The Great Canadian Doctor Who Roundtable: Season 8

Doctor Who  returns to our screens this weekend after eight long TARDIS-less months. And while the season premiere, "Deep Breath", promises to be full of familiar faces — like Clara, Vastra, Jenny and Strax — there will also, of course, be one big new face: Peter Capaldi will make his debut as the Twelfth Doctor. With the new incarnation, the show looks like it will be heading in something of a new direction — with a darker tone.

In Canada, we'll find out if that's true on Saturday night starting at 8pm Eastern (5pm Pacific) on Space. And since we're Canadian and the show was created by a Canadian, we thought we'd check in with some of our favourite Canadian Doctor Who experts to see what they're excited about — and worried about — as we head into the new season:

Steven Schapansky (Edmonton) is the co-host of the popular Doctor Who podcast Radio Free Skaro and The Memory Cheats, which discusses randomly selected episodes of the show. You can find him on Twitter at @Legopolis.

Erika Ensign (Edmonton) co-hosts the Hugo Award-nominated Verity! podcast — "Six Smart Women Discussing Doctor Who" — and produces a short fiction podcast for the also-Hugo-Award-nominated Apex Magazine. You can find her on Twitter at @HollyGoDarkly.

Katrina Griffiths (Edmonton), along with Erika Ensign, is one of the two Canadian co-hosts of the Verity! podcast. You can find her on Twitter at @xanister.

Gian-Luca Di Rocco (Markham) is a member of the Executive of The Doctor Who Information Network and a frequent contributor to the Doctor Who Blog. He's on Twitter at @ProgRocco.

Cindy Peters (Toronto) is the co-founder of The Doctor Who Society of Canada. You can find the Society on Twitter at @DrWhoSociety.
Graeme Burk (Ottawa) is the co-author of Who is the Doctor and Who's 50: The 50 Doctor Who Stories to Watch Before You Die, as well as being the host of the Reality Bomb podcast. You can find him on Twitter at @GraemeBurk.

Peter Capaldi
1. What are you to looking forward to seeing from Peter Capaldi as the new Doctor?

Steven Schapansky: I'm looking forward to a darker, more mature performance in the actor playing the Doctor. I loved both Matt Smith and David Tennant, but you almost felt like they were trying to win over the room whenever they entered it. Capaldi seems like he knows he owns the room and it's up to others to realize it.

Erika Ensign: Something different. That's what I'm always looking forward to with a new Doctor. I love that the character can and does change with each incarnation. If we're going to be superficial, I could say I'm looking forward to the Scottish accent. Because I really am looking forward to that! And okay, I'll say it: Peter Capaldi is Dead Sexy. I'm a fan of an asexual Doctor, but asexual and Dead Sexy are not mutually exclusive.

Katrina Griffiths: I'm looking forward to a new Doctor in general. I adore Matt Smith but I'm hoping to see a new spin that's perhaps more formal, serious alien and a lack of romantic nonsense. Most importantly I'm looking for a great companion/Doctor dynamic.

Gian-Luca Di Rocco: A different take on the Doctor than has been seen in the new series to date - perhaps something a bit fiercer and intensity, a Doctor less interested in flirting for the sake of flirting while still being invested in a closeness and a caring relationship with the people he travels and interacts regularly with. I hope we see the Doctor demonstrate a biting wit and a "black comedy"-style sense of humour to go with what is said to be a "darker" season and Doctor. Hopefully we will see a Doctor that is as physically violent as Doctors 3 through 6 were.

Cindy Peters:  I’m looking forward to seeing a different perspective from an older Doctor. Tennant and Smith were all fairly young and although Eccleston was 41, he still had a youthfulness. As the actors got younger, the Doctor got goofier and I’m interested in seeing a stark turn from that type of Doctor. Having said that, I don’t want to lose the quirkiness that endears him to the masses nor do I want to see the show turn dark simply because Capaldi is an older actor for the part.

I'd also like to see how Moffat deals with a new Doctor. Smith and the Ponds were his "babies" and you could see a downward turn to the series once Gillan and Darvill announced their departure. For me, a clue to the decline was the constant use of soundstages versus location shoots. I’m always keenly aware of this and that was a hint of things to come. I want to see how Moffat turns things around: can a new Doctor with new characters breathe a little life back into a series that had started to get stale. I truly hope Moffat gives it his all!

Graeme Burk: What I look for from every new Doctor: to see how they establish themselves in the role, to see what he does differently, to see how he says "Hello. I'm the Doctor."

Capaldi specifically is sort of like when Christopher Eccleston took on the part: you have an established, heavyweight actor with a vast body of work coming to play the Doctor. He's not an up and comer like David Tennant or a relative unknown like Matt Smith. Consequently, there's a lot of interest on my part in seeing how he takes on the role. How he makes it his own.

Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald
2. Other than getting to see a new Doctor, what are you most excited about for the new season?

Steven Schapansky: An unbroken run of 12 episodes! It's hard to believe that we haven't had this many consecutive weeks of Doctor Who since 2010. I honestly don't know if my heart can take a dozen weeks in a row.

Erika Ensign: MORE CLARA! She has really taken my breath away. I think she's the best new series companion (with the possible exception of Donna). I love how Clara reacts to the situations she's put in. It varies, based on the situation and where she is in her arc. I love that. Sometimes companions seem more like a collection of idiosyncrasies. I feel like Clara is a real person who could exist in the real world without seeming like a cartoon. And she's cute as a button.

Katrina Griffiths: Some new monsters! New dynamics! New plots! It's Doctor Who, I'm just glad it's back.

Gian-Luca Di Rocco: The return to having at least a couple of two-part (or double-length) stories, which we didn't get in the 2013 season. I am also excited to see what the 4 stories written by the three writers new to Who this year will be like.

Cindy Peters:  I hope that we will actually be able to see Clara shine through. Her character had a huge amount of potential that has never been realized.

