Here’s Verity Lambert telling DWM about the early days of ‘Doctor Who’. She puts right a few misconceptions, and admits that she wasn’t too fond of ‘An Unearthly Child’…
“Doctor Who was never intended to last just six weeks. Right from the beginning, we were told it would be a year-round production. Certainly by the time the first episode was shown, we had most of our scripts together for the full season. The only thing we didn’t know then was that there would be another season after that. This myth about the show only being planned to last six weeks is one that has grown over the years, probably as a result of inventive reporting.
“The format for ‘Doctor Who’ was pretty well defined by the time I arrived. Donald Wilson had already given the job of writing the first story to Anthony Coburn, together with the firm guidelines as to how the characters would be broken down. The Doctor was to be irascible and unpredictable. What nobody wanted was a conventional dotty old professor, so it was stressed that the Doctor should be something of an anti-hero to begin with.
“Susan was his original travelling companion, to mix knowledge with naivety, though it was Anthony Coburn who cast her as the Doctor’s grand-daughter. I think Anthony Coburn felt there was something not quite proper about an old man travelling around the galaxy with a young girl for a companion. Ian was there to be the hero figure and to be physically adept, with Barbara on hand to solve the human orientated problem posed by the Doctor and Susan being something special.
“David Whitaker and Mervyn Pinfield were absolutely super in the work they put into ‘Doctor Who’. Mervyn was appointed to be our technical adviser because neither David nor myself were scientists in any degree. Our brief was to ‘use television’ – that is, make use of all its resources and new developments in order to achieve a scientific look. Mervyn Pinfield came up with opening graphics by suggesting the use of a camera pointing down its own monitor.
“We were all very nervous making our first few shows, simply because we were doing things that had rarely been done before, and certainly not by the BBC. David and I relied heavily on Mervyn to read through story ideas and scripts to see if they could be done easily and to our budget, or to suggest ways of modifying them so that they could be done with photographic tricks.
“I didn’t much care for the caveman story as a whole, but the ending of episode one is an absolutely magical sequences. There was no dialogue during those last few minutes, it was all done visually and, I think, with great invention, taking the four central characters on a ride through time to that desert and then ending with the shadow falling over the landscape. It summed up just how new ‘Doctor Who’ was as a concept.
“David chose Terry Nation on the strength of some science fiction work he’d already done for ITV, ‘Journey Into the Unknown’. At first we were a bit wary about accepting his storyline about the Daleks, because of the bug-eyed monster concept. Sydney Newman had outlined a series that was part history and part educational towards science; the aim being to expose children to science and history and hopefully interest them in it. I didn’t feel the Daleks altered Sydney Newman’s format, mainly as they were in functioning metal cases.
“The crisis came when Donald Wilson saw the scripts for the first Dalek serial. Having spent so much time defending ‘Doctor Who’, he saw the Daleks as just bug-eyed monsters, which went against what he felt should be the theme of the science-fiction stories. There was a strong disagreement between us, in fact it went as far as Donald Wilson telling us not to do the show. What saved it in the end was purely that fact that we had nothing to replace it in the time alloted. It was the Daleks or nothing. What was very nice, though, was Donald Wilson coming up to me after the Daleks had taken off and saying ‘You obviously understand this programme better than I do. I’ll leave it to you’.
“Dennis Spooner was known mostly for comedy, and as our scripts started coming in I decided I wanted to experiment with putting comedy into ‘Doctor Who’. ‘The Romans’ perhaps didn’t work very well, although I liked it enormously and I know Bill Hartnell felt much more comfortable doing comedy than all the scientific stuff”.