The show was and remains a significant part of British popular culture, and was widely recognized for its creative storytelling, use of innovative music and special effects which were produced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The show has also gone on to be a cult television favourite.
In the series, "The Doctor" is a Time Lord, a race from the planet Gallifrey and is not subject to the normal constraints of mortal life. His first incarnation was played by the irascible William Hartnell, later to be followed by seven more, with perhaps the most enduring incarnation being the fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker (pictured).
The programme ran for 26 seasons on the BBC from November 23, 1963 until December 6, 1989; it was the longest-running television science fiction series. It was created at the suggestion of Sydney Newman after lengthy brainstorming sessions that included such people as Head of Serials Donald Wilson, Alice Frick (whose suggestion it was to make the show about time travel), C. E. 'Bunny' Webber, and David Whitaker.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the BBC erased or incinerated a lot of material which it thought of no further commercial use. This happened because of copyright restrictions on some pieces of material, allowing them to be broadcast a limited number of times or to be sold on within a certain period of time. Some pieces of film (such as coronation of Queen Elizabeth II) were seen to be of national importance and preserved after this deadline. Other pieces of film were not so fortunate - when it became unfeasible to store this "redundant" material, it was disposed of. Doctor Who fell into the latter category ; 108 episodes of the television series from the Hartnell and Troughton eras do not exist in the BBC's archives, despite their attempts to recover it.
Some success has been reported - a number of countries (notably Australia and Canada) bought rights to the series for broadcast abroad. Some episodes have been returned to the BBC from the archives of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Other episodes have been returned by fans of the programme who had made expensive recordings off air at the time. Still other episodes are rumoured to have been returned by ex-employees of the BBC who did not wish to see a part of their childhood destroyed ; instead of incinerating/destroying the tapes, they had hidden them at home.
The Doctor travels in a fictional vehicle called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) which enables him to travel to any point in time and space, anywhere in the universe. For the most part, he explores the universe at random (usually because the vessel's navigation system is old and unreliable), using his extensive knowledge of science and advanced technology to heroically avert crises on various worlds. The weekly episodes would form part of a contained story or "serial", of between 1 and 8 episodes, but usually 6 in earlier years and 3-4 in later years. Three notable exceptions were The Trial of a Time Lord, which ran for 14 episodes and took up the whole of Season 23; the epic The Daleks' Master Plan, which made it to 12 episodes (plus a 1 episode Doctor-less teaser entitled Mission to the Unknown); and the 10-episode serial The War Games. The Doctor has, at various times, been accompanied by between 1 and 3 companions: people who choose to travel with him for a period of time for a variety of reasons.
The programme was initially devised to be partly educational for family viewing on the early Saturday evening schedule. A proportion of episodes would see the characters travel to important periods in human history, such as the French Revolution, the Roman Empire and the Battle of Culloden Moor. These so-called "historical" stories were dropped after the first few years in favour of the more popular science-fiction stories. The series would not return to a purely historical story until the 1982 serial Black Orchid, which was set in 1920s Britain.
The expanding backstory and the Doctor's name
Most of the show's mythology and backplot was developed gradually by later writers. Early on, nothing is known of the Doctor at all, not even his name: in early episodes he is referred to as "Grandfather" by the character of Susan. In the very first story, 100,000 BC, two teachers from the Coal Hill School in London, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, become intrigued by one of their students, Susan Foreman, who exhibits high intelligence and advanced knowledge. Trailing her to her address, a junkyard at 76 Totter's Lane, they see her enter what appears to be a police box. Following her in, the two discover the police box's unusual properties, and encounter an old man calling himself the Doctor, who subsequently whisks them away for an adventure in time and space.
In the episode, Barbara addresses the Doctor as "Doctor Foreman", the junkyard in which they have found him having the name "Foreman" outside. The Time Lord responds "Doctor who?" Although credited as "Doctor Who" on screen, the Doctor is never really referred to as such, except in such a tongue-in-cheek manner. The only exception has been a computer in the serial, The War Machines, which commanded that "Doctor Who is required."
In The Highlanders he adopts the alias "Doctor von Wer" (a German approximation of "Doctor Who"), and signs himself as "Dr. W" in The Underground Menace. When pressed, he sometimes gives the name "Dr John Smith". On occasion he is referred to as "Theta Sigma", apparently a University nickname. He has also been mocked by his own people for adhering to such a "lowly" title as "Doctor".
