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Saturday, 13 April 2013

Serious Talk about Doctor Who

This is a piece of craziness which I wrote - I think - for a talk at one of the Gallifrey conventions, or it might have been another UK con. The basic idea was to get *every* important fact about Doctor Who totally wrong, including all the names, places, actors and so on ... I hope it works!

Hello and welcome to a ‘serious’ talk about the history of DOCTOR WHO.

DOCTOR WHO. What was it all about? Who really knows the ‘true’ story?

There have been loads of books written about the show – most of them by myself – but so far we haven’t been able to tell the ‘real’ story simply because it’s far too unbelievable and would probably embarrass all those involved.

However, I feel that the time has come to ‘spill the beans’ so to speak, and to finally reveal the little known history of the show.

When we came to do our books we decided to be a little radical and to actually do some research, on the assumption that if we did this, then the books might end up slightly more interesting.

‘Doing research’ generally involves a lot of sitting around in bars, chatting to people who can’t remember their own name or where they live, never mind the fact that they might have once appeared as an extra in a DOCTOR WHO story in 1943, or was it 1997?

Sometimes, however, you stumble across some real treasures.

It was in a bar in 1990 that we met Percy Higgins. Percy must have been 100 years old if he was a day, and yet had a memory that was as keen and as fresh as if he had been out clubbing with Keith Richards every night for the last twenty years.

Higgins had apparently been employed by the BBC back in the early sixties as a minute taker and senior taxidermist to the Director General. He still had in his possession a file of minutes from early in 1963 which charted the incredible story of DOCTOR WHO from the point of view of someone who had actually been there.

When we looked through these documents, it became obvious that there was no way we could use the material. The story was totally at odds with that told by the BBC’s files and by others involved.

For a start, Sydney Newbalm, the BBC’s head of ideas and internationally renowned expert on big cigars, who had been brought over from Canada to smoke much of the BBC’s Columbian stock, had an assistant named Eugene. Eugene was American and his job was mainly to tell Newbalm how good all his ideas were and to maintain the BBC’s supply of cardigans which all staff members were contractually obliged to wear at all times.

It was on the 24th of February 1963 that a meeting was held between Newbalm, Eugene, Higgins and Mrs Swipp the tea lady to discuss how they might fill that annoying dead space between the sports coverage and the News on Saturday evenings.

Mrs Swipp favoured a cookery show, perhaps hosted by someone vaguely famous – her suggestion for the two team captains were: a struggling actor named Ronald Reagan; and Mr Ed – in which a team attempted to cook something almost edible in twenty-five minutes. Opinion was split, although Newbalm felt this was, quote, a waste of airtime, and no goddam good at all.

Higgins’ contribution was to suggest a series charting the progress of two FBI agents as they investigated strange happenings across America. The main thrust of the show was that, although these two agents obviously liked each other, they never had a relationship. As both were men, this was felt by Newbalm to be a, quote, damn good thing. And further more, quote, there’ll be none of that goddam hanky panky trouser stuff on my channel.

The idea was eventually dropped.

Newbalm came up with the idea of a series which involved some people travelling about in a spaceship that appeared to be a lot bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside. The crew would be multi-cultural in that the one that everyone would grow to love would be an alien, but that there would also be a family feel, and the crew would always try and do the right thing.

Newbalm even came up with a voice-over speech to start each episode with, that went:

“Time and Space, the ultimate barrier. These are the journeys of the time-ship TARDIS. It’s twenty-six year mission to go everywhere, to find new planets and new viewers. To go without any fear whatsoever to places that no person has ever been before.”

At which point the space ship would zoom across the screen as the opening music began.

I mentioned TARDIS there. It’s a common fallacy that this word is made up from the initial letters of a phrase that describes its ability to seem bigger on the inside than on the outside. In fact, the name came from a word that Newbalm used to use to describe people who arrived for work late. Tardies, he used to call them. The idea behind the spaceship in DOCTOR WHO was that it always arrived late to wherever it was going, and so the same term was applied to it.

Anyway … Newbalm’s idea was rejected on the basis that it was far too obvious, and Eugene was told to shred all the documentation. Apparently, from Higgins’ notes, the lad went away clutching the papers and with a distinct gleam in his eye.

Eventually, Newbalm went off on a six-month golfing luncheon to Antarctica and left the development of this new show in the capable hands of Verity Lambeth – who liked to be known as Bert – a young producer who had showed promise in the canteen one morning by eating a bagel in one mouthful.

