Frivolous Monsters

A Surprising History

With a week to go, until the global simul-cast of the anniversary special on TV and at the cinema, here’s the surprising fifty year history of Doctor Who, in under 500 words.DW1

In 1925 a Scottish man invented the television.

In 1936 another Scottish man started a regular service of TV programming at the BBC.

In 1963 a TV science-fiction programme was commissioned by a Canadian man which the BBC had so much faith in that they gave it to a young twenty-something woman to produce and a young twenty-something Indian man to direct. The Canadian man was so concerned that the programme should be educational that he declared it should have no “bug-eyed monsters”.

The programme was to be about an alien who travelled through time in a large bubble, which had a door in it, although as the budget couldn’t afford this the first likely thing that came to hand from the props department – a Police telephone box – was used instead.

A theme tune was composed on paper by an Australian man and given to a young twenty-something woman to realise. As she was interested in electronic music, many years ahead of her time, she went and created one of the first television themes to be produced entirely by electronic means.

One of the young twenty-something woman’s main tools to effect this was the very long corridor in her building where, after everyone else had gone home, she used to physically line up all the different tapes unfurled from one end to the other.

When the Australian man heard the finished result he was so amazed that he exclaimed: “Did I really write this?” It’s credited as being one of the most recognisable theme tunes of all time.

The programme was contracted to run for just 13 weeks although it got off to a bad start when the opening episode was delayed, as a result of breaking news, because it just happened to coincide with the assassination of President Kennedy.

It took getting sacked by Tony Hancock for a Welshman with no interest in writing for children to come crawling back to see if the job he’d turned down on this new programme was still on offer and, after an adventure with Prehistoric cavemen, via Shoreditch, written by another Australian, it was the Welshman who got to write the second story where, despite everything, he went and introduced the most famous bug-eyed monsters of all time.

As the Welshman had had the foresight to hold onto the rights of these “bug-eyed monsters” they went on to make him his fortune.

The Welshman, his bug-eyed monsters, and his mansion.

The Welshman, his bug-eyed monsters, and his mansion.

The Canadian man was so apoplectic with what he saw appearing on his TV that he called the young twenty-something woman producer into his office to shout at, the way management likes to do, although this was only up until he saw the ratings and that Dalekmania had begun.

The Canadian man then told the young twenty-something woman that it was clear that she obviously knew what she was doing and that she should probably just get on with it.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Although they did manage to crowbar an English man somewhere into all of this when they cast William Hartnell in the lead role. Originally apathetic he came to love the role and after three years it was only ill health that forced him to stand down. He said: “I think that if I live to be ninety, a little of the magic of Doctor Who will still cling to me”. He died aged 67, but if he were still alive today he’d be over a hundred, and surely not even he could have begun to imagine how true a sentiment that would be. DW2

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27 thoughts on “A Surprising History

  1. Fascinating! I’ve watched it for longer than I care to remember. Last night, BBC3 had the first of 3 nights of a countdown of the top 10 Dr. Who Monsters and Villains, voted for by the Great British Public. Did you see it? Inititally, when my daughter told me, we were both a bit reluctant as each monster or villain voted for would be profiled briefly and then an episode featuring them would be shown. Needless to say, starting with the thingies beginning with ‘J’ that look like rhinos, through the Silerians, the poor old Oods and finishing with the Clockwork Droids, we watched all the episodes awash with nostalgia for Rose and David Tennant (but not for Rory who got on my nerves big time). Surely, by the time we get to Sunday and the top 3, it must be a foregone conclusion for the Daleks (or Cybermen) but which episodes will they choose to show? My husband retreated to the other room and will probably do the same for the next two evenings.

    • I have seen bits of that, but not caught it all. And you say Daleks/Cybermen will be at the top, but then there’s The Master and the Weeping Angels.

      If the above tale was of any interest to you then are you aware that they’ve made a bio-pic / docu-drama about how it all began. They’ve recreated a lot of the sixties scenes which include the Daleks in Westminster! It’s on Thursday on BBC 2.

      On right after that you can show your daughter how it all began as they’re screening the very first story on BBC 4. To be honest the first episode is really good, and can be watched as a stand-alone, the next three perhaps not so riveting. I did mention above: Prehistoric cavemen, via Shoreditch.

      I say all this, but how are you getting the TV in France? You must be doing something clever.

      • I can’t believe it – the Cybermen came in only 5th – behind The Silence. Top 3 tonight and the Weeping Angels has got to be up there with the Daleks.