Graeme Burk: Two things: I'm looking forward to seeing how Jenna Coleman as Clara develops. I think Jenna is an amazing actress and she imbues Clara with a lot of wit and self-aware charm but I think the "impossible girl" storyline last season eclipsed some of Clara's better aspects with many fans. She was fabulous in "The Day of the Doctor" in how she could speak truth to power with the Doctor. Even though companion crushes are ten-a-penny these days I think it with Clara was done in a sweet way and only ever impacted on the relationship and the story in terms of her loyalty to the Doctor. It will be fun to see how that dynamic is completely shaken up with the regeneration into Peter Capaldi.

I'm also really pleased with the list of writers and directors: On the writing side there are people like Phil Ford (who has written some of the best Doctor Who not featuring the Doctor in the spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures), Frank Cotrell Boyce from 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy, Jamie Mathieson from Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel (a hoot of a British science fiction film) and Peter Harness from Wallander. Plus the amazing Gareth Roberts. And they start and end the season with British film directors like Ben Wheatley and Rachel Talalay. That's real bench strength of creative people. I'm very pleased.

Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor
3. Is there anything that worries you about Season 8 based on what you've seen and heard so far?

Steven Schapansky: I'm worried that Jenna Coleman will be leaving the show, based on tabloid reports. She's been my favourite New Who companion and I want to see her stay for another year at least. 

Erika Ensign: I know the scuttlebutt is that the new Doctor will be "dark" and "less user-friendly" and such. I do like a more alien Doctor, though I'm not sure "dark" is how I'd characterize what I hope for. I don't want to see a broody, angry Doctor. I tend to not like grouchy (Pertwee) or angry (McCoy) Doctors as much. I'm trying to have faith that what they mean by "dark" is simply less-human and cuddly, because that is A-OK with me!

Katrina Griffiths: Clara being my favourite female companion ever, I'm always worried she'll leave or something will happen to her. There have been rumors...

Gian-Luca Di Rocco: No - but then I've made sure that I've heard next to nothing about the plot details of Series 8 (or Season 36 as I like to call it) thus far. Nothing that I've heard worries me.

Cindy Peters:  I’ve become very adept at avoiding spoilers. I know what Capaldi wears and that there will be a new character named Danny Pink – a co-worker of Clara's. Passed that I have seen glimpses of promos before I could avert my eyes and hum with my fingers in my ears!

Graeme Burk: I'm a little concerned that Peter Capaldi is going to play a very grumpy Doctor. Even William Hartnell and Colin Baker's Doctors -- the previous holders of grouchy Doctors -- smiled and had friendly moments. But honestly, it's Capaldi, I'm on-board for anything he does.

The Doctor gets a phonecall
4. Are there any outstanding plot questions you're still hoping to have answered?

Steven Schapansky: Steven Moffat did a fairly fantastic job at wrapping everything from his first four years as show runner up at the end of Matt Smith's era, but there's one question that I've wondered about that will apparently also be addressed, according to Doctor Who Magazine! (spoilers) So, no, I'm going into this season fresh and unsullied by needling questions.

Erika Ensign: I'm actually hoping we *don't* get any more about Clara's "Impossible Girl" story. I loved how that played out, and I hope it stays finished as-is. Same for River Song's arc (though I have no love for that one).

I do hope we eventually get some more info on the Time Lords and Gallifrey. I know bringing them back is a dicey prospect, but I love me a good Gallifrey story! 

Katrina Griffiths: I don't want there to be any outstanding plot issues at all! If they touch on Clara's mysterious past great but I want a fresh start with this new handsome Doctor.  

Gian-Luca Di Rocco: The only one is who the "woman in the shop" was that gave Clara the number to call the TARDIS in "The Bells of Saint John". 

Cindy Peters:  I'm hoping to have answered outstanding plot points answered per se, although I think everyone suspects that the search for Gallifrey will begin.

I wasn’t happy with the way the regeneration question was answered with Smith's Doctor. I firmly believed, and still believe, that this was explained in “Let’s Kill Hitler” when River gave the Doctor her remaining regenerative powers. We saw that River had two regenerations, giving a third to the Doctor and in that act bestowing upon him several more. This is not something that will ever be re-addressed but it is something that continues to bother me as a basic oversight.

Graeme Burk: I guess the identity of the person who gave Clara the Doctor's phone number in "The Bells of Saint John" last season? What's honestly left? I'm not big on Gallifrey resurfacing. I think bringing it back was fine and I think "The Time of the Doctor" put it in a good place to leave it for the time being, so to speak.

A Draconian
5. What classic villain (not already featured during the reboot years) would you most like to see return to the show?

Steven Schapansky: Either the Draconians (from 1973's "Frontier in Space") or the Rutans (from "Horror of Fang Rock", 1977). The Draconians were a brilliant design for an alien race that had a culture and a history and weren't necessarily good or evil. I'd love to see what the new series would do with them. And as brilliant as Dan Starkey's Strax has been, it's hard to imagine taking the Sontarans seriously now because of him. Having the Rutans, enemies of the Sontarans for centuries, return might provide a storyline to reestablish the might of the Sontaran race. Sontar-ha!

Erika Ensign: I guess I don't have any that I'm particularly waiting for. There are some I'd like to see updated strictly from a design perspective--just to see how they'd look with today's budget/technology. Bring back the Vardans! Or the Bandrils! How's about the Myrka?

Katrina Griffiths: Quarks, always the Quarks and/or the Dominators. It's not a good story I know that but I'd love to see a more modern twist on them. Also given how poorly they were done originally maybe the Zarbi.

Gian-Luca Di Rocco: The Valeyard.

Cindy Peters:  I’m New Whovian and I'm only starting to get into the Classic episodes now so I can't really speak to Classic villains. I would say that I would like to say more of Davros, I think that this is a villain that others like myself should become more familiar with.

Graeme Burk: Um... who's left again? We've kind of hit all my faves: Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, Ice Warriors. We'd be in the B-or-C list of monsters. (Steven Moffat, I have a great story idea for the K-1 Robot. Let's talk!) I'd love to see the Master come back. I've heard Moffat say he thought Russell T Davies conclude the character in an interesting way and he's right but...a) I'd still like to see him come back and b) Moffat lies.

