Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

I Need A Doctor

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On November 30, 1963 six million people tuned in to a strange and exotic world that would revolutionize science fiction in ways few had ever dreamed of: Doctor Who. With a 48-year run and over 700 hours of TV time (and counting), this British television show has not lost its magic and continues to thrill and inspire people decades later.

Before we begin, introductions are in order. Who is the Doctor? Where does he come from?

The Doctor is one of last surviving members of the "Time Lords," beings who have managed to unlock the secrets of time travel. He travels the universe in his time machine, the TARDIS. He sees it as his mission to right the wrongs he comes across . Any race of the universe, aliens included, may turn to the Doctor for assistance.

But where does he come from, really?

Doctor Who was born in the mind of Sydney Newman, head of the BBC's drama department, in the early 1960s. Newman collaborated with BBC executive Donald Wilson in an effort to create a children's science program that would fill an empty slot during family hour on Saturday afternoons. They hoped this new show would rival the ratings of Newman's hugely popular creation Target Luna. Newman hoped to create something that would engage younger children as well as adults, snagging both ends of the viewing spectrum. Newman thought to use the idea of a time traveler to educate children about various historical periods. He came up with the idea of an "alien" time traveler to incorporate the outer space theme that had made Target Luna so popular.

In his book, A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television, John Kenneth Muir quotes Newman as saying, "I dreamed of 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."

A brand new show needed a brand new sound: a theme song so unique that it would snare viewers the instant they turned on their TV sets. The Doctor Who theme music is unearthly, eerie, and exciting. Ron Grainer composed the original Doctor Who theme and intended it to be like nothing anyone had heard before. Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop worked with Grainer to capture his vision.

Television composer Mark Ayres writes about the Workshop's innovative process in creating their masterpiece. At the time, there were no synthesizers; the sound for electronic music came either from pure electronic sources or from recordings of actual live sounds. The Workshop found the source of their electronic sound in a bank of twelve high-quality test tone generators, which usually function to output various tones (square waves, sine waves) for passing through electronic circuits for testing, and equalizers. Each sound in the Doctor Who theme was individually created using these instruments, and recorded to magnetic tape. Swooping sounds were created by manually adjusting the pitch of the oscillator to a carefully-timed pattern. Rhythmic hissing sounds were created by filtering white noise. Once they had all the sounds they wanted, the recording of each sound was trimmed and the pieces stuck together, creating the music that had to be "mixed". Since there were no multi-track tape machines like audio engineers today use to mix music, the Workshop invented crude multi-track techniques: each length of tape was placed on a separate tape machine and all the machines were started simultaneously and the outputs mixed together. The resulting wails, "bubbles," and swoops that make up the theme song hold a distinctly alien feel, immediately setting the viewer into the right "sci-fi" mood.

Doctor Who was to be aired for the first time on November 23, 1963, the day after US president John F. Kennedy's assassination. The coverage of the assassination played on England's television sets for hours; Doctor Who was the first entertainment show scheduled but its viewer turnout was dismal because of the international mood. The BBC, though suffering from a tight budget, decided not to scrap the show right off the bat. The gamble paid off. The next week, Doctor Who was watched by six million people and the show was up and running.

The script largely stuck to Newman's original plan of a historical, educational show until episode 16. There, the Doctor and his cohorts meet the Monk, a Time Lord who disregards the Time Lords' laws and attempts to change history. From then on, the show took on the alien invasion angle that became its bread and butter.

Newman and his team had to figure out how to keep their moneymaker on the air without William Hartnell, their lead actor, when his health began to deteriorate in 1966. To solve this problem, they invented regeneration. The last episode Hartnell appeared in saw him stumble aboard the TARDIS after a huge alien battle, clearly badly hurt. He lay on the floor, suddenly, he changed, and Patrick Troughton was the new Doctor. Time lords do not die, they just regenerate into a new body. Same man, same memories, just a different person. The Doctor has been severe, eccentric, boyish, arrogant, and, at times, displaying a cold fury. To date, the Doctor has regenerated ten times; Matt Smith currently plays the eleventh doctor.

