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Britain's Time Traveler Arrives in the Colonies

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November 23, 1978, marked the 15th anniversary of the oldest continuing science-fiction TV series in the world. Doctor Who, the BBC's Saturday evening institution, has delighted viewers since 1963 with the exploits of an eccentric alien scientist and his novel time machine, the TARDIS. However, most Americans were not even aware that the show existed until its U.S. premiere on independent television stations last October.

Considered to be "too British" for American audiences, Doctor Who had a limited success in the early 1970s on Public Broadcasting Service stations— notably in Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia—when Jon Pertwee played the Doctor. But the show never gained network exposure in the United States, despite its popularity in at least 30 foreign countries, until Star Wars paved the way for an unprecedented surge of interest in science fiction. Time-Life Television saw fit to give the legendary Time Lord a second chance and imported 98 half-hour episodes of the serial for U.S. syndication. They featured actor Tom Baker in the title role of the eminently recyclable Doctor. Baker has played the part for the last five years. (See the accompanying episode guide of the Baker years.)

Very British

Americans are actually seeing season 11 of Doctor Who. The first syndicated episode, "Robot," features Tom Baker's premiere appearance as the Doctor. Four different actors have portrayed the time traveler, each in his own different way, since the inception of the series, adding to the originality of the show's concept and development over the years.

Mat Irvine, a BBC visual effects designer who has done quite a bit of work on the series in the past eight years, comments on the American premiere. "It seems slightly ironic to us as we've had it for 15 years! I read a lot of the American publications on television because there's a lot on the Gerry Anderson side. That's our [Great Britain's] other broadcasting company, Independent Television, which makes his series. But Doctor Who, which is the longest running science-fiction series in the world, never gets a mention in the States because it's never been sold in a big way before. We've just made an inroad ...15 years late."

The series will not be shown in its totality in the States, only the last third of it. This is bound to cause continuity problems and many of the concepts familiar to the British viewer have to be explained to the uninitiated Americans.

"For someone coming to it fresh, as the majority of the American market will be, it may seem very strange," Irvine says. "It will probably seem totally British. There's no concession at all as there was with Space: 1999, which was pointedly made for the American market. The British market was secondary in that case, let's face it. I'm not knocking them for that, it's economics.

But Doctor Who is made in the typical British stiff-upper-lip fashion and it's been made totally for the British market. I think that if the Americans can take it in that attitude, it will go down well."

The major element of the series, the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), is an extraordinary vehicle that has carried the Doctor to and from his many adventures throughout the show's 15 year run. First of all, it is "dimensionally transcendental," or bigger on the inside than the outside. Secondly, although able to travel in time and space, the TARDIS tends to be erratic, not necessarily landing where the Doctor expects it to and adding to the unpredictability of the situations in which he invariably fords himself in. And third, a chameleon device used to blend TARDIS machines into any environment they land in, jammed during a visit to Earth —trapping the Doctor's TARDIS in the guise of a blue London police box.

Time machines we can understand, but what is a police box?

Mat Irvine laughs as he says, "That's something that's going to have to be explained to the American audience; what in fact a police box was. We don't even have them anymore. It was used before the portable walkie-talkies came into use. There were police boxes all over at one time. The light on the top used to flash, and if a policeman on beat came by and saw the light on, he would go into the box to answer a call." Apparently, the creators of the series wanted to use something familiar to their 1960s audience, never dreaming that a police box would come to be identified solely with time travel years later.

And what of the man who treks around in this curious machine? He is a renegade member of a highly sophisticated race known as the Time Lords. After discovering time travel and utilizing it for thousands of years, the rigidly aristocratic faction of the planet Gallifrey, the High Council of the Time Lord, decided to retire their TARDIS es (TARDI?) and simply observe what was going on in the infinite number of time streams in their universe.

