Last updated 31 May 2021: removed dead links to external sites and updated content.

Travelling through time and space on a low budget

A brief look at

Dr Who

Think of a TV programme, ostensibly aimed at children, where the hero travels through time and space, regenerates every few decades to produce a different version of himself, and where the imaginative storylines involve meeting characters from Earth's history or often bizarre alien civilisations. Now think of a low-budget TV programme which, initially at least, suffered from wobbly props, often lamentable acting, and corner-cutting special effects that occasionally involved having monsters wearing 2000 watt light bulbs on their heads. The truth is that in both cases the programme we are talking about is that old BBC 1 institution, Dr Who.

Dr Who started out in 1962 as a black-and-white Saturday teatime production. The title character was played by veteran actor William Hartnell, accompanied by his "granddaughter" Susan. In the first episode "An Unearthly Child" two teachers, Barbara and Ian, were so fascinated by Susan's apparent advanced knowledge that they followed her home to what appeared to be a police box in a scrapyard, only to be astonished at finding themselves inside a much huger structure. There they met the Doctor, only to be conveyed suddenly to the Stone Age. A long-running (30 years) series had begun.

The universe of Dr Who

The Doctor, as he is known (never as "Dr Who" in the programme itself), is a renegade Time Lord, a group of powerful humanoids (ie normal-looking human actors) who maintain a watchful eye over the universe and in particular the web of time, a vague concept that seems to imply that history must not be reversed. They have the secrets of time travel, among other things. It transpires that the Doctor left them after a disagreement with their ways, having a more probing and restless mind than his peers. His vehicle for space and time travel is the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), a vehicle that can theoretically appear as any object but which in practice always rematerialises as the good old British police box owing to a fault in its circuitry. The TARDIS was likewise "borrowed" from the Time Lords, one reason why the latter were so eager to get hold of the Doctor (see below).

The Doctor's initial adventures in the first few seasons seemed to involve travelling somewhat randomly through time and space with various human companions who knowingly or unwittingly linked up with him, encountering either alien civilisations or historical figures on Earth, and trying to fight for the right and the good. Early on this involved him making some notorious enemies. The Daleks were a race of degenerated mutants who had to live inside mobile and armed life-support systems, hence their robotic appearance. The Cybermen were formerly neighbours of humanity but had gone through a history of replacing their organic parts with synthetic ones and who had thereby eliminated all weakness, including the finer emotions. The Ice Warriors were reptilian aliens from Mars. Later the Doctor would also encounter another persistent offender, the Master, another renegade Time Lord who had chosen to follow a path of evil.

Early on in the series we were introduced to the idea of regeneration, a concept whereby a Time Lord could apparently go through a profound physiological change to prolong his lifespan, although apparently the number of regenerations is finite. Needless to say, this was also a useful device for replacing one actor with another and thereby keeping the series going. William Hartnell "regenerated" after the Doctor's first encounter with the Cybermen in 1964 and became Patrick Troughton, and so on.

It was during Patrick Troughton's reign as the Doctor that the Time Lords finally caught up with their wayward member. He was tried and sentenced to exile on Earth, and also regenerated (thus allowing Troughton to be replaced by Jon Pertwee). Henceforth he was largely at their beck and call, having most of his adventures on Earth except when the Time Lords needed his services. Here he also became associated with UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), a military command of apparently British soldiers whose job was to deal with alien intruders among other things. They were commanded by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart who was to be a stalwart of the show for the seventies. For the rest of the series in the late seventies and eighties my memory is somewhat hazy as to whether the Doctor continued to labour under the burden of the Time Lords' control, but either way the cause of right and justice was certainly to need him for the next few TV years.

The production

The storylines in Dr Who for the most part have always been imaginative and sometimes thought provoking, especially where the idea of trying to change one's destiny (by reliving and therefore changing a period of history) have been involved. Unfortunately the budget wasn't always up to the ambitious ideas, especially in the sixties. Thus we had some rather dodgy-looking aliens or robots that occasionally looked like a sticky-back plastic job from the children's series Blue Peter, and I remember foam being used as a stand-in for both snow (during which it looked like the Ice Warriors were trying to wash the Earth into submission) and deadly fungus. In defence of the teams involved, it must be remembered that these were pre-computer days and that such innovations as the silicon chip or even 24-track recording were still to come. Things got somewhat better in the seventies with the improvement of electronics and possibly the recognition by the BBC that Dr Who had indeed merited a larger wad of cash: at least some of the aliens appeared more lifelike. By the time of Star Wars the corporation was in fact trying to put considerable resources into the effects and this did pay off, although some followers complained that this somehow detracted from the occasionally whimsical nature of the show.

Acting was another matter. The Doctors themselves were normally actors known from either radio, TV or stage and could perform competently enough, but some of their companions and the secondary characters left a bit to be desired. A complaint of the early days was also that female companions also spent most of their time screaming in terror, although this stereotyping was reversed in the seventies with the character of Leila the warrior.

