Doctor Who in the 1960s | The William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton years

Doctor Who 1960s
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Turn back the clock to 1963 with us, as we revisit Doctor Who’s beginnings with William Hartnell in the lead role, and its first regeneration in the Patrick Troughton era…

Many fans hold that Doctor Who is the best idea for a TV series ever conceived. Now approaching its 60th anniversary, the BBC’s flagship sci-fi programme may not have always lived up to that, but over the last six decades, it’s a show that has had at least as many incarnations as its title character. In this weekly series, three Doctor Who fans go through the greatest show in the galaxy, decade by decade…

Part One: The 1960s

“It all started out as a mild curiosity in a junkyard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure, don’t you think?”

When Star Trek was created in the 1960s, screenwriter Gene Roddenberry formulated a utopian science-fiction pitch based on western TV shows and sci-fi literature, hitched his “Wagon Train to the stars” to an independent production company, and shopped the project to US networks. We mention this only because it’s important to understand that Doctor Who could only have come from the BBC, where programmes are made very differently.

Indeed, the original spark of inspiration for the longest-running sci-fi show in the world was that BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman was tasked with creating a family-friendly serial to plug a gap in the Saturday night schedule, between the sports coverage on Grandstand and the pop-music picks on Juke Box Jury. And after much messing about with various creatives, Doctor Who as we know it gradually materialised over the next seven years or so.

The original memo for “Dr Who” that Newman passed over to series producer Verity Lambert and story editor David Whitaker in 1963 has been endlessly quoted and misquoted and reinterpreted over the years. Edicts like “no bug-eyed monsters” fell away by the second serial, while the recommendation of “usual situations seen unusually” became the series’ North Star. Altogether, the weirdness of the show’s format evolved as naturally as possible from umpteen creatives all working on tight deadlines for seven years straight.

But even in these early black-and-white days, it’s a show of contrasts. William Hartnell’s First Doctor is a wily old explorer, given to occasional recklessness and moral ambivalence. Broadly speaking, he’s a gentleman in time and space, gadding about in his out-of-control machine, but if anyone is learning and becoming more civilised by his travels with human companions, it’s him.

Later, when Hartnell was replaced by Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor becomes more of a crusader. He’s still far from the obvious comic-book hero, but he’s also more driven than his predecessor to seek out injustice and stand up to the assortment of pulp sci-fi adversaries he encounters.

This era also got the worse end of the BBC’s policy of wiping or simply disposing of tapes of archive programmes – at the time of writing, 97 out of the 253 Doctor Who episodes broadcast in the 1960s remain lost, with animations and audio reconstructions plugging some of the gaps.

Doctor Who in the 1960s is not nearly the show we know today, but with modern eyes, it can be surprising how much of the show as we know it is baked in from the very beginning – not least its capacity to regenerate…

Hello, Goodbye (1963 – 1966)

Perhaps emphasising the show’s educational remit, Doctor Who starts with science teacher Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and history teacher Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) as its audience viewpoint characters. They’re concerned about their prodigious student Susan (Carole Ann Ford), who’s been behaving oddly in class.

The pair go looking for Susan’s guardian, her grandfather, and discover that her given address is a police box in a junkyard. The box, of course, is bigger on the inside, and Hartnell, an actor best known for playing tough guys, plays against type as the old rascal who tries to put them off the truth – neither Susan nor her grandfather are of this world.

An Unearthly Child is a pilot so good they made it twice – which is to say the first attempt was such a disaster of blocking and technical issues that Newman ordered a remount ahead of its transmission on 23rd November 1963. The Stone-Age political thriller that follows Ian and Barbara’s abduction in the TARDIS doesn’t quite live up to the magic of that first episode, but it gets the ball rolling.

Beyond the cheap-and-cheerful spectacle of cavemen squabbling over who gets to do fire, the first season’s various historical serials include Marco Polo, a Himalayan travelogue that’s completely missing from the archives; The Aztecs, a cracking drama about the dangers of rewriting history that influenced many 21st-century historicals; and The Reign Of Terror, a knockabout French Revolution thriller that marked the first scripts by Dennis Spooner.

Comedy writer Terry Nation’s serial, The Daleks, was only greenlit because nothing else was ready to film (Newman wasn’t happy about the bug-eyed monsters). But irrespective of the show’s serious historical and scientific intentions, Dalekmania changed the course of Doctor Who before it even really got started.

These particular bug-eyed monsters were inspired by Nation’s terror of Nazi extermination, and with their unique design and sound, they made Doctor Who a talking point. As the serial’s audience grew from 6.9 million to 10.4 million viewers over its seven-week run, the characters soon became the programme’s first returning villains. By 1965, there was a merchandising boom, a Christmassy novelty record, and a feature-film spin-off starring Peter Cushing as “Dr Who”. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for when the Daleks were the nation’s favourite fascists, isn’t it?

Read more: Putting Doctor Who on the big screen: the Peter Cushing films

Daleks Invasion Earth 2150

In parallel with this, you can mark an even more important key to Doctor Who’s longevity by its early Dalek stories. Susan was the brilliant, alien “Unearthly Child” in her first appearance and then rarely ever again – and when Ford’s contract expired early in season two, she declined to return for further adventures in screaming and crying and not doing stuff so good.