        I’m glad they will be showing some oldies because, in this ‘top 10′ programme they haven’t gone any further back than David Tennant so far and some of the monsters were scarier in earlier episodes. Must see the ‘Daleks in Westminster’. When I was small – back in the mists of time – I was absolutely terrified of the Daleks and, as an imaginative child, had terrible nightmares in which I was only saved by the fact that we lived on the first floor of a maisonette and they wouldn’t be able to get up the stairs. This was before they could fly!

        Well, we can get the ‘free to air’ stations anyway but there is a slightly ‘tricksy’ way to get it all which I’d better not go into – although we are paying for it. Needs must as French T.V. is complete pants.

  2. Great summing up.
    Looking forward to the ‘biopic’ on Thursday, ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’.
    And then,of course, is the biggie.

    • I see that you’re already on board and that I don’t have to sell anything to you! Also after the docu-drama / bio-pic they’re showing the first story in full on BBC 4. They say it’s in some new “format” never shown before, although I’ve not seen them elaborate on this yet. I was hoping they’d colourised it, as some fans specialise in this, colouring it in frame by frame, but I guess we’ll see.

      There was some doubt about this screening as some legal reason got in the way. I think it’s sorted. The son of the writer has been in the news as he’s said to be suing the BBC. He claims he owns the copyright to the TARDIS, or the name TARDIS, or the Police Box. It’s very unclear, but his ranting is all over the internet and it’s clear he’s a very sad individual. And not very coherent.

      • An Unearthly Child-saw this many times, of ourselves in black and white. Yes, the whole thing was sold to me way back by Mr Tom Baker, still my nostalgia-tinged favourite.
        And that guy-it has taken him long enough to decide he has a claim to the Tardis. But then again, with time travel…..

  3. I have a vague interest in Dr Who, but this potted history is really interesting. Who’d have thought the BBC would have been so forward thinking and open minded?

    • Yes that is what has always struck me, how we’re led to believe that such institutions were all male, all white, and all English, yet the history of such a programme when you scrape away at it is anything but. I kept adding bits to this when I realised more and more added to the theme of being anti to the above perceived notion.

      That story is being shown on Thursday in a bio-pic / docu-drama on BBC 2, and was the last programme filmed at the BBC Centre before it was shamefully sold off, although I think it focussed on the notion that no-one is irreplaceable. Even though you can understand William Hartnell’s point of view as he was the title character.

  4. Very nice, succinct summary. Are you off to the cinema on the 23rd?

    • You know I’ve not seen a film at the cinema in years and if there’s one thing I hate it’s people talking through proper TV programmes, and if it’s another thing I hate it’s 3D which I think is a fad and so I’ve never seen a 3D film… Yet despite all of that: yes, I’ve got my ticket, and my seat booked, and I’m looking forward to it!

      I thought it an extravagance, considering it’s on TV at the same time for free, but yet I’m going for the live joint experience. I didn’t know if I was going to be with an audience of kids or whether I’d be sat alone in the cinema. As it turns out… I bought my ticket 6 hours after they went on sale to find the screen two-thirds sold out. Since then the cinema has sold it out and nearly a second screen too. They’ve even put on an “encore” performance tow hours later. That’s just made me more excited to know people are getting so engaged. This is a cinema in a town, not one in Manchester!

      I am obliged to point out, in case you’re not in the know, that this story above (from a different angle, but should include some of that) is being told in a docu-drama, or a bio-pic, this Thursday on BBC 2. It was premiered at the BFI this week and had William Hartnell’s family in tears and the programme received a 5 minute standing ovation!

      • Yes, it’s amazing how into it people are. Won’t be able to get to the Odeon that night, but hope it’s good, FM!

        I’m really looking forward to the docu-drama too – from the production stills I’ve seen it looks as if they’ve kept the look of it quite faithful to the original, including the cast.

    • Yes, it looks great. The trailer for it is here, although I had to fiddle a lot to get it in the comment above:

  5. So many nationalities.

    • Yes and for one thought of as of the quintessentially British programme too. It’s fitting that on Saturday it’s being screened simultaneously around the world (barring New Zealand where the censors demand a ten minute delay, I think) in over 75 countries.

      And also in many cinemas across the land in glorious (?) 3D. This was actually the last BBC programme to be filmed in 3D as they’ve since come around to my way of thinking that 3D TV is a fad that’s not worked.