In many spin-off comic strips, books, films and other media, the character is often called "Doctor Who" (or just "Dr. Who") as a matter of course, though this has declined in more recent years. From the first story through to Logopolis (the last story of the 18th season and also of the Tom Baker era), the lead character was listed as "Doctor Who". Starting from Peter Davison's first story, Castrovalva (the first story of the series' 19th season), the lead character is credited simply as "The Doctor".
As in many cases where a fictional universe was not planned in advance, the gradual and sometimes haphazard development of the backstory has lead to occasional continuity problems. Characters such as the Meddling Monk were retroactively classified as Time Lords, early histories of races such as the Daleks were rewritten, and so on. While some fans regard this as a problem, others regard it as a source of interest or humor (as in the book The Discontinuity Guide). Much fan speculation has centered on exactly which aspects of the television series, books, radio dramatisations, and other sources will be considered canon in the new series to be broadcast in 2005.
In many of the series stories, The Doctor has also saved the Earth (and a number of other planets) from such notable adversaries as the Autons, the Cybermen, the Sontarans and the Silurians. However, the factor which probably most ensured that the series captured the public's attention was the introduction of the Daleks in the second storyline: a lethal race of metal-armoured mutants, whose chief role in the great scheme of things would appear to be, as they frequently observe in their instantly-recognisable metallic voices, to "Exterminate!". They were created by writer Terry Nation (who would later write for 1960s telefantasy like The Avengers and would later create the 1970s science fiction programmes Survivors and Blake's 7) and designer Raymond Cusick. The Daleks' debut in the series' second story The Daleks caused a tremendous reaction in the viewership ratings, and put Doctor Who on the map, even though Sydney Newman had hoped for the historical stories to entice the viewers and not "bug-eyed monsters." Monsters became a staple of the series from that point, and the Daleks have been the most popular of them, so popular that they appeared on a postage stamp celebrating British popular culture in 1999.
There was some controversy over the show being suitable for viewing by children. Moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse made a series of complaints to the BBC in the 1970s over its sometimes gory or scary content. However her actions gave the programme a certain reputation which made it even more popular, particularly with children. John Nathan-Turner was heard to say that he looked forward to Mrs. Whitehouse's comments, as the show's ratings would increase soon after!
Also during the 1970s, the Radio Times (a British television guide) announced that a child's mother said the theme song terrified her son. Radio Times was apologetic, but her view is not the prevailing one. Indeed, the tune has made its way even to the world of mobile phone ringtunes. It was early on in the first story of Jon Pertwee's second season as the Doctor, Terror of the Autons, that the image of plastic dolls and daffodils killing unsuspecting victims had brought Doctor Who to the woodshed in terms of frightening children.
Watching Doctor Who from a position of safety behind the sofa, peering cautiously out to see if the scary bit was over, used to be one of the great shared experiences of British childhood. This gave rise to the phrase "behind the sofa" in popular culture. However others contend this was a myth, pointing out that the traditional positioning of a sofa did not allow for this. Regardless, the series has traumatised many a young child.
There is a reference to the show (that is, as a work of fiction) in the show itself. In the serial Remembrance of the Daleks, set in 1963, a television shows a BBC Television caption of the period with a continuity announcer saying "This is BBC television, the time is quarter past five and Saturday viewing continues with an adventure in the new science fiction series Doc—", but is cut off by a scene change before completing the title.
Seven actors have played the Doctor on television in the original series:
- 1. William Hartnell (November 23, 1963 - October 29, 1966)
- 2. Patrick Troughton (November 5, 1966 - June 21, 1969)
- 3. Jon Pertwee (January 3, 1970 - June 8, 1974)
- 4. Tom Baker (December 28, 1974 - March 21, 1981)
- 5. Peter Davison (March 21, 1981 - March 16, 1984)
- 6. Colin Baker (March 22, 1984 - December 6, 1986)
- 7. Sylvester McCoy (September 7, 1987 - December 6, 1989)
In the Sixth Doctor The Trial of a Time Lord episodes, a Time Lord who went by the title of the Valeyard (played by Michael Jayston) was revealed to be a potential Thirteenth Doctor, embodying all of the Doctor's potential evil and malevolence. The Valeyard was defeated in his attempt to actualize himself by stealing the Sixth Doctor's remaining regenerations, however, and so may never actually exist.
On a few occasions, former actors guest-starred in episodes featuring past incarnations of The Doctor:
- Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton with William Hartnell in a minor role in "The Three Doctors"
- Troughton, Pertwee with Davison in "The Five Doctors", a 20th anniversary special, with another actor, Richard Hurndall, standing in for the late William Hartnell. The story began with a clip featuring Hartnell. Tom Baker declined to appear and the narrative was reworked to use clips from Shada, an intended six-episode story from the Tom Baker/Lalla Ward period that was never completed due to industrial action. A dummy of Tom Baker was used in the publicity photographs.
