Despite being voted the longest-running science fiction television series of all time, very little has been written about the early years of Dr WHO. But, at last, we have uncovered the secret history of TV’s venerable Timelord traveller in time/space. Let’s time-skip back more than 47 years to the nineteen hundred and sixties…
It begins with a feisty Canadian firebrand called Syd Numan who angrily arrived at the BBC in 1963 demanding that they scrap all their prestigious costume dramas and instead produce a “TV series for oddball infants who like science, history, and geometry. Or you will all get a jolly good smacked bottom!” Because he was all red in the face and in an uncontrollable rage, the frightened BBC management gave him £426, seven shillings and sixpence to produce 87 episodes a year until at least 1993.
Within minutes, Numan became bored of the idea exclaiming, “What a load of crackpot!” So he blackmailed two confused older gents, Don Winston and CBE ‘Bunny Boy’ Webster (CBE) into taking over. Both were highly experienced old-school BBC producers and, as such, had no idea what they were doing.
Winston was keen for the series to be about a mysterious ‘twerp’ stranded on planet Earth because his time machine was irreparable. Episodes would centre around his bungling efforts to fix the ship and, frustratingly, never exploring the whole of space and time; while ‘Bunny Boy’ wanted the stories to feature a team of adventurers, ‘the teenies’, whose time machine had shrunk them so small they were invisible and inaudible. “It would be very cheap because you wouldn’t need any actors,” ‘Bunny Boy’ insisted.
Numan declared both these ideas as, “Total dishwater!” So, with only half an hour left before production started, they went back to the drawing board. Out of their frantic, manic drawings, as they sobbed hot tears, a TV legend was born… Dr WHO!
The lead character would be known as ‘Doctor ?’ because he had forgotten to write down his second name, and – now more than 7 million years old – he is too embarrassed to go back and ask*. He is described as a ‘randy old codger’ who lives in a junk shop where his ship ‘Tar-Dis’ has crash-landed, with his great-granddaughter, Sue-Ann.
Tar-Dis is the most powerful space-time/time-space ship in the known solar system but it looks really crap because the BBC didn’t have the budget for anything better. The ship is pretending to be a London Police BOX, which is why ‘Dr WHO’ is often mistaken for a policeman [An AI wrote that sentence].
Sue-Ann escapes ‘Doctor’s’ clutches and, despite being more than 108, seeks refuge at the local primary school, pretending to be six years old. Her history teacher, Iain Chestnut, is suspicious because – unlike the rest of the class – Sue-Ann refuses to take a nap in the afternoons and instead dances to beat music in her fab swinging sixties gear while talking about the day she stormed the Bastille.
Chestnut tells his colleagues (and secret lovers) science teacher, Babs Right, and geometry teacher, Babs Left, about his suspicions. Babs Right also airs her concerns: Sue-Ann had taken over the class and taught them how to make a nuclear fusion reactor. Babs Left had measured Sue-Ann and found her to be transcendentally dimensional. They decide to confront her mysterious great-grandpa in his junk pile…
When he found out much later, Numan described this new idea as, ‘Unforgivable tripe!’, then beat his fists against the studio wall until he drew blood. But there was no time to come up with anything better. The red light was on and filming had started…
Winston and ‘Bunny Boy’ had gone into hiding, leaving the show to be produced by the unknown fresh-faced, inexperienced, wet-behind-the-ears, Varsity Lamppost. She quickly dried the back of her ears and proved herself to be a billion times more competent than those two jokers. Despite being left with an opening episode written on 26 stitched-together fag packets, and eight further episodes set in the prehistoric era where the only word in the script was ‘grunt’, Varsity set to work.
She cast veteran screen idol, Billy Harnell as Doctor One, after her first choice, Dicky ‘Sir Pastry’ Lewes Misheard demanded that ‘Doctor’ should be “made out of pastry” (The BBC effects department vetoed this idea after an unsuccessful screen test: “Pastry got everywhere.”)
Harnell was keen to take on the role and perform in front of infants, having only played serial killers and bungling burglars up to this point. To soften his gruesome image, he insisted that his dialogue should include, “plenty of confusing nonsense and stupid-sounding errors” – these became known as ‘Billy fluffs’ or ‘Flufbills’.
The rest of the cast was made up of The Adventures of Sir Reginald Styles actor William Russell Enoch Russell (credited as Will E Russell), Jacqueline and Jilleline Hills (joint winners of Miss Cardigan 1958) as Babs Right and Babs Left, and Caro-Line Form as Sue-Ann. Form was 47 and had the tricky task of playing a 108-year-old pretending to be a 6-year-old acting like a teenager.
