Saturday, November 23, 2013

The 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who

It was 50 years ago today, on 23 November 1963 at 5:15 PM GMT, that Doctor Who debuted. For those unfamiliar with the programme, Doctor Who centres on a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, known only as "The Doctor", who travels through time and space in a vessel known as the TARDIS (short for "Time and Relative Dimension in Space"). At the beginning of the programme The Doctor was already hundreds of years old. Like other Time Lords, The Doctor has the ability when fatally wounded to regenerate into a new form. As a result, several different actors have portrayed The Doctor over the years. While his vessel, the TARDIS,  is supposed to be able to assume any shape in order to better fit into its surroundings, its chameleon circuit was damaged and it was stuck in the shape of a Sixties era police callbox (The Doctor had attempted to fix the chameleon circuit over the years, to no avail, before finally giving up). The TARDIS is bigger on the inside than it is the outside, so that while it looks like a police box, its interior is much, much larger.

While the first Doctor Who serial, "An Unearthly Child" (also known by a variety of other titles), aired to only moderate ratings, its second serial "The Daleks"" (also known as "The Mutants" and "Dead Planet") proved to be a hit. Indeed, the show became something of a fad in the mid-Sixties, particularly with regards to The Doctor's archenemies, the Daleks. Doctor Who went on to become a British institution, with both the words "TARDIS" and "Dalek" eventually being included in the Oxford New English Dictionary. Over the years it would be imported around the world, including Canada and the United States where it developed something of a cult following. Its original run lasted for 26 series (from 1963 to 1989), making it the longest running science fiction series in the world according to Guinness World Records. Doctor Who was revived in 2005 and has since ran for another seven series.

The origins of Doctor Who can be essentially traced to two events. The first was in March 1962 when Eric Maschwitz, then the head of Light Entertainment at the BBC, commissioned Donald Wilson, then Head of BBC Serial Dramas, to research the possibility of producing science fiction programmes. Alice Frick and Donald Bull of the BBC Survey Group then prepared a report which was then handed into Donald Wilson. The report presented an overview of the genre and laid much of the groundwork for Doctor Who. A follow up report was written by John Braybon on the sort of stories that might provide inspiration for a BBC produced science fiction show. This report would also lay much of the groundwork for Doctor Who.

Sydney Newman
The second event occurred in December 1962 when Canadian Sydney Newman arrived at the BBC as its new Head of Drama. Mr. Newman already had an impressive career in television. He had been the Supervisor of Drama Production at CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Company) in the Fifties. His work had attracted the attention of  Howard Thomas, the managing director of Associated British Corporation (ABC for short, it was a franchise holder for ITV for the East Midlands). Mr. Thomas offered Sydney Newman the opportunity to produce ABC's block of adventure shows on Saturday Night. Mr. Newman then accepted the position and moved to England. While at ABC he was promoted to the position of its Head of Drama. During his time there Sydney Newman was responsible for revamping the anthology programme Armchair Theatre and devising the legendary spy series The Avengers. Facing fierce competition from ITV's dramas, the BBC was naturally eager to hire Mr. Newman away from ABC.

It was in March 1963 that  Donald Baverstock, then Controller of Programmes at the BBC, alerted Mr. Newman of a gap in programming on Saturday afternoon between the sports show Grandstand and the musical panel show Juke Box Jury.  With the earlier reports on science fiction written by Alice Frick,  Donald Bull, and  John Braybon in mind, Sydney Newman  then decided that the spot would be best filled by a juvenile science fiction programme. Donald Baverstock and Donald Wilson then held a number of brainstorming sessions to develop a proposal for just such a series. In attendance at these sessions were Alice Frick and John Brayborn (two of the authors of the 1962 reports on science fiction), as well as script writer C. E. Webber. The idea that the show should centre on time travel was settled, and reportedly it was C. E. Webber who suggested that the "time machine" should be able to not only travel forwards and backwards in time, but through space and even "sideways" as well (perhaps into other realities).

