At the time – January 2017 – this seemed a fun idea for a new regular(ish) feature for Doctor Who Magazine. Alas, I hadn’t reckoned on quite how many words would be needed to cover, in reasonable depth – and with sufficient jokes so as not to bore everyone to death – even just a single month in Doctor Who history.
Time Capsule was designed to be ‘lavishly illustrated’. I’ll try to add some images to this slew of copy in due course!
Doctor Who is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think the wider canon of Western literature is big – but that’s just peanuts to Doctor Who.
We’re misquoting the great Douglas Adams – from the second episode of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy – but there’s a truth to the joke. Over the decades, Doctor Who has been researched and written about in incredible and ever-increasing detail; to such a degree that, as Doctor Who grows and as we move in ever closer, we perhaps lose sight of the big picture: of the whole wild, whirling insanity of it all.
So, rather than looking at one single aspect of Doctor Who – the fact, the fiction, the production of a single story, the work of a particular actor or director – this feature is instead designed to take us on a trip through time. We’re travelling to a single month in the life of the series, to review everything that was happening, all at once, in the universe of Doctor Who.
Our first destination was chosen by our randomiser (asking someone in the office to name a month, then a year, off the top of their head) – but it’s a cracker. It’s a month where the Doctor and Leela battle Fendahl, Sontarans, Vrakons, Cycrans, Terry Wogan and the trades unions. It’s a month where the Liberator lands instead of the Tardis, Sarah Jane Smith loses her parents, and an anti-Dalek agent helps us to save money on cigarettes. Meanwhile, the Doctor meets Julius Caesar, sells baked beans and his sonic screwdriver, and renegotiates his salary. He avoids losing his head in Yorkshire, while holding on to something very precious in Los Angeles.
Welcome to our Time Capsule – and 30 crazy days in November 1977.
Nine and a half inches of pure pleasure
For the children of Britain in November 1977, their most thrill-packed, voraciously-devoured book was not some adventure novel – a Blyton or a Dahl – but the Autumn/Winter edition of the Great Universal Home Shopping Catalogue. Its 1,006 richly-coloured pages left you half-dazed with the stink of ink, and possessed a power more spellbinding than any silly old story. The book crackled with possibility and promise. Of course, the opening 932 pages – of “continental style” polyester blouses, terylene net curtains and Schreiber double-divans – were mere prologue. The real magic began on page 933, with the toys and games.
If you leaf through that catalogue today, you’re not only looking back through time, but directly into the dreams of the youngsters of Britain in November 1977. It’s a glimpse of every fantasy of Christmas morning, a sneak peek at every letter to Santa. Here’s Evel Knievel’s stunt motorbike. The Bionic Woman (“with mission purse”). Meccano. Jaws. Chemistry Set 3. Microscope Lab 2. And, grinning out from page 941, in hat and scarf, holding his sonic screwdriver like he’s about to sign an autograph for your Auntie Mabel, is a toy Doctor Who: “Intrepid explorer of the galaxies!” (£3.70, or 19p for 20 weeks.)
But this is not just any toy Doctor Who, this is the first toy Doctor Who.
In the 1960s, vast battalions of toy Daleks conquered the country – pursued by a few plucky Mechonoids – but Doctor Who would be 14 years old before the children of Britain could take the show’s hero on adventures of their own. And what adventures! This Doctor was small enough to hold in one hand, but big enough to fill the world.
The 9½-inch Doctor doll comes with fabric clothes, a plastic hat and plastic shoes. He accessorises with a ribbon of purple necktie and a matchstick sonic screwdriver. (The first item to be lost or broken by his enthusiastic owners.) The doll is also possessed of an irresistible smile. It’s a grin so wide, so white – so sincere – it can only belong to Tom Baker. Well, you’d think… But thereby hangs a tale.
It has been suggested that this first toy of the Doctor is, in fact, nothing of the sort. This isn’t Tom Baker, it has been claimed, but some smirking imposter. The book Doctor Who: The Seventies (Howe, Stammers & Walker, 1993) reported: “The head was of The New Avengers star Gareth Hunt. Between the prototypes being produced and the go-ahead by the BBC, the die [mould] for the Tom Baker head had been lost or damaged. Rather than go to the expense of creating a new one, the company went with what they had, namely Gareth Hunt.” We’ll return to this allegation in due course.
