Time Monsters and Space Museums: Doctor Who and Education

Tom Steward, Independent Scholar |


When Doctor Who first aired in 1963, the BBC’s principal design focus for the series was education (Chapman, 2006; Haining, 1990). Much of pilot episode ‘An Unearthly Child’ takes place inside secondary school classrooms and features montages of lessons. Prior to broadcast, two publicity stills of the Doctor’s original companions, schoolteachers Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell) appeared in the Radio Times, locating the programme in the school library and laboratory.

In background notes, BBC Drama Head Sydney Newman instructed writers to ‘get across the basis of teaching of educational experience’ (Webber and Newman, 1963). There was anxiety amongst the production team about the potential damage fantasy and culturally derided aspects of science-fiction could do to Doctor Who’s educational outcomes. Production documents such as design notes on the Doctor’s time machine cautioned against imagery synonymous with ‘the lowgrade spacefiction of cartoon strip’ (ibid).

Jacqueline Hill as Barbara Wright

Jacqueline Hill as Barbara Wright. Image Credit BBC.

Why did the BBC want Doctor Who to be educational? BBC Television broadcasted under a public service mandate demanding balanced schedules inclusive of significant cultural and educational highlights, specified in their mantra: ‘inform, educate and entertain’. Doctor Who debuted a year after a UK government committee on broadcasting published The Pilkington Report praising the seriousness of BBC TV output and demanding more challenging programmes to foster active television viewers.

Doctor Who’s early commitment to education is evident in making the original supporting characters teachers and students, or both. Ian and Barbara are schoolteachers and Susan (Carole Ann Ford) is a pupil who teaches her schoolmasters. Doctor Who’s early historical stories emphasise education by downplaying the programme’s fantasy with minimal science-fiction elements (the TARDIS, The Doctor, Susan) and storylines segued with topics schoolchildren were reading about in textbooks, for example ‘The Aztecs’ (1964).

Historical research was encouraged amongst writers by original producer Verity Lambert and script editor David Whitaker, some of whom, such as ‘Marco Polo’ (1964) author John Lucarotti, had backgrounds as historians. Science-fiction stories in the programme’s early years slow the storytelling to explain the fantastic in scientifically credible terms. In ‘An Unearthly Child’, the idea of television fitting the world into one living room is used to describe the trans-dimensional space of the TARDIS that is ‘bigger on the inside’.

William Russell as Ian Chesterton.

William Russell as Ian Chesterton. Image credit BBC.

Despite this early educational emphasis, Doctor Who was seen to have failed as pedagogy. TV scholar James Chapman – author of Inside the Tardis – argues that the programme ignores its educational remit more than it observes it (Chapman, 2006). Some of this is timing. The classroom ensemble left Doctor Who in 1965 to be replaced by characters without teaching functions. The series debuted as British television was growing rapidly as a mass-medium and the BBC competed against popular programmes on commercial channel ITV.

That said, the BBC’s public service remit specifies entertainment as much as it does education and Doctor Who was always considered entertainment. The series was in a Saturday-evening timeslot alongside popular comedy, drama, music and sports programmes. The conceit was closely modelled on findings of BBC Drama Audience Research reports (Webber, 1963) seeking preferences for a Saturday-evening children’s adventure and attempted to give the public what they wanted rather than what was good for them.

Historical and science-fiction stories from Doctor Who’s early years weren’t always educational. History sometimes functioned as genre formula with ‘The Romans’ (1965) and ‘The Gunfighters’ (1966) riffing on Hollywood epics and westerns. The cultural phenomenon of The Daleks (introduced in the second story) instigated a shift away from stories founded on hard science towards those featuring monsters and aliens. The educational content of Doctor Who was vulnerable to changing perceptions of its popularity.

Anecdotal evidence that history was unpopular with audiences led producers from mid-1960s onwards to replace historical stories with fantasies in historical costume featuring anachronistic villains or monsters and portrayed according to cinematic and literary conventions, like Victorian melodrama ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ (1977). In the mid-1960s and 1970s, hard science gave way to plays on monster B-movies, and science-fiction movie pastiches, such as Frankenstein homage ‘The Brain of Morbius’ (1975).

Doctor Who - ‘Radio Times’ TV Listing

From the BBC Archive – The Genesis of Doctor Who – ‘Radio Times’ TV Listing, 23 November 1963.

Doctor Who’s austere production budgets often meant education was sacrificed. In 1970, the series re-located to a contemporary earth setting to cut costs, eliminating historical stories and the necessity of scientific explanations for several years. 1960s producer Innes Lloyd removed historical stories to prevent Doctor Who’s history on-the-cheap ruining the BBC’s reputation for lavish period drama. ‘The Mind Robber’ (1968) left science behind for a place outlying time and space so that an empty studio space could be used for filming.

History and science have been overlooked since the 2005 re-boot. Doctor Who remains responsive to audiences, having re-tooled the programme using audience research. Fan commentary castigating episodes set in the past, such as ‘Victory of the Daleks’ (2010), again compelled producers to reduce Doctor Who’s historical stresses. Critics have bemoaned the new series’ lack of ‘plausible’ science-fiction. In a 2010 article, author Terry Pratchett claimed Doctor Who replaced scientific logic with ‘makeitupasyougalongeum’.

