“A frail old man lost in space and time. They give him this name because they don’t know who he is.” —BBC’s background notes for Doctor Who, from 1962
The BBC has a terrific article about the original concept notes for Doctor Who that are now available digitally on the BBC Archive Project. The concept notes, written in 1962 by Cecil Webber (the BBC’s children’s writer), reveal the uncertainty about this new project. “We are not writing science fiction...neither are we writing fantasy...in brief, avoid the limitations of any label.” Another document in the archive details what kinds of science fiction stories the BBC considered suitable for adaptation—no robots, no “BEMs” (Bug-Eyed Monsters), no outlandish settings. io9.com has more in-depth coverage, especially on the Beeb’s wariness of science fiction.
Before Star Wars and the age of special effects blockbusters, the TV and movie industry didn’t see science fiction as a guaranteed money maker. BBC Archivist Jim Sangster says that in the 1960s in England, science fiction “was seen as niche and American.”
On the Doctor Who concept pages, Sydney Newman, head of BBC drama, had scribbled emphatic notes. Newman is credited with shaping the Doctor Who concept into the show it became. For example, the TARDIS was originally conceived as “an absence of visibility, a shape of nothingness” but Newman quickly nixed that idea. Instead, Webber’s mention of “a night-watchmen’s shelter” became the police call box. The original notes suggested that the Doctor “malignantly tries to stop progress (the future)...while searching for his ideal (the past).” Newman objected, “Don’t like this at all...I don’t want him to be a reactionary.”
The archive, titled “The Genesis of Doctor Who: The Creation of a Television Hero” is a revealing look into the origins of a science fiction television mainstay. It also contains the original concept for another series called The Troubleshooters, which became the spin-off Torchwood, as well as some rare behind the scenes images.
[Image from the BBC Archives, © BBC]