Multiplying the fun, our Doctor is just part of a gang, and travels with a dolly friend and a host of dolly enemies to defeat. These are the big, bold toys of a big, bold entertainment brand. They are promoted in the pages of popular comics, and seen at their best in a television advert for the new range, which aired throughout November 1977. The Doctor’s assistant Leela peers out uncertainly from under a wild fountain of hair; perhaps concerned with the effect her Mae West bosom and Margot Fonteyn feet are having on her centre of gravity. There’s a magnificent Giant Robot (who appears to be just on the verge of remembering something important), a baggy Cyberman and a trim Dalek with an angry red dome. And last, but by no means least, a toy TARDIS co-opts a mechanism designed for a popular Star Trek Transporter Room playset in the USA. This boxy blue shed contains a rotating vertical drum that, with a grinding kerchunk-thunk, helps the Doctor to ‘disappear’ in exactly the way he doesn’t on TV.
The Doctor Who range of dolls was produced by Denys Fisher Toys Ltd of Wetherby, North Yorkshire. The company was formed in the mid-1960s by Denys Fisher himself, a skilled engineer and mathematician who had developed timer mechanisms for bombs during World War II. He made his fortune with the drawing toy Spirograph; a set of fine-toothed plastic wheels and rings which allowed the user to trace out an infinite number of repeating mathematical curves – to beautiful effect, if you could keep a steady hand. Spirograph was named Toy of the Year in 1968.
“Denys was a huge, brilliant, eccentric man with an unexpectedly high-pitched voice who wore flip-flops mostly,” recalls Peter Viner, who joined Denys Fisher Ltd as a development engineer in 1969, and through the next decade worked his way up to Head of Research and Development. In 1970, Denys Fisher Ltd was bought by the massive US food combine General Mills, which was furiously diversifying. It snapped up a swathe of toy manufacturers, including Parker Bros and Kenner in the States, and Palitoy, Chad Valley and Denys Fisher in the UK.
“We operated independently, but each company was fed product from the worldwide group,” explains Peter. “Merchandise based on popular TV characters took over, and we inherited the Six Million Dollar Man range of toys, which was a phenomenal success, resulting in rapid growth… All too rapid, as it turned out.”
Imported TV action heroes The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman sold very well in 1976, but Denys Fisher Ltd was eager to find a home-grown hero, which is where the Doctor and his coterie enter the scene. However, whereas the ‘Bionic’ figures came to the UK fully-formed from Hong Kong – their US Kenner packaging replaced by Denys Fisher branding – the Doctor Who range was, at least in its details, a more British endeavour.
“The bodies for the Doctor Who dolls were ‘off the peg’,” explains Peter. (Indeed, young fans keen to explore the mysteries of the Gallifreyan reproductive system would eagerly divest the Doctor of his jacket, vest and slacks only to discover nothing more revealing than the message ‘(c) 1976 Mego Corporation. Made in Hong Hong’ across their hero’s skinny back. Mego, another major US toy manufacturer, provided the basic articulated doll that could be found under the clothes of many a licensed toy at the time, from Steve Austin to Starsky and Hutch, Captain Kirk to Cher.)
“The dolls were bought in, but we provided the heads and accessories,” Peter continues. “I commissioned a local guy called Colin Davidson to sculpt the heads, and my friend John Dockray in the marketing department recalls a very pleasant meeting with Louise Jameson. John’s auntie provided the scarf samples, and a local seamstress made the dolls’ outfits.”
And what does Peter say to the suggestion that this is actually a New Avengers doll in Doctor Who clothing?
“I’m sorry to dispel that conspiracy theory,” says the man who oversaw the development of the toy. “But it didn’t happen. I suppose it’s a reflection on people’s feelings about the accuracy of the sculpting. These days a face can be scanned and a much more accurate likeness achieved.”
Furthermore, in Denys Fisher’s earliest marketing material for the toys – prepared for toy business trade fairs in November 1976 and January 1977, when the manufacturers offered up their best prospects for the following Christmas – the prototype Doctor Who doll proudly wears the same face as the finished production doll. And it’s a face that captures the spirit of Tom Baker’s Doctor better than any scan or 3D printer ever could.
Sadly, even as the Denys Fisher’s Doctor Who figures lined up on the shelves of Britain’s toy shops in November 1977, the company fell victim to the fast-moving nature of character-based merchandise. The Leela dolls were released just as actress Louise Jameson announced her departure from Doctor Who. Meanwhile, the Doctor’s own popularity was in danger of being eclipsed by his newly unleashed robotic dog, K9. Denys Fisher added a cute, to-scale K9 figure to the range the following year, but by this stage the company was struggling to stay ahead of the game.
“Star Wars was the big story coming up,” explains Peter Viner. “But that range went to our sister company Palitoy and we couldn’t find anything to compete. Denys Fisher Toys and Chad Valley were closed in 1979 and Palitoy inherited the valuable assets. I was offered a post at Palitoy but opted to go it alone. I launched my Design 4 Plastics company in one of the small buildings occupied by Denys Fisher Toys, and we’re still going strong to this day.”
