Thu
Nov 20 2008 5:56pm

How the Doctor Became the Doctor

“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]

7 comments
Chris Meadows
1. Robotech_Master
Something I always found interesting was the bizarrely different direction in which the Peter Cushing movies took the Doctor. Actually naming him "Doctor Who" instead of "the Doctor," and having him be a human inventor (because none of the background with Time Lords and regeneration and such had been invented yet).
Eugene Myers
2. ecmyers
I think it's remarkable, and perhaps sad, that these old notes survived when so many episodes were simply destroyed. I'm glad someone had the presence of mind to preserve some of these materials.
Lou Anders
3. LouAnders
What is interesting to me is the way this character evolved organically over so many years. Also, in that very first episode, when they are carrying with them a wounded cave man, the Doctor argues that he is slowing them down and should be abandoned. The humans refuse, where upon the Doctor picks up a rock when they aren't looking and is apprehended about to smash the man's skull in.

At several points in the show's history, the Doctor indicated that he was less than good before he became known as "the Doctor." Certainly Hartnell's Doctor improved with time. At least once he admitted to Barbara that he valued her company as as he "learned by observing" and one reading of the show is that exposure to these initial companions is what makes him into a hero over time.
Constance Cochran
4. ccochran
1. Robotech_Master: Seems like the show's history is so long and so many different incarnations. So the definitive idea of what the Doctor should be like changes depending on who you talk to; and then there are the odd movies and apocryphal things just to twist things up even more.

2. ecmyers: it's so interesting looking at those notes and seeing how different the original concept was. TV really is a stew with a lot of cooks.

3. LouAnders: there's kind of a dark side to the guy, isn't there. I felt like Eccleston and Tennant's picked up on that part of the history, the colder, remote, dangerous side of him. The companions do humanize him.
Susan Dunman
5. seguesue
According to Publishers Weekly, Doctor Who premiered on British TV 45 years ago today. Wow! Has it really been that long?
R O T
6. rogerothornhill
On a purely intradiegetic level, has anyone ever argued that the Doctor's character matures or even evolves across incarnations? Until the Davies version, I believe most detailed references back to early adventures were contained within each specific incarnation (except for specials like "The Five Doctors," etc.). Nevertheless, it may be possible that the core personality that unites all these regenerations is actually learning from experience.

On the other hand, it could all just be Pretend and the differences have more to do with the differences among the various eras of writers than any alleged "reality" within the world of the story. But that would be much less fun to contemplate, wouldn't it?
Lou Anders
7. LouAnders
Well, you can track the Doctor's willingness to use violence, particularly against the Daleks. The 4th Doctor is given the mission to retroactively prevent their creation and can't do it. The fifth Doctor wants to shoot Davros, their creator, and can't do it. The sixth Doctor turns Davros over to the Daleks. The seventh Doctor destroys their entire homeworld. And the 8th or 9th Doctor commits genocide in the Time War according to the new series' backstory.

I was always fascinated by the Valeyard, who shows up in "Trial of a Time Lord," as he was said to be "an amalgamation of the Doctor's darker nature, culled from between his 12th and final incarnation.

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