Mostly though I think it would be fun to bring back some new series monsters that haven't been seen for a while. I think it would be nice to revisit the Ood or the Sycorax or even the Slitheen. The modern version of the show has been back for almost a decade. There's lots of monsters from that incarnation who haven't been seen in ages.

The Eleventh Hour
6. If someone hasn't already started watching Doctor Who, which episode would you recommend as the best place to start?

Steven Schapansky: Matt Smith's first episode, "The Eleventh Hour", is just about the most perfect jumping on point in the show's long history. Everything starts fresh, yet there are hints of a past that a new viewer can explore later if he or she wants. And it's also a supremely entertaining piece of drama.

Erika Ensign: If it's someone who's not sure and just wants to try an episode, I say "Blink". I once wrote a blog post about why it's a good starter--it's exciting! It grabs you and makes you want to see what else this show can do!

The problem there is it's not the most representative. If this person is willing to commit, I think "The Eleventh Hour" is the best place to start. It's a great reset (of Doctor, companion, and production team) and re-introduces you to the concept of the show. And then there are only a few years of eps for the newbie to watch to get caught up! Then, of course, they ought to loop back to "Rose". And then dip into the Classic Series... 

Katrina Griffiths: Everyone says "Blink" and they are probably right. A new Who story is probably best although I'd love to start someone with a story like "Logopolis" so they can understand regeneration from the get-go and meet the beginnings of a very interesting time team.  

Gian-Luca Di Rocco: "An Unearthly Child" - although if they are not willing to start with the classic series, then I would suggest "The Eleventh Hour".

Cindy Peters: I always recommend "Blink" to those who’ve never watched Doctor Who before. I like to say that it’s "the least Whocentric" episode and if you like feel and the style, then go back to Eccleston. Of course you meet Tennant and Martha, but the story is about Sally Sparrow and the Weeping Angels. You see the TARDIS, but it's just a strange blue Police Box. In this episode, you learn with Sally about the world of the Doctor while being engrossed in an intriguing, well-told and creepy story.

Graeme Burk: Any damn place you like. The show even at its story arc-iest is designed to be relatively self-contained. I know people who started watching with the uber-nerdy continuity-heavy 50th anniversary special and loved it. I tend to start new viewers with "Rose", and have them go through the new series from the start but really anywhere. People will either get the vibe or they won't.

Abi Morgan, creator of The Hour
7. Is there anything you'd like to see done differently on Doctor Who?

Steven Schapansky: Doctor Who has always been about change. It's never really got so comfortable with itself to become stale, and it appears that Series 8 will be another sharp turn in a different direction. Given that theme of constant change, I wouldn't alter a thing!

Erika Ensign: It's become rather obvious to say "more female writers", but it really is something I'd like to see. I'd love for more varied life experiences to make their way into the back room. Writers of color would be fab as well. I do, however, understand that writing for Doctor Who isn't like writing for many other shows, and that new writers often need to be coddled along quite a bit, but so be it. They keep adding new white male writers each season. Let's try that with some ladies please!

Katrina Griffiths: I'm really happy with the way Doctor Who is going. I wouldn't mind less emphasis on characters like River Song and a return to more adventure driven stories. I'd also love to see way WAY less emphasis on romance not just between the Doctor and his companions but also in general, it's just not something I'm very fond of. Otherwise great job Doctor Who, I'm happy and eager to see the new stuff. 

Gian-Luca Di Rocco: I think we are overdue for a change in composer for the incidental music and the arrangement of the theme tune. And I'd be happy for there to be a higher percentage of two-part/90 minute stories in each season than we currently have.

Cindy Peters: I’d like to see the scope of the episodes widen and I'd like that to start with the overall design of the production. From the few stills I’ve seen, I hope that Moffat has gone back to location shoots and that the new series will have a more polished and less rushed look. I'd like to see more multi-part episodes that leave us counting down the minutes until the next one begins. There were too many “one-off” episodes last series that just felt disjointed and thrown together. They felt very un-British.

I'd also like to see a return to slow reveals, woven throughout years of story-telling. A word spoken off-hand in the first episode that unravels slowly to an impactful and emotional moment of truth or loss. This is something that I think Davies excelled in and that Moffat struggles with.

Graeme Burk: I would like to see more women writers on the program. I get that Doctor Who is a TV show, not a carefully selected demographic group, but after 9 years on the air there's no excuse that there's only been one woman writer. As great as the show is, writing reflects a certain point of view and as much as I love the series, I often find it pretty obvious a bunch of blokes wrote it. A more diverse writing pool could only be for the good of the program. And it's not like the talent isn't out there. Abi Morgan from The Hour would be amazing. Jane Goldman would be stunning. And that's the top level that have run shows or written for films. There are plenty of other female TV writers who could ace Doctor Who.

But otherwise? not really. The great thing about Doctor Who is that it's like the weather. You don't like what you have, something different will be along shortly.


We'll be writing about each new episode of Doctor Who this season — just like we did last season. In the meantime, you can keep reading with our previous posts about the show: including the story of Sydney Newman, the Torontonian creator of Doctor Who, our trip to the Doctor Who Experience and other Doctor Who locations in Cardiff, our thoughts on Matt Smith's final episode and our idle speculation that Tasha Lem might actually be River Song.

This post was posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at

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The Little Red Umbrella Goes to Doctor Who Locations in Cardiff

Cardiff isn't just the capital of Wales, it's also the capital of Doctor Who. The science-fiction show is filmed at the BBC studios near Cardiff Bay and in locations all over the city. Even many of the scenes that claim to be set in London are actually shot here. A walk around town might bring you to Rose Tyler's apartment block, the church where Donna Noble (almost) got married, or the police station from "Blink".

In our first post, we headed to The Doctor Who Experience: a big  museum on Cardiff Bay that houses props, costumes and even sets from the show. In this post, we'll wander the city itself tracking down some familiar locations that have appeared on the show.

