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Article — History of Doctor Who

First Published:
As a high school English assigment

Publish Date:

This was an "expostory piece" for my year 11 English class — may as well write what you know about! Love the upbeat ending…

In The Beginning

It was the spring of 1963 in England. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had a problem. They had enormously popular sport coverage ending at 5:15 on Saturday evenings, and then at 5:45 the very popular Juke Box Jury, a pop music programme. In between there was a vacuum of ratings. Something had to be found, or made, to fill the gap. And so the situation stayed, until the BBC Head of Drama, Sydney Newman, proferred the idea of a new show called Doctor Who

Sydney Newman

Sydney Newman has, more or less accurately, been called "the father of Doctor Who" many times. He certainly provided the initial spark and idea.

Sydney Newman was born in Toronto, Canada, and rose to the position of Drama Supervisor in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation before being lured over to ABC Television in Britain in 1958. The BBC saw his potential in 1961, and offered him the post of Head of Drama. Newman accepted, even though it meant a drop in salary, because it offered him almost unlimited power to restructure as he saw fit. Once he got there, one of the first shows he suggested was Doctor Who. He discussed the concept with Donald Wilson, the Head of Serials, and by mid 1963 had begun the process of choosing a production team.


Sydney Newman knew exactly who he wanted as producer. Once he had been given the go-ahead, he recruited his former production assistant at ABC, Verity Lambert. He also chose David Whitaker as the script editor. Then, after telling them that he wanted around half of the stories "historical" (going into the Earth’s past to, for example, the Atzecs or the French Revolution) he left them to their own devices.

By the end of September, 1963, the role of the Doctor had been decided. It went to William Hartnell, a 55 year old with a history of playing ‘tough soldiers or hard-bitten policemen.’ Verity Lambert was convinced of his talent after seeing his latest film, This Sporting Life, in which he played a ageing football talent scout. She has also decided on the Doctor’s three companions, to be played by Carole Ann Ford, William Russell, and Jacqueline Hill. Recording started, with the first half-hour episode set to be shown on Saturday, November 23rd.

The First Stories

Less than twelve hours before Doctor Who was due to first go out, US President Kennedy was assassinated. The ensuing extra news caused Doctor Who’s pilot episode to air somewhat late and to be greatly overshadowed. Because of this, the BBC took the unprecedented step of reshowing the first episode before the second the following week. The first story of four episodes then passed without incident, gathering modest ratings. And then, with the second story, came the Daleks…

The Daleks

Even today, the Daleks are the symbol that most people think of when they hear of Doctor Who. Without them, Doctor Who could well have sunk into obscurity. The Daleks well and truly started Doctor Who on its trail of success.

The Daleks were the first "monsters" on Doctor Who, and maybe that helped them to become so famous. One thing that can not be debated is that with that second story, ratings rocketed up from four million to ten-and-a-half million (Britain had a population then of around 45 million), that high point being almost three million more than any show had ever achieved in that timeslot. Doctor Who had only existed for eleven episodes, and was a smash hit.

The Daleks would return the following season to even higher ratings, and whenever Doctor Who seemed troubled they could raise it to new highs. Over twenty-seven years, there have been thirteen Dalek stories, and they have appeared in smaller roles in many other stories. In the 1960s one could go see one of two Doctor Who/Dalek films, wash yourself with Dalek soap, wear Dalek slippers, fly a Dalek Kite, bowl down Dalek skittles, or listen to the quite atrocious single ‘I Want to Spend my Christmas with a Dalek’.

The Second Doctor

By the middle of 1966, Doctor Who had a serious problem. Not ratings — they were still high. It was a more deadly enemy — quite literally. William Hartnell had developed arteriosclerosis, and it was increasingly obvious he could not continue. The BBC was in a dilemma — drop the program and try to replace it with something else (a difficult enough task), or find some way to keep Doctor Who going. The BBC decided on the latter, and on September 2nd, 1966 they announced that William Hartnell was to be replaced by Patrick Troughton, with the Doctor regenerating into his new form. This news was greeted cautiously, as nothing like this had been done before.

At the end of Hartnell’s final story, The Tenth Planet, Hartnell appeared to die only to leap up revitalised and with a totally new body. This Second Doctor promptly proceeded to dance a little jig, accompanying himself with a recorder that had come from one of his deep pockets. Patrick Troughton’s first story as Doctor brang back the Daleks — the producers knew how to make sure he was a success!

Patrick Troughton knew that to copy William Hartnell’s characterization of the Doctor would be folly, and so he, noting Sydney Newman’s suggestion, played it as a ‘cosmic hobo’. He therefore set up the pattern of each new Doctor being different to the ones that had preceded him.

Patrick Troughton’s reign as the Doctor lasted just under three years before he decided to step down after The War Games.

More Doctors

Following Patrick Troughton in 1970 came the 48 year old Jon Pertwee. Known mainly as a comedian in series such as The Navy Lark, he played this role straight and as a simple hero. In many ways he was similar to James Bond, always with gadgets ready and ready for action. He stayed in the role for five years.