The Doctor, actively rebellious and intensely curious about everything he's learned since childhood, reaches a critical point in his frustration with only receiving second-hand information about the intergalactic events. He finally steals a TARDIS that was in a repair shop and sets off to experience the universe directly. Even after his capture by the High Council and temporary exile to Earth, the Doctor maintains that his people are wrong not to defend weaker races against imposing conquerors; not to interfere where an invading evil was corrupting a potential good.

Left: The Doctor finds himself surrounded by his arch-enemies, the Daleks in "Genesis of the Daleks." Right: Hunting in the sewers of Victorian London for giant rats in "The Talons of Weng-Chiang."

Since 1974, the long scarf, floppy hat and quick wit have been the symbols of Tom Baker's portrayal of the charismatic Time Lord. At a London convention held last summer by the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, Baker described his feelings on the role.

"I enjoy being a Saturday afternoon hero and I love playing the Doctor," he said, smiling over the hundreds of fans who had come to see him from as far away as Australia. "The role is not really an acting part in that it never develops fundamentally. The Doctor will never become interested in romance, violence or power, so he's limited in that way. He's really very goody-goody and like any other television hero basically, so the actor in the role must become inventive within those limitations, to become amusing and exciting to the audience in different ways."

Hence, the Doctor is possessed of an almost camp humor, an unpredictable nature and unconventional dress, which cause him to stand out wherever and whenever he goes. Baker's incarnation of the dual-hearted Time Lord (one on either side of his chest) utilizes his superior intelligence and experience to solve any problems he runs into, as well as a natural charm to win over potential allies bewildered by his unusual personage. His near-bottomless coat pockets have been known to produce cricket balls, assorted pieces of scientific equipment from all planets and times, apple cores, the seemingly ever-present bag of jellybeans and a multi-purpose sonic screwdriver—which has been used as a laser lance, a lock-picker and, yes, even as a sonic screwdriver.

Dr. Who and Associates

Independent as the Doctor is, he still needs companionship. He has had a variety of friends and associates, most of them from the planet Earth. Many of the female companions were Dale Arden types (prone to screaming and fainting), until the 1970s popularized the image of the independent, resourceful yet feminine career woman. Enter Sarah Jane Smith, freelance journalist.

Smith, portrayed by Elisabeth Sladen, meets the Doctor when he is still in his third incarnation (Jon Pertwee) and actively the scientific advisor to UNIT. (While he was exiled to Earth, Brigadier' Lethbridge-Stewart, an old friend from several adventures on Earth, set the Doctor up in his branch of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce to give him an identity and to utilize the Time Lord's knowledge of alien invaders who were beginning to take an interest in space-aged Earth.) Her reporter's instincts are roused by the curious man with the police box in his room, and Sarah stows away aboard the TARDIS thinking that the Doctor is behind the disappearance of prominent scientists ("Dr. Who and the Time Warrior"). When she ends up back in medieval England, an astounded Sarah soon develops a deep respect for the Time Lord and accepts his invitation to travel further in the TARDIS. After his forced regeneration, the Doctor and Sarah are joined by an unwilling Harry Sullivan, on assignment at the time to UNIT. Played by Ian Marter (who also penned the paperback Dr. Who and the Ark in Space), Harry never intends to trek around with the odd personage he met at UNIT, but consequent events plunged him into a series of perilous adventures. Although he accepts the situations he finds himself in, Harry is just as glad to remain behind when the Doctor and Sarah leave Earth after defeating the Zygons ("Dr. Who and the Terror of the Zygons).

Sarah Jane Smith left the Doctor after three years; he was called home to Gallifrey and couldn't take her along. She is succeeded by a completely different companion, a primitive type named Leela. "Dr. Who and the Face of Evil" introduces Louise Jameson as the knife-wielding member of the Sevateem tribe, actually the descendants of an exploratory survey team of colonists whose computer the Doctor managed to misprogram. Still suffering from the effects of his "body change," the fourth Doctor vaguely remembers sneaking off in the TARDIS from UNIT headquarters, landing on the planet and aiding the colonists with their faulty computer. The machine develops into a megalomanic personality, the colonists degenerate into the Sevateem and the Tesh (Technicians) and Leela believes the Doctor to be the Evil One whose face is carved into a cliff. But Leela's basic instincts will not accept the Doctor as evil. She helps him to set her people back on their proper developmental tracks, and invites herself along by sneaking into the TARDIS as the Doctor tries to quietly leave.

