The Rise and Fall of Doctor Who

A look into the history of the british sci-fi icon.

A mysterious traveler, a blue box, and two words that echo across time and space forevermore.

In 1963, Doctor Who first premiered on television and left an indelible mark on pop culture and science fiction. Thrown together by a scrappy but ambitious production team, the series was envisioned as a love letter to all the wonder and terror of the Atomic Age, taking viewers to alien planets and lost civilizations alongside The Doctor and his companions. Originally developed as an educational program for family audiences, Doctor Who would grow into a cultural phenomenon over its original run, producing an incredible 26 seasons before its cancellation in 1989. But even that wouldn’t be the end. Through an impeccable mix of endearing characters, captivating stories, and a willingness to adapt behind the scenes, the series built an intensely dedicated following that would continue its legacy long after it left the air. Even after countless properties have built and iterated on its success Doctor Who remains as timeless and iconic as ever, giving viewers young and old a window into a universe where anything is possible.

Dawn of the Doctor

Ever since we could dream about the future, science fiction has held a massive place in popular culture, letting us channel our hopes and fears of the future into stories. While the genre has roots dating all the way back to the dawn of literature, it would peak over the twentieth century through the rise of industrialization and the postwar boom of the Atomic Age, with the awesome power of nuclear energy giving rise to creature features like Godzilla, alien invasions like The Day The Earth Stood Still, and high-concept adventures like Fantastic Voyage

It would be this sense of wonder and adventure that Sydney Newman, C.E. Webber, and Donald Wilson would channel into a new show for the British Broadcasting Corporation, replacing the old saturday serials with something more modern and all-ages friendly. Drawing heavily from his love of science fiction, Newman would eventually come up with the original idea for Doctor Who: an old man and his young friends traveling through time in a police box.

Up to the age of forty, I don’t think there was a science fiction book I hadn’t read. I love them because they’re a marvelous way – a safe way – of saying nasty things about our own society, I’d read H.G. Wells, of course, and I recalled his book ‘The Time Machine’. That inspired me to dream up the time-space machine for ‘Doctor Who’.

I then dreamed up this senile old man…to be the running character. He has fled in terror from another planet in this spaceship which lands on Earth in the form of a police box. However, this dim old guy doesn’t know how to operate the machine, presses the wrong button and they take off. And that was the idea.

Newman would reflect.

Unfortunately, the idea wasn’t well-received by BBC leadership, who saw science fiction as little more than cheap kids-only entertainment. While the series was given the go-ahead for development, it was clear the network’s higher-ups were skeptical from the beginning. As such, Newman began putting together a team of outsiders for the show, including Verity Lambert (who became the BBC’s first female producer,) Waris Hussein (their first Indian director,) David Whittaker (who served as story editor,) and Anthony Coburn as lead writer.

Working off of Newman’s original pitch, the team rocketed ahead with development, starting with the heart of the program: its core cast. First appearing in the pilot An Unearthly Child, Doctor Who’s main characters are heavily modeled on the archetypes of classic sci-fi serials. William Russel’s Ian Chesterton and Jaqueline Hill’s Barbara Wright play the part of traditional heroic leads, brought by Carol Ann Ford’s Susan Foreman into the world of the mysterious “Doctor.” Brought to life through veteran actor William Hartnell, The Doctor fills the archetypes of both “creature” and “scientist,” launching the group’s many adventures and butting heads with Ian and Barbara (who he kidnaps in the pilot. Lovely guy.) But while Doctor Who begins with the well-worn formula of “scared humans and unknowable aliens”, these characters evolve over the first four seasons. Early episodes like The Aztecs would hint at a lengthy backstory fraught with mistakes, while later episodes saw The Doctor’s selfish prickly exterior give way to a newfound compassion and a strong sense of justice. 

This evolution would only build over Hartnell’s tenure, with The Doctor growing into more of a lead role as his companions became part of a growing supporting cast. Susan, Ian, and Barbara would eventually leave, replaced by more diverse sidekicks including a pilot from the future, a handmaiden from Ancient Troy, and even a Space Special Security Agent (whatever that is). Every companion brings their own flair to the series, but they’re all united by the common thread of the Doctor’s evolution as he grows from the mysterious outsider into his own twist on the heroic leading man. Despite a rocky start, the diverse group of minds behind Doctor Who had laid the foundations of a definitive sci-fi series. A generation of viewers were standing on the threshold of an all-new universe of imagination. All they had to do was open the door…and step in.

