Doctor Who in all but name? The TV shows that paid homage to the TARDIS

For the last six decades, Doctor Who has been a staple of British Television. A clever combination of intriguing story-telling, scary moments and a time machine that can take you anywhere, piloted by an eccentric 2000 year old alien with two hearts, Doctor Who is undoubtedly the most flexible format ever screened. It would later be established that the Doctor was a Time Lord from Gallifrey, who could change appearance and even sex. Whilst not immortal, The Doctor has enjoyed a long life, and despite a period in the wilderness in the nineties, the show is now an integral part of the BBC’s schedule once more.

ITV pays “homage”

Inevitably, where there’s a hit TV show, there is a flattering homage. ITV has attempted to find a rival to the good Doctor on numerous occasions down the decades, in both children’s TV and prime time. Sometimes consciously basing a series around a version of the iconic character, or by simply transmitting a “spoiler” series of the same (or similar) genre, directly opposite Doctor Who in the schedule: In the classic era, Emerald Soup greeted Who‘s arrival in 1963 (more about that shortly). In 1975 Space 1999 was ITV’s first knowing attempt to topple Tom Baker. Despite being fully networked, however, the attempt failed because Space 1999 wasn’t shown at the same time by each region.

In 1980 ITV got its act together. Glossy American import Buck Rogers In The 25th Century and cute robot comedy Metal Mickey eventually succeeded in forcing Doctor Who (newly glossy-looking and about to eschew cute robot sidekick K9) from its traditional Saturday evening home. The following autumn Game For A Laugh did for The Generation Game and from 1982, a new era of Doctor Who sought the safer plains of weekday early evenings. The phenomenally popular action series The A Team and perennial favourite Robin Of Sherwood bested Who in the ratings upon its return to Saturdays in early 1985, forcing the BBC to put the show on hiatus, from which it never really fully recovered, before its cancellation in 1989.

In the Nu-Who era, and following the fall and submission of Celebrity Wrestling, which garnered just over a million viewers against the latter episodes of the Christopher Eccleston era, ITV marked David Tennant’s first series with Primeval (essentially Invasion Of The Dinosaurs with a huge FX budget!) in 2006. ITV’s obsession with finding a credible rival to Doctor Who has resulted in some fascinating and creative television:

Emerald Soup (1963)

Whether a coincidence or “spoiler” by design, though one wonders if such tactics existed back in 1963, some ITV regions began screening science fiction adventure serial Emerald Soup two whole weeks before the BBC launched Doctor Who. Emerald Soup was an environmentally-conscious story about the testing of radiation in a rural community. Perhaps the best known member of the cast was Annette Andre (later familiar to viewers of 1969’s Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) as Marty’s ostensible widow, Jeannie Hopkirk. Doctor Who‘s success, cemented by the emergence of the Daleks, just as Emerald Soup ended its run, really took ITV by surprise.

Jamie (1971)

Made by LWT and shown on Sundays for thirteen weeks during the summer of 1971, Jamie is essentially Doctor Who meets Mr Benn: Garry Miller played lucky Jamie Dodger (see what they did there?), who encounters enigmatic shopkeeper Mr Zed (Aubrey Morris), the owner of a bric-a-brac and curiosity shop, in which Jamie finds a carpet with “special magical properties” that allows him to “fly through time”. Like the Hartnell era of Who, this series played heavily to a historical/educational bent.

Jamie and Mr Zed experience, first-hand, major historical events such as The Battle of Trafalgar, The Great Fire of London and the Battle of Hastings; along the way they meet Robert the Bruce, Guy Fawkes and Nelson, among many others.

Ace Of Wands/Shadows/Mr Stabs (1970-2, 1975, 1984)

Based around the exploits of a charismatic magician, Tarot (Michael MacKenzie, later seen in The Omega Factor and Blake’s 7), the series saw Judy Loe and Tony “Glitz” Selby cast as Tarot’s companions. Later, Tarot came into conflict with Mr Stabs, essentially “The Master” to Tarot’s “Doctor”. Stabs was originally played by Russell Hunter in Ace Of Wands and subsequently appeared in the children’s anthology series Shadows, specifically the 1975 episode Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes. Nearly a decade later, Dramarama revived the character in the memorable 1984 episode Mr Stabs. David Jason assumed the title role, delivering a glorious “against type” performance, in a prequel to the character’s earlier appearances. The late David Rappaport (Time Bandits, Jigsaw, The Saturday Show) was his sidekick Luko.

The Tomorrow People (1973-9, 1992-5)

Oft-quoted as ITV’s ‘answer’ to Doctor Who. Creator Roger Price hadn’t really intended the series to be such an obvious rival and used it more as an expression of his thoughts and beliefs. Originally aired from 1973-1979, the “tomorrow people” referred to themselves as “Homo Superior” and to others as “saps” (homo sapiens). David Bowie included the term “Homo Superior” in his song Oh You Pretty Things, possibly influenced by a conversation he had with Roger Price, then outlining his ideas for the series whilst working at Granada Studios where Bowie was performing.

The group of adolescents were led by John (Nicholas Young), an inventor who operated from an abandoned Underground station known as The Lab. The other “tomorrow people” were Carol (Sammie Winmill), Kenny (Stephen Salman), and Stephen (Peter Vaughan Clarke). Their special powers were manifest in telekinesis, telepathy and “jaunting”, their word for instant teleportation. Completing the team was the computer, TIM, whose artificial intelligence often proved vital.

