Saturday, April 17, 2010

Everything You Never Really Wanted to Know About "Doctor Who" (so you didn't ask)

Doctor Who?

I, like a lot of people, had my first exposure to Doctor Who through my local PBS station back in the 1980's. Well, that isn't quite true -- I discovered a couple of years ago that my first exposure was actually through a local TV station near my uncle's place back in the early 1980's.

We used to spend a week or so with him every summer and one day we were 'rained out'. He lived near a lake and most days we spent most of the day either swimming in the lake or going out on his boat. One day a serious of thunderstorms rolled through keeping us penned up for the day. I had the TV on in the background -- waiting for the afternoon cartoons to come on. As there was nothing else on I stumbled onto this strange science fiction program. There was a man dressed in funny clothes and an elegant lady dressed in white and a robot dog and some kind of strange, crystal... It would not be until a few years ago that I learned what I had actually been watching was the last half of "The Armageddon Factor". I was intruged by the show but could not figure out what was going on (mostly because I had missed the first five epsiodes of "The Armageddon Factor").

But all that is neither here nor there. Where I first got a sense of what Doctor Who WAS was via PBS when I was a bit older. Unfortunately, my PBS station, like a lot of them, liked to show the entire stories run together late at night on a Saturday. When I was younger I wasn't allowed to stay up very late even on a Saturday, so it was seldom I got to see a whole story.

And then, as an adult, I found it again. Even more to the point, thanks to DVD popularity and illegal uploads on YouTube, I was able to see some of the show from the very beginning -- and I found it in many ways ahead of it's time. And this is all down to the unique vision and sometimes even courage of Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman...

In 1963, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) was looking for a "children's drama" to run during the afternoon 'tea time' slot. Then Head of Drama at the BBC, Sydney Newman proposed the initial idea for the show along with writer C.E. Webber and Head of Scripts Donald Wilson -- That a teenager and her two teachers would run across a mad old man and discover that he was named "Doctor Who" and was in possession of an invisible time machine.

By the time it reached production it had changed considerably and the producer hired to oversee the show -- Verity Lambert -- would change it further. Lambert was, at the time, the youngest producer at the BBC and one of the few women in the producer's chair. Between Lambert, Newman and some of the first script writers, the series began with a familiar format...

The teenage girl in the original idea was transformed into the Doctor's granddaughter, Susan. The two teachers remained but the "mad old man" called Doctor Who was changed into the irrascible character known only as "The Doctor". The 'invisible time machine' was changed to something that could travel through time and SPACE and was also given a visible format. Lambert wanted something that the actors could be filmed walking into and then wanted an exterior that would be something "ordinary" in order to contrast with the extraordinary interior. In 1963 the British Police Call Boxes could still be seen on many street corners -- these were bright blue painted sheds with a telephone where police officers in need of backup or public in need of police help could call in. There was also a small space inside where an officer could leave a criminal cuffed until a patrol car could come and take them to a precinct for formal charges and booking. The script had called for the exterior of the ship to change every time they landed in a new location to disguise itself among the local scenery but this had to be jettisoned early on when it became apparent that the budget would not cover the creation of a whole new exterior piece for each story.

The show was meant to be "educational" -- teaching children something about history or science in each story. And it should be mentioned that at this time the BBC traded mostly in what was called "Serials". Just like the old, American movie serials, each Doctor Who story consisted of several half-hour installments. Each story could as few a two parts or as large as twelve parts (although it should be said that this only happened once). The bulk of the stories, though, had either four or six parts to them.

The stories initially round-robined with one story traveling back in time for a history lesson and the next story traveling into the future for a science lesson. From the start, though, Newman made it clear to Lambert that he did not want the futuristic stories to have weird, alien creatures in them. He feared that this would lead to the show being seen as a joke and he referred to aliens, rather derogitorily, as "Bug Eyed Monsters".

With the show basically outlined, all that was left was the casting. Lambert picked character actor William Hartnell for the initally cantankerous Doctor. Hartnell was only 55 at the time but saw the program as a way of breaking out of his usual roles of military sargeants, policemen, and thugs. Unfortunately, he was already suffering from arterialsclerosis and this left him with, at times, a faulty memory.

Carole Ann Ford, 23 at the time, was cast as the Doctor's granddaughter, Susan. Ford was initially intrigued by the role -- particularly when she was told that Susan would be "mysterious" and would also be allowed to have weird, mental powers such as telepathy. To her dismay, she found that none of this materialized and her role increasinly became to scream and play damsel in distress (DiD for short around this blog)and she left after only a season and a half.

