Doctor Who: The Regeneration Game

BBC Genome

Patrick Troughton's Doctor consults his 500-year diary as he prepares to face an old enemy in The Power of the Daleks

We love an anniversary here at the Genome Project, hence last Wednesday’s post to celebrate the 80th birthday of high-definition television.  This week we’re a day early for a similar reason, to commemorate a pivotal moment in one of the BBC’s best-loved programmes – Doctor Who. BBC Store is also celebrating the anniversary by releasing an animated reconstruction using the original soundtrack.

Fifty years ago, on 5 November 1966, the first episode of the Doctor Who story The Power of the Daleks was broadcast.  As well as the start of yet another adventure featuring the programme’s most enduring villains, it was also the debut of the second actor to play the lead role – Patrick Troughton.

Troughton had appeared fleetingly at the end of the previous week’s episode, the last of a four-part story called The Tenth Planet.  That story was also a milestone in the series’ history for two other reasons:  as well as the last regular appearance of the show’s founding star, William Hartnell, it introduced the race of aliens who became the second most popular monsters in Doctor Who’s history – the Cybermen.

William Hartnell had become typecast in military and ‘hard man’ roles when he was offered the role of the Doctor in 1963.  Three years later, many things had changed, with original producer Verity Lambert and familiar regular cast members having moved on.  Hartnell was unhappy with the direction the show was taking, and, not in the best of health, was persuaded to stand down.  He agreed to make one last story in order to be written out of the programme.

When new producer Innes Lloyd joined the show in early 1966, he and his story editor Gerry Davis decided that Doctor Who was drifting too far into the realms of whimsy and fantasy.  They also wanted to steer the programme away from its original mix of science fiction alternating with historical adventures, ranging from the educational Marco Polo (1964) to the comical The Gunfighters (1966).  Lloyd and Davis also did away with the individual episode titles for each Doctor Who adventure, giving the stories a more obvious discrete structure.

The Who crew - outgoing Doctor William Hartnell, with newly arrived companions Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills)

Lloyd and Davis next looked round for a scientist who would be able to help make stories more credible, and one of those they spoke to was Kit Pedler, an ophthalmologist.  He came up with a storyline, which was turned into scripts by another writer, based on the idea of the Post Office Tower – then being built – taking over the world.  On the strength of this Pedler became Doctor Who’s semi-official scientific adviser.

Pedler’s next idea was based on his concerns about the topical area of transplant surgery.  What would happen if people had so many transplants that they were no longer sure if they were human, if metal and plastic replacement organs and limbs meant they lost their emotions? 

These thoughts developed into the concept of the Cybermen, and were linked with an idea about the Earth having had a twin planet, Mondas, which had drifted away into space millennia ago, to form the basis for Pedler's scripts.  This time he intended to write by himself, however, after completing two episodes, he was stricken with a serious illness, and it fell to story editor Gerry Davis to complete the remaining two episodes from Pedler’s storyline. They shared the writing credit, and Pedler and Davis began a long professional relationship as a result that led to, among other things, the 1970s science fact/fiction drama Doomwatch.

The Tenth Planet would itself become a template for the series’ development over the next few years, concerning as it did a future Earth, a remote base besieged by alien creatures, and the Doctor and his friends helping the base personnel defeat the invaders.  A further topical element in this instance was the backdrop of a manned space mission, being tracked from the base, which was in Antarctica.

The Cybermen were an immediate hit with viewers, despite what seem, compared to later versions, somewhat primitive costumes.  Their hands were visible (and sometimes their eyes, although their heads were covered in a kind of stocking mask as if they were en route to a bank job), to show that they were not robots, but had once been human. 

Their costumes comprised plastic coveralls with metallic sections added, notably a chest unit, and a skull-cap with a large lamp perched on top of the head, to give extra height.  However, despite the Cybermen supposedly being very powerful, the costumes were flimsy, with parts held together with sticky tape, and hot – some of the actors fainted under the studio lights.

William Hartnell had not been required for the filming session at Ealing studios that preceded the main recording of the episodes, as he was not to appear in close-up, so his place was taken by a double.  As it was, he was almost making a cameo appearance in his own show.

All seemed to be going well after two episodes had been videotaped at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, but then Hartnell was taken ill with bronchitis, and had to be written out for a week – his double returned to show the Doctor collapsing and he spent the episode in bed, covered by a blanket.  Fortunately, Hartnell recovered sufficiently to be able to appear in episode four – the last of his era as the Doctor.  

Dateline: Antarctica, December 1986 - or in the real world, BBC Television Film Studios, Ealing, September 1966. The original Cybermen do look as if they have been through a series of unpleasant medical procedures - no wonder they have it in for doctors...

His replacement as the Doctor, Patrick Troughton was a very experienced television actor, having made his debut on the medium in the 1940s, and among his early credits was a production of the 1920s science fiction play, R.U.R., which brought the word Robot into the language. 

He was known more as a character actor than a leading man, although he had played the title role in a production of Robin Hood in 1953.  He had nearly been cast in the Doctor Who story The Gunfighters a few months before, and one of his most recent roles was in fantasy series Adam Adamant Lives!, in which he had played an incongruously bearded British Army general.

When Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis determined that they would replace the lead actor in Doctor Who, there were long discussions about how they would go about this, and about who they could get to replace their iconic star.  While it was not unknown for a part to be recast, it was unusual in such a prominent role – so they made a feature of it rather than hope nobody would notice…

The process in this case would be dubbed a renewal or rejuvenation, rather than regeneration as it was in later years.  While not explicitly stating that Troughton was supposed to be a younger version of Hartnell, in purely physical terms he was, although there was only twelve years’ difference in age between the men – Hartnell had played as if older than his actual age, 58.  Troughton retained an air of mystery and other-worldliness, but was far more sprightly.

