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Page last updated at 10:22 GMT, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Doctor Who (before the Tardis)

William Hartnell as Doctor Who
Pictures from rehearsals have been published for the first time

The Magazine delves into the archives

Newly released documents, which reveal the 1960s conception of Doctor Who, show how nervous the BBC was about producing a sci-fi show, writes Tom Geoghegan.

The Doctor without his time-travelling police box is difficult to imagine, but its creators initially proposed he journey through space in an invisible machine covered in light-resistant paint.

When BBC producers were devising the show in the early 1960s, they thought viewers should see no machine at all, only "a shape of nothingness".

The original Doctor Who

The BBC's head of drama Sydney Newman, who commissioned the first series, insisted an invisible machine would not work and the doctor's vehicle should be a strong visual symbol.

Wisely, writers also said a transparent, plastic bubble would be "lowgrade". But a seed of the Tardis idea is sown when they suggest using "some common object in the street" like a night-watchman's shelter.

These discussions are revealed in six previously unpublished documents, now digitised on the BBC Archive website. These include handwritten notes by Mr Newman, regarded by fans as the genius behind the original concept.

The papers, accompanied by previously unseen images at rehearsals, show deep concerns about bringing a science fiction drama to a mainstream audience - "not an automatic winner", says a researcher.

Creating the voice of the Daleks

It was regarded as a rather obscure subject, says BBC archivist Jim Sangster, and given the space limitations at Lime Grove studios that ruled out an ambitious set, this added up to a huge gamble.

"Even having done something as massive as Quatermass, they didn't have confidence in sci-fi. It was seen as niche and American.

"After Star Wars, we have a different view of course, and we see it as hugely entertaining and successful. But they were nervous - it wasn't a Western or a period drama. It was something really obscure and they had to do research into it."

Dead ringer

There was no fanfare when the first episode was discreetly advertised in the Radio Times on Saturday 23 November 1963, at 5.15pm, sandwiched between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury.

Doctor Who in 1963
In the first episodes, there were four main characters

That was typical of the times, says Mr Sangster. "They never said 'This is a TV event' because TV itself was an event. We only had two channels. ITV was all about spectacle and the BBC was a lot more dignified. So the Radio Times just says 'Here's something you might like to see.'"

At the start of that year, the BBC children's writer Cecil Webber had devised three "main characters", schoolgirl Biddy (later named Susan Foreman) and two teachers, Lola (later Barbara Wright) and Cliff (renamed Ian Chesterton). They were to be the audience's eyes and ears, through which viewers would learn about the mysterious father figure, the Doctor.

In Mr Cecil's illuminating background notes, he describes the Doctor as follows:

"A frail old man lost in space and time. They give him this name because they don't know who he is. He seems not to remember where he has come from: he is suspicious and capable of sudden malignance; he seems to have some undefined enemy; he is searching for something as well as fleeing from something. He has a 'machine' which enables them to travel together through time, through space and through matter."

It's hardly heroic but that description, apart from being frail, fits David Tennant perfectly, says Mr Sangster. He's quite unforgiving and it's up to humans to remind him of his moral duty. And the characteristics of the three humans have been amalgamated into female companions such as Billie Piper's Rose, he says.

Alternatives to the Tardis

That first description of the Doctor, played initially by an old-looking William Hartnell, still holds true today, says Doctor Who Online editor, Sebastian Brook, and his mystique is one of the show's guiding principles.

"The suspiciousness is something that's passed on through the years and the undefined enemy is things going wrong with the universe.

"And the mystery as well. It's not just a question mark, but the character itself - who is he? If that's ever resolved in the series, then that's the day it fails."

He believes Russell T Davies has seen these original ideas and gone back to basics to replicate its early success.

"He could have picked anything in 45 years to go back on. But as the show lost its way a bit during the 80s, it's interesting that he's picked that point at the beginning."

'Silly and condescending'

But what about the ideas that didn't make it?

Mr Newman scribbled "Nuts!" next to the suggestion that the Doctor's secret mission was to meddle with time and destroy the future. But six years later, an element of that was worked into the plot when the Time Lords arrived.

Sydney Newman
Sydney Newman is worshipped by fans as the man behind the show

In his background notes, Mr Webber had a brainstorm about ways the Doctor's identity could develop. He stopped short of making him appear as Santa Claus but he suggested Bethlehem as a location and the Doctor as Merlin, as Jacob Marley, and even the Doctor's wife as Cinderella's godmother.

But Mr Newman wrote in the margin: "I don't like this much - it reads silly and condescending. It doesn't get across the basis of teaching of educational experience - drama based upon and stemming from factual material and scientific phenomena and actual social history of past and future."

Mr Newman insisted that the show educate and inform, as well as entertain. Hence scenes where science teacher Ian discussed the property of acid on a planet, or history teacher Barbara enlightened viewers about the Aztecs.

Doctor Who spin-off began in 2006 but some of its elements can be traced back to 1963
A plot written for the original Doctor but rejected, called Troubleshooters, can be seen in Torchwood
Not many dashing male leads but Captain Jack Harkness continues what began with Ian Chesterton and continued later with Harry Sullivan

But even Mr Newman's foresight failed him on occasion.

