Exactly 40 years ago tonight, the BBC launched a new children's programme upon an unsuspecting audience. Almost nobody noticed. The day before, and far far more important on a global scale, President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. The world was still in shock, and the media were still coming to terms with the new demands of instant reactive news gathering. After the football had finished (Sheffield Wednesday thrashed Wolves five nil that afternoon) the BBC inserted an extra news bulletin featuring all the very latest from America. And then at 5:25pm, ten minutes later than scheduled, that now-familiar swirly theme tune was heard for the very first time.
Doctor Who was conceived by the BBC's head of Drama, Sidney Newman. He wanted a family drama that would appeal especially to an early teenage audience, filling that awkward pre-Pop Idol slot (well, Juke Box Jury actually). Well-known film actor William Hartnell was cast in the title role, with the plan that his new science fiction serial would run every week of the year. Carole Ann Ford, as granddaughter Susan, was given a special Vidal Sassoon haircut to make her appear particularly unworldy, or very dated depending on your temporal viewpoint. A pilot episode was made, and later remade, and even then the magic sparkled.
Episode 1 begins in fogbound East London, with Coal Hill School teachers Ian (science) and Barbara (history) concerned for the welfare of one of their brightest students. And rightly so, because when they follow her home they discover that home is a police box in a junkyard, that she lives with her alien grandfather, and that the aforementioned police box is larger on the outside than the inside. Grandfather is determined that it's time for Susan to leave London, locks the Tardis door and whisks her and her teachers off into time and space. First stop the Stone Age, where the Doctor discovers fire by lighting his pipe with a box of Bryant & Mays. An epic journey has begun.
4½ million people watched that first episode, figures somewhat reduced by the Kennedy assassination and a nationwide power cut. The BBC repeated it again the following week, just before episode 2, and this time 6 million viewers tuned in. But it was the Doctor's next adventure, on the 'dead' planet of the Daleks, that rocketed the series to success. Now 10 million viewers were glued to their sofas, either in front or behind, as the Daleks began their conquest of the nation's hearts, if not the galaxy.
Forty years on Doctor Who is still very much alive for a show they killed off 14 years ago, but also still very easily ignored. The BBC have managed not to screen one Doctor Who programme this weekend, bar a brief history-slot on Blue Peter and a weak Weakest Link spoof on Children In Need last Friday. We're promised an anniversary documentary at Christmas, but that'll probably be screened when you're out somewhere being festive. UK Gold have tried rather harder with an entire weekend of old adventures, but that's a fat lot of good for those of us who can't recieve extra-terrestrial transmissions. At least we have the new adventures to look forward to in 2005. I'd almost given up hope of ever seeing any more home-grown science fiction on UK television. It's about time.