The Genesis of Doctor Who creates the hero

Posted by CB Droege

As part of the preparation for the 50th anniversary celebration of Doctor Who, the BBC has assembled a collection of historical documents and photographs related to the origin of the program.

The Genesis of Doctor Who collection looks back to an era that is difficult to imagine: a time when Doctor Who was only an idea. The documents in the collection detail the investigative and creative process that created the Doctor.

One thing that makes it interesting is the nature of the BBC’s programming initiatives at the time. Everything needed to have an educational or informative bent to justify the spending of public funds on the show, so nothing could be developed purely as entertainment. This is less true today, though programs still need to be seen as having a cultural value.

The original Doctor Who then was an educational program for children. The Doctor would take his companions to different time periods, and, as they adventured around time, he would have to explain what was going on around them, making the companion a point of view for children to relate, and turning the show into a history lesson of sorts.

Eventualy the focus on real history was dropped in favor of pure exploration and fictional world-building, but the idea of the companion – and the doctor who has to teach them about what’s going on around them – has been retained in a modified form from that first season. Today’s companions are usually pretty young women, and have some romantic interest in the Doctor, rather than an educational one.

One interesting document in the collection is the one that started the whole thing off. It’s a report from a survey into the state of science-fiction literature, which defines how science-fiction plots work and should be handled. It’s a concise, if not entirely accurate, look into the state of science-fiction in the 1960s:

There are four pages to the document and you can view the rest here. Most interesting is their reasoning behind not hiring a science-fiction writer (note 10). It seems ironic now to see that they thought television audiences weren’t ready for ‘real’ sci-fi, considering that the first season was not well received, and that it was the more fanciful science fiction elements of the second season - namely the Daleks – which really started Doctor Who down the road to legendary popularity.

About a year later, Dr. Who – as it was first called - was falling into place. Here is the original outline of the characters and basic premises of the show:

Again this one is four pages long. Here we see the original character breakdown for the Doctor, which remains surprisingly true today. We also have the original version of the TARDIS, as an invisible door to nothing, and the rational for making it not appear too cartoonish or magical. Rational which eventually led to the idea of making it a police box.

Some of the proposed sub-plots would be great if they made a return. Most of those early episodes are completely lost, since the production engineers at the time made no regular practice of keeping episode copies around - they typically just aired them once, and then recorded over the tape with something else - so there is no way to see this play out on screen, but having to constantly find spare parts for the TARDIS would be a neat mechanic to return to the show.

Most compelling of that original character outline, however, is the section titled The Secret of Dr. Who. The Doctor’s origin was changed from ‘man from the future’ to ‘alien’ the first time he needed to be regenerated, but his hatred of scientific progress in this first draft never materialized at all. C.E. Webber’s original idea seems to have been to make the Doctor a symbol for scientific ‘check-out’. A problem among scientists of the day. The hand-written note from BBC’s Head of Drama, Sydney Newman however, indicates that he hated that idea, as it would make the character “a kind of father figure - I don't want him to be a reactionary.”

The collection contains five other documents as well, including the first audience feedback from the pilot episode, which was particularly polarized, more so than one might even expect.

Also part of the collection are a couple series of photographs, depicting the stars and creators of the first season of Doctor Who. Included is this great set-photo of the original cast of four character – The Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, and two of Susan’s high school teachers – as they take the TARDIS’s first onscreen time-journey back to prehistoric Earth, where they, of course, make immediate enemies of the savage natives.

You can see the rest of the photos here.

The ramp-up to Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary celebration is only just beginning. The special anniversary episode, the details of which are still under wraps, doesn’t even begin filming until April 2013, and won't air until after the end of the current season of the show, but expect lots more tie-in stuff to be announced over the next few months – like these 50th anniversary postage stamps, for example.