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An Adventure in Space and Time reveals the origins of Doctor Who but this timeline goes further back in history, touching on myths, movies and other relevant phenomena that could collectively be said to form…

The Road to Totter’s Lane

Our story starts many centuries ago. Or to put it another way, once upon a time…

Early Ninth century

Earliest (partial) copy of Arabian Nights / 1001 Nights dates back to early Ninth Century.

It’s a tale where heroes travel to alien worlds using magical forms of transport; there are monsters to be fought, ‘magic doors’ leading to danger and excitement and protagonists include wise old men and an unearthly child or two...


Thomas More’s Utopia published.

It’s a work set largely in a fictitious country that More purports to exist. Utopia is a land but also an ideal and the novel stands as an early example of a tale set in an ‘alien’ world which is close enough to our own to be viewed as authentic; but simultaneously different enough to be viewed as fantastic…. And fascinating.


William Shakespeare writes The Tempest.

Some have called Shakespeare’s final play early science fiction, which may be something of a stretch. But it is a wise man in exile with a younger female relative; his magic his strong but cannot solve every problem and he must confront monsters and men who have evil intentions whilst retaining his own – at times questionable – morality. The similarities with early Doctor Who are unmissable…


Publication of Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (The Dream).

Somnium (Latin for ‘The Dream) is a fantasy in which Tycho Brahe is transported to the Moon by strange forces. Isaac Asimov called it the world’s first work of science fiction.


Publication of Francis Godwin’s ‘The Man in the Moone or the Discovrse of a Voyage thither by Domingo Gonsales’, usually known as The Man in the Moone.

Another early work of science-fiction, this (at the time) well-known tale of lunar adventure illustrates how much fantastic tales involving space travel were found favour with the public, as emphasised by…


Publication of Cyrano de Bergerac’s parody of The Man in the Moone, entitled: ‘L'Autre Monde: où les États et Empires de la Lune’.


Publication of a work by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle entitled, ‘The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World’.

What we now call ‘science-fiction’ combines with romance and adventure. It’s a triumvirate that will serve Doctor Who well in just under three hundred years’ time!


Aphra Behn’s play, The Emperor of the Moon, based on The Man in the Moone.

An audience watches a tale set on an alien world… The play also underlines the popularity of the source work.


Publication of Jonathan Swift’s work, ‘Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships’. The work is better known as Gulliver’s Travels.

Swift’s masterpiece is about a stubborn traveller who visits worlds which could be considered alien – such as Lilliput and Laputa as well as real-life locations including England and Japan. Fantastic elements such as giants, monsters and intelligent talking horses all point the way to a type of fiction that combines fantasy and adventure with satire.


Publication of the short story, Micromégas by Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet)

A seminal work in which two aliens visit our planet…. But not the Doctor and Susan!


Publication of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’, also known as simply ‘Frankenstein’.

Many of the Doctor’s enemies have been humans who like Frankenstein, have misused science with deadly repercussions. The success of the novel also indicates the appetite for such stories.


Publication of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.

An early work which deals with a future world that has been ravaged by a plague. Its eponymous character is initially angry and out for himself, but his morality becomes less questionable after others show him the way…


Publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story about a lunar voyage: ‘The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall’.

Trips to the moon were almost becoming passé by this point… The notion is clearly a well-established one.


Publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

There’s no TARDIS but time-travel is central to this much-loved tale. It’s entirely appropriate that Bunny Webber references it in an early development document for Doctor Who.


Publication of Jules Verne’s Voyage au centre de la Terre (Journey to the Centre of the Earth).

Verne’s hugely popular tales are so clearly fore-runners of Doctor Who that the fact is sometimes overlooked… But the fantastic ships, incredible locations and mysterious central characters were all echoed 99 years later.


Publication of Jules Verne’s De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon)


Publication of Jules Verne’s Vingt Mille Lieues sous les Mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea)


Publication of Edwin Abbott’s novella, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.

A story which plays fast and loose with dimensions as we know them? Abbott got there long before the TARDIS materialised in this famous experimental tale later filmed as Flatland (2007).


H.G. Wells’ The Chronic Argonauts first published by the Royal College of Science.

It has been argued that this was the world’s first Time Machine-related story; we had seen time travel before, but usually through unexplained or ephemeral processes. Here was a machine that could travel through time…


Publication of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

Wells expands on his short story of 1888 to create one of the genre’s signature time travel stories.


Publication of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Wells’ run of sci-fi greats continues with this tale set on a mythical island where human-like creatures are being created…


Publication of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man.