William Russell, 39 then, was signed on to play science teacher Ian Chesterton. Russell had recently been seen on British TV playing Sir Lancelot in a TV show by the same name. Realizing that the show would need at least a little action, and that Hartnell would not be up for physical fight scenes, Russell's Ian Chesterton was to serve as 'ordinary person' to be a stand-in for the audience, to be a relatable figure to children (after all, what kid doesn't have a science teacher of some stripe?), to be a plot device so the Doctor could explain things, and of course to be the action hero. Russell would leave the role after two years feeling as if he was growing stale.

Jacqueline Hill, 34, moved in similar social circles as Verity Lambert and, after discussing the new program with Lambert at a party, Hill was asked to audition. An accomplished stage actress, HIll agreed to take on the role of History teacher Barbara Wright. The character would, like with that of Chesterton, be one of the show's 'relatable' characters and exposition devices. She choose to leave at the same time as William Russell and took a break from acting in order to start and raise a family.

Once the cast was in place it was on with the show!

Initially, it was decided to keep the Doctor mostly mysterious. Although now everyone knows him to be alien, at the time that was not made clear. It was never asserted whether he and Susan were alien or human from a distant time period. In the first stories, though, he is a rather angry and even threatening character. He literally kidnaps Ian and Barbara in order to stop them from telling anyone of his ship -- the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space -- meaning it's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside) and continues to denegrate their intelligence, insult them, and then attempts to kill a caveman in order to effect their escape. Fearing that their main character could end up scaring kids instead of entertaining them, Lambert ordered the third serial in the series to begin softening the Doctor's character. From there he would become the more well-known figure of the dottering, eccentric, whimsical but also crusading old man.

The other big change actually came in the show's second story. Lambert knew Newman's wishes about 'no bug-eyed monsters' but she felt very strongly about Terry Nation's script for the second story in the series. Nation, as many writers before and after him, used science fiction to deal with the issue of war in general and teach a bit of a moral lesson and allegory about WW II to a generation of kids who had never been touched by the fight. Thus, the Daleks were born. Thinly veiled stand-ins for the Nazi's, the Daleks were creatures hiding inside battle exoskeletons.

Despite the "bug eyed monster" element Lambert gave the go-ahead for the story, willing to take the heat from Newman... and he did call her on the carpet intially. When the ratings numbers for the story came in, though, Newman wrote Lambert an apologetic letter saying: "Do what you think best because obviously I don't know what I'm talking about." The Daleks were a hit and they would remain a hit up to the present day. There has not been a single incarnation of the Doctor who has not had at least one Dalek story (save the Eighth Doctor... sort of. More on that later).

Once the Daleks were out of the way the floodgates were opened to new and wild alien allies and enemies. Along the way, the purported science and history content -- always thin to begin with -- fell by the wayside but the show continued to deliver moral lessons both obvious and unobvious and put its characters into some suprisingly adult situations. In one story, Barbara, being chased by a local warlord, finds shelter with a poor merchant most of whose family had been slaughtered by said warlord's men. Living only for revenge and his last surviving daughter at one point the man puts Barbara and his daughter into hiding and gives Barbara a knife and asks her to kill his daughter if they are found by the warlord's men -- rather than have her suffer indignities at their hands. In another story Barbara is nearly raped by a fur trapper.

Over time, as well, the historical stories would become fewer and fewer in favor of more sci-fi stories. The sci-fi stories were found to garner better ratings. The historicals would not die out completely until after Hartnell left the role but they added in what would come to be called the "psuedo historical" -- a story set in an historical time period but with sci-fi elements.

The show also proved it's flexibility when Carole Ann Ford left. The writers worried if the show could survive the loss of one of the original cast members but they wrote in a replacement and soon breathed a sigh of relief as they saw the audience accept Vicki as a replacement for Susan. This would effectively set precedent for the regular changing of companions. Vicki (played by Maureen O'Brien) replaced Carole Ann Ford, Steven Taylor (played by Peter Purves) replaced Ian and Barbara, Dorthea "Dodo" Chaplet (played by Jackie Lane) replaced Vicki (sort of. Not getting into it, it's Trivial Pursuit stuff), When Purves left the show Lane was rather uncermoniously forced out behind him as the production team at that time didn't think her character was working out. Starting with a clean slate, the production team added Ben Jackson (played by Michael Craze) and Polly (played by Anneke Wills).

So the series proved it could withstand multiple changes of the guard... but could it withstand the ultimate change -- that of the Doctor himself? By 1966 Hartnell's health was deteriorating. He was often ill and his scenes had to be filmed around these illnesses and his memory problems were growing worse -- with him more often flubbing lines or forgetting chunks of dialogue. On top of all of that, Lambert and her production team had left the series by this time and the new production team and Hartnell did not get along well. It was agreed upon that Hartnell would leave the series. But Doctor Who was still going strong, still popular with the audience. Cancelling the show was out of the question but how did you replace the lead actor? And more to the point, who did you replace him with?......

To be answered in our next installment!

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