Denys Fisher’s gorgeous, grinning Tom Baker did have a brief second life, however. The doll was repackaged and re-released in Italy in 1979 by the Italian toy company Harbert. When in Rome, the Doctor was “intrepido esploratore della gallassie!”, and the back of his box promised that he would soon be joined on his Mediterranean adventure by his companion “Lella” and the fantastici monstri “Super Robot” and “Cibernaini”. Alas, none of these other variants appear to have reached the shops of Milan or Turin; and given that Italy didn’t begin screening Doctor Who until 1980, perhaps that’s no surprise.
Star Wars – which opened in the USA in May 1977 – would not only change the business of movies forever, it would turn the licenced toy industry upside down. In just a few months, ‘big’ dolls like the Doctor and Leela and would look clumsy and old-fashioned. The future for action figures (and it would be a destiny shared by Doctor Who toys, eventually) would prove long and lucrative – but also less than four inches tall.
Astronauts ancient and modern
The four Saturdays of November 1977 thrilled to the transmission of the Doctor Who serial Image of the Fendahl – parts two to four – and the opening instalment of The Sun Makers.
Between them, these consecutive adventures contrive to cover almost the entire journey of human life through the fiction of Doctor Who: from a pit in Africa 12 million years before modern man, to a point in the distant future (“right through the time spiral” as the Doctor puts it) where humanity has been forcibly resettled to Pluto by a malevolent alien. However, even with this alpha-to-omega history as their backdrop, these stories address – for 1977 – distinctly contemporary concerns.
In Image of the Fendahl, the Doctor and Leela meet a team of scientists, of varying shades of sanity, who are investigating an ancient skull, at first sight human, found buried in volcanic sediment in Kenya. A potassium-argon test of the most excellent kind dates the sediment as having been laid down “eight million years before [the owner of the skull] could have possibly existed.” Musing upon this, one of the scientists, the benign Adam Colby, takes his dog Leakey for a walk. (“More bones is it? You old bone hunter you!”).
As well as being Doctor Who’s first joke about incontinence, Leakey the dog is named in honour of the famous husband-and-wife team of anthropologists, Louis and Mary Leakey, whose discovery of prehistoric bones and primitive tools in East Africa in the 1950s massively advanced our understanding of the ascent of man. Or, perhaps, Leakey is named for their son, Richard Leakey, also an anthropologist – and the cover star of the Monday 7 November 1977 issue of Time magazine, published during transmission of Image of the Fendahl.
On his Time cover, Leakey is seen crouching in the desolate Rift Valley in Kenya, alongside a querulous-looking Homo habilis; a two-million-year-old predecessor of modern man, but really a local volunteer in a latex mask. The mask is modelled upon a skull recently unearthed from nearby volcanic sediment by Leakey and his team. The discovery of Homo habilis challenged established scientific thinking on the origins of man. So when, in Image of the Fendahl, barmy scientist Dr Fendleman exults to Colby: “Your discovery could be one of the most important milestones in human development! Your work will fundamentally affect how man views himself!” it shows just how timely and ‘ripped from the headlines’ this Doctor Who story was. That said, Colby’s skull later proves to be an alien life form trying to reconstitute itself on Earth – which is just one of the many ways in which Doctor Who demonstrates its superiority to real life. The article in Time magazine sadly fails to detail any attacks on Richard Leakey’s excavation by a seven-foot tall and very hungry caterpillar.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the time spiral, The Sun Makers also lifted its story straight from the news, and the immediate day-to-day woes of its adult viewers, as the UK economy circled the plughole in the late 1970s. “We’re being taxed to death!” wailed one commentator in The Times newspaper of Wednesday 30 November 1977. It’s a figure of speech made flesh by The Sun Makers.
Given that its bleak tale of the knackered stragglers of humanity – banged-up on Pluto and drugged, overworked and taxed to near-extinction by rapacious aliens – The Sun Makers delivers more than its fair share of laughs. And its playful satire was certainly appreciated at the time. “Viewers warmly welcomed the more realistic, less fantastic nature of the theme (widely interpreted as an exposé of super monopoly capitalism),” noted a contemporary BBC Audience Research report. “It was, in their opinion, entertaining and even compelling viewing, which was ‘well up to the usual high standard of Doctor Who adventures’.”
Image of the Fendahl and The Sun Makers delivered high ratings and audience appreciation figures. The trio of Tom Baker’s virtuoso Doctor, Louise Jameson’s eye-catching Leela and the charming K9 (“The best innovation of the Autumn viewing season!” raved trade newspaper Television Today) proved irresistible. All four episodes of The Sun Makers made it into the national Top 50 programmes.
Doctor Who is at its best when its creators are at least as involved in it, in terms of imagination, as we are. This is not always the case. But in November 1977, a real sense of commitment in the writing and performance of Doctor Who lifted it to an imaginative peak. It may have been battling harder than ever for time and resource at the BBC – and those limitations may often have shown on screen – but Doctor Who was as spirited, intelligent and relevant as it had ever been, or ever would be.