Just around the bend of the bay from The Doctor Who Experience are Roald Dahl Plass and The Millennium Centre, familiar sights for Whovians — especially the ones who watch the spin-off series, Torchwood. The interior of the Millennium Centre was also used as the lobby of the hospital in New New York and the Two Stream centre in "The Girl Who Waited":

Next door, the Welsh parliament building — the Senedd — was used for "The Lazarus Experiment":

While on the other side of the square, you'll find the spot where the entrance to Torchwood once stood. Now, it's home to a shrine dedicated to the memory of the show and notes pleading for the series to return to television: 

Just a few steps away, you find yourself in the retro 1960s American dinner where the Eleventh Doctor met Amy, Rory and River:

And there, you can still stumble across the facade of the TARDIS when you go to the washroom:

Cardiff Bay is also home to the office building where Donna Noble worked in "The Runaway Bride", tucked between the Senedd and The Doctor Who Experience:

While on the other side of the Bay, you'll find Amy and Rory's house:

A few kilometers away, north of the city centre, is the house where Clara Oswald lives. There's even a little TARDIS in the window:

And across the street is the spot where the Spoonhead stood as the plane flew towards Clara and the Doctor in "The Bells of St. John":

Not far from Clara's house is Cathays Cemetery — one of the biggest Victorian cemeteries anywhere in the UK:

Which was also used as a location in "The Bells of St. John", where the Victorian version of Clara is buried:

A couple of kilometers west, you'll find Llandaff. Originally, Llandaff was a village that sprung up around the ancient Llandaff Cathedral. Since then, it's been swallowed up by the city. The Cathedral Green was one of the main locations in "The Eleventh Hour" — Matt Smith's first full episode as the Eleventh Doctor: 

And the war memorial on the Cathedral Green head already appeared during the Tenth Doctor's run — at the end of "The Family Blood"

The Cathedral Green is just up the hill from Llandaff Cathedral itself, which has a history stretching all the way back to the 1100s:

...and was also used as the location of the church Van Gogh painted in "Vincent and the Doctor":

The National Museum, Wales was also featured in that episode, pretending to be the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. And it was also used as the museum where the Pandorica was kept on display in "The Big Bang":

As as well being the museum where the cat burglar Lady Christina de Souza descends from the ceiling to steal the Cup of Athelstan in the David Tennant special, "Planet of the Dead":

The pedestrian promenades of Cardiff city centre are also frequently used to play the part of London shopping districts:

Including the department store where Rose Tyler worked:

And you can still see mannequins where the Autons attacked in the very first episode of the reboot:

That spot is just around the corner from the church where Donna Noble (almost) got married. It also pops up in the background when the Tenth Doctor and Kylie Minogue travel from the spaceship Titanic to the surface of the Earth in "Voyage of the Damned":

On the way back toward Cardiff Bay, you can spot Rose Tyler's apartment block from Lloyd-George Avenue. The same buildings were used as the place where Clara's family held their Christmas dinner in Matt Smith's final episode:

A few blocks south of that, you can track down the police station from "Blink":

And across the street, the church where Sally Sparrow saw a pair of Weeping Angels from the window of the police station:

And the statues used in the "don't blink!" montage from that same episode are all over the city:



Read more our posts about Doctor Who here, including the Torontonian roots of the show, the punk band Peter Capaldi played in with Craig Ferguson and our thoughts on the Christmas special. 

Learn more about Cardiff's history and the role Doctor Who has played in the city's revitalization here.

Posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at

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The Torontonian Roots of Doctor Who — The Canadian Behind The Legendary TV Show

This post was originally published on November 21, 2013 during the week of Doctor Who's 50th anniversary.

Doctor Who turns 50 years old this weekend. The Guinness Book of World Records calls it the most successful science-fiction series of all-time. It's the longest-running, too. Since it first debuted in 1963, the show has aired nearly 800 episodes, plus specials, spin-offs, movies, radio plays, mini episodes, sketches for charity shows, books, graphic novels... It's an icon of British culture; the London Times called it "quintessential to being British." But if you want to trace the show back to the very, very beginning, to the person who more than any other is credited with the creation of Doctor Who, well, then you have to travel back to Canada, back to downtown Toronto, back to a brand new baby boy born in our city during the First World War.

His name was Sydney Newman. He was born in 1917, to parents who had moved to Canada from Russia. They owned a shoe shop, but their son dreamed of being an artist. As a kid, he went to Odgen Public School (just a block north-east of Queen & Spadina); as a teenager during the Great Depression he studied art and design at Central Tech (on Bathurst just south of Bloor). By the time he was in his early twenties, he was making a good living as a commercial artist, designing movie posters. 

But by his own admission, Newman was a restless sort. He was quickly developing a new passion: film. And his timing was absolutely perfect. In 1939, when Newman was just 21 years old, the National Film Board of Canada was created. The government had commissioned a report that recommended they commission another report that recommended they create the NFB. It was a way of strengthening Canadian culture and promoting national unity by making and distributing uniquely Canadian films, especially documentaries. Newman got in on the ground floor pretty much right away, working as a splicer-boy editing film.

He worked his way up quickly, writing and then directing and then producing. He got to work under John Grierson, a documentary filmmaker from Scotland who had written the government report and co-founded the NFB. He's hailed as "the father of British and Canadian film." With the Second World War breaking out just a few months after the NFB got started, Newman found himself working on the "Canada Carries On" propaganda newsreels that ran in movie theatres before feature films. Eventually, he'd be in charge of the whole series. His work would appear on hundreds of movie screens across the country. During his decade at the NFB, he worked on something like 350 films.

But now, with the war over, an even newer medium was catching on: television. By the late 1940s, some Canadians along the border had already bought their first TV sets to watch the earliest American shows. But we didn't have our own channel yet, so the CBC put together yet another report: this one was a plan to launch their own public television network. As part of the preparations for the launch, the government sent Newman down to New York City. He spent a year observing the various television departments at NBC, sending monthly reports back to Ottawa. "I fell passionately in love with television during my year in New York," he later remembered. He was particularly fascinated by the educational potential.

