DW60: Who the Heck are You?

Any successful character will inevitably produce a whole host of imitations, spoofs and homages. Doctor Who is no exception. Over the decades, there have been a whole host of literary wannabes who are nearly, but not quite, the Doctor. Let’s take a look at just a few of them…

Professor Wagstaffe (A Hitch in Time, 1978)

The Children’s Film Foundation was a film production unit partly subsidised by the government with the intention of producing quality filmed material for children. Running from 1951 to 1988 (and beyond as a separate entity), the CFF produced a wide variety of different types of film, from light comedies to surprisingly heavy dramas, and introduced as lot of familiar faces to the British public. The 1978 production A Hitch in Time, directed by Jan Darnley-Smith, was a knockabout science fiction comedy about two children who stumble across eccentric scientist Professor Wagstaffe in an abandoned church hall, where he is working on his latest project – a time machine! Of particular interest to Doctor Who fans is the fact that Professor Wagstaffe is played by none other than Patrick Troughton, almost a decade on from his role as the Second Doctor and resplendent in an enormous handlebar moustache. Although it’s a very different character from the Second Doctor, you can still detect the odd Who-ish moment in Troughton’s performance and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if someone somewhere had written fanfic to retcon this away as the Season 6B Doctor.

Erasmus Microman (Erasmus Microman, 1988-89)

According to Sylvester McCoy, his friend and mentor Ken Campbell also auditioned for the part of the Doctor in 1987 (a role that McCoy eventually won) but producer John Nathan-Turner found his reading too ‘disturbing’ to consider for the part. Since the acerbic Campbell’s audition is not one of those included on the Season 24 blu-ray boxed set, we’ll have to take McCoy’s word for that, but it didn’t stop Granada Television from casting him in a very similar role in the children’s series Erasmus Microman one year later. Ostensibly an educational series about history and science, the series morphed into more of a drama in its second season, before disappearing completely from the face of the universe (seriously, there’s not so much as a clip on YouTube). Campbell plays the titular Microman, who draws bored children through their TV set to his space/time vessel, where they visit interesting characters throughout history and in the second series, he also adopts the dual role of his evil alter-ego Dr. Dark. Filmed in a minimalist, almost surreal, style, it’s an intriguing piece of invisible television from the medium’s recent history.

Professor Gamma (Professor Gamma books, 1982)

Sir Fred Hoyle was a renowned British astronomer who, as well as writing numerous scientific papers that are still highly regarded today, also wrote a number of children’s books with his son, the science fiction author Geoffrey Hoyle. The father and son team wrote four books in 1982 about the mysterious Professor Gamma and his young associates William and Kyril, who travel throughout the universe via the medium of the Professor’s time travelling pipe. Yes, you heard me – a pipe! There were four books in the Professor Gamma series: The Energy Pirate, The Frozen Planet of Azuron, The Giants of Universal Park and The Planet of Death, and although they were published by Ladybird Books and aimed at quite a young audience, they’re a lot of fun and – time travelling smoking equipment aside – contain some quite interesting scientific principles for young minds. The four stories were also released by Pickwick as audiobooks read by husband and wife acting team Charles Collingwood and Judy Bennett, the former of whom was a lifelong friend of Anthony Ainley, who played the Master in Doctor Who throughout the 1980s.

Professor Gamble (Power Man and Iron Fist, 1981)

Marvel’s American superhero comics in 1981 are the last place you would expect to find a Doctor Who homage, especially in the macho world of kung-fu/blaxploitation crossover Power Man and Iron Fist. Yet, that is exactly what happened in issue 79 of that comic book, in a story entitled ‘The Day of the Dredlox’. Sounds a bit like Day of the Daleks, doesn’t it? Yes and not without reason. The Dredlox are a race of homicidal mechanical creatures that have travelled from the future using their ‘Time Platform’. Our heroes think that they’re just fantasy creations from a far-out theatre play about a mysterious traveller in space and time called Professor Gamble. But it turns out that Professor Justin Alphonse Gamble is a real person, who wrote the play based on his own unlikely experiences. He’s an eccentric chap who dressed a bit like Willy Wonka and lives in a bookshop that is mysteriously bigger inside than out and may or may not travel in time. Ringing any bells? Professor Gamble has been retconned as an employee of the Time Variance Authority, who didn’t appear in the comics proper until 1986 and recently invited Doctor Who comparisons online when they appeared in the Disney+ series Loki.

Rufus (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 1991)

As fondly remembered as it is now, a lot of old-school Doctor Who fans really didn’t like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure when it was released in 1991. They thought that it was mocking their favourite TV show, so they put on their waistcoats, sat under their signed photograph of Victoria Waterfield and wrote their fifth strongly-worded letter of the month to the BBC. Why, oh why, oh why (in green ink) etc. “Mellow out, dude,” said the rest of us; “it’s only, like, a movie – stop being so bogus.” The cause of all that middle-aged consternation was, of course, the fact that the time machine which the 27th century traveller Rufus (George Carlin) whisks 20th century layabouts Bill S. Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan (Keanu Reeves) on a trip through history appears in the shape of a phone booth. It isn’t bigger on the inside though, leading to much hilarious ‘cramming’ and the fact that it’s a telephone box of some kind is a reference that would have flown over the heads of most of its North American audience in 1991. Apart from that, Rufus is entirely dissimilar from the Doctor, so those old-school fans need not have got their Fourth Doctor Y-fronts in a twist.

Dr. Who (King Kong Escapes, 1967)

Much has been written about the visual similarities between the sinister mastermind Dr. Who in the 19687 Japanese American co-production Kingu Kongu no Gayakushū, known as King Kong Escapes in English, and the First Doctor played by William Hartnell (not least by me). The story of how this mash-up of Japanese Kaiju and American monster movie came to the screen is long and complicated but, in a nutshell, it revolves around the American side’s rejection of the Japanese script in favour of one that was prepared for a feature-length instalment of the Rankin Bass Saturday morning King Kong cartoon series. The cartoon series featured a bulbous-headed megalomaniac called Dr. Who as the recurring villain, but when he transferred to the big screen in live action, he was played with sinister perfection by Hideo Amamoto. Apart from the name, the comparisons mainly come from stills which show Amamoto dressed in black forage cap and cape, looking not dissimilar to early Hartnell, but it’s unlikely this was more than a coincidence as neither Japan nor the United States broadcast Doctor Who until the early 1970s.

Doctor Omega (Le Docteur Oméga, 1906)

Talk about timey-wimey! The character most often compared with the Doctor in his earliest days originates from a French scientific romance first published 57 years before the BBC television series. Doctor Omega is an eccentric scientist who travels from France to Mars with his two companions Denis and Fred in an amazing craft called the Cosmos. Although it’s very often compared to Doctor Who, Arnould Galopin’s novel is actually a lot less like the series than some would have you believe and it reads much more like the kind of fantastical boy’s own adventure that was popular in the 19th century than anything resembling the 20th century television series. Its closest comparison is undoubtedly with H.G. Wells’ 1901 novel The First Men in the Moon, with the gravity-defying substance Repulsite used to propel Doctor Omega’s vehicle drawing very obvious comparisons with Wells’ Cavorite. If there appear to be some similarities between Doctor Omega and Doctor Who, it is undoubtedly because they both draw their initial inspirations from the same sources – the books of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s