The Genesis of Doctor Who | Creating a science fiction hero

Background Notes for 'Dr. Who'

CE Webber and Sydney Newman outline the format for the new 'Doctor Who' series.


[Page 1 of 4]

General Notes on Background and Approach

A series of stories linked to form a continuing serial; thus if each story ran 6 or 7 episodes there would be about 8 stories needed for 52 weeks of the serial. With the overall title, each episode is to have its own title. Each episode of 25 minutes will begin by repeating the closing sequence or final climax of the preceding episode; about halfway through, each episode will reach a climax, followed by blackout before the second half commences (one break).

[Handwritten note from Sydney Newman: "Each episode to end with a very strong cliff-hanger."]

Each story, as far as possible, to use repeatable sets. It is expected that BP [abbreviation for 'back projection'] will be available. A reasonable amount of film, which will probably be mostly studio shot for special effects. Certainly writers should not hesitate to call for any special effects to achieve the element of surprise essential in these stories, even though they are not sure how it would be done technically: leave it to the Effects people. Otherwise work to a very moderate budget.

There are four basic characters used throughout:-


BRIDGET (BIDDY) A with-it girl of 15, reaching the end of her Secondary School career, eager for life, lower-than-middle class. Avoid dialect, use neutral accent laced with latest teenage slang.

MISS McGOVERN (LOLA) 24. Mistress at Biddy's school. Timid but capable of sudden rabbit courage. Modest, with plenty of normal desires. Although she tends to be the one who gets into trouble, she is not to be guyed: she also is a loyalty character.

CLIFF 27 or 28. Master at the same school. Might be classed as ancient by teenagers except that he is physically perfect, strong and courageous, a gorgeous dish. Oddly, when brains are required, he can even be brainy, in a diffident sort of way.

[Handwritten note from Sydney Newman: "Top of his class in the parallel bars."]

These are the characters we know and sympathise with, the ordinary people to whom extraordinary things happen. The fourth basic character remains always something of a mystery, and is seen by us rather through the eyes of the other three....

DR. WHO A frail old man lost in space and time. They give him this name because they don't know who he is. He seems not to remember where he has come from; he is suspicious and capable of sudden malignance; he seems to have some undefined enemy; he is searching for something as well as fleeing from something. He has a "machine" which enables them to travel together through time, through space, and through matter.

[Page 2 of 4]

QUALITY OF STORY Evidently, Dr. Who's "machine" fulfils mary of the functions of conventional Science Fiction gimmicks. But we are not writing Science Fiction. We shall provide scientific explanations too, sometimes, but we shall not bend over backwards to do so, if we decide to achieve credibility by other means. Neither are we writing fantasy: the events have got to be credible to the three ordinary people who are our main characters, and they are sharp-witted enough to spot a phoney. I think the writer's safeguard here will be, if he remembers that he is writing for an audience aged fourteen... the most difficult, critical, even sophisticated, audience there is, for TV. In brief, avoid the limitations of any label and use the best in any style or category, as it suits us, so long as it works in our medium.

[Handwritten note from Sydney Newman: "Not clear"]

Granted the startling situations, [Handwritten note from Sydney Newman: "What startling situations."] we snould try to add meaning; to convey what it means to be these ordinary human beings in other times, or in far space, or in unusual physical states. We might hope to be able to answer the question: "Besides being exciting entertainment, for 5 o'clock on a Saturday, what is worthwhile about this serial?"

[Handwritten note from Sydney Newman: "Not clear"]


When we consider what this looks like, we are in danger of either Science Fiction or Fairytale labelling. If it is a transparent plastic bubble we are with all the lowgrade spacefiction of cartoon strip and soap-opera. If we scotch this by positing something humdrum, say, passing through some common object in street such as a night-watchman's shelter to arrive inside a marvellous contrivance of quivering electronics, then we simpi have a version of the dear old Magic Door.

Therefore, we do no see the machine at all; or rather it is visible only as an absence of visibility, a shape of nothingness (Inlaid, into surrounding picture). Dr. Who has achieved this "disappearance" by covering the outside with light-resistant paint (a recognised research project today). Thus our characters can bump into it, run their hands over its shape, partly disappear by partly entering it, and disappear entirely when the door closes behind them.

[Handwritten note from Sydney Newman: "Not visual. How to do? Need tangible symbol"]

It can be put into an apparently empty van. Wherever they go some contemporary disguise has to be found for it. Many visual possibilities can be worked out. The discovery of the old man and investigation of his machine would occupy most of tne first episode, wnich would be called:-

"Nothing at the End of the Lane"

[Handwritten note from Sydney Newman: "Don't like this at all. What do we see?"]

The machine is unreliable, being faulty. A recurrent problem is to find spares. How to get thin gauge platinum wire in B.C.1566? Moreover, Dr. Who has lost his memory, so they have to learn to use it, by a process of trial and error, keeping records of knobs pressed and results (This is the fuel for many a long story). After several near-calamities they institute a safeguard: one of their number is left in the machine when the others go outside, so that at the end of an agreed time, they can be fetched back into their own era. This provides a suspense element in any given danger: can they survive till the moment of recall? Attack on recaller etc.