The series has several Doctor Who connections – most notably an appearance by Peter Davison in a grey Harpo Marx wig. The Tomorrow People‘s unsettling theme tune was composed by Who veteran Dudley Simpson, while director Paul Bernard had worked on both series and saw Carol as a similar character to Who‘s Jo Grant. The series was revived in 1992 with Kristian Schmid, of Neighbours and Going Live fame, and continued until 1995. It reappeared a third time in 2013 but not on ITV and wasn’t well received.

Sapphire And Steel (1979-82)

Created by Peter J Hammond, Sapphire And Steel ran for four series. Produced initially by ATV, it continued after the Midlands franchise was won by Central. Joanna Lumley, fresh from The New Avengers, was Sapphire and David McCallum, post The Man From UNCLE and a recent remake of The Invisible Man, played Steel. Little is revealed about the eponymous would-be heroes, other than they are some kind of agents protecting the space-time continuum.

David Collings, between appearances in Doctor Who serials The Sun Makers and Mawdryn Undead, played Silver, whose powers allow him to melt elements in his bare hands. The latter two serials, which formed the entirety of series 3 and 4, are most like Who: an industrialist celebrates 50 years of his company by having a 1930s dinner party at a country mansion, evoking far more than he bargained. It was penned by two Who alumni Don Houghton (Inferno) and Anthony Read (script editor for the latter part Season 15 and the whole of Season 16.) The final investigation was set in an abandoned diner, where it appears time has somehow stopped.

Erasmus Microman (1988-89)

Ken Campbell, the man who gave us “Sylvester McCoy – the human bomb!” played the eponymous Erasmus Microman. To say the character (and indeed the actor) was a man very much after the Doctor’s hearts would be an understatement. Ken was in the running for the 7th incarnation of the Doctor but his protege Sylvester got the part. Script Editor Andrew Cartmel felt Campbell was “too dark” a choice for a family show. A year later he became Erasmus Microman, who claims to be 1005 years old and lives inside your television set. Ken Campbell’s oddball eccentric scientist guides two bored children through the history of scientific discovery and invention, simultaneously giving some insight as to how he might have played the Doctor. In my book, along with Rik Mayall, Campbell is one of the greatest “should’ve been” Doctors.

Time Riders (1991)

Not to be confused with the similarly named novel by Anthony Horowitz, this midweek series featured motocycle-loving scientist Dr B.B. Miller, played by Hayden Gwynne (then famous for her role as Alex Pates in the Channel 4 newsroom comedy Drop The Dead Donkey and later to appear as a museum curator in Sherlock), who creates a time machine on two wheels. Picking up street urchin Ben Hardy in Victorian times, the two travel back to the English Civil War, where they narrowly escape the clutches of mad scientists only to end up meeting the malevolent Witchfinder General. From a 2019 viewpoint, this is precient stuff. One can easily imagine Gwynne as a potential first female Doctor if Who had gone in that direction after Sylvester McCoy’s time, instead of the limbo that followed its cancellation.

Demons (2009)

A team of vampire hunters headed by descendant of Van Helsing Luke Rutherford (Christian Cooke) tackle strange phenomena and evil creatures on the streets. Created, in part, as a vehicle for Philip Glenister, whose star was very much in the ascendency after five successful years playing rogue copper Gene Hunt in Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes. Glenister plays American Rupert Galvin, Luke’s godfather. Holliday Grainger plays Ruby, Luke’s tenacious best friend, determined to be part of the action. A Gothic mix of Doctor Who and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which despite guests including Mackenzie Crook, Kevin McNally and Richard Wilson, was somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Demons was originally scheduled to run opposite (what ITV bosses had assumed would be) David Tennant’s fourth series of Doctor Who in the spring of 2009, however, once he announced his departure from the role and that there would only be Who specials rather than a full-blown series, ITV moved Demons to early January. It began on January 3rd 2009; coincidentally, the same day BBC1 ran a special Doctor Who Confidential announcing Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor.

Honourable mention: The Come-Uppance Of Captain Katt (1986)

The notorious DramaramaThe Come-Uppance Of Captain Katt, was penned by ex-Who writer and director Peter Grimwade. Anyone familiar with the behind-the-scenes goings on during the John Nathan-Turner era of Doctor Who will note a few familiar plot points. Alfred Marks plays the eponymous Captain Katt – his alter ego Ludo is a larger than life actor with a loud booming voice. Simon Rouse (who appeared in Doctor Who serial Kinda) plays a frustrated producer who wants to quit, only to be told he can’t as the TV company want another thirteen episodes. Tom Baker’s attitude to the writers and his faltering relationship with Lalla Ward are also parodied. The two stars of Captain Katt at one point are asked “not to keep looking away from each other”, mirroring the difficulties of recording State Of Decay. An actress playing the loveable Mugwump (a dog-like creature who gets more love and fan mail than the star) discovers she is to be written out of the show…. A throwaway line mentions a “Sychoraxian swamp” – possibly the origin of the name of the antagonists in The Christmas Invasion? There is even a press event for the launch of Katt’s waxwork dummy…

See the many BBC television shows influenced by Doctor Who over on page two


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