One of the cardinal rules for the new show, spelled out in one of the newly-released documents, is "No Bug-Eyed Monsters" - which Newman abbreviated to "No BEMs" - and no tin robots.

He was therefore angry to find that rule had been broken to accommodate tin-can baddies armed with plungers, called Daleks.

Producer Verity Lambert had commissioned Terry Nation to devise an alien and he had come up with one that would glide across the floor like a Russian dancer.

But Mr Newman's fury turned to delight when episode six of the first series, in which the Daleks made their debut, added six million viewers.

Even geniuses can get some things wrong.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I remember being upset at missing the first episode as my parents took me to visit some friends and I was really happy when it was repeated the following week along with the second. I was eight at the time and it is one of my earliest memories. I have been a fan since and my three grown up children are also Dr Who fans. Now I watch the recent series on BBC Prime.
Corinne Hainsworth, Moscow, Russia

I remember when the first Dr Who programmes were shown and I thoroughly enjoyed them... until the Daleks arrived on the scene. They were so scary (although obviously fake), the way they made everyone turn into negatives!! It was horrific - at least to a 7 yr. old. They gave me nightmares. I still shudder when I recall the original theme music. Dum de dum, de dum de dum.
Alison, Virginia, USA

Very interesting. I saw the first episode and have been hooked since. It was a big surprise to get some new science fiction after 1961's A for Andromeda. The latter could do with a full remake as a serial rather than the BBC4 single show remake, welcome as it was.
Frederick Thompson, Romford

I loved reading about the history of this amazing show. I never even suspected that the creative genius behind "Dr Who" initially despised the Daleks' appearance. They *do* look rather silly. More articles of this sort on other great shows would be indeed welcome. Cheers.
Mircea Zaharia, Bucharest, Romania

Keep the Tardis - give it a lick of paint if you like to tidy it up - but we need the old telephone box - otherwise it is not Doctor Who. I find that if too many people or things are changed in a programme I lose interest in it - and in Doctor Who everything including the people and Doctor Who change - the only things we have are things like the tel box and Daleks. I have been watching this programme since I was a young child, and it is an excellent programme for all the family - don't spoil it.
Imelda Henning, Ballyhalbert, Co Down, N Ireland

Thanks for releasing the Doctor Who archive material-a fascinating and timely 45th birthday present for us Whovians
Tom Mills, St. Helens, UK

An interesting read. Mind-blowing information that most fans will not know about. Completely agree with the Dr who online guy - if we ever find out who the doctor is, the show is over.
Paul Anthony, London

I can clearly remember coming home to Falmouth after a Saturday shopping trip to Redruth with my parents and seeing the very first episode of Dr Who. (I seem to remember it replaced a programme which contained a character called "The Voice")I think the first adventure was something to do with cavemen. Later stories put the Daleks in London and some horrible flying things called Zorbas(?)As a teenager my doctor was Jon Pertwee and although Tom Baker was very good I had grown out of Dr Who by that time. Since its comeback and especially with the introduction of David Tennant of Dr Who I am once again hooked!
Viv Wilson, Newbury

The creatures Viv Wilson is trying to recall were Zarbies. If memory serves they were like giant upright ants. Dr Who was the highlight of my childhood Saturday evenings, and the new series have succeeded in bringing the same feelings to a new generation. Long may it continue.
Matthew Scott, Huddersfield

I was nearly 12 when the first episode was shown and I have a "memory" that the next week, BBC showed both the first and second episodes back to back because the previous weeks episode had been cut short because of JFK's assassination. (one of those "where were you when JFK was shot questions").
Eric Lowes, Newcastle

Dr. Who is not so much a sci-fi series as a horror show. Once you get past the (frankly irrelevant) Tardis, there's no science in it. However, the whole series is based on "monsters" doing bad things. if that's not mainstream horror, I can't say what is.
Pete, Harlow

I've always been a bit disappointed that the Doctor only ever seems spend his time defeating evil aliens bent on taking over Central London. Time travel offers so many other possibilities that are never exploited.
Neville Collins, Paris, France

Not true Neville, the latest aliens are mostly taking over Cardiff- tee hee!
Paul, Pontypool, Wales

Neville, I concur with this whole-heartedly, and I love the episodes best where they aren't set on Earth. And as for "Mr Newman insisted that the show educate and inform, as well as entertain", we haven't been seeing much of that in the recent series nor in Torchwood. Dr Who for me should be sci-fi/horror and being older I would like more mature theme, but Dr Who is aimed at "family" audiences. Just wish the BBC would realise children today are a bit more educated in the genre thanks to film and video games. Some episodes have been so fan fiction or blatant nostalgia I have sat and cringed, where I as a child I would of been hiding behind the sofa.
Ion Griffis, Bradford

I remember watching the first show in black and white, we had no option then. I was hooked there after and even went to the pictures to see the first movie. Fabulous piece of children's drama. Long may the BBC keep up such wonderful children's programmes.
Gedguy2, Dundee

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