Sydney Newman at the CBC, 1950s
So when he got back from NYC, he left the NFB and accepted a job at the brand new CBC-TV. He was put in charge of all their outdoor broadcasts. Newman was the guy who put Foster Hewitt and Hockey Night in Canada on TV for the very first time. That same year, he broadcast the very first televised Grey Cup game.

But he would make his biggest splash as the head of the Drama department. He took it over in 1954; by then, CBC-TV was a big deal. Well over half the people in Canada now owned a television set; we had quickly become one of the leading television-producing nations in the world.

Newman, still only 31 years old, got to work implementing his new ideas. He was deeply influenced by his time making documentaries at the NFB, and he passionately believed television shows should try to connect with the lives of the people watching. "Canadians seeing themselves in dramatic situations always seemed to me the best way to get them to watch my programmes," he later said. At a time when a lot of the dramas on television were just classic old plays and novels shot with TV cameras, Newman hired exciting young writers and directors to produce original screenplays. He encouraged them to write about current events, tell stories about the world around them, and to break new ground. "[O]ne always complains about Canada," he said, "...we don't know who were are or where we're going or how we connect up with the USA. Well, I would say the bloody simple way to find out is to let the writers talk about themselves... and Canadians will quickly find out what they are."

By the end of the 1950s, Canada was getting a reputation for being on the cutting edge of the new medium. While Marshall McLuhan was teaching groundbreaking media theory just a few minutes away at the University of Toronto, the producers at the CBC were developing their own new ideas. "We were the only country that had no [pre-existing film or television] tradition," one CBC writer later remembered, "so television was our beginning. We did things on television they didn't do in England or America." The CBC gave them the freedom to experiment and Newman made sure they used it. His Tuesday night show, General Motors Theatre, became a hotbed for new story ideas, camera techniques and young talent.

He hired, for instance, Lister Sinclair, the future host of CBC Radio's Ideas, who had recently been called out in the House of Commons over a radio play he wrote about an unmarried pregnant woman considering an abortion. (The leader of the Conservatives denounced it as "disgraceful" and demanded government action.) Another was Len Peterson; he'd been criticized for daring to write about alienated youth and the erosion of democratic freedoms during the hyper-nationalistic years of the Second World War.

But it was a third playwright, Arthur Hailey, who wrote the biggest hit for General Motors Theatre. It was called Flight Into Danger, a tense thriller about an airplane whose pilots get food poisoning. It starred James Doohan (just a few years before he played Scotty on Star Trek) and it was a HUGE success. One critic called it, "probably the most successful TV play ever written anywhere." Hollywood turned it into a feature film (which was then, in turn, spoofed by Airplane!). The BBC aired the original CBC version, too. In fact, they bought more than two dozen Newman-produced CBC episodes. His shows were grittier, more innovative and more exciting than what the British were doing. And there, at the end of every single one, was Sydney Newman's name.

Flight Into Danger, 1956
So that's how he ended up in England.

The BBC had started their own television network all the way back in the very late 1920s — more than 20 years before the CBC did — and for a long time they had a monopoly on the British airwaves. But now, in the 1950s, they were forced to compete with private broadcasters. It was one of those private channels, ABC, who offered Newman a job. He was happy in Canada — he says he found the television scene here "terribly exciting" — but he just couldn't resist the opportunity.

So he packed his bags and headed off to London to become the head of Drama for ABC. He brought his trademark moustache and bowtie with him — along with his radical, new, Canadian ideas.

"I didn't really like what I saw here [in England] on television," he said. "Most television drama in 1958 — and when I say most, I mean 98% of it — consisted of either dramatization of short stories or a novel, or consisted of hand-me-down theatre plays, which were adapted for television... The theatre has always been a kind of middle class activity... These plays never had any real roots in the mass of the audience."

Or as he put it more bluntly: "Damn the upper classes – they don’t even own televisions!"

As part of his job at ABC, Newman took over a show called Armchair Theatre — sort of the British version of General Motors Theatre — where he again made sure to hire exciting new writers. This time, they were British ones, many of them playwrights who were having trouble establishing themselves in the upper-middle-class world of London's West End theatres. Newman helped launch the early careers of English writers like Harold Pinter, Ken Loach and Alun Owen (who would later write the screenplay for The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night). His writers wrote about issues like race, sexual assault and the potential for a nuclear holocaust. And the work they produced for Newman at ABC met with the same kind of popular acclaim he had achieved with the CBC.

"They were locals," Newman explained. "They were ordinary people... they wrote about the country that they knew... We discovered that the audiences were just eating this stuff up. And in retrospect, looking back, the audience loved the plays because the plays were about them, not about some elegant people in drawing rooms... They were plays, really, about the working class. And for the first time in England, the working class was being presented not as comic foil."

Newman & Kotcheff, CBC, 1956
Newman liked to call this kind of TV show "theatre of the people," but the programs would become better known as "kitchen sink dramas."

And it wasn't just the writers. Newman brought some Canadian directors with him to England. People like Ted Kotcheff (a Torontonian who would later direct The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Weekend At Bernie's) experimented with new camera techniques. Instead of boring, static shots, they adopted a more cinematic style, including hand-held camerawork and more frequent close-ups. Newman used those Canadian directors along with young British directors who were interested in the same kind of innovation. "We wanted to push against the limitations of the medium," Kotcheff remembered, "to approach the freedom of film, and not to enslave it to the theatrical tradition in which we found it when we arrived..."

Meanwhile, Newman used the talent he assembled to create a slate of brand new shows. His biggest hit with ABC was an adventure thriller capitalizing on the public's obsession with spies during those early years of the Cold War. It starred one of the British actors Newman had regularly used back in Toronto. It was called The Avengers. It would prove to be one of the most famous television shows ever. But that was nothing. Newman had an even bigger hit coming.

In 1962, he left ABC for the BBC. Now, he would be the head of their Drama department. And the new boss wanted him to mix things up.

