For the last six decades, Doctor Who has been a staple of British Television. A clever combination of intriguing story-telling, scary moments and a time machine that can take you anywhere, piloted by an eccentric 2000 year old alien with two hearts, Doctor Who is undoubtedly the most flexible format ever screened. It would later be established that the Doctor was a Time Lord from Gallifrey, who could change appearance and even sex. Whilst not immortal, The Doctor has enjoyed a long life, and despite a period in the wilderness in the nineties, the show is now an integral part of the BBC’s schedule once more.
ITV pays “homage”
Inevitably, where there’s a hit TV show, there is a flattering homage. ITV has attempted to find a rival to the good Doctor on numerous occasions down the decades, in both children’s TV and prime time. Sometimes consciously basing a series around a version of the iconic character, or by simply transmitting a “spoiler” series of the same (or similar) genre, directly opposite Doctor Who in the schedule: In the classic era, Emerald Soup greeted Who‘s arrival in 1963 (more about that shortly). In 1975 Space 1999 was ITV’s first knowing attempt to topple Tom Baker. Despite being fully networked, however, the attempt failed because Space 1999 wasn’t shown at the same time by each region.
In 1980 ITV got its act together. Glossy American import Buck Rogers In The 25th Century and cute robot comedy Metal Mickey eventually succeeded in forcing Doctor Who (newly glossy-looking and about to eschew cute robot sidekick K9) from its traditional Saturday evening home. The following autumn Game For A Laugh did for The Generation Game and from 1982, a new era of Doctor Who sought the safer plains of weekday early evenings. The phenomenally popular action series The A Team and perennial favourite Robin Of Sherwood bested Who in the ratings upon its return to Saturdays in early 1985, forcing the BBC to put the show on hiatus, from which it never really fully recovered, before its cancellation in 1989.
In the Nu-Who era, and following the fall and submission of Celebrity Wrestling, which garnered just over a million viewers against the latter episodes of the Christopher Eccleston era, ITV marked David Tennant’s first series with Primeval (essentially Invasion Of The Dinosaurs with a huge FX budget!) in 2006. ITV’s obsession with finding a credible rival to Doctor Who has resulted in some fascinating and creative television:
Emerald Soup (1963)
Whether a coincidence or “spoiler” by design, though one wonders if such tactics existed back in 1963, some ITV regions began screening science fiction adventure serial Emerald Soup two whole weeks before the BBC launched Doctor Who. Emerald Soup was an environmentally-conscious story about the testing of radiation in a rural community. Perhaps the best known member of the cast was Annette Andre (later familiar to viewers of 1969’s Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) as Marty’s ostensible widow, Jeannie Hopkirk. Doctor Who‘s success, cemented by the emergence of the Daleks, just as Emerald Soup ended its run, really took ITV by surprise.
Made by LWT and shown on Sundays for thirteen weeks during the summer of 1971, Jamie is essentially Doctor Who meets Mr Benn: Garry Miller played lucky Jamie Dodger (see what they did there?), who encounters enigmatic shopkeeper Mr Zed (Aubrey Morris), the owner of a bric-a-brac and curiosity shop, in which Jamie finds a carpet with “special magical properties” that allows him to “fly through time”. Like the Hartnell era of Who, this series played heavily to a historical/educational bent.
Jamie and Mr Zed experience, first-hand, major historical events such as The Battle of Trafalgar, The Great Fire of London and the Battle of Hastings; along the way they meet Robert the Bruce, Guy Fawkes and Nelson, among many others.