David Whittaker, tasked with writing the Dalek sequel The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, gives Susan an emotional send-off, as she resolves to help the man she loves rebuild war-torn London. The Doctor’s farewell to his granddaughter is one of Hartnell’s finest, most quoted moments:

‘One day I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.’

Later, in the second Dalek serial of season two, Ian and Barbara leave the TARDIS behind too. With Nation writing again and Spooner now on script-editing duties, The Chase is a proper barrel around space that sometimes borders on sketch comedy, but it ends on another of the good companion departures (altogether now, “London, 1965!”). Compared to nowadays, the Doctor’s dismay is understated, but nicely played nonetheless.

Around 18 months into Doctor Who’s run, all but one of the regulars has departed. Ian and Barbara leave the Doctor to travel on with 25th-century girl Vicki No-Televised-Last Name (Maureen O’Brien) and stowaway space pilot Steven Taylor (Peter Purves).

From here on, actors’ contracts and the annual turnover of script editors led to some chopping and changing. The First Doctor goes through several more companions, such as Katarina (Adrienne Hill) and Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh) and Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane) in fairly short order. Two of their characters get killed off, and the other’s contract expires while her character is asleep in an armchair in one episode, and she apparently decides to leave off-screen.

The tone veers widely across the whopping 40-episode production runs too, and never more so than in Season 3. Script editor Donald Tosh and incoming producer John Wiles both wanted to bring more comedy into the show and experiment with the show’s historical and science-fiction stories.

It’s the first run with vast tonal swings, ranging from the 12-part space-opera epic The Daleks’ Master Plan to the all-singing, all-shooting western historical The Gunslingers. Even episodes of serials are hugely variable, as in The Myth Makers, where the knockabout Carry On comedy of the first three episodes tips into a Game Of Thrones-worthy bloodbath with its Trojan Horse finale.

Conversely, we see the show arriving at the kind of programme it’s going to be in serials like The War Machines, which is instrumental in the show’s latter-day brand of contemporary alien invasion stories. As well as introducing Londoners Ben Jackson (Michael Craze) and Polly No-Televised-Last-Name (no relation – Anneke Wills) to the TARDIS, this adventure was namechecked in 2022’s Flux (“the whole thing at the Post Office Tower”) as an in-universe formative event for UNIT, the global military organisation that was introduced a few seasons later.

As dramatised in the 2013 TV movie An Adventure In Space And Time, Hartnell’s declining health led the producers to consider recasting the Doctor. One proposed idea was to have a powerful enemy called the Toymaker permanently change the Doctor’s appearance at the end of season three’s The Celestial Toymaker. (Hmm, it would be interesting if that particular character can affect the Doctor’s appearance, wouldn’t it…?)

As it happened, Hartnell retired from playing the Doctor in 1966, early in the fourth season. The series may have had a mixed track record on actor departures early on, but it’s the final Hartnell serial, The Tenth Planet, that solidifies Doctor Who’s powers of renewal.

Renewal and regeneration (1966 – 1969)

When the First Doctor’s body wears out due to old age, he transforms, clothes and all, into another, younger man. According to producer Innes Lloyd, Hartnell endorsed his chosen successor, telling the programme-makers: ‘There’s only one man in England who can take over, and that’s Patrick Troughton.’

Newman coined another endlessly quotable brief for the new Doctor by suggesting a “cosmic hobo” persona, influenced by Charlie Chaplin, as a contrast to his elderly predecessor. Troughton runs with it and opens up a world of possibilities for the actors that followed.

Regeneration is only called “renewal” at this stage, but it’s not only the Doctor that changes throughout Troughton’s first season. Nation retained the rights to the Daleks and he was looking to break America, so the original Big Bads were sent off in style with Troughton’s debut serial, The Power Of The Daleks, and the season four finale, The Evil Of The Daleks – the latter of which professes itself “the final end” for the persistent metal bastards.

Meanwhile, the “pure” historical (a term for period stories in which the Doctor and the TARDIS are the only sci-fi elements) also went away after The Highlanders, which introduced the era’s longest-serving companion Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) as a survivor of the Battle of Culloden. A not-so-fun fact – The Highlanders was also the first story to be wiped by the BBC, just two months after it was broadcast in late 1966.

“Base under siege” is the buzz-phrase for this era, with the format skewing towards single-location stories where humans or humanoid aliens have to fend off attackers until the Doctor and friends can outwit them or discover their weakness.

Even without the Daleks around, returning monsters became much more common as the 1960s went on, partly because alien creatures were popular but not particularly affordable on a budget that had to cover 40 to 44 episodes per year.

Also introduced in The Tenth Planet, the Cybermen became the Second Doctor’s most frequent adversaries, recurring in five different serials across all three seasons of Troughton’s run. The Ice Warrior and Yeti costumes were also reused in sequel stories and the budget-saving measure of airing out existing monsters from the BBC wardrobe is a tradition that continues even in 21st-century Doctor Who.

