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Who by Fire – The Origins of Doctor Who

Doctor WHO title screen 1963

And who by fire, who by water, Who in the sunshine, who in the night time, Who by high ordeal, who by common trial, Who in your merry merry month of may, Who by very slow decay, And who shall I say is calling?

Leonard Cohen

It’s a foggy autumn night in London. To locate us specifically in time it’s November the 23rd 1963. There’s still a hint of gunpowder in the air from the Guy Fawkes bonfires of a few weeks ago and colorful, if soggy, little spent cartridges of rockets and bangers can still be kicked by ragamuffin young kids amongst the wet, russet leaves that litter the gutters of suburbia. However, tonight a different mood of sedition hangs on the air. The previous day, across an ocean only recently made slightly smaller by Telstar, Sputnik and crackly transatlantic phone calls, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

It’s unnecessary to recount the seismic ripples which that single event sent out through the psychogeography of the 20th century. The resultant conspiracy industry it birthed, the way it demonstrated how one man in the wrong place at the wrong time could change history. On this side of the pond the BBC, ever reliable in times of crisis, knew what to do. It switched gear into what would now be called ‘rolling news’. More sedate and considered than today’s hyperactive, scrabbled together newsathons, with their hypnotic repeated images and hasty theorizing, but comprehensive nonetheless. We quickly learned the mantras. Texas Book Depository, Dealey Plaza, Lone Gunman, Motorcade Route. However, at teatime the next day (such a quintessentially comforting British concept ‘teatime’) the BBC resumed its normal schedule with, as promised, the first episode of a new science fiction serial.

It was a good idea to cheer us all up with some escapist fantasy but no-one could have been prepared for the aftershock. A tele-drama psycho-narrative for all the family whose concepts are still reverberating today. Whether it was a combination of the mystical power of the number 23 (cf William Burroughs’ essays and Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson ‘s The Illuminatus Trilogy) or the general air of mutable chaos in the British atmosphere at the time is debatable. The Beatles were taking their first steps to establishing a pop cultural youthquake, the cold war was heating up, James Bond was licensed to kill as scandal and spy stories dominated the tabloid press and the US and Russia had begun their race to put a man on the Moon

So, into this catalytic cauldron of alchemical possibility walks a mysterious old man with anarchic tendencies and a magical box of distorted dimensions. Hesitantly at first, slightly irascible, with no discernible motivation, let alone a recognizable ‘Heroes Journey’ this grumpy old Doctor would inveigle his way into our hearts and imaginations for the next fifty years. A man with no name whom we can only learn to call by the name of his show –

Doctor WHO

The opening credits immediately hint at things to come. Color TV is some years off, so we get a monochrome, hypnotic light show. A single line of light ascends the black screen like a rocket trail and splits into a bizarre pattern of bright lines. Is it an X-ray of an alien rib cage or a map of the multiverse? We don’t know what it is. As if to emphasize this the word WHO is superimposed.  No question mark just WHO. This is not a query but a statement of intent. Meanwhile the theme music, a heady, whistling, echoing mélange of spliced tape and multi-phased notes, white noise, and oscillators written by Ron Grainer and re-made re-modelled by Delia Derbyshire into a prescient electro pulse beat; worthy of Kraftwerk or Bowie and Eno but they are in the future. Waiting.

original Doctor WHO

This opening, an overture which seems to contain its own future is uncanny and mysterious.  Like Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme thirty years later it manages to encapsulate the show immediately while hinting at secrets and menace to come. Just as the Twin Peaks opening music plays over bathetic images of arboreal nature and industrial logging, Doctor Who’s theme plays out and, as the eerie music fades to an insistent low electrical hum, a monochrome camera moves our POV shakily around the contents of a dusty junk yard and pauses on a shot of a London Police Phone Box.

This would have been recognizable at the time as commonplace street furniture, now, as modern viewers we cannot fail to recognize the TARDIS. One of the iconic objects the show will come to fetishize. Doctor Who has already reached an uncanny tentacle into its future to wave at us.

Doctor Who is a show haunted by itself. Like Twin Peaks it experienced its own death, extinction and return. It had always manifested, since its original inception, in multi-media form – TV episodes, books, films, comics. It is a journey beyond the confines of space and time and also beyond the conventional narrative structures of serialised TV. It’s both a serial, a continuing story told in discrete episodes and a series; a text with no canon and no continuity beside the increasingly convoluted attempts by its followers to impose one. Its elevator pitch is ‘Any Time, Anywhere’ its remit, to quote the Second Doctor, is – “There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.”

Ah yes, the Second Doctor.

Facts most people know about Doctor Who – he travels around Time and Space in a box that’s bigger on the inside, Doctor Who isn’t his name, it’s the name of the show and there’s more than one of him and yet she’s remained the same character for over 50 years. Everything, including those facts are mutable and subject to change. Change, transformation, regeneration is the core of Doctor Who.

