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The Strange Birth Of "Doctor Who"

Fifty years ago, three unlikely people came together to make a new children's programme. A programme that would change the country forever.

You have to feel sorry, really, for people who don't like Doctor Who at the moment. As the show celebrates 50 years on (and off) air, it is unavoidable. All of the BBC's channels, and most of its idents, have been taken over with tributes and testimonials. Most of the media are devoting swathes of space and airtime to the celebrations. Even One Direction will be in on it, beaming in live from Los Angeles in a special "after party" broadcast live on BBC Three, after the movie-length anniversary special. And that 3D special will be simulcast globally in over 75 countries, and in hundreds of cinemas worldwide.

Yet even those people who don't like it are chapter-and-versed in the iconography of the programme. They know that the titular Doctor is something called a Time Lord, who for reasons never explained in detail, can change his body when mortally wounded, or rather, when the lead actor decides to leave. They know that his space and time machine is called a Tardis (only fans will know what this stands for, admittedly) and that it looks like a blue police box. And because you never see police boxes anymore, they will see one and their first association will be that it is a Tardis. They know that the theme music is the most memorable ever composed. And they know that the Doctor's greatest enemies are the Daleks, angry, screeching, metallic war machines whose unlikely armory look like a toilet plunger and an egg whisk. They know that the Daleks say "exterminate" a lot.

That's just in the U.K., where this stuff has long been a part of the cultural fabric. But the 9 million U.K. viewers account for just a fraction of the last-recorded global audience of the programme, Doctor Who. Looking at those numbers, it seems insane that such a grand cultural phenomenon could have grown out of a strange, high-concept kids show about — broadly speaking — a time-travelling space detective who fights monsters. But this is the special alchemy that everyone is getting so worked up about celebrating. And the accidental story of how three misfits created this programme by accident is almost as unlikely and inspiring as that of the Doctor himself.

Wimbledon Studios, February 2013, and an old man is talking to a young woman, whom he has locked out of his spaceship.

"One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. But until then, there must be no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs. And prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine." Forty-eight years ago a few miles up the road, the exact same thing was happening. We are on set for An Adventure in Space and Time, the 90-minute BBC Two drama telling the story of Doctor Who's difficult journey to screen that is perhaps the jewel in the crown of the 50th anniversary celebrations.

Actors David Bradley and Claudia Grant are re-creating the iconic sequence from 1964 serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth where Susan, the Doctor's granddaughter and first "Doctor Who girl" left the show. In real life, actress Carole Anne Ford had decided to leave the programme, frustrated at her role not developing much beyond screaming. To get around it, producers had Susan fall in love with a freedom fighter. Knowing she would never leave him, her grandfather took the choice out of her hands and locked her out to live a life of her own. It's one of the all-time great emotional sucker punches of Doctor Who, in only its second year.

For a lifelong devotee of this programme, it's already a little bit much. So it must be even worse for the writer of the piece, Mark Gatiss.

"I think you can probably imagine what it's like!" he says, hopping about. "Every day is a new thrill. I deliberately didn't want to see the Tardis until it was all done but, because I've done that before where you go in and it's half-finished and you get that wonderful new word, anticipointment. So I waited and it was astonishing. I had to ram my scarf in my mouth to stop myself from screaming."

This has been a passion project for Gatiss. He originally pitched it for the 40th anniversary in 2003, but with Doctor Who still two years off returning, there wasn't much interest. Fast-forward 10 years, and with the show back in its rightful place as the BBC's biggest property — with a global audience of 77 million — he's been given the keys to kingdom.

Swathes of old stories are being recreated in glorious Technicolor. The original Tardis set (now housed at the Doctor Who Experience exhibit in Cardiff) has been recreated inch-by-inch.

"This is a very touching story," he says, with an incredible seriousness that he can hold down for all of a few seconds. "But I get given this toy box! This is like a map of my brain since I was 5! This is what I've always wanted."

