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Master of Time

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Looking back at his career, Sydney Newman explained the origins of Doctor Who

When Sydney Newman was Head of Drama at BBC Television in Great Britain, his superiors asked him to fill a time slot. The show he created, Doctor Who, became the longest-running SF television program on Earth. And it all began because of a concern with ratings.

"The BBC has always ruled the roost on Saturday afternoon [on British television]," explained Newman in this interview conducted several months before his death in fall 1997. "Its sports coverage is simply gigantic. I inherited doing a children's classic serial at 5:15. It had a modest following, but after sports, the rating suddenly dropped. They were good dramas, but they didn't interest grown-ups. Then, at 5:45, the BBC did a terrific pop music show for teenagers [Jukebox Jury]. It got very good ratings too. So there was a drop in ratings for a half-hour, and my bosses asked me to dream up another show. So I dreamed up Doctor Who."

According to Newman, the creation of Doctor Who resulted from his love of science fiction literature, as well as his experience in television drama. "I've always been a science fiction fan, and I used to be a voracious reader. But I read good science fiction. I read Ray Bradbury and the better writers. I used to hate SF which had bug-eyed monsters, slimy things, alien creatures and that garbage. I always liked SF which took contemporary issues which were too tricky to deal with in a contemporary context, and positioned them in a strange world, or in the future, so you could say the most revolutionary thing and get away with it. Usually, the best science fiction is somehow a marvelously satirical, comic or horrendous version of what life is like on Earth today.

"Of course, I read H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, the classic SF writers. So, I dreamed up the idea of a time/space machine. I wrote a memo of my idea and said the time machine would be a common object that everybody sees every day, but when you go inside, it's as vast as a spaceship. It worked out that it was a telephone box, a police callbox. Unfortunately, the memo cannot be found."

Newman also created the man who operated the time/space machine, the Doctor. "I dreamed up the idea of this very old man who is senile," he said. "He has flashes of brilliance, but he's also very forgetful, and he doesn't know how to operate the time/space machine. I had worked out the background: He came from a distant planet, which was invaded by some other planet, so he got into the spaceship and fled. But he never knew how to operate the thing, and that's how he ends up on Earth."

Doctor Time

Like the character he created, Newman was a fascinating man. A pioneer in British television drama, he actually began his career as a painter in his native Canada, later becoming a commercial artist and a teacher. Taking photos of children's activities led to making a movie with a borrowed camera. "I made the movie and fell in love with movies," Newman said. "I read all the books, and vi I went to Hollywood in 1938. Disney offered me a job, but I couldn't take it, because I was Canadian and had to get a work permit. I returned to Canada and continued with my artwork. Then, the National Film Board of Canada was started, and I got a job as a filmmaker."

Newman worked m a filmmaker for several years before deciding to try his hand in another medium. "In the la. '40s, I became interested in television and convinced my organization that television was the future. They sent me to New York, and I worked at NBC for a year. I was in the center of television in New York, at the beginning of its Golden Age, when American television was simply marvelous. From 1949 through 1955, it was terrific, so I had a very good indoctrination and education in television."

He returned to Canada and eventually worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. "I started off doing outside broadcasts, sports. I was the supervisor in charge, but I got bored. They needed a head of drama, so l applied, although I knew nothing about drama. Earlier, I had been a set designer for the theater, but that was my only connection with drama. I came in, and watched my directors, some of whom are now well-known, like Silvio Narizzano, who directed Georgie Girl, and David Green. And I trained Arthur Hiller, who directed many features. I became more adept at drama. I became a very good producer. I was doing General Motors Theatre, a live one-hour drama every week."

General Motors Theatre led to a job overarm. "The BBC bought 26 of my plays and put them on the air in England. There was my name up in lights every week. I then got a call from ABC in England—the commercial TV station that has nothing to do with the American network—and I accepted an offer to come to England."

