‘You’ve redecorated. I don’t like it’– Second Doctor to the Third (1972)
A hissing pulsing theme dies away, a battered police box materialises with much wheezing and groaning, and its door creaks open – the BBC’s most iconic character has arrived in his/her present guise. Launched in 1963, Doctor Who is preparing for its latest transformation as Jodie Whittaker departs, having been the first woman to play the Doctor, and Russell T. Davies returns as showrunner after being instrumental in bringing the series back from its long hiatus in 2005. The essential characteristic of Doctor Who is change: of the lead actor, the companions, and especially the TARDIS’s décor (as the Second Doctor caustically remarked to the Third when, through the quirky caprice of time travel, they first met), but it has consistently tried to be educational, progressive and innovative. This latest moment of transformation seems an apt time to remember the early cash-strapped but ground-breaking days of the beloved programme and its contribution to the United Kingdom’s cultural landscape.
Doctor Who has been analysed for years in hopes of discovering the political and social messages conveyed to millions of viewers. I don’t propose to continue those in-depth analyses here, but I am interested in the show’s change and continuity over time. While it has always been educational, it is now concerned just as much with morals as with history and science. Since its revival this didacticism has caused dissatisfaction at both ends of the political spectrum for different reasons. While the show is currently caught between appeasing those who claim it has changed too much and those who say it has not changed enough, it is interesting to note that Doctor Who has long been progressive.
Original producer Verity Lambert once firmly said that ‘children today are very sophisticated and I don’t allow scripts which seem to talk down to them’. Although its audience is now much wider, Doctor Who was conceived as a children’s show, but never held back from addressing serious themes and ideas. In its earliest episodes, the time-travelling device allowed it to teach approachable history lessons, such as in The Aztecs (1964, First Doctor) or The Highlanders, set during the ill-fated 1745-1746 Jacobite rebellion (1966-1967, Second Doctor). The programme also boosted science fiction as a legitimate television genre by exploring real scientific questions. Whilst it is not this article’s claim that ‘reversing the polarity of the neutron flow’ is something one would learn about in a school science class, taking only a few examples, The Deadly Assassin (1976, Fourth Doctor) explored the properties of black holes, The War Machines (1966, First Doctor) dealt innovatively with networked computers and Inferno (1970, Third Doctor) imagined the consequences of drilling through the Mohorovičić discontinuity to the Earth’s mantle.
But Doctor Who went beyond being an extension of the classroom, becoming overtly political in the 1970s, with a left-wing inclination increasingly emerging. Stories such as The Mutants (1972, Third Doctor) and The Power of Kroll (1978-1979, Fourth Doctor) tackled colonialism (the former touching on resistance to decolonisation by groups such as the League of Empire Loyalists in the UK and the Organisation Armée Secrète in France), while the Silurian lizard people were used in several stories to talk about the rights of Indigenous groups. Doctor Who has also addressed highly topical environmental issues including vegetarianism, industrial waste and biodiversity in serials such as The Green Death (1973, Third Doctor) and The Seeds of Doom (1976, Fourth Doctor). The Curse of Peladon (1972, Third Doctor) and The Monster of Peladon (1974, Third Doctor) had as their central themes membership of a supranational/interstate organisation (back when the UK was joining the European Economic Community rather than leaving) and workers’ strikes (especially the 1972 miners’ strike during the term of office of Ted Heath’s Conservative government) respectively. The incredible diversity of ideas that found their way into Doctor Who stories also made the programme more appealing to adults, causing it to become the quintessential family show.
In a technical sense, Doctor Who was both sides of the coin; simultaneously ahead of its time in special effects yet sometimes exhibiting very amateurish props and sets. Practically, the BBC’s Design and Scenic Servicing Departments struggled because the show was ambitious and had some very strange requirements that seemed beyond their limited budget. Some of the rubber and papier-mâché props and alien costumes looked clunky and were mocked even at the time. The season-long Trial of a Timelord (1986, Sixth Doctor) featured highly innovative model shots and model robots but visual effects designer Milk Kelts had to edit the script because he lacked the budget to create all the effects. That instance notwithstanding, Raymond Cusick and Terry Nation’s fearsome Daleks, with their gliding movement inspired by a pepper pot and a sensory device that resembles a toilet plunger, remain a core part of the programme to this day. The spirit of creativity that was embraced on the Doctor Who set slotted in well with the other BBC children’s show with which it has always had a close connection: Blue Peter. Launched just before Doctor Who in 1958, Blue Peter’s enthusiasm for craft projects that viewers could do at home led to Daleks made from cake, egg boxes and whatever else was on hand. Perhaps more significantly, the ‘experimental electronica’ theme music created in by Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainer was nothing short of revolutionary back in 1963.
There was plenty in the original version that was disappointing, from the Halloween-like costume of the Garm in Terminus (1982, Fifth Doctor) to clunky scriptwriting with much pointless running around. The modern incarnation often improves on these and other faults, and will presumably continue to do so. But it is impossible to deny that from its humble start as a 1960s children’s show, the pre-revival Doctor Who worked wonders on a limited budget and explored ideas in a way that was neither preachy nor condescending, but enticing, fresh and manifestly enduring: endlessly redecorated, always the same.
Written by Verity Limond
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