Dr Who’s 50 years of BBC house calls

For the past half century, he has had no name, a dozen different faces and a personal style that has ranged from nutty professor to slightly sinister if faintly camp clown.

In the throes of saving numerous worlds from certain destruction, he has had to do battle with improbable scripts, wobbly scenery and laughably absurd space monsters, inevitably triumphing in tediously predictable showdowns which, before the invention of computer-generated imagery at least, usually took place in disused quarries substituting unconvincingly for alien landscapes.

His time-travelling ride, a 1950s-style British police telephone box, aka the Tardis, is a far cry from the sleek spaceships of other sci-fi heroes. His chief recurring mortal enemy resembles nothing so much as a giant pepper pot, equipped with a toilet plunger and fatally handicapped by a basic design flaw that until a recent plot-assisting retrofit rendered it incapable of climbing even the meanest flight of stairs.

And yet, despite all these apparent disadvantages, the never-named humanoid alien known to viewers around the world since 1963 only as Doctor Who somehow won the hearts of generations of fans, many of them today grown-ups who never quite got over the thrill of having to hide behind the sofa rather than face the horror that was 1960s British television production values.

Eight hundred episodes later, the BBC can lay claim to ownership of the “longest running sci-fi show of all time” (an oddly confident boast for a show about time travel) and this week has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who with a frenzy of programming across all of its formats and most of its channels.

The love-in climaxes tomorrow with The Day of The Doctor, a 75-minute 3D special, starring not one but three Doctors, which will also be screened simultaneously in cinemas around the UK, exactly 50 years to the day since the first episode flickered onto British TV screens.

For the BBC, something far harder-headed than mere sentiment lies behind all the excitement. Doctor Who, a major ratings winner in the UK, is also one of the corporation’s biggest overseas earners (unhindered, apparently, by the Doctor having remained resolutely white and male throughout all his lives).

In 2012, a record year in which BBC Worldwide raked in £216 million (Dh1.28 billion) in sales, the programme was watched in more than 100 countries and was among the corporation’s top 10 bestsellers, in company with the likes of Top Gear, Frozen Planet and Torchwood (itself a Doctor Who spin-off).

But how to explain the time traveller’s apparently timeless appeal? As the BBC’s own Culture Show asked this week, not unreasonably: “Why has a kids TV show about a mad man with a box that can travel anywhere in time and space become the BBC’s longest-running drama, and one of Britain’s biggest brands?”

For Steven Moffat, a lifelong fan and, since 2009, head writer, the attraction comes down counterintuitively to the alien’s humanity. “The Doctor,” he said recently, “is massively compassionate, massively empathetic, with a tremendous sense of justice and goodness.”

But perhaps Paul McGann, who in 1996 played Doctor Who during his brief eighth regeneration in a TV movie, comes closest to nailing it: “We still want to be inspired, we still want to be scared, in the same way we were as kids.”

The scaring of Britan’s kids began in 1963 when the BBC needed to fill the early Saturday-evening slot between the sports programme Grandstand and the music panel show Juke Box Jury.

Doctor Who was conceived as an educational show. Accordingly, the first series featured two schoolteachers who, worried about an otherworldly pupil who already seemed to know everything, stumble on the secret of The Doctor and his Tardis, parked in an East London scrapyard, before embarking with him and his granddaughter on a series of informative historical adventures through time.

The show itself was very nearly scrapped there and then. The original pilot, finally aired as a curio in 1991, was a comedy of errors, with actors fluffing lines and the doors of the Tardis refusing to close properly.

Furthermore, BBC bigwigs perversely deemed the Doctor’s first companion, his granddaughter Susan, to be “too alien”, and the man himself, played as a pompous, hectoring, grumpy old alien by William Hartnell, to be “cold and unlikeable”.

Someone at the Beeb, though, saw the potential, and ordered the pilot to be reshot – an unusual extravagance. An Unearthly Child, duly revamped, reappeared for broadcast as 100,000BC on November 23, 1963.

