Computers and Doctor Who: The First 20 Years

  October 24, 2013

[caption id="attachment_14442" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Image source: Tardis Data Core[/caption]

We all know that the arts reflect the technology of their times. So let's look at the Doctor (“the definite article,” as Tom Baker said in December 1974) and his use of computers.

An Unearthly Child,” the first episode of Doctor Who, was aired by the BBC on 23 November 1963. For several years, it appeared that William Hartnell (Doctor #1) knew nothing of computing. Even the first tale of the Daleks (December '63 – February '64), involving a “faulty chameleon circuit” and “neutronic wars,” was unrevealing.

But in June 1966, aficionados were introduced to Professor Brett and WOTAN (Will Operating Thought Analogue device), a universal problem-solver that could think for itself. (Not too bad, as it was only in 1957 that moviegoers met IBM in the Tracy/Hepburn movie Desk Set.)

Patrick Troughton (Doctor #2) didn’t really have much to do with computers at first; out-of-control robots and mad scientists were more his style. However, in November 1968 the Doctor encountered Professor Watkins, a computer scientist. Actually, the Doctor doesn't encounter Watkins, who disappeared from his post at International Electromatics, a company controlling all the world's computers, but the search (involving Cybermen) was the first adventure featuring UNIT and both Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Sergeant Benton.

In January 1970, Jon Pertwee (Doctor #3) acquired a Cambridge scientist (Caroline John as Liz Shaw) as his companion, which might lead the unsuspecting viewer to think that a firmer computer science basis might ensue. But only in April did Liz exhibit her technical knowledge (by recognizing a Geiger counter reading). Liz was succeeded by Jo Grant (Katy Manning) in 1971; in 1973 she left to get married to an ecologist and leave for the Amazon.

At that point, The Doctor was joined by Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen). In Sarah Jane's first adventure (“The Time Warrior” – December 1973-January 1974) we encountered a Sontaran who is abducting contemporary scientists into the medieval period to help repair his damaged spacecraft. In the episode, we see several tape drives in the Sontaran's “laboratory.” Though no logo is visible, they appear to be DECs; they were certainly not Elliott 4100 series (which were made in Leeds), but the tape drives shown might well be audio tape machines used as props.

At the end of 1974 we met Doctor #4 (Tom Baker).

But let me point out, here, that over the first decade of the program(me?), computers and robots are intrinsically evil, driven to take over the world, exercise mind-control, and destroy. I see this as the same fear that Dr. Frankenstein's monster and stories like “The Golem” produce.

In fact, Tom Baker's first adventure was “Robot,” in which a rogue Think Tank produced a schizoid destructive robot, combining the mad scientist with the robotic creation. Baker's Doctor is far more computer-aware than his predecessors; in “Robot” he re-programs the bomb countdown. In 1976 he enters the “Mind Matrix” computer on Gallifrey (“The Deadly Assassin”), and in January 1977 he repairs the (psychotic?) computer, Xoanon (“The Face of Evil”).

The Portable Doctor

More important, I think, is the fact that on 8 October 1977, The Doctor acquired a portable computer (from Professor Marius) in the shape of a robodog, K9. Only a few months later, The Doctor left K9 on Gallifrey, but he introduced us to an upgraded version in September 1978 (“The Ribos Operation”).

That computer knowledge is familiar to the Time Lords was made explicit in early 1979, when we met Drax, a renegade Time Lord and free-lance intergalactic sysad (“The Armageddon Factor”). Drax built Mentalis, a powerful computer which is conducting a destructive, pointless war. The Doctor gets Drax to disassemble Mentalis. (The first episode of “Armageddon Factor” was the 500th episode of the series.)

Let me pause here to cast an eye on computer history. The first portable computer was designed at IBM's Palo Alto Scientific Center in 1973, but it was never made into a commercial product. In 1979, GM Research produced the Micro Star (designed and patented by James Murez). It was exhibited at Westec, where it was seen by Adam Osborne, and at Comdex that year.

Eighteen months later, 3 April 1981, the Osborne 1 was introduced. The next year, the Kaypro II. And in January 1983 the Compaq arrived. None was truly portable. They were transportable, each weighing in at around 20 pounds (the first two at over 10 kilos). But then, the Doctor needed both hands to carry K9.

Moreover, even the earliest sketch of K9 by Tony Harding shows a paper tape printout (Peter Haining, Doctor Who: A Celebration [London, 1983], p. 110). While paper tape was standardized in Europe in 1965 (ECMA 10), the few images of K9 spewing tape seem to emulate the DEC PDP-8 versions of 1965-70.

In February 1981, Peter Davison succeeded Tom Baker as the fifth Doctor. Younger than his predecessors and cricket-loving, Davison was more inclined to adventure than to science in his three years in the role. He was succeeded by Colin Baker in March 1984 (“The Twin Dilemma”).

I'm going to stop here. After all, BBC “paused” in production of episodes from 1989 to 2005 – a period that saw vast changes in computing and in communication. During the show’s hiatus, DEC, Compaq, Sun, Silicon Graphics, and many other companies vanished. The laptop and the tablet became common. Cell phones shrank from box size to small pad size. And GPS would come to mean “Galactic”, not “Global Positioning System,” to the Doctor.

And with that, I'm off to report to Gallifrey.

See also:

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