The Pioneers of Doctor Who

“The creators of Doctor Who were a scandal” writes Charlie Jane Anders for io9.
As “one of the most successful television shows of all time” approaches it’s fiftieth anniversary, the io9science and media blog examines the origins ofDoctor Who in an insightful  interview with Waris Hussein. The programme’s very first director took part in the Doctor Who in the Sixties panel at the recent Gallifrey One convention in Los Angeles.
Born in Lucknow, India in 1938, Hussein was only 24 when he teamed up with the BBC’s only female producer, and a pioneering Canadian TV maker to create a TV legend.
The fledgling series “was a small show that [was] expected to run for a few episodes, and then vanish forever. The show had a tiny studio and huge cameras, and a shoestring budget. But the people who were making the show were outsiders who were anathema to the [corporation’s] entrenched culture.”
Anders writes: “Hussein talked a lot.. about [how] the BBC tried to starve the show of resources – he wanted to do all sorts of ambitious tracking shots, but was stuck with cameras bigger than the people operating them. And they were trapped in Studio D at Lime Grove [which was] the size of a shoebox, where they were trying to accomplish ambitious shots like having [the travellers].. run into [the TARDIS] and emerge inside a giant control room.” Fellow panelistWilliam Russell said that “his heart sank.. when he first heard they were going to be crammed into” the ancient studio. “Not only wasDoctor Who science fiction, which the old guard.. were highly suspicious of, but it was being created by the wrong sort of people – it’s originator, Sydney Newman, was a newly hired [Head of Drama], originally from [Toronto]. And Newman brought in a young production assistant [from ABC], Verity Lambert, to be the show’s first producer – junior director, Hussein himself, took on the first four episodes. For the very old-fashioned, homogenised BBC, the [trio] were” not really trusted to be the architects of new programming, “even if Doctor Who had been something they approved of.”
“Hussein said that women producers did not exist [then]. So [the series was] already innovative in concept, and [also in] the person who’s going to deal with it.”
The panel, which also included Maureen O’Brien (Vicki), “talked about how the first Doctor, William Hartnell, wasn’t just a cantankerous old man – he was also a very traditional Englishman, who wasn’t used to the idea of [working] women.. he didn’t know what to make of [his new director], an East Indian. Thus Hartnell took a lot of convincing that an Asian man and a young woman were going to be up to their jobs. [At] the first [meeting that] Hussein and Lambert had with [the actor], he seemed reluctant to take on the role, and they almost gave up. In the end, they decided to have a second lunch with Hartnell, [and here].. it became clear that [he] wanted them to prove their [pedigrees]. But over time, Hussein and Hartnell developed a tremendous mutual respect, and they all became a great team.. All his prejudices fell away.”
When Anders next spoke to “Hussein after the panel, he explained that not surprisingly, the regime at the BBC had very ‘subtle’ ways of expressing their distrust of [newcomers].. like himself and [the new producer]. Not only that, but Doctor Who was made outside the Children’s Department.. instead, it was made by the new Serials division, and they despised the” embryonic series.
“Given that everybody involved with Doctor Who was” viewed as outsiders, “the BBC foisted [upon] them.. an executive producer,Mervyn Pinfield. Even his name was Dickensian, said Hussein.. he represented traditional drama in the old-fashioned sense – while Hussein saw himself as a young, radical, ambitious director struggling.. with ancient equipment.”
“And when the show came to shoot its first pilot, it was basically a disaster – nothing went right technically, and the performances were pretty terrible. Hartnell’s Doctor was intensely unpleasant and kind of scary [an anti-hero in fact], and his granddaughter Susan was cold and exaggeratedly alien. After the pilot was shot, Newman took Lambert and Hussein out to dinner and said that by rights, he should fire them both – but instead, he was going to give them a second chance at filming” the opening episode.
“Perhaps some of the tension that Hussein and company were feeling came out in that first version of the pilot  – but also, the script was much darker and more intense. So for the [remount of An Unearthly Child], they deliberately softened the character of the Doctor.” Hussein states that he would have prefered to keep the “edgy” original, but Newman over-ruled him: “Don’t forget, we were fighting the system. So we softened some aspects of it, because we wanted young people to identify [with the characters].”
Hussein also directed ” Marco Polo: the fourth story, in which the Doctor travels across Asia and meets Kublai Khan. Hussein praised the gorgeous set design, and the versatile sets, which could be re-dressed as different way stations at each phase of the journey.”
Finally, Hussein maintains that “the central mystery of Doctor Who was the relationship between the Doctor and Susan — how could she be his granddaughter? What was their relationship, really? This was as big a mystery, to him, as how you could get a giant control room inside a tiny Police Box.”

Read the full interview here.

About ecklefecken

Whovian/Pethead/Tartan Noir reader/Ripperologist/Blogger
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