Eventually C. E. Webber wrote the first memo formatting Doctor Who. While the characters' names would be changed, this memo more or less established them as they would be in the series' first episode. Sydney Newman annotated Mr. Webber's memo with various suggestions. In the memo C. E. Webber suggested that the time machine should be "..visible only as an absence of visibility, a shape of nothingness.." Sydney Nemwan noted that this was "Not visual" and they needed a "tangible symbol", a line of thought that could have led to the TARDIS being the shape of a Police Box. In the memo C. E. Webber suggests that "Dr. Who" (as the character is called in the memo) stole his time machine, much as The Doctor is later said to have stolen the TARDIS. At one point C. E. Webber suggests that "Dr. Who" would have a "...hatred of scientist, inventors, improvers." In one of his notes Sydney Newman states that he dislikes this and goes onto say that "Dr. Who" would "...take science, applied and theoretical, as being as natural as eating."

While much of the series' format was developed by C. E. Webber and others, reportedly Sydney Newman appears to have made some key contributions. Reportedly it was Mr. Newman who thought of the character of The Doctor. Reportedly it was also Mr. Newman who suggested that the "time machine" be much larger on the inside than it was on the outside. It has long been a mater of debate as to whether it was Sydney Newman or his friend producer and director Rex Tucker who came up with the title Doctor Who. Here it must be noted that Sydney Nemwan's ideas for Doctor Who may have originated with a segment of the Canadian version of Howdy Doody, which aired on CBC. The segment featured  puppet character called Mr. X who travelled through time in his "Whatsis Box". The segment did not last long on the Canadian version of Howdy Doody, as it was removed after parents complained that it was too frightening. Regardless, Sydney Newman was Supervisor of Drama Production at CBC at the time the segment aired and its concept is remarkably similar to Doctor Who: a mysterious figure who travels through time in a box!

Verity Lambert
Sydney Newman initially offered the position of producer of the new series to television directors Don Taylor and Shaun Sutton, who both refused the position. He then hired Verity Lambert as the producer of Doctor Who. Miss Lambert had worked with Mr. Newman as a production assistant at ABC and for a short time had even worked with David Susskind at at Talent Associates in New York City. She had left ABC for the BBC in June 1963. Australian expatriate  Anthony Coburn wrote the script for the initial episode. The all important role of The Doctor was offered to Hugh David (who had played Stephen Drummond on Knight Errant Limited and would later become a director, even directing episodes of Doctor Who) and Geoffrey Bayldon (later known for playing the title role on the series Catweazle), but both turned it down. The role then went to William Hartnell, who had played CSM Percy Bullimore on the show The Army Game. The cast was rounded out by The Doctor's original companions:  Carole Ann Ford as The Doctor's granddaughter Susan Foreman; William Russell as Ian Chesterton. a science teacher at Coal Hill School; and  Jacqueline Hill as Barbara Wright, a history teacher at Coal Hill School.

The first version of the initial episode of Doctor Who was recorded on 27 September 1963. Unfortunately Sydney Newman found this first recording to be unsuitable. Beyond various technical problems, his primary objection was in William Hartnell's performance as The Doctor, which he found unlikeable. The production of the first episode was then remounted. Not only was the script reworked (including making The Doctor a more sympathetic character), but changes were also made to the costumes and special effects as well. A line about The Doctor and Susan being from "the 49th century" was replaced by one stating they were from "... another time, another world". The first episode of Doctor Who was then recorded again on 18 October 1963. The fact that the first episode had to be re-recorded ultimately meant that the debut of Doctor Who would be delayed. Originally scheduled to air on 16 November 1963, it was pushed back a week to 23 November 1963.

