How Doctor Who First Started as a Family Educational TV Program (1963)

Those who grew up with the BBC sci-fi series Doc­tor Who watched from “behind the sofa,” a pop­u­lar phrase asso­ci­at­ed with the show for the rub­bery, bug-eyed mon­sters it held in store each week for loy­al view­ers. Although it may be hard for those who didn’t expe­ri­ence it in their for­ma­tive years to under­stand, Doc­tor Who has fre­quent­ly been vot­ed the scari­est TV show of all time, over gris­li­er, big-bud­get series like The Walk­ing Dead, and has done so with­out los­ing its sense of humor, a tes­ta­ment to the con­ceit of “regen­er­a­tion” keep­ing things fresh by updat­ing the Doc­tor and his com­pan­ions every few years.

Space mon­sters, Daleks, Cyber­men, and a revolv­ing cast, how­ev­er, were not part of Doc­tor Who’s orig­i­nal remit. The show began as an edu­ca­tion­al pro­gram on the BBC, and this explains many of its inte­gral parts, which have remained through­out its first run from 1963 to 1989 and its revival from 2005 to the present. These ele­ments include the TARDIS, com­pan­ions of var­i­ous ages, the Coal Hill School, and the Doc­tor him­self, a Time Lord from the plan­et Gal­lifrey with inter­stel­lar tech­nol­o­gy and a dodgy mem­o­ry.

We find the core premise in the show’s pilot episode and orig­i­nal 4‑part series, An Unearth­ly Child, which intro­duced William Hart­nell as the Doc­tor, Car­ole Ann Ford as his grand­daugh­ter, Susan Fore­man (orig­i­nal­ly named Bar­bara, or “Bid­dy”), and Jaque­line Hill and William Rus­sell as school teach­ers Bar­bara Wright and Ian Chester­ton. BBC dra­ma head Syd­ney New­man had tasked writ­ers with cre­at­ing a fam­i­ly edu­ca­tion­al show to meet the network’s pub­lic ser­vice man­date, and came up with the idea of a sci­ence fic­tion show as a way to have char­ac­ters vis­it his­tor­i­cal peri­ods and talk about sci­ence in an enter­tain­ing way.

Doc­tor Who’s ear­ly his­tor­i­cal sto­ries empha­size edu­ca­tion by down­play­ing the programme’s fan­ta­sy with min­i­mal sci­ence-fic­tion ele­ments,” writes Tom Stew­ard at Dele­tion. The idea of a time machine big­ger on the inside than the out­side came from New­man. Writer Antho­ny Coburn turned it into a police box after a note from New­man ask­ing for a “tan­gi­ble” sym­bol. New­man “instruct­ed writ­ers to ‘get across the basis of teach­ing of edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence.’ ” When they came back with a sto­ry about Daleks, he balked: “No bug-eyed mon­sters,” he wrote, no alien bad­dies, no actors in rub­ber suits. This was to be a seri­ous show about seri­ous edu­ca­tion­al sub­jects. Script changes and tech­ni­cal chal­lenges meant months of set­back and delays.

It was dif­fi­cult for some crit­ics to take the result­ing four episode arc par­tic­u­lar­ly seri­ous­ly. The first episode showed Bar­bara and Ian dis­cov­er­ing the TARDIS in a Lon­don junk­yard. Then they are all trans­port­ed to the pre­his­toric past, where they observe (and escape) a pow­er strug­gle among pre­his­toric cave peo­ple. (Guardian crit­ic Mary Crozi­er lament­ed that the “wigs and fur­ry pelts and clubs were all ludi­crous.”) The show’s debut was also inaus­pi­cious: Novem­ber 23, 1963, the day after John F. Kennedy’s assas­si­na­tion. The BBC reran the first episode the next week and picked up anoth­er 2 mil­lion view­ers.