On the other side
There were only three television channels in November 1977, but Doctor Who still had to fight for viewers. For a closer look at the competition, we’ll visit the Saturday night closest to the show’s 14th birthday.
On 26 November 1977, the majority of ITV regions pitched the talent show New Faces against the first episode of The Sun Makers. Judges Mickie Most, Terry Wogan, Jack Parnell and Shaw Taylor sifted through such acts as The Xhabo Puppets from Exeter and singer Terry McCann from Bloxwich in the vain hope that any offered greater mainstream appeal than Louise Jameson’s thighs over on BBC1. Elsewhere, four ITV regions – Anglia, Midland, Scottish and London Weekend – offered Giant, an episode of the US adventure series Man From Atlantis.
Man From Atlantis tells the story of Mark Harris, the last survivor of the fabled lost continent, and his adventures in the modern world, battling spies and suchlike. A prodigious swimmer, Mark can propel himself through water – arms tight to his sides, feet together – at tremendous speed, like an eel, or a particularly up-for-it sperm. Mark has webbed hands and feet, super-acute senses, gills, and needs to be dunked in the Pacific every 12 hours without fail. However, viewers are secretly pleased whenever Mark misses this deadline, which he does once per episode, because he turns a lovely shade of mauve.
To the ear of a Doctor Who fan, Mark Harris – as played by Patrick Duffy – has much in common with Leela. He is driven by his instincts and super senses. When speaking, he can not or will not use contractions. He parades about in a state of unselfconscious undress. If Leela was designed “to get the dads watching”, then it was the job of Duffy and his tailored shorts to detain the mums and the funny uncles. However, nothing makes you appreciate the skill of Louise Jameson’s characterisation of Leela quite like 50 minutes in the company of Mark Harris, who is less “noble savage” than nodding simpleton.
Overall, Man From Atlantis suffers a fatal lack of conviction. The drowned continent of legend was surely sunk by the dead weight of these scripts. (“I think this whirlpool might be artificial!” “You mean man-made?” “Whoever made it, it could create tides the like of which… Well, I don’t have to tell you.”). Any viewer who might consider Part One of The Sun Makers to be far-fetched needs to check out Giant; especially the scene where, in a parallel dimension, Mark has to battle through a raging torrent of invisible water – as the show clearly couldn’t afford to provide actual water. Your heart goes out to poor Patrick Duffy. It’s little surprise that Man From Atlantis was cancelled after four TV movies and 13 episodes, but Doctor Who is still with us today.
Meanwhile, if any Doctor Who fan had lingered on BBC2 in the hour before The Sun Makers, they would have been rewarded with a glimpse of the future – or rather, a snatch of the sound of the future. Horizon: The Case of the Ancient Astronauts put forward the theories of cult 70s author and pseudo-scientist Erich von Däniken, who argued that extraterrestrials had visited the Earth throughout prehistory and influenced the development of man – though he unaccountably failed to mention the Fendahl. The distinctive electronic score for this documentary came from Peter Howell of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who would go on to help define the sound of Doctor Who’s next decade. The Astronauts was released as the B-side to Howell’s sensational 1980 version of the Doctor Who theme.
Anyone on the look-out for visiting aliens on the night of 26 November 1977 would have been better served by tuning in to the early evening news in the Southern ITV region. At 5.10pm, the sound was interrupted by a buzzing noise and a distorted voice claiming to be an ambassador for an “intergalactic association” and warning that mankind must change its warlike ways or face punishment. Exactly what form the punishment might take was not revealed, but viewers tuning in to The Sun Makers later that evening would reason that relocation to Pluto and the enforced wearing of ill-fitting tabards might be involved. The perpetrator of the Southern TV alien ‘hoax’ remains unknown to this day.
Genie in a bottle
The USA, Australia, Canada, South Korea, Saudi Arabia – and possibly the United Arab Emirates – also broadcast Doctor Who episodes during November 1977. One screening, however, would prove to be of crucial importance.
When British fan Doctor Who Ian Levine heard, from his American fan friend Tom Lundie, that the Jon Pertwee serial The Daemons was to be shown in an omnibus form by TV station KCET in Los Angeles, he took immediate action. In a stroke of luck, Tom’s cousin Mike Lundie lived in the KCET broadcast area, and Ian paid for Mike to rent a Betamax video machine to record the story, along with two one-hour tapes.
15 years later, this recording provided the Doctor Who Restoration Team with the vital colour signal they needed to re-colourise the BBC’s surviving black-and-white copy of the story. So, next time you enjoy The Daemons in colour, it is because that colour was captured, like a genie in a bottle, by a fan’s friend’s cousin in the city of Garden Grove, California – just a few miles from Disneyland – on the evening of 19 November 1977.
