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Reviewed: Pull to Open – The Inside Story of How the BBC Created and Launched Doctor Who

Pull to Open is the second beautifully researched, scholarly investigation into Doctor Who by Paul Hayes. His first, The Long Game, documented the attempts to bring the show back after the 1996 TV Movie failed to lead to a series stateside. That book, highly recommended, offered us completely new material and showed us a BBC that, far from hating Doctor Who and wanting to bury it forever, was full of Who fans desperately searching for a way to bring it back but floundering on rights issues (everyone thought that Universal had the rights to Doctor Who after the TV Movie, which wasn’t actually true).

So The Long Game told us new things. Paul Hayes’ second book, Pull to Open, tells the story of the programme’s creation and gestation back in 1963. The difference between the two books is, of course, that the earlier story has been told many times before. So, is there anything else much to say?

The answer is yes. And there is new material here. This book isn’t just a story about the creation of Doctor Who: it’s a fine piece of social history in its own right. Hayes ties the Who story into the context of the time. He carefully links events in the show’s creation with the world of the early 1960s: for example, the resignation of Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan; the Cuban Missile Crisis; and the conviction of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Hayes beautifully and imaginatively recreates the mechanics and atmosphere of a television studio in 1963 and the experience of watching television in British homes on that dark November day when Doctor Who was first transmitted. Hayes’ writing is impressive and his vignettes are often very touching.

Hayes’ scholarship and research are impressive, too. He gives detailed biographies of all those involved in the series. Even Alice Frick (remember her?) gets a biography: she co-authored reports for BBC Drama on the feasibility of science fiction as a television genre, which led, in part, to the creation of Doctor Who.

There is new information here. We all know the contribution that Sydney Newman made to the programme but Hayes highlights the role of co-creator Donald Wilson. Hayes digs up nuggets of gold. Who knew that Wilson served in the liberation of the concentration camp of Belsen in 1945? Or that Peter Brachacki fought in the Polish resistance, first against the Germans and then against the Russians, and ended the war in Dachau?

Hayes draws on new interviews with the original production team and on Waris Hussein’s recently published diaries. He covers ideas for an alternative time traveller series called “The Troubleshooters” (never made). He also goes through the earliest production documents with a fine toothcomb, showing how the show evolved from memo to memo and from draft to draft. Did you know that Anthony Coburn wrote four drafts of the first episode, An Unearthly Child ? These are now held in a private collection but Hayes has had access to them. Coburn first called the Doctor’s time machine a Change And Dimensional Electronic Selector and Extender, which doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue or make for an effective acronym (“Quick! Back to the CADESAE!”). The “and extender” bit seems redundant – what did it actually extend? – but the first five words give us the acronym CADES, which sounds a bit like TARDIS if you break it into two syllables – CAD-ES – so maybe this first attempt led Coburn to coin the more successful and enduring version? Who knows, dear reader? Now that the BBC is apparently going to post thousands of pages of memos, drafts, and documents onto its website in this s60th anniversary year, we may soon be able to complement our reading of Hayes’ book by looking at the original documents ourselves.

Ten Acre Films has published some excellent, thoughtful, and scholarly Doctor Who books over the years (Richard Marson’s Totally Tasteless – The Life of John Nathan-Turner; Andrew Cartmel’s Script Doctor diaries, to name two). Pull to Open is a worthy addition to its range. It may well be the best new book you will read about Doctor Who in this anniversary year.

Strongly recommended.

Pull to Open: The Inside Story of How the BBC Created and Launched Doctor Who is available now from Ten Acre Books.

Frank Danes

Reviewed: Pull to Open – The Inside Story of How the BBC Created and Launched Doctor Who

by Frank Danes time to read: 3 min
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