"Syd brought this breath of fresh air into the stuffiness of the BBC," one of his colleagues later remembered. "With all its invention and all its wonderful storytelling, the BBC had been very stuffy... I don't think Syd had read Dickens. He certainly hadn't read Thackery. And as for Jane Austin, I mean, it was absolutely dead meat as far as he was concerned. He wanted something new."

One of his first challenges was to fix a slot in the BBC's Saturday afternoon schedule. They already had two big Saturday afternoon hits: Grandstand (a sports show) and Juke Box Jury (a pop music show). But right between them, at tea time, the ratings took a dive. The BBC had been airing a serial of classics, stuff like adapted Dickens novels. People were tuning out. Newman wanted to replace it with a new show of original material that would still educate and inform, but also appeal to the younger viewers who were already watching the other two shows.

He decided the perfect solution was a science-fiction show for kids.

Back when he was growing up in Toronto, Newman had been a big fan of science-fiction. And he still was. "[U]p to the age of 40," he said, "I don't think there was a science-fiction book I hadn't read. I love them because they're a marvellous way—and a safe way, I might add—of saying nasty things about our own society."

Pathfinders in Space, 1960
When he was at ABC, he had produced a science fiction trilogy called Pathfinders. And back when he was at the CBC, they'd done a Canadian version of the Howdy Doody puppet show with a science fiction twist: a character called Mr. X who taught kids about history and science by travelling through space and time in his Whatsis Box. (Mr. X didn't last long; parents complained he was too scary.)

The BBC was no stranger to science-fiction either. They had already done a bunch of shows with a sci-fi theme, stretching all the way back to some of their earliest programming. In fact, earlier the same year Newman joined the staff, the BBC compiled a pair of reports exploring the idea of a new science-fiction show.

So that's how Doctor Who started: with a meeting in an office at the BBC during the spring of 1963. Newman brought the authors of the science-fiction reports together with screenwriters from the old Drama and Children's departments (which Newman had now merged). It was the first in a series of brainstorming sessions over the course of the next few months, which produced a series of story ideas and character sketches that gradually coalesced into Doctor Who. A whole team contributed ideas, but it's Newman who generally gets credit for the core of them, from the name of the show to the basic premise. "The idea of Doctor Who," he later explained, "...was basically a senile old man, of 720 years or 60 years of age, who has escaped from a distant planet in a spaceship. And the spaceship had the capacity to go forward and backward in time."

Newman insisted the show had to be educational — about science and history — and that, even if the premise was extraordinary, it still had to connect with the ordinary lives of the people watching. He nixed the idea of making the main characters scientists (they wouldn't need to learn as much), proposed the cast should include a teenaged girl (who young people could identify with) and when the writers suggested the time machine should be invisible, Newman argued it should present a striking visual image instead. In the end, the Doctor's first companions would be a science teacher, a history teacher and his own teenaged grand-daughter, while the TARDIS time machine would take the form of an iconic blue police box — a familiar sight to English viewers in 1963.

But while Newman might have played a leading role in the creation Doctor Who, he wasn't going to produce it or direct himself. So, as usual, he set about finding the most exciting, young, innovative talent he could find.

Verity Lambert
First up: producer. "I didn't feel I had anyone on the staff who seemed right for the kind of idiocy and fun and yet serious underlying intent," Newman said. So he called up his old production assistant at ABC and offered her a promotion. Verity Lambert was just 27 years old when she became the producer of Doctor Who. At the time, she was the youngest producer in the Drama department and the only female producer at the BBC.

Meanwhile, the director for the pilot episode would be Waris Hussein. He was even younger: just 24, a recent graduate of Cambridge, where he'd worked with student actors like Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellan. He, like all of Newman's favourite directors, was interested in bringing a more cinematic style to television. And he, too, was breaking new ground: the very first Indian-born director to work for the BBC.

But as talented as they were, shooting that first episode would prove to be a major challenge for Lambert and Hussein. The BBC executives above Newman weren't completely sold on the show. They threatened to cancel it before a single episode had aired. The production team was forced to make do with a small budget despite their need to create entire alien worlds, historical costumes and the elaborate interior of the TARDIS. They were also forced to shoot on a sound stage so old it was nearly obsolete: Studio D at Lime Grove, a long, thin room which didn't give them much space at all. They couldn't even fit the police box in the elevator. "It was so old-fashioned, it didn't even have a lighting console," Lambert remembered in later interviews, "...It was like going into a studio that had come out of Noah's Ark... It was horrendous. If it got too hot, the sprinklers would turn on."

Their first attempt at shooting the pilot — in which the Doctor and his companions travel back to the Stone Age — was a disaster. The Doctor  wasn't funny enough. The grand-daughter was too strange. Hussein had been too ambitious with his cinematic camerawork; the early TV cameras were just too clunky and heavy to pull it off. One of the actors remembered the day they screened the episode for Newman: "There was a long silence. And then Sydney got up and just said, 'Do it again, Waris.'"

Newman took Lambert and Hussein out to a Chinese restaurant in Kensington High Street to explain just how bad it was. "By rights I should be firing both of you," he told them, according to Hussein. But he believed in their talent and was willing to give them a second chance. Decades later, Hussein is still grateful: "For Sydney to put himself on the line makes him into somebody who, as far as I'm concerned, is a hero."

Their second attempt at filming the first episode went much better. The night before it was supposed to air they were already working on the filming of a second storyline. It was November 22, 1963. That date is better remembered for another reason.

The First Doctor, William Hartnell
Carole Ann Ford, who played the Doctor's grand-daughter Susan, was waiting for the elevator on her way up to the studio when she heard the news: John F. Kennedy had been shot. "I'll never actually understand how we got through it," she remembered, "because it was a very, very shocking thing... I was shaking. I thought, 'I'm never going to be able to do this.' ... I think I was trying not to cry, actually; I think we were all like that."