This isn't much of an interview because we're both just gawping at this set and can't concentrate on anything much else. I've been here a day. Gatiss has been here for a fortnight.

Gatiss is only half-joking about audacious plans to use these new sets and look-alikes to remake the episodes wiped by the BBC in the 1970s.

"Basically we're going to have a word, book everybody, and remake all the missing episodes!"

When Doctor Who fans watch An Adventure in Space and Time, they will just cry. I know, because I did. Everyone else will likely be surprised and delighted and inspired by the incredible set of circumstances that led to all this happening. Into this sepia and uncertain world of 1963 came three extraordinary people. Back then, the BBC was a buttoned-up organization run by sergeant major types in blazers. In walked three outsiders — an eccentric Canadian, a 24-year-old woman, and a 25-year-old gay Indian. This was not in any sense how things were done.

Fans know this story, it's hardwired into our brains: how the pilot was ordered to be remade after senior execs found the Doctor to be too cantankerous. How the first episode was overshadowed by the assassination of JFK and how the BBC made the slightly insane decision to just repeat the pilot after that first week. How the young producer Verity Lambert battled to get the Daleks onscreen against a boss who insisted that this programme, intended to teach children about history, should not be populated by "bug-eyed monsters".

But the story of Doctor Who is also the story of Britain. "I thought the star of this for me would be the re-creation of the old episodes, but it wasn't," says Steven Moffat, Doctor Who's current showrunner. "What Terry McDonough [director, and veteran of Breaking Bad] has done is really evoked the era that Doctor Who was born into. The sheer post-warness of the early '60s. It's not even the '60s properly yet, it's just post-war Britain, on a bit. This incredibly bleak, occasionally colourful time, it evokes that clearly. You are really quite moved by what a different world Doctor Who was born in."

Doctor Who came from the '60s. But you could just as easily argue that the '60s came from Doctor Who, and whatever else was happening that led the decade to start swinging, one significant factor must surely have been that sequence of meetings at TV Centre between three unlikely individuals who came together to create something extraordinary.

Sydney Newman was a brash and flamboyant man who moved to the U.K. from Canada in the 1950s. During his time at ABC Television, he created The Avengers and pioneered the Armchair Theatre strand of single dramas. He was poached by the BBC as Head of Drama in 1962. As one of his first decisions, he decided the channel needed something to hold its audience between Grandstand and Jukebox Jury. His idea, one that would quickly change, was an adventure series that would teach children about history.

"He was a man very much against the style of the time," says actor Brian Cox, who plays him in An Adventure. "I think that what's nice about him. He was pioneering in television generally. When he left and went back to Canada, it was a great loss. He crafted so many things — he actually created the whole format of the hour television, really. When I was a young actor, I met him once at my first-ever time at the BBC; it was Wednesday Play, and he was very sweet and very nice, very hands-on, would pop into rehearsals and give you notes and whatnot. He was a good man."

Cox plays Newman as a colourful pioneer, the exact spot between philanthropist and bully.

"He was Jewish, and I think he sort of fashioned himself on those famous Jewish Hollywood producers, like Jack Warner or Louis B Mayer. And he was flamboyant, he wore bow ties and cravats, he was very un-BBC."

Cox knew Verity Lambert, the show's first producer, socially, so now finds himself playing his old friend opposite Call the Midwife star Jessica Raine. Lambert began her TV career as a shorthand typist at ABC, soon becoming secretary to the company's Head of Drama. Moving to production, she became a production assistant on Armchair Theatre, where her talents caught the eye of Newman. This was the era of live broadcasts. Once, during a broadcast of 1958 sci-fi play Underground, actor Gareth Jones died, and she had to step up to directing the cameras from the studio gallery while the director worked with the actors on the studio floor to accommodate the loss and get to the end of the broadcast. Newman was so impressed that when he went over to the BBC, she hired her as producer of Doctor Who. But between Newman's progressive spirit and Lambert's tenacity, they were able to break a glass ceiling and get the thing to screen.

