On 23 November 1963 the first episode of British sci-fi series Doctor Who was broadcast on BBC TV. Named An Unearthly Child, it was well-received by an audience of over 4 million and would be the first of 851 episodes in a sequence that continues to this day and has made the programme a stalwart of British popular culture.
Recorded in September 1963 on black and white video tape, An Unearthly Child told the story of Susan, a schoolgirl with some “alien” views on the world. Concerned about her, two of her teachers visit her home, where they meet her cranky and mysterious grandfather – “the Doctor” – and then hear Susan’s voice from inside a police phonebox.
Perplexed, they are shown inside and see that it is not a phonebox at all but a spaceship called the TARDIS. Alarmed by their discovery, the Doctor – who is actually a time-travelling alien, sets the TARDIS into flight and sends them all back to the stone age.
The Doctor here in his first of thirteen incarnations was played by William Hartnell, a serious actor who was known for playing tough hardmen in various films. Initially hesitant to take part in what he saw as a children’s show, Hartnell allowed series director Waris Hussein to persuade him to adopt what would prove to be a career-defining role as the gruff and otherworldly doctor.
The success of the eagerly anticipated new show was put into jeopardy before it had even been aired by something beyond Hussein’s control. Just a day earlier US President John.F Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, and the frenzied coverage of this earthshaking event had promised to delay the programme’s launch.
However, in the end the delay was slight, and the reception of the 25-minute episode was largely favourable, though after stone-age men were introduced later on Guardian critic Mary Crozier called it a “depressing sequel” and “wigs and furry pelts and clubs and laborious dialogue were all ludicrous.”
Others commented acidly on the show’s unsubtle educational spin, most obviously in the form of the two schoolteachers, and in scenes where stone age men were taught the value of democracy and liberalism.
None of the snooty reviewing made any difference to Doctor Who’s popularity, and over the course of the four-episode first series the ratings went from 4 to 6.4 million viewers. A new cult hit had been born – which would thrust new words like dalek and timelord into the popular consciousness – and it would stick around for a long time.
In 1966, Hartnell’s health began to fail, and the show-runners began to search for a replacement, and an excuse for changing the Doctor’s appearance.
In the end, they decided that the alien Doctor could have a new power – that of regeneration – and using this excuse they recast him with the character actor Patrick Troughton – who added a tougher more piratical air to the now-famous character. Ten other actors would follow, all bringing their own new spin on the role.
This idea of allowing regeneration is partly responsible for the show’s extraordinary longevity – now in 2019 it is the longest-running science fiction TV show of all time.
What is less widely known is that it was actually cancelled in 1989, with viewing figures plummeting and the public tired of unrealistic sets and cheesy dialogue.
It was revived, however, with spectacular success in 2005 by Russel T. Davies, who updated it for a modern audience by casting the leather jacket-sporting Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and vastly improving the effects.
It is now a truly global phenomenon, and the 50th anniversary special the Day of the Doctor broke a record by being broadcast simultaneously in 94 countries.