Lambeth was charged with coming up with a title for the series.

On one rare archive note, is scrawled in Lambeth’s handwriting, what appears to be a list of possible titles for the show. The list reads:


All but the last one were crossed off, obviously indicating that these had been rejected by Lambeth. The last entry is underlined, clearly showing that this was the one she decided to go with. Of course ‘Visit Doctor Who’ was a bit of a mouthful and so it was shortened, partly because it would fit better on the screen, but mostly because the BBC’s graphic department, being what it was – namely a store for rabbit entrails – only had enough rub-down lettering to do the ‘Doctor Who’ part. Even then, their first attempt came out as ‘Doctor Oho’ and they had to rapidly change it, but not before some early test footage had been carried out of the title sequence.

The titles were created by a chap called Bernard Bodge in his back room one afternoon, by pointing his parents’ video camera at a television and recording what he saw. When his parents returned, they saw what he had done, returned the Linda Lovelace tapes to the video shop and stopped Bernard’s pocket money for a year.

This experience so traumatised the young Bodge, that he later insisted that the world was created from black and white splodges mirrored in the middle. His career came to an untimely end when he joined forces with a man named Rorshach and started seeing … things … in his splodges.

With the titles cracked, next came the problem of casting. Lambeth initially everyone wanted someone young and vibrant to play the leading character, Mr Who as he was then known. But unfortunately George Burns was not available. Newbalm sent a telegram between courses with some suggestions: it appears that he had seen some up and coming actors while passing through Canada and felt they might work. However no-one else had ever heard of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and deForest Kelly so the telegram was passed to Eugene for shredding.

Ultimately, Lambeth drew up a shortlist of suggestions. Her first choice was someone with the qualities she was looking for. He was a bit of a clown but popular with the ladies. An up and coming actor with a slight Scots accent, someone who could really get the show off with a bang. Apparently this actor also had a nice line in ferrets-down-the-trousers and nails-up-the-nose gags.

Unfortunately, Sean Connery had just done a film with a very similar title, and didn’t want to get typecast as only appearing in shows with ‘Doctor’ in the title. Nevertheless Lambeth’s ideas persisted, and in 1987, an actor was finally cast to play the Doctor who fulfilled her basic requirements (and, funnily enough, actually appeared with a ferret in THE HAPPINESS PATROL).

Second choice would have been Frank Sinatra, but no-one took the suggestion of a singing Doctor seriously. Finally, Lambeth plumped for William Hurndell as she liked army sergeants enormously. Especially the uniforms …

To write the scripts she chose a comedy writer named Jerry Nation. Nation has variously been cited as the person who actually created DOCTOR WHO, but this is blatantly incorrect. All Nation did was to write scripts based on the spines of a set of encyclopaedias. Two of his most successful being:


Sometimes he even opened the books as well … but for that he had to be on double-money.

In fact, there exists a rare script from 1962 where Nation was experimenting with a new format for a popular British comedian called Tony Hancock.

A particularly pertinent extract runs as follows:

HANCOCK: Oh goodness me. Fluid links? Look at that mercury – it’s nearly an armful!

SID: Hang on there. What’s all this. Who are you people?

ALIEN: You will move ahead of us and follow my directions.

HANCOCK: Well which way’s that then.

ALIEN: This way.

At which point Hancock hesitates. One of the Aliens produces a custard pie and pushes it in Sid’s face. It then knees him in the back of the legs.

SID: My legs … what have you done to my legs.

ALIEN: You will recover shortly, unless you force us to use our weapons again, in which case, the condition will be permanent.

HANCOCK: (Clutching his lapel) Well bless my soul, Chatterton, hmmmm? Our destiny’s in the stars. Hmm? Yes … yes … Barbara …

I think that the similarities to Nation’s later work for DOCTOR WHO are extraordinary.

Because DOCTOR WHO was considered an important addition to the BBC’s output, a special documentary was commissioned to look at the production of the first few episodes. This was intended for JUNIOR POINTS OF VIEW but was ultimately never transmitted. A rare tape of the feature was recently unearthed in a shed in a locked store room in the basement of BBC Television Centre. We’ve managed to smuggle a copy out …


And so the pilot episode was re-made and DOCTOR WHO was successfully launched on BBC television.