A broad history

William Hartnell, a white-haired old gentleman, was the first Doctor but regenerated in 1964 to make way for Patrick Troughton, a younger man who gave the Doctor the appearance of what somebody described as a "cosmic hobo", complete with dandyish clothing and carrying around a tin whistle which he would occasionally play. After his exile and regeneration the Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee, a dandyish and likeable actor who could occasionally display somewhat extreme emotions. After a showdown with the mutant and intelligent spiders of Metabelis 3 Pertwee was in turn regenerated to make way for perhaps the perennially favourite Doctor of them all, Tom Baker. Baker, who had previously played characters such as Rasputin, brought a mop of curly hair, a long scarf and a rather bulging-eyed but calm appearance to the role, and indeed looked somewhat alien. He had the longest tenure of any of the actors and relates that he did indeed become caught up in the whole ethos of being Dr Who. In 1983 he was in turn replaced by Peter Davison, formerly known for his role in one of the "Vet..." series on TV. This was something of a controversial appointment, as was that of his successor, Colin Davison, whom many felt was too abrasive in the role besides sporting a rather loud overcoat. The last TV Doctor Who was Sylvester McCoy who most thought played the role quite well. His final regeneration occurred not after the BBC dropped the series but during the opening scenes of the most recent Dr Who film, when he became Paul McGann.

While drawing consistently high viewing figures for most of its history, Dr Who appeared to be a long-running favourite for the BBC, but supposed discontent with Peter Davison and Colin Baker led to an apparent downgrading of the show and, in the Sylvester McCoy period, what looked like an attempt to actually destroy it by using whimsical or even ridiculous storylines and introducing well-known celebrity actors to play often bizarre parts. The most notorious examples of this were probably Richard Briers (better known as a comedy actor and star of The Good Life and Ever-Decreasing Circles) playing a Hitler-lookalike janitor, and the comedian Ken Dodd as some sort of bizarre curator. The curtain finally fell at the end of the eighties to a storm of protest. Whether there was more mileage in the series was a subject of debate debate: certainly it had kept a lot of followers (by now approaching middle age) from the early years, but the question was whether it was attracting fresh fans, which after all a TV series must do if it is to remain viable. Nevertheless it seemed a messy end to a well-known TV programme, and the amount of websites and fanzines devoted to it, and its popularity not only in the UK but in North America, seemed to indicate that the BBC had probably been premature. Incidentally, this wasn't the only charge of incompetence to be labelled at poor old "Aunty": the corporation had also managed along the way to lose or destroy many of the vintage episodes of the programme, to howls of rage from devotees. (Some of these missing or mutilated stories are at least available in "photonovel" form on the BBC website).

After years of agitation and a belated realisation by the Beeb that Dr Who could still be a going concern if it drew in the amount of devotees who were buying magazines and the like, the BBC (and perhaps more significantly, well-known Who-hater Michael Grade) bowed to popular pressure and produced a new series of Dr Who. The new Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, was a known actor, having appeared in such productions as Our Friends in the North. More controversial was the choice of Billie Piper to play his chief assistant Rose Tyler, Billie previously having been most famous perhaps for being the ex-wife of a well-known celebrity. In the event the 13-episode series has proved a very pleasant surprise. Although some people have been a bit lukewarm towards Eccleston's "cheeky chappie" Who persona, both he and Piper have proved quite capable in the acting department, as have the other members of the cast (including guests such as Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Callow), while the scripts have been intelligent and joined by an underlying motif, the mysterious "Bad Wolf". Most tellingly, the special effects have finally allowed Dr Who, in a sense, to come of age, allowing the writers' imaginations full rein. As at this point in time (June 2005), Christopher Eccleston has left the show, having regenerated as actor David Tennant. Billie Piper too may be leaving at some point in the second season. The new series has nevertheless been very well received and appears to rehabilitated the programme.

2021 update

Dr Who has now been running for sixteen years. To put it into perspective of “Classic Dr Who”, that would cover the period from first Doctor Who William Hartnell's first episode to over halfway through the tenure of the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker. Since Christopher Eccleston's departure we have consecutively had David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi and now Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, a fair few companions, and in that time also seen the revival of some of the best-known of the Doctor's opponents in the form of the Daleks and Cybermen (multiple times), the Silurians, Ice Warriors and Zygons, to mention but a few. It would probably be fair to say that not all episodes, or storylines, or for that matter incarnations of the Doctor, have been equally popular, but it is probably worth considering that (ironically) Dr Who is culturally a product of its time, whether the Britain of the 1960s or the 21st century.


