Here’s how the Beatles (almost) met Doctor Who

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On May 22, 1965, children across England – and maybe some parents, too – finished their afternoon tea and took to the couch to watch the latest episode of the increasingly popular BBC 1 program, Doctor Who. A new storyline was beginning. Over six cliff-hanging episodes, “The Chase” would feature the Doctor and his friends being pursued across space and time by their arch nemeses, the Daleks.

Shaped like pepper pots, the Daleks were mechanical creatures that glided around on unseen wheels, barking out the word “exterminate!” in a nails-on-chalkboard screech and zapping people with electronic rays. They were terrifying and kids loved them. The Daleks had become a phenomenon. There were Dalek toys and books and board games. And, that summer, there would be a big screen Doctor Who and the Daleks movie, starring Peter Cushing as the Doctor. In color!

But, right then, on TV, the picture was still black and white and the Doctor was veteran character actor William Hartnell. The Daleks hadn’t shown up in the story yet and the Doctor – a kindly/crotchety man who looked to be in his early 60s – was in his time and space machine, the TARDIS, enjoying some down time with his onboard companions.

Ian and Barbara, both from the 1960s, had been with the Doctor since the start of the series in 1963 – while Vicki, a girl from the 25th century, had joined the group during a more recent adventure. The group was gathered around a device the Doctor called a Time and Space Visualizer. “I want to give you a demonstration,” said the Doctor, describing the machine as a sort of “time television.” All you do is select a planet and point in time and you can see it on the machine’s circular screen.

The group selected Earth and saw, first, Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. Of course, they wouldn’t have tuned into a scene of some unknown person doing something insignificant. Click. There was Sir Francis Bacon and William Shakespeare in Queen Elizabeth’s Court! Bacon is suggesting the Bard write a history of the Prince of Denmark, but the playwright isn’t so sure. Hamlet?

Click. What was this? “Here singing their latest No. 1 hit! It’s the Beatles!” shouted an announcer, and four young mop tops started harmonizing, “She’s got a ticket to ride.” Ian and Barbara recognized the group immediately. The Beatles were at the height of fame in their own time.

Vicki liked the music, too, and started to dance. Even the Doctor was getting into it … until Barbara bumped the machine and changed the channel. “You’ve squashed my favorite Beatles!” exclaimed the Doctor. Vicki said she had visited the Beatles Memorial Museum of Liverpool but didn’t realize they played “classical music.”

And that was that. The scene was barely a minute long. But for kids watching, it was a magic moment. The Beatles! On Doctor Who! For a brief flicker, two icons of British pop culture had shared space in time.

Parents watching probably thought the Beatles’ and the Doctor’s moment in history would be equally brief. Yet, 50 years later, there is, in fact, a Beatles museum in Liverpool and people are still buying the group’s music – whether on CD, in mono, on vinyl, or on iTunes. And Doctor Who, which fell out of favor and even went off the air for several years in Britain, has regenerated itself into a hugely popular show on both sides of the Atlantic. American kids can now buy Dalek toys at Hastings and Barnes and Noble.

We can even watch a clip of the Beatles and Doctor Who, shown at the beginning of this post, via our own version of the Space and Time Visualizer – YouTube. And, in Britain, you can own the DVD. In other countries, however, the scene is missing from the disk due to rights issues.

We can also imagine what might have been. According to the BBC’s Doctor Who site, the show’s producers originally wanted the Beatles to physically appear on the show, not just in a film clip. The idea was for the Fab Four to appear made up as old men. The group’s manager, Brian Epstein, reportedly vetoed the idea. It would’ve been fun to see, but also eerie to watch now considering that, of the Beatles, only Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have survived into what Baby Boomers would shudder to call “old age.”

The clip of the band used on the show comes from the BBC’s Top of the Pops program, and is rare because the Doctor Who version is the only surviving copy of the footage. Most of the original tape was erased, leaving only the above extract.

Google around and you’ll see plenty of other references to Doctor Who and the Beatles crossing paths. The band has been mentioned in several Doctor Who novels, for example. That only makes sense given the Doctor’s ability to traverse time and the Beatles’ historical significance. Where once it was absurd to place them alongside Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, it now makes perfect sense.

Also while Googling, you may come across a picture of a young John Lennon next to a Dalek. No explanation is given. And if you’re looking for the “Chase” clip, you may also find the version above. The Beatles’ appearance has been mischievously substituted with a clip of the Sex Pistols singing “God Save the Queen,” and the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki are all still bopping along. Now, that’s pretty funny.

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