- Patrick Troughton with Colin Baker in "The Two Doctors"
- Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Colin Baker, Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy - with rubber dummy heads standing in for William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton - in "Dimensions in Time", a charity spoof in aid of Children in Need.
The changing of actors is explained within the series by the Time Lords' ability to "regenerate" after suffering mortal injury, illness, or age; the process repairs and rejuvenates all damage, but as a side-effect it reconfigures the Time Lords' physical appearance semi-randomly and also affects their personalities. This explanation was not developed until producers could find a way to replace the elderly, stubborn William Hartnell with a permanent replacement, Patrick Troughton. It was later established that each Time Lord can regenerate 12 times before permanently dying, though as with most such "rules" there were occasionally exceptional cases, such as when a renegade Time Lord at the end of his regeneration cycle possessed the body of another person to continue living (as was offered to the Master by the Time Lords in The Five Doctors).
Another Time Lord was introduced into the series during the Pertwee period, in the form of "The Master", an arch-villain who began to appear regularly until the actor playing the part, Roger Delgado, was killed in a car crash in 1973. In 1976, the character reappeared, this time played by Peter Pratt. In this episode, the Master was heavily disfigured, and on the verge of death due to using up all his regenerations. The Master appeared again in 1981, still disfigured, and now played by Geoffrey Beevers. This time, he absorbed a leader of the planet Traken, and regenerated into a new body. Anthony Ainley played this new Master until the series ended. In the 1996 telefilm, the Master (who has been executed by the Daleks) appears briefly as a CGI effect (an "energy snake" representing his essence) until he can steal the body of a human (Eric Roberts) and steal the Doctor's TARDIS.
The Doctor was played in the film versions (Dr. Who and the Daleks in 1965 and Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD in 1966, both essentially retellings of existing stories on the big screen and with a larger budget) by the actor Peter Cushing. In these films, the character introduces himself as "Dr. Who", and is apparently human.
Doctor Who has appeared on stage, numerous times. Almost all the TV stories have been novelised, and there are also a number of series of original novels - many of these are well-regarded and are considered to fit into the official Doctor Who universe. The pilot episode for a potential spinoff series, K-9 and Company, was aired in 1981, but was not picked up as a regular series.
Doctor Who was largely brought to an end by the actions of then-Director of Programmes for BBC Television, Michael Grade, who has gone on record as saying that he disliked science fiction. Grade pulled the series from its prime Saturday tea-time slot, which it had occupied for 26 years. He has appeared on the television series Room 101 to disparage the programme. The cancellation caused a furore in the British press. Grade contended that Doctor Who had become something of a joke since the release of Star Wars in 1977, which, with its far greater budget for visual effects, underscored Doctor Who's cheaper production values. Ironically, it was Grade who was responsible at the time for the show's budget, and his increasing restriction of that budget led in part to the series' demise. Another factor was the decision to screen the show at the same time as "Coronation Street", a long-running and highly popular British soap drama. Ironically, Grade had been recently inaugurated as the new Director General of the BBC after the announcement of production of a new series of Doctor Who.
In 1996, an attempt was made to revive the series with a telemovie starring Paul McGann as the Doctor. A co-production between the BBC and the American 20th Century Fox Television, it aired on the Fox Network on May 14, 1996, and in the UK on May 27, 1996. The movie was simply titled Doctor Who, but many fans refer to it as Enemy Within (a title suggested by the movie's executive producer, Philip Segal) to distinguish it from the Doctor's many other adventures.
Reaction to the telemovie was and continues to be mixed. Although British fans were understandably excited, and Paul McGann showed promise as the Eighth Doctor, many protested at the revelation that the Doctor was "half-human on his mother's side," as well as to a kiss between the Time Lord and his companion for the movie, Grace Holloway. Reactions were also mixed to the big-budget redesign of the TARDIS set. When American ratings proved lukewarm, the projected series never took off. Paul McGann's Doctor, however, has enjoyed an extended career in the audio plays and novels. The general consensus seems to be that McGann's characterization worked, but the movie as a whole did not.
In 1999 a four episode special called "Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death" was made for Red Nose Day and later released on VHS. This was a parody of the original series. In these episodes the Doctor, played by Rowan Atkinson, meets both the Master, played by Jonathan Pryce, and the Daleks. During the episodes the Doctor is forced to regenerate several times, so he is also played by Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley. The script was written by Steven Moffat.