  6. Go Scotland. Go Wales. Go Canada. Go Australia. And go all the twenty something women.
    And great post! Really enjoyed reading it. Looking forward to seeing the docudrama – and it’s amazing how much David Bradley looks like William Hartnell. It’s all in the acting don’t you think and I’m really with you on the 3D issue.

    Oh yes, nearly forgot and go Peter Capaldi (another Scotsman).

    • I know it was quite intriguing to tease all that out. I started off with a much shorter blog post and kept finding more none-English “none-men” to add to the list. I was surprised, but as I’ve said in the comments above I’ve always been intrigued how in 1963 it was produced by a young woman and directed by a young Indian man, as that’s not how I imagined the world worked then.

      Both of those twenty-something women went on to be pioneers in their own field. Verity Lambert in TV and Delia Derbyshire with electronic music. The latter was never credited (publicly) for creating the theme tune, at the time, but that’s all come out in the wash these days. All the modern electronic musicians cite her as their inspiration and they’re still digitising the stuff she left in boxes of which some, even though they’re decades old, sound like modern dance music.

      And yes I am impressed with the look of David Bradley. Can’t wait to see that programme. At the premier at the British Film Institute it got a standing ovation!

      And interestingly the Doctor is now officially one quarter Scottish, now there’s three of them! He’s also (at least) a quarter northern (one sixth Scouse) as I’m not sure where you’d pin Matt Smith, seeing he went to school in Northampton (I know someone who went to the same school), but his family is from up north, somewhere around here, I forget where.

  7. Thanks for your very interesting history. I never knew that Verity Lambert, who was so influential in Granada TV was the producer of Dr Who and I didn’t realise that Dr who was not only international but internationally known.

    When I was 13, I had an evening paper round, but one Saturday I was ill and watched the first episode of Dr Who. After that, on Saturdays I would rush around in the dark misty evenings, so I could get home before I could hear the theme tune coming from the houses. I knew if I heard the theme I had missed it forever. … catch up TV then!

    William Hartnell will always be THE Dr who for me. I always watched it, even in my late teens I have memories of getting ready for Saturday nights out when Dr Who was on. Curlers in hair and sitting putting on makeup.

    I had a conversation with my son recently, who had watched some episodes with HIS 8 year old son. He remembered one particular episode that had traumatised him as a child, when Dr Who’s sidekick was unexpectedly blown up and my sons memory was of a star hurtling through space representing the sidekick. Which really upset him. When he checked the date my son discovered he had only been about four when this episode was aired and he said ” what were you doing letting me watch Dr Who at four?” . He said he would not let HIS children watch some of the recent episodes, they were too frightening for a five year old.

    When he watched the episode now, he discovered that the star was just a paper one on a black background. Such was the power of a four year old imagination.

    In mitigation I said that I just always watched it and probably thought it was quite benign so Dr Who was not on the TV for him to watch but just on the TV, for ME.

    Yes I too will be watching it.

    Love Denise

    • Yes Verity Lambert was there from the start. She made the show, the show made her, I guess. In the docu-drama she’s played by the ‘Call the Midwife’ woman, if that means something to you.

      My Dad watched the first ever episode too. You can relive it as it’s on Thursday night on BBC 4! They’re showing all 4 episodes, but the opening one is the one that’s worth watching.

      I have just been out seeing the director of the first episode, Waris Hussein, or the Indian man as referred to above, and he’s seen the docu-drama and says that David Bradley is so good as William Hartnell that he deserves to win awards for the performance.

      And watching Doctor Who as a child is the making of you. It gives you imagination. Although I can’t figure which episode you’re referring to. Very few people have been killed off in it. I’m guessing you could mean Adric in 1982, and I was watching that, although the thing that stuck with me were the unusual haunting silent credits!

  8. Strangely enough, I have never seen this show. Though I keep hearing about it, and I do like time travel…

    • It’s the longest-running science fiction series in the World! It started even before Star Trek, and it’s still running. The anniversary special on the 23rd November is being screened around the world, at the same time, in over 75 countries, and in many cinemas in live 3D.

      It’s definitely being shown in Canada, but I don’t know how the TV works there, with who has general access to what, as I still haven’t got my head around how American TV works. But if you get a chance then check it out!

  9. That is a surprising history. Nice to know some Aussies can lay claim to being there at the beginning.

    For a while now one of the channels here has been playing an episode of Doctor Who at 7.30 each night. The kids and I race through dinner and they fling on their pj’s so we can huddle up on the couch to watch it together. It is the best part of our day! (Number 2 son sleeps with a sonic screwdriver under his pillow).

