Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Travel back in time through the history of Doctor Who

Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: History of Doctor Who

What it’s about: In 1962, the BBC commissioned a science-fiction series with an educational bent, about a mysterious time traveler who whisks his granddaughter and two of her schoolteachers to different points in history. They had no idea that they were creating a phenomenon. After 26 seasons in its original run, and nine more so far in its modern-day revival, Doctor Who has become a touchtone for sci-fi fans, and one of British television’s biggest icons. The series’ 826 episodes (and counting) make it the longest running science-fiction show in television history.


Strangest fact: Far from exterminating the Doctor, the Daleks most likely saved the show. The original series was divided up into “serials”—story arcs of seven or so episodes (although there could be as many as 10 or as few as three). The show’s original intent was to explore different eras in real-life history, and as such, the first serial, “An Unearthly Child,” sees the Doctor mediating a war between two Paleolithic tribes. The four episodes got good enough reviews, but were largely ignored by the public—in no small part because the series premiere aired the day of the Kennedy assassination. For the second serial, the producers had already decided to move away from history lessons and to a pure adventure story, which introduced the series’ most iconic villain: the Daleks. Aliens encased in metal shells, led by a shrill, robotic call to “exterm-in-ate!” the Daleks were an immediate hit. Three years ahead of Mr. Spock’s pointy ears seeming convincingly alien, the Daleks—completely inhuman, but not quite robotic—were unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Who’s ratings nearly doubled overnight, and the series had landed firmly in the public consciousness.

William Hartnell

Biggest controversy: While the show and its star, William Hartnell, were both popular, by 1965, there were problems behind the scenes. Series co-creater Verity Lambert left, and replacement John Wiles butted heads with Hartnell. To make things worse, Hartnell was beginning to suffer from arteriosclerosis (he would eventually die from the disease), which was making filming difficult. Wiles had an idea for replacing Hartnell, by rendering the Doctor invisible, and then having him reappear in the guise of another actor, but the BBC forbid him from bringing in a new star, and Wiles quit, knowing he was going to be fired at season’s end. But by the time Innes Lloyd replaced Wiles, new upper management permitted him to make essentially the same change. Lloyd’s similar idea was that if the Doctor suffered serious injury, his body would regenerate into a new form—and a new actor. Hartnell agreed he couldn’t continue, and insisted, “there’s only one man in England who can take over, and that’s Patrick Troughton.” Soon after, the veteran character actor took over as the Second Doctor, and the tradition of passing the role from one lead to the next ended up being a masterstroke that allowed the series to continue on indefinitely.

Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor

Thing we were happiest to learn: Not traveling through time and space may have also saved the show. In 1969, with Troughton and viewers alike getting tired of the series, and the BBC threatening cancellation after one more series, the producers tried a bold move: a Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, sentenced by his fellow Time Lords to exile on Earth, where he’d spend all of the seventh season preparing for an alien invasion. In fact, it was accountants, not Time Lords, who stuck the Doctor on Earth, as the show’s numerous alien sets and costumes were getting too expensive to produce on a weekly basis. But the shakeup revitalized the show both creatively and in terms of popularity.

Roger Delgado as The Master

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Pertwee era ended with the real-life death of the Doctor’s nemesis. The eighth season of the show introduced Roger Delgado as the Master, an evil Time Lord who was the Doctor’s equal, and a big fan favorite. Fearing the character was overused, producers planned on killing off the Master in the 11th season, but before they got the chance, Delgado was killed in a car accident. Stricken with grief, and feeling like his onscreen “family” was breaking up, with co-star Katy Manning and the show’s director and script editor leaving, Pertwee left the show at the end of the year.

Baker, and his iconic scarf

The show, however, soldiered on, casting Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. Baker was the most popular and longest-running actor to star in the show, and his eccentric, aloof take on the Doctor is considered by many to be the definitive one, with the Fourth Doctor’s overcoat and absurdly long scarf the image of The Doctor that remained in the popular imagination long after Baker departed the series.

Also noteworthy: While the series proved to be incredibly durable, there was still plenty of room to tinker with the formula. When Baker left the series, producers thought it was important to avoid comparisons between the popular Fourth Doctor and the Fifth. So they cast Peter Davison as a young, vulnerable Doctor, and the show went from weekly to twice-weekly (an innovation that the BBC would repeat with great success with the popular, long-running prime-time soap EastEnders).

Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor

After three seasons, Davison passed the torch to Colin Baker (no relation to Tom), and again played with the format, going back to weekly, but running half as many episodes in the 21st season, at 45 minutes instead of the usual 25. The show also took a darker turn, with Colin Baker’s doctor more willing to use deadly force. The show took a hit from critics, but its biggest critic was Michael Grade, who took over the BBC in 1984. Grade threatened to cancel the show, and instead forced an 18-month hiatus. Colin Baker returned from hiatus for a 23rd season, but the show struggled to regain its audience, and the following year Baker was replaced by Sylvester McCoy. As the Seventh Doctor, McCoy was cold and manipulative, and well liked by fans. Trouble was, there weren’t that many fans left. Doctor Who was now airing opposite the No. 1 show on television, Coronation Street, and had a fraction of its earlier audience. After three years with McCoy, the show was canceled, with the last overdubs recorded on the series’ 26th anniversary.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: A 27th season was planned, in which the Doctor would be driven insane by one of his enemies, and regenerate into an Eighth Doctor due to mental, not physical duress, but it never came to pass. Instead Withnail And I actor Paul McGann became the Eighth Doctor for a U.S.-made 1996 TV movie that failed to spark interest in a reboot. Wikipedia’s list of unmade Doctor Who serials and films is a terrific look at what might have been. Besides the lost 27th season, the list also includes dozens of rejected storylines from throughout the years, and unused spin-off ideas.

Christopher Eccleston, who began the current Who revival as the Ninth Doctor

Further Down the Wormhole: While the late-’90s reboot never came to pass, the TV movie sparked renewed interest with the BBC, who regained the rights to Who after Fox declined to follow up on the TV movie. After attempts at an animated series and a film failed, the BBC finally tapped Queer As Folk creator Russell T. Davies to revive the show for television. The show relaunched to widespread acclaim in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor. It continues to this day.

When casting Queer As Folk, Davies wanted actor Alan Davies, but Davies nearly refused because his character, Bob, was a fan of Manchester United (the series was set in Manchester). Davies supported Arsenal, and was too loyal to even act the part of a rival supporter. Arsenal’s long-running logo was a crest with three cannons pointing up, which was designed in 1888. However, the team was unable to copyright the image, and now uses a shield with a single cannon. Copyright leads us to innumerable topics relating to intellectual property, but as next week is Cold War Week at The A.V. Club, we’ll turn our eye towards Samizdat, the clandestine Soviet practice of distributing underground, usually handmade, cultural artifacts.


Share This Story