The concept of invisibility was much discussed in Victorian Europe. This novel illustrates (as with Wells’ other recent works) how scientific advances were fodder for books that didn’t simply appeal to a niche. The 1960s ‘space race’ would engender a similar appetite for fiction exploring the possible frontiers that science was showing mankind. Doctor Who was not alone in responding to this… It just did it better than any other show, ever.


Publication of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

Martians invade! In actual fact, this work owes much to ‘invasion literature’ that was insanely popular during this era. George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (England invaded by Germans!) in 1871 had been staggeringly successful and hugely influential, leading to a deluge of works that were little more than variations on a theme. Such stories suggest that fiction which sets out to ‘scare’ its audience with a tale of possible invasion will always find a degree of success. Crucially, Wells’ invaders aren’t European villains – they’re highly advanced Martians and this twist ensures it remains the most famous entry in the late nineteenth century’s craze for invasion literature.


Publication of H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon.

Not the first ‘trip to the moon’ novel, but one of the most famous and influential. Wells’ lunar residents are chillingly realistic and there’s nothing overtly fanciful about this sci-fi classic.


Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) is released.

Usually considered to be the first science fiction film, this short, charming movie depicts a lunar expedition using ground-breaking special effects which pioneered the way for future science-fiction films. It was very popular and spawned many imitators. Science-fiction had arrived on the screen. It’ll never catch on… will it?


Publication of Jules Verne’s Maître du Monde (Master of the World).

One of Verne’s last great novels, at its heart is a frankly incredible craft dubbed ‘the Terror’. It can travel on land, sea or air and Verne would have us believe such a craft could travel at 150 miles per hour on land and at over 200 mph when airborne. Preposterous!


Frankenstein is adapted for the silver screen.

This 16-minute silent movie was the first film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and like the 1913 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it indicates that audiences will enjoy a blend of science fiction and horror. They like their sci-fi scary… One day it may even send viewers behind the sofa. Who knows?


Publication of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel, A Princess of Mars, first serialized in The All-Story magazine as Under the Moons of Mars in 1912.

Sci-fi meets pulp fiction, or to put it another way, sci-fi helps itself to dollops of populist tropes such as the beautiful damsel in distress, buccaneering japes and handsome hero. It’s immediately successful, helping to establish the versatility of science-fiction.


Amazing Stories (science fiction magazine) launched in April.

The first magazine devoted solely to sci-fi. The fantastic tales and eye-catching covers help it achieve immediate success and it soon boasts a circulation of over 100,000.


Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is released.

Metropolis - at the time the most expensive film ever made – wows global audiences with its depiction of a visually striking autonomous robot, a mad scientist and incredible futuristic sets. These elements and the skill of Lang in bringing them to life so dramatically ensure Metropolis is an inspiration to generations of sci-fi pioneers, perhaps most notably George Lucas who draws on the work when creating Star Wars.


The character Anthony Rogers debuts in in Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan in the August issue of Amazing Stories.


Anthony Rogers becomes Buck Rogers when the character debuts in a comic strip on 7 January.


The Buck Rogers radio programme (the first science fiction program on radio) premieres in the US, initially broadcast as a 15 minute show on CBS.

Sci-fi edges into the schedules and the world’s first performed sci-fi series for an audience at home does not draw on the high-brow works of Wells or Verne. American executives understand the public want plots that belt along, action, constant jeopardy and a hero with an improbable name.


Publication of H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come.

Can we view the future lucidly and seriously within a dramatic narrative? Wells again proves it can be done.


Philip Nowlan and Dick Calkins write the novella, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Buck Rogers on the radio simply increases the character’s popularity and Nowlan and Calkins expand the franchise…


Flash Gordon, Dale Arden, Hans Zarkov and Ming the Merciless make their debuts in comic strip form.

The success of Buck Rogers spawns imitators as a sub-genre is firmly established.


On Christmas Day, BBC TV broadcasts an adaptation of sections of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

With its bizarre settings and a central character embarking on a journey strewn with incredible creatures, it could be claimed Doctor Who will echo this story. More relevant, however, is the indication that the BBC were willing to experiment with such a fantastical drama… and the fact it proves popular enough to ensure further sections of the work are later dramatized. In fact several more sections are broadcast before the war.


On 11 February, BBC TV broadcasts what is believed to be the first ever instance of science fiction on television: R.U.R. It’s a 35 minute adaptation of a section of Karel Čapek's 1920 play.

Science-fiction, meet television. Television, this is science-fiction. I hope you get on famously… It begins…


On 1 May BBC TV broadcasts Tobias and the Angel. Based on James Bridie’s 1930 play, it’s the tale of a man on a journey helped by a figure who turns out to be the Archangel Raphael.


