosophical arty-science mind - he'd take science, applied and theoretical, as being as natural as eating."

On Monday, May 13th, Ayton Whitaker circulated a memo to all concerned advising them of the postponement of the new Saturday serial by four weeks, which would see the recording process officially begin on Friday 2nd August. By Wednesday 15th, following further discussions with his colleagues on the project, Bunny Webber had completed a revised draft of his format document.

Reduced from the original's three-and-a-half pages to one-and-a-half, the latest draft's revisions took all of Newman's suggestions into account. This meant that all material produced under the heading 'Overall Continuity of Story', including the section which Newman had particularly disliked, 'The Secrets of Dr. Who', was excised. The name 'Biddy' for the young girl character was dismissed, with Webber now providing a list of alternatives - Mandy, Gay, Sue, Jill, Janet and Jane - expressing his personal preference for either Mandy or Sue. However, the most important alterations came in the description of the all-important time machine, which under the heading of 'THE MACHINE' had been amended thus: "Dr. Who has a 'machine' which enables them to travel together through space, through time and through matter. When first seen, this machine has the appearance of a police box standing in the street, but anyone entering it is immediately inside an extensive electronic contrivance. Though it looks impressive, it is an old beat-up model which Dr. Who stole when he escaped from his own galaxy in the year 5733; it is uncertain in performance and often needs repairing; moreover, Dr. Who has forgotten how to work it, so they have to learn by trial and error."

The new concept for the ship's, then novel, external appearance had been suggested by another BBC staff writer who Donald Wilson had recently allocated to the new series by the name of Anthony Coburn. Coburn's inspiration for the time ship's eccentric outer shell had blossomed when he had seen a police box while out walking near his office. Coburn's simple, yet unusual suggestion, had given final form to what would become an instantly recognisable visual icon for the series.

Another major alteration in this version of the document was the proposed outline under the heading of 'THE FIRST STORY', which read as follows:

"Mandy/Sue meets the old man wandering in the fog. He takes her to a police box in the street. Entering the box, she finds herself inside this large machine; directly she leaves it she is again in the street outside the police box. Cliff and Lola, who have been to a late meeting at the school, come cross Mandy/Sue and the old man: She shows them the machine. They are reduced in size, to about one-eighth of an inch tall, and the story develops this situation for four episodes within the school science laboratory. The next story will begin with their regaining normal size, and at once start them on another adventure."

On this occasion, it was Donald Wilson rather then Sydney Newman who provided the hand-written annotations to Webber's latest effort. Apart from some minor changes of wording, Wilson's most important revisions consisted of putting a cross through the Doctor's character description, indicating clearly that he felt that this particular aspect needed extensive revision. He then finalised the name for the young girl character as "Sue" by striking out Bunny Webber's other suggestions. His final change was to alter the paragraph heading for the time machine from 'The Machine' to 'The Ship'. On Thursday 16th, Webber produced another draft of the format document which Wilson again made hand-written annotations to, resulting in a further draft being typed up the same day which accommodated the new changes, under the title of:

'DR. WHO'

General Notes on Background and Approach for an Exciting Adventure-Science Fiction Drama Series for Children's Saturday Viewing.

Monday, May 20th, found Sydney Newman now satisfied with the much revised format document. His next step was to forward a copy of it to Donald Baverstock, along with the following cautiously optimistic memo: "This formalises on paper our intentions with respect to the new Saturday afternoon serial which is to hit air on 24 August. As you will see, this is more or less along the lines of the discussion between you and Joanna Spicer some months ago. Those of us who worked on this brief, and the writers we have discussed assignments with, are very enthusiastic about it. If things go reasonably well and the right facilities can be made to work, we will have an outstanding winner on our hands."

On Tuesday 21st, Ayton Whitaker sent John Mair a memo informing him that due to the previously notified four-week postponement of the recording of the first episode, the anticipated pre-filming at the BBC's Television Film Studios in Ealing should also be put back by four weeks, which would result in filming for the first story to take place in the week commencing Saturday, 20th July. Later that same day, Whitaker sent Mair a follow-up memo requesting that filming be brought forward by two weeks, to the week commencing July, 6th. The reason for this requested change was due to the fact that Newman had decided to order the filming of an experimental pilot episode for the series, to begin on Friday, July 19th. The intention behind this move was that if the pilot was deemed successful, it would form the first transmitted episode scheduled for Saturday, August 24, and should it have proved unsuccessful or problematical, there would be two clear weeks remaining in which to resolve any technical problems. As would only become apparent much later, Whitaker's request would prove to be both far sighted, and wise.

By the end of the month of May, the Dr. Who production team was assigned an additional member to fill the slot of Associate Producer. The person chosen was Mervyn Pinfield, who had worked within the BBC television service since the early days of the nineteen-thirties, and was an acknowledged expert in technical matters.

Pinfield's primary function on the new series would be the co-ordination and provision of advice on the complex technical aspects of Dr. Who's ultimate realisation. A task for which he was considered the perfect choice by dint of the fact that he had already gained a considerable body of experience with the subject matter, having directed the science-fiction serial The Monsters the previous November. The end of a month of intensive preplanning had seen Dr. Who move several important steps closer to television reality.

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Sources of reference:
BBC Archives online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/doctorwho/index.shtml
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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Doctor_Who
Various Internet sources