William Hartnell
The first episode of the first serial of Doctor Who, now commonly known as "An Unearthly Child", debuted at 5:15 on 23 November 1963. Contrary to popular belief, the first episode of Doctor Who was not delayed by ten minutes due to extended coverage of Untied States President John F. Kennedy's assassination (which had occurred the previous day), although it did go out eighty seconds late. Unfortunately, much of Britain was experiencing power failures at the time, which meant that the audience for "An Unearthly Child" was smaller than it might otherwise have been. It was for this reason that on 27 November 1963 the BBC's Programme Review board decided to rebroadcast "An Unearthly Child" immediately before the second episode of Doctor Who on 30 November 1963. This was a largely unprecedented move on the part of the BBC, the practice of reruns not having yet become common place in the United Kingdom.

The initial serial of Doctor Who ended on 14 December 1963 and was viewed by 6.4 million viewers. It would take the second serial of Doctor Who, "The Daleks", to turn the show into a hit. "The Daleks" (also known as "The Mutants") introduced what would become The Doctor's archenemies, the Daleks of the title. Created by script writer Terry Nation, the Daleks are a race of mutants whose organic bodies are encased in and integrated with an armoured shell. Mr. Nation's inspiration for the Daleks appears to have come from multiple sources. One was his simple desire to create an alien that did not look like "....a man in a suit". Another was a performance of the Georgian National Ballet he had seen in which ballerinas in long skirts appeared to be gliding across the stage. Yet another source of inspiration came from Terry Nation's childhood. Mr. Nation grew up during World War II at the time of The Blitz, the sustained aerial bombing of the United Kingdom by Nazi Germany. The Daleks' belief that they are the master race in the universe, their desire for total conquest, and their desire to exterminate anything that is not a Dalek were all  inspired by the Nazis.

The Daleks captured the British public's imagination in a way that was wholly unexpected by either the show's producers or the BBC. On 21 December 1963 the first episode of the serial "The Daleks", "The Dead Planet", was viewed by 6.9 million  viewers. By the time of the final episode of the serial, "The Rescue", on 1 February 1964, the audience had grown to 10.4 million viewers. The Daleks would return in the serial "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", by which time the audience for the series had grown to 12 million viewers. The Daleks themselves would be at the centre of a fad in mid-Sixties Britain, inspiring a good deal of merchandising. The merchandising included toys, books (The Dalek Book in 1964 and The Dalek Outer Space Book in 1966, among others), a comic strip (The Daleks in the magazine TV Century 21 in 1965), and much more. As Terry Nation owned the rights to the Daleks, many of their appearances in novels, comics, and so on over the years have had little relation to Doctor Who.

The popularity of Doctor Who guaranteed that it would be seen outside the United Kingdom. Doctor Who was first aired outside the United Kingdom in September 1964 when it made its debut in New Zealand with the first serial "An Unearthly Child". The show made its debut in Australia in January 1965 on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The same month it made its debut in Canada on CBC. Unfortunately, CBC only aired the first 26 episodes. Afterwards Doctor Who would not be seen again in Canada until TVOntario picked up the series in 1976. In 1972 Doctor Who made its debut in the United States when it was syndicated by Time-Life, making The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) the first to be seen in the United States. Unfortunately, local programme directors sometimes aired the episodes out of sequence and, as a result, Doctor Who failed in the U.S. at the time. In 1978 Time-Life made another attempt to introduce Doctor Who to the United States, this time syndicating it to PBS stations. This time Doctor Who would prove successful and would continue to air in the United States until its initial run ended. Doctor Who first aired rather early in its run in Latin American countries, starting in Venezuela in 1967, Mexico in 1968, and Chile in 1969.

The success of Doctor Who and the continued popularity of the Daleks also resulted in two features films made by Amicus Productions. Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) was loosely based on the second Doctor Who serial "The Daleks" and departed considerably from the series. In the film Peter Cushing played "Dr. Who" (something The Doctor was never called on the show), an eccentric inventor among whose inventions numbers the TARDIS. Even at the time the film was not considered part of the continuity of the television series. Regardless,  it is significant in that it was the first Doctor Who adventure filmed in colour and for Americans it served as an introduction to Doctor Who years before the series debuted in the United States. Dr. Who and the Daleks proved successful enough to warrant a sequel,  Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966). Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. did not fare nearly as well at the box office so that a third "Dr. Who" film to be based on the serial The Chase was cancelled.

