How Doctor Who Inspired Outlander

It is late 1968 and things are not going well. Doctor Who, the BBC’s star Saturday evening serial, was being transmitted 44 weeks of the year, placing a huge burden on the shoulders of both production team and stars. Worse of all, two scripts had fallen through, leaving ten episodes of the series unwritten, unplanned, and heading for disaster.

The task of saving the day fell on the shoulders of junior script editor Terrance Dicks, who immediately turned to his friend and mentor Malcolm Hulke for help. Together, they wrote, plotted and scripted a ten-episode serial, one of the longest that Doctor Who had attempted up to that time.

As Dicks says,

People used to say … Were you aware … that you were making classic television? … and I used to say ‘no’, our main plan was not to have to show the test card at 5.30 on a Saturday afternoon.

The final result was a bona-fide classic, which still exists in its entirety today:

The plot is a classic of wrong-footing the audience. The Tardis arrives in what the doctor and his companions believe to be a World War One battleground. However, they are actually in one of a series of zones set up on an alien world. Each one represents a war from earth’s past. They are populated by troops who have been captured and placed in the zone to fight to the death. In this way, the aliens hope to create a battle-hardened army to use in their plans of universal conquest.

Eventually, the doctor realises that he is overwhelmed by the task of returning thousands of people to their own time. Though a renegade who has stolen a time machine from his own people, the doctor is forced to call on them for aid. The risk is great as he will have to stand trial for his time meddling before a jury of his own race, named for the first time as The Time Lords.

Not only did this emergency writing project tell us more about the Doctor than we ever knew before, but it also inadvertently inspired one of the most popular sci-fi series around. Diana Gabaldon got the idea for Outlander while watching a broadcast of this Doctor Who adventure.

Indeed, Jamie Fraser is named after the doctor’s companion Jamie McCrimmon, himself a time-traveller from eighteenth century Scotland. Jamie’s first appearance was actually in a Doctor Who serial called The Highlanders, set around The Battle of Culloden (a major event in the Outlander series). You can see him in the clip above.

Nobody has seen The Highlanders for a very long time, because the BBC junked the episodes before they could be broadcast again. Tape at that time was difficult to store as well as expensive to use, so the BBC and other broadcasters regularly wiped recordings. This was supported by actors’ unions who felt that using repeats would reduce future work opportunities for actors.

The Highlanders was one of the worst affected by this process: the tapes were deleted almost immediately after broadcast. This shows how lucky it was that the whole of The War Games survives to this day.

Frazer Hines, who played Jamie McCrimmon, does have a small part in Outlander series 1 as a prison warden, and you can read about his meeting with Gabaldon on her blog here.

If you haven’t yet seen Outlander, it is a highly addictive time-travel saga where a World War II nurse is transported to eighteenth century Scotland. However, it also contains grotesque scenes of torture, which I found worse than anything in Game of Thrones.

The series’s success is hugely down to its leads Caitriona Bale, Sam Heughan, and a particularly impressive turn by Tobias Menzies who manages to portray both a wet drip of a husband as well as a psychopathic Redcoat. He may be one of the nastiest and most unpleasant villains of all time.

Yet if it hadn’t been for Doctor Who, there would never have been an Outlander at all.

9 responses to “How Doctor Who Inspired Outlander

  1. Love that Dicks’ remark. So much great TV and literature was done because it had to be (think of Dostoevsky trying to pay off his gambling debt) rather than because it was “inspired.”

    Need to see more Dr. Who. I really only know the Tom Baker seasons.

    • There are some great stories out there. A neat way in the Troughton era is to see The Three Doctors (Pertwee) and The Five Doctors (Davison). The new version of ‘The Day of the Daleks’ is also a good way into the Pertwee era.
      The Dicks’ quote comes from an extra about his career on the DVD of The Horror of Fang Rock. His novelisations of the stories got the whole of Britain’s children reading in the 70s and 80s.

  2. Doctor Who is such a god show, I hope it can get back on track with its writing in the new season. I haven’t seen The War Games for ages, I do love how Dicks is so offhand about the writing process, abut creating the lore that came to bring the longevity (along with the idea for regeneration that came from I can’t remember who a few series back). Will check Outlander when time permits.

    • I can’t remember who came up with the idea of regeneration either, but it was a brilliant one. Once they rejected the idea of an actor doing Hartnell, the show gained a new lease of life every 3-5 years or so. Funnily enough, throughout the late 60s and early 70s, the show was always on the point of cancellation. The trial in The War Games was also scripted with the idea that it might be the end, but of course, it was only a new beginning…

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