1963: At 6:15 on a cold, wet night, the BBC premieres its new family science fiction show, Doctor Who, with its first episode, “An Unearthly Child.” The series will become a legendary part of modern British folklore and the longest-running sci-fi series on TV.
Featuring a benevolent traveling alien known only as The Doctor, the series followed the adventures of the heroic Time Lord and his human companions through time and space.
Originally developed by Canadian Sydney Newman, BBC’s head of drama, the day-to-day creation of the show’s first season fell to script department head Donald Wilson, BBC staff writers C. E. Webber and Anthony Coburn, story editor David Whitaker, and producer Verity Lambert. Fans of the show traditionally recognize Lambert as the show’s strongest creative force at the start.
The stories took place in serial form — with each episode lasting about 25 minutes, ending with a cliffhanger that would bring the audience back for the next segment.
Ron Grainer (the composer for many TV themes, including The Prisoner) wrote the series’ unforgettable theme music with its driving bass beat. But experimental composer Delia Derbyshire of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop is credited with choosing the eerie electronic sounds that created the final piece.
The original brief for the character didn’t specify his origin (later identified as Gallifrey), his race or his actual age. Portrayed by veteran character actor William Hartnell, the first Doctor was a dark, often-hostile man of mystery.
Viewers first encountered The Doctor’s ship, the Tardis (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space) in a junkyard as the Doctor headed out in London. The interior of the time-space traveling craft is dimensionally transcendental and exists in its own universe — allowing the ship to be bigger on the inside than its outer shell.
A properly operating Tardis includes a chameleon circuit that changes its exterior appearance to blend in with the surroundings. But The Doctor’s ship malfunctions and remains stuck as a 1960s Metropolitan Police public call box.
Because the show was originally intended for children, the creators cast an appealing, sympathetic actress, Carol Ann Ford, as The Doctor’s teenage granddaughter, Susan. When Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), two of Susan’s teachers, become concerned over the girl’s bizarre behavior, they stumble across The Doctor and Tardis. Once exposed, The Doctor insists on taking the two earthlings with him into time and space.
But, a very real tragedy almost swept the show aside before any audience found it. The assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22 dominated the news and public consciousness that weekend, obviously pushing the premiere of a new TV series off the British TV radar.
BBC program planners decided to re-air the original premiere a week later, along with the series’ second episode. Doctor Who’s first storyline featured time travel back to caveman times and attracted a lukewarm public and critical reaction.
But, the show’s second complete story — a sci-fi piece kicking off with “The Dead Planet” — featured a voyage to the home planet of the Daleks. The metallic monsters became an overnight sensation and established Doctor Who as a British institution.
The series remained in production from 1963 to 1989. Producers invented the convention that The Doctor’s alien physique could regenerate into new forms 12 times — allowing new actors to seamlessly take over the part through the decades. After Hartnell came Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Perter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant. And in 2010 … Matt Smith.
Doctor Who returned to regular BBC production under producer Russell T. Davies in March 2005 and remains one of the network’s top-rated series.
Photos: 1) Left to right: William Russell, Carol Ann Ford, William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill made up the original Tardis crew on Doctor Who.
2) The Daleks surround the Tardis in the ’60s Doctor Who.
Images courtesy BBC
Sources: BBC; Doctor Who: The Official Site; Doctor Who: The Classic Series Site
- Wired Dr. Who Fan Exclusive: Producer Beth Willis
- Wired Dr. Who Fan Exclusive: Matt Smith
- New Doctor Brings New Doctor Who Logo, Insignia With Him
- Timeless Tom Baker Makes Return Trip to Doctor Who
- Fans Reconstruct Doctor Who’s Trashed Past
- Moffat Leading Doctor Who Into the Future
- Nov. 23, 1889: S.F. Gin Joint Hears the World’s First Jukebox
- March 21, 1963: The Rock
- March 31, 1963: L.A. Streetcars Take Their Last Ride
- June 20, 1963: Cuban Missile Crisis Spurs Moscow-D.C. ‘Hot Line’
- July 19, 1963: Cracking the 100-Kilometer-High Barrier … in a Plane
- Aug. 5, 1963: Finally, a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
- Aug. 28, 1963: Road to Redmond Walks on Water
- Nov. 9, 1963: Dual Disasters Stun Japan
- Nov. 22, 1963: Zapruder Films JFK Assassination
- Dec. 7, 1963: Video Instant Replay Comes to TV