The Return of Professor Who

Since the new series of Doctor Who is to start this evening on BBC1, I thought I’d mark the occasion by posting this old blog item again:


As a Professor of Astrophysics I am often asked “Why on Earth did you take up such a crazy subject?”

I guess many astronomers, physicists and other scientists have to answer this sort of question. For many of them there is probably a romantic reason, such as seeing the rings of Saturn or the majesty of the Milky Way on a dark night. Others will probably have been inspired by TV documentary series such as The Sky at Night, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos or even Horizon which, believe it or not, actually used to be quite good but which is nowadays uniformly dire. Or it could have been something a bit more mundane but no less stimulating such as a very good science teacher at school.

When I’m asked this question I’d love to be able to put my hand on my heart and give an answer of that sort but the truth is really quite a long way from those possibilities. The thing that probably did more than anything else to get me interested in science was a Science Fiction TV series or rather not exactly the series but the opening titles.

The first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast in the year of my birth, so I don’t remember it at all, but I do remember the astonishing effect the credits had on my imagination when I saw later episodes as a small child. Here is the  opening title sequence as it appeared in the very first series featuring William Hartnell as the first Doctor.

To a younger audience it probably all seems quite tame, but I think there’s a haunting, unearthly beauty to the shapes conjured up by Bernard Lodge. Having virtually no budget for graphics, he experimented in a darkened studio with an old-fashioned TV camera and a piece of black card with Doctor Who written on it in white. He created the spooky kaleidoscopic patterns you see by simply pointing the camera so it could see into its own monitor, thus producing a sort of electronic hall of mirrors.

What is so fascinating to me is how a relatively simple underlying concept could produce a rich assortment of patterns, particularly how they seem to take on an almost organic aspect as they merge and transform. I’ve continued to be struck by the idea that complexity could be produced by relatively simple natural laws which is one of the essential features of astrophysics and cosmology. As a practical demonstration of the universality of physics this sequence takes some beating.

As well as these strange and wonderful images, the titles also featured a pioneering piece of electronic music. Officially the composer was Ron Grainer, but he wasn’t very interested in the commission and simply scribbled the theme down and left it to the BBC to turn it into something useable. In stepped the wonderful Delia Derbyshire, unsung heroine of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop who, with only the crudest electronic equipment available, turned it into a little masterpiece. Ethereal yet propulsive, the original theme from Doctor Who is definitely one of my absolute favourite pieces of music and I’m glad to see that Delia Derbyshire is now receiving the acclaim she deserves from serious music critics.

It’s ironic that I’ve now moved to Cardiff where new programmes of Doctor Who and its spin-off, the anagrammatic Torchwood, are made. One of the great things about the early episodes of Doctor Who was that the technology simply didn’t exist to do very good special effects. The scripts were consequently very careful to let the viewers’ imagination do all the work. That’s what made it so good. I’m pleased that the more recent incarnations of this show also don’t go overboard on the visuals. Perhaps thats a conscious attempt to appeal to people who saw the old ones as well as those too young to have done so. It’s just a pity the modern opening title music is so bad…

Anyway, I still love Doctor Who after all these years. It must sound daft to say that it inspired me to take up astrophysics, but it’s truer than any other explanation I can think of. Of course the career path is slightly different from a Timelord, but only slightly.

At any rate I think The Doctor is overdue for promotion. How about Professor Who?

14 Responses to “The Return of Professor Who”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I remember Hartnell’s Dr Who as he carried on until late 1966 by which time I was 9. The opening titles were definitely amazing. I also have happy memories of The Time Tunnel and Object Z Returns.

    After Bronowski’s Ascent Of Man I’m afraid that I found Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series to be thin fare. There were far too many clips of Sagan gazing into the skies wearing a rapt expression while the camera circled him slowly. But his scientific competence is not in dispute, of course.

  2. I have to admit it was Dr Who for me too. It was the suggestion there existed a whole Universe of weird stuff out there. It could be big, scary and powerful, but if you could understand it you could discover and do wonderful things.

  3. Michael Kenyon Says:

    It should be added that Dick Mills helped out on the Doctor Who theme, he is given a credit.

    I actually find Delia Derbyshire to be a little over exposed, of course her work on the theme tune is astonishing but I have a lot of other stuff she did and it’s good but not remarkable. She tends to be popular with people who think she ‘invented Techno’.