[Handwritten note from Sydney Newman: "Good stuff here"]

[Page 3 of 4]

Granted this machine, then, we require exciting episodic stories, using surprising visual effects and unusual scenery, about excursions into time, into space, or into any material state we can make feasible. Hardly any time at all is spent in the machine: we are interested in human beings.


Besides the machine we have tne relationship of the four characters to each other. They want to help the old man find himself; he doesn't like them; the sensible hero never trusts Dr. Who; Biddy rather dislikes Miss McCovern; Lola admires Cliff... these attitudes developed and varied as temporary characters are encountered and reacted to. The old man provides continuing elements of Mystery, and Quest.

He remains a mystery. From time to time the other three discover things about him, which turn out to be false or inconclusive. (i.e. any writer inventing an interesting explanation must undercut it within his own serial-time, so that others can have a go at tne mystery). They think he may be a criminal fleeing from his owm time; he evidently fears pursuit through time. Sometimes they doubt his loss of memory, particularly as he does have flashes of memory. But also, he is searching for something which he desires heart-and-soul, but which he can't define. If, for instance, they were to go back to King Arthur's time, Dr. Who would be immensely moved by the idea of the quest for the Grail. This is, as regards him, a Quest Story, a Mystery Story, and a Mysterious Stranger Story, overall.

While his mystery may never be solved, or may perhaps be revealed slowly over a very long run of stories, writers will probably like to know an answer. Shall we say:-

The Secret of Dr. Who: In his own day, somewhere in our future, he decided to search for a time or for a society or for a physical condition which is ideal, and having found it, to stay there. He stole the machine and set forth on his quest. He is thus an extension of the scientist who has opted out, but he has opted farther than ours can do, at tne moment. And having opted out, he is disintegrating.

[Handwritten note from Sydney Newman: "Don't like this at all. Dr Who will become a kind of father figure - I don't want him to be a reactionary."]

One symptom of this is his hatred of scientist, inventors, improvers. He can get into a rare paddy when faced witn a cave man trying to invent a wheel. He malignantly tries to stop progress (the future) wherever he finds it, while searching for his ideal (the past). This seems to me to involve slap up-to-date moral problems, and old ones too.

In story terms, our characters see the symptoms and guess at the nature of his trouble, without knowing details; and always try to help him find a home in time and space. wherever he goes he tends to make ad hoc enemies; but also there is a mysterious enemy pursuing him implacably every when: someone from his own original time, probably. So, even if the secret is out by the 52nd episode, it is not the whole truth. Shall we say:-

[Page 4 of 4]

[Continued from previous page]

The Second Secret of Dr. Who: The authorities of his own (or some other future) time are not concerned merely with the theft of an obsolete machine; they are seriously concerned to prevent his monkeying with time, because his secret intention, when he finds his ideal past, is to destroy or nullify the future.

[Handwritten note from Sydney Newman: "Nuts"]

If ever we get thus far into Dr. Who's secret, we might as well pay a visit to his original time. But this is way ahead for us too. Meanwhile, proliferate stories.

The first two stories will be on the short side, four episodes each, and will not deal with time travel. The first may result from the use or a micro-reducer in the machine which makes our characters all become tiny. By tne third story we could first reveal that it is a time-machine; they witness a great calamity, even possibly the destruction of the earth, and only afterwards realize that they were far ahead in time. Or to think about Christmas: which seasonable story shall we take our characters into? Bethlehem? Was it by means of Dr. Who's machine that Aladin's palace sailed through the air? Was Merlin Dr. Who? Was Cinderella's Godmother Dr. Who's wife chasing him through time? Jacob Marley was Dr. Who slightly tipsy, but what other tricks did he get up to that Yuletide?

[Handwritten note from Sydney Newman: "I don't like this much - it reads silly and condescending. It doesn't get across the basis of teaching of educational experience - drama based upon and stemming from factual material and scientific phenomena and actual social history of past and future. Dr. Who - not have a philosophical arty-science mind - he'd take science, applied and theoretical, as being as natural as eating."]


Document Type | Memo

circa 1963

Document version




In this document, we can see the elements that would help to form 'Doctor Who' finally taking shape. Though the character names would be changed and the attributes of the central role adjusted, this is the first point at which we can recognise the series 'Doctor Who' would become. The brusque pencil notes come from Head of Drama Sydney Newman.

Did you know?

Sydney Newman's note 'Not visual... need tangible symbol' is an interesting one. By the time scriptwriter Anthony Coburn came to pen the first episode, 'An Unearthly Child', this tangible symbol had become a police box, also known as 'Time and Relative Dimension in Space' - or TARDIS for short. Meanwhile, 'Cliff' had evolved into science teacher Ian Chesterton, 'Lola' became Barbara Wright and the 'with-it' Biddy turned into the Doctor's granddaughter Susan. As for the 'Second Secret of Doctor Who', it would be six years before the Doctor's people caught up with him, at the climax to 'The War Games'.


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