Before Doctor Who debuted on the CBC, the CBC Times published this tongue-in-cheek "warning" for parents. (Courtesy BroaDWcast.org).“Will this man influence young minds?”
That was the question asked of Canadian parents 50 years ago on January 23, 1965, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) became the first North American broadcaster to air Doctor Who. At this time, only two other markets outside the UK, New Zealand and Australia, had aired the show. Efforts to sell the low-budgeted series had failed in the US where glossier British imports like The Saint held sway. But the CBC was very much like the BBC and low-budgeted, studio-bound productions were common, so Doctor Who found a Canadian home.
The fact the series was in part devised by Canadian Sydney Newman, who had worked for the CBC until the late 1950s, likely was a selling point in its favour.
To mark the debut, the January 23, 1965 edition of CBC Times (long-defunct Canadian equivalent of Radio Times) got into the spirit by publishing a faux memo to the nation’s parents, “warning” them of the impending arrival of “Dr. Who” in their living rooms, illustrated with an image of William Hartnell and a pair of Sensorites.
Broadcasts began with An Unearthly Child, with the series scheduled at 5 p.m. on Saturdays, mimicking the BBC’s scheduling (some CBC affiliates aired it at different times). After episode 6 of The Daleks, however, the CBC took Doctor Who off the air for more than two weeks and when it returned it was in a new timeslot on Wednesday afternoons.
With many CBC stations broadcasting close to the border, some American markets, such as Seattle and Detroit, would have been able to see the show, nearly a decade before the Jon Pertwee-era episodes were finally syndicated there.
Ultimately, Doctor Who was destined for a short run on the CBC. After July 2, 1965, the show was abruptly cancelled after the conclusion of The Keys of Marinus (according to the research site BroaDWcast.org, it’s possible at least one affiliate was forced to pull the show midway through the serial). Ironically, the show was pulled before getting to The Sensorites, the storyline promoted in the original CBC Times memo.
Doctor Who would not be shown in Canada again until 1976 when local broadcasters in Vancouver and Ontario began showing the Pertwee era. The episodes aired by the CBC in 1965 (minus the now-lost Marco Polo, but finally including the long-delayed The Sensorites) would not be seen again until the youth-oriented cable network YTV began showing them in the late 1980s, followed by Space in 1997.
The CBC would play a role in the revival of Doctor Who in 2005, receiving a co-production credit for the first few seasons and airing the show in prime-time only a few weeks after the UK. For Series 1, the network recruited Christopher Eccleston to record special bumpers and intros and promotions for a visit-the-set contest sponsored by TV Guide; Billie Piper (donning an iconic Roots top) performed similar duties when The Christmas Invasion aired only one day after the UK. The CBC also produced its own behind-the-scenes featurettes that aired alongside the main show.
By 2008, however, interest in the series at the CBC (which had similarly supported, broadcast, and then cancelled Torchwood) had waned. With Series 2, the gap between UK and Canadian airings extended to months and the CBC split the season (years before the BBC ever did) between The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. It skipped the 2007 Christmas special Voyage of the Damned altogether, and aired an international edit of Journey's End that was heavily criticized by Canadian fans. In early 2009, Space picked up the rights to air The Next Doctor and everything that followed. The CBC continued to air Modern Era reruns for the next couple of years on the main network and its digital network Bold, before quietly ending its run.
The CBC’s original broadcast of Doctor Who has retained some interest decades later due to the fact one story shown in its entirety was the now-lost Marco Polo. However, despite the fact the series aired on affiliates from St. John’s, Nfld., to Vancouver, B.C., to date no copy of this serial has emerged from the Great White North.
Learn more about the history of CBC and Canadian broadcasts of Classic Era Doctor Who at BroaDWcast.org. The site, run by Jon Preddle, John Lavalie and Steven Warren Hill, is always on the hunt for information about non-UK broadcasts of Doctor Who, including those in Canada. The ongoing adventures of Doctor Who on television in North America can be followed via This Week in Doctor Who.