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Creating Doctor Who

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When Sydney Newman teamed up an angry old man from outer space, some innocent Earth folk and a time machine disguised as a phone booth, he founded a decades-long legacy of TV fantasy adventure.

Sydney Newman, the veteran creator of such classic British television series as Doctor Who and The Avengers, is determined to prove Trivial Pursuit wrong. The popular board game features the question, "Who created Doctor Who?" To Newman's chagrin, his name does not appear as the answer.

"When you flip the card over, it tells you Terry Nation," he observes. "Terry Nation created only some of the episodes involving the Daleks. I am now on my 15th letter to the game's owners trying to get them to rectify the mistake!"

While Trivial Pursuit may not choose to believe it, Newman actually created the Time Lord when he was head of drama at the BBC in 1962. Doctor Who was one of 726 different drama programs he oversaw each year.

Back then, as is true today, the BBC absolutely ruled the Saturday afternoon ratings with its massive sports coverage. In 1962, a children's series of classic dramas under the guidance of Newman's department followed the sports programming. The number of viewers, understandably, plummeted after each final score.

"It was brought to my attention that I could not dream up another children's series which wouldn't lose BBC the ratings. I dreamed up Doctor Who."

Newman identifies his life-long interest in science fiction as his main influence in creating the series. Born in Toronto on April Fool's Day, 1917, he vividly recalls spending his childhood years exploring the worlds of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. As he grew older, his tastes broadened to include more contemporary authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

Before Doctor Who, Newman created Out of This World, a series of science-fiction adaptations of the work of his favorite contemporary authors. Boris Karloff hosted each episode.

However, it was his childhood favorite, H.G. Wells, whose The Time Machine inspired Doctor Who. Newman, who was impressed with the notion of a time machine, designed the Doctor's vessel to travel into the past, future and outer space, so episodes could have historic, science or science-fiction storylines.

"The trick was always the vehicle to carry the time machine," explains Newman. "I selected a police telephone box because it was the most common object in England. It was on every street corner. Every child, every adult, knew the police phones. That was the TARDIS.

As for the Doctor himself, Newman describes him as "everybody's grandfather — crotchety, complaining, slightly senile and occasionally very brilliant."

"I dreamed up this old man of 760 years of age who fled from a distant planet in a time/space machine. Being so old, he is somewhat senile and doesn't know how to operate his machine.

"He lands on Earth where he is picked up by two school teachers and a child on a foggy night. He leads them to his home, which is this box, and inside it is a vast spaceship.

"They take off and the rest of the series dealt with these Earthings trying to get back to Earth, the old man trying to get back to where he came from and no one knowing how to operate the machine. They end up in ancient Rome, on the Moon, Mars or wherever."

No Monsters

Newman considers the companions as necessary touchstones for the audience to accept each adventure. "They were always up against things they didn't understand," he says. "It was through the experience of Doctor Who that they gain a greater understanding of what went on in the past and what's happening in the future.

"Many parents said it frightened their children, but I figured most fairy tales were frightening stories. The children knew this was fiction and fantasy."

The criticism nonetheless continued, often coming from within the BBC. Finally, Huw Wheldon, the director of all BBC programs back in the early 1960s, called an open meeting and put an end to the matter, by giving his testimony in support of the show. Newman fondly recalls him saying, 'I have a four-year-old kid who puts a wastepaper basket on his head and runs around saying, 'Exterminate, exterminate.' "The issue was never raised again within the BBC.

Newman himself made it a policy to bar "bug-eyed monsters" or alien races that he deemed implausible. "To me," he explains, '*that was cheap science fiction. One of the series' original intentions was to be as accurate as possible."

The Daleks nearly became one of the earliest victims of Newman's ban. By the time the Daleks came on the scene, Verity Lambert, Doctor Who's producer, was fully in charge of the show and Newman caught their first appearance on television. "I saw this thing come up and I was livid," Newman remembers. "I phoned Verity Lambert and bawled the hell out of her."

Lambert, however, wasn't about to bury her Daleks. Meeting Newman in person, she explained why the Daleks should remain on the series. Recalling their meeting, Newman says, "We had a terrific row. She explained that the Dalek was not a bug-eyed monster, but a human being of a very advanced society. The Dalek 's brain was so large that their bodies were atrophied and they had to have these metal casings to support their brains.

'It was a pretty slim story she gave me! The ironic thing was that it was the Daleks that really captured the audience's imaginations," says Newman. 'The Daleks are what made the Doctor Who series leap from being popular to extremely popular. All over the country, people talked about the Daleks, particularly the shows in which the Daleks captured London."

Lambert's contributions were not limited to the Daleks alone. She was responsible for casting the First Doctor, portrayed by William Hartnell, a decision Newman calls "just wonderful."

"For years, Bill Hartnell had played the part of a very nasty sergeant in the situation comedy, The Army Game," explains Newman. "He played the part of a real bull sergeant bawling everybody out.