Producer Verity Lambert left Doctor Who in 1965. Unfortunately, William Hartnell would not get along well with the producers who succeeded her. Miss Lambert's immediate successor, John Wiles, wanted to replace Mr. Hartnell with another actor playing the same character, a move that was vetoed by the BBC's then BBC's Head of Serial Dramas Gerald Savory. Ultimately, John Wiles left in 1966 after 25 episodes of the show. Mr. Wiles was replaced by Innes Lloyd. It was Innes Lloyd and story editor Gerry Davis who came up with a means of replacing William Hartnell as The Doctor. They decided that as an alien The Doctor had the ability when mortally wounded or dying due to old age to metamorphose into a new body, complete with a different personality. At the time the process was called "renewal", although it would later be termed "regeneration".

Patrick Troughton
By mutual agreement between Innes Lloyd and William Hartnell, then, Mr. Hartnell agreed to leave. The reasons for William Hartnell's departure remains somewhat unclear to this day. Some say that his health was already deteriorating due to arteriosclerosis. Others claim that the current production team did not get along with him.  Regardless, William Hartnell was replaced by Patrick Troughton, who had already played Robin Hood in a short lived BBC series in 1954 as well as Sir Andrew Ffoulkes in the TV series The Scarlet Pimpernel, and had appeared in serial adaptations of Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop and A Tale of Two Cities. Patrick Troughton's portrayal of The Doctor would be very different from that of William Hartnell. Mr. Hartnell had played The Doctor as a friendly but at times irritable grandfather figure. After considering various approaches to playing The Doctor, Patrick Troughton settled on one suggested by Sydney Newman, that of a "cosmic hobo". It was at the end of episode 4 of "The Tenth Planet" (the 29th Doctor Who serial) that William Hartnell's First Doctor regenerated into Patrick Troughton's Second.

Patrick Troughton proved to be one of the most influential actors to play the role of The Doctor, if not the most influential. Of the actors who would later play The Doctor, Peter Davison,  Sylvester McCoy and Matt Smith have all said that The Second Doctor was their favourite. While they first appeared in the final serial of The First Doctor, "The Tenth Planet" it was while Patrick Troughton was playing The Second Doctor that the Cybermen became one of The Doctor's more notable opponents. The Cybermen are a race who had almost entirely replaced their bodies with mechanical parts (everything except the brain) and were afterwards intent on doing the same to every other organic species. They would become one of The Doctor's most frequent opponents over the years.

After three years of playing The Doctor, Patrick Troughton had tired of the pace of shooting a television series (at that time Doctor Who could have anywhere between 40 and 44 episodes a year) and he was also concerned about being typecast. He then decided to leave the show. Unfortunately by 1969 the audience for Doctor Who had dropped considerably, while the show's budget showed no sign of shrinking. Producer Peter Bryant and then script editor Derrick Sherwin decided they could reduce the show's budgets by simply restricting The Doctor's episodes to taking place on Earth. In The Second Doctor's final adventure, then, he was seized by the Time Lords, who not only sentenced him to banishment on Earth for meddling in the business of other species, but forced The Second Doctor to regenerate into The Third Doctor (played by Jon Pertwee).