Now, Newman had a great opportunity to make an impact on British television. "The English set-up in those days was very peculiar," he said. "A company was given a 'territory' by the British government to be on the air for a portion of the week. My company only had Saturday and Sunday, and while its shows were networked throughout the whole country, it was only on the air those two days. And my drama was in the hottest spot of the week, 8:30 to 9:30, Sunday night. It was preceded by the most popular show in England, Sunday Night at the Palladium, very similar to The Ed Sullivan Show. So when I went on the air with my drama immediately after it, I inherited this vast audience. I didn't let the audience down, and sometimes I even beat Palladium with the ratings, which meant the audience grew. I was the Head of Drama and producer of this series called Armchair Theatre. During this period, I dreamed up the idea of The Avengers, and being the boss I had no trouble getting it into production. It turned out to be England's most famous international show."

Soon, the BBC decided to hire away the architect of ABC's increasing success. Newman said, "In 1963, the BBC lured me away from commercial television. I came over as Head of Drama. My work escalated from 80 dramas a year at ABC to 250 at the BBC.

And I went from a staff of 30 at ABC to 170 at the BBC. A second channel, BBC2, was created, and my work was increased 40 percent So, when I left the BBC, in 1968, at the end of my five-year contract, I had a staff of 420, and we were doing 720 different kinds of dramas."

Doctor Space

After imagining Doctor Who, Newman assembled a staff to make it a reality. He selected veteran TV writer David Whittaker to be script editor. As producer, Newman chose Verity Lambert from ABC. "When I got to the BBC, I discovered that my staff was elderly and old-fashioned," Newman explained. "There were lots of kids, but the permanent positions that they were trying to move up to were being held by the older ones who weren't leaving. Here were these wonderful kids stuck at a level where I didn't know them. Now, Verity had worked for me at ABC for four years as a production assistant. She was very intelligent and excellently educated. She had been to the Sorbonne in France. She was charming, but also tough. As a production assistant, she worked with my directors. When I would have an argument with one of them, she would be there taking notes, and she would chip in and defend her director. And I knew her. I had looked over the existing talent on my BBC staff, and I did not feel any one of them could cape with this new idea in the fresh way I wanted:'

Selecting Lambert as producer of Doctor Who caused some resentment among the more seasoned BBC staffers. "It wasn't profound and it wasn't deep," Newman said, "and she was so charming. And then they realized that Verity knew as much about production as anyone at the BBC. Although she had never been a producer, as a production assistant she really knew the guts of the business. And after two or three months, she was simply part of the place."

According to Newman, choosing new people to implement new ideas an important factor in his own success. "I was always pretty bold in finding new people. I discovered Harold Pinter, one of the greatest playwrights in the world today. I found him when he was nothing. He had holes in his sleeves. And Ted Kotcheff, who directed First Blood, and endless other pictures, was a stagehand when I found him in Toronto, Canada. My reputation is based on finding new talent, which is such a great asset in our business, because the audience so quickly becomes tired of things."

Lambert was another successful discovery. After producing Doctor Who for two seasons, she went on to do several other British TV series. She is now an independent film and TV producer, best known for the 1988 film A Cry in the Dark, with Meryl Streep and Sam Neill. When Lambert took over as the first producer of Doctor Who, Newman gave her definite instructions on the direction he wanted the program to take. "One of the most important elements was the time machine," Newman said. "The beauty of it was that you could go back in history. So the Doctor would turn up with Nero fiddling while Rome burned. We did one about the Thirty-Year Religious Wars in Europe. In terms of outer space, I laid down the rule: no bug-eyed monsters, and the rule that we not be fanciful. Conditions on the Moon had to be up-to-date in terms of what we knew about it, to maintain the educational value."

The second Doctor Who story introduced an alien race of shell-encased mutations called the Daleks. An immediate success with the audience, they became the Doctor's arch-enemies. Newman was less than delighted by the Daleks. "One of Lambert's writers, Terry Nation, came up with the Daleks, and I was very angry because to me that was a bug-eyed monster. And I bawled her out. She protested that they weren't bug-eyed monsters. She said, 'Once they were humans whose brains became big and their bathes had atrophied, and they had this encasement to help them move around, but the brain was human.' Of course, the Daleks took off, became the most popular goddamn thing and, well, I had to live with it. That captured the imagination of the world's audiences, and that, I think, was the basis for the program's world success."

