December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Doctor Who in the 20th century!

6 min read
Doctor Who was a 20th century TV success story that soared but then crashed as historian Tony McMahon discovers
Doctor Who

On December 6, 1989, Doctor Who as a TV series (there were movie spin-offs) came to an end after a 26-year run on our screens. At the time, if I’m perfectly honest, it felt as if a dying creature had been put out of its misery. But I realise that among many Whovians (Doctor Who fans), that’s almost a sacrilegious statement to make. They view the entire 20th century output from William Hartnell to McCoy as untouchable.

By the time the BBC pulled the plug on Doctor Who, it had broadcast over 650 episodes since first appearing on a dark and icy night on November 23rd, 1963. The day after President John F Kennedy was assassinated. Not that the two events are remotely linked but you have to wonder if that added to the tension!

Doctor Who as a school science project

It may seem unlikely now but the original idea was for Doctor Who to be educational. Children would learn about science and history from a mysterious alien banished from his homeland. This was very much in line with the BBC’s “Reithian” principles. The mission statement of the first BBC Director-General, Lord Reith, that the broadcaster was about improving the minds of the British people as opposed to feeding them cultural trash.

Reithianism started to fall apart in the late 1960s. Nevertheless, throughout the 20th century iteration of Doctor Who, the time lord did occasionally deliver bite-size scientific lectures. And note that the “Tardis”, the doctor’s flying police phone box, was an acronym for Time And Relative Dimension In Space = TARDIS. The UK physicist Professor Brian Cox even brought out a film in 2013 on The Science of Doctor Who. In it, he honoured the modest contribution by the Doctor Who series to scientific understanding.

Why did the 20th century Doctor Who regenerate?

Doctor Who was an almost instantaneous smash hit. It worked on many levels with British audiences. The previous decade had seen a boom in garish sci-fi movies and literature that fed on Cold War paranoia. Evil aliens (for which read Soviet spies or Communists) moving amongst us.

Much of that stuff was generated in Hollywood whereas Doctor Who was quintessentially English. A kindly, sometimes bumbling uncle and his young assistants. The Daleks also had a rather Nazi quality. If you’ve ever listened to a speech by Adolf Hitler in full flow, it sounds remarkably like a Dalek on a bad day. With a similar penchant for extermination. The Second World War had ended only eighteen years before the launch of Doctor Who, so this homicidal monster resonated. Even its mechanical appearance was tank-like.

Three years into the series, the first actor to play Doctor Who – William Hartnell – fell seriously ill. What to do? Well, the solution was arrived at quite easily. Doctor Who was an alien so he would be allowed to regenerate every so often. Hartnell suggested his own replacement – the actor, Patrick Troughton. This version of our hero was less patrician than Hartnell and more clownish – in keeping with the irreverent spirit of the late 1960s.

Troughton’s playfulness has definitely endured as a character trait into the 21st century.

1970s – the golden age of Doctor Who?

Doctor Who was at its most self assured in the 1970s.

There will be many dissenters to this opinion but I think many of you – especially in my age bracket – will nod in agreement. The 1970s was beyond doubt the golden age of 20th century Doctor Who. The first half of the decade dominated by the dandyish Jon Pertwee – all velvet jackets and frills. While the second half of the decade was the legendary Tom Baker.

Pertwee was often earthbound, working with a United Nations supervised military task force known as UNIT to combat alien invasions of Earth and strange paranormal phenomena. He had access to state-of-the-art gadgets, which in retrospect echoed the James Bond movies. UNIT really came into its own with the 1970 series, Spearhead from Space. That featured shop dummies coming to life with murderous intentions.

Tom Baker saw Doctor Who reaching its height of popularity. Each story had multiple episodes and was broadcast early on a Saturday evening between the football results and a light entertainment variety show like The Generation Game. Interestingly, by 1975, data showed that 75% of Doctor Who viewers weren’t children, but fully grown adults.

Nevertheless, that didn’t stop the 1970s morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse – self-appointed guardian of what was good for us – denouncing Doctor Who. She claimed – and believe me I’m not making this up – that the programme was to blame for both bed wetting and severe nightmares among children under seven years of age. How and where Mary Whitehouse collected this data from – I simply can’t imagine!

By the end of the decade, Doctor Who seemed unassailable. But then…

The 1980s – Decline and Fall

In 1985, BBC boss Michael Grade put Doctor Who on ice for 18 months. Whovians were outraged. So what had gone wrong since the glory days of Pertwee and Baker?

Well, I think it started with the fifth doctor – Peter Davison. Great actor, known in the late 1970s as a young heart-throb in the TV series, All Creatures Great and Small (remade with a new cast in 2020). But when Tom Baker regenerated as Davison in 1982, I winced. Just wasn’t convinced. And I wasn’t alone.

The next doctor after Davison was the actor Colin Baker. That’s when I switched off. This was the second questionable casting decision by John Nathan-Turner, the ninth producer of Doctor Who. Opinions on Nathan-Turner are divided but I’m happy to join his critics. Many of the issues that I think continue to bedevil the 21st century version of the series kicked off under his tenure. And you can kick me for saying so.

Now, I have some sympathy with Nathan-Turner’s view that by the end of Tom Baker’s tenure in the lead role, things were getting a bit too comedic and self-deprecating. In short, Doctor Who was not being taken seriously enough by all those directly involved.

Nathan-Turner was therefore relaxed as Baker, his assistant the actor Lalla Ward, and many of the old hands behind the scenes left. But then, contradicting his declared wish for a new seriousness, he began including actors from light entertainment shows as characters in Doctor Who. A trend that has continued to this day and is, frankly, jarring.

But his biggest sin was insisting on endless back-references to old plot lines, story, and character arcs that tied writers in knots and increasingly bored mainstream audiences. Sounds familiar? It’s become a bugbear of the 21st century Doctor Who. Does every plot loose end from seasons broadcast years before really need to be tied up? Must we get to grips with the psychological motivation of Daleks and the Master? Or can’t we just be scared out of our wits hiding behind the sofa – like in the good old days?

Doctor Who put on ice by Michael Grade

In 1985, Doctor Who was put on ice after a series with Colin Baker that included a level of violence which almost validated Mary Whitehouse. There was a sense that having lost its way, the show was recycling old villains and resorting to increasingly gory, attention seeking plots. The Doctor had become quite dislikable losing all trace of the affable charm exuded by the doctors of the 1960s and 1970s.

Doctor Who wasn’t axed with any great ceremony in 1989. In fact, four or five years later, Whovians were still expecting the BBC to relent and air a new series. In reality though, the time lord had been taken round the back of the stable and shot. This was during the tenure of the final 20th century Doctor Who (and I’m only including TV series and not other spin-offs), Sylvester McCoy. For the record, McCoy was a brilliant actor and tried his utmost to keep the ship afloat. But it was already listing badly.

This article in the late 1980s spoke of a golden future for Doctor Who. It was wrong.

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