The revolving door of script editors continued, but with more mixed results for the characters – Ben and Polly hardly appear in their exit serial The Faceless Ones, but there’s an entirely different, more sentimental approach to writing out Victoria Waterfield (Deborah Watling) in the final episode of Fury From The Deep.

Anchored by Troughton and Hines’ superb rapport with each other and companions like Zoe Heriot (Wendy Padbury), the show settles into a groove, with the occasional burst of inspiration. A real highlight is season six’s The Mind Robber, which starts with a psychological-horror bottle episode set inside the TARDIS and expands into a surreal fantasia that’s about as psychedelic as you can get in black-and-white.

Thankfully, The Mind Robber still exists intact, because as mentioned, a lot of other stories were wiped. The number of complete surviving Second Doctor serials has gone up over the years as episodes have been returned to the BBC from international broadcasters and other sources, but the most recent was The Enemy Of The World in 2013, and the total stands at seven out of 21.

In spite of how little of his performance has been fully preserved, it’s testament to how good he is that Troughton is still regarded as one of the best ever Doctors. However, the actor found Doctor Who’s long production runs exhausting and decided to quit after three seasons – a run that’s now become standard for his successors.

Although the great Terrence Dicks staying in the script editor’s position from 1968 and beyond the end of Troughton’s run reportedly calmed things down, circumstances collapsed two planned serials into one final ten-part epic, The War Games. The climax of the story sees the Time Lords (and this is the first time they’re named) finally catch up with the Doctor and put him on trial for his meddling in time and space – in sentencing, they force him to regenerate again and exile him to Earth.

Troughton, Hines, and Padbury all exit the show at the same time, leaving the slate clean for an uncertain new decade after various production teams tobogganed through the first six seasons. There are many potential timelines where Doctor Who ended earlier than it did, but the open-ended renewal (still not a regeneration) wasn’t that sort of cliffhanger – by this point, Doctor Who has already taught us to say hello and goodbye to its regulars, and where would it be without that?

One day, they will come back…

Given how much the show changed even in its first seven years, there are also a lot of bits that have stood the test of time up to 2023. Beyond revisiting the Daleks and Cybermen, the revival proffers some deeper-cut returning monsters first seen in this decade, such as the Macra (2007’s Gridlock), the Ice Warriors (2013’s Cold War and 2017’s Empress Of Mars), and the Great Intelligence (the Big Bad of the 2013 series).

The TARDIS comes back of course, and the sonic screwdriver makes its first-ever appearance in season five’s Fury From The Deep. In the same year, we meet Colonel Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), who gains a promotion to Brigadier in season six’s The Invasion and becomes one of the most revisited characters of the next 60 years. Oh, and we’d be seeing both William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton’s Doctors and a couple of their companions again, but that’s for another time…

Six more brilliant things about Doctor Who in the 1960s

1. I love the Second Doctor’s shouty, shambolic competence, e.g., bellowing, ‘You can’t kill me, I’m a genius!’ at the Ice Warriors. Hartnell’s Doctor is a twinkly old grump, quite magical when he’s in his stride, but Troughton totally reinvents the character in that “cosmic hobo” image, which epitomises the character as much as any incarnation.

2. Many will point to Jamie or Ian and/or Barbara as their favourite companions from this decade, but Vicki No-Televised-Last-Name deserves her due. Conceived as a young but emotionally mature girl from a future where they know about Daleks like we know about Vikings but they aren’t around any more, she’s brilliantly played by O’Brien and arguably had much more to offer when she was written out in season three’s The Myth Makers.

3. One character who’s come back a lot in the spin-off media but hasn’t been seen in the TV show since 1966 is the Meddling Monk, the first rival Time Lord we meet in the show. Played by Carry On star Peter Butterworth in The Time Meddler and The Daleks’ Master Plan, this chaotic-neutral antagonist is a proto-Master figure who’s ripe for reinvention.

4. The art of the cliffhanger is in there right from the beginning, but a real doozy comes at the end of Part One of “The Mind Robber”, when the TARDIS’ police-box outer dimensions tumble apart in flight, turning the insides out into the vacuum of space. It’s a real trippy story, man.

5. Of the surviving 1960s stories, The Ark is quite underappreciated and decades ahead of its time. The First Doctor, Steven and Dodo arrive on a spaceship co-habited by humans and the alien Monoids in the distant future and learn an important lesson about introducing foreign sniffles to other civilisations. Remember, kids – “Hands. Face. Space flu.”

6. We can’t get out of here without mentioning the sound of Doctor Who. It’s not only the unique theme tune, which is still being remixed and rearranged today, but the sound design of the episodes themselves, whether it’s the Dalek voices, the TARDIS engine noise, or the atmospheric soundscapes of lost masterpieces like Fury From The Deep. It’s just as well for an era of TV that largely only exists in off-air recordings of their soundtracks that they still make good listening.

And incidentally, a happy 60th anniversary to all of you at home! Feel free to share your favourite things about 1960s Doctor Who in the comments…

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