"She's interesting, Verity, because she was very feminine," says Cox, on a break between scenes. "That 'piss and vinegar' side of her, which is mentioned in the script, was never a side I saw of her. It's a kind of notion. Apparently she had this side, but the Verity I always knew was more…flirtatious, but not in an obvious way. Clearly a dedicated producer in her job. Jessica's very good, but the Verity I knew was very quiet — she wasn't massively talkative. She was quite demure, really."

Nevertheless, Lambert was a force of nature. It was she who pushed Newman for the repeat when the pilot was overshadowed by JFK, and it was she who pushed through the Daleks against Newman's dictat for there to be no "bug-eyed monsters". In fact, it was only because Terry Nation's Dalek script was the only one ready to go into production, but she saw the potential in the pepper pot war machines, their deranged bloodlust after years of genetic engineering, not to mention the obvious Nazi parallels. Ten million viewers at tea time, and the 50 years of Doctor Who that have gone since justified that holding of her nerve.

"She obviously has become this great legend," says Jess Raine in the Wimbledon canteen, "but that's not very helpful when you're having to play someone because you can't play a legend! I just think of her as this woman who had, I guess, a fire in her belly and very strong opinions and wasn't wavered by anyone. She's quite unique in that way. She didn't see herself as a woman in that world, she just saw herself as an intelligent human being who had as equal a right to say something as anyone else could. It frustrated her if she came up against anyone restricting her because she was a woman, but I don't think she ever played that card."

At one point in An Adventure, Mervyn Pinfield [played by Jeff Rawle], the associate producer put in place to supervise her, advises, "'Experience' is not a dirty word." But it seems unlikely that somebody less green might have taken the kind of risks that would go on to make the programme a hit.

"People where whispering about her, saying she slept with Sydney Newman to get where she was, which was really not true," says Raine. "Really undermining stuff, like she's got her budget all wrong, she'd overspent on the Tardis set. They wanted to pull the entire project because this is clearly a young woman who didn't know what she was doing."

Completing the trinity was young director Waris Hussein, put on the project through accident of the BBC rota. Playing him is Last Tango in Halifax star Sacha Dhawan.

"I think his real challenge was getting people to take him seriously," says Dhawan. "He was young, Indian, I think the only Indian working at the BBC at that time, and then he's working on this project that he really wants to get the best out of but not everybody at that time was cooperating with him. Even now, nobody wants to be told what to do by somebody who's a lot younger than them. And after getting this pilot, making this pilot work at Lime Grove Studios, the facilities were really hard and he planned all these amazing shots and really wanted to show off with it and didn't have the chance to."

If Lambert brought piss and vinegar, Hussein endured through playing the establishment at its own game. He simply acted posher than any of them did.

"Being young, and from my point, as an actor as well," says Dhawan, "being good isn't enough. You've got to be exceptional."

Sydney Newman left the U.K. in 1970, and the Sunday Times declared that "British TV will never be the same again." He is described by the Museum of Broadcast Communications as "the most significant agent of British television drama." He died in 1997. Verity Lambert went on to become one of the most formidable forces in British television, masterminding Quatermass, Minder, GBH, and Jonathan Creek, among so many more. She died from cancer in 2007.

Still fighting fit in 2013 is Waris Hussein, the director who would go on to win a BAFTA for his work on 1978's Edward & Mrs. Simpson. He isn't impressed with the surroundings, on a summer afternoon at the BBC's Broadcast Centre in White City, just a stone's throw from their former dream factory. They're prepping for The One Show out front. "It's very sleek, but it doesn't have the spirit."

But it's a world away from the place he began making his name.

"The funny thing was, making it in Studio D Lime Grove was in itself a miracle because you had to see it to believe how basic it was. It wasn't gleaming Television Centre, it was cramped, it was ill-equipped. The materials were hard to work with, the lighting consoles were not as good. I think we did a hell of an achievement in that space."

