As we celebrate Doctor Who's 50th birthday, we'll be justly singing the praises of all the people who made the British TV show the cultural powerhouse it is today. But certain people will probably receive less adulation than they deserve. Here are 11 unsung heroes who helped bring Doctor Who to life.
Feel free to mention your own names below — but we're assuming that people like original producer Verity Lambert and reboot producers Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat are not "unsung" as such. Also note: Some of these items are more than one name because we're giving credit jointly to more than one person.
Trench was a Metropolitan Police surveyor in the 1920s who was tasked with coming up with a standardized design for the boxes that the British public could use to call for help — at a time when most British people did not have a telephone in their homes. He came up with an iconic design that was used throughout the land, and which gave the Doctor's time machine, the TARDIS, its distinctive shape. The Police Box shell of the TARDIS is the one thing that's never changed on the show. Also, credit ought to go to BBC designer Peter Brachaki for designing a truly weird interior for the TARDIS. Image via Glasgow Building Preservation Trust.
We're only mentioning them in that order because Derbyshire is probably more "sung" than Hodgson is. Derbyshire was the pioneer of electronic music and sampling, who created the first arrangement of the Doctor Who theme in 1963, which was used with slight variations until 1980. Hodgson, though, created all of the sound effects for Doctor Who until 1972, including the TARDIS dematerialization sound and the Dalek voices. Hodgson was also a pioneer of electronic music, who helped Dudley Simpson realize his electronic scores for the early Jon Pertwee stories. Hodgson also worked with Derbyshire on soundtracks for horror movies and The Tomorrow People after leaving Who. The sonic landscape of Doctor Who, with its strange jangling noises that interweave with musical cues, was largely a creation of these two, plus Simpson and Dick Mills.
Lloyd was a producer of Doctor Who for two years, and his main achievement has to be casting Patrick Troughton as William Hartnell's successor. The show's creator, Sydney Newman, may have been the one who came up with the "Cosmic Hobo" concept for the Second Doctor — but Lloyd was the one who decided not to cast a Hartnell lookalike and try to pretend this was still exactly the same character. If the show had gone with a duplicate of Hartnell, it might only have lasted another year or two — but the idea of changing the look and personality of the show's lead actor gave it endless life. Also, Lloyd was instrumental in pushing the show more towards monsters and claustrophobic "base under siege" stories, and in a slightly more grown-up direction as well.
The story editor and later producer of the show in the latter part of the Patrick Troughton era, Sherwin gets the credit for inventing the Time Lords, the Doctor's people — a move which transformed the mythology of the show. He also originated U.N.I.T., the military organization the Doctor works with to this day. And Sherwin came up with the notion of trapping the Doctor on 20th century Earth, which almost certainly saved the show from being cancelled. He helped to cast Jon Pertwee as Troughton's replacement. The show's superb seventh season, where the Doctor faces the Autons and the Silurians for the first time, represents Sherwin's vision for the show. Image from "Mind Robber" Part 1, which Sherwin wrote.
Russell was the first woman director of Doctor Who, helming four stories including the acknowledged classic "The Pyramids of Mars." Working with three different Doctors, she did two stories with Sarah Jane Smith actor Elisabeth Sladen and (judging from the DVD featurettes) helped Sladen to move Sarah Jane's role in the show beyond "designated screamer and recipient of explanations." On "Mars," in particular, Russell worked with Sladen to give some of the Doctor's explanatory dialogue to Sarah Jane, and it's in that story that you can see the Doctor-companion relationship starting to shift away from the paradigm from the show's first decade.
Producer John Nathan-Turner gets a lot of much-deserved credit for wrestling the show away from the abyss of self-parody at the end of the Tom Baker era, and reinventing Who for the 1980s. But less often celebrated is the role of Bidmead, a computer journalist who helped bring the show back to a more serious approach after the somewhat pantomimey previous couple of years. It's not just that Bidmead makes an effort to introduce real scientific ideas, like entropy or rapid mutation, into his stories — it's also that the Doctor and Romana, in particular, suddenly feel like real people with real histories in Tom Baker's final season. (In particular, the scene in "Full Circle" where Romana tells the Doctor he used to be a rebel, and the Doctor says he lost, is really something.) There was a subtle shift towards emotional reality, especially in the Doctor, which still resonates to this day.
After Doctor Who got taken off the air in 1989, the only new Who that was available for a long time came in the form of the "New Adventures" novels — but also, the NAs helped to push a more psychologically complex take on the Doctor, picking up on hints from the show's final decade. Darvill-Evans and Levene, editing this book range, pushed the boundaries of what was possible in Doctor Who and helped ensure that when the show returned, a whole generation of fans had grown up knowing it to be something capable of immense strangeness and challenging themes. They also published books by writers like Paul Cornell, Gareth Roberts and Russell T. Davies, who later helped reinvent the TV show.
The 1996 TV movie was a huge disappointment at the time, but when you watch it now it's actually kind of lovely. Segal fought for years to get Who on the air, and probably helped raise the show's profile among TV execs on both coasts — even though it's a good thing his version of Who didn't become a series and then get summarily cancelled.
But also, Segal wound up providing a great example of what not to do with Doctor Who. The TV movie works so hard to pay homage to every element of the classic series — including a regeneration scene, the Daleks, the sonic screwdriver, the Master, the Time Lords, the Eye of Harmony and the Kitchen Sink of Rassilon. If Segal hadn't tried to resurrect the show this way and failed, Russell T. Davies would probably have faced a lot more pressure to do the same thing, instead of reintroducing the mythos in dribs and drabs over the course of a few seasons.
Davies and producer Julie Gardner deserve immense credit for making a new generation of Doctor Who happen — but none of this materializes without Jane Tranter, who became Controller of Drama Commissioning at the BBC and immediately set about trying to bring Doctor Who back on Saturday nights. There's a revealing featurette on (of all things) the DVD for the 1973 story "The Green Death," which shows just how much Tranter had to go to bat for the show. Even Davies didn't know how much opposition there was at the BBC, and how many conservative voices Tranter had to battle to get the show back on the air.
Billie Piper was probably the big selling point when Doctor Who came back — but when she left the show, the first person to step in as the Doctor's companion faced a huge uphill climb. As a character, Martha Jones was a mixed bag — her unrequited crush on the Doctor was not the best arc Russell T. Davies has ever written, to say the least. But Martha's also smart, competent — and cheerful without being annoyingly chipper. Rewatch David Tennant's second season, and you'll see just how much heavy lifting Agyeman is having to do, going through the same "getting to know the Doctor's backstory" steps that Piper already did, without making them seem either stale or rushed. Agyeman also kept giving to Doctor Who, making return appearances in the next season and on spin-off show Torchwood.
Additional reporting by Alasdair Wilkins.