The creators of Doctor Who were a scandal

These days, Doctor Who is approaching its 50th anniversary as one of the most successful television shows of all time. But originally? Doctor Who was a small show that the BBC 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 entrenched BBC culture.

At the Gallifrey One convention in Los Angeles, we were thrilled to hear from Waris Hussein, who directed the very first Doctor Who episode, about how an East Indian teamed up with a Canadian and a young woman to revolutionize television science fiction.

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Hussein took part in a panel at Gallifrey about "Doctor Who in the Sixties," alongside stars William Russell (Ian) and Maureen O'Brien (Vicki). And even though we kind of knew that Doctor Who was an upstart program that many people within the BBC were opposed to, we didn't realize quite how much the odds were against this show.

Hussein talked a lot on the panel about the ways the BBC tried to starve the show of resources — he wanted to do all sorts of ambitious tracking shots, but he was stuck with cameras bigger than the people operating them. All of the camera operators wound up with sore backs at the end of the shoot. And they were trapped in Studio D at Lime Grove, an ancient studio that was the size of a shoebox, where they were trying to accomplish ambitious shots like having people run into a phone booth and emerge inside a giant control room. William Russell talked about how his heart sank a little when he first heard they were going to be crammed into Studio D.

Talking to me after the panel, Hussein described what they had to deal with:

A ramshackle studio, Studio D at Lime Grove, cameras that were taller than the camera men who were shoving them around, cables everywhere, [and we had to] continue shooting with four cameras, with no breaks. No slick camerawork here. Sets that were just about put together with the money we had. So you had a hexagonal set for the TARDIS interior, made up of four flats and a hexagonal [control] panel with, I think two buttons and a few lights blinking. And that was what we had to work with.

Not only was Doctor Who science fiction, which the old guard at the BBC were highly suspicious of, but it was being created by the wrong sort of people — its originator, Sydney Newman, was a newly hired executive, originally from Canada. And Newman brought in a young production assistant, Verity Lambert, to be the show's first producer. And a junior director, Hussein himself, took on the first four episodes. For the very old-fashioned, homogenized BBC, these people were the wrong sort to be creating a television show, even if Doctor Who had been something they approved of.

The creators of Doctor Who were a scandal

Hussein told me, "Women producers in drama did not exist. So [Doctor Who was] already innovative in concept, and [also in] the person who's going to deal with it."

Also, at the panel, Hussein and William Russell 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 women working outside the home. And he didn't know what to make of Hussein, "an East Indian who spoke posh English," said Hussein. Thus, Hartnell took a lot of convincing that an Asian man and a young woman were going to be up to their jobs. The first lunch Hussein and Lambert had with Hartnell, 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, at which it became clear that the actor wanted them to prove their qualifications.

But over time, said Hussein, Hartnell and he developed a tremendous mutual respect, and they all became a great team. "He transformed through the period of time we knew each other," as Hussein puts it. "And it ended up with mutual respect. Now, that's progression. And I think that's an important progression. All his prejudices fell away." Hussein always felt like the thing to do with prejudice, in these situations was "not to fight it, but to teach them. I didn't teach him anything explicitly, it was implicit."

When I caught up with Hussein after the panel, he explained that not surprisingly, the old guard at the BBC had very "subtle" ways of expressing their distrust of outsiders and interlopers like himself and Lambert. "The British don't ever express themselves at any specific ways," says Hussein. The old-school Brits were "strait-laced and stiff upper lip," and you felt like you were being piped aboard a Naval vessel just entering one of these hidebound institutions.

Not only that, but Doctor Who was made outside the Children's Department at the BBC — instead, it was made by the new Serials division. The actual Children's Department was doing fairly simple programs like Muffin the Mule (see video), which was worlds away from Doctor Who — and they despised the time traveler. Said Hussein:

There was this dichotomy between Drama and the Children's Department. The ladies who ran the Children's Department were well into their fifties and sixties, and they were rather like those people in The Kiling of Sister George. They were very worried about Verity Lambert, who came in looking absolutely marvelous. She was young, attractive, well-educated — she'd been to all the right schools, she'd been to Roedean, for God's sake, and spoke with a cultured accent. I remember standing in the bar one night, and hearing this gossip [from the Children's Department women]: "We all know how she got there, and it wasn't by walking."

When Hussein heard them basically accusing Lambert of sleeping her way into the job, he almost spoke up, but decided to keep quiet lest he, too, become a target.

Given that everybody involved with Doctor Who was a young outsider, the BBC foisted them with an executive producer, Mervyn Pinfield. "Even his name was Dickensian," said Hussein. And he represented "traditional drama in the old-fashioned sense." Pinfield saw Hussein as in need of guidance through the obstacles of life, while Hussein saw himself as a young, radical, ambitious director struggling to get the job done with ancient equipment. Pinfield's favorite phrase was always, "May I have a word?" before he proceeded to tell Hussein how to do his job in a very plummy, delicate voice.

And when the show came to shoot its first pilot, it was basically a disaster — nothing went right technically, and also the performances were pretty terrible. William Hartnell's Doctor was intensely unpleasant and kind of scary, and his granddaughter Susan was cold and exaggeratedly alien. (You can see a comparison between the pilot and the first aired episode at left.) 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 thing.

The creators of Doctor Who were a scandal

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 second version, they deliberately softened the character of the Doctor. Said Hussein, "If you were to ask me aesthetically, would I prefer to keep the other side, the edgy one? I would have said yes. But I think Sydney [Newman] rethought. 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's other directing job for Doctor Who was "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.

I was curious whether, as an Asian director, he'd been worried about depicting Asian characters in a stereotypical or exoticised fashion in this story. To which Hussein responded:

Don't forget, in those days, we were very un-PC. Most of the actors were not Chinese. There was only one girl, Zienia Merton, who played Ping-Cho. The rest were all [white]. Today, there'd be riots in the streets. In those days, even I was reduced to — when I was doing the Kipling series — casting Caucasians as East Indians, because there weren't any East Indian actors. You had to cast whoever you could find. You used to darken up their skins, put on black wigs, and hope for the best. [Laughs].

To Hussein, 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.