No matter how good it was, the premiere of Doctor Who was doomed to be overshadowed by the death of JFK. When the first episode aired the next day, it was slightly delayed in order to broadcast more news about the assassination. And the public just wasn't in the mood for time-travelling adventure. The BBC decided to the air the pilot again the very next week, but at the end of the first serial — four episodes based on the Stone Age story — the show's ratings were average at best. The BBC was going to need more convincing.

They say it was the Daleks who saved Doctor Who. The Doctor's arch-nemeses both terrified and thrilled children: their creepy robotic voices; their bone-chilling "Exterminate!" catchphrase; the aesthetics of a lethal salt and pepper shaker armed with a toilet plunger and a ray gun. The aliens who felt no emotion but hate were a hit as soon as they appeared for the very first time in the show's second serial. By the end of that storyline, there were more than 10 million people watching Doctor Who. Dalekmania had arrived.

Sydney Newman didn't like the Daleks. He agreed with one of the BBC reports when it said the show should avoid the use of "bug-eyed monsters." Newman called it "the cheapest form of science-fiction." But as you might expect from a 50 year-old show whose main character has been played in a dozen different forms by a dozen different actors, Doctor Who can't be reduced to the vision of one person. It quickly took on a life of its own. Those bug-eyed monsters became a staple of the show's format and a large part of its appeal, sending generations of delightfully terrified children scrambling to watch the action from behind the safety of their sofas.

But even half a century later, the use of those alien monsters still reflects the values Newman brought to the show when it first started. They're about more than just cheap scares; they're a learning opportunity. They give the Doctor a chance to demonstrate his respect for others and his belief that violence should be used only as the very last resort. He prefers to use his brain to solve problems. He's willing to risk his own life in order to open a dialogue with those bug-eyed monsters who, more often than not, turn out to have perfectly logical motives. Even if they're not always good ones.

"The Dalek Invasion of Earth," 1964
Those ideas about peace-making and peace-keeping had a new weight in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War. In fact, at the time Newman left Toronto, they were helping to forge a new Canadian national identity. The year before Newman's departure, future Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson had won the Nobel Peace Prize for being the champion of the brand new idea of United Nations peacekeeping. The idea quickly became a central part of the Canadian identity.

It was also, at the very same time, helping to reshape the British national identity. Pearson's peacekeepers were a response to British and French military aggression during the Suez Crisis in the Middle East. The Crisis was, for many Britons, a sign the Empire was not only over, but immoral. The BBC played an important role, clashing with the Conservative Prime Minster who wanted to muzzle opposition, pressuring the public broadcaster to support the government's position. It became a defining moment in the history of the BBC.

So it's not surprising a Canadian in the early 1960s would create a TV show reflecting something of a Pearsonian worldview — or that upon his arrival at the BBC, he would find plenty of people who agreed. Within a few years, in fact, Doctor Who had made the United Nations a major part of the show's storyline. And even today, the modern version of the series echoes the lessons learned in those dark days: the Doctor is haunted by the horrors of a recent Time War between his own people and the Daleks, and he's troubled by his own role in the violence.

Newman would continue on with the BBC until the late '60s — he was still there when the show made its next genius leap forward: the idea of "regeneration." It allowed them to replace the aging actor who played the First Doctor, William Hartnell, with a new actor playing a new twist on the same old character. It gave the show a built-in way of evolving over time, connecting with successive generations of viewers, and helping to ensure that it would still be a huge hit long after Newman and all the other original creators of the show had moved on. 

And for Newman, that time would come sooner rather than later. After he left the BBC, he stayed in England to make feature films for a while, but he didn't find much success with it. Besides, he missed Toronto.

"I am eternally interested in going back to Canada," he told one interviewer, " is my country. I mean, just the sheer thought of Yonge & College streets sends shivers... I can't wait to see the Toronto City Hall. I can't wait to go to Georgian Bay. It's my country. And there's something deep about this. It's corny and it's junior Chamber of Commerce stuff, but it's me."

Finally, after a decade in England, Newman headed back home to Toronto. The London Times mourned the loss. "Sydney Newman flew back to Canada yesterday, and British television will never be quite the same again. Arguably the most significant individual in the development of British television drama and a central architect of Canadian television in the fifties."

But the Canadian television scene he came back to wasn't quite the same as the one he'd left behind. The CBC had drastically slashed their drama department, prompting an exodus of Canadian talent. Homegrown writers, directors and actors all decided they would be better off in England or the United States. Newman called it, "a tremendous loss to... the consciousness of the nation... a tragedy for the country as a whole."

Student FLQ rally, Montreal
Instead of heading back to the CBC, Newman took a job as the head of the NFB. But it, too, was an organization in turmoil. This was 1970: the height of the separatist terrorist attacks by the FLQ. The desire to separate from the rest of Canada had reached a boiling point in Québec: there were riots, bombs going off, kidnappings of diplomats and politicians. Two months after Newman returned to the NFB, the FLQ murdered a cabinet minister. The Prime Minster temporarily declared martial law in Québec. Newman — who didn't even speak French — spent a lot of his time at the NFB clashing with separatists inside the organization. He claimed Québecois filmmakers were too focused on high-minded politics, ignoring ordinary people. And when Denys Arcand — one of the great Québecois filmmakers, who won an Oscar in 2004 for The Barbarian Invasions — made a documentary for the NFB that included two members of the FLQ calling for armed revolution, Newman kept it from being released. He was denounced for censorship. The FLQ even considered him as a target for kidnapping.

Meanwhile, the greatest success of his career wasn't even being aired in Canada. The CBC had shown the first 26 episodes of Doctor Who, but then stopped. Canadians wouldn't be able to watch it on TV again until the late 1970s, when TV Ontario finally picked it up for good. They even added to the educational angle of the show: an intro or wrap-up put each episode in its scientific or historical context, hosted at first by a futurist U of T professor and then Torontonian science-fiction writer Judith Merril.

