Ontario's public broadcaster helped turn a generation of Canadians into fans of everyone's favourite Time Lord.
The cover of Star Week’s 1976-77 fall television preview issue was loaded with bombs. The makers of featured TV series like Ball Four, Cos, Holmes and Yoyo, and The Nancy Walker Show had little inkling their shows would quickly be scuttled by poor ratings. Other new series mentioned in the magazine had better long-term prospects, including a British import TVOntario had put in the timeslot before Elwy Yost‘s Saturday Night at the Movies.
How was Doctor Who—which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week—introduced to Toronto viewers that fall?
From Star Week:
A BBC-produced science fiction series which has been running in Britain since 1963, this half-hour weekly series stars Jon Pertwee (the third actor to take the role) as the title character, a Time Lord, one of an advanced race of beings from the planet Gallifrey with extraordinary intellectual and psychic powers. Dr. Who has travelled through time and space via a machine called the TARDIS to the planet Earth in the 20th century where, as a special advisor to UNIT (a United Nations intelligence group), he uses his powers to outwit an endless array of monsters and villainous forces.
So began a 15-year run on the province’s educational broadcaster. As the show, created by Toronto native Sydney Newman, celebrates its golden anniversary, here’s a look at how TVOntario handled the series that enticed (and scared) a generation of viewers with its eerie theme music and carnival of monsters.
TVO wasn’t the first Toronto channel to air the series. CBC purchased the show’s first 26 episodes in late 1964. “Now perhaps my Canadian in-laws will really believe me when I say I am an actress,” Jacqueline Hill, who played the Doctor’s original companion, Barbara, joked to the Globe and Mail while en route to Toronto to visit her husband’s family. Following the BBC’s lead, CBC scheduled the show in a late Saturday afternoon slot for a six-month run, beginning in January 1965.
TVOntario’s run of the show began with part one of The Three Doctors on September 18, 1976. To fulfill its educational mandate, the broadcaster issued a resource handbook with suggested discussion themes and reading lists. On air, each show ended with a segment that explored topics suggested by the episode. (This was better than the addition made by Time-Life Television for American syndication: annoying narration, provided by actor Howard Da Silva, inserted into the soundtrack. It referred to the title character, whose name is “the Doctor,” as “Doctor Who.”) Hosted by futurist Jim Dator, these pieces filled a three-to-eight minute gap. Wearing a “Dr. Dator” t-shirt, the University of Toronto lecturer would discuss the Doctor’s childlike treatment of his companions or eulogize the demise of his third incarnation.
When TVOntario introduced fourth doctor Tom Baker’s episodes in 1978, you might say Dator also regenerated. He was replaced by writer Judith Merril, the namesake of the Toronto Public Library’s speculative-fiction special collection. Though the pay was low for television, it was better than what she earned freelancing. Merril served as the “Un-Doctor” in 108 segments over the next three years. “I like to take something that was said or happened on the show and add some new information to it or stimulate the audience’s critical centres in some other way,” she told the Star in 1980. Merril hoped her pieces encouraged viewers to think critically and question authority—always the Doctor’s modus operandi.
While Merril initially enjoyed the segments, changes behind the scenes led to disenchantment. Her final producer wanted to use ChromaKey green screen in the studio instead of shooting on location. He also wanted her to wear costumes and tighten her scripts. Merril later reflected on the end of her run:
We did a few good shows that year, but it was a lot more work. I decided I would need to get a hell of a lot more money to keep doing it the way he wanted. They responded, “You’re absolutely right. You should be getting twice as much. But we just had another budget cut. I think we’ll do without the extros altogether.” That was that for my career as a Doctor Who specialist.
One Doctor Who story arc Merril found particularly problematic was The Talons of Weng-Chiang. While often acclaimed as one of the top stories of the Tom Baker era, the serial, influenced by everything from penny dreadfuls to Pygmalion, includes actors in yellowface makeup. The Chinese Canadian National Council for Equality complained about the story’s stereotyping. Its president, Dr. Joseph Wong, observed that the story included “everything from an evil Fu Manchu character to pigtailed coolies and laundrymen who submissively commit suicide on their master’s orders.” The story was pulled prior to airing in November 1980. A TVOntario official admitted that the move was censorship, “but in a good cause.” The BBC’s Canadian rep apologized for offending anyone, but noted that the show was made for a British audience who, because of a different mixture of cultures, might not be offended by the same things.
Another consequence of Doctor Who’s run on TVOntario was the inadvertent preservation of some episodes of the series from permanent destruction. The BBC was in the habit of junking tapes during the 1970s. When TVO returned several Jon Pertwee episodes to the BBC in 1981, they served as colour replacements for the black-and-white film copies Auntie Beeb had retained.
For years, the show continued to send sensitive young viewers diving behind the couch in terror, and to convince fans to knit long scarves and dress like cricketers, until TVOntario lost the broadcast rights to YTV in 1989. The show briefly resurfaced on TVO in 1991 so the station could use up the remaining repeat rights associated with the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy stories. Doctor Who disappeared from the station for good following the final part of Delta and the Bannermen on September 26, 1991.
Additional material from Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril by Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002); the October 29, 1964 edition of the Globe and Mail; the September 11, 1976, October 1, 1980, and November 6, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star; and the November 7, 1980 edition of the Toronto Sun.