Hussein is a grand, fabulous, ever-so-slightly bitchy man, not completely unfazed by the surreal process of consulting on a drama about his own life. He's been in on the whole process, but his biggest note to Dhawan and the producers was over costume. "I never wore open-neck things," he says matter-of-factly. "In a funny way, opening your shirt out, to me, made me vulnerable. And the fact is, it was a kind of self-defence. The point is, I was the very first Indian-born director in the drama department. We are dealing with a time when the show had a female producer. Women in those days were secretaries or PAs. They were not the producers of the kind that Verity was. Sydney Newman was a Canadian. Three outsiders working on a project that nobody had any faith in. We were, I think, the first crack in the glass ceiling. That little sliver of a crack being shaped. I think it was a forerunner. None of us realized at the time."

With a budget of £2000 an episode and the prospect of Studio D, the young Waris was not initially keen on the project. "I was an ambitious director who had studied drama at Cambridge," he says. "I'd done a lot of theatre as a student director. Here I am, having done Shakespeare and Arthur Miller, working with a script that deals with people in skins talking monosyllabically. Is this my fate, I wondered? Little did I know the path I was treading. I was dreading rather than treading what I was going into."

Not all old Doctor Who is very good at all. But that first episode, An Unearthly Child, is remarkable in how perfectly it still stands up today. Two schoolteachers, Ian and Barbara, are concerned for the welfare of one pupil, Susan, who claims to know more about science and history than they do, and whose registered fixed abode turns out to be a junkyard. They follow her home, and on following her into a seemingly abandoned police box and meeting her grandfather, their lives are changed forever. The subsequent adventure in the Stone Age leaves more to be desired. There's a scene that survives into An Adventure that Waris recounts almost verbatim, the tetchy exchange burned onto his memory. He goes up to Verity with the script.

"What on Earth are we going to do with this?"

"We're going to make it work," she replies.

"I just tried to make it in the best possible way," he remembers now. "You have to be aware of the fact that this must not be laughed off the screen, because there was the potential for that, especially when you've got this eccentric old man playing the lead. The premise was already strange, and that had to be dealt with on its own level."

One of the big licenses An Adventure takes is overstating Waris' part in this whole story. He directed that first story, and then the third one, the lost (but possibly soon-to-be-found, according to who you believe) Marco Polo.

Is it not frustrating to be forever defined by eight weeks of work you did 50 years ago?

"I've come full circle, haven't I," he says, smiling. "No, listen, it's actually wonderful, because at this time in one's life, a lot of people think I should be in some kind of retirement home with a blanket on my knees. Far from it! It energises me to come back to this and feel that I'm still part of something that has since become so famous. Actually, as much as they wanted to kill it off, thank god they didn't. But for me, I've travelled a lot in my life and there are other works I've done and some of them have gained me awards, but in the end, Doctor Who is something that is probably going to far outlive most of the other stuff that I've done. So why should I complain?"

If Doctor Who was the brainchild of young people reaching upwards, its eventual success was down to an older man going through an entirely different sort of journey. William Hartnell was an already-established character actor. Although just 55 when he took the lead role of the Doctor, a turmoiled life had made him look much older. Playing bullish types in gritty movies like Brighton Rock and This Sporting Life had made his name, but latterly had been languishing in second-rate Sergeant Bilko rip-off The Army Game. He was not in a happy place with his career.

The through-line of the biopic is the journey Hartnell went through himself, how this cynical, grumpy drunk grew a closer relationship with his grandchildren through his accidental career as a children's hero. There is something of King Lear — or at least A Christmas Carol — to it. One of those grandchildren, Jessica Carney, is depicted in the drama and went on to write his biography, becoming fandom's custodian of his estate. Her book, says Gatiss, "goes a long way to explaining some of his foibles, which have sort of become lore. He's sort of singled out for being difficult to work with and being slightly racist and slightly homophobic. But it's because he was Doctor Who, as opposed to the rest of his generation, who were allowed."