The Doctor in his fourth incarnation is also frequently impersonated by Jon Culshaw in the Dead Ringers series. Culshaw's "Doctor" has telephoned two of the "real" Doctors – Tom Baker and McCoy – prompting the bemused McCoy to ask the immortal question, "Are you in the pub?". When Culshaw phoned Baker himself and stated that he "was The Doctor", Tom replied, "There must be some mistake...I'm The Doctor..."
Doctor Who in America
The series was originally sold to television stations in the United States in 1975, with Time-Life Television syndicating selected episodes of Jon Pertwee's time as the Doctor. Unfortunately, the series did not do well, despite an interesting write-up some years earlier in TV Guide. Apparently, program directors of the commercial television stations that picked up the Jon Pertwee series did not know that the program was an episodic serial, and so it was constantly being shuffled about in the programming schedules. In 1978, Tom Baker's first four seasons as the Doctor were sold to PBS public broadcasting stations across the United States. This time, though, Time-Life was ready to have the Doctor poised for American consumption, by having stage and screen actor Howard daSilva read prerecorded prologues which would inform the viewer as to what was going on. Orignally mistaken as a British comedy (along the lines of "Doctor in the House", "Good Neighbors", "Benny Hill", and "Monty Python"), PBS program planners took the show at face value, but it soon achieved cult status.
The program became a part of 1980s geek chic, as popular as Star Trek was in the 1970s. Conventions, personal appearances of cast members and production staff as well as the national airing on PBS of the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors two days before the BBC sealed the success of the program in America. In November 1983, on the weekend after the airing of The Five Doctors, all the actors that had played the Doctor who were still living and some of those who played the Doctor's companions over the series' first two decades on television appeared at a standing-room-only event in Chicago, the start of a Thanksgiving Day weekend celebration that continues annually.
National fan organizations sprung up, like the North American Doctor Who Appreciation Society and the Doctor Who Fan Club of America, with the latter planning regional weekend events with an actor headlining the event. Local fan groups also developed, some disbanding when the series ended production, others which are still running. There are two conventions in America devoted to the series: Gallifrey One, which takes place in February and Chicago TARDIS taking place in late November.
The statewide PBS chain New Jersey Network was the most enthusiastic on the series, scheduling pre-1970 serials as well as being the first to broadcast the new season on the program in 1985. NJN staff member Eric Luskin hosted and produced three documentaries on the series, the latter a "behind the scenes" look at the production of the 25th anniversary story Silver Nemesis.
Once the series ceased production in 1989, the number of stations carrying Doctor Who naturally dropped. It wasn't until the mid-1990s that TJ Lubinsky at WXEL in West Palm Beach, Florida resuscitated nationwide interest in the series by broadcasting episodes never before seen and syndicated in America. However, only a small percentage of the 1980s-era tally of PBS stations still carry the program.
Since the end of the television series, "official" (which is to say, BBC-sanctioned) Doctor Who has survived in a number of forms.
Billed as telling "stories too broad and deep for the small screen", Virgin Publishing's line of original novels featuring the Seventh Doctor began in 1991; it was joined in 1994 by a companion series (the Missing Adventures) telling "untold" stories with earlier Doctors, set between episodes of the television series. In the climate of renewed interest in the series that followed the 1996 telemovie, the BBC decided to reclaim Virgin's license when it next came up for renewal and publish its own series of Doctor Who novels; the last two Virgin Doctor Who novels were released in April 1997 (bringing to an end almost 25 years of Doctor Who publishing outside of the BBC), and the first two BBC-published novels were released in June the same year. The BBC currently releases two new novels every two months, one featuring the ongoing adventures of the Eighth Doctor and the other an "untold" story of an earlier Doctor.
As if this writing, the BBC has halved the range from 22 books (One EDA, one PDA per month) to a 12 book line, each release now coming out once every other month. There are no plans to change this schedule following the release of the 2005 series.
Beginning 1999,Big Finish Productions, with the blessing of the BBC, began a range of audio plays on compact disc, with one released every month starring one of the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Doctors. The ongoing Eighth Doctor series is independent of the novel line, with the Doctor doing different things with a different companion (which is played by India Fisher in the role of Charlotte ("Charley") Pollard. Big Finish have also produced a limited-run series of audio plays based around one of the Doctor's companions, Sarah Jane Smith, as well as a limited "Doctor Who Unbound" series that explore possibilities contrary to the established mythos (for instance, "What if the Doctor had never left Gallifrey?"); the "Unbound" series allows well-known actors such as Derek Jacobi and David Warner to play the Doctor (albeit once each). Other Doctor Who-related mini-series include Dalek Empire and Dalek War, with one more on it way, and Gallifrey, with Lalla Ward and Louise Jameson reprising their roles as Romana and Leela.
