Since 1963, 11 performers have portrayed the time-traveling Doctor. With the exit of current lead Matt Smith (far right), actor Peter Capaldi will inherit the role.
It was 50 years ago last month that a U.K. television program originally aimed at children would first flicker onto TV screens and become not only a British institution but also a beloved favorite of audiences of all ages all around the globe.
Produced by the British Broadcast Corporation, “Doctor Who” first debuted on November 23, 1963, and today it is the world’s longest-running science-fiction-themed TV series.
The brainchild of the BBC’s head of drama, Canadian-born Sydney Newman, “Doctor Who” was originally envisioned as an educational program about an older, doctor-like figure who travels about with younger people exploring various civilizations and revisiting turning points in history with the use of a time machine.
To bring the concept to life, Newman (who also created the popular 1960s British spy series, “The Avengers”) enlisted a visionary young female producer, Verity Lambert, who approached respected character actor William Hartnell—well known for playing army sergeants and other authority roles—to play the lead part of the mysterious, yet benevolent, time-traveling figure known only as “the Doctor.”
Between 1973 and 1994, Target Books published an expansive line of “Doctor Who” tie-in novels.
In the series’ first story, “An Unearthly Child,” it is revealed that neither the Doctor, nor his accompanying granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford), hail from Earth. Cut off from their own planet, the pair wander through space and time in the TARDIS—an acronym for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. The craft resembled a blue British police box, but it was actually a time-traveling spacecraft.
Traveling along with the Doctor and Susan in these early, black-and-white episodes were her teachers, Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill). The intrepid travellers would find themselves coming into contact with such beings as cavemen and Aztec warriors, historical figures like explorer-merchant Marco Polo and various creatures, including the ant-like Zarbi and the moth-like Menoptra.
But of all the lifeforms they encountered, none were more dangerous than the maniacal Daleks and the cold, emotionless Cybermen.
Sporting a domed head with a metallic eye stalk and an armor-like shell with both a sucker-tipped arm and a protruding ray gun, the Daleks resembled—but were not—robots. Rather, they were a race of mutated creatures who used metal shells and weaponry to “exterminate” all other forms of life. Introduced a month after the program’s debut, the Daleks were an immediate and incredible hit with viewers and firmly secured the success of “Doctor Who” for years to come.
In the early to mid-1980s, Marvel Comics published a small number of “Doctor Who”comic books in the United States.
The Cybermen—a race of helmeted, steel-suited humanoid beings—were composed of both human and mechanical limbs and were on a quest to acquire humans to turn into cyborgs like themselves in order to fill the armies of their home planet, Mondas.
Later, it was revealed that the centuries-old Doctor was a “Time Lord” from a planet called Gallifrey who, when mortally injured, was able to transform or “regenerate” into a new, different-looking version of himself.
In 1966, when Hartnell became too ill to continue making the series, he was replaced by actor Patrick Troughton. Troughton’s relaxed and, at times, comedic portrayal of the Doctor was counterpoint to Hartnell’s serious, occasionally ill-tempered characterization.
To avoid typecasting, Troughton left the series in 1969, and the role was then filled by the dashing, velvet-jacket-and-cape sporting Jon Pertwee in 1970. These episodes were the first to be shot in color and seen widely by audiences in North America. Giving the character a James Bond–like flair, Pertwee’s Doctor had a plethora of gadgets and drove several specially designed vehicles.
Comet Miniatures released several “Doctor Who” model kits in the early 1990s, including these of a Dalek and actor Patrick Troughton.
Exiting the program in 1974, Pertwee would be replaced by tall, wide-eyed, curly haired Tom Baker. With his trademark fedora and incredibly long striped scarf, Baker’s incarnation of the Doctor is arguably still the most recognizable to audiences to this day.
Staying on for a record seven years, Baker hung up his scarf and hat in 1981, and for three years the role of the heroic Time Lord was filled by mild-mannered Peter Davison. In 1984, Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) assumed the part, and in 1987 the Doctor regenerated again into actor Sylvester McCoy.
