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Doctor Who, and the 1986 memo that recommended a female Doctor

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The credited creator of Doctor Who, Sydney Newman, always thought there should be a female Doctor…


It is no exaggeration to say that the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the next Doctor Who has divided fandom, whether for, against or “what the hell, why not.” But while the idea of a female Doctor has been bandied about for decades, many fans may be surprised to learn that one of its advocates was the show’s primary creator himself, Sydney Newman.

The Canadian-born television executive came to this country at the close of the 1950s and joined the ITV franchise, ABC Television. It was there he created The Avengers as a vehicle for Ian Hendry to replace the drama series he had previously starred in, Police Surgeon. And Hendry’s new character, David Keel, was partnered by Patrick MacNee as a certain John Steed.

When Hendry decided to jump ship after the first series, Newman came up with the unprecedented idea of replacing him with a woman. Thus, Honor Blackman was cast as Steed’s new partner, Cathy Gale, and this ensured the series not only continued but went onto legendary success.

Genesis Of A Time Lord

In 1962, Newman moved to the BBC and was charged with shaking up the schedules to make it more competitive with ITV. This included filling in a gap in the Saturday teatime schedules for which he dreamt up the concept of Doctor Who.

He envisaged a humanoid alien in the form of a crotchety old man who travelled time and space in a craft bigger inside than out, and calling himself simply The Doctor. The idea was developed with input from Donald Wilson and producer Verity Lambert who finally brought it to life, but not without some creative differences.

Newman had wanted the series to be a semi educational drama for children with plenty of history but no bug eyed monsters. Though famously against the Daleks at first, their subsequent success persuaded him to step back and let the series grow on its own terms.

Three years later when it became clear William Hartnell could not continue in the role, Newman stepped back in and proposed The Doctor should have the ability to change his body (the term regeneration was not coined until the 1970s). Patrick Troughton was cast, thus providing the series with legacy of longevity.

Newman left the BBC at the end of the 1960s and returned to Canada. However, in 1986, he was back in the U.K. to work on projects for Channel 4. By this time Doctor Who was in a crisis of confidence followed Michael Grade’s imposed 18 month hiatus and an uncertain future. Following a meeting between the two, Grade invited Newman to submit ideas for the show’s direction.

Having watched The Trial Of A Timelord season (starring Colin Baker), Newman was unimpressed and, in a memo dated Oct 6, 1986, criticised it as “largely socially valueless, escapist schlock!” He argued the series should “engage the concerns, fears and curiosity” of young viewers.

He suggested The Doctor be accompanied by a streetwise, trumpet playing schoolgirl in “John Lennon-type spectacles” and her graffiti-spraying “yobbo” elder brother. He also felt the series should become more earthbound and concerned with topical issues like ecology.

But even more curious was his call to bring back Patrick Troughton to re-steer the show and then later have the Doctor change into a woman, commenting “This requires some considerable thought – mainly because I want to avoid a flashy, Hollywood Wonder Women because this kind of heroine with no flaws is a bore. Given more time than I have now, I can create such a character.”

The Female Doctor

The idea of a female Doctor was not new. It had first been suggested by Tom Baker at a press conference to announce his departure from the show in 1980, though producer John Nathan-Turner later admitted it had been made as a joke to grab headlines. Sydney Newman, however, was serious and even concluded he should be appointed as the show’s executive director “to ensure the concept is properly executed.”

Grade may have been enthused about getting the creator back on board, but Head of Drama, Jonathan Powell, was unimpressed with Newman’s suggestions and did not formally take them up. However, they did subsequently manifest in refined form.

Ace, who came into the show a year later, embodied the characteristics of Newman’s suggested companions, being a streetwise schoolgirl with delinquent tendencies. Sylvester McCoy was cast as a more Troughton-esque Doctor and his stories became increasingly Earthbound, his final season touching on contemporary concerns of environmental pollution, nuclear fallout and urban alienation.

And now Newman’s most audacious proposal has finally materialised, but will it prove as prescient as the others he made back in 1986? He had made a bold move casting Cathy Gale in what would have been a previously male inscribed role, and that paid dividends for The Avengers. It remains to be seen if it does the same for Doctor Who.