The comic-strip adventures of the Doctor, which have appeared almost from the beginning of the TV series in the 1960s publication TV Comic, and during the 1970s in the mainly Gerry Anderson related comic Countdown, have continued to be regularly featured in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine since its first issue in 1979 and have outlasted the series that inspired it. The comic strip currently features the Eighth Doctor in a series of adventures independent of the novels and the audios, with yet another different companion. Selected stories were reprinted in North America by Marvel Comics. Those that have worked on the DWM strip have included such notables as writer Alan Moore and artists Dave Gibbons, Mike McMahon and John Ridgeway. Two semi-official spin-off series, "Miranda" from Comeuppance Comics and "Faction Paradox" from Mad Norwegian Press have also appeared, both featuring characters who had debuted in the BBC Novels series.
Telos Publishing produced a series of original Doctor Who novellas, published individually in hardcover; the first, Time and Relative by Kim Newman, was released on November 23, 2001. Although the series was reasonably successful (in spite of the odd publication format, which resulted from the BBC having reserved for its own use the rights to publish Doctor Who story collections and Doctor Who books in paperback), the BBC chose not to renew Telos's license, and the series ended in March 2004.
A series of audio plays have also been webcast on the BBC's web site, beginning with Death Comes to Time in 2001. The first episode had been made for, and then turned down by, BBC Radio 4 and the rest of the episodes were produced specially for the webcast.
Subsequent plays have been made specially for the webcasts by Big Finish: Real Time, with the Sixth Doctor versus the Cybermen and Scream of the Shalka, starring Richard E. Grant as the Ninth Doctor and Derek Jacobi as the Master. As new Doctor Who producer Russell T. Davies has referred to Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, it would seem that Shalka is not part of official continuity.
The hunger for more Doctor Who on television has been partly answered by direct-to-video productions by various companies. The BBC has never authorised any Doctor Who video productions (presumably on the basis that one might as well make a new television series), but production companies have been able to license individual characters and alien races from the show directly from the writers who created them, and feature them in adventures of their own. Companies who have released videos of this kind include Reeltime Pictures (also known for the long-running Myth Makers series of documentaries) and BBV (who have also released a number of Doctor Who-related audio adventures on the same basis). BBV is also known for a number of productions that, while not using any elements from the show itself, tell a similar style of story and feature ex-Doctor Who stars in roles similar to those they played in the series; these include a direct-to-video series starring Colin Baker as "The Stranger", and a series of audio dramas starring Sylvester McCoy as "The Dominie".
On September 26 2003 it was announced that Doctor Who will return to BBC One, written by Russell T. Davies (creator of the original Queer as Folk), to be produced by BBC Wales in 2004 for transmission in 2005. Davies will be chief writer and Executive Producer. Other writers for the first season are Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat, Paul Cornell and Rob Shearman. The Producer will be Phil Collinson and the other Executive Producers will be BBC Controller of Continuing Drama Series Mal Young and BBC Wales Head of Drama Julie Gardner.
The new series is to be comprised of thirteen 45 minute episodes, with the first story named Rose after the Doctor's new companion-to-be Rose Tyler, who is to be played by former pop singer Billie Piper. The Ninth Doctor is to be played by Christopher Eccleston, quashing speculation that the role might go to any one of a number of other possible candidates. Filming of the first season begins in Cardiff in July 2004.
On 2 July 2004, the BBC announced that the Doctor's most famous adversaries, the Daleks, will not be appearing in the new series. This followed the breakdown of negotiations with the estate of Terry Nation, who jointly hold the rights to the characters.
The BBC has confirmed that another Doctor Who movie is in development, as it has been for much of the last ten years. Details on the movie are very sketchy and it is not even known if a script exists.
Other scriptwriters have included
- Douglas Adams
- Terrance Dicks
- Dennis Spooner
- Robert Holmes
- Eric Saward
- Malcolm Hulke
- Christopher H. Bidmead
- Brian Hayles
- cult television
- Lime Grove Studios
- science fiction
- science fiction film
- science fiction television
- list of supporting characters in Doctor Who
- UK topics
- list of Doctor Who serials