Ace Of Wands/Shadows/Mr Stabs (1970-2, 1975, 1984)
Based around the exploits of a charismatic magician, Tarot (Michael MacKenzie, later seen in The Omega Factor and Blake’s 7), the series saw Judy Loe and Tony “Glitz” Selby cast as Tarot’s companions. Later, Tarot came into conflict with Mr Stabs, essentially “The Master” to Tarot’s “Doctor”. Stabs was originally played by Russell Hunter in Ace Of Wands and subsequently appeared in the children’s anthology series Shadows, specifically the 1975 episode Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes. Nearly a decade later, Dramarama revived the character in the memorable 1984 episode Mr Stabs. David Jason assumed the title role, delivering a glorious “against type” performance, in a prequel to the character’s earlier appearances. The late David Rappaport (Time Bandits, Jigsaw, The Saturday Show) was his sidekick Luko.
The Tomorrow People (1973-9, 1992-5)
Oft-quoted as ITV’s ‘answer’ to Doctor Who. Creator Roger Price hadn’t really intended the series to be such an obvious rival and used it more as an expression of his thoughts and beliefs. Originally aired from 1973-1979, the “tomorrow people” referred to themselves as “Homo Superior” and to others as “saps” (homo sapiens). David Bowie included the term “Homo Superior” in his song Oh You Pretty Things, possibly influenced by a conversation he had with Roger Price, then outlining his ideas for the series whilst working at Granada Studios where Bowie was performing.
The group of adolescents were led by John (Nicholas Young), an inventor who operated from an abandoned Underground station known as The Lab. The other “tomorrow people” were Carol (Sammie Winmill), Kenny (Stephen Salman), and Stephen (Peter Vaughan Clarke). Their special powers were manifest in telekinesis, telepathy and “jaunting”, their word for instant teleportation. Completing the team was the computer, TIM, whose artificial intelligence often proved vital.
The series has several Doctor Who connections – most notably an appearance by Peter Davison in a grey Harpo Marx wig. The Tomorrow People‘s unsettling theme tune was composed by Who veteran Dudley Simpson, while director Paul Bernard had worked on both series and saw Carol as a similar character to Who‘s Jo Grant. The series was revived in 1992 with Kristian Schmid, of Neighbours and Going Live fame, and continued until 1995. It reappeared a third time in 2013 but not on ITV and wasn’t well received.
Sapphire And Steel (1979-82)
Created by Peter J Hammond, Sapphire And Steel ran for four series. Produced initially by ATV, it continued after the Midlands franchise was won by Central. Joanna Lumley, fresh from The New Avengers, was Sapphire and David McCallum, post The Man From UNCLE and a recent remake of The Invisible Man, played Steel. Little is revealed about the eponymous would-be heroes, other than they are some kind of agents protecting the space-time continuum.
David Collings, between appearances in Doctor Who serials The Sun Makers and Mawdryn Undead, played Silver, whose powers allow him to melt elements in his bare hands. The latter two serials, which formed the entirety of series 3 and 4, are most like Who: an industrialist celebrates 50 years of his company by having a 1930s dinner party at a country mansion, evoking far more than he bargained. It was penned by two Who alumni Don Houghton (Inferno) and Anthony Read (script editor for the latter part Season 15 and the whole of Season 16.) The final investigation was set in an abandoned diner, where it appears time has somehow stopped.
Erasmus Microman (1988-89)
Ken Campbell, the man who gave us “Sylvester McCoy – the human bomb!” played the eponymous Erasmus Microman. To say the character (and indeed the actor) was a man very much after the Doctor’s hearts would be an understatement. Ken was in the running for the 7th incarnation of the Doctor but his protege Sylvester got the part. Script Editor Andrew Cartmel felt Campbell was “too dark” a choice for a family show. A year later he became Erasmus Microman, who claims to be 1005 years old and lives inside your television set. Ken Campbell’s oddball eccentric scientist guides two bored children through the history of scientific discovery and invention, simultaneously giving some insight as to how he might have played the Doctor. In my book, along with Rik Mayall, Campbell is one of the greatest “should’ve been” Doctors.