The Doctor Through The Decades

Just like its characters, Doctor Who’s plots began firmly steeped in the tropes of classic atomic-age sci-fi. Its pilot An Unearthly Child is even a twist on the classic alien abduction tale, with Ian and Barbara imprisoned by The Doctor in an effort to keep himself and his granddaughter hidden. 

While the BBC’s stance on sci-fi left the program on shaky ground, the pilot itself was plagued with issues through its production. Countless rewrites and disagreements on the story led to writer Anthony Coburn’s exit, and problems with sets caused extensive reshoots that continued up until the month before the pilot’s airing. Even the pilot’s November 23rd premiere was hindered by widespread blackouts and (no joke) the assassination of President Kennedy, which prompted the BBC to re-air it back-to-back with its sequel Cave of Skulls. It was a total disaster, but the follow-up serial would end up launching a meteoric rise to popularity, bringing a deeper focus on social commentary and the debut of the series’ most quintessential villains: The Daleks. Created by Terry Nation as a reaction to the threat of nuclear war (as well as Nation’s memories of growing up in World War II) the Daleks were the Doctor’s first real nemesis, pushing him from a passive observer into a protector of time and space. They were also a massive gamble for the program. By the time the serial began production, support for Doctor Who had diminished, with the show teetering on cancellation after its first four episodes.

The crisis came when Donald Wilson saw the scripts for the first Dalek serial, there was a strong disagreement between us, in fact it went as far as (him) telling us not to do the show. What saved it in the end was purely the fact that we had nothing to replace it in the time allotted. It was the Daleks or nothing.

Lambert would reflect. 
Doctor Who

Luckily, these doubts quickly died as the serial exploded in popularity, growing the show’s audience exponentially and launching the BBC’s first merchandising boom. The widespread success of “Dalekmania” served as the template for many of Doctor Who’s foundational stories, with the increasingly heroic Doctor facing off against Atomic Age invaders like the Voord, Koquillion, Cybermen, and many, many new factions of the returning Daleks.

All of these stories lean more into fantasy than fact, but Newman’s adherence to the program’s educational roots adds just enough real-world reasoning to make each location and its inhabitants feel believable and weighty. This is helped along through brilliant production design, ironically brought about through a complete lack of funding with an average budget of 2,000 pounds per episode (roughly $42,000 today.)

While Doctor Who had very little funding of its own, the crew did have access to the BBC’s resources, including the organization’s radiophonics lab. Composers Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire used a variety of radio broadcasting equipment to engineer the show’s ethereal theme song, pioneering the technique of musical sampling by cutting, modifying, and mixing the piece across several tracks of analogue tape. Sets and costumes like The Daleks’ armor and the TARDIS’s interior were cobbled together from household materials, and coupled with basic editing tricks to mimic the wonder and scale of bigger-budget sci-fi films.

This inventiveness would give rise to some of the show’s most iconic elements, including the many details that bring The Doctor’s TARDIS to life, but it would also give Doctor Who the means to move far beyond what its creators imagined. By season 4, William Hartnell’s health had begun to decline, leading to his eventual exit. But rather than bringing in a new lead character, the production team came up with the idea to transform The Doctor through a concept that would later be named “regeneration.” In a flash of light, Hartnell was gone, and Patrick Troughton emerged as the second Doctor. 

Doctor Who

With this new lead came a new direction for the series, and the horror-tinged parables of nuclear war gave way to a broader focus on comedy, fun, and the adventure of the space age. In fact, these reinventions would continue with each new Doctor, letting the program evolve alongside popular culture. Jon Pertwee would bring an action-heavy spy angle, grounding the Doctor on earth to battle the renegade Time Lord The Master who was dreamed up as the Blofeld to the newly James-Bond-ified lead.