Sadly, by the late 1980s, the show's popularity was slipping even at home in England. On Saturday afternoons, it was forced to complete with Mr. T in the wildly popular American show The A-Team; when it got moved to Mondays, it was up against the mother of all British kitchen sink dramas: Coronation Street. Doctor Who was almost cancelled in 1986, survived and then got cancelled for real. Newman had some meetings with the BBC in an attempt to save it and take over as producer, but he didn't get along with the network's new management. For more than a decade, the BBC didn't make any new episodes of Doctor Who. A full-length movie by FOX, featuring a new Doctor in an American setting, was meant to spark new interest and a new series, but it didn't work. It looked like Newman's greatest triumph was finally, completely dead.

The Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith
But not for long. A new generation of BBC executives and producers realized what they'd lost. In 2005, Doctor Who came back with a new Doctor, a new companion, a new look, and all the old villains. This time the CBC played a more direct role. They aired the new series right from the very beginning — even accidentally allowed a leak of the first episode before it aired — and then co-produced the next two seasons. Canada had invested public funds in the career of the show's creator and now Canada invested public funds in order to help the show regain its position as one of the most popular dramas on TV. The reboot has been shown every week in more than 50 countries. The biggest episodes are seen by more than 10 million viewers in the UK alone. And there's not a single drama on television that gets a better appreciation rating from viewers. Half a century after the TARDIS first materialized at Studio D in Lime Grove, Sydney Newman's greatest triumph is quite literally the most loved drama on television.


A version of this post originally appeared on The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog. You can find more sources and other information there.

Read more of our posts about Doctor Who here.

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at

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Meet The Band: Mad Ones

"Like a chainsaw cutting up a garbage can" — that's how Mad Ones guitarist Andrew DeVillers says he would describe the band's music to someone who hasn't heard them before. And that description makes perfect sense for the Toronto two-piece, who list themselves on Facebook as garage/grunge/punk. One of the growing number of roaringly electric bands inspiring drunken mosh pits across the city, they'll be taking the stage at Smiling Buddha on Saturday, August 30. But they won't be alone. The show will also feature another couple of groups who fit that description: The Effens and the band that used to be known as Dangerband but are now calling themselves Little Junior. You can check out all the details on Facebook here.

But before that, you can get to know Mad Ones a little better, with videos and streams and a round of Five Questions with DeVillers:


Members: Andrew DeVillers (guitar); Phil Wilson (drums)

Hometown: Toronto


1. Say, for some strange reason, all the music in the world is going to be destroyed, but you can save all the songs from one decade. Which decade's records would you save?

I would create a new decade that melds the last half of the 80s and the last half of the 90s into the shittiest decade for music possible just to ruin it for everyone.

2. If you could play one venue you've never played before, what would it be?

Red Rocks

3. If you were going to be a roadie for one band, who would it be?

Preferrably someone with very little gear and a lot of money, like that ukulele kid on netflix. But I actually have roadied and I am horrible at it.

4. What’s the craziest live show you've ever played?

There is a blended memory of creative uses of garbage, onstage lactation, cops & macing, face bitings, shoddy electrical work, fire code violations (featuring actual firemen), a person already on crutches falling down a storey, batman pushing a van out of the mud, also being chased / whipped by a manic topless women is not as fun as it might sound, however there is not one particular show that sticks out.

5. What was the first record you ever bought? When was the last time you listened to it?

C+C Music Factory, i never got through it. I just remember feeling ripped off.





Meet The Band is a regular feature in which we introduce you to bands we like.

Posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at

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The Little Red Umbrella Goes to The Doctor Who Experience

Cardiff isn't just the capital of Wales, it's also the capital of Doctor Who. The science-fiction show is filmed at the BBC studios near Cardiff Bay and in locations all over the city. Even many of the scenes that claim to be set in London are actually shot here. A walk around town might bring you to Rose Tyler's apartment block, the church where Donna Noble (almost) got married, or the police station from "Blink". And as if that weren't reason enough for a Doctor Who fan to want to make the trip to Wales, now Cardiff is also home to The Doctor Who Experience. It's a big museum on Cardiff Bay that houses props, costumes and even sets from the show.

Since we're pretty big fans of Doctor Who ourselves, we headed across the Atlantic to visit Cardiff. There, we tracked down some of our favourite spots from the show — along with a visit to The Doctor Who Experience — all with our camera in hand.

We'll start with a visit to the museum, and then visit Doctor Who locations around Cardiff in our next post.

The Doctor Who Experience is on Cardiff Bay, which used to be one of the most rundown places in the city, suffering from the collapse of the coal industry. But over the course of the last 20 years or so, it's been revitalized. Today, the bay has been turned into an artificial lake by filling it with freshwater; the shore has been turned into a hub for tourists and locals alike, full of restaurant, shops and cultural icons. It's even got free wifi.

The Doctor Who Experience is partway around the bend of the bay, not too far from the studios where they shoot the show:

They've got costumes from all the Doctors (along with hand prints from some of the actors who have played them):

And companions as well, including Captain Jack and a few different versions of Clara:

There are plenty of villains, too, including some from as recently as last season (like Skaldak the Ice Warrior from "Cold War") and from all the way back to the days of classic Who (like the giant robot from Tom Baker's first episode as the Fourth Doctor):

There's a complete overview of the evolution of the Cybermen:

And some alien friends as well:

They've got plenty of props, including sonic screwdrivers and the Doctor's crib:

And even items from the most recent episodes, including The Moment and the bulletin board from the Black Archive — both from the 50th anniversary special which aired this past November:

Not to mention the TARDIS. Here are all three — the Tenth Doctor's, the Eleventh Doctor's and the War Doctor's — from the anniversary special:

They've got also got the very first TARDIS interior — recreated for last year's "An Adventure in Space and Time" BBC drama special:

And an another, more recent interior, from 1980s Doctor Who:

As well the reboot:

Outside The Doctor Who Experience, you'll find yet another TARDIS overlooking Cardiff Bay:

Read more our posts about Doctor Who here, including the Torontonian roots of the show, the punk band Peter Capaldi played in with Craig Ferguson and our thoughts on the Christmas special. 

Learn more about Cardiff's history and the role Doctor Who has played in the city's revitalization here.

Posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at

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