Doctor Who: an overview (part two)

Today: part two of the talk I was doing this week.

Part one is available here.


Companions are great, but it’s the monsters that we remember. I can still recall the moment the Cybermen appeared on the bridge of the space freighter and caused the death of Adric, or the moment that one villain’s face melted when he was exposed to the sun. (Don’t worry, I’m not showing you that.) There have been hundreds of different monsters and villains over the years, and I don’t have time to go through even a fraction of them, but here are just a few of the most memorable.



The Daleks. You’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re robots, but they’re not – they’re horrible brain-like creatures inside protective metal shells. They look like a cross between a dustbin and a pepper pot – and yes, that is a sink plunger. It’s very useful if you want to unblock a toilet, although you have to tip them upright. Now, the Daleks’ greatest weakness is…what?

[A few people chip in with “stairs'” apart from the chap at the back who shouts “Not any more!”.]

Quite right. It was stairs. And then in 1988, this happened.

That clip’s pushing thirty years old now, and the Daleks have been elevating ever since, of course, but I still remember sitting in my bedroom the night that episode aired, sitting bolt upright and shouting “WHAT? THEY CAN FLY NOW?!?!?”

Next: Cybermen.



These always scared me more than the Daleks, largely because they were human beings who’d had all their limbs replaced and all the emotions drained away. Daleks are alien, but Cybermen are an extension of us – of who we are and who we might become. Now the interesting thing about Cybermen and Daleks is the way the design has changed. Look at this selection of Dalek designs from the last fifty years.



Now look at the Cybermen.



You’ll notice that the design has changed from the fabric masks on the left through the big helmets in the middle, and the more sleek ones of the present day on the right. They used to look like men who happened to be wearing metal masks. Now they just look like robots. It’s gone a bit rubbish, to be honest…



Ice Warriors! Natives of Mars. About eight feet tall, but they spoke in a low hiss. [Does an Ice Warrior hiss, badly.]


The Empty Child. This is a new one that they came up with a few years ago. The Empty Child walks around London in the middle of the Blitz looking for his mummy. Yes, that is a gas mask. It’s actually fused to his face, and if he touches you, you become just like him.

It took Joshua two goes to sit through that one.



The Master. He’s a Time Lord like the Doctor, and he was intended to be a Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes. He’d usually have other creatures to do his bidding, and he had this rather neat trick of hypnotising you with the words “I am the Master, and you will obey me…”. (It doesn’t work; I’ve tried it.) There have been at least six or seven different Masters – the last one was a woman – but no one played it quite like Roger Delgado, and it’s a tremendous shame that he died in a car accident before they could film his final story.


Sontarans. Look like enormous potatoes. In battle armour. Only ever had one decent story; the rest is filler.


Silurians. Now, these are highly intelligent lizards who lived on the earth millions of years ago when mankind was still evolving out of apes. They were in suspended animation deep underground, but eventually they woke up, and there were problems. It’s like living in a house for five years and then getting back from holiday to find out that the original owners never actually left; they were just away for a really long time.


The Weeping Angels. Now, these are a new creation that take the form of stone statues – the sort you see in graveyards. Cleverly, they can only move when you’re not looking at them, so they zap you when your back is turned or when you’ve got your eyes shut. And if you don’t think that sounds particularly scary, take a look at this.


Here’s the thing: the Doctor and his companions always managed to defeat the monsters, but offscreen it wasn’t always so easy. Doctor Who‘s had its fair share of scandal over the years, and has had to fight against censorship and budget problems and all sorts of other stuff. So. Here are the real life monsters:



Michael Grade. The BBC executive originally responsible for the programme’s cancellation, basically because he couldn’t stand it. He thought it had become a joke, and in some respects he was right. When it came back years later, he really liked it, largely because Russell T Davies had helped turn it into the programme he always thought it should have been.


Hilda Ogden. Who knew? When Doctor Who got moved from Saturday evening to a midweek slot it was up against Coronation Street, and every sensible person knows that you can’t fight Coronation Street. So all the kids who wanted to watch Doctor Who had to go upstairs to their bedroom TVs, while their parents watched Coronation Street on the downstairs set – the one that feeds the audience ratings. This is actually a standard trick for killing off a show you don’t like – you move it to a time when no one will watch it, and then say “Well, no one’s watching it, so we won’t make any more.”

But that’s nothing compared to the greatest horror of all.


Mary Whitehouse! Now, you all remember Mrs Whitehouse, and how she spent her years complaining about anything that she didn’t think was appropriate for family viewing or listening. Doctor Who faced her wrath more than once, usually when it was doing something horrendously violent. She objected to some of the horrors, and one particular scene that involved the Doctor drowning. She famously described it as “tea-time terror for tots”. And to absolutely honest, she might have had a point.

That’s from one story, ‘Terror of the Autons’, way back in 1971. It should be noted that those plastic chairs were very popular at the time, and you could imagine a country full of uneasy households, looking around at their living room furniture. “Is it going to…are we safe here???”

Doctor Who does contain an awful lot of violence and death – I’ve only skimmed the cream off the top of it this afternoon; there are gun battles and fights and horrible mutated monsters. It’s the sort of thing that terrifies kids, but we don’t need to see that as a bad thing, because – and let’s be honest about this – most kids secretly love being terrified. There’s an old joke about watching Doctor Who from behind the sofa, which I don’t think anyone ever actually did because pretty much every sofa I’ve ever sat on has been up against the wall. But my own children love it, even when it’s scary, and perhaps even because it’s scary.