This in turn would give way to Tom Baker’s psychedelic spectacle and youthful defiance, launching The Doctor back into space and pitting him against fascistic post-humans like the Mad Dr. Solon and Davros, the genocidal creator of the Dalek race. Peter Davison’s tenure was equal parts back-to-basics and an attempt at operatic scale, maybe to capitalize on the success of bigger-budget space epics. Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor used high-concept adventures to explore the abstracts of good and evil, swinging between the two to critique the moral decay of the ’80’s. (He was mostly just a massive dick, though.) And finally, Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor was a synthesis of everything that came before, tackling operatic plots and dystopian themes with a generally lighter tone.

But even as Doctor Who’s plots changed through the decades, relying more on action and increasingly janky special effects, one element continued to hold the show together: a sense of hope for the future and humankind’s limitless potential. Unlike the nightmarish invaders he kept colliding with, The Doctor was a character that only grew more human as the series went on, speaking out against cruelty and using his power to defend the helpless of the universe, all while enriching the lives of his many companions. While its early years embodied the public’s fear of an uncertain future, Doctor Who would become a celebration of the wonders of the unknown, a spirit that would keep it alive decade after decade and build a legacy that would continue long after the series’ final days.

The Doctor In Decline

Arriving at a major flashpoint in television history, Doctor Who’s overnight popularity made it an institution in British pop culture, but even something that massively successful must come to an end. In truth, the show’s cancellation wasn’t the result of an abrupt decision but a series of issues that had plagued it since its debut. Doctor Who’s newfound success brought criticism from morality campaigners like Mary Whitehouse, who became an outspoken critic of what she decried as violent, gory content. These criticisms would also center around the series’ political leanings which often came off as vocally anti-war and anti-military, with the last few seasons delivering scathing commentary on Margaret Thatcher’s conservative administration. 

Mounting critiques and a general aimlessness in direction quickly eroded the BBC’s faith in Doctor Who, compounded by a revolution in practical and computer effects through big-budget blockbusters that made the show look flimsy by comparison. 

Doctor Who

We had to rely on the story because there was little we could do with the effects, Star Wars in a way was the turning point. Once Star Wars had happened, Doctor Who effectively was out of date from that moment on, judged by that level of technological expertise. The first shot was of the starship going over, and I said, ‘The game’s up – we’re dead.

Reflected producer Philip Hinchcliffe.

The effects weren’t the only part of the series’ production that suffered due to shrinking budgets. Between the 60’s and 70’s, large amounts of the BBC’s archival tapes and films were destroyed or wiped to make room for new projects, and while this practice was abandoned by the 80’s, it still resulted in a whopping 97 episodes from William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton’s time as The Doctor being lost forever. 

Doctor Who’s troubles would only continue to mount into the ‘80s. Feuding between BBC executives and Colin Baker resulted in the Sixth Doctor’s abrupt exit and replacement, and the show’s broadcast slot was moved multiple times, which all but killed its viewership. While Sylvester McCoy’s take on The Doctor won over fans, mounting pressure from BBC leadership to remove the program eventually won out. In 1989, Doctor Who was put on indefinite hiatus, with BBC’s head of series Peter Cregeen stating:

“There are no plans to axe Doctor Who, (but) there may be a little longer between this series and the next than usual.”

Cue four years of silence, followed by one final special titled Dimensions in Time, which was…pretty bad. Despite the BBC’s clear desire to move on from the series, Doctor Who was able to survive through its cancellation thanks to the passionate fan base it had cultivated over the years. The Doctor’s adventures would continue through magazines and books like The New Adventures of Doctor Who, as well as a number of licensed audio plays. Even the program’s lost episodes were given new life through fan reconstructions, paving the way for official restorations and showing the demand that would bring about the program’s eventual return. 

Now approaching its 60th anniversary Doctor Who’s place in pop culture feels stronger than ever, with creators building on its vast history, giving representation and validation to an ever-growing audience, and launching bold new experiments in sci-fi storytelling. Does it all stick the landing? Of course not. With a show this big, some ideas are always bound to resonate more than others. But in an era full of reboots and remakes too shy to break away from their source material, Doctor Who continues to blaze a trail into our shared imagination, proudly venturing into the unknown and beyond.

Doctor Who


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