Still, it had become clear after the first series that in order to sur­vive, Doc­tor Who would have “to give the pub­lic what they want­ed,” Stew­ard writes, “rather than what was good for them.” Thus, the Daleks debuted in the sec­ond sea­son, and by the mid-60s, his­tor­i­cal sto­ries were replaced with “fan­tasies in his­tor­i­cal cos­tume fea­tur­ing anachro­nis­tic vil­lains or mon­sters.” The show became a week­ly crea­ture fea­ture and intro­duced ter­ri­fy­ing vil­lains like Davros, the Daleks’ cre­ator, a cross between a Strangelove-like Nazi sci­en­tist and Star Wars’ clone-hap­py Emper­or Pal­pa­tine (Davros came first).

The cos­tumes may look sil­ly in hind­sight, but as child­hood Who fan Char­lie Jane Anders writes at io9, “those of us who are adults now did­n’t have huge screen HD tele­vi­sions when we were kids.” (And those of us who remem­ber it, remem­ber being ter­ri­fied by equal­ly goofy cos­tum­ing in The Land of the Lost.) Look past the low-bud­get effects and Doc­tor Who becomes pure hor­ror, explor­ing very dark ter­ri­to­ry with only a son­ic screw­driv­er, a few friends, and a quirky sense of humor — or 13 quirky sens­es of humor, includ­ing Jodie Whit­tak­er’s as the cur­rent Doc­tor and first woman to fill the role.

As you can see from the clips of the first episode above, Doc­tor Who estab­lished its weird air of exis­ten­tial dread from the start with Delia Der­byshire’s oth­er­world­ly theme and some avant-garde cam­era effects in lieu of big­ger-bud­get spec­ta­cles. The show did not retain much from its edu­ca­tion­al begin­nings aside from the key char­ac­ters and the look and feel of the TARDIS. It was “seen to have failed as ped­a­gogy,” writes Stew­ard, but as a body of sci­ence fic­tion lore that con­tin­ues to stay rel­e­vant, it has all sorts of lessons to teach about courage, com­pan­ion­ship, and the val­ue of the right tool for the right job.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

30 Hours of Doc­tor Who Audio Dra­mas Now Free to Stream Online

The Fas­ci­nat­ing Sto­ry of How Delia Der­byshire Cre­at­ed the Orig­i­nal Doc­tor Who Theme

A Detailed, Track-by-Track Analy­sis of the Doc­tor Who Theme Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • DP says:

    I remem­ber the first episode, I was 9 years old. Next day at school that was all the kids were talk­ing about. For us, it was the main top­ic of con­ver­sa­tion for years to come.

  • DJR says:

    Same here — I was just short of 9, but I’m pret­ty sure it was on at Sat­ur­day tea-time as I’d just got home from a foot­ball match with my dad!

  • Frederick Harrison says:

    Cana­da did­n’t get Dr. Who until 1965, when the first series was aired on Sat­ur­day at 4:30 PM, just before the Bugs Bun­ny show. I can’t remem­ber the first episode but the Cave of Skulls in the sec­ond and third episodes remains fixed in my mem­o­ry as one of the scari­est things my 10 year old self had ever seen on TV — until the Daleks, of course. But I have lit­tle rec­ol­lec­tion of any episodes that fol­lowed — was I too scared to watch any more of the pro­gram?
    That icon­ic theme cap­ti­vat­ed me and remains one of the few pieces of music for which I can remem­ber hear­ing it for the first time. There was also the frus­tra­tion of try­ing to explain it to my class­mates who missed watch­ing the series — there was noth­ing that sound­ed as alien and strange in pop music at the time. It was clear­ly an influ­ence on Pink Floy­d’s music. Almost a decade lat­er Cana­di­an prog band FM (with Nash the Slash) adapt­ed it into their setlist. But by then edu­ca­tion­al chan­nel TVO (TV Ontario) had begun air­ing episodes of the cur­rent series with com­men­tary by sci-fi author/collector Judith Mer­ril, whose vast col­lec­tion of sci-fi lit­er­a­ture became the basis of the Spaced Out Library (now the Mer­ril Col­lec­tion of Sci­ence Fic­tion, Spec­u­la­tion, and Fan­ta­sy at the Lil­lian H. Smith branch of the Toron­to Pub­lic Library).

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