Doctor Who – The Cult TV Show That’s Turning Kids into Programmers

I was inspired recently by an article in Computer Weekly which details a new initiative by the BBC to encourage young people to get into the art of computer programming by entering a competition.

To entice them further, this programming competition is based on the long running UK based TV show (which I believe has been exported to numerous countries around the world) called Doctor Who.

This cult science fiction TV show, was first broadcast in 1963, ran for 26 years and then disappeared from our screens for 16 years before being successfully revived in 2005 due to pressure from a huge following of fans to bring it back. The infamous bad guys (the alien monsters) are called “The Daleks”. They are spooky and dark, had synthesized voices and they used to frighten the pants off me and my twin brother when I was a child. We both used to hide behind the sofa and peek around the corner – much to the amusement of my Dad. 

In the article, kids are encouraged to enter the BBC competition to program a Dalek and make it ‘fly’.

Now, something you may not know about Halcyon is that we actually own a Dalek. Visitors to our offices in Peterborough, often do a quick “double-take” when they glimpse something sinister from their childhood apparently lurking in the innocuous space of our kitchen – right next to the water cooler.


A journey back in time: the original Dalek with our founder and CEO, Lorraine Cousins

We have taken it to tradeshows in the UK and Europe and it is always a crowd pleaser as there are plenty of new and old Dr Who fans around. We once sent a contingent of speakers to IBM Warwick, UK where we were holding a Systems Management Master class Workshop and had invited our customers.

We packed up two Daleks (we owned a red one and a black one those days) into a truck and as the Daleks don’t have feet (only wheels) I had asked IBM the day before if there was any disabled access to the seminar rooms. (I wasn’t taking the risk that we wouldn’t be allowed to take them to an IBM site and anyhow … exactly which department at IBM would I need to have asked?)

We duly arrived on site at IBM, my boss (the CEO) and I were in a car following the truck with the Daleks inside – when we noticed our driver, Donnie, our Technical Services Director, getting stopped by a rather officious looking security guard who asked to see what was in the vehicle.

Just when I thought the game was up – Donnie took off the padlock, opened the doors of the truck and the security guard suddenly said, “Cool! Daleks! … Can I have my picture taken?”

We laughed, unloaded the Daleks and Barry, the security guard, posed for a photo. I managed to get a good shot using the backdrop of a glass bus shelter that happened to have the IBM logo emblazoned on it. He stood in the middle and the red and black Dalek stood either side of him.

It helped me the get the headline I really wanted for my article about the event – “Daleks invade IBM” and it got great coverage at the time and even went into the IBMers staff magazine!

Who’s guarding who? Barry and the Daleks

Barry then helped us push the Daleks up the disabled ramp to get them into the seminar room and the workshop went well with plenty of photo opportunities for our customers at the event. Not only were the Daleks a big hit with our attendees but we soon had a large queue of IBMers with their mobile phones gathered around the Dalek taking pictures! This was before the days of social media but word still spread quickly around the IBM site and mostly by text message!

People would often ask us at expos … so why do you have a Dalek on your booth? I would smile and answer – “Because you’re here talking to me, what’s your name and where do you come from?” It was always a great icebreaker and got folks talking about the TV show.

The more intelligent answer (warning … watch out for the marketing spin!) was that the Daleks were the biggest control freaks in the universe. They were always invading other galaxies and planets and occupying and enslaving the unfortunate inhabitants (including planet Earth). To prove the point and surprise people at events we had a CD player housed inside the Dalek body which proudly and intermittently announced in a sinister, synthesised voice to passers-by, “I use Halcyon Software and look what happened to me … I’m in control”.

Anyway, I thought I would share some funny memories and also remark that it was  great to see that a well-respected organization like the BBC were doing their bit to encourage the next generation of coders.