Gatiss found the crux of the character in Hartnell's lifelong need to be taken seriously. "He was illegitimate," he explains, "and so legitimacy follows him through, whether it's his birth, or him as an actor. Even though that isn't present in the script, it's all embedded in it. He was a very chippy man, and this is where it's all coming from. Essentially it's a bit like Scrooge, we see him as he starts, and then the Doctor transforms his life and makes him a better person, I think."

Taking on the role of Hartnell is Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and Broadchurch star David Bradley, himself probably one of the most beloved British actors never to have played the Doctor.

"I knew he'd been in other films," says Bradley, in his dressing room, "and I saw Carry On Sergeant, but I was so busy looking at the funny people in it, because even in a comedy he'd be the straight man, when in fact he was a very good comedian — but he never had the chance on screen. He was great at farce, and I think he wanted to do more comedy, but he made the mistake of being brilliant at playing authority figures or spivs, so that's him.

"What came across to me is he was a consummate professional and a perfectionist. He loved working with other people, he loved doing Doctor Who, and he relished the chance to play something a bit lighter. Apparently he went to open a lot of school fetes and went to functions and shops and never asked for a fee. He just loved doing it and dressing up as the Doctor. He was a perfectionist and he would demand a lot of himself, and he would only get grumpy or cantankerous if other people didn't show enough commitment to the programme. I suppose that's fair. It was a big part of his life, and he took it very seriously."

The only surviving video interview with Hartnell was recovered very recently and released as a special feature on the DVD of his final serial, The Tenth Planet. It's backstage on the 1966 pantomime tour of Puss in Boots, in which he played the Fairy Cobbler. It's not the most flattering portrayal; he sounded almost embittered toward the role he had recently vacated.

"I'm not brassed off," he said. "It's just the association of the Dalek question, you know, this mechanical, mobile object that I'm beginning to find distracting. And they were difficult to play to, because you're not looking into human eyes, you're looking at a metal object, moving about, with a voice-over." He was asked whether he thinks he will ever shake the character off. "Yes, of course. By making a success of something else. That's an actor's job." He did not, for the record, see his future in pantomime. "It's a different technique, which lends itself only to what I call a variety type of actor. But I'm not, I'm legitimate. I'm a legitimate actor of the theatre and film."

In 1965, Hartnell was diagnosed with arteriosclerosis — a hardening of the arteries. The decline was long and slow, but the symptoms came quickly. He began forgetting his lines, a problem that became so increasingly regular that he requested a reduction in his working hours on the year-round, weekly serial. But Sydney Newman had a different plan. His idea was a personal tragedy for Hartnell but would secure the future of the show another 47 years and counting. Doctor Who would continue, but they would change the lead actor. Because the character was an alien — and this by now really was the '60s — they could do something audacious and psychedelic. When wounded, the Doctor could simply change his body.

In 1966, in the final episode of The Tenth Planet (the story that saw the first appearance of the Cybermen) Patrick Troughton made his debut in the role. Nowadays, we take the notion of "regeneration" casually. The fact that such a shocking move went down so easily with the audience should not take away from the impact this had on Hartnell.

David Bradley recounts a well-worn anecdote: "He says to Patrick Troughton when they meet, 'I said to them, there's only one man in the country who could take over.' When Sydney Newman said it was time to go, it broke him. It really did. He just didn't want to go. But at the same time, he could recognise his illness; forgetting his lines just got more and more acute. But he had the good grace to say to Sydney Newman, 'Yes, he's a terrific actor and an excellent choice'. So it was a mixture of sadness and reluctance to let go, but being generous enough to endorse his successor."

Hartnell died in 1975, having made one brief appearance, his health failing even further, in the show's 10th anniversary special, The Three Doctors. This was all long before I was born. It's not a thing I have a right to any emotional investment in. Still, the thing that happens next is extraordinary. Back in costume and readying to go back on set, Bradley goes into role for me, tilts his head slightly forward to the left, raises the other eyebrow, and time stops again. I am physically thrown back a foot or so. Time stops again. The Doctor, that Doctor, is back in the room. Nobody else in the room can really handle it.

