“Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
‘Don’t worry, I’m going to transmubobulate?’
I can't believe it is over fifty years ago I sat in front of my flickering Cossor television set and watched transfixed as Bill's rather tired drawn face rejuvenated (later called regeneration) into my actor dad, Patrick Troughton. Wow! What a brilliant feeling that was – even better than England winning the World Cup!
A mixture of pride, excitement and trepidation filled me I remember. On the one hand I couldn't wait to hear what my friends at school thought, about my driving a Dalek and watching Pat’s studio recording; on the other, I knew it was such a huge thing for my dad to do. To continue where the fantastic Bill Hartnell had left off.
I was nine when the series began and I became an instant fan. I fell in love with the sometimes grumpy, but always-friendly, white-haired grandfather figure that Hartnell perfected so well. He exuded confidence and knowledge in all he did. You always knew that he would win the day and come out the other side ready to face yet more danger. But now, here was my dad trying to emulate the man, a family favourite that had grown and established himself in the hearts of a viewing public. It was going to be an almost impossible task to replace such a well-established character as Doctor Who.
It nearly didn’t happen. Whilst on location in Ireland towards the end of filming the Viking Queen in 1966, Pat’s journey began with a phone call, from his agent Maurice; who then instructed him to wait for another phone call from the head of serials at the BBC, Shaun Sutton, regarding casting for a major TV series. Dad initially thought it was a practical joke (being fond of them himself), but was persuaded otherwise when he spoke to Shaun later that evening ¬– an extraordinary offer to take over from William Hartnell as Doctor Who. His surprised reaction? “They must be mad!” My mother’s initial reaction paralleled my father’s, in that she thought he was too young for the role, and possibly ‘the wrong type for the part’; which just underlines how wonderfully William Hartnell had made the role his own. Pat’s overarching concern, reflected by many of his contemporaries, was that his success as an actor relied on not being typecast; he had worked very hard to establish himself as a highly respected TV character actor, and revelled in the freedom of being able to create very individual and varied characterisations each time he was offered a part. A high-profile role like Doctor Who could jeopardise that freedom of anonymity, if he was to accept, and the instant recognition that came along with it.
Shaun Sutton phoned Dad’s agent many times over that week, until by the Friday just before he was to return to England, Pat agreed to meet with Shaun, Innes Lloyd and Sydney Newman in London. He spoke to us (myself, brother David, sister Jo, and my mother) the night before his meeting at Television Centre
The pressure on my father to come up with a new Doctor during that summer of 1966 must have been extremely high. One newspaper clipping reported, ‘William Hartnell as Doctor Who was very human and warmly appealing. With him lay the series peculiar character. The new Doctor Who is Patrick Troughton and with the change the very substance of the series lies in the melting pot.’
The first time I saw dad after he had finally accepted the role, he was very excited. Actors always get excited and feel elation when they have netted a part. It's only afterwards, when they think ‘god I've got to do it now', reality kicks in and all the hard work and problem solving floods into your mind.
He explained that the way they were going to get around the new face for the doctor was to have him ‘transmubobulate’ as dad incorrectly described it - physically change in front of the viewer’s eyes, like metomophosis. He told me with great authority ‘ Don’t worry, I’m going to transmubobulate from Bill to me so the change of actor will be explained scientifically.’ From that point on I was never able to get him to say the correct word – regeneration. I think he did it on purpose to tease me.
In the initial stages of forming the new character he showed me a number of sketches completed in a black A4 sized notebook with annotated scribbles. One was a picture of a Mississippi paddle steam captain who wore a dark uniform and naval cap. I think it was supposed to look like a character that W.C.
Fields had once played in a movie. Another was a pirate with an eye-patch similar to the part he had played in the Disney film version of Treasure Island. On the last page was a tramp with tattered clothes and a tall felt hat, pushing an old pram full of his belongings and playing an old tin whistle. I remember asking
him why so many of his ideas involved such elaborate disguises to which he replied, ‘I don’t want anyone to know who is playing Who!’
On the studio day of the ‘transmubobulation’ scene, dad spent a good part of the day lying on a cold studio floor frozen in one position. Afterwards he told me that,
‘I felt as if someone had injected local anesthetic into both my cheeks!’
Derek Martinus remembered the day well,
‘Doing the regeneration was interesting, we were trying to get a slow transformation, which wasn’t really possible with roll back and mix. We were trying out new techniques using inlay and overlay. I
can picture now the gasp of joy as that changeover actually worked – it was most important because it had to be good for the future of the show’s sake, which was far from certain then.’
I worked on a TV play during the eighties with the vision mixer Shirley Coward who had recorded the sequence that day. She recalled,
‘Both Bill and Pat had to be very patient with the floor that day. They had both spent hours being told to stay perfectly still as the studio tweaked and re-angled shots.’ Shirley had discovered an excellent use for a faulty fader unit in Studio One that day. It turned out that whenever she tried to crossfade the shot from Bill to Pat they managed to get a flared andbroken image on the screen – just right for the transformation.