And the great thing about Doctor Who is the way it deals with sometimes very complex moral dilemmas. For example, in the story ‘Fires of Pompeii’, the Doctor discovers that not only can he not prevent the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, he actually has to cause it, with catastrophic loss of life, in order to save the entire planet. In ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, up on the top left, the Doctor’s asked by the Time Lords to destroy the Daleks before they’re even created, but he argues that this is effectively playing God. Top right, you’ll see the Tenth Doctor about to commit murder, even though it goes against all his principles, to save the world. And in ‘Day of the Doctor’, a Doctor we didn’t even know about until two years ago has to decide whether to destroy his entire planet in order to protect the rest of the universe. Genocide for the greater good. It’s a big question. But the Doctor doesn’t just walk in shades of grey. If something’s wrong, he’ll tell you.

There are many, many great Tom Baker moments, but I wanted to show you that one because you don’t often get to see his serious side. When he’s genuinely angry, he’s wonderful to watch.

It’s not all doom and gloom and heavyweight issues. There’s a lot of fun. Here’s the Doctor just after he’s regenerated. I should warn you that in this clip he displays quite appalling table manners.

If you’ve read your A.A. Milne, you’ll recognise that, right? Conclusive proof that the Doctor is…


Tigger on the inside.

Now, Doctor Who is mostly shot on set. These days a lot of it is green screen – where they shoot the actors against a green backdrop and then superimpose whatever image they needed behind them later on – and it looks fantastic, but in the classic series they would usually build what they wanted. Some sets are better than others – there are jokes about wobbly walls and plastic rocks, but the fact of the matter is the team had to do the most amazing stuff on very little money and with hardly any time. A really good director and designer can innovate.


For example, corridors are very popular, because they enable lots of running. And the best part is, if you change around the scenery and shoot from a different angle, you have a completely different corridor, somewhere else! So this is the same vessel as used in two stories – the same set, just shot from the other end.

Occasionally the confines of the studio weren’t quite enough for what the producers wanted to achieve, so they had to go out and about. Now there are several types of Doctor Who locations, and the most popular is:


Quarries! Yes, if you wanted a desolate alien landscape in the 1970s, you had to find a decent quarry. Goodness knows there were enough of them. Then there’s:



Famous landmarks. Anyone recognise this? It’s the Rollright Stones. They shot ‘The Stones of Blood’ here in 1978. There’s an urban legend about the Rollrights: if you count them, you never get to the same number twice; there seem to be a different number each time. And in this case, the team were moving their own stones in and out of the set, so people trying to count them were getting hopelessly lost because they kept vanishing!

They’ve also been to Stonehenge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Dover Castle and a bunch of other places. But it’s not just the exteriors.


This is the Temple of Peace, in Cardiff. I’ve never been, but they tend to use it whenever they want anything lofty and grand and slightly futuristic.

The producers also made a habit of visiting English villages whenever the situation called for it. Anyone recognise this?



Yes, it’s East Hagbourne, just up the road, and they filmed here forty years ago for ‘The Android Invasion’. And I don’t know if any of you managed to do the Scarecrow Trail there last week, but if you had, you might have seen this chap up on the war memorial.



I was lucky enough to speak to the owner while we were taking these photos, and she told me that someone had informed her the scarf colours were wrong. I can’t say I noticed, to be honest. But this brings me to an interesting point: fans. Fans are everywhere. We dress up in costumes, we spend hours talking about what this particular story means or which character was the best, they have parties, and they hunt out lost episodes from the depths of Nigerian archive departments. We love and hate the show at the same time – we get cross when it’s not good, and each new story is like an event; even the bad ones.

There is an abundance of stuff you can buy. You’ll have seen the collection I brought with me today – you’re welcome to come and have a play afterwards if you like. My own collection is quite small, compared to what some people have cluttering up their shelves.


This isn’t mine; it’s the first picture I found on the internet. I’m told that the toys are apparently worth far more if you leave them in the packet and never play with them, but WHAT’S THE POINT IN THAT?!?

As well as books, radio plays, theatrical productions and all sorts of other stuff, the Doctor’s even hit the charts on occasion, sometimes with more success than others. Here’s a selection of just some of the great and not-so-great songs we’ve seen over the years.

Yes. Let’s never speak of this again, shall we?


It’s a programme that’s affected my life on all number of levels. It’s escapism, but it’s also weighty, and there are things you can learn. My whole family love it, even though Daniel still hides in the doorway. People tend to tell me I’m obsessed, and I think that’s probably quite true, but there is so much variety and substance in the best stories – and even in the worst, you can usually find something fun, even if it’s just a bunch of strangely-dressed people running down a corridor away from rubber monsters.

We’re almost at the end now, and I thank you for bearing with me on a hot summer’s day, but just one more thing: in the year 2063, Doctor Who turns a hundred. I don’t know if I’ll still be here by then, but if I am, I’d like to hope that I’ll be in a group like this – perhaps sitting in a church hall on a weekday afternoon while some younger man or woman regales us all with his enthusiasm for the Time Lord and his grand adventures. And perhaps he’ll drag out old clips of the time we first met the Weeping Angels, or the time the Doctor met the minotaur in an old hotel, or the moment the Cybermen crashed through the windows of the Tyler mansion. And I’ll nod, and smile, and say “Yep. I remember that. Still scary.”


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