After becoming somewhat civilized, Leela leaves the Doctor, following a harrowing adventure on Gallifrey, to marry Guard Andred, with whom she has fallen in love. But the Doctor still has K-9, a computerized mongrel picked up in an earlier adventure, who trundles after the Time Lord offering fierce loyalty, very un-canine advice and a constant annoyance as he defeats the Doctor again and again at one of their never-ending games of chess.

The current companion is one of the Doctor's own race, a Time Lady called Romana. She has been assigned to help the Doctor find the six segments of the Key to Time by the omnipotent Guardians of Time. Mary Tamm, who has played glamorous Lady Romana as of last September, remarks that her character is "supposed to be the Doctor's intellectual equal." Just graduated from the Time Academy, Romana has book knowledge, but lacks the Doctor's experience. At first, the Doctor is wary of this bright, challenging young woman, but they soon learn respect for each other.

What Makes the Doctor Run

Graham Williams, who has been producing the series for the past three years, sums up his experiences in this way: "If you've done Doctor Who, you can do anything. The production schedule we keep is grueling and it's difficult for anyone to do for more than three years. It's probably one of the most difficult shows that the BBC does."

Unlike in the United States where entertainment is big business and TV is number one, the BBC has a mere seven studios set up for electronic recording on videotape. Due to a lack of space, none of the BBC series, including Doctor Who, has standing sets. Everything is built from scratch for each story, and the actors only see the finished sets on the actual days of recording. Special effects are usually done during taping sessions, or later. transferred from one millimeter film.

Anthony Read, the script editor before Douglas Adams took over last November, decided on the 14th and 15th seasons' storylines in collaboration with Graham Williams. Generally, they chose a futuristic story, a historical one, a space adventure and variations or combinations of those themes.

"Usually, three stories are being developed at once until one is taped, one is in rehearsal and the third is being

From The Sontaran Experiment." During filming Baker was injured and the show was cut from four to two episodes;'he had tripped over his scarf.

Above: K9, a talking, dog-like computer. joined the Doctor in the episode "The Invisible Enemy." Right: The Doctor, K9 and Lady Romana.

prepared," says Read. "The stories are done in either four or six parts, though four is considered ideal for Doctor Who. Rehearsals go on for 10 days, with two of the 24-minute segments being prepared simultaneously. There are six stories per season, or six 24-minute segments."

"There are only five days of actual studio time," notes producer Williams. "Rehearsals are in another building entirely, with the sets and props marked out on the floor with tape. Most of the time, the actual recording days are divided into two days on location, three in the studio."

"The schedule is very tight for everyone," Mat Irvine says seriously. "There's no room, no time for anything to go wrong in the studios."

Dick Mills, from BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, adds the sound effects to the video tapes and Dudley Simpson does the incidental music. Mills has been working on Doctor Who's sound effects for the past five years. "There's quite a bit of responsibility attached to it," he says. "I'm working alone; I haven't got a team of people working for me. We [at the Radiophonic Workshop] found that there was no need for two people to become involved on every program, so we doubled our production capacity by letting everyone be responsible for their own shows. With Doctor Who, some stories call for electronic sounds synonymous with science fiction, and the historical dramas call for more naturalistic sounds."

Humans hide (in the background) from the carnivorous Wirrn who have invaded The Ark in Space."

The Doctor in one of the many control rooms within the TARDIS, his time/space machine.

srARLoc/June 1979 37

To those who have romantic notions concerning the peculiar noises the TARDIS emanates during landings and take-offs the time machine's ancient engines originate from the bass strings of an old piano. The sounds are taped and rerecorded at different speeds.

And what of the haunting, vibrating theme from Doctor Who?

