The BBC Joins the Sci-fi Party
Until about 1953, fewer than ten percent of British households owned a television set. There were still regions of the British Isles that could get no signal. Though television broadcasting had begun in the thirties, it was suspended at the outbreak of World War II and did not resume until 1946. This was the great age of radio.
The BBC was already testing audience appetite for space travel stories by the early fifties. A radio series entitled The Lost Planet, scripted for children by the writer Angus MacVicar, was being aired on their Children’s Hour programme. McVicar, a native of Argyll, gave his story a unique Scottish flavour with a Scottish ‘back garden’ scientist – Dr McKinnon – in the mould of HG Wells’s Cavor. McKinnon builds a rocket ship for an expedition to Hesikos, an apparently dead planet that has wandered into our solar system. It turns out that Hesikos isn’t dead after all and supports underground an advanced humanoid society with telepathic abilities. With ‘good versus evil’ and ‘peace versus war’ themes similar to those of modern movies like Avatar, The Lost Planet serials featured villains who were human rather than alien, bent on exploiting Hesikos for their own selfish benefit.
At about the same time, the BBC was also exploring the possibility of a story for its adult listeners. In 1953, it ran the first series of the space opera Journey into Space, scripted by Charles Chilton, who had worked for the Corporation since 1932 as messenger boy, presenter and producer. Journey into Space, which became one of the most popular radio shows of all time, combined the story of an expedition to the Moon with an intriguing time travel element that had the intrepid explorers returning to prehistoric Earth. The first serial was followed by two more, in which the four-man crew went to Mars. The programmes ran until early 1956.
McVicar and Chilton later turned their scripts into novels. McVicar was already an accomplished writer of both crime fiction and adventure stories for boys and girls, and successfully hopped from radio to printed page and, ultimately, to TV. Chilton is remembered more for his radio work, including a successful western serial Riders of the Range, later turned into a comic strip for the British children’s comic The Eagle. This weekly publication, launched in 1950, existed in one form or another until the 1990s and itself popularised space opera in the shape of its enduring cosmic traveller – Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future. Charles Chilton had no hand in his creation.
The BBC did not ignore television as a medium for sci-fi. In 1949, they had broadcast an adaptation of Wells’s The Time Machine, and in 1951 a children’s serial entitled Stranger From Space. In the United Kingdom, the approaching coronation of Queen Elizabeth II sparked a dramatic increase in the sales of television sets and the Corporation was thus able to better gauge the response to TV fantasy. The next decade saw the appearance of several shows that proved popular, including the Quatermass series about alien monsters, a reprise of The Lost Planet, yet another children’s serial called Space School and finally, at the dawn of the sixties, ‘A’ For Andromeda. Andromeda was the creation of controversial astronomer Fred Hoyle, arguably the scientist who coined the term Big Bang.
The real international break for the BBC came in 1963. In late 1962, the newly-appointed head of Drama, Sidney Newman, was developing an idea for another children’s programme about a time-travelling alien with a ship that was “bigger on the inside.” He recruited Verity Lambert, an unknown producer working at ABC Television. Lambert liked the show. She made suggestions for significant changers and argued for a wider, family audience. Newman let her have her way, despite the reservations of more experienced producers asnd directors, and Dr Who was born.
The first episode of Dr Who, An Unearthly Child, went out on Saturday, November 23rd, 1963 and was largely eclipsed by the news of the assassination of President John F Kennedy the previous evening. The programme creators were concerned that the show might not survive. They need not have worried. The programme was repeated a week later before the broadcast of Episode Two and, with its electronic signature tune and frightening alien creations, the Daleks, almost immediately drew a cult following. Within a few years, the show had fans all over the world. At the beginning of 2014, we count no fewer than thirteen actors who have inhabited the body of the Doctor, including the late Peter Cushing in a film version.
Dr Who is now an international phenomenon.
[next – the final frontier?]