As might be expected, Dr Who lent itself well to the big-screen and feature-length formats, and three films were made. The first two, in the sixties, both had veteran Hammer horror actor Peter Cushing playing the part of the Doctor. In both films he fought the Daleks, in the first on Skaro (the Dalek home planet) and in the second, much more ambitious affair, in the ruins of London in the 21st century. Perhaps having veteran comic actors and all-rounders Roy Castle and then Bernard Cribbins among his assistants seemed like a good move at the time, but some might find the attempted comic relief rather jarring nowadays. The third film was made in the late nineties and starred Paul McGann as a freshly regenerated Doctor called to deal with his old foe the Master (played by Eric Roberts) in a story that dealt with Millennium fears. It was certainly a solid production but had one or two departures, notably the Doctor actually kissing a woman! (Throughout the long history of Doctor Who the Doctor has always been emotionally uninvolved with any sort of eros).

Good wholesome fare, mostly

Firstly, let's make one thing clear: Dr Who was designed for the most part as entertainment, children's entertainment at that. The storylines for the most part have always involved the Doctor standing up for the cause of Good and Justice. This was usually fairly clear cut in the early days, especially when facing imperialistic alien civilisations such as the Daleks or Cybermen, or power-crazed individuals such as the Master. Although usually never armed and always reluctant to take life, the Doctor usually managed to deal with things in such a way that entire fleets of Daleks, Cybermen or other invaders were destroyed or flung off into space so that peaceable inhabitants of space could go about their business unmolested. Furthermore there was always the possibility of forgiveness and repentance offered, the Doctor appealing to reason to try to defuse a situation (which admittedly rarely worked).

William Hartnell in particular was adamant that children should not be exposed to unpleasant sights, and on one occasion vetoed a scene which would have seen a Dalek's brain spilled out of its armoured casing. By the seventies, however, the series had run into some controversy over just what was acceptable, as a degree of visual graphicness had begun to creep in. There were a number of unpleasant deaths (people being fed into gigantic mincing machines, an alien dying in a burning house), and Mary Whitehouse had begun to complain. Given that this was often teatime viewing, she probably had a point, and I certainly don't think the series gained from being so visually explicit. This trend unfortunately continued through much of the rest of the series, although it wasn't too unacceptable by the standards of the day.

The other criticism that might have been levelled was at the storylines later in the series. This may or may not be a moral judgement depending on your point of view, but as the series became more ambitious it started to suggest certain hypotheses that some viewers might have found disturbing or offensive, or would have at least not wanted their children to hear. Perhaps the most striking example of this was "The Daemons" story, in which the Master turned up as a leader of devil-worshippers in Cornwall while posing as a parish priest. Opposing him was Miss Hawthorne, a white witch, but perhaps even more controversial was the idea in the story that Azal (the Satan-like figure in the story) was really an alien, that black magic was "psionic science", and that Azal had somehow helped in the creation of mankind! The Master, of course, wants Azal's powers for himself even as he pretends to worship him. Apart from the theological veracity of the story, I remember this being quite a scary episode with a gargoyle demon coming to life to do its masters' bidding and dematerialising several people. Of course, ultimately Good triumphed, Azal somehow self-destructed and the Master was captured by UNIT, but I would like to know what the Church's reaction to this story was at the time.

A related criticism, though less to do with the moral aspect, is that storylines started to become quite obscure in places. Whilst a programme must evolve or change if it is to stay fresh, some of the stories appeared to become quite dense even for adults, as if the producers were uncertain as to which audience they were aiming for. In defence, however, it must be said that most of the Dr Who stories have usually been of a high standard, in ideas if not always in scripting.

Whoana (did I spell that correctly?)

For people who are fans of the show, there is plenty of material out there. The BBC wisely cashed in by releasing many of the stories on video, although with a bias towards the seventies and eighties (presumably having mislaid many of the Hartnell/Troughton ones!). There are also plenty of paperbacks, some taken from the TV episodes but others being completely new adventures (these are all apparently written under strict guidelines, so don't expect anything too radical). In common with much other science and fantasy material I believe there is also the usual run of figures, model Daleks, etc.

The Cyberlizard Dr Who awards:

Most alien-looking Doctor

Tom Baker

Most persistent alien offenders

Daleks (runners-up in this category include Cybermen, Ice Warriors and Sontarans)

Maddest mad scientist

Davros, creator of the Daleks

Best "Master"

Roger Delgado (tragically killed in an accident in the seventies)

Bizarrest mix of parties in one story

Cybermen, neo-Nazis and English Civil War Royalists

Best reptilian aliens

Silurians, Sea Devils, Ice Warriors

Fluffiest and most hapless female assistant

Jo Grant

Best military man

Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart of UNIT

Best male assistant

Jamie (Fraser Hines), Patrick Troughton period

Recurring theme of storyline award

Reverse course of history by travelling back in time

Dalek vocabulary award


Coolest Doctor moment

Sylvester McCoy listening to a jam session taking time out from fighting Cybermen


The Official BBC Dr Who site is actually quite good and contains links to lots of other good cult TV.

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