    For me the then man who needs a lot more exposure is Brian Hodgson,, but I suppose to some he isn’t as interesting as Delia and he is still alive. I love him even more because he told a very close associate of mine that the only good thing about the new series/remake was the Tardis dematerialisation sound, and he created that!

    ps I think Ace quite often referred to Mccoy’s Doctor as ‘Professor’.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Give him a peerage… Lord Who?

  5. Ditto – but it was Tom Baker as my Doctor.

    On my recent sabbatical in the UK, we made a pilgrimage to the Torchwood entrance. There is an international memorial to Ianto there – Very cool.

  6. Dave Carter Says:

    Sorry Peter, thats not the opening titles as shown in 1963, and I am old enough to remember it. Two and a half minutes for opening titles? I am pretty sure that the opening titles were quite short and led into a sequence of the doctor’s granddaughter listening to pop music on the radio and generally behaving strangely. But it is nearly 50 years ago so I may be wrong. But the youtube clip dates from 2006 as it says at the end.

    William Hartnell in my view was never surpassed as the Doctor, though Tom Baker came close.

    The first thing which got me interested in science though was A for Andromeda.

  7. I like the idea of promotion. But what kind of Doctor is he? If a medical doctor, he could now become consultant., If an academic one, he seems to have a visiting position only, and the next step would be lecturer (B), probably at Cardiff, Is he RAE-material? The impact seems good enough, but how is the research? As an alien, getting a UK work permit may not be trivial.

  8. John Peacock Says:

    Peter, thanks for the nostalgia-fest. Indeed the 1960s music and visuals had an other-worldly quality that the modern incarnations don’t approach, despite all the electronic resources at their disposal. Less was definitely more.

    One of the few benefits of age is at least I can boast of remembering the first episode of Dr Who. In fact, I saw it twice: as I recall, the BBC repeated episode one a week later as a preamble to episode two. They must have realised they were on to something special, right from the start (mind you, the episodes were only 25 minutes, so even a double bill was over much too quickly).

    Dr Who taught me an important lesson from an early age: all change is for the worse. I hated the regeneration from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton, who I felt played the part for laughs rather than the deep seriousness that seemed appropriate for such a cosmic theme. This unsatisfactory trend worstened with the arrival of the appalling Jon Pertwee in 1970, and within a year (at age 14) I had given up on what at one point had seemed the programme worth watching more than all the rest of the BBC’s output combined.
    From the clips I’ve seen, subsequent Doctors retreated a little from the Pertweean nadir, but none came close to the original. I couldn’t (and still can’t) understand how the BBC could let Dr Who be destroyed in this way – right at the high-water mark of the Apollo landings too.

    And did any of this turn me into a professional astronomer? No. I went to university to study chemistry because I had an inspirational chemistry teacher – and teachers must surely be the main influence on people’s careers in science. I changed to physics because it was much easier than chemistry, and I turned to astronomy because all the PhD topics on offer in other areas of physics seemed boring. So more a process of elimination than anything else. Reminds me of the great Mae West quote: “when I’m faced with a choice between two evils, I always pick the evil I haven’t tried yet”.

    • telescoper Says:

      Interesting. The teacher that inspired me most at School was also a chemist; he had a PhD in Organic Chemistry, in fact. I interested in chemistry and did well in it but also liked physics, so I was naturally drawn to the Natural Sciences Tripos wherein I could pursue both subjects for a year and decide what to do after Part 1A. As it happens I chose to specialise in Physics despite the fact that my Chemistry mark in 1A was higher than my Physics mark. I never even contemplated doing astronomy until late in my final year – my third-year project was actually on lasers – and I knew very little astronomy when I applied to places for PhDs, and ended up doing cosmology because I liked the project that was being offered at Sussex.

      In other words I just blundered about and got lucky. I think it’s all a lot harder for the current generation of students. Many seem to feel pressure to decide on a specific topic long before they’re ready to really make an informed choice.

  9. One last piece of trivia, but the first episode was delayed a day because of the Kennedy assassination. Although, through the time-traveling error of not being born for another 6 years, I have no memory of this (although, having been in the US recently, the number of docos on the assassination on the History Channel makes me feel like I was there).

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Are they still at it? The more interesting question than who pulled the trigger – which is fairly obvious – is why; and who if anybody put him up to it?

  10. […] As a matter of fact I was only six on 20th July 1969 and I don’t remember seeing anything to do with Apollo 11 and the Moon landings at the time. I do recall bits and pieces of later Apollo missions but, unlike many colleagues of roughly my age who went into astronomy astrophysics or space science, I can’t really say that it was these events that inspired me to become a scientist. What did was something quite different! […]

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