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.
|Sydney Newman at the CBC, 1950s|
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.
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.
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|
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.
|Pathfinders in Space, 1960|
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.
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|
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|
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, "...it 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|
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|
A version of this post originally appeared on The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog. You can find more sources and other information there.
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