Tales from Tardis
The tidily typewritten pages of the November 1977 issue of Tardis, the magazine of the one-year-old Doctor Who Appreciation Society, offers us an insight into the hearts of Doctor Who fans at the time. The leading lights of the Society, many of whom had been watching since the show’s first episode, when aged eight or nine, had grown up to become Doctor Who first generation of angry adult fan commentators.
“The production team seem convinced that Dr Who really is a kids show,” complained John Peel at the top of two paragraphs of block capitals. “Despite superficial glitter, The Invisible Enemy failed miserably as entertainment.
“Continuity was slaughtered,” continued Peel. “Did Leela really fly the Tardis? What happened to Isomorphic Circuitry, Mr Holmes? You invented it, so you stick to it. Anyone who recalls the ‘Watcher’ series in the far off golden days will remember that removing the dimensional control unit results in the ship’s innards shrinking – though now it seems it merely prevents the ship from taking off. (But how?)”
However, Peel reserves his most fiery fury for the Doctor’s latest companions. “He now has a mechanical pet to go with his savage. With stories like this one and ‘Fang Rock’, why not a new time slot as well? Straight after ‘Watch with Mother’. (This programme is going to the dogs!)”
DWAS President Jan Vincent-Rudzki also had reservations about recent episodes. “So far I have thought this season very strange,” he wrote. “‘Fang Rock’ was a good story and basically ‘Invisible Enemy’ was too, even though there were a number of errors and blunders in it. What has surprised and almost shocked me is the terrible way the programme is made, and particularly directed. The camera work is very primitive and unimaginative.”
For many readers of Tardis, however, the most attention-grabbing item was to be found on page two. “Raffle of props from Doctor Who. Tickets (as many as you want) 20p each.” The list of prizes on offer quickens the blood, even 40 years later… “Jon Pertwee has kindly donated some props from Doctor Who actually used in the filming.” These include: “A Mutt mask (The Mutants). A Maggot (The Green Death). Stun Gun (Invasion of the Dinosaurs). A Giant Spider. Tardis control panel. The Sonic Screwdriver.” It all adds up to a mental image of Jon Pertwee gleefully motorbiking home from each day’s filming on Doctor Who with a sidecar full of swag. But it’s all in a good cause. Pertwee’s beloved Grand Order Water Rats – a fraternity of performers and charitable organisation – was the beneficiary.
Also published by the DWAS that same month was The Companion Volume (40p, “featuring the research and documentation facilities of the DWAS Reference Department”). This was a collection of ‘biographies’ of the Doctor’s friends: a mixture of information given on screen and some well-meaning extrapolation by writer Jeremy Bentham. It’s notable, however, that one of the pieces, the Sarah Jane Smith biography, was later adapted by Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner into the ‘series bible’ for the spin-off special K9 and Company, and from there influenced the back story of The Sarah Jane Adventures. It was The Companion Volume which first introduced the notion that Sarah was an orphan raised by her Aunt Lavinia.
So rest in peace then, Sarah Jane’s poor mum and dad. Murdered by Jeremy Bentham in November 1977.
Young fans could enjoy further adventures for the Doctor and Leela in the pages of Mighty TV Comic (Polystyle, 10p). In the concluding episodes of The Devil’s Mouth, the Doctor goes hunting alien Vrakons down a pothole in middle England. Our Time Lord is in a belligerent mood, and doesn’t even engage the visitors in conversation before he slaughters them, blows up their spaceship and seals the cave with concrete. Doctor Who and the Silurians this is not.
The next story, The Aqua-City, would have proved just the ticket for fans who enjoyed Doctor Who but craved some of the fishy flavour of Man From Atlantis. It sees the Doctor battle the robot Cycrans, the vengeful former servants of the undersea ‘Antlanteans’, who cannot remain out of water for long. You can’t say that TV Comic wasn’t keeping up with the times.
The scripts for these stories, by Geoff Cowans, capture the gusto of Tom Baker’s performance as the Doctor, although the habit of other characters to refer to him as ‘Dr Who’ does bring you up short, as does the Doctor’s unlikely catchphrase of ‘By Jupiter!” or “Thank Jupiter!” – an early precursor to the likes of “Fantastic!” and “Geronimo!”. Leela cuts a rather more fashionable figure than on TV; in skinny jeans, kinky boots and a knotted blouse that lays out the whole shop front. The new look was the work of the artist, John Canning, who clearly enjoyed his job. His style may seem a little old-fashioned today, but, thanks to the exuberant line work and loose ink washes, Canning’s Doctor Who has a unique pell-mell joi de vivre all its own.