When William Hurndell became too expensive to continue in the role, the production team decided that DOCTOR WHO was too good to stop, and so utilised a technique used several times in television known as ‘hoping the audience won’t notice’. They simply replaced William Hurndell with Patrick O’Troughton as he happened to be in the studios doing an interview on a film he’d just finished called THE AFRICAN QUEEN and didn’t notice when the interviewer was replaced by a cockney, a dolly bird and a Dalek.

This is where the idea of the Doctor playing the part blacked-up and wearing a wig comes from. O’Troughton was actually playing a dark-skinned wind-jammer captain in the film and simply got confused.

When Sydney Newbalm heard of the plans, he insisted that the BBC also make another version of the first Troughton story for the fans. ‘They’ll never go for all that goddam replacing the actor nonsense’ he insisted, and so a special audio version of the final episode of THE TENTH PLANET – which was the last story to feature William Hurndell – and of all of THE POWER OF THE DALEKS – Patrick O’Troughton’s first story – were made which included lots of pseudo-scientific nonsense about the Doctor changing.

Newbalm made sure that the master tapes of the actual transmitted episodes were destroyed immediately following transmission – in fact they were all given to a passing schoolboy called Ian – and then leaked the new audios in the seventies, thus convincing fans that there was a ‘proper’ reason for the change over. Over the years, this brilliant piece of misdirection has become a part of DOCTOR WHO mythology, and even fans who saw the original transmissions, today firmly believe that there was a reason for it all at the time. The deception was given further credence by Newbalm writing to the RADIO TIMES under some false names both hailing and slagging off O’Troughton, just in case someone noticed that the change of actor had not been explained on screen.

To further muddy the waters, Newbalm got a vision mixer named Shirley Coward, to mix together two photographs of Hurndell and O’Troughton and record the result onto video thus giving the impression that the Doctor had changed. This piece of footage, which had never actually been in the transmitted show, was eventually given to the childrens’ magazine programme BLUE PETER when they wanted something to use for a celebration of ten years of DOCTOR WHO.

When it came to the next change of Doctor, Higgins’ documents stopped, but we were fortunate to stumble across one Herbert Smoth, who actually worked as a janitor, cleaner and head of heavy entertainment at what used to be called BBC Television. In fact, we literally stumbled across him, sleeping under a park bench close to Television Centre one Thursday lunchtime.

With his help and the piles of rubbish, old clothes, props, bits of paper and cigarette packets that he had collected over the years and carefully stored in about twenty old plastic shopping bags contained in a wire shopping trolley, we were able to piece together a hitherto unknown history of the following eras of the programme. Of crucial importance here was a sheaf of cracked, yellowing papers, which, as Herbert recalled, had been left in the gents on the fifth floor of TV Centre in the early seventies.

These were a godsend. They turned out, once we had cleaned and photocopied them, to be a series of interviews with everyone that had been connected with DOCTOR WHO who had since died.

This was quite a find, and through the numerous notes, transcripts and carbon sheets, we were able to piece together the true story of DOCTOR WHO in the Seventies.

It all started with Sydney Newbalm, who, far from retiring to his ranch in California as everyone had thought – in fact there was some argument as to whether he had ever returned from lunch in the Antarctic – was actually secretly line-producing DOCTOR WHO at the end of the O’Troughton era while Derrick Shergar and Peter Tryout were involved with PAUL TEMPLE.

It was Newbalm who cast the third Doctor, and scribbled on the back of an old cigarette packet which Herbert had retrieved from ‘a senior executive’s office’ in 1969, were the actual casting notes.

The first choice was Bob Newhart.

Now, he was a hot favourite, as it was felt that his ability to tell a serious story would provide a suitable counterpart to Patrick O’Troughton who tended to ad-lib everything from arriving at the studio to having lunch. They also liked the idea of using someone with a good sense of humour. Unfortunately Bob was not available on the required dates and so Newbalm came up with an alternative.

Now Red Fox would not at first appear ideal, but story editor Terrance Kicks was keen. It was only when Fox insisted on pretending he had a heart attack as his audition piece, and came up with the idea that the Doctor could talk to his dead wife in the TARDIS that Newbalm realised that this interpretation was far too serious for the direction in which he wanted to take the show.

One of the Production Managers on one of the last O’Troughton DOCTOR WHO stories suggested that perhaps he could play it, but Newbalm thought that his name was not hyphenated enough.

It was when Newbalm was sitting in his office, wondering who could play the Doctor, that he heard singing coming from down the corridor. His ears pricked up. Could this be his new Doctor?