Time Riders (1991)
Not to be confused with the similarly named novel by Anthony Horowitz, this midweek series featured motocycle-loving scientist Dr B.B. Miller, played by Hayden Gwynne (then famous for her role as Alex Pates in the Channel 4 newsroom comedy Drop The Dead Donkey and later to appear as a museum curator in Sherlock), who creates a time machine on two wheels. Picking up street urchin Ben Hardy in Victorian times, the two travel back to the English Civil War, where they narrowly escape the clutches of mad scientists only to end up meeting the malevolent Witchfinder General. From a 2019 viewpoint, this is precient stuff. One can easily imagine Gwynne as a potential first female Doctor if Who had gone in that direction after Sylvester McCoy’s time, instead of the limbo that followed its cancellation.
A team of vampire hunters headed by descendant of Van Helsing Luke Rutherford (Christian Cooke) tackle strange phenomena and evil creatures on the streets. Created, in part, as a vehicle for Philip Glenister, whose star was very much in the ascendency after five successful years playing rogue copper Gene Hunt in Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes. Glenister plays American Rupert Galvin, Luke’s godfather. Holliday Grainger plays Ruby, Luke’s tenacious best friend, determined to be part of the action. A Gothic mix of Doctor Who and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which despite guests including Mackenzie Crook, Kevin McNally and Richard Wilson, was somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Demons was originally scheduled to run opposite (what ITV bosses had assumed would be) David Tennant’s fourth series of Doctor Who in the spring of 2009, however, once he announced his departure from the role and that there would only be Who specials rather than a full-blown series, ITV moved Demons to early January. It began on January 3rd 2009; coincidentally, the same day BBC1 ran a special Doctor Who Confidential announcing Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor.
Honourable mention: The Come-Uppance Of Captain Katt (1986)
The notorious Dramarama, The Come-Uppance Of Captain Katt, was penned by ex-Who writer and director Peter Grimwade. Anyone familiar with the behind-the-scenes goings on during the John Nathan-Turner era of Doctor Who will note a few familiar plot points. Alfred Marks plays the eponymous Captain Katt – his alter ego Ludo is a larger than life actor with a loud booming voice. Simon Rouse (who appeared in Doctor Who serial Kinda) plays a frustrated producer who wants to quit, only to be told he can’t as the TV company want another thirteen episodes. Tom Baker’s attitude to the writers and his faltering relationship with Lalla Ward are also parodied. The two stars of Captain Katt at one point are asked “not to keep looking away from each other”, mirroring the difficulties of recording State Of Decay. An actress playing the loveable Mugwump (a dog-like creature who gets more love and fan mail than the star) discovers she is to be written out of the show…. A throwaway line mentions a “Sychoraxian swamp” – possibly the origin of the name of the antagonists in The Christmas Invasion? There is even a press event for the launch of Katt’s waxwork dummy…
See the many BBC television shows influenced by Doctor Who over on page two
BBC projects influenced by Doctor Who
Over the years, the BBC have attempted to transplant the magic of Doctor Who into other projects, most prominently Doomwatch, Survivors and Blake’s 7, which ran concurrently with the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker eras. Several BBC programmes appear to share the Time Lord’s DNA, lets examine them in more detail:
Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-67)
Essentially a monochrome response to The Avengers, this was the first major series to be overseen by Verity Lambert following her departure from Doctor Who. The impossibly suave Gerald Harper plays Edwardian adventurer Adam Adamant – “so brave but oh so vulnerable” – a man literally frozen in time by his arch-nemesis “The Face” (Peter Duckrow in a particularly tight leather mask). Defrosted in Swinging London, Adamant is brought up-to date by Georgina Jones (Juliet Harmer). Adam’s Edwardian clothes, whilst taking a nod from the first Doctor William Hartnell, could be an influence on the original outfit sported by the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee. Once British TV turned up the colour, however, Adam Adamant was largely forgotten. Without the budget for producing the series on colour film – which was embraced by the production team behind The Avengers. It was Steed and Mrs Peel, rather than Adam Adamant, that were ensured TV immortality.