One of the most unique aspects about Doctor Who is its impact on the whole history of science fiction. In 1963, Doctor Who was the cutting edge of sci-fi. The show pioneered some of the aspects of sci-fi that most of us take for granted and may even find clich.

In "A Critical History of Doctor Whoon Television," Muir writes: "Many revolutionary aspects of the Doctor Who series such as time travel 'law', non-humanoid aliens, alternate dimensions, and living machines had never before been envisioned by the masses." Many of today's science fiction books, movies and television shows build on the ideas that Doctor Who introduced to pop culture.

Aside from the ingenious concept, gripping storyline, witty dialogue, and memorable characters, part of the reason Doctor Who has endured for decades is that it incorporates real life issues into the storyline. Issues of morality, G-d, loneliness, companionship, responsibility, and obligation come up in nearly every episode. Furthermore, the aliens the Doctor fights parallel issues of the time. 1960s viewers recognized the Nazis in the Daleks, the growing plastic surgery trend in the Cybermen, and the off shore oil and gas industry in the Macra. Viewers today recognize the now-rampant plastic surgery trend in Cassandra, the dieting and health craze in the Adipose, and poorly paid, ill-treated foreign workers in the Ood.

In 1989, the BBC abruptly announced that they would sell the rights to Doctor Who to the highest bidder. No one took them up on their offer and Doctor Who was shelved indefinitely after 26 years on air. A made-for-television movie was released in 1996, but aside for reruns, the BBC decided not to bring the show back. However, in 2003, screenwriter Russell T. Davies began producing Doctor Who episodes again, after five years of petitioning the BBC. This time, it looks like its here to stay.

Doctor Who enjoyed immense popularity in England. However, when it arrived in the US in 1970, its reception was lukewarm. The show never garnered the sort of popularity here that it did in England.

Part of the reason is that, unlike other British produced sci-fi shows of the time like Space: 1999 or UFO, Doctor Who did not cater to an American audience (In contrast, UFO had catered so much that it placed an American air force officer at the center of the action). Doctor Who made no concessions for its American viewers, and in many ways it still doesn't. Many of the jokes and references are ones that an English audience would understand, but fly right over the heads on American audiences, such as the Doctor's famous French catchphrase "Allons-y."

Furthermore, Muir states, American audiences like flashy gadgetry and technology, while British audiences prefer well-told, solid dramatic plots. For example, one of the most popular Doctor Who episodes is "The City of Death" which features more witty dialogue than alien attacks. This makes for great television in Britain. However, Americans prefer their sci-fi to look more like Space:1999 which featured more aliens than one could shake a stick at.

Doctor Who's gadgetry is understated, rather than flashy. The Doctor's time machine is a blue box, while his go-to gadget is the size of a pencil and makes a quiet whirring sound. It's no light saber. Alien worlds are also the exception rather than the norm for the show. Why? Doctor Who may be imaginative and well-written sci-fi, but it's imaginative and well-written sci-fi on a budget, and it always has been. The TARDIS is a blue box that materializes and dematerializes because that effect is simple to create and avoids costly takeoff and landing scenes. Author Paul Parsons lets us in on a little secret as well. The third doctor was stranded on earth in the 1970s not because a Time Council was punishing him, but because due to budget constraints, the BBC found it easier to put aliens in London rather than create a costly alien landscape for each episode. Even today, most of the Doctor's adventures involve aliens coming to earth rather than the Doctor going to aliens.

Alien characters are also costly. The aliens seen on the show may be men in rubber masks, but those rubber masks have to be custom-made, which is expensive. The script writers found ways around this as well, by creating aliens in a variety of forms such as those that take over human bodies, are microscopic, only speak when deep in shadow, invisible, or disguised as humans. No matter their form, aliens are rarely absent from the plot.

Doctor Who has survived budget cuts, prejudiced producers, a disinterested public, and the changing times admirably. No matter the obstacle, fans always know that when the Earth needs saving, the Doctor is in.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Brunswick, Shulamit (2012-02-13). I Need A Doctor. The Observer (Yeshiva University) .
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=I Need A Doctor | url= | work=The Observer (Yeshiva University) | pages= | date=2012-02-13 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 July 2024 }}</ref>
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