One of Lambert's initial production responsibilities was the casting of the first Doctor. She chose veteran British actor William Hartnell. Initially, Newman was surprised, although Hartnell fit his conception of the character. "I did specify that he was a crotchety, half-senile old man," Newman said. "And Bill was certainly crotchety as a very nasty sergeant-major in a comedy series called The Army Game. I liked that quality, because I wanted him to be acerbic with the Earthlings. I wanted him to be so superior to them that he slightly despised them. He liked them, but he also despised them.

"A pilot was done, but the trouble with it was that Hartnell was too unlikable. I suggested softening him and showing a little kindness from time to time, and it was great. There was also an element that he was somebody's grandfather, who was benign, and yet could become irritated for the stupidest little reasons. And that he couldn't work the machine made him rather adorable."

As Doctor Who premiered on the British airwaves, Newman turned to other responsibilities as the Head of Drama at the BBC. When Lambert left the program, Newman chose John Wiles to replace her and later Innis Lloyd to succeed Wiles. When Patrick Troughton took over as the Doctor from Hartnell, Troughton and Lloyd consulted Newman for advice on how the actor should play the part. Newman said, "Patrick and the producer came to me, and Patrick said, 'He's not Bill Hartnell; he's a different person. I can't really play Bill Hartnell.' We talked it out And then I dreamed up the idea that he should play it like Charlie Chaplin. A tramp from outer space. Hence, his clothes hung on him, and he seemed slow-witted, then would be brilliant. And in fact, I liked Patrick in that part very, very much"

Newman left the BBC in 1968. "I went out to Elstree film studios as their chief of production," he said. 'The company was taken over by mother company, and the new president fired my whole creative staff. So I hung around for six months, did nothing, and then they bought me out fora handsome sum of money. My wife and I hung around in England for four months, and then I got an offer to return to Canada. I was frankly a little bit homesick. Also, my wife had become ill, and she wanted to be near her family. So we went back to Canada. The government offered me the most prestigious post in Canada, which was head of the National Film Board." Newman spent his last years in retirement. Fans remember him for the creation of The Avenge', and Doctor Who, two programs he regarded as only minor accomplishments in his career. "I believe very firmly that entertainment is for the benefit of people," Sydney Newman said, "and not to escape. It's a very important element in my whole career. Everybody knows me as the creator of Doctor Who and The Avengers. What they forget is that for four years, I produced the most outstanding drama this country has ever seen. By drama, I'm talking about one-act plays, which were equivalent to the United States' Playhouse 90 and Philco Playhouse, the great days of [writers] Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote and Gore Vidal. I did that in England, and that's where I really became famous. For me, it was just a gag to do Doctor Who. It was a joke to do The Avengers. That was fun, but all that was like icing on the cake of my career. And all that people remember me for now is the icing, and not the cake."


Despite their success, Newman considered The Avengers and Doctor Who minor accomplishments in his career. See STARLOG #116 for an earlier interview with him.

It was Newman's idea that the series' time lord protagonist he a cranky old man from another planet (William Hartnell, the first actor to play the Doctor).

The late Sydney Newman. He didn't just dream up Doctor Who; he also devised The Avengers, too.

Never enamored of the Daleks (who he viewed as "bug-eyed monsters"), Newman had to put up with them when they became viewer favorites.

Especially in its Patrick Macnee-Diana Rigg heyday, The Avengers became England's most famous international TV hit.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Shook, Karl (number 272 (March 2000)). Master of Time. Starlog p. 92.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Shook, Karl. "Master of Time." Starlog [add city] number 272 (March 2000), 92. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Shook, Karl. "Master of Time." Starlog, edition, sec., number 272 (March 2000)
  • Turabian: Shook, Karl. "Master of Time." Starlog, number 272 (March 2000), section, 92 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Master of Time | url= | work=Starlog | pages=92 | date=number 272 (March 2000) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=27 January 2023 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Master of Time | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=27 January 2023}}</ref>