The Omega Factor (1979)
Imagine The X-Files but set in Edinburgh in the late 70s. Louise Jameson left Leela behind for her role as Anne Reynolds who works for Department 7 together with Tom Crane, played by the late James Hazeldine (who went on to spend several years as a fireman in London’s Burning). In The Omega Factor, they investigate strange phenomena, occult happenings and paranormal goings-on. Certainly a huge influence in itself upon Who spin-off Torchwood.
The Flipside Of Dominick Hide, Another Flip For Dominick (Play For Today 1980, 1982)
The seminal Play For Today strand featured two memorable sci-fi offerings by Jeremy Paul and Alan Gibson in the early eighties: The Flipside Of Dominick Hide (1980) and its sequel, Another Flip For Dominick (1982). The titular character Dominick Hide, played by one-time Double Decker Peter Firth, time travelled to the Britain of 1980 from the near future, in a decidedly conspicuous saucer craft. He meets and (despite warnings to the contrary) falls for Jane played by Caroline Langrishe (later seen in Lovejoy). The character revels in his incongruous appearance and his alien qualities eventually charm Jane, redolent at the time of the alien-ness of Tom Baker’s Doctor and more recently seen in Matt Smith’s approach to the role: the scene in Jane’s kitchen when Dominick attempts to make coffee is echoed in the Doctor’s attempts to scramble an egg in Craig’s kitchen in The Lodger. Moreover, the 11th Doctor’s social awkwardness with Amy’s initial advances recall Hide’s rather gauche reactions when Jane makes a romantic move on him.
Neil Gaiman’s BBC fantasy Neverwhere was a much-lauded independent production with Lenny Henry’s Crucial Films. Gary Bakewell, Laura Fraser and Hywel Bennett were the stars but the stand-out performance was surely that of Paterson Joseph (later Peep Show‘s uber business guru Alan Johnson) playing The Marquis. Sharing the Doctor’s sartorial elegance, quick wit and charm, it has been observed Joseph was “channelling his inner Time Lord” and may explain his prominent appearance on bookies’ “would-be Doctor” lists in recent years. The scenes featuring The Marquis and Angel Islington (a young Peter Capaldi, no less!) are a particularly watchable “what might have been” moment.
Crime Traveller (1997)
Anthony Horowitz’s Crime Traveller arrived in March 1997 and starred erstwhile EastEnder Michael French and Red Dwarf‘s second Kochanski, Chloe Annett. Detective Jeff Slade (French) is able to travel in time thanks to a machine created by the father of forensic science officer Holly Turner (Annett). Jeff and Holly’s improved clear-up rate greatly impresses DCI Kate Grisham (a post-Brookside but pre-Royle Family Sue Johnston). Generally, Slade and Holly have just a few short hours to find crucial evidence or prevent a crime being committed in the first place. Similar in set-up to Jonathan Creek, which directly replaced it on Saturday nights, keen eyed viewers might notice Holly’s flat is in the same block as Maddy’s in the first series of Jonathan Creek – in real life the mansion building is on St Mary’s Terrace in West London. Slade was perhaps a little anodyne to be truly comparable to the Doctor, yet he always wore the same jacket – a nod perhaps to the Doctor’s clothing consistency? And there was even a scene in the episode Death Minister where Slade investigates a phone box renovation company and in the background we see an unmistakable blue police call box…
Jonathan Creek (1997-2016)
Jonathan Creek began in May 1997. Verity Lambert, looking for a success after the disappointment and demise of Eldorado, produced it from the second series. She admired the originality of David Renwick’s cleverly constructed stories. Alan Davies, later on the short list for the Ninth Doctor, played the duffle-coated, tousled-haired and windmill-dwelling Creek, a natural lateral thinker, adept at solving locked room mysteries in his spare time as a magician’s prop master. The role was originally offered to Nicholas Lyndhurst, who had already made inroads into cult television with his role as Gary Sparrow, a time travelling TV repair man, in Goodnight Sweetheart. Caroline Quentin (best known at the time for Men Behaving Badly) was the unsentimental, slightly insensitive, investigative journalist Maddy Magellan; when not comically cajoling Creek into taking on a case, she is to be found hoodwinking a likely antagonist to reveal too much information about themselves. Who fans, especially those familiar with Big Finish, must see The Judas Tree. It features (Eighth Doctor) Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith, who here plays Joey Ross, Creek’s (third) sidekick – but later, of course, made such an impact as Lucie “Bleeding” Miller on audio. The interplay between Davies and Smith, especially when trapped in a log cellar, is particularly adroit, almost a visual version of a Doctor and Lucie adventure. Two specials, Black Canary and The Clue Of The Savant’s Thumb, feature the irreplaceable and much-missed Rik Mayall as Gideon Pryke, a man as gifted as Creek in terms of ability and equally eccentric, another character who displays a “Who-like” quality.