    Now we are devastated to find that after the 50 years special it won’t be on anymore. I’m sure it will be played in some other time slot in the future but when it stops next week it will be the end of our happy tradition. I think that maybe the DVDs should make an appearance under the Xmas tree to help us get through.

    For mine I’m going to say that the weeping angels might be the worst villain. Jokingly I suggested to the kids that we get a statue of one for the garden and face it at the annoying neighbours, I was met with a flat “No”. The thought of having even a pretend one out there was just too much for them. If I had said Dalek they would have jumped at the chance.

    • The Australian composer Ron Grainer took all the credit for many years as he got name-checked in every credits. He was so impressed with Delia Derbyshire’s work in realising his score that he asked for her to be given a co-credit, but as she was part of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop it just wasn’t the done thing then.

      Despite Delia Derbyshire living in the shadows, and dieing a good while ago, there was recently a children’s TV programme made all about her. I think that’s amazing. She is definitely being rediscovered.

      As for the other Australian, the guy who wrote the first four episodes, he’s not a good topic of conversation at the moment. His son is making a lot of noise about copyrights to Doctor Who that he inherited from his father, and he now wants his fortune from the BBC, or else! I think that’s his gist. He seems a poor soul and rants a lot on the internet, seems to talk to his dead dad, who he seems to hate, and also advocates the blowing up of Synagogues and the Vatican. Can we send him back to you please?

      And I hope you mean no more Doctor Who until the new series. These repeats do need a rest! You’ll have to track down the newly discovered Enemy of the World as, for one, it’s set in Australia and has Bill Kerr in it. I’m waiting for the DVD to be released.

      I hope you’ll all be up early on the 23rd! I was at a film screening with someone from ABC Television last night and I think he said there was a reasonably-timed early morning showing for you.

  10. No, please don’t send him back, there are enough troubled souls about as there is, we don’t want to add to it! It’s sad how people can become fixated on things that don’t really make them happy, the internet just gives them public voice and something to feed their obsession on.

    I hope I mean no more Doctor Who until the next series too! Australian tv is renowned for its badly arranged programming, dumping something mid-series without notice and then picking it back up without warning, or changing timeslots so you eventually find yourself watching in the middle of the night… Grrrrr…
    Auntie isn’t too bad (the ABC is not a privately owned channel) so we can hope they put it back on at this perfect time so the kids don’t miss out.

    I’m not going to complain about repeats, they can keep playing whatever they like if it means we can keep up our evenings on the couch! The kids haven’t watched it before as they were too young or it was on too late, they are only recent fans.

    The big show is on the 24th here, as we are already in your tomorrow, and will be playing at the almost reasonable time of 6.50 am. We will be in our pjs with our breakfasts on the couch and very very happy! It is amazing to think of the fans all over the planet watching at the same time in all their different circumstances.

    • It’s great to hear people’s kids are into Doctor Who now. I was an odd child in that I carried the torch, whereas the apathetic who I went to school with now watch it with their kids!

      It’s great you’re all getting up early. I vividly remember the 20th anniversary special when I was 7 which started off in black and white with William Hartnell (which was really just a poignant clip) but to me it was event TV. Well if that was event TV, I don’t know what this is coming up! Over 75 countries watching simultaneously! I think it will be some massive record for a simulcast drama, although I hear your close neighbours in NZ are having a 10 minute delay to please the censors. Hopefully this, in pjs, will be one of the memories your kids cherish!

      I hope you get the Docu-drama ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ too which even if you don’t know the episodes it recreates, in telling the tale of William Hartnell, it is going to be something special. And I need to point out that one of my regular bloggers has just bumped into the Doctor himself. You may know him from Harry Potter, perhaps, if nothing else. Although he was in the dinosaur DW episode too.

      • It is great that Doctor Who still appeals to kids, just shows the universal appeal of the idea behind it. The boys were so sad when David Tennant left (so was I, but for different reasons!) but they have come to love Matt Smith. I’m not sure how they will go with the new Doctor though….

        I hope that these days of loving Doctor Who are a fond memory for the boys when they grow up, I still remember Saturday nights as a little girl watching scfi with my dad. Hmmm…. I guess if I serve the kids fish fingers and custard for breakfast while we watch it will be indelibly seared onto their brains!

        The Day of the Doctor is being replayed the same evening and An adventure in space and time is playing immediately after it. Annoyingly, the boys should be in bed then! I’m torn between being the good mum who sends them to bed at a decent time on a school night, or letting them crawl bleary-eyed into school on the Monday morning after watching it.

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