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Inside the TARDIS: The Beginning (1963-1974)

By Dan Toland
18 November 2008 — In the early 1960s, the BBC was waging a ratings war against upstart ITV. Sydney Newman, the newly installed Head of Drama, was tasked with completely overhauling the Beeb's schedule. One particular timeslot he devoted his energies to was Saturdays at teatime; he had hit upon the idea of a children's adventure serial, one which would theoretically appeal to teenagers and adults as well. Ideally, it would contain some educational content. Newman, a lifelong science fiction fan with a particular affection for HG Wells, settled upon the idea of time travel. He gave these points to his team of producers, who went off and gave him the basis for the show that would follow: a team of time traveling scientists who would solve mysteries, called The Troubleshooters.

To which Newman asked them to try again.

Sydney Newman (1917-1997) made several changes to The Troubleshooters brief, which had laid down a cast of three scientists (a young man, a young woman and a middle-aged man to oversee them) traveling in a flying saucer. He added a teenaged girl, both to give girls a character to identify with, and to believably have a crewmember whose curiosity would get her into constant trouble. Having this young girl on the crew led him to drastically age the older scientist, making him her grandfather, so as to eliminate any questionable thoughts regarding their relationship. The other two scientists became teachers, of history and science, so that the educational aspect of the program could be believably communicated to the audience.

And he hated the flying saucer. In his mind, the ideal transport device would look like something the British viewer would see every single day. He didn't especially care what was settled on, but he did have two requirements: that it be relatively small, and that it be bigger on the inside than on the outside. It was eventually decided that a blue police telephone box would be used; in the early 1960s, these were an extremely common sight on the streets of London. (The advancement of two-way radios led to a decline in the use of police boxes through the 1970s, leaving them virtually extinct by 1980.)

Over time, the older grandfather became the central character. Newman created very little backstory for him; simply that he and his granddaughter were exiles of a sort from some alien, possibly futuristic civilization. The scientist tag remained, and his thirst for knowledge would drive most of the adventures. Eventually, Newman would give this character the name "Dr. Who," to highlight his mysterious nature. The character brief ran:

DOCTOR WHO: A name given to him by his two unwilling fellow travelers, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, simply because they don't know who he is and he is quite happy to extend the mystery surrounding him. He is frail looking but tough like an old turkey and this latter is amply demonstrated whenever he is forced to run away from danger. He can be enormously cunning once he feels he is being conspired against and he sometimes acts with impulse rather than reasoned intelligence.

(Although he never wound up being referred to as such on the show, being known only as "The Doctor," "Dr. Who" was, in fact, the character's official name. The lead actor would be billed as "Doctor Who" until the 19th season, at which point the role was officially changed to "The Doctor." In fact, when the series was revived in 2005, for the first year, Christopher Eccleston was billed in the credits as "Doctor Who." This was changed at David Tennant's insistence.)

To oversee the production of the new show, which was now named after its lead character, Newman hired Verity Lambert (1935-2007). At 28, Lambert was the youngest and first female producer the BBC had ever had. She was an incredibly intelligent woman who was more than capable of going a few rounds with Newman if the need arose — and it would — and saw that the best way to make a children's show that kids would like, was to make a show that she herself liked. By refusing to play down to the youngest audience members, Lambert set the tone for what would, in a few short months, become one of the most popular programs in the BBC's arsenal. Lambert would go on to become one of, if not the, most prolific and powerful figures in British television.

For the lead in the series, Lambert cast a character actor known chiefly for playing policemen, criminals and soldiers. William Henry Hartnell (1908-1975) had achieved some level of success playing drill sergeants, both in the popular Carry On series of films and in the sitcom The Army Game, which had ended the year before. Hartnell was keen to break out of this type of role, and quickly saw that the Doctor offered the possibilities of a very different sort of acting than what he was used to. Under Hartnell, the Doctor was gruff, quick, impatient and sometimes quite unpleasant. However, he was also childlike, fascinated with the unknown and was easily distracted. He also had a fervent sense of right and wrong, and a drive to protect the people who traveled with him — regardless of how endlessly irritating he found them. The character would soften significantly over the course of Season One, and the protective grandfatherly nature of the character would be emphasized over the tetchiness, although this would never completely go away.

The series was commissioned for a 13-week run, which began on 23 November 1963. The first episode, "An Unearthly Child," did not achieve great numbers, largely because of the coverage of John F. Kennedy's assassination, which had happened the previous day. The show was repeated the following week before the second episode, and this time ratings were a little more respectable. However, it was the story that began with the fifth episode — in which the crew of the Doctor's ship, the TARDIS, landed on an alien planet in the wake of an atomic war and fought a race of mutants trapped in metal shells — that caused the show to explode and guaranteed it would outlast this initial 13-episode order. "The Daleks," by longtime television writer Terry Nation, was an overwhelming success that launched into a national craze (think Pokιmon-levels of nuttiness). Lambert had pushed the Dalek story though, basically while Sydney Newman wasn't looking. Newman had wanted Doctor Who to be a hard SF show, and made very clear to everyone who was within earshot that he did not want there to be any bug-eyed monsters on the program, and when he saw the finished product, he was, by most accounts, livid. The Daleks were the epitome of what he didn't want. However, as the show began winning its timeslot and kids were reading Dalek comic books and screaming "Exterminate!" at each other on the playground, he had to acknowledge that Lambert seemed to know what she was doing, and she was allowed to run the series as she saw fit from then on.