Richard Coyle is defrocked priest turned demon hunter John Strange, in this thriller series written by Andrew Marshall. Ian Richardson, who had starred in The Magician’s House as a very Hartnell-esque eccentric, provides a similar role here as the all-knowing Canon Black and a pre-EastEnders Samantha Janus (later Womack) is his nurse sidekick. Coyle had been one of the stars of Coupling, a Steven Moffat semi-autobiographical Twentysomething comedy series, not unlike Game On that first brought Janus to the attention in 1995. Two intriguing series of Strange were produced.
Sea Of Souls (2004-06)
Similar in Scottish setting (in this case, Glasgow) and subject matter to The Omega Factor, this critically acclaimed series starred Bill Paterson as Dr Douglas Monaghan with Dawn Steele and Iain Robertson as his two researchers, Justine McManus and Craig Stevenson. Paul McGann made a memorable guest appearance in the series finale as a seemingly charming businessman with a black magic fixation.
Professor Branestawm (2014-15)
A very entertaining series of TV films transmitted over two successive Christmas Eves in 2014 and 2015. Adapted by Charlie Higson from the books by Norman Hunter, admittedly written long before Doctor Who and arguably something of an influence upon it, the wonderfully eccentric comedian Harry Hill plays the eponymous inventor. Hill is a huge Who fan and this is probably the nearest he will get to the role. His costume is a definite throwback to the classic series Doctors. Dwelling in a workshop in Pagwell, an idyllic, rather quaint, yet very English village, Professor Branestawm is ably assisted by Connie (played by Madeline Holliday, best known as Emily in Hank Zipzer), a plucky teenage girl with a real passion for science.
Honourable mention: Dark Season (1991)
An early work by one Russell T Davies. Three teenagers attempt to save their school and thwart a sinister plot by a enigmatic being, known as Mr Eldritch. Featuring Victoria Lambert as precocious yet socially awkward Marcie, often read by many as a “surrogate Doctor” character. As an interesting exploration of the Doctor as a teenage girl, RTD was well ahead of Chris Chibnall’s current vision for Who. Davies denies he consciously drew upon the Doctor for Marcie’s personality, however she does appear in the his New Adventure novel Damaged Goods. Dark Season is primarily remembered for featuring a 15 year-old Kate Winslet (playing Marcie’s slightly unwilling sidekick Reet) together with Ben Chandler as Tom. The serial was a canny project, which Davies would use to show the BBC his real passion for science fiction and a certain aspect of it in particular. He does admit to referencing The Ark In Space in one scene: Reet uses a yo-yo to test for gravity.
So, are these programmes really Doctor Who – in all but name? Or is it all just a huge coincidence? There are many more examples out there – this is far from a definitive list. One thing is certain, though, with a 56-year legacy covering a massive canon of over 800 stories (on television alone with nearly as many again on audio), Doctor Who will continue to influence and be influenced by television for many years to come.