Over the last 54 years, there have been 13 television Doctors (John Hurt counts) and ten UK prime ministers. With Peter Capaldi’s reign as Doctor Who about to end, and with Theresa May’s government looking rather uncertain on its feet, it’s possible that both those numbers may go up before the end of the year.
Is there any particular relationship between a UK prime minister and the Doctor Who shown while they’re in office? Can any leader be said to have had a measurable effect on the programme’s contents? Can we rank UK prime ministers in relation to the quality of their Doctor Who era? We can certainly try.
10) John Major (1990-97)
No of Episodes: 1 x 84mins = 84mins
For Doctor Who fans, the nineties was an era of anticipation. Of waiting for the series to come back. Twentieth century Doctor Who ended in 1989, shortly after Major became Thatcher’s final chancellor, leaving the Paul McGann-starring 1996 television movie (in which Sylvestor McCoy also briefly featured before regenerating) as the sole Doctor Who television production of both the nineties and his premiership.
John Major felt like a caretaker prime minister for almost all his time in office, between the curious political matricide that was the fall of Thatcher and the always inevitable seeming ’97 election loss. Only in the brief months between the 1992 election and Black Wednesday did he really have any stature. Which makes it hard to realise his nearly seven-year ministry makes him the twentieth longest-serving UK prime minister, and the ninth longest-serving since 1900. None of which was much help to him when it came to Doctor Who, but it does oddly reflect the state of the programme at the time.
Back in 1980, when Major was a newly elected government backbencher, a character with a remarkable resemblance to him appeared in the Doctor Who story Meglos. That’s a coincidence, of course. But the actor in that role, Christopher Owen, later played a Major avatar in House of Cards (1990) and To Play The King (1993).
09) Theresa May (2016-?)
No of Episodes: 11 x 45m, 2 x 60m = 615m
As the incumbent, obviously the numbers above can change – assuming the Prime Minister lasts until Christmas. Theresa May moved into Downing Street during 2016, a year in which there was no series of Doctor Who, and only one special episode, the now traditional Christmas Day installment. Given the general revulsion many felt for the year 2016 by its end, is it ultimately surprising that a Time Lord, knowing the future as he does, would have decided to give the whole year a miss except Christmas?
08) Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963-64)
No of Episodes: 42 x 25m = 1,050m.
From last to first. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, or the Earl of Home as he was then, visited the Palace in order to be asked to form a government by the Queen while the first episode of Doctor Who was being recorded.
As the papers that Friday morning had confidently asserted that Rab Butler would be MacMillan’s successor, this raises not only the possibility of the cast and crew of An Unearthly Child emerging blinking from Lime Grove Studio D to discover the prime minister had changed, and to someone other than whom they’d expected.
The First Doctor William Hartnell. Photo: Getty
Home’s brief premiership of just under a year saw the transmission of what we now think of as the first series of Doctor Who, 42 episodes from An Unearthly Child to Prisoners of Conciergerie, including the first bout of Dalekmania. A few years later, film critic Alexander Walker would claim that the Daleks sounded like Home’s successor Harold Wilson. Whether he also saw parallels between Home’s benevolent Victorian patriarch act and William Hartnell’s remains unknown.
07) James Callaghan (1976-1979)
No of Episodes: 78 x 25m = 1,950m
With Labour already in power, Callaghan was elected its leader and became PM between the thirteenth and fourteenth series of Doctor Who, while Tom Baker was in the title role. Exactly like the Doctor Who of this period, Callaghan’s ministry started out with considerable popularity, imagination and a great deal of style, yet became somewhat exhausted and ragged looking by Spring 1979.
The Sun Makers, made as part of the fifteenth series (1977), would be a not-exactly-subtle “satire” on his government’s taxation policy, written, apparently, by a scriptwriter, Robert Holmes, who was annoyed that he’d forgotten to pay income tax on his freelance earnings and was thus facing a large bill. Callaghan’s chancellor, rather than Callaghan himself, was the one singled out for censure by The Sun Makers, with villains whose appearance was modelled, in part, on Denis Healy’s. Callaghan had in fact been in the Navy with previous Doctor Who Jon Pertwee during the Second World War, and Pertwee talked fondly about him in his one man show.
06) Edward Heath (1970-74)
No of Episodes: 88 x 25m = 2,200m
Ted Heath’s ministry started between the first and second Jon Pertwee series of Doctor Who, and coincided with a big upswing in the programme’s popularity: the 1972 series featured episodes watched by more than 10m people for the first time since 1965.
While Heath’s government was almost permanently embattled, this is a period in which Doctor Who was in one of its occasional pomps, spanning the middle three Pertwee series and the celebrations surrounding the programme’s tenth anniversary. The 1972 serial The Curse of Peladon, about a barbaric and largely medieval planet applying to join a peaceful space confederation and trading bloc, has been widely interpreted as Doctor Who’s take on the UK’s accession to the then-EEC. The series was very much pro the UK/Peladon joining, and thus in accordance with Heath’s own view. But a lot of fans may never have found that out, as the 1972 miners’ strike meant much of the country couldn’t see parts three and four of the serial.