Jon Pertwee
The Third Doctor's initial adventures would then be set on Earth. The Doctor found himself working as the Scientific Advisor for UNIT (the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), an organisation meant to defend Earth against paranormal and alien threats. Jon Pertwee's Doctor was much more the action hero than the previous two. Indeed he was skilled in the martial art of Venusian aikido. To get around he drove a yellow, vintage roadster affectionately named "Bessie".. Jon Pertwee's tenure as The Doctor would be marked by the introduction of The Doctor's chief adversary besides the Daleks, The Master. The Master was a renegade Time Lord bent on universal conquest. As a Time Lord, The Master was capable of regeneration and over the years would be played by several different actors, including Roger Delgado,  Peter Pratt, Anthony Ainley, Eric Roberts, Derek Jacobi, and John Simm. Jon Pertwee's tenure as The Doctor would also see the introduction of the alien race the Sontarans, as well as his home planet finally being given a name (both occurred in the serial "The Time Warriors").  As The Doctor Jon Pertwee would be historic as the first Doctor whose adventures were shot and broadcast in colour. He would also be the first Doctor whose adventures were broadcast in the United States (as noted above).

Jon Pertwee left Doctor Who in 1974 after five series. He was replaced by Tom Baker, who to this day remains one of the actors most identified with the role. Tom Baker played The Doctor for seven seasons, longer than other actor to play the role. And while Jon Pertwee was the first Doctor whose adventures were aired in the United States, it was during Tom Baker's tenure as The Doctor that Doctor Who finally saw success in America. For many Americans, then, Tom Baker would be their "first Doctor". Tom Baker's Doctor would also travel with one of The Doctor's most popular companions of all time, Sarah Jane Smith (played by Elisabeth Sladen). While she was introduced during Jon Pertwee's series as The Doctor, she is more identified with Tom Baker, accompanying him for three series. She would also be the first Doctor Who companion to whom many Americans would be exposed. Tom Baker's tenure as The Doctor would see The Doctor return to adventures in space and throughout time. No longer was The Doctor exiled to Earth.

Peter Davison
Tom Baker left Doctor Who after seven years. He was replaced in the role of The Doctor by Peter Davison in 1981. Until Matt Smith, Peter Davison would be the youngest actor to ever play The Doctor, being only 29 years old when he assumed the role. At the time Peter Davison was already a well known actor, having played Tristan Farnon on the popular show All Creatures Great and Small. The beginning of Peter Davison's turn as The Doctor would also see a change in the air time for Doctor Who. After being transmitted on Saturday afternoons for eighteen years, the series was now aired twice during the week. Peter Davison left Doctor Who after three years out of fears of being typecast.

 With Peter Davison's departure the role of The Doctor was then taken over by Colin Baker (no relation to Tom Baker). With the first episode of the programme's 22nd series it returned to being broadcast only once every Saturday evening. Unfortunately, after the 22nd series of Doctor Who the BBC announced that the next series would be postponed for a year. This was largely interpreted as Doctor Who being under the threat of cancellation and outrage on the part of both the British public and the press soon ensued. The tabloid newspaper The Sun even devoted a cover story on its front page to the controversy. Regardless Doctor Who would not return for 18 months, its 23rd series not beginning until 6 September 1986. The postponement seriously hurt the ratings for Doctor Who. Ultimately Michael Grade, then Controller of BBC1 (who was not a fan of the programme), ordered that Colin Baker be replaced. While John Nathan-Turner defended Colin Baker, pointing out that he had not yet finished the three years remaining on his contract, he was dismissed nonetheless. He was replaced by Sylvester McCoy as The Seventh Doctor.

Sylvester McCoy
Colin Baker was unhappy with his dismissal and as a result refused to film the scene in which The Sixth Doctor regenerates into The Seventh Doctor. Sylvester McCoy then wore a wig and played the regeneration scene as The Sixth Doctor. At the start of Sylvester McCoy's tenure as The Doctor Doctor Who was moved from Saturday evening to Monday evening, placing it in direct competition with ITV's popular Coronation Street. While Doctor Who performed better in the time slot than any other BBC show, its ratings were still poor. For its 25th series Doctor Who was moved to Wednesday evenings where it was still opposite Coronation Street. The show remained in the time slot for its 26th series. With the show struggling in the ratings Jonathan Powell, the new Controller of BBC 1, announced that production of Doctor Who was being suspended. The last episode of the show's original run aired on 6 December 1989. Plans for a 27th series were then abandoned.