The contributions made by creator Newman and producer Lambert were incalculable; so much so, that in the Tenth Doctor story "Human Nature," the Doctor, in his human identity of John Smith, gives his parents' names as "Sydney and Verity" as tribute.

Over the next three years, Hartnell led an ever-changing cast, as his assistants (RE: companions) would leave the show. But generally speaking, the TARDIS crew would include a young man (who could get into fights and be the adventurer the older Hartnell couldn't) and a young woman (who was usually there to get captured, scream a lot and look good in a miniskirt).

When Verity Lambert left the show after two years, she was briefly replaced by John Wiles (died 1997), but the permanent producer would be Innes Lloyd (1925-1991). Lloyd ushered in an era in which monsters would begin to take precedence, and the type of story known as the historical, in which there were no science fiction elements at all, was phased out altogether. Lloyd oversaw many new monsters, the Ice Warriors and Cybermen probably being the most well-known, and also had to introduce the concept of regeneration.

"That is the dematerializing control. And that over yonder is the horizontal hold. Up there is the scanner, those are the doors, that is a chair with a panda on it. Sheer poetry, dear boy. Now please stop bothering me."
— First Doctor, "The Time Meddler"

In 1966, the decision was made for Hartnell to leave the show. He was very ill with arteriosclerosis, and it was beginning to affect his performance. There were episodes where he was too weak to appear, and body doubles had to be brought in. He was also beginning to have difficulty with lines, although he was famous for not wanting to memorize them in the first place. He was also, as stories would have it, a world-class pain in the ass. The crotchety, stubborn, cantankerous Doctor was not far removed from the crotchety, stubborn, cantankerous Bill Hartnell. For whatever reason, regardless of whose idea it was, the First Doctor grew steadily weaker throughout the "The Tenth Planet," complaining that "this body of mine is wearing a bit thin," until he finally collapsed on the TARDIS floor. As his body faded away, he was replaced by a smaller, younger man with a Beatles haircut who dressed like a vaudeville tramp.

Lloyd had made the decision that the person who would replace Hartnell would not be a look-alike. Rather, he wanted the Second Doctor to be younger, more personable and more directly relatable to the kids in the viewing audience. Lloyd's choice (which was reportedly met with some enthusiasm by outgoing Doctor Bill Hartnell) was a notable character actor with a long list of theater credits to his name, as well as many television productions (he had been the first Robin Hood on television, 53 years before his grandson would have a starring role in the 2006 Robin Hood series). Patrick George Troughton (1920-1987) had years of experience as an actor to draw upon, and knew immediately he wanted to play the role completely differently than his predecessor had. Some of the ideas he threw around were a sea captain (which Troughton had actually been during World War II) or a pirate; however, on advice from the show's creator, the Second Doctor would take the form of a "cosmic hobo," a very Chaplin-esque character who wandered about aimlessly and (seemingly) blundered into trouble.

Lloyd could not have made a better choice. Losing your leading actor is a dangerous gamble, and making such a drastic change had every chance of blowing up in his face. However, Troughton was a marvelous actor, and even more importantly, he had buckets of charisma. More than Tom Baker, more than Sylvester McCoy, even more than David Tennant, Troughton was the most overtly comedic portrayal of the title role. The Second Doctor was, to all outward appearances, a blithering idiot. The villain of the week invariably took one look at this short, dumpy guy in the clown costume and instantly discounted any threat he might pose. This worked wonders, because the Second Doctor also happened to be a brilliant manipulator who could get his enemies to destroy themselves without breaking a sweat. And kids loved it. Whereas Hartnell had been a stern grandfather, Troughton was your favorite uncle. He traveled through time and space with kids that he took under his wing, teaching them, joking with them, protecting them and, in one story, rushing out of the TARDIS with a bucket and shovel because he wanted to build sand castles.

A chief reason for Troughton's success was his rapport with one of his supporting cast. Frazer Hines (1944-) played Jamie McCrimmon, a 17th century Highlander, and the chemistry between these two was legendary. They had a real father / son dynamic, and they bounced off each other like no Doctor / companion team before or since. They were both, on screen and off, enormously funny men who became friends very quickly (reportedly though their legendary prank wars) and lifted the game of the entire cast.

Unfortunately, there are very few Troughton stories available to watch today. In the 1960s, the BBC had a policy of junking films to make room in their limited storage space. While some of Hartnell's stories were affected by this, Troughton received far worse treatment. Of the 21 stories Troughton made, only six still exist in their entirety, and four are completely lost with no surviving footage. We can still experience these stories to some degree by means of "reconstructions," in which photographs that were taken of the series during transmission are married with off-air recordings made by fans, but it's just not the same.