Both actors met only briefly on the recording day, 8 October 1966.  The technically complex changeover scene was recorded first, as an insert.  At this time, although most programmes were no longer made live, they tended to be recorded in story order, with the minimum of edits.  Recording this scene first however removed the danger that such a crucial moment would be rushed, at the end of the day’s work.

Director Derek Martinus and vision mixer Shirley Coward devised the visuals for the change of actor using a defective piece of kit to white-out the images of both actors, so the fade from one to the other was almost seamless.  With this scene achieved, the rest of the episode was recorded. 

With the Cybermen defeated, the Doctor announces that his body is worn out, and his two companions, Ben and Polly, follow him back to the Tardis where they find him about to change…

The Doctor collapses in the Tardis at the end of part 4 of The Tenth Planet - moments later he would be transformed...

To give Troughton a breathing space and find his feet, a week’s break was allowed before work on the next serial began.  This was playing with fire, as episodes were not recorded far ahead of transmission – there were only three weeks between episodes of The Tenth Planet being recorded and being shown.  The Power of the Daleks would now be only two weeks away from catching up with itself.  Over the Christmas period a few weeks later, the gap shrank to one week, and remained such until the summer of 1967.

Troughton was a shy man, rarely giving interviews, but he was also worried that a lead role in a series like Doctor Who might hurt his career by typecasting him – ironically, given that it had rescued Hartnell from the same fate.  However, it was a steady job and he accepted the challenge. 

At first he favoured playing the part in some kind of disguise, but instead indulged himself with a costume that was a parody of the stylish Edwardian garb of his predecessor.  He sported a baggy frock coat, broad-checked trousers, and at first, a battered stovepipe hat.  Over the next few months the costume department toned the look down, but he retained a somewhat scruffy appearance.

Oddly enough, he was already wearing the costume when he first appeared clearly at the start of The Power of the Daleks, as if it had changed with him.  Ben and Polly, his companions, took the place of the viewer in wondering if this strange figure could really be the Doctor they knew, but over the course of the story they gradually came to accept him.

In fact, this was a time of crisis for Doctor Who.  Though it had been a hit in its early days, thanks largely to the sensational popularity of the Daleks, viewing figures had gradually declined.  The BBC was not yet ready to replace it, especially as it had a strong advocate in the Head of Drama, Sydney Newman, who had been responsible for its commissioning in the first place.  But the show was in need of rejuvenation if it was to survive.

Daleks, seemingly dormant, in their capsule on the planet Vulcan: but are they as dead as they seem? Or do they just need Power...?

Bringing back the Daleks was one way of giving the new Doctor at least a fighting chance of bringing viewers back to the series.  The scripts for The Power of the Daleks were by David Whitaker, who as the first story editor of Doctor Who had worked with their creator, Terry Nation, on their original appearances.  With Gerry Davis busy rescuing The Tenth Planet, when Whitaker had problems getting his scripts into shape, another former story editor, Dennis Spooner, was drafted in to help. 

Terry Nation, having become hot property because of the success of the Daleks, was now too busy on lucrative ITV dramas to write for the series that made his name, but was happy for others to take over – though his agent had to prompt the BBC to give him a ‘created by’ credit.  He was also working on a proposed Dalek series he hoped to sell to American television, and as a result would withdraw permission for the BBC to use the creatures after one last story in mid-1967. 

In the end nothing came of the series idea, but the Daleks would not return to Doctor Who until 1972. For the rest of the 1960s, the Cybermen became the show’s new chief baddies. 

Whitaker meanwhile turned in an imaginative twist on the Dalek story.  In The Power of the Daleks, seemingly lifeless Daleks are found in a crashed spaceship on the planet Vulcan (nothing to do with the planet in Star Trek, which had just started on American television:  it was not seen in Britain until 1969, ironically replacing Doctor Who in the Saturday evening schedules).

A misguided scientist brings the Daleks back to life, hoping to make them into servants to the colonists on the planet.  There are also a group of rebels who think they can use the Daleks to their own ends.  Of course both are mistaken, as the Daleks are pretending to be docile in order to create an army of their own and take over.

The new Doctor steps out into a new adventure - as captured by the cameras at BBC Riverside studio 1

Over six exciting episodes, the adventure played out, until the Doctor won in the end, and was accepted by Ben and Polly.  The final shot of the last episode has a seemingly dead Dalek show signs of life – as if they could never be fully defeated…

From this auspicious start, Patrick Troughton made the role of the Doctor his own, and spent three years in the part.  The concept of renewal/regeneration of the lead was one of the master strokes in the history of Doctor Who, and like the Daleks and the concept of the Tardis, it has proved to be part of what made the series an enduring hit, still going (with occasional breaks) fifty-three years since it first started.

So when Troughton called it a day in 1969, and the BBC decided (after some uncertainty) to go on with Doctor Who, the hunt was on for a third actor to star in the series.  In the end, the choice was someone who, co-incidentally, was the storyteller on Jackanory in the week between the showing of the last part of The Tenth Planet and the first episode of The Power of the Daleks…  Jon Pertwee.

The Power of the Daleks is among many episodes of Doctor Who which no longer exists in its original format, but it is now available as an animated reconstruction through BBC Store.

Doctor Who is back on Christmas Day in The Return of Doctor Mysterio.

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