While Doctor Who had been suspended, the show was far from dead.  Even as the 26th series was still in production, in July 1989, the BBC was approached by Philip Segal of Columbia Pictures about reviving the show. Mr. Segal persisted in his attempts to relaunch Doctor Who over the years, even as he moved from Columbia Pictures to Amblin Entertainment, and then to Universal Pictures. He came very close to convincing the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in the United States to pick up Doctor Who as a mid-season replacement in 1994, but unfortunately this fell through. At last Philip Segal was able to interest the American Fox Broadcasting Company. Fox commissioned a television film, titled Doctor Who, that would serve as a pilot for a potential Doctor Who series. The film was co-produced by Universal TV, BBC Worldwide, and 20th Century Fox Television.

Paul McGann
For the film Paul McGann was cast as The Eighth Doctor, and it included a sequence in which Sylvester McCoy appeared as the Seventh Doctor, only to regenerate into the Eighth after being mortally wounded. Eric Roberts appeared as the latest regeneration of The Master. The television film debuted on CITV-TV in Canada on 12 May 1996, and two days later, on 14 May 1996, it aired on Fox in the United States.  It made its debut in the United Kingdom on BBC One on 27 May 1996 (one of the very few instances in which a Doctor Who adventure did not make its debut on BBC One). While the Doctor Who TV film did extremely well in the United Kingdom (it was the highest rated drama for the week with 9 million viewers), it did poorly in the United States, where only 5.6 million viewers tuned in. Because of its ratings in the United States Fox then passed on the prospect of a new Doctor Who TV series. For that reason a new Doctor Who series would not be forthcoming.

Even with the failure of a new series to emerge in the wake of the TV movie Doctor Who was still not dead. In 1997 the new Head of Continuing Dramas, Mal Young, and then Controller of BBC One, Peter Salmon, began an effort to revive the show. Eventually Russell T. Davies, who had created the shows Revelations and Queer as Folk, was brought into the project to revive Doctor Who. Unfortunately plans for a new series were shelved when BBC Worldwide told Peter Salmon that they were planning a film version of the classic show. It was in 2000 that Peter Salmon was replaced as Controller of BBC One by Lorraine Heggessey. Fortunately Miss Heggessey was also eager to revive Doctor Who, although her hands continued to be tied by BBC Worldwide's ongoing efforts to produce a Doctor Who film. Fortunately by 2003 she was able to persuade BBC Worldwide to allow BBC One to produce a revival of Doctor Who.

Russell T. Davies
To produce the new Doctor Who series Lorraine Heggessey once more went to Russell T. Davies, who wasted no time in accepting the position. Christopher Eccleston was cast as The Ninth Doctor and pop star Billie Piper was cast as his new companion Rose Tyler. The new series debuted on 26 March 2005 on BBC One, making it the first new, regularly scheduled episode of Doctor Who in 16 years. It performed phenomenally well in the ratings, raking in 10.81 million viewers. The new series debuted in Canada on  5 April 2005 on CBS. It would not debut in the United States until 17 March 2006 on the Sci-Fi Channel. Both the Sci-Fi Channel in the United States and CBC in Canada aired series 1-4 of the revival of Doctor Who. Starting with the fifth series, the revival of Doctor Who has since been aired in Canada on Space. Starting with the fifth series the revival of Doctor Who would be aired on BBC America in the United States.

Christopher Eccleston left Doctor Who after one series. To this day it his reasons for doing so remain unclear. A statement released by the BBC on 30 March 2005 indicated he was afraid of being typecast, but in a 2010 interview with BBC News Christopher Eccleston said that he "wasn't comfortable" working on Doctor Who and "I didn't enjoy the environment and the culture that we, the cast and crew, had to work in," as well as "I thought if I stay in this job, I'm going to have to blind myself to certain things that I thought were wrong." Regardless, Christopher Eccleston was succeeded as The Doctor by David Tennant.