He headed off down the corridor.

In a room at the end, was one of the stars of radio’s THE NAVY LARK. A well known and popular comic, someone loved by radio audiences across the country.

Newbalm just had time to greet Leslie Phillips when he found himself flat on his face, having been barged past by another actor. The tall, white-haired, beaky nosed man apologised and helped Newbalm up.

His ever-present cigar was crushed beyond repair.

The lisping fellow offered to do anything to make amends and Newbalm smiled. “Well, there is one goddam thing …” he said.

And that is how it all started. Jon Pardney got the role and the rest, as they say, is geometry.

Incidentally, we also found in Smoth’s collection of old crushed beer cans, a page from a script which appears to be an alternative regeneration sequence for the second Doctor into the third. It runs as follows:

SECOND DOCTOR: Zamie, Joey … Oh my word! Must get … get back to the TARDIS …

TIME LORD: That’s you stuffed mate.

SECOND DOCTOR: What’s happening … oooohhhh …


THIRD DOCTOR: … oooooohhhh. Oooh aarr me dear. Now what’s all this fuss and bother goin’ on … an’ goin’ on ‘ere then. Where’s old Worzel’s ol’ Doctor ‘ed then?

TIME LORD: That’s sorted him out then … anyone off down the pub?

There were many other gems in Herbert’s pile of hoarded rubbish.

Most was already well known and well documented, but there were some surprises. Like the fact that companion actress Elisabeth Slaythem was in fact married to both Ian Martyr and Philip Wycliffe.

That Tomb Maker was chosen for the part because no-one else applied and, as the Doctor was originally to carry a hod over his shoulder, he had his own costume.

That Jerry Nation tried to withhold the Daleks from his story GENESIS OF THE DALEKS on the grounds that Fozzie Bear would be a far better enemy. There were also some letters that suggested that Frank Oz had a hand in this, and that at one point, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and Fozzie were all going to appear playing the Movellans in DESTINY OF THE DALEKS, which explains a lot …

There was the K9 fiasco, when the Unions complained because they said that the creature was a pet, and no animals were allowed in studio without a handler. Five minutes later, they were on strike.

When it was pointed out that K9 did have a handler, in the form of an operator, the Unions responded that mechanical devices could only be operated by a trained electrician. Five minutes later, they were on strike.

When the BBC offered to train K9’s operator as an electrician, the Unions complained because electricians were not allowed to handle animals. Five minutes later, you guessed, they were on strike.

And so on.

Coming more up to date, every time a producer resigned, there was, regular as clockwork, an application from one of the BBC’s own staff. This man, whose name, and the number of hyphens in it, changed with each application, eventually got the job in 1980 simply through persistence, proving that if you try something for long enough, you will eventually succeed.

John-Nath-an-Turn-off stamped his own mark on the show from day one, insisting that all the scripts be printed on a nice pink paper, and that there was fresh coffee available at all times on location. Furthermore that every story should feature at least one character who took an item of clothing off. So in THE LEISURE HIVE, the Doctor loses his scarf, in MEGLOS, he takes his jacket off, FULL CIRCLE saw Outlers swimming in just their trousers … and so on. Thus was the Turn-off era of the show begun.

Tomb Maker decided to move on and become a woman – or something – and Turn-off cast Peter Davidson, that nice young man from the vet show, as the Doctor.

Turn-off also felt that someone as young and attractive as the Doctor should be surrounded by other young and attractive companions, and so he introduced three new companions: Tegan, an Australian wannabe Air Hostess, Nyssa, a gardener from Traken, and Adric, a loser from Alzarius.

What is not commonly known is that Adric was originally to have been an Air Hostess, but this idea was scrapped when actor Matthew Watercloset refused to wear the wig and uniform, Nyssa was to have been an alien from Alzarius, obsessed with river fruit, spiders, shirts with strings up the front and pointless swimming and Tegan was to have been a gardener called Tom, an Australian who was so obsessed with surfing that he cut lawns dressed only in a beanie and speedoes.

While Turn-off liked this idea, it was vetoed by actress Janet Feelgood, who felt that Tom should be female – as she was playing her – and that she should also be a feminist, brilliant at maths, gorgeous, independent and single. She would also have been totally opposed to the exploitation of the female form in the media, but this clause was missed off as Feelgood had to dash out for a lucrative photo-shoot involving a black rubber corset, whips and a fibre-glass breast plate.