In an absolutely baffling coincidence, the first new Doctor Who story after the early 1974 general election – which unexpectedly resulted in a hung parliament and the total collapse of Heath’s authority – was The Monster of Peladon, a sequel to the above, and featured a character called Alpha Centauri. Centarui did not appear in the series again until Empress of Mars, the first new Doctor Who story after the early 2017 general election unexpectedly resulted in a hung parliament and the total collapse of May’s authority.
And another thing: The Green Death, also transmitted while Heath was PM, actually features a scene with a British prime minister for the first time in Doctor Who. Like many stories of the early Seventies, The Green Death is ostensibly set in the then-near future, although exactly when has long been a point of consternation between Doctor Who fans. That prime minister’s name? Jeremy. Liberal-voting Seventies producer Barry Letts had Jeremy Thorpe in mind, of course. But have we solved the riddle of The Green Death at last? Is is set in 2018?
05) Gordon Brown (2007-2010)
No of Episodes: 17 x 45m, 7 x 60, 1 x 72m, 1 x 90 = 1,347m
Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister during the closing trilogy of the 2007 series of Doctor Who, in which John Simm’s Master becomes prime minister himself. How’s that for synergy? Towards the end of the Brown government, Matt Smith replaced David Tennant as Doctor Who, and at the same time Steven Moffat took over from Russell T Davies as the series’ executive producer. It’s worth considering Davies and Moffat as respectively the Blair and Brown of Doctor Who, with quite a lot of parallels I’ll leave you to work out for yourselves.
The three Christmas specials aired during Brown’s premiership were watched by more than 12m people. Two of them by more than 13m, representing one of the series’ peaks of popularity, and the first time Doctor Who had cracked this many viewers since 1979. Of which more later.
Two of the last episodes of the Brown era featured Winston Churchill, played by Iain McNeice, and he was characterised as an old friend of the Doctor’s. This was the first time a real British prime minister had been played onscreen by an actor in Doctor Who. What’s even odder is that Churchill died in 1965, after Doctor Who was already up and running. So he could quite easily have seen any Doctor Who episode up to All Roads Lead To Rome. But probably didn’t.
04) Tony Blair (1997-2007)
No of Episodes: 38 x 45m, 2 x 60m = 1,830m
Blair was PM when Russell T Davies revived Doctor Who in 2005, although he was already then past his late-Nineties peak in terms of popularity. The first episode recorded of the RTD era, Aliens of London, features the corpse of a murdered prime minister, although to Tony’s presumed relief, it doesn’t look much like him.
A character in that story, Harriet Jones MP (later to be a fictional prime minister within Doctor Who) subtly identifies herself as part of New Labour by self-deprecatingly saying she’s “hardly one of the [Blair’s] Babes” referring to the then-much commented upon influx of women Labour MPs at the 1997 election. Aliens of London also features a barbed reference to ‘massive weapons of destruction’ that could be deployed in “45 seconds”. Wonder where they got that idea from.
An odd aspect of Aliens of London is that a parliamentary committee chairman Joseph Green (who is actually an alien Slitheen) automatically becomes acting prime minister because he’s the only member of the government in London during the crisis that unfolds across the story. Which suggests that the UK has a prime ministerial succession plan, much like the one in the US constitution, and also that committee chairmen are inherently government ministers. Neither of which is even remotely true.
Aliens of London also features Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor mentioning a friendship with David Lloyd George, and at the start of the next series David Tennant’s Doctor pulls a face having mentioned Margaret Thatcher.
Three weeks later, in Rise of the Cybermen, Blair became the first real life UK premier to be mentioned in the revived series while still in office. Two weeks after that, the Doctor and Rose visit Fifties England and namecheck then-prime minister Churchill. This flurry of prime ministerial mentions is all the more notable because the only real PM mentioned by name in twentieth century Doctor Who is the almost forgotten Andrew Bonar Law, the subject of a joke in Horror of Fang Rock (1977), a story set in the first decade of the twentieth century. Which hardly counts as topical satire.
03) David Cameron (2010-16)
No of Episodes: 53 x 45m, 8 x 60m, 1 x 77m, 1x 76m = 3,018m.
As with Major, it’s quite hard to believe Cameron was prime minister for as long as he was. Unlike Major, Cameron governed a country where Doctor Who was on every year. The Radio Times cover for the week of the General Election that brought Cameron to power featured the Daleks, was available in three colours (red, blue and yellow) and featured the words ‘Vote Dalek’. It’s a hugely memorable image, but something of a boon to those who consider Cameron the ‘heir to Blair’, to quote a now neglected phrase. The Radio Times for the week of the 2005 General Election also featured a Dalek and the words ‘Vote Dalek’. There was no choice of colours, though. Probably reflecting the essential truth that the result of that election was never in doubt. Doctor Who’s golden jubilee occurred during the Cameron government, the series seeing in its fiftieth year as it had its first episode, with an old etonian conservative prime minister in 10 Downing Street.
02) Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990)
No of Episodes: 174 x 25m, 15x 45m, 1x90m = 5,115m
Thatcher’s rise to power was predicted by Doctor Who in 1975, when the story Terror of the Zygons, set, like the aforementioned The Green Death, in the near future, had someone answer the telephone to the PM and refer to her as ‘Madam’. We shouldn’t give them too much credit for prescience, however. She was already Leader of the Opposition at the time.
Despite Thatcher’s reputation as a union basher, or maybe because of it, she’s the only prime minister to see Doctor Who episodes cancelled mid-production due to strikes. The 1979 series lost six episodes due to industrial unrest. The 1983 series lost four. On top of that, the 1984 series had to rush-produce its opening story, Warriors of the Deep, when BBC studio space suddenly became scarce following the announcement of the 1983 general election.
By some measures Doctor Who’s ratings peaked at the beginning of Thatcher’s premiership, with the first eight episodes shown during her ministry seen by more than 12m, and one by more than 16m people. But that too was down to strikes. ITV was off the air for months and viewers were stuck with either Doctor Who or BBC2 – which was showing socially conscious documentaries made by the BBC Community Programme Unit.
The Thatcher government outlived four Doctor Whos and the programme itself. She was prime minister for so long, and became so ubiquitous and divisive, several Eighties serials feature villains modelled on her. The 1988 serial The Happiness Patrol, which featured Sheila Hancock doing a Thatcher impression as dictator Helen A is now rather well known, even celebrated. It also managed to cause controversy about supposed BBC bias due to it being mentioned by the series’ then script editor Andrew Cartmel in a retrospective interview.
It’s not the only example though. The 1985 series in particular has three Thatcher avatars, one of whom, the Rani, is a former research chemist whose evil scheme involves the brutalisation of a group of north-west English miners. The story is set in 1813, not 1984, but as its writers, husband and wife team Pip and Jane Baker, met while campaigning for the Labour Party in the 1950s, it’s hard not to believe the comparison was deliberate.
By the time Doctor Who came back properly in 2005, the 1987 general election – the last one Thatcher fought and the last during twentieth century Doctor Who’s run – was sufficiently long ago that it features briefly as “historical colour” in the episode Father’s Day, which portrays the younger days of companion Rose Tyler’s parents.
Doctor Who’s most significant brush with Thatcher, however, didn’t come on television. In 1989 there was a Doctor Who stage play The Ultimate Adventure, which starred Jon Pertwee, and then later Colin Baker, as the Doctor. In both versions, Thatcher featured as a character, summoning the Doctor to Downing Street at the beginning of the story and sending him on a mission, like M does with James Bond.
No, she’s not revealed as the villain at the play’s end, but the Doctors’ attitudes to her are interesting. The Pertwee Doctor kisses her hand and calls her “Margaret”, and even “dear lady”, whereas Baker’s incarnation dismissively calls her “Maggie”. Both Doctors, however, when out of earshot, confide to the audience that: “I can cope with most things in the cosmos from Daleks to dinosaurs, but that woman terrifies me.”
01) Harold Wilson (1964-70, 74-76)
No of Episodes: 297 x 25m = 7,425m
Although he was prime minister for more of Doctor Who than anyone else, Harold Wilson didn’t manage to get mentioned in it until this year. He is namechecked, along with Anthony Eden, Thatcher (again) and the fictional Harriet Jones in Knock Knock, when the Doctor asks the seemingly disassociated Landlord who the current prime minister is. (Knock Knock, incidentally, feels like a modern version of those Thatcher bashing eighties serials, or The Sun Makers, given its strange nature as a horror story reflecting the housing crisis.)
Wilson came to power between the first two series of Doctor Who, and left office for the first time after Inferno, the climax of the first Jon Pertwee series. That’s a good six years, during which Doctor Who was on for around 40 weeks.
During Wilson’s premiership, Doctor Who achieved new heights of popularity, with the 1965 series in particular often being watched by more than 13m viewers. Wilson remained in office for the remainder of First Doctor William Hartnell’s era, and all of Patrick Troughton’s time on the programme. When Labour unexpectedly lost the 1970 general election, after a year of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, Wilson was faced with the possibility of watching the 1972 series somewhere other than Downing Street. Assuming he ever watched it at all.
Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. Photo: Getty
On 15 February 1974 it was announced that Tom Baker would be taking over as the Doctor at the end of the then-current series. This was a week after prime minister Edward Heath had called a general election. Wilson, who had remained Labour leader and leader of the opposition after his 1970 loss, unexpectedly became PM again at that election, which was held during transmission of Death to the Daleks. He was therefore in office to see in the Fourth Doctor three months later. Tom Baker’s first series, a little less than a year later, saw the programme watched by 13m viewers for the first time since 1965. Curiously, both the 1965 and 1975 stories featured giant insects.
This brings us to our final odd fact. With the exception of 1979, every Doctor Who episode watched by more than 13m viewers was shown while there was a Labour prime minister. Which means that, short of ITV going on strike, Doctor Who’s new executive producer Chris Chibnall should probably get out there and start leafleting for Jeremy Corbyn.