The strips of TV Comic were certainly a step up from other spin-off adventures available at the time. The Dr Who Annual 1978 (World Distributors, £1.35) was on sale at all good bookshops in November 1977. Inside, the Doctor is accompanied by an unrecognisable Sarah in a series of text and comic strip adventures that verge on gibberish. It’s a bleak thought that, given the popularity of the TV series at this time and the massive print run for this annual, these grim stories likely stand as some of the most widely-read Doctor Who spin-off fiction ever written. The high point of the book is the comic strip The Traitor; the artwork for which, by Paul Crompton, has a dreamlike, expressionist quality.
The Dalek Annual 1978 (World Distributors, £1.35) also offered a mix of text stories and comic strip – the latter thanks to a reprint of a vibrant TV21 comic from 1966. A factual feature muses upon the possibility of a ‘missing’ fifth planet between Mars and Jupiter, but this would have been old news to viewers of Image of the Fendahl. A puzzle page relates a personal crisis faced by Anti-Dalek Force agent Kel Moran, as readers were invited to work out how many extra cigarettes he could roll using the scraps of tobacco left in 25 fag ends. Useful information for all younger readers there.
Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang (Hardback from Allan Wingate, £2.95. Paperback from Target Books, 60p) joined the range of novelisations of TV adventures available in November 1977, just over seven months after the story’s transmission. A straightforward, no-frills adaptation, Terrance Dick’s lucid prose nevertheless has the power to replay the serial for readers as accurately and vividly as any DVD.
Two further Doctor Who adventures were published in November 1977: the second and third volumes of the educational Doctor Who Discovers… series (Target Books, 75p). Doctor Who Discovers Space Travel has a beautiful cover by Jeff Cummins, but the cover artist for Doctor Who Discovers the Conquerors sadly remains unknown. The books were written, it is presumed, by the range’s editor Fred Newman and illustrated with stills of Tom Baker’s Doctor and assorted stock library illustrations.
In Discovers the Conquerors, the Doctor spends 16 years living in the court of Alexander the Great, before going on to encounter Julius Caesar, Charlemagne and Richard the Lionheart, the latter without letting on that he’d done so before. (“And who are you?” roared the King. “Dr Who,” replied the Doctor. The King’s face turned red with anger. “Tomorrow we do battle with Saladin. Give this Who a sword and let him fight too.”)
Space Travel takes our Time Lord to 1957, where the TARDIS is almost hit in orbit by an early satellite – something that would also almost happen on TV in 1987’s Delta and the Bannermen – and then on to witness the Moon landing and Skylab. Readers at the time would have been particularly taken with the book’s trips to the future. The Doctor travels to 1985 and marvels at a Space Shuttle launch (in 1977, the orbiter was undergoing its earliest tests). In the 21st century, the Doctor visits a 20-mile long Earth-orbiting space station, with farmland and forest tended by several million inhabitants. “The Doctor wanted to discover more about the 21st Century. He could only wonder at what other great feats men would accomplish.” Well, here’s hoping.
In the can
Crosse and Blackwell foods ran a major Doctor Who promotion in the autumn of 1977. Families were invited to swap labels from cans of ‘Doctor Who Baked Beans’ (plus a fee) for a range of booty: an electronics kit, a chemistry set and a Doctor Who colouring book.
The book, with a Police Box cover, offered a series of scenes to colour – including a surreal moment in the TARDIS where the Doctor ponders a giant can of baked beans on scanner – which then folded out into 3D ‘pop-up’.
Crosse and Blackwell would prove something of a fair-weather friend to Doctor Who, turning out only when the series is doing particularly well. In 2009, their cans of ‘Doctor Who Wholewheat Pasta Shapes’ would include little pasta faces of a child wearing a gasmask.
Some strange mutation has befallen the Doctor; some ineffable biological meta-crisis. In his latest incarnation, our Time Lord has regenerated a large blue bird, and has to be carried everywhere by his obliging assistant. Happily, our hero’s intellectual powers are undimmed, as he effortlessly defeats a second invasion attempt by his most implacable foe: the Deadly Dustbins.
The Return of the Deadly Dustbins was the second Doctor Who sketch written by Australian comedian and puppet master Rod Hull, for an episode of the third series of Emu’s Broadcasting Company – broadcast on BBC1 on Monday 14 November 1977. For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, Emu was a TV megastar of the 1970s and 80s, known for his sudden infatuations with leading celebrities (“Oh, he likes you!”), and equally sudden physical assaults upon on the same. (“Emu! No! Gerrof! Emu!”)
