Here’s the first part of a long David Whitaker interview from DWM, although I think DWM may have been reprinting material from another sources since the magazine began in 1979 and Whitaker died in 1980, and I don’t think DWM was really focusing on behind the scenes interviews in its early days. But anyway, yes, this is the first part, because it’s very long, so part two will be along tomorrow. In this part, David Whitaker talks about the brilliance of William Hartnell’s Doctor, about the decision to go ahead with ‘The Daleks’, and about the need to write Susan out of the series. Tomorrow it’s onto ‘Power of the Daleks’, ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ and the first ever ‘Doctor Who’ novelisation.
“I was very restless, eager to get on and do something – prove to myself that I did indeed have something to offer. I think the fear of having no talent was uppermost in my mind, though looking back it’s hard to think why; I mean, once I involved myself in something, I could usually get on with it with a mixture of adrenalin and interest. Because I was so enthusiastic, it was always easier – the worst experiences of my career have always been when I’m not really in control of my own work and when I’m being asked to write to a formula that bores me.
“I began to see writing more and more as the lifestyle that suited me most. While it can be just as transitory as acting, providing you can do it, there is an entirely different reward from writing, and there’s no doubt that it’s eminently personal. I got enormous satisfaction from my first successful writing ventures, and with some of the encouragement I received from friends and employers alike, it quickly took over. I joined the BBC as a staff writer and story editor in late 1957, if I remember correctly, and was plunged into a hectic but wonderful few years of extremely hard and gratifying work.
“The first thing to remember about ‘Doctor Who’ then was that we actually had a very reasonable budget for the time, and were consequently feeling very vulnerable to failure; if it failed, our careers would have been at least slightly tarnished. As it was Verity Lambert’s first job as a producer, she had a lot to live up to and we were, to be mild about it, terribly, terribly nervous. We were also terribly, terribly excited, excited in the faith we had been shown and about the series itself which, as an idea, got more interesting by degrees.
“People find it hard to conceive now just how much commitment working on any television series required at that time. We weren’t that exceptional, but we had the burden of science fiction in that the illusion we were trying to convey had to be done with the relatively limited resources of the time. So often, sets or costumes had to be made totally from scratch and one, albeit fairly minor, reason for the historical stories was that they at least took some of the financial burden off us.
“In those days, the story editor was far more of an active element in the overall production, whereas now the job is more academic. I would often find myself liasing with props, advising our designers, and dealing with any outside interests. I always went to as many rehearsals and recordings as possible, especially at first, but sometimes the pressures of paperwork would keep my away. When the show became a success so early on, it was a tremendous feeling, one that I can’t quite describe. We all felt it, though, because with the job virtually dominating one’s living and breathing, it swallowed our private lives. The pressures inevitably got less once we were underway, but the sense of belonging to a programme very much remained.
“At the very beginning, we looked for exactly what Billy Hartnell gave us. The Doctor was without a doubt a formidable man, so much so that I was once asked why we made him almost remote from the audience. That remoteness, I argued, was the very strength of the Doctor’s character, for it established a respect for what he said and did, as well as making him a genuine father figure. I was keen, too, on ensuring that an aura of mystery remained around him. We had, after all, got a series that had as its title that most potent of questions, Doctor Who? Since we’ve learnt all about him, seen so much of what motivates him, and since he has become very much more whimsical, an atmosphere has been lost. I can appreciate the process of discovering about the Doctor was the more inevitable the longer the series continued, and I’m not really disapproving of the development. It’s just, to me, a shame that the mystery has rather evaporated in favour of greater security, and consequently lessened impact.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that William Hartnell secured the success of ‘Doctor Who’ for us, and that the BBC has always understood that only an actor of talent and personality could fill the leading role. The series was very fortunate in its choices. Verity was a splendid producer, and we had the services of fine directors such as Waris Hussein and Douglas Camfield. Raymond Cusick headed a list of designers who produced miracles out of cellophane paper and battery bulbs.
“Ironically, Terry Nation didn’t want to write for us, considering it rather demeaning that he’d even been asked. However, in the end, something – I think the collapse of another job – persuaded him to go ahead and do something for the show. That turned out to be ‘The Daleks’, and with it came two things, first a row and then audiences of an incredible number. The row came when it was thought that the Daleks would drag the show down to being puerile rubbish. One of our prime intentions was to keep an educational slant to it, and Daleks were felt not to be in the right mould at all. Actually, that Dalek story was educational in a subtle way – it showed the dangers of war, pacifism and racial hatred. It contained many admirable and idealistic truths in it, and it was also a jolly good adventure story.
“We were allowed to go ahead with ‘The Daleks’ simply because none of the other scripts had been finished. When it was shown, not very long after being recorded, we were, and I don’t mean this to sound smug, proved quite right. Terry Nation then came up with another story for us and he has been writing on and off for the programme ever since – rather like me! One interesting thing was that we weren’t actually intending to bring the Daleks back. I felt very strongly that we should try constantly for new ideas and treat new unexplored ground. As it turned out, their popularity ensured, in fact rather blackmailed us, into commissioning a sequel. The Daleks were a smashing invention, and I took to them at once. I would say they’re worthy of Jules Verne.
“The Edge of Destruction was a good example of the violent pace of my job. We had a choice – either the series went off the air until they were ready (with new scripts) or I wrote a short story, say two episodes, using the sets we had in stock. That effectively meant a TARDIS-bound story with no guest cast, and while this was good news for Verity on a financial basis, it was a fairly horrendous prospect for me. As I recall, I spent about two days and most of two nights writing this weird, mysterious set piece that was to stand in for our proper stories. It was, to be frank, a bit of a nightmare, though it seemed to go down quite well with everyone except our confused cast, who knew their characters and couldn’t quite grasp the totally discontinuous way in which, for dramatic purposes, I had to make them behave.
“By the time we reached the completion of the first fifty-two episodes, we realised there would be a second series. Thus the first stories were held over, in case we caught up with ourselves. I hadn’t honestly planned on staying after that initial year, as for one thing I wasn’t at all sure the series would continue. I had committed myself to working on another production, so I had to leave anyway. It was a shame, but probably just as well for both me and the series. I was very tired, and beginning to feel dangerously jaded. About the last thing I had to do was help decide how Carole Ann Ford should be written out. It was an important decision, for it was the first main cast departure, and we gave it a lot of thought. Susan became the first girl to be married off, but she was an important break – being, of course, the Doctor’s granddaughter. We knew nothing would part him from her, except the independent action of the Doctor himself. So it was decided that Susan would be given no alternative other than to go, and I think in the process we created one of the most moving scenes ever to be written and recorded for the series.”