The first episode An Unearthly Child, is a discrete story unto itself. It must have seemed like it had slipped, as though by accident or uncanny design into the early evening viewing schedule on that magical November evening in 1963. A spooky chamber-piece of late night drama with only four characters – Susan a teenage schoolgirl, Barbara and Ian her teachers, and The Doctor, her cranky old grandfather.  The child of the title is of course Susan and her unearthliness is revealed in little vignettes as her teachers discuss her enigmatic combination of esoteric knowledge and ignorance of simple day to day reality. She knows things about the past while at the same time she describes the future (predicting the decimalization of British currency a good ten years before the event. A piece of scriptwriting serendipity made to ‘Other’ Susan but which serves more now to allow us to identify with her. This is the beginning. (Or rather ‘a’ beginning, there have been others. Other Susans. Other Doctors. Other secret origins) But right here is the Police Box, an uncanny girl and a slightly chilling premise. The teachers follow her home to the junk yard, meet an old man who they take to be her grandfather, her guardian. He neither confirms or denies this, seeming more intent on feigning interest in the contents of the yard which is clearly not his property. He becomes evasive and then angry, Susan’s voice comes out of the Police Box and her two teachers, now self-identifying as her rescuers, stumble inside and out of the, so far almost documentary, depiction of grimy London reality, into a humming, bright white space that just defines iconic 60s sci-fi. Into a series of adventures (positioned somewhere between J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan and H G Wells’ The Time Machine) which will take them far from home. Lost in Time and lost in Space. The premise sent chills down the spine of any kid who’d got mislaid in the shopping mall and only had some cranky grown-up to guide them to safety.

Hartnell as the Doctor with his team in the Tardis

Now there are some who say the show never fulfilled the giddy avant-garde promise (or premise) of its earliest episodes. That shaky black and white twilight zone of distant planets, of metal aliens with grating voices and jolly jaunts to cod historical eras like ancient Rome pulled straight out of the kids’ comics and school text books. They may be right but the Doctor has an enviable ability to be whatever and wherever he needs to be. To provide just the right seasoning of anarchic irreverence and angry righteousness for every era.

Except when he went away.

The chronological gap, referred to in Whovian circles as ‘The Hiatus’, caused by falling ratings and a production team who’d forgotten what the show was meant to be, encompassed a sixteen year period taking in most of the 1990s and the early 21st Century. A whole generation grew up without the kindly, eccentric Doctor. The show’s triumphant return in 2005 (retooled for a more media savvy demographic), like Twin Peaks season three, was initially greeted with suspicion and trepidation until it reminded us that the Doctor is timeless. He is as much a part of the British mythos now as King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes or Robin Hood.

He can always return.

Because here’s the secret – The Doctor is magic. This show sometimes pretends to be Sci-Fi, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy does. (Indeed, Douglas Adams wrote for the show). Just as Twin Peaks cloaks its very American mysticism in a veneer of FBI, UFOs and Project Blue Book, Doctor Who is as magic and as British as Narnia and Harry Potter: as mythological as The Hobbit and as esoteric as The Doors of Perception. All protesters that magic has no place in the Whoniverse really haven’t been paying attention.  The famous 19th century stage illusionist Robert Houdin (From whom Houdini took his name) said “A Conjuror is an Actor pretending to be a Magician”.

There are really only two magic tricks. You either make something appear or make something disappear. You put it in the box or you take it out. That’s as good a description of Doctor Who (both the show and the man) as I can imagine. The Doctor is a Magician. The actors who have and will portray him are Conjurors. The Doctor’s act usually goes like this – A box appears a man gets out. He produces something from his pocket (a wand? A sonic screwdriver?) and makes something else appear or disappear. His ‘glamorous assistant’ is locked in a box. He opens the box. She is gone. He makes other stuff appear and disappear. His assistant re-appears. Finally he and his assistant get in a box and they and the box disappear. This is why the Doctor is so often at home in circuses, in theatres and around show people. He is a conjuror pretending to be an actor pretending to be a magician. Or is it the other way round? Boxes within boxes within boxes As above so below. Lost in Time. Lost in Space.

My intention in this article is to give a flavor of the kind of enquiry into the unique universe of Doctor Who I’ll be embarking on for this website. I have no intention of being comprehensive or definitive or even chronological. I want to get lost in the time and space of the show like the Doctor herself. Oh yes, next year we get a new actor in the role. The thirteenth Doctor and for the first time the role will be taken by a female actor. Jodie Whittaker late of Broadchurch (The missing link between Twin Peaks and Doctor Who but that’s another article). I’ll be covering that as well as selecting episodes from the ‘classic series’ and the reboot as whim and serendipity take me. To quote another show It’s going to be a journey both wonderful and strange. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Written by Anton Binder


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  1. A huge difference is the revival of Doctor Who remembered and restored all the things that made the long time fans love the show and Twin Peaks remembered and disposed of all the things that made the longtime fans love the show. Doctor Who gave us back the incredible alien time traveler with unimaginable past experience of the universe and all its civilizations, plus human companions we get to identify with as they face unknown perils in borderline campy comic book stories. Twin Peaks saw that we were interested in some characters we’d left behind and told us ‘fuck off, you’ll never know. i owe you nothing.’ one understood nostalgia and how to do a revival and the other understood nostalgia and clearly resented it.

    • That’s a good distinction to make but it’s worth remembering that the Doctor Who reboot also jettisoned some old canards of the classic show and introduced new elements (off the top of my head I can cite the destruction of Gallifrey, the Doctor’s home world and the introduction of romantic entanglements for the Doctor).
      Lynch/Frost imagined an expansion of the uncanniness of Twin Peaks into a wider universe. Their rejection of nostalgia was a lesson to viewers that ‘you can never go home’ (which was surely the theme of the whole 18 hour experience). I didn’t see this as a “fuck-off to the viewers more a gentle education.

    • Thank you so much. I hope the journey I’m embarking on with this series of articles on British uncanny pop culture continues to intrigue.

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