"There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought."
— Second Doctor, "The Moonbase"

Troughton had decided early on that he would follow in Hartnell's footsteps and limit himself to three years on Doctor Who. Producer Peter Bryant (1923-2006), who had taken over in Season Five and was getting ready to leave himself, had the idea to keep the Doctor as a clownish figure. Eventually he settled on a popular comedian, known chiefly for his work in radio, who had actually applied for the role and discovered he was already on the short list.

Jon Pertwee (born John Devon Roland Pertwee, 1919-1996) was a former Royal Navy intelligence officer who had graduated to the role of CPO Pertwee in the long-running radio comedy The Navy Lark. Additionally, he joined First Doctor Bill Hartnell in having been a cast member of several Carry On films. It was this resume that led Bryant to casting Pertwee as the Third Doctor, thinking that his experience in broad comedy would serve the show well.

However, Pertwee couldn't have been less interested in playing the Doctor that way, and incoming producer Barry Letts (1925-) was in complete agreement. In real life, Pertwee was an adventurer; he loved racing, flying, climbing things, deep-sea diving and was completely fascinated with vehicles and gadgets. As such, these became the overriding traits of the Third Doctor. He was a man of action, usually referred to as "the James Bond of Doctor Who," perfectly capable of fighting off attackers on his own, speeding around in his antique car Bessie, doing much of his own stunts. His look was a complete turnaround from his predecessor as well; whereas Troughton was the vision of a hobo, in an oversized coat and baggy trousers, Pertwee was seen in velvet jackets and frilled shirts, such as was popular on British rock stars of the late 1960s.

The setting of the show had changed dramatically out of necessity. The BBC saw Doctor Who as being a very expensive show to produce (it wasn't), and it had come ever so close to cancellation in 1969. In order for the show to continue, especially now that it was to be made in color for the first time, the production team was told to cut their budget drastically. This had been in the wind for some time, so in Troughton's final season the concept of an Earth-based team that would encounter and defend the planet from alien invaders was given a trial run in the story "The Invasion." This team, called the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT), became the home base of the Third Doctor. In Troughton's final story, the epic 10-part "The War Games," the Doctor was put on trial by his people for egregiously violating their strict policy of noninterference in the affairs of other planets. His punishment, in addition to a forced regeneration, was to be exiled to Earth with the ability to travel in time taken away from him for an indeterminate period (RE: until the show got its budget back).

For the next three years, the Third Doctor, along with his companions Liz Shaw and then Jo Grant, would stand with UNIT in repelling invasion after invasion, which always seemed to begin its march in the greater London area. This could get quite repetitive, but was alleviated in large part by the UNIT crew: Captain Mike Yates, Sergeant John Benton and Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney, 1929-). Courtney was a very charismatic actor fully capable of going toe to toe with Pertwee, never allowing himself to be outshone by the very attention-grabbing star of the series.

However, Season Eight saw an enormous addition to the Doctor Who mythos, in the introduction of the Master. He was another renegade Time Lord with a mysterious relationship to the Doctor, and who would act as the first real recurring villain in the show's history. A Moriarty to the Third Doctor's Sherlock Holmes, the Master was played with elegance and humor by Roger Delgado (1918-1973), a good friend of both Pertwee and producer Letts. Delgado was a tremendously smart and charming villain, and one of the best things about the Third Doctor's tenure. He appeared in all five stories in Season Eight, and would do another three stories in the two seasons following. Essentially, he was another regular cast member.

Season Ten, the show's big anniversary season, was commemorated with the story "The Three Doctors," a four-part adventure which included all of the actors to have played the Doctor teaming up to save the universe from a rogue Time Lord. Unfortunately, Hartnell's illness had progressed to the point where he was unable to stand, and his scenes were all on a television monitor. Still, they were all there, and Troughton and Pertwee established a dynamic that would continue whenever multiple Doctors appeared together, all the way up to and including "Time Crash." (Basically, any given Doctor tends not to get along well with any other Doctor.) However, the real anniversary gift to the show was the return of a functioning TARDIS, allowing the stories to leave Earth once again — although he still stuck pretty close to home.

"I never report anywhere. Particularly not 'forthwith.'"
— Third Doctor, "Doctor Who and the Silurians"

Jon Pertwee broke through the three-year limit his predecessors had established, and was very popular in his day. By the end of his fourth year, however, he began to think it was time to move on. Delgado passed away after a car accident, UNIT was no longer being used as much and the production team was leaving as well. When Pertwee decided that his "family" was breaking up and that his next season would be his last, Barry Letts was charged with finding someone who could fill Pertwee's shoes.

What he found was someone who changed the show forever.

: : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : :

Part One: The Beginning (1963-1974)
Part Two: The Middle (1975-1981)
Part Three: The End (1981-1989)
Part Four: The Return (1996, 2005-current)

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