In 1975 the longest lasting Doctor, Tom Baker, took over. The best known Doctor, he made his eighteen foot scarf almost as much a symbol of Doctor Who as the Daleks. He stayed at the helm for a massive seven seasons.

Peter Davison was the Fifth Doctor. Already well known from the BBC show All Creatures Great and Small, he started in 1981 and "died" in 1984.

The Sixth Doctor arrived in the form of Colin Baker. He was the first Doctor to have appeared in the show before his role as Doctor. In that role he shot the Fifth Doctor, though not to, as he said jokingly later, to ‘get his job, though!’ Season-wise, he lasted the shortest of all Doctors to date, just getting over two. He was fired after the twenty-third season on the pretext of not being popular.

His successor, and so far the latest Doctor, was played by Sylvester McCoy, who had been born in Scotland (all the previous Doctors had been English) named Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith. He has been in the title role for three years now.

Key Doctor Who Events: 1985 to the Present

’Wednesday, February 27, 1985, was the day the unthinkable almost happened. The day when Doctor Who was cancelled and there were real fears the good Time Lord might never be seen again’. So writes Peter Haining, the self-titled official Doctor Who historian, with no exaggeration at all. Doctor Who was then saved from the edge of oblivion by an angry public, who sent the BBC some 80,000 letters in the following week. The BBC then backed down, and changed the axing to a one-year rest.

When Doctor Who did return it was with a much shorter season, and to a quite smaller audience. The ensuing season was hardly a great success, but it was still a shock when it was announced on December 18th, 1987, that Colin Baker had been sacked from his role as the Doctor. Later news revealed that the order for this had come directly from Michael Grade, the BBC Controller, the very same man who had personally ordered the axing of Doctor Who in 1985. Colin Baker later claimed that he had been made a scapegoat. In the fan world this is the generally believed explanation for his sacking. Michael Grade has since left the BBC.

In January 1988, the BBC announced that they had clinched a deal with Paramount to make a Doctor Who movie. While details were sparse, it was was (optimistically) hoped the movie could be ready for November 1988, the 25th anniversary. As time has shown, this was an incredibly hopeful prediction, and the Doctor Who movie has yet to appear. Now, two years later, the money (rumoured to be $US40-60million) has apparently all been collected, the script readied, and the production team arranged. The role of the Doctor has not been officially announced, but it would seem likely to be Donald Sutherland, star of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers and many other films. Sooner or later (cynics say later) the movie shall come out…

The future of Doctor Who is an undecided one as of this writing. New legislation in Britain has meant that the BBC, which is a government station like the ABC in Australia, has to have 25% of its shows made by independent companies by 1993. Doctor Who is to be one of these shows. The lucky company has yet to be decided, with a half dozen having realistic chances. What this means to the viewer is that Doctor Who is going through another one year break as the details are worked out. But don’t worry — he will be back…


Haining, Peter. Doctor Who: The Key To Time: A Year-by-Year Record. Great Britain: W.H.Allen & Co. PLC, 1984

Bentham, Jeremy. Doctor Who: The Early Years. Great Britain: W.H.Allen & Co. PLC, 1986

Haining, Peter. Doctor Who: A Celebration: Two Decades Through Time and Space. Great Britain: W.H.Allen & Co. PLC, 1983

Haining, Peter. Doctor Who: The Time-Traveller’s Guide. Great Britain: W.H.Allen & Co. PLC, 1987

Doctor Who: 25th Anniversary Special. Great Britain: Marvel Comics, 1988

Whovian Times, Volume 17, The Doctor Who Fan Club of America

Doctor Who Magazine. Great Britain: Marvel Comics, 3 October 1990

End of Article

Here’s the list of the Doctor Who articles available here
A Bit of Adric in All of Us
Ace Timeline
Cursed References
Doctor Who Collectible Card Game FAQ
Doctor Who Collectible Card Game Tips
Doctor Who in America
History of the Daleks
History of Doctor Who
History of the fanzine Sonic Screwdriver
How I Killed a Fanzine (or, What’s an EFG?)
Survival the (Con)vention
The Doctor and I (First Memories)
The Doctor and I (1985 — Move to the USA)
The Doctor and I (Organised Fandom? Huh?)
The Doctor and I (Doctorin’ Ithaca)
The Doctor and I (Back to Melbourne)
The Doctor and I (Whovention)
The Doctor and I (David, Meet the DWCV)
The Doctor and I (Enlightenment)
The Doctor and I (The Blankety Blank Era)
The Doctor and I (Q Who)
The Doctor and I (DWCV Committee, Meet David)
The Doctor and I (Whovention II (Control))
The Doctor and I (Sonic Screwdriver, Meet David (and Marco and Matthew))
The Relative Confusion of The Curse of Fenric
What Makes a Warrior?
What’s in a Name?
→ Or just head back to the Doctor Who Index

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This page last updated by David J Richardson on Wed, 8 Jan 2003.