Doctor Who was a hit almost instantly, and those stories of its genesis, of changing attitudes in both fusty corporations and grumpy old men, mark the start of a programme that would keep a strange rhythm with the history of Britain itself. Patrick Troughton's second Doctor, a "cosmic hobo," would play in increasingly psychedelic adventures in tandem with the culture. Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor represented the Brut-aftershave machismo of the early '70s, a Roger Moore nevertheless playing in stories with a clear message about the environmentalism that was just starting to take root — before Tom Baker took the show into an imperial phase where the show wasn't reflecting the culture but actively defining it. As the show, like the country, became at once both gaudier and shabbier, it was starting to look like the shine was wearing off. It was taken off air in 1989, not to return for another 16 years.

One quote widely attributed to Hartnell — although nobody can actually source it — goes, "If I live to be 90, a little of the magic of Doctor Who will still cling to me." He didn't make it to 90, but 50 years later, that part he took as a gamble is still going, still inspiring devotion, and despite inspiring an unfortunate level of internet trolling, is still also inspiring further generations of people to just try and be a little bit better.

Doctor Who was created by misfits, and it was misfits who kept it alive in those years. A "Doctor Who fan" can be a dirty word, not least to Doctor Who fans themselves. But the earnest, slightly insane, borderline religious devotion with which it is held also proved its life support. Doctor Who continued in the minds of these people — and through the endless novels, audio adventures, and comic books they wrote and devoured. One of those people was TV writer and producer Russell T Davies, who brought back the show with such spectacular success in 2005. The story goes that as the industry's flavour of the month at the time, the BBC was desperate to secure his services. "Tell them I'll go and work for them if they let me bring back Doctor Who," he joked to his agent. They called his bluff, and the show returned with 10 million viewers — that iconography still seated deep in the public imagination.

Another was Mark Gatiss. "Every now and then something happens where a series of ideas come together and something happens," he says, back into February, both of us still gawping at that gleaming Tardis set that actually exists. "This was the little show that could, in a way. As Russell T Davies said, it's like six of the best ideas for television anyone's ever had. And the idea of making your central character not a conventional hero — he's an enigma, and right from the get-go, it's all just questions. You watch the first episode particularly, and it doesn't give you any answers, it's all just questions, but you can't stop watching it. Even though over the years certain things have been answered, it's remarkable how little we actually know about the Doctor. When Russell brought the thing back in 2005, he did a brilliant thing, which was to offscreen kill off all the Time Lords, and you're back to one man in a box, with a companion, travelling across space and time. The reason I always wanted this title is, it was an adventure in space and time, and it always will be."

It's November now, and the moment is coming. The stress over this 50th anniversary is getting to everyone; from new fans tetchy over what's going to happen in the special, to BBC staffers who are just looking forward to a day off, to angry bloggers who still haven't forgiven the relative lack of episodes this year to trailers leaking at the wrong time to OH MY GOD THAT'S BILLIE WITH THE BAD WOLF EYES STOP EVERYTHING NOW.

People aren't exactly coping. The popular joke has become the immortal line from Tegan Jovanka, Australian companion to the Fifth Doctor, when she left at the end of Resurrection of the Daleks, completely broken and disillusioned by the death she had seen that day. "It's stopped being fun, Doctor."

But sat here in London's BFI, watching the premiere of An Adventure in Space and Time, something else is going on. A thing happens at the end, which I'm not convinced in the cold light of day wouldn't drag you out of the moment completely. But in this situation, everyone is demolished. Unknown for a TV screening — these things usually either too fusty or too-cool-for-school — there is a standing ovation as the credits roll. The phrase "not a dry eye in the house" never usually sounds plausible, yet here we are, hundreds of people spanning generations, all bound by what happened after that extraordinary series of meetings.

Time and space move once again, to the unique place where Doctor Who has always lived, that fancy space between where dreams end and real life begins.

An Adventure in Space and Time is broadcast Thursday 21 November on BBC Two and will be available on BBC iPlayer.