Carey Fleiner
Doctor Who: Adventures in the BBC Written Archives

        I wrote a general inquiry using the online contact details, then waited. A long time. It happens – most archives have only a small staff, yet an overwhelming amount of work to do. Doctor Who is only a small part of the archive, but understandably, in great demand in 2013. I made sure, then, in my letter to make it clear what my project was – if you just write and say, ‘Ooooh, do you have Doctor Who stuff? I want to look at it!’ you might not get a reply at all. I specified, however, that I was working on an essay on The Romans serial, and I wondered if they had any materials related to that serial and perhaps to its author, Dennis Spooner.

        About six weeks later, I was contacted by one of the archivists, who kindly told me that every episode has its own file, so there were four files on the The Romans. Dennis Spooner had a file, and, also, would I be interested in looking at the Doctor Who General Files from 1963 and 1964.

        Me: [alone in my office} YES! YES I would, holy cow, gimme!!!! Ah hahahahaha!!!!

        Me: [in the actual email]: Many thanks! It would be lovely to look at the general files as well as the specific files on the serial itself.

        Because it’s a small archive, and the staff are very busy, I had to book a specific appointment on one of its open days (the archive is open only Wednesday through Friday). Appointment was made. Many documents to read in advance – the archive, as do many, has strict rules about copyright and fair use, about what one can and cannot take into the study room, and rules about publishing the information that I would find there. As usual, only pencils and paper were allowed in the room (which included the draft of my paper – don’t get all the way into an archive without your reference material!). I could bring my laptop to take notes, something some archives allow, but others don’t. Even more exciting for me, I could bring a camera to photograph longer documents for reference – usually archives have a photocopying service, but this can be expensive and time consuming. The photos I took were restricted only to private use and reference: anything I wish to include as an illustration, anywhere, even in this essay, must be cleared through permission of the BBC, which can be very time consuming, not to mention expensive. This includes photographing the building and its grounds. So you won’t see anything here, I’m afraid.

        The BBC Written Archive is out in Reading, so I took the train, then hired a taxi. It was a lovely day, and a journey past beautiful houses…then down a long, long driveway onto what had been a private estate. I have to admit, seeing official BBC signage excites the heck out of me. The taxi stopped at a gate with an intercom, as blocking our way on this drive were not only iron gates, but huge metal plates stood vertically in the road. A quick word on the intercom, and the plates slowly lowered like a drawbridge, and down the rest of the road we went, approaching a house straight out of an episode featuring UNIT. The driver let me off at the door, turned round, and disappeared back up the road, back through those imposing gates. I went in, quite excited – to find out that I, like every other visitor to the archive, was in the wrong BBC building. The archive was way the heck back up the road, around the corner, and in the seemingly non-descript house set back off the street and behind some shrubberies. I had to wait for a courier to come through the impressive iron gate to get out of the grounds as the intercom was on the wrong side of the barrier.


        Nevertheless, the staff at the Archive are lovely and so helpful. After a quick read-through of contracts and paperwork (the stuff I mentioned above about copyright, publishing, and copying), I finally got to be sat at my table with my eight or so Doctor Who files.

        Again, I cannot stress enough: There is no substitute for seeing or investigating the original source. None.

        You bet it’s a knockout to see the original letter asking Ron Granier to compose the theme tune to this new Saturday children’s show. And all of the original documents (or their onion skin carbons) of internal memos about the programme’s directive, about casting, about characterization, about what TARDIS is meant to stand for. And it is a bit of a shock to find that every episode file has a document in it requesting that the episode NOT be wiped: unless that document was signed off with a explanation (ie, overseas sale request), all episodes were wiped after transmission.

        Flicking through the 1963 general document (which actually goes back to 1962) is itself like time traveling – all of that stuff I’ve read over the years about how the programme developed, how characters were created, the budgets, the writing prospectuses – all here. The publicity and evolving promotion – all here. The property lists, salaries, assignment of dressing rooms and so forth for an episode such as The Romans – all here.

        And then, of course, there was more. By the time I finished looking at the contents of all of the files, I had to re-write at least two major sections of my essay. For all that has been published on Doctor Who, at least the many books and articles I consulted, none of the authors, I think, have actually accessed the archive (do correct me if I’m wrong!). This isn’t to say that these authors didn’t do their homework, as many augmented their formidable knowledge of the show with official BBC sources and publications as well as interviews conducted with actors and staff associated with the programme.