"The Doctor Who signature tune was written in a normal fashion on music paper back in 1963. It was composed by Ron Granier, but there are, in fact, no musicians playing contemporary instruments on it," Mills says. "It was all done by cutting separate notes from prerecordings of different sound sources and mixing them together. We used to tune the sounds, then copy them at different speeds to give us the notes we required. All the notes for the melody and the base line were then played together until we got the signature tune," Mills explains.

Both Mills and Irvine have witnessed the transitions from one Doctor to another, a risky undertaking in a popular series. But even a complete change in the show's hero

The TARDIS is attacked by an energy force in "Masque of Mandragora."

did nothing to defer the fans. "That's what makes the series unique in itself. Where else has a main character been changed four times?" says Irvine. Mills elaborates, "The changeover to different actors is a very good vehicle to insure that no one person becomes typecast as the Doctor, and of course, it means that every time the actor changes, a new interpretation is given to the part. William Hartnell [the original Doctor] was a brisk, grandfatherly type; Patrick Troughton was more whimsical; Jon Pertwee took the part very seriously; and Tom Baker is different again."

One alien menace even Americans are familiar with are the Daleks. Though they have only appeared once to haunt the fourth Doctor ("Genesis of the Daleks"), they are still one of the most identifiable symbols in Doctor Who. Irvine says, "Besides the Doctor, the Daleks are Doctor Who. They remain popular over the years because they're non-humanoid. In actual fact, everyone thinks they are robots, but they are actually `containers' for a creature that sits in the head."

The Daleks played against a fifth Doctor when Peter Cushing portrayed the Doctor in two films made in the early sixties: Doctor Who and the Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth. But many hardcore fans discount the films because they did not remain true to the established series.

A series of paperbacks on many of the Doctor Who stories is currently being published by Pinnacle Books. Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks and Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon appear this month. In addition, Pinnacle will release Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion and Doctor Who and the Genesis of the Daleks in May, and Doctor Who and the Revenge of the Cybermen and Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster in June. Target Books Limited, in England, has already published over 50 different stories, as well as The Making of Doctor Who, two Doctor Who Monster Books and The Doctor Who Dinosaur Book.

Although time travel is only a speculative concept, Doctor Who brings to it a fantastic reality. Conjecture or pure fantasy, the series touches the imagination and the dreamer inside us all. The Doctor is a positive extreme: a blatant non-conforming individualist with solid principles, a brilliant mind, a sparkling sense of humor, a childlike curiosity and a machine bigger inside than out that can take him anywhere he wants or put him somewhere he'd probably want to explore anyway.

Doctor Who has now charmed Americans in at least 65 markets across the United States. Stephanie Stefko, assistant to the promotion director at Time-Life Television, says that the mail response has been "stupendous." And Bob Williamson, general manager of WOR in New York, hopes that the show will have a long, successful run. "I was intrigued by it," Williamson says. "I love it and that's why we [WOR] have it. The concepts and elements are fascinating."

"Time is relative," the Doctor has said on more than one occasion. After 15 years, with four different Doctors and no end in sight, it is easy to predict that Doctor Who will continue on... in the past, the present and the future.

Elisabeth Sladen, as Sarah Jane Smith, attempts to reason with the "Robot" who has been programmed to kill in the first serial starring Tom Baker as the Doctor.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Mortimer, Ellen M. (issue 23 (June 1979)). Britain's Time Traveler Arrives in the Colonies. Starlog p. 33.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Mortimer, Ellen M.. "Britain's Time Traveler Arrives in the Colonies." Starlog [add city] issue 23 (June 1979), 33. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Mortimer, Ellen M.. "Britain's Time Traveler Arrives in the Colonies." Starlog, edition, sec., issue 23 (June 1979)
  • Turabian: Mortimer, Ellen M.. "Britain's Time Traveler Arrives in the Colonies." Starlog, issue 23 (June 1979), section, 33 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Britain's Time Traveler Arrives in the Colonies | url= | work=Starlog | pages=33 | date=issue 23 (June 1979) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=21 May 2024 }}</ref>
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