Emu’s Broadcasting Company, a teatime comedy show for kids made by BBC Manchester, ran for five years and was far smarter than in needed to be. Rod and Emu hosted their own TV channel, EBC1, with the help and hindrance of their cameraman (variety star Billy Dainty), their tea lady (actress Barbara New), and Emu’s naughty baby nephews (Denys Fisher Toys, £6.99). EBC1 presented well-observed spoofs of TV shows, including Grandstand of Sport, hard-hitting documentary The Searching Beak of Emu, historical drama The Emudin Line, and – on two memorable occasions – Doctor Emu.
In their first adventure, in 1976, Dr Emu lured the Deadly Dustbins to their seeming doom at the town dump – but now they are back! Emu and friend arrive in their red phone box TARDIS just in time to see a Deadly Dustbin wriggle to the surface and swallow its first human victim. The creatures then run amok in a town centre before Dr Emu cunningly lures them to a nearby canal, and tips them over a lifting bridge.
Yes, it sounds like nonsense, but the remarkable thing about this pastiche is that it is better-made, more stylish – and more scary – than any episode of the season of ‘proper’ Doctor Who being transmitted at the time.
The Return of the Deadly Dustbins is shot on film, with a wonderfully creative mixture of shots and angles. After a Dustbin eats a worker on the rubbish tip, we cut to a flock seagulls exploding into the sky. As the Dustbins advance over the canal bridge, there’s a moody, low sunburst from behind (a shot for which The Ambassadors of Death is much praised). There’s no dialogue, bar the Dustbins’ indistinct bleat of “RUB-BISH” and “DIS-POSE!”, and the soundtrack creates an unsettling, uncanny atmosphere. In this way, it evokes the same tone of bleak ‘rural horror’ as the film sequences in Doctor Who and the Silurians and Terror of the Zygons. The score uses, in part, the electronic music of Delia Derbyshire, and so channels the spirit of Doctor Who in a peculiarly primal way.
“It was all filmed in one day, as I recall,” reveals Peter Ridsdale Scott, producer of Emu’s Broadcasting Company. “And looking at it now, you can see the change of light through the day. That’s why the sunlight is very low in the final scenes.
“Working with Rod Hull was a real privilege,” continues Peter, who prior to EBC1 had written, directed and produced episodes of Play School, and would go on become Commissioning Editor for Independent Productions at BBC Manchester – giving the green light to, amongst many other shows, Red Dwarf. “Rod Hull’s act with Emu was stunning. Emu felt very much like a character entirely separate from Rod – it was down to that very clever way Rod could look in another direction and appear unaware of what Emu was doing. So very, very funny.
“The BBC poached Rod and Emu in 1976, and I was asked to help him develop this new series at the Manchester studios. Rod wrote everything, and thanks to his own background as a TV producer back in Australia, he knew exactly what he wanted, and so as long as I got him the right locations and creative staff, he could practically direct everything himself as well. We worked closely together that way, and with the film cameraman. But Rod instinctively knew what worked.
“The Deadly Dustbins episodes look so good because of Rod’s incredible attention to detail, right down to the graphics. We had a lot more freedom because we were in Manchester, and a very small crew worked very hard. There was no special effects budget for location work. It would have been nice to go for a cup of tea and leave the special effects to do the Dustbins, but that wasn’t possible. In fact, I’m inside one of the bins, dragging it along. That’s how we had to do it.
“The fact that it is appreciated today is testament to the hard work of that Manchester crew, and to Rod Hull’s genius,” concludes Peter.
But just how influential did The Return of the Deadly Dustbins prove to be? In the Doctor Who episode Rose, a malign plastic dustbin attacks Mickey Smith and swallows him whole. It would prove one of the most talked-about scenes from Doctor Who’s big return to TV in 2005. Was this a tribute to Dr Emu’s lid-flapping foe? We asked Rose writer Russell T Davies to comment…
“It’s funny,” says Davies. “I don’t remember seeing it, and it’s so memorable and beautifully directed, I’d have thought that would lodge. And I would definitely have been watching Emu – I always watched that sort of thing.
“But still, maybe I did see it, and maybe it made its mark. We can’t know how things sink in without us realising. They’re not memories or homages – they’re deeper than that, they become instincts… So I wonder!”
Alas, this was to be the final adventure for Dr Emu. Rod Hull was tempted back to ITV (where he would develop the anarchic Emu’s World and Emu’s All-Live Pink Windmill Show) in 1981; just as the Doctor crossed paths with a different kind of quarrelsome flightless bird from Australia.
Behind the scenes of Doctor Who in November 1977, the programme was in serious trouble. The six-part serial poised to go before the cameras, The Invasion of Time – in which the Doctor would return to Gallifrey to claim the presidency of the Time Lords – would prove to be the series most turbulent production to date. The script, a last-minute replacement, was almost impossibly late, with later episodes delivered to the director and creative departments scene-by-scene. The money was running out, and what was left was, thanks to a high inflation rate, diminishing in value by the day. Furthermore, strike action at the BBC meant that Doctor Who was about to be cast out of Television Centre altogether, and left to fend for itself in the wilds of Surrey.
