Saturday, November 24, 2007

Verity Dies, but the Doctor Lives

Verity Lambert, recording a Doctor Who commentary

The first-ever producer of Doctor Who, Verity Lambert, died on Thursday, November 22nd. It happened to be the day before the 44th anniversary of the show's premiere, which took place the day after the assassination of JFK.

I don't actually know all that much about Verity Lambert, but she must have been extraordinary. According to the story on Outpost Gallifrey, the fan-based news site from which I inadvertently swiped part of the name of this blog, Lambert was only 27 years old when she first produced Doctor Who, and the BBC's only female producer. This was in 1963, when a woman in charge of anything other than a classroom was still a rarity. (Another pioneer, Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, also contributed to the show's success, developing Ron Grainer's musical theme for the series into the iconic otherworldly sound that launched each episode.) Working with show creator Sydney Newman, writers Anthony Coburn and David Whitaker and others, Lambert took over a show that had been in development for a while, and got it onto the air. She's the one who cast William Hartnell as the first Doctor, and seems to have had a fair idea of the right mix of history, science and fantasy to ensure the show's success.

William Hartnell as the Doctor in An Unearthly Child (1963)

Lambert went on to form her own company, Cinema Verity, and produced many other television shows (including Rumpole of the Bailey and Jonathan Creek) and even some films. She won a number of awards over the years, including one lifetime achievement award that will now be presented posthumously. But her name will always be most associated with her first big success, Doctor Who. She has been interviewed for various Who-related documentaries over the years, and just this season was honored in the revived series itself. In one scene of the episode "Human Nature," the Doctor's human persona, John Smith, tells Joan that his parents' names were Sydney and Verity. He was more right than he knew.

For the 44th anniversary of Doctor Who, I listened to the new soundtrack at work, and then took a long nap before embarking on some late-night television. John and I watched the original pilot episode, "An Unearthly Child," and the corresponding first episode of the first serial as it actually aired. John noted that the main difference between the two was to make the characters more likable and accessible, although some details of the backstory were tweaked as well. Then we watched some comedy sketches from before the show's revival, several of them involving Mark Gatiss. These included "The Pitch of Fear," a fictional origin of the series; "The Corridor Sketch," which among other characters featured a parody version of Verity Lambert; "The Web of Caves," in which the Doctor (Gatiss) arranges to stop a would-be villain the following Wednesday; and "The Kidnappers," in which a deranged fan abducts Peter Davison and takes him home to his equally obsessed roommate (Gatiss again).

Next up was the last two episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures, a Doctor Who spinoff about former companion Sarah Jane Smith. For "The Lost Boy," the show's producers changed the paradigm a bit, bringing the father of teenaged co-lead Maria into the thick of the action, revealing that one character has a hidden agenda, and bringing in an old friend to help save the day. Good stuff! SJA is more consciously oriented toward children than Doctor Who itself, which gives it a little less dramatic oomph than the parent show; but it's still worthwhile. I don't know whether it will ever air here, but it's the highest-rated show in the history of the digital CBBC channel in the UK. Another Doctor Who spinoff, Torchwood, is the highest rated series on BBC America. See? I'm not the only American obsessing about this stuff!

Being the Doctor is hard work: the Tenth Doctor in a coma, Christmas 2005.

After "The Lost Boy" I watched bits and pieces of other things, including parts of the Tenth Doctor's earliest and latest appearances. David Tennant is visibly older now than he was in the 2005 Children in Need Special and in "The Christmas Invasion." I have to wonder how much of that is changes in the character's portrayal (hair, clothes, makeup, even acting choices, as the youthful, relatively happy Doctor becomes darker and sadder), and how much of it is wear and tear on the actor himself. I could joke about it being evidence of Tennant's participation in the Midnight Rep, the theater company in Sarah's and my serial "Later This Somewhere," but the truth is more obvious. Filming ten months of the year, Tennant consistently expresses his enthusiasm for the role, but acknowledges that it's a long and exhausting process. "It is all-consuming, this job," he acknowledges in one of his video diaries, as seen on DVD. "I think all of us on it are aware that we can't work at this pace forever, that it's a very particular time, one to be enjoyed and relished. But you also have to know when to stop, I think. Or it will kill you."

David Tennant as the Doctor, 2005

But he's not leaving just yet. He's filming the 2008 series now, and has signed on for a few specials in 2009 rather than a whole series, which frees him up to play Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company next year, and also appear in Love's Labour's Lost. I'm not a big fan of Hamlet, but I really wish I could see him in the comedy. I love Shakespeare comedies. But even if I can't see it, at least it means he gets to do something else that's interesting and prestigious and important, and doesn't have to leave Doctor Who prematurely. "I still feel very lucky to be doing this job," he says at the very end of the video diary. "It still feels like a privilege, and a right laugh.... See you next year."

The Tenth Doctor as of "Time Crash" (2007)

Thank you, Verity Lambert, for helping to launch something extraordinary that has enriched millions of lives over the past 44 years. I met many of my friends through Doctor Who, and half of my professional writing credits are Who-related. So I hope you'll forgive me, those of you who aren't Doctor Who fans, if I go on about it a little too often.



James Diggs said...

I have literally just learned about Verity Lambert as I have learned about her passing. She left a large legacy because so many people enjoy what she greatly contributed too even if they do not know her name. Thanks for posting about her.



Leah said...

I only just searched Verity's name because 'Voyage of the Damned' was dedicated to her. Now I'm glad I did. I hope (being the completely obsessed Doctor Who fan I am) that Doctor Who never ends.