Doctor Who at 50

Today is the official 50th birthday celebration of Doctor Who and, since The Doctor and myself are of the same vintage, I thought I’d repeat an old post about the show. I just listened to the original theme music again before posting this and I still think it sounds amazingly fresh.

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As a Professor of Astrophysics I am often asked “Why on Earth did you decide to make a career out of 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 until earlier this year I used to live  in Cardiff, where the newer episodes 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 that’s 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?

3 Responses to “Doctor Who at 50”

  1. Hi Dr ITD,
    Fascinating post…I always wondered if part of the appeal of astro-nomy/physics was that you could look, but not touch. And (until the arrival of x-ray telescopes etc) people could admire your observations without being able to add anything to them…

  2. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    Well, I’m very glad to see that you have outed yourself on this, Peter: let me happily join you in acknowledging the impact Doctor Who had on my career choice.

    When still at Exeter, I often gave lectures to potential new undergraduates and included a series of “my inspiration” pictures at the beginning. These included the Apollo 11 astronauts, Isaac Asimov, and James Burke, but always culminated in a montage of all of the Doctors (although I’m afraid I held no truck with the now-canonical integration of Paul McGann into the list).

    I then played a video clip sequence of Christopher Ecclestone talking to Rose about how he, as the Doctor, could feel the Earth turning beneath his feet. It was nice to see this used in one of the many 50th anniversary tribute sequences last weekend.

    While there’s no doubt that Tom Baker was “my” Doctor, I grew up with Jon Pertwee too, so always had a soft spot for him. I had a vaguely close call with the latter too, in a sense.

    That happened when my father managed to get an old school friend of his to come to open the summer fete at my very small primary school in West Sussex in about 1970 or so.

    Unfortunately, his friend was not Jon Pertwee, but Bill Pertwee, distant cousin of Jon, and the (admittedly also rather well known) ARP warden in Dad’s Army.

    I have a picture somewhere of me with Bill, looking suitably disappointed 🙂

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