On 13 May BBC TV broadcasts Karel Čapek's The Insect Play, a story about a man who finds himself living amongst insects.

It seems fantastical stories with a sci-fi edge are beginning to establish themselves at the BBC.


Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life premieres in cinemas in December.

A slip in copyright renewal means the movie can be screened by US broadcasters at a very favourable financial rate. This ensures many repeat screenings which establish this ‘alternative future’ film as a much-loved classic.


On 1 May BBC TV broadcasts Tobias and the Angel. Based on James Bridie’s 1930 play, it’s the tale of a man on a journey helped by a figure who turns out to be the Archangel Raphael.


On 13 May BBC TV broadcasts Karel Čapek's The Insect Play, a story about a man who finds himself living amongst insects.

It seems fantastical stories with a sci-fi edge are beginning to establish themselves at the BBC.


Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life premieres in cinemas in December.

A slip in copyright renewal means the movie can be screened by US broadcasters at a very favourable financial rate. This ensures many repeat screenings which establish this ‘alternative future’ film as a much-loved classic.


Second BBC TV adaptation of RUR.

A second performance was broadcast the following day. It stars Patrick Troughton in the role of Radius.


BBC TV broadcasts an adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine on 25 January.

The production uses back projection to represent time travel and a second performance of the adaptation is broadcast on 21 February. The drama suggests a willingness to tackle works which present a visual challenge. Also of relevance is the point that over ten years before our tip to Totter’s lane, a time machine has materialised on BBC TV.


The first book in the Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis is published.

It’s essentially a box. Open its doors and walk in. It’s bigger on the inside! And when you emerge you’re in another world… Nice idea. In truth, Lewis’ wardrobe is an example of what Bunny Webber called the ‘dear old magic door’ and was an established fictional element long before Narnia was created. But The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a terrific illustration of what the concept can allow a writer to do and it remains a classic of its type.


The Day the Earth Stood Still is released. A wonderfully imaginative sci-fi treat directed by Robert Wise shows that an intelligent take on ‘them’ visiting us can still pack a punch.


Publication of The Day of the Triffids by the English science fiction writer John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris; better known as John Wyndham.


Abbott and Costello Go to Mars. Why didn’t they stay there, many may ask, but this relatively unimportant movie directed by Charles Lamont indicates the public were still so familiar with the genre they got the joke when it was subverted.

More significant movies released this year include It Came from Outer Space and the original The War of the Worlds starring Gene Barry. But the BBC would trump them all in 1953 with…


18 July: Part one (of six) of The Quatermass Experiment premieres on BBC TV and its hero, Professor Bernard Quatermass makes his debut.

Hard to overstate the importance of this original drama by Nigel Kneale. It seized the collective imagination of Britain and emphasized how science fiction staples (crashed rockets, aliens, an invasion) could be used to create a drama that means something to everyone. Kneale cleverly uses what would be today considered trending topics – the coronation and Westminster Abbey, for instance – to ground the drama and give it an immediate relevance. It’s a device Doctor Who will use to great effect…


Publication of John Wyndham’s classic, The Kraken Wakes

It is published in the US as Out of the Deep.


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is released.

This adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel was the first science fiction film produced by Walt Disney Productions and the only science fiction film personally produced by Walt Disney. Many critics cite this irresistible little film as an early example of the ‘steampunk’ genre now called.


RUN! HIDE! Godzilla is released!

Ishirō Honda's film Godzilla marks the debut of an icon that will epitomise the branch of sci-fi that it dominates. Big monsters! Big billboard claims! Small problem over terrible SFX! To be fair, this movie is a more intelligent use of the eponymous ‘King of The Monsters’ but the series will spawn over 25 more Godzilla adventures and many are simply ‘big monster goes beserk/becomes good and saves people/has a family and settles down (Delete as appropriate). But for all the scathing criticism of the Godzilla franchise – later to include comics, pulp novels etc – it will become a worldwide pop cultural phenomenon. Both in terms of fictional status and as a narrative device, Godzilla is a monster!


The Quatermass Xperiment is released.

Val Guest directs this big screen version of The Quatermass Experiment for Hammer.


22 October: Part one (of six) of Quatermass 2 premieres on BBC TV.

Bernard is back! This is probably the weakest of the professor’s first three outings but it shows the public will accept a central figure in a sci-fi scenario fighting different enemies in a totally different adventure. It also shows the public will accept a central character changing their face now and again…. Good to know.