        Actually accessing the original memos and documents, however, and being able to make connections across seemingly unrelated documents completely changed my understanding of how the programme was put together, how it was received, and how it evolved over its first two years. Much of what I rewrote had to do with Nero and his characterization  as a lusty buffoon, but  here is another example of an aspect of The Romans frequently commented on – I do it myself. It’s the use of stock footage of lions used to show Ian his fate. Director Christopher Barry sent out numerous requests for this footage, and specifically insisted on ‘angry lions’ – I wonder what his reaction was to the number of clips received back, if the one finally used was the angriest lion available!

        There are also surviving audience surveys among these documents which are quite revealing – one survey was in particular about The Romans, but there were also two general surveys of the viewing habits of children across five week periods in early 1964: reading these surveys got me to thinking about why Verity Lambert many have requested that The Romans be a farce. Early plans for serials-in-production included stories about the Romans, but there was no indication that they should be played for comedy and in fact were meant to be educational adventures to teach children about Roman Britain. Perhaps after the results of these surveys came in, coincidentally conducted while Marco Polo was being shown on the BBC in March 1964, the producer was looking for a way to brighten up the historicals to entertain those children who preferred comedies over ‘maps and charts.’ It’s an intriguing thought, and one that would not have occurred to me without seeing those particular documents in the same context with the other Doctor Who papers.

        Then there are the marginalia – the comments in the margins of drafts and documents. In medieval history, these candid comments are intriguing, scattered among the carefully copied prayers and chronicles; they tend not to be included in the official editions of such texts. The same holds true for our programme here -- it’s one thing to read Sidney Newman’s officially typed up and distributed précis for Doctor Who, and quite another to read his penciled comments on other contributors’ notes and documentation. Or to read his evaluation of a dress-rehearsal of an episode of The Aztecs scribbled on the pages of the script.

        I had been quite satisfied with my essay, happily so, in its near-final draft. I’d consulted  numerous books and articles; I’d spoken with colleagues who remembered seeing the episode when it was first run (to see what images in particular lingered with them). I’d also gone onto a couple of the message boards online dedicated to Doctor Who, to read how current viewers regard these 50 year old episodes without the original context or culture. All of this sort of legwork is important – had I not done this, and done my homework thoroughly, going to the archive would have been a waste of time. A number of things that caught my eye in these precious, fragile documents would have gone unnoticed as irrelevant without this advance work.

        That said, sometimes you do need to make several trips to an archive – if you have time in advance, which I didn’t in this case, sometimes a recce is useful to see what materials are there and what they contain, and then do your research, write your draft, then go back to look at the primary sources with a different eye. But you should still have an action plan in advance with a thesis in hand or at the very least an idea of things you are looking for.

        Finally, as the Doctor himself warned Barbara: ‘You can’t change history! Not one jot!’  What remains from a period is precious – if only there were recordings of the planning sessions! Still, archives of personal and internal memos and papers, especially from the pre-internet age (where we’re all so careful that anything that gets into print or an email can be sent literally around the world in seconds) is invaluable. What led to me finally seeing these papers firsthand was a need-to-know curiosity that started when I was about 10 or 11 years old and seeing for the first time this crazy show* one rainy afternoon on the local PBS station. Going to an archive is as close to time travel – and to being the Doctor – as we’ll ever get: don’t pass it up!

*The particular serial, I learned a bit later, was called Ark in Space. I met Tom Baker at a meet ‘n’ greet at the former Virgin Megastore in London at the launch of the first Doctor Who dvd, which was, as it happens, Ark in Space. I was over in the UK to do some work on documents related to Magna Carta up at the British Library, but happened to be nosing around the shop on a break, and thought, heck yes, I’ll buy this dvd even though I don’t have a player full stop, let alone a Region 2 player!

        Mr Baker was quite friendly, and cheerfully signed my dvd, ‘To the Doctor from the Doctor.’

        ‘And what are you doing on the rest of this fine day?’ he asked me.

I’m up to the British Library to do some work related to Magna Carta.

‘Really?’ Eyes wide. ‘How amazing! That’s so interesting! I wish I could  do something like that!’

But…surely you were there when they wrote it!
Booming laugh: ‘Indeed, of course…ah well. So lovely to meet you – I’ve never met a medievalist before!’

That’s all right! I’ve never met a Time Lord before!

        And that is my Tom Baker story.

Blocking our way were not only iron gates, but huge metal plates stood vertically in the road. A quick word on the intercom, and the plates slowly lowered like a drawbridge, and down the rest of the road we went, approaching a house straight out of an episode featuring UNIT