Doctor Who’s producers remain ambivalent about education. Russell T Davies had qualms about the episode ‘School Reunion’ (2006) alienating children during Easter break. Steven Moffat’s observation in Doctor Who Confidential (2005-2011) that writer Mark Gatiss ‘always does his research’ for historical stories suggests this is rare in Doctor Who’s production culture. BBC special The Science of Doctor Who (2012) had Moffat confessing a superficial understanding of the physics behind the programme’s science-fiction.

Doctor Who’s teaching seem to have moved into its inter-texts. Context and information about historical periods seen in the programme is provided by BBC online teaching aids such as The Doctor Who History Hunt. Hard science is now more readily found in spin-off non-fiction, like the BBC lecture The Science of Doctor Who (2013), than the programme’s scripts. Does this mean that Doctor Who was ultimately unsuccessful at educating viewers?

Not necessarily. The relationship between the Doctor and his companions periodically relapsed into a teacher-student dynamic, identifiable in Fourth Doctor Tom Baker’s civilising of primitive Leela (Louise Jameson) or Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy’s mentoring of teenager Ace (Sophie Aldred). Doctor Who presented science and historical fiction in such a way that it introduced viewers to relevant educational debates and issues, such as the ethical quandaries of wartime science and technology discussed in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ (1974).

An educational renaissance took place in Doctor Who in the early 1980s under the producer-script editor partnership of John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H. Bidmead. Courting adult audiences, ‘Logopolis’ (1981) and ‘Castrovalva’ (1982) discussed advanced mathematics, the latter reprising the earlier technique of braking the plot to explain the fantastic in terms of scientific theory. Country-house mystery ‘Black Orchid’ (1982) was the first pure historical since ‘The Highlanders’ (1966) and an experiment by Nathan-Turner to see if younger viewers still responded to Doctor Who as period drama.

After 2005, Doctor Who returned to history in the form of celebrity biography, as with Charles Dickens in ‘The Unquiet Dead’ (2005) and Agatha Christie in ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’ (2008). These stories took their cue from contemporary culture’s interest in the intimate lives and personal problems of the rich and famous. Cameos from best-selling biology author Richard Dawkins and TV astronomer Patrick Moore suggested continuing concerns with academic science.

Richard Dawkins cameo

Richard Dawkins cameo. Image credit BBC

As well as entertaining in such a way as to sustain interest in history and science, Doctor Who taught these subjects through fantasy and consequently delivered a better quality of education. Historical fantasies ‘The Time Meddler’ (1965) and ‘Enlightenment’ (1982) take emphasis off facts and information and on to villains and monsters, compelling viewers to research independently. Later science-fiction stories used fantasy to teach science by proxy. Dialogue in ‘The Impossible Planet’ (2006) on the fallacy of planets orbiting black holes tells us all we need to know about what should happen.

From ‘An Unearthly Child’ where Susan challenges the authority of a French Revolution history textbook through to the revisioning of President Richard Nixon’s legacy in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ (2011), Doctor Who debunked historical myths. The series continued to engage philosophically with scientific theory. ‘Battlefield’ (1989) dramatises science writer Arthur C. Clarke’s law of prediction: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.

Patrick Moore

Patrick Moore cameo. Image credit BBC

Though recent period-based episodes such as ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ (2011) lack historical information, viewers can pick up the trail with Doctor Who’s internet resources highlighting historical figures who can be studied in detail on BBC website links to BBC educational webpages. The programme is still used to teach science on TV. In 2013, Doctor Who was the pretence (however tenuous) for an hour-long lecture by noted physicist Professor Brian Cox on primetime BBC Two.

School is not yet out for Doctor Who. The 50th Anniversary special ‘Day of the Doctor’ (2013) opens in a secondary school in tribute to ‘An Unearthly Child’. However, the Doctor’s ongoing companion Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) is now a schoolteacher and there are reports that teacher Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) will become a series regular. With Doctor Who back in the classroom and teachers heading up the cast, education could be making a comeback.


Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald



Chapman, J. (2006) Inside the TARDIS: The Worlds of Doctor Who, London: I.B. Tauris.

Haining, P. (1990) Doctor Who: 25 Glorious Years, Kent: BBC Books.

Pratchett, T. (2010) ‘Terry Pratchett vs. Who’. Available: http://www.sfx.co.uk/2010/05/03/guest-blog-terry-pratchett-on-doctor-who/. Last accessed: 6th June 2014.

Webber, C. E. (1963). ‘Science Fiction’. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/doctorwho/6402.shtml. Last accessed: 6th June 2014.

Webber, C.E. and Newman, S. (1963). ‘Dr Who: General Notes on Background and Approach’. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/doctorwho/6403.shtml. Last accessed 6th June 2014.


Tom Steward is an independent scholar, blogger and critic based in San Diego, California. He previously taught Film and Television Studies at The University of Warwick and The University of Nottingham and Media Theory at Bournemouth University. His research focuses on television aesthetics, production and history with key findings published in Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies and The Journal of British Cinema and Television. He has written chapters for academic books including Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom. He writes weekly posts for the TV blog Watching TV with Americans and reviews films for various electronic publications including Alternate Takes.

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