Quatermass 2 is released.

Val Guest again directs this big screen version of its TV equivalent for Hammer.


First radio adaptation of The Day of the Triffids

The BBC Light Programme premieres this six-parter between 2 October and 6 November. Incidentally, it features Trevor Martin, who later plays the Doctor in the first official stageplay spin-off of Doctor Who.


Publication of John Wyndham’s classic,The Midwich Cuckoos

The book is later filmed twice as Village of the Damned.


Sci-Fi Goes Crazy

People have gotten used to SF being OTT and Hollywood is cashing in, making movies that seem entirely predicated by silly titles… Yes, it’s the year of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, I Married a Monster from Outer Space and The Brain Eaters.


22 December: Part one (of six) of Quatermass and The Pit premieres on BBC TV.

A brilliant end to this original trilogy shows the first isn’t always the best… This eerie, intelligent thriller cements Quatermass’ place as one of the great early science fiction franchises, even before the word would be applied to such a phenomenon…


The cult classic Plan 9 from Outer Space is released…

…The same year gives us Have Rocket, Will Travel and The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock. The 50s are bowing out in style.


George Pal’s The Time Machine is released.

An intelligent and visually striking movie adaptation of the classic novel, the film received an Academy Award for time-lapse photographic effects showing the world evolving as the machine travels through time.


May: Donald Wilson establishes the Monitoring Group which will become the Survey Group (sadly not the Survey Team). Its remit and raison d’etre is ‘to cover and report on work in other media, in order that we [the BBC] may keep ourselves fully informed about writing and writers likely to be useful to us here’.


The Day of the Triffids is in production…

Released in 1962, this British film based on John Wyndham’s is directed by Steve Sekely; it’s an enjoyable thriller, paying enough heed to its literary genesis but adding just enough thrills. The following year, (1963) sees the release of Joseph Losey’s The Damned, often hailed as ‘the highpoint of the first wave of the British post-war Science Fiction films.’ Could it be that sci-fi is emerging from the excesses of 1950s tomfoolery and is ready to be taken seriously again? Perhaps BBC TV have noticed this interesting trend…



Eric Maschwitz (BBC TV’s Head of Light Entertainment) asks Donald Wilson if the Survey Group could prepare a report on the possibilities offered by the genre of science fiction. Wilson okayed the request and script editor Donald Bull and his colleague Alice Frick are assigned the task of preparing the report.

25 April

Alice Frick sends Donald Wilson two copies of the report she and Bull have completed. Read the report.

27 April

Wilson sends Maschwitz a copy of the report.

29 April

After two series and almost 40 episodes, the final adventure of Gerry Anderson’s children’s sci-fi series, Supercar, is broadcast. In the UK it aired on ITV and in the US in syndication making it the first Anderson series to be shown overseas and therefore suggesting sci-fi may travel…

14 May

Donald Baverstock (BBC TV’s Asst. Controller of Programmes) has clearly read the report and in a memo to Maschwitz, reveals his enthusiasm for looking into science fiction. He praises the report’s authors.

15 May

Maschwitz forwards Baverstock’s memo to Wilson, adding his own thanks. A new ‘follow up’ report is sanctioned to identify specific science fiction stories suitable for TV adaptation or areas within the genre ripe for potential. The report is to be written by Alice Frick and her colleague John Braybon.

9 June

The BBC premiers a new science fiction series (6 x 30 mins) called The Big Pull, specially written for TV by Robert Gould. The serial’s producer/director is Terence Dudley who will later write the 80s adventures, Four to Doomsday, Black Orchid and The King’s Demons.

24 June

ABC TV (part of ITV) screens a sci-fi one-off of a John Wyndham adaptation: Dumb Martian. It is intended as a prelude to Out of the Unknown.

28 June

The BBC premieres the follow-up to A for Andromeda. It’s a six parter called The Andromeda Breakthrough.

30 June

ABC premieres British TV’s first ever sci-fi anthology series: Out of the Unknown, greenlit by the company’s drama supervisor, Canadian Sydney Newman…

25 July

Alice Frick and John Braybon present their follow-up report. It offers many constructive suggestions but warns against ‘Bug-Eyed Monsters’. Read the report.

28 October

Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi series for children – Fireball XL5 – premieres, transmitted by the regional ITV broadcaster ATV. As with Supercar it is an ITC production.

8 November

BBC TV premieres The Monsters, an original 4-parter directed by Mervyn Pinfield.

12 December

Sydney Newman joins BBC TV as its Head of Drama.

What happened next?

Find out here!