Performing in Dr WHO was a terrifying experience for these actors because, for the first five years, the show was recorded and broadcast live on stage in front of an unresponsive audience. And the very first episode proved to be a disaster.
Lamppost had appointed an untested, experimental new director, Warrick Hassan, who insisted that the sound of ‘banging doors’ featured loudly throughout the episode. Numan was enraged and ripped the curtain down at the end of the recording, taking to the stage to rant about the script, production, performances, and the state of his dressing room: “No bidet! You animals!”
He was furious that some of the dialogue had spoilt the mystery of the programme. At one point, Sue-Ann says, “We are aliens from the 49th century, part of a new science-fiction series that aims to bridge the gap on Saturday evenings between Grandstand and the pop music show Juke Box Jury. And also appeal to both audiences.”
With Numan sedated and incarcerated, Lamppost and Hussan set to work on a revised episode one. It started with a caption declaring: ‘PLEASE IGNORE LAST WEEK’S EPISODE’. This time, it was a success, with the audience cheering and applauding at the end. But little did they know that outside the studio, world events would scupper their second opening night…
While the episode was being broadcast, the President of the USA, John F Kenny was assassinated with a bullet. Whilst sad for America, it was a disaster for Dr WHO. With many viewers listening to the news instead of the BBC’s new science fiction series, the production team decided to remount the show the next week. It was another huge success, with many of the crowd calling for an encore: Harnell obliged by performing his ‘bungling burglar’ routine. But disaster struck again when, during the broadcast, the US President was shot for the second time in as many weeks. The production team reluctantly decided that, this time, they had to move on…
The remounted episode was followed by the ‘erotic caveman’ story, Tribe of Mummies, which proved to be a huge turn-off for viewers. The cast grunted their way in prehistoric times for the next eight weeks until Doctor hit the tribe leader on the head with a rock, and they made their escape, to the delight of both the Tar-Dis crew and the audience.
But it was the next story, The Deadly Planet AKA These Mutants AKA The Luxor Masters (the programme’s longest-ever episode title), that secured the show’s future. In desperation, Lamppost asked a failed comedian, Terrance National Express (TNE), to write the story. Strapped for cash, after being commissioned, TNE wrote seven scripts in the corridor outside Lampost’s office in about an hour, the last being just three words, “…and so on”. Then he stole the scriptwriting fee and flew away like a thief. Little did he know that he had accidentally written a masterstroke.
The Deadly Planet AKA These Mutants AKA The Luxor Masters pitted Doctor and his crew against a suitably deadly foe: Darleks. These robot creatures from the planet Scarred resembled upturned egg cups and spoke with an evil rasping cackle. While both infants and the fully-grown loved these fascist, murdering psychopaths, there was one man who took exasperated umbrage: the show’s own birth father, Syd Numan. He had been revived in order to attend the recording. But when Darleks appeared, he once again invaded the stage. In a fit of rage, Numan cried, “No BEMs! I said no BEMs,” before being dragged back into the wings by Jacqueline and Jilleline Hills.
The audience was shocked to witness this agonised outburst. Lamppost took to the stage and calmed the crowd, who assumed Numan had meant ‘No Black and Ethnic Minorities’. She explained that in Dr WHO’s DNA document, Numan had insisted the show should not include ‘Boggle Eyed Monstrosities’, and that’s what he thought the Darleks were. At that point, Numan freed himself from his shackles and burst back on stage.
The crowd started chanting: “We love Darleks, more psychopathic BEMs! More monstrous killers!” Numan was taken aback and his life-long, uncontrollable rage briefly subsided. He embraced Lamppost and declared, “I was so, so wrong! Bring on the BEMs!” In tears, he called the cast back to finish the episode.
This time, no president was assassinated and 53,508,513 viewers tuned in – the entire population of the UK, except for Dicky ‘Sir Pastry’ Lewes Misheard who couldn’t watch because he was still encased in pastry. Following this huge, runaway success, the BBC decided to destroy all copies of all the episodes forever.
That is the totally unbelievable story of the longest-running science fiction series in the world – as voted by you – which has now been on our screens for more than 47 years. The rest, as they say, is Dr WHO’s history, science and geometry…
* There is a clue to Doctor’s forgotten surname in the very first episode, The Unhappy Childhood: on the junk shop gates a sign declares: ‘I’m Foreman’.