With annual BBC pay negotiations taking place in the autumn, producer Graham Williams had been braced for strike action during the final months of production of the 1977 series. On 14 October, the Association of Broadcasting and Allied Staffs – the union which represented over half of the BBC’s 25,000 employees – voted to reject an offer of pay increases up to 15%. There was widespread unrest at the Corporation regarding the decline in BBC wages relative to those earned by production staff in the commercial sector. Moreover, there were concerns regarding predicted job losses in the wake of BBC plans to bring in new, lightweight video recording equipment. The first ABS-organised blackouts affected outside broadcasts, news and sport, and their most political move involved blacking-out the Queen’s Speech on Thursday 3 November. The Nine O’Clock News that same evening was replaced by the ‘Potter’s Wheel’ interlude film.
Soon, strike action also affected studio recording and transmission. Part Four of Image of the Fendahl was lucky to see broadcast as scheduled on the evening of Saturday 19 November. That night, BBC1 was blacked-out from halfway through transmission of the next programme, Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game. This wasn’t some arbitrary target, but the most-watched programme of the week, with an estimated 19.5 million viewers that night.
The Invasion of Time was able to hold on to one of its three-day studio sessions – from Sunday 6 November to Tuesday 8 November – which was primarily used for taping scenes on the story’s large Panopticon set, which was also repurposed for the open space where the TARDIS lands. This included the scene where Leela bids farewell to the Doctor, in favour of a life of romance on Gallifrey. Graham Williams was keen to keep news of Louise Jameson’s departure under wraps until the New Year, but news leaked directly from the set and into The Times on Monday 7 November.
For the rest of the production, the crew was forced out on location. The ABS strike was primarily over wages, but given that one of the secondary bones of contention was the use of lightweight video equipment, there is some irony to the fact that the same strike forced Doctor Who to complete the balance of scenes for The Invasion of Time using outside broadcast equipment on location.
Studio space at Television Centre was allocated to less adaptable productions. One such programme was Blake’s 7, the BBC’s new science fiction drama series aimed at a more adult audience than Doctor Who, which had begun filming in September. On Monday 21 November, the vast creaking interior of Blake’s spaceship, the Liberator, was raised up in the warm and welcoming interior of studio TC3. Meanwhile, Doctor Who was out in the cold – quite literally – as the interior of the TARDIS took the form of a disused hospital in Redhill, Surrey. Conditions on location were challenging to say the least. Shots were abandoned due to train noise and revving car engines in the hospital car park. In one scene in the Space Traffic Control Room on Gallifrey, the actors’ breath can be seen frosting.
Meanwhile, star Tom Baker was in the midst of renegotiating his contract for the coming year. This might explain the story on the front page of the Daily Express on Saturday 5 November.
“Actor Tom Baker is set to quit as TV’s Dr Who,” reported Christopher Jones. “‘I’ve had enough,’ [Baker] said yesterday. ‘I think I’ve done my bit.’ [He] plans to devote himself to serious acting.”
Perhaps Baker was indeed craving a return to the stage after several weeks recording on CSO backdrops for Underworld, or maybe this was mere sabre-rattling. The actor signed a new deal and a new contract – for the next 26-episode series of Doctor Who – on Friday 25 November. It was a great result for both series and star. After all, if Baker was looking to “devote himself to serious acting”, what could possibly be more serious than a search for the Key to Time?
For, despite Doctor Who’s current production difficulties, Graham Williams was already hip deep in planning the next series. The six stories of the 1978 season would have a linking theme, and in November 1977 he issued notes to prospective writers outlining his idea of the Doctor’s quest to find the six segments of the Key to Time. One of those writers, a newcomer to the series, was Douglas Adams. He had received his formal commission for Doctor Who in October, just a few weeks after a commission for a complete series of his radio comedy series, The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy. Through November 1977, Adams was weeping into his typewriter, struggling to complete both projects. He had no way of guessing how influential and well-loved his work on either series would prove to be.
“Space is big – really big,” observed Adams in his script for the second episode of Hitch-Hikers, recorded on Wednesday 23 November 1977. However, by this point the writer was painfully aware of the fact that, while Space may be vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, Time would forever be in painfully short supply.
With thanks to Richard Bignell, Guillaume Brocart, Russell T Davies, Graham Kibble-White, Jack Kibble-White, Ian Levine, Alistair McGowan, Paul Lang, Tom Lundie, Richard Molesworth, Jonathan Morris, Steven Murphy, Nicholas Pegg, Andrew Pixley, Jon Preddle, Paul Scoones, Peter Viner, Peter Ridsdale Scott, and Martin Wiggins.