As a quintessentially English scifi show Doctor Who tends to use Cambridge whenever it needs a shorthand that a character is a brainbox. Harold Saxon, the ambitious politician adopted as a false identity by John Simm’s Master, claimed to be a Cantab. Companion Liz Shaw, who appeared alongside Jon Pertwee in 1970, was a bright young scientist recruited from ‘an important research programme’ at Cambridge. In The Time Monster (1972) the Master conducts his sinister experiments by infiltrating the Newton Institute ‘just outside Cambridge’.
And with the fiftieth anniversary, it’s worth nothing that, according to a recent shout-out in the Sarah Jane Adventures, the original companions Ian and Barbara went on to become Cambridge professors.
However, not many outside the Whovian community remember the time when the Doctor actually visited Cambridge. Shada (1979), written by legendary Johnian Douglas Adams, was never finished because BBC strikes interrupted the production. Annoyed that the story wasn’t broadcast, Adams adapted the setting to create Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. But, luckily for us, parts of the episode were actually filmed, and in particular the shooting on location in Cambridge was completed, so you can get hold of it and watch it.
The story centres around St Cedd’s College (filmed largely in Emmanuel) where the Doctor apparently took ‘an honorary degree in 1960’. Professor Chronotis, a forgetful old don, has stayed in the same set of rooms as long as anybody can remember. In fact, he is a Time Lord and has been there for centuries.
Crammed with nods to Cambridge, it’s worth watching the first two reconstructed episodes even if you’re not a serious Whovian. You will enjoy the epic showdown on Orgasm Bridge. You will get annoyed at geographical inconsistencies. You will nod in recognition at porters with unbelievably impressive memories and the TARDIS’s confusion at fact that May Week takes place in June.
As for out-of-universe Cantab involvement in the series, there is surprisingly little. Unfortunately, no Cambridge graduate has ever played the Doctor or any of his companions – though Derek Jacobi has been the Master. In fact, plenty of Cantabs have played baddies: Ian McKellen voiced the Great Intelligence in The Snowmen (2012), whilst Lily Cole and Mitchell and Webb have had cameos in some of the dodgier stories of recent years. Other graduates associated with the classic series include script editor Terrance Hicks and producer Philip Hinchcliffe, as well as Delia Derbyshire, who helped create the iconic theme music.
It’s unsurprising, given Cambridge’s geeky atmosphere, that there are large numbers of Who lovers among the student population. You can try Cambridge University Science Fiction Society (CUSFS) or the newly-founded Cambridge University Doctor Who Society, both of which hold regular discussions and episode screenings.