By Ryan Danes
The Book: Exactly where did the idea of Doctor Who come from? What did Canadian Sydney Newman do that changed British culture forever? We can trace the show’s origins back to a BBC report on the development of a science-fiction serial in the early 1960’s, but Sydney had been kicking the idea around a long time before he came to England.
Travel back into the past and catch a glimpse of The Man Who Thought Outside the Box, who influenced some of the greatest writers and directors of all time, and whose legacy lives on today, 100 years after he was born.
The Review: We’re flooded with new non-fiction books about Doctor Who these days, sometimes too many to keep up with, but this is one that I am genuinely pleased to see.
The most notable thing about The Man Who Thought Outside the Box is that it is well-written. With a volume of this sort, heavy in detail by its very nature, there is always the risk that it will read like a university dissertation. But Ryan Danes’ prose here is stylish and lively and its early sections, setting the scene in Canada during World War One when Newman was born, are atmospheric, immediately drawing you into the book and its story.
The book strongly emphasises that Newman wanted to achieve something out of the norm when he created Doctor Who. He wanted to make a science-fiction programme which was textually richer, dealing with real issues related to science and philosophy. As Ryan puts it: “His vision for Doctor Who was more than Bacofoil monsters and brains in jars.”
We learn how the five-year old Sydney relished books and read the works of HG Wells, Jules Verne, and Andrew Lang. We follow his early forays into making television dramas such as the Pathfinders series (described here as a ‘missing link’ between seminal BBC radio show Journey Into Space and Doctor Who). And of course, we read of his innovative “kitchen-sink dramas”, which pushed the boundaries of what television was able to achieve, discussing topics such as race and sexuality which had previously not been dealt with head-on.
Whilst we must be grateful to Newman for creating the basic format of Doctor Who, we do owe him another debt, for which he receives less credit for but which is rightly highlighted here – and that’s the way actors interpret the Doctor in different ways. To quote Newman himself: “Patrick Troughton was unhappy being asked to produce a carbon copy of Hartnell’s performance, so I suggested that he interpret the role like a cosmic hobo.”
So Newman not only created the Doctor, he helped shape the idea of each Doctor having a different personality to the one before. Without this concept, the show would surely never have continued for such a long time.
As this book points out, Newman’s Doctor was not quite the Time Lord that we know and love today. The First Doctor was an elder statesman, not a reactionary. And we knew far less about that first incarnation, his origins surrounded in mystery.
Also rightly highlighted is Newman’s encouragement of new talent, regardless of people’s gender or ethnic background: “He was aware of the class-structure in Britain, but he did not give a damn – as long as they could do the job, that was all that mattered… he didn’t give a hoot about what anyone else thought.” Newman had always been an outsider and was more than prepared to help other outsiders get their foot on the BBC career ladder, Doctor Who’s first producer Verity Lambert being a prime example. It is a supreme irony that following Lambert’s departure, the series would be overseen by Caucasian men for the remainder of its classic run.
We’re getting a lot of biographies about Doctor Who production personnel these days – some might argue that there are a few too many. But a book about the man who created the framework of the phenomenon that is Doctor Who is surely an essential. It’s a good read, about the right length, and if you’re interested in the origins of our favourite time traveller, you’d do well to check it out.
• Buy The Man Who Thought Outside the Box from amazon.co.uk (using this link helps support downthetubes)
• The Man Who Thought Outside the Box is available to order now from digitalentropy.co.uk