She explained, ‘It may only have taken two or three takes, but we spent hours on set-up each. It is odd to think that the transformation sequence of Doctor Who was due to a faulty fader rather than any technical
wizardry on behalf of the special effects department.’
After the first few episodes were aired things were not looking good for the continuation of the series.
He told me, ‘don’t get too excited Mike, it will probably all be over in six weeks.’
It nearly was. The audience research and Radio Times letters were far from kind to my father initially,
‘I don’t care for the new style doctor. He didn’t seem right somehow.’
‘Once a brilliant and eccentric scientist, he now comes over as a half-witted clown.’
‘The family has really gone off Doctor Who since the change. They do not understand the new one at all, and his character is peculiar in an unappealing way.’
‘Patrick Troughton seemed to be struggling manfully with the idiotic new character that Doctor Who has taken on since his change.’
‘I’m not sure I really like his portrayal. I feel the part is over exaggerated, whimsical even. I keep expecting him to take out a great watch from his pocket and mutter about being late like Alice’s White Rabbit.’
‘Frankly I prefer William Hartnell!’
Innes Lloyd disclosed to me in the late seventies that these first few episodes of The Power of the Daleks were almost the death of Doctor Who. He explained to me that they had been very close to pulling
the series after reviewing the first few episodes. My father had been called to an impromptu emergency meeting with Shaun and Innes where they all discussed the ‘unenthusiastic reception to the new
Doctor’. Audience research was taken extremely seriously as it is today and Sydney Newman was not a man to nurse a failing patient. If it had not been for my father’s quick reaction to public opinion,
his strength as an adaptable character actor, and a confident cool nerve, the show would never have recovered. His prediction that the series would not last longer than six weeks could have
undoubtedly come true. Michael Craze recognised how important it had been for Pat to hone and adapt his performance in response to criticism,
‘You could have put all sorts of other people in the role and I think it would’ve sunk like a lead balloon. I think it was the devotion and the real integrity and the insight that Pat brought to the character that allowed it to carry on.’
Dad’s final characterisation of the Doctor that secured a continuation of the series has been described as a clown or a ‘cosmic hobo’ – whatever that is? It was neither of these. Pat’s portrayal was brave, complex and departed absolutely from his predecessor. Only on the surface did he appear to be a clown, tramp, hobo, drawing on child-like qualities, dressing in scruffy clothes, playing his recorder when all around him was in chaos, delving excitedly into a bag of jelly babies and acting the fool to confuse his dangerous enemies. This was just a veneer. Concealed within and plain to see was a powerful intellect, a great thinker, a solver of puzzles, a doer of good, a wild wizard who could calmly play a hand of cards when faced with danger. Even as he delved into his seemingly bottomless pockets and withdrew with a mad
flourish such useless items as gobstoppers, cockers, string, half eaten apples or a bag of marbles, one always knew that each of these ludicrous objects would have purpose and meaning and
eventually save the day. The fact that he would always leave everything until the last moment and then have to make a snap decision simply showed us the workings of an eccentric genius – this was Dad’s Doctor.
Consequently, whenever I watched my father as Doctor Who I was never really sure that he was going to be able to ‘beat that monster’ or ‘save the planet from destruction’. This in a way was more frightening than having a Doctor who was in total control of the situation like Bill Hartnell’s wise white-haired version. It was this ineffectual and indecisive characterisation of my dad’s Doctor that left me with a feeling of doubt and worry whenever he came up against a problem. I felt the need almost to shout out advice in order to help him, yell at him to run because there was a monster behind him or calmly explain a problem that confused him. This ability to draw the audience in and involve them totally within the story was a wonderful strength of my dad’s Doctor. He later revealed,
‘I thought it would be very interesting to have a character who never quite says what he means, who, really, uses the intelligence of the people he is with. He knows the answer all the time; if he
suggests something he knows the outcome. He is watching, he’s really directing, but he doesn’t want to show he’s directing like the old Doctor.’
Fifty years ago my dad almost lost the part of Doctor Who and with it a strange and wonderful world with terrifying monsters, courageous heroes and a never-ending story through time. If it hadn’t been for Pat’s skill as a brilliant character actor and his enthusiastic professionalism, I think the series would have folded and spiraled into oblivion – and what a dreadful loss that would have been. All those clever manifestations of the same man would never have been seen. Doctor Who is a very British part of our culture now. It has spread its wings worldwide and continues to prove it’s dramatic longevity.
Caitlin Moran, a Times journalist, once wrote that, ‘In a world where very little is a surprise, and everything is viewed with cynicism, Doctor Who is a genuine rarity. It represents one of the very few areas where adults become as unashamedly enthusiastic as children. It’s where children first experience the thrills and fears of adults, and where we never know the exact ending in advance.’
I am very proud to think my dad and his ‘tranmubobulation’ from Hartnell’s Who was the foundation stone for this amazing journey. Long may it continue.