For the first time the world heard the now familiar theme tune, an innovative exercise in electronic synthesiser music written by Australian composer Ron Grainer and created by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

The first viewing figures were not encouraging, but that was down to one Lee Harvey Oswald. Thanks to the delays in production, Doctor Who found itself going out for the first time just 24 hours after the assassination of President Kennedy, but the show soon rallied, reaching a highly respectable 10 million viewers by its third episode.

The origins of the Doctor himself are less clear. We know he was born more than 900 years ago on the planet of Gallifrey, home to the ancient race of Time Lords, to a Gallifreyan father and a human mother, in circumstances that remain unexplained. At some point, he presumably fathered a child of his own – how else to explain the granddaughter, apart from the scriptwriter’s declared concern to avoid the implied moral impropriety of an old man running away with a schoolgirl?

Eventually, he was forced to flee his dying planet and did so by nicking a Type 40 Time and Relative Dimension In Space time machine – a Tardis. Sadly, he picked a dodgy model. Designed to take on a suitable disguise for whatever time and place it found itself, this one assumed the shape of a contemporary police box when it first landed in 1960s Britain, but has since been unable to shake the look.

On the up side, inside, as everyone knows, it is larger than it looks.

As all aliens must, the Time Lords had a mortal enemy – the Daleks. Introduced in episode six, they too very nearly failed to make the grade. Before they could get to grips with destroying the world, the Daleks, devised by Terry Nation, a former joke writer for British comedian Tony Hancock, first had to exterminate strong opposition at the BBC.

“This is absolutely terrible,” Donald Wilson, head of serial drama, told producer Verity Lambert when shown the script in which they were introduced in 1963. “I don’t want you to make it. What else have you got?”

The answer was “nothing” and so the Daleks got their big break.

Sydney Newman, the Canadian producer at the BBC credited with creating the concept of the Doctor and his time machine, had insisted at the outset that the show should be devoid of “bug-eyed monsters”, but the success of the Daleks opened a door through which, over the years, many more even less likely aliens would slither, lurch and crawl.

Unlike the Daleks, however, produced at a budget-busting cost of £60 (Dh355) per unit, most of the Doctor’s other opponents have been economically humanoid and “alienised” by the addition of a frequently hilarious latex head.

The “best” of them were on parade last weekend, when BBC viewers voted for their favourites. Predictably, the Daleks emerged at number one. In reverse order the other nine were the Judoon, the Silurians, the Ood, the Clockwork Men, the Ice Warriors, the Cybermen, the Silence, the Master and the Weeping Angels.

The show was not always flavour of the month at the BBC. The 50th anniversary celebrations disguise the fact that it has not been on the air without a break for half a century. In 1989, with ratings falling, the decision was taken by the then controller of BBC1, Michael Grade, to axe the show.

Fans have never forgiven the decision, as an exchange in the latest edition of the television listings magazine Radio Times makes clear. The axing was a result of “outright stupidity and unforgivable blindness” at the BBC, says fan-turned-chief-writer Steven Moffat. For his part, Grade defended the decision, saying the show had become “ghastly, pathetic … and horrible to watch”.

Thanks to Grade, the Whoniverse remained in unprotected peril for the next 16 years. Even the 40th anniversary of the show in 2003 passed with little fanfare.

The following year, however, the show was finally reborn, with a new team of enthusiastic producers and writers who had been raised on the programme, as had the new Doctor, actor Christopher Ecclestone. The comeback was clearly overdue: the opening episode of the new series, aired in the UK on March 26, 2005, attracted more than 10 million viewers.

One of the secrets of the show has always been the Doctor’s ability to “regenerate”, to assume a new human form at the moment of death. This skill, also a useful excuse for recasting the lead role when an actor’s popularity wanes, was discovered by the producers in 1966, when the original doctor, William Hartnell, quit.

Time Lords, they decided conveniently, could regenerate 13 times before they finally died.

At the time, it must have seemed like more than enough time to play with. But, owing to the appearance of a mysterious 12th Doctor during tomorrow’s 3D special, played by John Hurt, and to the actor Peter Capaldi taking over from Matt Smith in the forthcoming Christmas special, in theory the Time Lord will be at the end of his line.

BBC accountants, however, will doubtless have something to say about that.

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