"Making him an old man, the Doctor, was a good idea. It was such a wonderful change from what he had been playing before. He was a very well-known actor and it was a very oddball part for him to play. I loved him!"

New Doctors

After three years, Hartnell departed the role. While the Doctor underwent a regeneration, a process Newman doesn't recall creating but admits was necessary to explain the facelift, a new actor was sought for the Time Lord. Unlike the casting of Hartnell, Newman took an active role in choosing the First Doctor's replacement, Patrick Troughton (STARLOG #89).

"Patrick was a very interesting actor," comments Newman. "In fact, in some ways, he had a reputation for being a considerably more serious actor than Bill Hartnell. Bill was largely identified with sitcoms and things like that. Patrick was performing Shakespeare and some pretty heavy roles. We picked him because he was a good actor and could play a character part."

Unfortunately, Troughton initially had trouble capturing the role, explaining to Newman, 'I'm not Bill Hartnell!"

'I knew he couldn't play the part of a 760-year-old man," says Newman. "He didn't look it and he didn't want to play it. I devised that he play it like a Charlie Chaplin tramp from outer space. That's why he has the kind of funny walk, shrug shoulders, baggy, baggy pants and large shoes. Oddly enough, he only got a real handle on the part when I explained it to him in that way'

Newman prefers both Troughton's and Hartnell's interpretations of the Doctor, although he admits to being somewhat prejudiced. Newman does not approve of the present-day change in the Doctor's character and personality.

"Frankly, I think the series is a bit of a bore," he observes. "The Doctor has become pretty infallible. He's too damn intelligent and too damn smart.

"What was lovely about the original Doctor Who is that he failed from time to time. He was slightly senile. Patrick Troughton was sort of innocent. Therefore, the Doctor made mistakes. The humans with him had intelligence. When you make the character godlike, nothing can go wrong except stupidity on the humans' part. That, to me, is lousy drama.

"It's like making a movie about someone who's crazy. A crazy person can do anything he wants and get away with it. There is no drama in that."

Newman also feels that the series has suffered because the characters rarely go back to the past. "That was part of the educational content — contemporary people living in the past, knowing what our history was like. I think they've gone in for too many dragonish characters from outer space."

He was, however, surprised when the series was put on hiatus last year. "Actually, I'm quite mystified," he reveals. "I don't know what was in their minds!"

The Doctor Who fandom continued to support the show through its hiatus, and Newman is appreciative of the audience's attention. "I'm delighted," he remarks of Doctor Who fandom. "I'm enchanted that people are delighted by the show.

"I certainly never dreamed Doctor Who could go on this long. And the fact that it has pleases me enormously. It's a miracle!"

Presently, Newman is in England trying to raise $4 million. "I am doing a six-hour miniseries, Bloomsbury: Private Passion, Public Good, based on Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf and John Maynard Keynes— this incredible group of English people were very influential in terms of the arts and economy of England and the world. I am also working on a Benjamin Britten opera for young people called The Little Suite."

While these projects may sound far removed from the science-fiction shows Sydney Newman is noted for creating, he has actually built his reputation in England on doing very earnest, serious drama. He says of Doctor Who and The Avengers, "These two series, to use the Yiddish word, were kibbitzes on my part. They were fun." Pausing for a moment, he adds. "They were the wilder side of me to send up the world.


Caption: "I certainly never dreamed Doctor Who would go on this long," says Sydney Newman. "I'm enchanted that people are delighted by it."

Caption: Seeing that Patrick Troughton didn't want to portray the Second Doctor as an incredibly old man, Newman suggested he act "like a Charlie Chaplin tramp from outer space."

Caption: Verity Lambert, one of the series' early producers, had to fight off both aliens and Sydney Newman in her defense of the Daleks.

Caption: Despite the fact that the Daleks' menace to the Doctor (Hartnell), Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and Ian (William Russell) put the show on the map, Newman always despised them.

Caption: Although Newman banned bug-eyed monsters from the series, Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) still found herself on "The Web Planet," watching a Zarbi battle a Menoptera.

DAVID CARUBA, New Jersey-based writer, is editor/publisher of Top Secret, a small press magazine devoted to the espionage genre. He interviewed Patrick Macnee in STARLOG #101

Disclaimer: These citations are created on-the-fly using primitive parsing techniques. You should double-check all citations. Send feedback to whovian@cuttingsarchive.org

  • APA 6th ed.: Caruba, David (issue 116 (March 1987)). Creating Doctor Who. Starlog p. 41.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Caruba, David. "Creating Doctor Who." Starlog [add city] issue 116 (March 1987), 41. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Caruba, David. "Creating Doctor Who." Starlog, edition, sec., issue 116 (March 1987)
  • Turabian: Caruba, David. "Creating Doctor Who." Starlog, issue 116 (March 1987), section, 41 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Creating Doctor Who | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Creating_Doctor_Who | work=Starlog | pages=41 | date=issue 116 (March 1987) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 February 2023 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Creating Doctor Who | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Creating_Doctor_Who | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 February 2023}}</ref>