Remembering Doctor Who’s first script editor

Any features that look at Doctor Who script editors have to – by law – be called something like ‘Script Doctor’. I really wanted to call these articles ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Bryants’ but apparently that doesn’t lend itself to search engine optimisation. Also, to be pedantically technical (the best kind of technical), David Whitaker was the first Story Editor of Doctor Who, and its his shoulders everyone else is standing on. His reputation is solid enough that plenty of Doctor Who fans read the word ‘Whitaker’ on the cover of Doctor Who Magazine and spend at least a few seconds thinking it’s the writer.

Born in Knebworth, Whitaker reached the attention of the BBC through his work at York Repertory Theatre (where he was also an actor and director). He started writing plays for the BBC in 1957 before moving into regular writing work on drama serials such as Compact and Garry Halliday. Whitaker, in interviews with Doctor Who Magazine, spoke of a desire to prove himself as a writer and move away from more formulaic telly. Doctor Who was a high pressure job, but the opportunity and excitement outweighed the risk for the new production team, who both repaid the faith shown in them and altered the template they were working from.

When Whitaker joined Doctor Who, there were already scripts in development. It was he who asked Terry Nation to write for the series (although Nation did so unwillingly, only working on the script because another job fell through, with the story only being produced because no other scripts were ready). The resulting story, the debut of the Daleks, both made and saved the fledgling family show. It followed the show’s educational remit, but instead of a dramatisation of history or science it used an adventure story to discuss the fallout from world war. The following story, made with only the regular cast and the TARDIS set available, saved the necessary money, introducing concepts that would inspire stories over forty years later and softly rebooting the show in only its twelfth and thirteenth episodes.

While he sanctioned bug-eyed monsters against exec’s wishes, Whitaker also wrote one of the historical stories that stands out: The Crusades is missing two episodes, but it is notable for high levels of peril and sympathetic portrayals of the Saracens. Also, it’s another tweak of the template. Rather than just a drama set in the past, it’s styled like a Shakespeare play and works according to the rules of a Shakespeare play. As with the first Dalek story, there’s another layer which can be taken as educational. Plus, as well as having Julian Glover in it, there are some very dark undertones and excised plotlines involving incest that wouldn’t seem out of place on Game of Thrones.

After working the show into a popular and malleable format, Whitaker also made sure that the first companion departure wasn’t the abrupt non-sequitur of later years by building Susan’s exit in throughout her final story, although admittedly the character hadn’t exactly been written well before that (the initial potential of the Doctor’s granddaughter was largely ignored).

Whitaker wasn’t only responsible for shaping the adventures of the original TARDIS crew, but helped launch the series in other formats. In 1964, before the Target novelisations of the series began, Whitaker adapted two stories into novels. In doing so he performed Doctor Who’s second ever retcon (if you take The Edge of Destruction as a soft reboot), ignoring TV continuity for the opening of Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks. His association with the Daleks continued, with Terry Nation happy for Whitaker to adapt his original TV story, write their comic strip in TV Century 21, and the stage play The Curse of the Daleks. Nation, as astute businessman (or at least someone with a good agent), clearly trusted Whitaker with his co-creations, but also of note is how one man was trusted with putting Doctor Who into all these new formats. What’s more, he did so successfully, and then further consolidated his reputation in writing the Daleks with his Second Doctor stories.

While Power of the Daleks was heavily rewritten, Evil of the Daleks feels more like the writer of Edge of Destruction – there’s a magic to Whitaker’s science-fiction, filling a story with alchemical time travel, primary-coloured technobabble, and the Doctor as a sometimes distant figure. Cyborgs are powered by static and spaceships by mercury (bit on the nose, that one) in Whitaker’s worlds. He was interested, in his words, in ‘the lure of alchemy’, but this brought new and brilliant combinations to the show: a then rare trip through contemporary London, men with Karl Marx beards and whiskers on Skaro, Daleks in the Victorian era and playing at children’s games.

Some aspects of the early Sixties version of Doctor Who have, unsurprisingly, dated. There’s a strong sense of it being a British show of its time, post-war and post-Empire, managing to be both groundbreaking while imbued with an elitism that typifies the Oxbridge based anti-establishment art of the period. The First Doctor was at times distant, a patronising know-it-all with a superiority complex over apparently lesser races. Plus, yes, even if you didn’t like Twice Upon a Time, there is a patriarchal streak to the show present even in the relationship between the beloved Ian and Barbara.

You can see Whitaker’s influence in the show post-2005, though, even if it’s in response to attitudes of the period. His later episode ones are, less positively, strong arguments for compressing this setup into pre-credits sequences (Whitaker himself wrote a stronger intros, not unlike pre-credit sequences in function, for The Rescue and The Crusades). Homages to other writers and styles, the TARDIS as something alive and mysterious, and science is something to be played with. Aliens in space are good, sure, and they’re fine invading present day Earth, but there’s something more fun about seeing them in the past.

Fundamentally, Whitaker didn’t let the show rest, starting something with enough layers to explore, unpack and develop over fifty years later.