David Tennant
David Tennant would prove to have one of the longest tenures as The Doctor, playing him for three series and an additional four specials over a four and a half year period. Perhaps because of this The Tenth Doctor would also become one of the most popular incarnations of the character, possibly matched only by that of Tom Baker as The Fourth Doctor. It was while David Tennant played The Doctor that many of The Doctor's old adversaries returned, including the Daleks (although a single Dalek had appeared in an episode during Christopher Eccleston's run), the Cybermen (at least a new version of them), and The Master.

On 20 May 2008 came the announcement that Russell T. Davies would leave Doctor Who in 2009. Steve Moffat (the creator of the shows Coupling and Jekyll) would take his place as executive producer of Doctor Who. On 29 October 2008 David Tennant announced he was leaving Doctor Who. On leaving the show he said, "I think it's better to go when there's a chance that people might miss you, rather than to hang around and outstay your welcome." On 3 May 2009 Matt Smith was announced as The Eleventh Doctor. At 26 years old Matt Smith was the youngest actor to ever play The Doctor. David Tennant ended his run as The Doctor with the special "The End of Time" aired on 25 December 2009 and 1 January 2009.

Peter Capaldi
Matt Smith made his debut as The Doctor on 3 April 2010 in "The Eleventh Hour". After playing The Doctor in three series, on 1 June 2013 the BBC announced that he would be leaving the role. On 4 August 2013 it was announced that Peter Capaldi would be The Twelfth Doctor. At 55 years of age Peter Capaldi will be tied with William Hartnell as the oldest actor to play The Doctor.  Matt Smith will appear in the 50th anniversary special "Day of The Doctor" airing later today, alongside David Tennant reprising his role as The Tenth Doctor. His last appearance as The Doctor appearance will be on 25 December 2013 in the Christmas special.

The revival of Doctor Who would prove incredibly successful. It would produce two spin off series in the form of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. It would prove even more successful in the United States and Canada than the original series has. In the United States the revival of Doctor Who would even make the covers of both Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide. While the original series was very popular in the United States, it would only be with the revival that Doctor Who would become a household name in America.

It is quite possible that Doctor Who could be the most successful British television programme of all time. Including both its original run and the revival, Doctor Who has run for a total of 33 series. This not only makes it the longest running science fiction show of all time anywhere in the world, but one of the longest running programmes of any type anywhere. Internationally Doctor Who could well be the best known British television show ever, its popularity surpassing that even of The Avengers (another programme launched by Sydney Newman). The original series was broadcast in several different countries and the revival is currently broadcast in more than 50 nations worldwide.

Tom Baker and Daleks
While Doctor Who has seen a great deal of success internationally, however, it has often been counted as a quintessentially British show. Over time the show infiltrated the British consciousness in a way that few other shows ever have. Not only did the words "Dalek" and "TARDIS" enter everyday, British English, but an online questionnaire for the National Trust  revealed that nine out of ten British children could recognise a Dalek, more than those who could correctly identify a barn owl (only about 47%). When in 1985 it was announced that Doctor Who would be postponed for a year, the uproar was so great that it took even the BBC by surprise. The degree to which Doctor Who has become a part of British pop culture is in some respects rather amazing, particularly as its hero is not even actually British (as every Whovian knows, The Doctor is from the planet Gallfirey).

Of course, the quintessential Britishness of Doctor Who does not explain its success in places far afield of the United Kingdom. Doctor Who is seen in such diverse countries as Argentina, Ukraine, and South Korea. The show long had a cult following in Canada and the United States and is now very much a part of mainstream pop culture in both countries. It would seem that while Doctor Who has often been considered a quintessentially British show, its appeal is universal.