Eventually Peter Davidson left and Turn-off asked another actor whom he had once met at a party to play the Doctor. Colon Slaker was initially concerned, but decided to go for it when he realised that a part of the job description was to go to loads of American conventions.

And so the great wheel turned and more DOCTOR WHO followed. Eventually Turn-off decided he wanted to return to the roots of DOCTOR WHO and to start with a clean slate. Therefore he sacked Slaker, had numerous rows with his script editor until he too left, and introduced a new, enthusiastic, red haired, sparky, intelligent, red haired, pretty, chatty, charismatic and red haired companion whom he felt epitomised the direction he wished to take his new, revamped show in.

His initial proposal of renaming it THE HOT WHO SHOW was dropped when it was pointed out that there had already been a show called something very close to that, but it had been cancelled. Turn-off tried to argue that there had also been a show called DOCTOR WHO that had been cancelled but this fell on deaf ears, and he was forced to continue with the show as it was.

By way of compensation, he decided to experiment with making Bunty Lungfull into the Doctor and to have the Doctor regenerate into her at the start of her first adventure. This proved difficult to achieve, and so Turn-off opted for the simpler solution of having another Time Lord play Mel for much of the story.

Finally, he brought in someone else to take the blame for all the scripts. This was Angela Cartmel, chosen by Turn-off as her second name included the name of his favourite companion of all time. Cartmel secretly wanted to be a famous comics author – someone like Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore – but wasn’t quite sure how to start.

One of the innovations that she wanted to bring into the show was to include on-screen captions for the fight scenes. This was inspired by the old BATMAN series which featured various ‘Biff’ and ‘Ker-splat’ captions. She wanted a ‘Vwoorp vwoorp’ to appear when the TARDIS departed, and various other phrases to pop up from time to time. Unfortunately, this idea proved too expensive, and so instead she painted these captions on the set walls of one of her first stories: PARADISE TOWERS, when no-one was watching.

Thus DOCTOR WHO trundled into its final few years on the BBC.

There has been a great deal of speculation as to quite why DOCTOR WHO was cancelled by the BBC at the end of the twenty sixth season. So far, no good reasons have been given.

Thanks to Sam Hambrain, a librarian and assistant records destroyer at BBC Worldwide, however, we have now got as close as perhaps we’re going to get to the real reasons.

It appears that Sydney Newbalm’s original assistant, Eugene, returned to America and did quite well for himself by devising, all by himself, and producing, all by himself, a show which ended up being quite popular. It was called STAR TREK.

With one major success under his belt, he turned his attention to launching a series of spin-offs of his show across the world. As a part of this plan, he had to remove all opposition and DOCTOR WHO was the main target. The BBC was offered the rights to show his fabulous new series if they agreed to cancel DOCTOR WHO for no reason whatsoever and never make it again, giving weak excuses to anyone who asked or showed any interest in it … like the general public, for example.

Eugene reasoned that with WHO out of the way, his STAR TREK products could take over the world. He was already half-owner of the STAR WARS franchise (George Lucas had bought the word STAR off Eugene in the mid-seventies) and the same offer was in fact made to Lucas to scrap plans for more STAR WARS films, in exchange for which Eugene would include characters from the films in the tv series. Lucas refused at this point and went head-to-head with Eugene on the franchises. Lucas was also secretly pleased that DOCTOR WHO had gone.

This plan worked for a time, and the BBC happily started to show STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION. However, Eugene had not considered the persuasive nature of a fellow American named George Segal, already famous as an actor, who found a get out clause in the Eugene/BBC deal which allowed the merchandising of DOCTOR WHO to continue.

He therefore obtained a license to make a DOCTOR WHO film, and the rest is history. Once Eugene discovered what was going on, he promptly prevented his latest series from going to the BBC – VOYAGER ended up on Channel 4 which, some argued, was the best place for it – and started a massive STAR TREK merchandising operation that would finally make people forget all about DOCTOR WHO.

The BBC retaliated by also trying to create a merchandise boom, but only succeeded in getting a few books and videos off the ground. The problem was that STAR TREK already had all the bookshops and most of America in its pocket.

So the current position seems to be that as long as we have STAR TREK spin-offs, we won’t have any more DOCTOR WHO. Which is a shame, really.

That brings to a close this look at the real history of DOCTOR WHO. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and if there are any questions, then I’m happy to answer them to the best of my ability.

David J Howe