Who- Or What, If You Like- Is Doctor Who?

The BBC science fiction television series “Doctor Who” celebrates its 50th anniversary this November. While Doctor Who is a beloved television institution in England, it has been, for most of my entire life, a fringe cult phenomenon. Recently, however, “Doctor Who” has been something I never thought it would become in America- cool (well, cool among the sci-fi geek crowd, anyways). In honor of the 50th anniversary I wanted to start writing a series of articles on my experiences as an American Doctor Who fan. I think it is a story that may be of interest to longtime as well as new Whovians, wherever they are, and maybe to people who have always loved things that nobody really understands.

Before I begin telling that story, however, I realize that there may be people out there who may have never even heard of “Doctor Who” so I am going to to give you my own personal overview of the show and let it serve as the intro to my future articles on the subject.

What- or who, if you like- is “Doctor Who?”

“Doctor Who” is a science fiction television series produced by the BBC. The protagonist of the series is “The Doctor,” a member of a highly advanced, nearly godlike race called the Time Lords who hail from the planet Gallifrey (formerly in the constellation of Kasterborus) of indeterminate age who travels around time and space with a variety of friends he picks up along the way in his semi-sentient ship, the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), which is “disguised” as a Police Box, which was a common sight in London when the series premiered in 1963. A bit of a run-on sentence, and I apologize, but it is about as simple as I can make it. The original conception of the show was a semi-educational show suitable for family viewing where The Doctor (originally played as a grandfatherly old man by William Hartnell), escorted his teenage granddaughter Susan (Carole Anne Ford) and Ian and Barbara- her two high school teachers who were unwittingly along for the ride- on a series of historical and scientific adventures.

The show truly exploded in popularity when they encountered what would become The Doctor’s mortal enemies, the Daleks, in the second story.

The Daleks became the ultimate kid fad in England from the end of 1963 to 1966 or so, and are a recognized part of their pop culture to this day. The series was immensely popular but by 1966, Hartnell was getting tired of doing 40+ episodes per year (no, really!) and decided to leave the show. The producers came up with an amazing idea: when The Doctor is mortally wounded (aka the actor playing The Doctor decides to leave or is fired), he can, due to his Time Lord physiology, “regenerate” his body and be reborn as a completely different-looking man with a completely different personality.

The Doctor (now known as The First Doctor) fell ill after an adventure and got up as a much younger but still middle-aged man played by Patrick Troughton.The audience went along with this startling change in lead actors and the series continued for 22 more seasons and five more Doctors (including the one most Americans remember- the guy with the afro and the long scarf- played by Tom Baker), ending its original run in 1989.

In 1996, there was a BBC/FOX co-produced television movie starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor but the series was not picked up. For the first time, however, the special effects- for which the original series was always rightly derided- were finally well-done and you got a glimpse of what the series could really be like. At the time, many of the fans of the original series chafed at some of the changes made by the producers, one of which was making the relationship between The Doctor and his (usually) human companions possibly romantic. In the original series, which was always supposed to be aimed at kids, The Doctor always ran around with a bevy of younger girls and sometimes boys, some of whom wore outfits that were more for the dads watching with their children. The Doctor never batted an eye at all the eye candy around him, and he was always portrayed as a chaste alien uncle who would never ever even think anything untoward about his young wards.

In 2005, Russell T. Davies, an award-winning British television producer and lifelong Whovian brought “Doctor Who” back. In the intervening years, a Time War had occurred between the Time Lords and the Daleks and The Ninth Doctor was now alone, the last of the Time Lords and a battle-scarred tough guy played perfectly by Christopher Eccleston, the highest-profile actor to ever play the role.

He meets a plucky nineteen year-old working class gal named Rose played by former pop star Billie Piper who, over the course of the first series, helps heal his hardened heart. The first series of the new (not a reboot) “Doctor Who” was a huge hit in England, and at the end, the Ninth Doctor regenerates into the Tenth Doctor played by David Tennant.

In the second series, the possibly romantic relationship between The Tenth Doctor and Rose becomes a little more explicit- not sexually, mind you, but you can tell they are in love. All good things come to an end, but the adventures of the Tenth Doctor continued. David Tennant was one of the youngest, certainly the handsomest guy and the first fan of the series to play the part. “Doctor Who” was once again a ratings hit and soon his episodes started to trickle over to America. American fans, most of whom were unable to suspend their disbelief of the admittedly terrible special effects and appreciate the amazing storytelling of the original series were now ready to take a second look. Doctor Who started to become a geek phenomenon.

David Tennant left after 3 series and the Eleventh Doctor appeared, played by Matt Smith, the youngest actor to ever play the role.

After Matt Smith took the reins, “Doctor Who” achieved a level of popularity and visibility that it has never had. Most notably “Doctor Who” made the covers of Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide
Insert pics of magazine covers as well.

This can be explained by several factors: the Tim Burton-esque balance between weirdness, wackiness and seriousness the series has taken under producer Steven Moffatt, the witty banter between the Eleventh Doctor and his first companion, the attractive redheaded Scot Amelia Pond (played by Karen Gillan), and the fact that Matt Smith has nailed the role in a way that few of the actors ever have.

The most recent episode of the series, “The Snowmen” was broadcast on BBC America on Christmas and was its highest rated (check) show ever. Now we are back to January 2013. “Doctor Who” will celebrate its 50th anniversary and is as popular as it perhaps has ever been worldwide.

Check back in next time as I talk about starting to watch “Doctor Who” when I was 4 and to see it go from this very strange thing that very few people had even heard of let alone understand to being on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.