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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