Throughout the series, the intrepid Doctor, armed with only his trusty “sonic screwdriver,” had numerous co-travelers, or “companions,” who would assist him in saving people and civilizations from such threats as the Zygons, Sontarans, an evil Time Lord who called himself “The Master” and the Daleks’ creator, Davros.
A drop in ratings in the late 1980s led the BBC to cancel production of “Doctor Who” in 1989. With the exception of a 1996 American-British-Canadian-produced TV movie starring actor Paul McGann and a 1999 charity program starring “Mr. Bean” actor Rowan Atkinson, there were no further official “Doctor Who” TV adventures until 2005, when the property was relaunched by prolific writer and producer Russell T. Davies.
Starring Christopher Eccleston as a new, leather-jacket-wearing Doctor, the series was a continuation of previous adventures and featured several of the creatures that had appeared in the classic episodes, including the Autons—life-size mannequins animated by malevolent aliens—and an updated version of the Daleks.
These figures of Tom Baker’s Doctor and Cyberleader were rendered in the style of 1970s Mego dolls and released in 2011 by Bif Bang Pow!
Though the show’s reintroduction was a hit with audiences and critics alike, Eccleston left the series at the end of the first season and was replaced by the charismatic David Tennant, and later, Matt Smith. The series will see a new Doctor (acclaimed performer Peter Capaldi) when Smith leaves this season.
When it comes to merchandise, “Doctor Who” comes in second behind “Star Trek” in terms of the number of items spawned from a science-fiction television series. Thousands of items have been released throughout the decades, including books, magazines, action figures, posters, t-shirts, board games, key-rings, pins, belts, coffee mugs, costumes, pajamas, badges, slippers, fridge magnets, children’s rain boots, linens, calendars, drinking glasses, jewelry, model kits, coin banks, watches, cookie jars, alarm clocks, audio books, plush dolls, air fresheners, bubble-bath containers, Christmas tree ornaments, toy sonic screwdrivers, soundtrack albums and CDs (featuring the instantly recognizable electronic theme music written by composed by Ron Grainer and performed by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop), salt-and-pepper shakers, scarves, nightlights and even a tent that resembles the TARDIS.
As such, this is just a small glimpse at some of the “Doctor Who”–themed collectibles produced over the years. Much of the early merchandise—items produced during the 1960s and 1970s—was created for the British marketplace, but in the 1980s, “Doctor Who” collectibles began to be sold in North America, as well.
The recent adventures of “Doctor Who” spawned many collectibles, including this contemporary-styled wind-up Dalek toy released by Bluw in 2011.
The menacing Daleks were initially one the most popular elements of “Doctor Who,” and manufacturers were quick to cash in on “Dalekmania” by marketing various Dalek-themed merchandise in the mid-1960s. One of the earliest items to be produced, the “Dalek Dress Up Costume,” produced by Scorpion Automotives, Ltd., is now also the rarest.
Slated to be released for Christmas of 1964, only a very small number of the costumes, which featured a plastic dome with side lights and eyestalk, sucker arm, gun and a heavy, PVC skirt, managed to be released due to a fire at the company’s factory that destroyed the majority of the costumes and the components needed to manufacture new ones. It is estimated that only two or three of the costumes still exist today.
The following year, manufacturer Louis Marx and Co., Ltd., released several toys and games. One of the first of these was a 6-1/2-inch-tall, battery-operated Dalek with bump-and-go “Robot Action,” available in both silver and black versions. Extremely popular with kids, the toy would be reissued several times into the 1970s in such colors as red and yellow.
The company also produced a friction-drive version of the toy, a plastic model kit, a target game with toy gun and 1-inch-tall versions with ball-bearings in their bases to make them move, which they called “Rolykins.”
Rolykins were available in three colors: red, silver and black. The Louis Marx Dalek toys are among some of the most desirable of “Doctor Who” collectibles, with some items like the model kit (referred to as a “Construction Kit” on its packaging) commanding more than $1,000 nowadays, when found boxed and complete.
