Doctor Who – All The Years is a quick examination of what was happening in the world of Doctor Who over all its years of existence. I’m not attempting to create a thorough history–just brief look back at the real-life timeline of my favorite TV show.
(Daily Doctor Who #4)
When it comes to Doctor Who, 1963 is the year it all began. Various circumstances and personalities came together at the BBC that year to develop a new science fiction children’s program. Again, this is not to be a comprehensive history, but certainly key amongst these individuals is head of drama Sidney Newman, head of script department Donald Wilson, producer Verity Lambert, associate producer Mervyn Pinfield, script editor David Whitaker, and staff writers C.E. Webber and writer Anthony Coburn. We can also look to people like composer Ron Grainer, musical arranger Delia Derbyshire, sound designer Brian Hodgson (who created the TARDIS groaning sound), and of course, whoever designed that original TARDIS console!
For a fun fictionalized account of the development of the program, see the 2013 docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, written by Mark Gatiss.
The show debuted on November 23 of that year, airing on Saturdays. This mean that there were only six episodes aired in 1963, but what a set of episodes!
An Unearthly Child is the name of the first episode of the show. It’s also the collective name often given to the first four episodes, but back then, every episode had it’s own title, even when they were all supposed to function as one extended serial. In the case of that first story, the episode actually entitled An Unearthly Child really stands alone, and also head and shoulders above what comes after.
It’s a simple but inventive television play featuring only four characters. School teachers Barbara Wright (history) and Ian Chesterton (science) become concerned about one of their students, Susan Foreman, and follow her home. They discover she seems to live in a scrap yard being looked after her cantankerous grandfather, a mysterious man. Even more strangely, it seems they live inside of a police box that sits in the scrap yard. Thinking that Susan is being held prisoner, Ian and Barbara push their past the belligerent Doctor into the police box, and discover it is larger inside than out, and that it is in reality a disguised time machine. The Doctor and Susan are from another time and another place, and feeling annoyed and threatened by the school teachers, the Doctor refuses to let them go, activating the time machine with them inside it…
And the legend is underway!
The rest of the time traveler’s first story is an inauspicious affair in which they must contend with the internal politics of a bunch of cavemen. It’s a bland sort of adventure in which the most interesting aspect is the four lead characters themselves, brought to life with commitment by William Hartnell (the Doctor), William Russell (Ian), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and Carole Ann Ford (Susan).
It’s in the second serial that things get more interesting.
Still dealing with a semi-antagonistic relationship with the Doctor, Ian and Barbara are frustrated when the Doctor insists that a malfunction means they must explore a foreboding metal city in The Dead Planet. Like An Unearthly Child, this episode focuses almost exclusively on the four leads. It helps us greatly with getting to know them, and it also gives these earlier episodes of the show a sense of wandering exploration that is rarely seen afterwards.
The Dead Planet continues with the travelers inside the city, becoming separated. Barbara finds herself lost in a series of corridors and abruptly closing doors. Finally, she is approached and threatened by…something! All we could see was the bizarre plunger arm, closing in on her in one of the series’ all-time great cliffhangers.
The following episode was The Survivors (airing December 28) and showed us the Daleks properly for the first time, and the show quickly became a sensation. Up until this point, the series’ ratings were respectable…after this, they went a bit stratospheric.
The original era of Doctor Who is one of my favorites in the whole history of the show. I like the First Doctor and Susan, but I love their relationship with Ian and Barbara, and the time the show took getting the characters into their situations. It’s a funny thing to think about now but Ian and Barbara were not thought of at the time as “companions”–that’s an idea that didn’t really come into play until later. At this point, they were simply the co-stars of the show, and part of the group of travelers aboard the TARDIS, along with Susan and the Doctor.
I’ve never been a special fan of the Daleks but they are pretty interesting here, and without them the show would almost certainly not be around today. Writer Terry Nation, director Christopher Barry and designer Raymond Cusick all played a significant role in bringing these iconic villains to life, even against the opposition of the show’s original conceptualizer, Sydney Newman.
The rest of the first season of the show continues into 1964, which will wait for the next installment of Doctor Who – All The Years. Coming…soon?