5 Ways Doctor Who Made a Difference

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1. The Theme Song

Many TV shows have had memorable theme songs, but few were as innovative as the eerie Doctor Who theme. Composed by Ron Grainer (who also wrote the themes for such classic 1960s shows as Steptoe and Son and The Prisoner), it was arranged and mixed by Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The Workshop pioneered electronic music in Britain, and Derbyshire's arrangement (using electronic oscillators, tape loops and reverse tape effects) was unlike anything ever heard before, with no conventional instruments. Recording the theme was a lengthy process, taking several weeks, but it was worth it. After a concert in 1971, the Queen herself was introduced to Desmond Briscoe, head of the Workshop. "The Radiophonic Workshop?" said Her Majesty. "Ah yes"¦ Doctor Who!" Have a listen:

2. Dalekmania

In the mid-1960s, the Doctor was in danger of being beaten by his greatest enemies"¦ in popularity, at least. The Daleks are robot-like mutants from the planet Skaro, who invade planets with piercing, electronic cries of "Exterminate!" British kids found them terrifying "“ and just like in roller-coasters, they loved being terrified. Soon, Dalekmania was all the rage in Britain. Kids could buy Dalek toys, comics and singles like "I'm Gonna Spend My Christmas With A Dalek" by a group called the Go-Go's (no, not those Go-Go's). Kids would even line up for hours to see the Daleks make charity appearances. Not bad for a race of evil monsters. The Daleks became part of British culture, influencing many new sci-fi monsters and characters (perhaps even good guys like R2-D2), and even entering the language"¦

3. Such language!

Only a few TV series have added words to the English language. Doctor Who added at least two, possibly three. "Dalek" was the first one added to the Oxford English Dictionary. "Not only had I created a monster, I had created a word," wrote their creator, Terry Nation. "What writer could ask for more?"

Later, the Doctor's unique traveling machine, the Tardis, also found its way into the OED. Though it's a handy machine (able to travel through time and space), it entered the language for one of its even more impressive properties: as it occupies two different dimensions, it's bigger on the inside than the outside (which is just as well, because it's outwardly disguised as a 1920s-style British police box, leaving little room to move). Hence, any room or cabinet that somehow seems more spacious on the inside is a "Tardis" (which, for the record, stands for "Time And Relative Dimensions In Space").

But perhaps the series biggest contribution to the English language was the prefix "cyber," to describe anything computerized. Though the term "cybernetic" was used in 1948, it was probably some ongoing Doctor Who villains, the Cybermen, who turned "cyber" into a prefix. Countless IT and internet geeks, not to mention science fiction authors, have followed their lead.

4. Violence and Gore for Boys and Girls

JonPertwee.jpgDoctor Who was created as a kids' show, but its concepts and stories were smart enough to win a following among adults. As a result, the show became slightly more "grown-up," which didn't impress people like outspoken morals campaigner Mary Whitehouse, who thought it was too scary and violent for kids. In 1972, it was on the BBC's "black list" of the 10 most violent shows. "Our program isn't violent, it's all just fantasy," objected actor Jon Pertwee (left), who played the Doctor at the time. "It wouldn't upset an 80-year-old maiden aunt and my young son loves it."

The complaints of scariness and violence continued throughout the 1980s, but the series became a yardstick of what was acceptable on children's television. It changed attitudes and caused much debate. It might have been fantasy, but it inspired British kids' TV to become tougher and grittier.

5. Changing the Genre

Doctor Who was a major influence on British science fiction television, which is very different from the American sci-fi. For starters, British producers didn't have the budget for great special effects or sets, so instead they focused on imaginative scripts, finding creative ways to do cheap effects and building alien sets that made the plastic planets on the original Star Trek look realistic. In fact, were it not for the success of Doctor Who, British science fiction might be very rare indeed. Without Doctor Who, we would never have had such cult sci-fi shows as Blake's Seven, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf and Life on Mars. Even many of Britain's non-sci-fi comedy and drama series were Who-influenced.

The new series of Doctor Who has a higher budget and production standards, but the focus is still on scripts and acting. It helps that so many of Britain's best writers and actors grew up on Doctor Who, and are eager to do it. The first head writer of the new series, noted playwright Russell T Davies, was a long-time Doctor Who fan. So are current star David Tennant, and most of the writers and directors. For a cheap kids' show, it sure influenced a lot of Britain's finest creative people.

Mark Juddery is a writer and historian based in Australia. See what else he's written at markjuddery.com.

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December 26, 2009 - 1:30pm
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