But the Louis Marx toys were just a fraction of the merchandise released during 1965. Other Dalek-themed collectibles included a soft, 12-inch-tall blue Dalek aimed for younger children that was produced by Selco; a blue and silver “Mechanical Dalek” with clockwork action (the toy’s head would turn from side to side while it moved) from Codeg; several beautifully illustrated 11-by-17-inch jigsaw puzzles with titles like “Daleks Attack” and “Daleks in Westminster,” released by Thomas Hope & Sankey Hudson, Ltd.,; a paint-by-numbers activity set titled “The Dr. Who Dalek Painting by Numbers” by Peter Pan Playthings, Ltd.,; the “Anti-Dalek Jet Immobiliser” toy guns from Lincoln International and a comic-book adaptation of the first Peter Cushing Dalek film, “Dr. Who and the Daleks” from Dell.
Louis Marx Co. was one of the first companies to cash in on “Dalekmania” with toys and games in 1965.
From Bell Toys came an “Astro Ray Dalek Gun,” a “Daleks Wonder Slate,” and two “Cutta-mastic Doctor Who and the Daleks” playsets, which required kids to cut out Daleks from sheets of polystyrene using a heated cutting tool and paint them. The paint-by-number and Cutta-mastic sets can fetch between $350 to $400, when found in unused condition.
Other “Doctor Who” memorabilia to hit stores in during the period included a paperback novel written by series screenwriter David Whitaker and published by Armada in 1965 and a series of hardcover books featuring comic-strip stories, games and pictures called “Annuals.”
First issued in 1965, the books, published by World Distributors, Ltd., would be released on a near-yearly basis for decades and would feature cover artwork or photos of whatever actor was then playing the Doctor. Early Annuals featuring painted covers of William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee can often fetch $60 to $100 each when found in mint or near mint condition, while later volumes featuring photo covers of Tom Baker, Peter Davidson, Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy can usually be found for under $10 apiece.
Come the early 1970s, “Doctor Who” fans could start reliving their favorite adventures by reading a line of tie-in novelizations published by Target Books. Much loved by fans, the books, which were based on scripts of the episodes, were important in that they allowed readers to revisit favorite storylines. Remember, this was before the advent of home video, and repeats of older episodes were uncommon.
They also provided an opportunity to discover stories that unfortunately no longer existed due to a number of episodes being lost or destroyed.
From 1973 to 1994, Target would publish 153 novels, with many of the titles being reprinted several times. As they were printed in large numbers, many of the books can still be found in excellent condition and bought for under $5 apiece.
In 1975, Palitoy Bradgate marketed a 6-1/2-inch-tall Talking Dalek figure in two versions: silver-and-blue and red-and-black. When a button on the Dalek’s domed head was pressed, a small battery-operated record player inside the toy would play one of four different phrases. The company released a talking figure of the Doctor’s robotic pet dog, K-9, as well. Boxed specimens of the toys in still-working condition can sell for $150 to $200 each.
This “Doctor Who Annual” contains stories and games and features a cover illustration of original star William Hartnell. It was published by World Distributors in 1965.
In 1977, popular toy manufacturer Mego Corporation—known for its bestselling lines of DC and Marvel superheroes, “Planet of the Apes” and “Star Trek” action figures—teamed up with U.K.–based Denys Fisher Toys to release a line of “Doctor Who” figures. Consisting of six figures—the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker; his companion, Leela (portrayed in the series by actress Louise Jameson); K-9; a malevolent Dalek; a Cyberman and a Giant Robot—the line was different from other Mego figures in that they were larger a size. Several of the figures stood at about 10 inches in height.
As with other Mego offerings, the figures were clothed in highly detailed fabric outfits and came with numerous accessories. For example, the Doctor came with his trademark hat, long scarf and sonic screwdriver and the K-9 and Dalek figures had wheels for friction-powered movement.
A TARDIS playset was also produced, which allowed figures to “disappear” and “reappear” via a spinning mechanism inside the toy.
Unfortunately for North American fans, the figures were only intended for the U.K. market (though later released in Italy by Harbert), which has made them highly desirable by collectors today.
Of the six figures, the Doctor is the easiest to locate and can be bought for about $100 in near-mint shape, while Leela and the Giant Robot are the most difficult to find and can sell for around $200 to $300 apiece in complete, boxed condition.
