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Doctor Who - Why I Remember Watching The Very First Episode

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Alas, I am old enough to have seen the first ever episode of Doctor Who when it was transmitted. It is easy to remember the exact date - Saturday 23 November 1963 - because it was the evening after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The BBC removed all comedy programmes and the acid-tongued satire show That Was The Week That Was, at the height of its popularity, ran a justly-lauded, shortened and solemn tribute show to Kennedy.

The 48th anniversary of that first ever screening of Doctor Who was yesterday and, to celebrate it, the University of Hertfordshire ran a special Doctor Who day-long symposium.

I went on a whim because, like almost all other British kids of my generation - and later generations - I grew up watching and having the shit scared out of me by Doctor Who - though, for real shit-unleashing terror, Doctor Who was Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm compared to the original BBC TV version of Quatermass and The Pit.

I also went to the Doctor Who symposium yesterday because I thought there might be some mileage in looney-watching. Sadly, the people there seemed to be sane; a great disappointment. But I learned bits and pieces I had not known before.

One of the many ironies of the BBC is that they erased lots of programmes (to save space and re-use the tapes) but kept all the bureaucratic paperwork.

Doctor Who was consciously and carefully designed by the BBC to bridge the gap between their Saturday afternoon sports coverage followed by football results (mostly watched by men) and their early evening mass appeal line-up of light entertainment (watched by the whole family). The BBC surprisingly (remember the show started in 1963) did extensive audience research to find out which type of audience they should appeal to if they wanted to bridge this gap.

Their conclusion was children.

So they designed a populist science fiction anthology series which would be educational. It had an authority figure (the grandfather/Doctor)... a fairly trendy granddaughter to appeal to children... and two schoolteachers (a male science teacher; a female history teacher) who would accompany these two central characters on their journeys to various periods in history.

Doctor Who would fulfill all three aims of the BBC's original Director General Lord Reith: it would educate, inform and entertain.

The show was never made by the BBC Children's Dept. It has always been produced as a drama series by the BBC Drama Dept.

The original ruling guidelines were to be:
  • no tin robots
  • no alien planets
  • no bug-eyed monsters
These were all quickly thrown away, of course, especially when the Daleks appeared in the second storyline and became an immediate audience hit.

The original budget was £2,000 per show.

The title, of course, is a question - Doctor Who? - not the central character's name because the central character is never named - although, in 1965, he was accidentally referred to as "Doctor Who" on screen because the production team were new to the series and, at first, thought that actually was his name.

Oddly - or perhaps not so oddly - some of the most interesting viewpoints at yesterday's academic shindig came from stand-up comic and comedy club owner Toby Hadoke whose one-man show Moths Ate My Dr Who Scarf premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006.

In a sort-of reverse of the reason why I remember the first transmission date of Doctor Who, Toby says, "I know when my grandfather's funeral was, because it was the day of Episode 3 of Remembrance of The Daleks."

He pointed out that, "Most Doctor Who fans have a level of autism about them," and that the Doctor himself "always has a sense of wit". As a series, Doctor Who is aware of its own ridiculousness... with a sense of humour. He's not a man who uses weapons; he uses his imagination."

The series itself is almost unique in being able to jump between different genres in its stories - from comic to social commentary to history to fantasy. "Because it lands in different genres," Toby Hadoke pointed out, "whatever type of drama you want, it's there."

He also pointed out something which I had not noticed before: that, until recently, "there is very little time travel involved in it, except getting you to the new genre this week."

There seemed to be a consensus yesterday that the idea of Johnny Depp starring as The Doctor in the alleged upcoming Doctor Who movie was a good idea.

It was also mentioned that a TV drama is currently in the pipeline based in the period when Jon Pertwee was replaced as the Doctor by Tom Baker. And that Hugh Grant had once turned down the TV role of Dr Who but he now "regrets" that decision.

To me, though, as a non-obsessed fan, the most bizarre revelation of the day was that, when the revived Doctor Who series was announced by the BBC in March 2004, they said the Daleks would not be in the new series because of 'rights' problems. (The Daleks are owned by the Estate of the late Terry Nation.)

But they also announced that BBC3 would screen an animated gay Dalek series.

The things you learn when you go to a university nowadays...