Much of the appeal of Doctor Who can be summed up by pure escapism. The Doctor's adventures can and have literally taken place anywhere. The Doctor and his companions of the moment can visit an alien planet or go back to ancient Rome. His opponents have ranged from power mad human beings to Daleks. Viewers watching Doctor Who are transported from their workaday lives to places they could never possibly visit in real life. Of course, escapism is not the only explanation for the appeal of Doctor Who. After all, an argument can be made that escapism also account for much of the appeal of Star Trek, a show which is also phenomenally successful but not nearly as successful as Doctor Who has been.

Matt Smith
It seems more likely that much of the success of Doctor Who rests with The Doctor himself. While his personality changes from regeneration to regeneration, at the core remains that of an essentially good man, a man who would risk his life against insurmountable odds to save those of others. Quite simply, The Doctor is a heroic figure. One can forget the incredibly long scarves, the cricketer outfits, and bow ties he has worn over the years. The unchanging heart of The Doctor is that of someone who cares for other living beings enough to help them.

Of course, The Doctor does change appearance from time to time, and personality and his manner of dress as well. There can be no doubt that The Doctor's ability to regenerate has helped the show survive over the years. Aside from allowing for a new actor to step in as The Doctor when the current actor decides to leave, it has allowed the show to stay current with the times. When the show began The Doctor was a somewhat crotchety, if soft hearted, grandfatherly figure played by William Hartnell. By the late Sixties and early Seventies he was a somewhat Bondian swashbuckler in late Victorian clothes who dispatched opponents using martial arts. Over the years The Doctor has changed with the times, allowing the show to remain fresh even though it debuted in 1963.

Elisabeth Sladen and Jon Pertwee
While there can be little doubt that The Doctor lies at the heart of the success of Doctor Who, much of the show's success also rests with the companions. When the show debuted in 1963 the companions were meant to serve as audience surrogates. They were characters with whom the audience was expected to identify, characters who would ask The Doctor the questions the audience wanted to ask. Of course, even in the beginning they were much more than that. Many might argue that it is easy for The Doctor to be heroic, as he knows he can regenerate if he is mortally wounded. This is not the case for most of The Doctor's companions, yet they still help The Doctor and still risk their lives for what is right and good. If The Doctor is a hero, in many ways the companions are even more so. They prove to the audience that one does not need to be a Time Lord to be a hero, but even an ordinary person can perform heroic acts if he or she has the courage and knows what is just and true.

While The Doctor and his companions insured that Doctor Who would be a success, the show would not have lasted had it not been for its villains. There have been the Daleks, who wish to exterminate everything that is not a Dalek. There have been the Cybermen, who have wanted to make everyone else like them. There has been The Master, who was bent on universal conquest. What The Doctor's opponents have in common is a desire to force their ideas of order upon everyone else as well as an utter lack of faith in humanity (or very many other living things, for that matter). The Daleks think that all other living beings are inferior. The Cybermen eschew emotion and individuality in the thought that these are weaknesses. In many respects, the appeal of Doctor Who can be summed up by a line in a musical tribute to Doctor Who written and performed by Craig Ferguson in 2010 but not aired until 6 January 2011 on The Late Late Show on CBS: "It’s all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism."

Today, fifty years after its debut, Doctor Who remains as successful as ever. The revival shows no sign of ending any time soon, while the episodes of the original run are available on both DVD and on streaming media. The show long ago infiltrated the consciousness of the British pubic and has since become a part of the pop culture of the entire English speaking world. It would seem in the end Doctor Who is very much like its nearly immortal protagonist. Quite simply, the show might never end.


Caftan Woman said...

It was the TVO screenings of The Doctor (that's what we call it in our family) that grabbed my younger sisters and I, and never let go.

I didn't expect to be as taken with the revival as I was, but it is fun to watch the show with my daughter. When we had previews for the return of the Daleks, my teenager said "They don't look like much of a much. I responded by leaping from my chair, waving my finger in her face and saying "You haven't lived through a Dalek invasion, Missy. I have!" She nearly stopped breathing from laughing so hard. I think this qualifies as the geekiest thing I have ever said (out loud).

Ahead of the Curve said...

Terrific write, Terence.