From Glasnevin to Gallifrey: an Irish ‘Doctor Who’ adventure
Tonight the BBC celebrates its time-travelling hero’s 50th anniversary. A fan from childhood recalls her – and a toy Dalek’s – part in reviving the hit TV series
I’ve had a 40-year fondness for Doctor Who. The BBC series was my land of make-believe: an escape from an ordinary 1970s north Dublin suburban childhood. But I’d no idea that such passion would play a small part in making a new generation fall in love with the time-travelling hero.
Saturday, April 7th, 1973, was the day I first saw colour television. A neighbour, Mrs O’Brien, had the first colour set on Willow Park Grove: a six-button behemoth in mahogany veneer, complete with antimacassar on the top. For an eight-year-old girl this was a portal to another world. At teatime I sat down, fig rolls beside me, to watch the first part of Planet of the Daleks.
From the pulsing, psychedelic colours of the opening titles I was transported to the jungle planet of Spiridon to follow Jon Pertwee in his latest adventure. This third Doctor was a James Bond-like figure: an action hero Time Lord whose expertise in “Venusian aikido” brought numerous aliens to their scaly, chitinous knees.
I persuaded my dad to buy a colour TV after that first experience, and soon Saturday teatimes were filled with full-colour Sontarans, Daemons and, of course, Daleks. The roads of Willow Park and the strand at Dollymount became the planets of Skaro, Gallifrey and Metebelis Three.
For 30 minutes every week I peeked around a brown-corduroy swivel chair, scared and thrilled. When the electronic thrums of the theme tune emerged from the TV at 5.50pm my dad would mumble “This rubbish again” and leave the room.
Brink of obscurity
Cut to 1992. I was now a producer at the BBC in factual TV and was battling real villains: getting chased by the Mafia in Las Vegas and attacked by chain-wielding conmen, all in the name of investigative journalism. One day at Television Centre, as I walked through the vast scenery dock, a familiar blue in a far corner caught my eye: it was the battered and forlorn Tardis.
The series had been cancelled in 1989. Viewers and BBC bosses had fallen out of love with the Doctor, but I hadn’t. The sight of the iconic police box – and a chance meeting with a charming Pertwee in a BBC corridor – brought back the old thrill.
I devoured box sets of the 1970s episodes. Chatting with veteran BBC technicians in the canteen, I learned about the innovative women who’d been part of Doctor Who from its inception, in 1963: the original producer, Verity Lambert, a pioneer for women in the media, and Delia Derbyshire, the gifted musician from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop who created the E-minor electronic version of Ron Grainer’s theme tune.
It seemed such a pity that, after all the ground-breaking work, what remained of the Doctor could be found only in an archive. Future generations of children would never know the thrill of travelling to strange worlds with the eponymous hero.
It’s now May 2003, and a 20cm talking Dalek I’d bought in a toy shop sits on my desk at Television Centre. After a stint back home as RTÉ’s director of television, I was now in Shepherd’s Bush again as the channel executive for BBC One, the right-hand woman of its controller at the time, Lorraine Heggessey.
She’s an astute judge of what makes good, popular TV, but she needed persuading that the time had come again for the Doctor. It would be a huge gamble for any controller to recommission such a historic brand. By now the BBC was a pioneer in computer-generated imagery, but some episodes could cost £1 million, and an entire series would make a big dent in the drama budget. If a new series were a huge success, it would recoup millions from selling the series overseas and from merchandise, but if it failed it could be the costliest flop in BBC history. The decision wasn’t mine, but I had the ear of the one person who could make it happen. So I did my bit to swing her decision.
As I got in early to read the daily press cuttings I decided I’d welcome the BBC One controller each morning with a Dalek greeting. If I pressed the toy’s talk button as she hung up her coat, she’d be met with “Exterminate”, “Daleks rule supreme”, “Destroy the Doctor”, “Seek, locate, annihilate” or a combination of them. Those staccato shrieks were not what anyone wanted at 8am, but I insisted I wouldn’t stop until she gave in.
It didn’t take long. By day three she pleaded, “Find out who owns the rights.” 20th Century Fox had made a Doctor Who film for TV in 1996 in an attempt to revive the brand in the US, but it hadn’t been a soaring success. We needed to disentangle who owned what: did BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the corporation, still own Doctor Who or was it in the hands of an American studio? There were other hurdles: we couldn’t have Doctor Who without the Daleks, so we’d need to negotiate with the estate of Terry Nation, the writer who developed the tinpot cyborgs.
I called Jane Tranter, the head of BBC Drama, and asked if her team could give us a definite answer on who owned Who. The excitement was palpable: were these the first baby steps of a new series? There was a huge amount of work to do, and it took months before the commission was finalised. Thousands of pieces had to fall into place over the next 22 months before a new Doctor would be revealed on screen. The process involved closed film sets in Cardiff, secret screenings, scripts under lock and key, and many anxious days and nights for commissioners, crew and cast.
With the producers Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner at the helm, life was breathed back into the Time Lord, and on March 26th, 2005, the new Doctor Who had its premiere, with Christopher Eccleston as the latest regeneration. I wrote the speech that launched the new series to the press, quoting the farewell lines of the first Doctor, William Hartnell, in 1966: “One day I shall come back; yes, I shall come back . . . ” Eight years later the Doctor is played by Matt Smith, in his 11th regeneration, and is soon to have a 12th, in Peter Capaldi.
Tonight, on the 50th anniversary of the series, I’ll switch on BBC One and say a very belated thanks to Mrs O’Brien and her Murphy television set for making magic come true for this little girl.
Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor is on BBC One at 7.50pm today