In the late 70s, “Doctor Who” became the subject of a weekly publication. Debuting in October 1979, “Doctor Who Weekly” featured contests, comic-strip stories and posters. Moving to a monthly schedule the following year, the magazine was retitled “Doctor Who Monthly” and began to showcase more detailed making-of articles and interviews with the show’s cast and crew.
In 1985, the publication would change its name to the currently used “Doctor Who Magazine.” Originally released by Marvel UK, it is now published by Panini Comics. One of the world’s longest-running publications, “Dr. Who Magazine” boasts 467 issues published to date. Many vintage issues can be readily picked up in used bookstore or online for $2 to $3 apiece.
U.K.-based model-railway manufacturer Dapol marketed numerous “Doctor Who” action figures and playsets between 1987 and 2001, including this Ice Warrior.
In the 1980s, U.K.–based model-railway manufacturer Dapol was granted a license by the BBC to produce “Doctor Who” action figures and playsets in time for the TV show’s 25th anniversary. Initial releases in the 3-3/4-inch-tall line, which debuted in 1987, included then-current Doctor, Sylvester McCoy; K-9; companion Melanie; a Cyberman and a Dalek, as well as a TARDIS playset for use with the figures. Subsequent offerings included Doctors in the image of Tom Baker (curiously missing his hat and scarf) and Jon Pertwee, Davros, the Master, an Ice Warrior, a Sea Devil and friction-powered Daleks in various colors.
Several of these figures would be packaged in gift sets, complete with a battery-operated model of the TARDIS.
Among the company’s final “Doctor Who” products were 4-inch statues of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor and an early version of a Cyberman, released in 2001. Though they are sometime criticized for being crudely made, the Dapol line of figures are still highly collectible, and some items like the 25th-anniversary playset can fetch up to $200 when found in mint condition.
Within the past decade, a plethora of “Doctor Who” toys and collectibles have been made available for fans. In 2003, U.K.–based Product Enterprises released a talking Tom Baker Doctor with K-9 figure set, packaged in TARDIS-styled cardboard box. The company also put out a battery-operated talking Cyberman figure in both silver and black version in 2006 and a set of miniature, talking movie-styled Daleks in 2007.
In 2004, Corgi Classics Ltd. began marketing several “Doctor Who” die-cast metal figurine and vehicle sets, including miniature 2-1/2-inch scale versions of Tom Baker’s Doctor, K-9, a Dalek, a Cyberman and Davros. Models of the Doctor’s car, Bessie, and the TARDIS were also produced. All seven were sold as a commemorative set and packaged in a metal film can.
One of the world’s longest-running publications, “Doctor Who Magazine” began in 1979 as a weekly before being released monthly. To date, there are 467 issues.
In 2005, toy company Character Options began producing 5-inch figures based on the new series, including those of Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, a Dalek, Auton and a new alien creature called the Slitheen. The company would also go on to release several 12-inch figures, including those of David Tennant and Matt Smith. It has also turned its attention to making figures and playsets based on the earlier incarnation of “Doctor Who.”
Most recently, Bif Bang Pow! has released a slew of “Doctor Who” collectibles, including 8-inch-tall Mego-styled figures, a TARDIS playset with K-9 figurine, bobble-head statues, drinking glasses and coffee mugs. Underground Toys has put out numerous talking plush toys, various sonic screwdrivers with light-and-sound action, a Dalek alarm clock and a line of 2-inch-tall mini figurines.
After 50 years, “Doctor Who” continues to entertain and fascinate audiences, both young and old alike. The series has spawned such spinoff programs as “The Sarah Jane Adventures” and “Torchwood,” It has grown to become a pop-culture phenomenon beloved on both sides of the Atlantic. If its present level of popularity is any indication, it’s safe to say that “Doctor Who” will be taking fans on new adventures through time and space for many more years to come.
James Burrell writes about film, pop culture and collectibles for a variety of publications and online sites, including Rue Morgue and Canuxploitation! A life-long collector of vintage science-fiction, fantasy and monster-themed toys and movie memorabilia, he resides in Toronto, Canada.
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