Saturday, November 23, 2013

The men who created Doctor Who

Fifty years of Doctor Who

Who would have thought it? It's survived budget deficiencies. It's survived ratings downturns. It's survived egotistical actors. It's survived TV executives without a clue. It's survived sixteen years in the wilderness. It's come all this way.

Many hands went into the creation of the series and others came up with the ideas that made it last so long, but there were three people who devised the basics in a meeting in March 1963 and ultimately are the show's creators. One is well known in connection with the series, another for his wider television work and the third has now sadly been forgotten.

C.E. Webber is by far the most forgotten. A BBC staff writer who wrote up the discussions into the series's first format guide, he ultimately captured the essence of what the series would be and sketched out the basics that would be returned to time and time again. He wrote what was intended to be the first ever story but it was ultimately not used and his material was instead used as the basis for the first transmitted episode though his co-authorship was not cedited onscreen. Much forgotten for a long time, in recent years fan historians have rediscovered his role. There are few photos of him available - the one here is cropped from a group shot where he's sitting next to Enid Bignold (Samantha Cameron's great-grandmother).

Donald Wilson spent 1963 changing jobs as the BBC Drama Department was heavily reorganised, going from the Head of the Script Department to the Head of Serials. He contributed ideas to the creation of the series and then served as what would later be described as the show's "Executive Producer" for its first two years, though he curtailed his input after his reservations about the Daleks were proved wrong. Otherwise he had a long career writing and producing television, with his greatest work being the 1967 adaptation of The Forsyte Saga.

Sydney Newman is by far the best known of the three. He spent much of his career putting people's backs up and doing things differently; with longstanding results such as The Wednesday Play or The Avengers, as well as Doctor Who. But he sometimes opposed what turned out to be big successes with both the Daleks and The Forsyte Saga making it to the screens in spite of him, not because of it. A brash Canadian who had shaken up drama first at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation then at the Associated British Corporation (the ITV weekend franchise for the Midlands and the North) before coming to the BBC at the end of 1962 and shaking things up with a strong determiation on realism and the masses instead of just adapting elite classics. In later years he returned to Canada and served as chairman of the National Film Board, where he continued to outrage others and had to have armed guards patrolling the headquarters during the October Crisis.

These three between them came up with the basic ideas for the series, both the character types that the show has returned to time and again, and the core philosophy of storytelling. Unfortunately there has never been a "Created by" credit on the series (and there wasn't an official system for designating particular personnel as a "series creator") but they are not forgotten.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The legacy of John F. Kennedy

Fifty years ago John F. Kennedy was assassinated. And for many it was much more than just a President who died that day.

In many ways the best thing that happened to Kennedy's reputation was Lee Harvey Oswald. * A lot of the problems that exploded in the 1960s came after Kennedy's death. It became possible to believe he would have evaded full involvement in Vietnam and driven through civil rights with less pain than Lyndon Johnson. The facts that Kennedy had already shown he was prepared to go to the brink against Communism and whilst he'd talked the talk on civil rights he'd also pandered to Southern segregationists instead of standing up to them, to the disappointment of many civil rights leaders, just get overlooked.

But beyond his substantial record, or lack thereof, Kennedy's death also came to symbolise the passing of an age when the Presidency was shrouded in mystery and magic. His successor was forced out by a popular uprising that rode the primaries - indeed the Secret Service warned Johnson not to attend the 1968 Democrat convention because it was too dangerous. Then Richard Nixon, the man beaten by Kennedy, brought the office into disrepute. Never again could a US President be looked upon like some deity or superhero. Instead he was a mortal, easy to distrust and mock.

Indeed one can almost neatly illustrate the changes with depictions of contemporary Presidents in superhero comics. Here's a panel from Action Comics #309, which, due to the time lag in publishing, went on sale just weeks after Kennedy's death:

(Superman has just entrusted his identity to the President in order to hide it from Lois Lane and Lana Lang!) Superman's speech now seems ironic but at the time it reflected the awe in which the office was held.

Here's a panel from Captain America #175, published in April 1974, as Cap has a showdown with the evil mastermind behind the Secret Empire, in none other than the Oval Office:

The art may tiptoe around showing the face but from the context there was no hiding who it was meant to be. Months before the final resignation it was possible to say "I knew it was you all along, Richard Nixon!"

But before November 22nd 1963 nobody would have depicted Kennedy as crooked or in the pocket of mobsters.

* Okay the inevitable "whodunit" question. The more I read on this, the more I think the evidence points to Oswald acting alone. Much of the evidence for a conspiracy hinges on dubious evidence, particularly a false seating plan of the limousine that makes the Single Bullet Theory look ludicrous. Yes there are areas where the Warren Commission and all the other enquiries were not as thorough as they could have been but every investigation and murder conviction has loose ends that a defence can build upon without making it so. The idea of a giant conspiracy involving hundreds of people that managed to hide itself from the world yet is known to all the conspiracy nuts just doesn't hold water. And Oliver Stone has a lot to answer for.


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