Without a time travelling machine of their own, Doctor Who’s creators could never have foreseen its enduring success 50 years on. Paul Whitelaw hails a cultural institution
ON 23 NOVEMBER 1963, the day after the assassination of John F Kennedy, the BBC launched a new Saturday tea-time adventure serial ostensibly aimed at children.
Enigmatically titled Doctor Who, and swathed in an eerie electronic theme tune, episode one, An Unearthly Child, introduced a pair of inquisitive schoolteachers who, concerned by the strange behaviour of a brilliant young pupil, followed her home to solve the puzzle.
What they discovered, much to their understandable alarm, was that the girl lived in a junk yard. Not only that, she lived in a police box in a junk yard. Except it wasn’t a police box at all, but rather a bigger-on-the-inside alien spacecraft capable of travelling through time and space. Its pilot, a crotchety old man known only as the Doctor, wasn’t best pleased that his teenage granddaughter had unwittingly led a pair of meddling apes into his secret world. Fearing discovery by the rest of humankind, he saw no choice but to kidnap the teachers and exit the Earth post-haste.
The episode ends with the Tardis – an acronym for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space – materialising on a barren, forbidding landscape, as the ominous shadow of a misshapen figure falls into view.
It’s one of the most arresting introductions to a television drama in the entire history of the medium. Over the space of just 25 minutes, the craftspeople responsible for this curious new programme managed to establish a premise so original, strong and bewitching, it has endured practically unchanged for 50 years.
Without access to a time machine themselves, they could never have foreseen that in 2013 we can say, without much fear of contradiction, that the ever-regenerating Doctor is one of the greatest heroes in the history of television. And yet here we are, with the world’s longest-running science-fiction series still reigning supreme.
So why has it endured for so long? There is a view that its quirky character is a reflection of our own national (in this case, British) identity and our affinity with underdogs and lovable eccentrics.
“One of the things that’s interesting about Doctor Who as a cultural phenomenon over the whole 50 years is that its selling point has really been its Britishness,” says Dee Amy-Chinn, a senior lecturer in Media and Culture at the University of Stirling. “The Doctor has always in some way embodied a kind of quirkiness that’s specifically British. When it started in the 1960s it was reflecting Britain’s back-room boffins who’d won the war through Bletchley Park and building the bouncing bomb. Britain had never been able to chuck troops at the Second World War in the way that America had, but it could do something that was just a little bit different and British.”
The Doctor is a classic hero. Decent, honest and brave, he despises intolerance in all its forms and stands up for the oppressed wherever they need saving. Sure, he’s made mistakes. You don’t traverse the farthest reaches of the universe for over a thousand years without cracking a few eggs and causing the odd rip in the fabric of time and space. But, as current show-runner Steven Moffat says, “He’s such a moral man. He’s a good, clever man, that’s all he is. I think that’s about as positive a message as you could possibly give.”
Conceptually, the show is unique in that the periodic replacement of its lead actor is ingrained within its fictional lore. When first Doctor William Hartnell became too ill to continue in the role, the production team came up with the inspired idea of having him physically regenerate his appearance into that of Patrick Troughton. It was a risky move which ultimately paid off, and an enormous factor in Doctor Who’s longevity. The fundamental genius of its infinitely flexible format is another component. What other TV show can hop across so many genres – horror, comedy, Western, period drama, space opera – with such ease every week?
Today regarded as a cultural institution, it can attract guest stars of the calibre of Simon Callow, Penelope Wilton, Timothy Dalton and – both in the role of the Doctor’s arch-nemesis The Master – Derek Jacobi and John Simm. Notable writers during the current era include Richard Curtis, celebrated fantasy author Neil Gaiman, and Men Behaving Badly creator Simon Nye.
But it wasn’t always so feted. After reaching its peak of popularity in the 70s under the stewardship of the dashing Jon Pertwee and the incomparable Tom Baker – viewing figures frequently peaked between an impressive 10 and 12 million – its popularity declined following the early 1980s tenure of Peter Davison. It became the butt of tired jokes about wobbly sets (they didn’t actually wobble) and cheap monsters (they maybe had a point there). Its fans were derided as sad spotty virgins laughably obsessed with a tatty kids’ show.
And yet to be a fan in 2013 simply means you’re an ordinary viewer who enjoys one of the most treasured jewels in the BBC’s crown. No longer the niche concern that it was during the twilight years of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, it’s now a shiny bauble of block-busting Saturday night entertainment: the space-hopping yin to Strictly’s fox-trotting yang. It’s finally won the widespread respect it always deserved.
Of course, this is something of a double-edged sword for long-time fans such as myself. While we’re thrilled that it’s now one of the UK’s most popular TV shows – and it’s finally gaining a significant audience in the US too – one can’t help bristling at the fact that many of those now praising it were once only too eager to dismiss it out of hand. Vintage Doctor Who couldn’t boast the Hollywood-standard special-effects of the revived series – no TV show could in those days – but it was basically always the same wonderfully imaginative show that critics and awards panels adore so much today. So what took them so long?
One explanation is that in the last 10 years, the sort of paraphernalia enjoyed by “geeks” – computer games, sci-fi, superheroes, comics etc – has been assimilated into the mainstream. So there’s no longer any stigma attached to watching Doctor Who. As Steven Moffat has often said, it’s a show which “fetishises” intelligence. Thankfully, today’s audience responds to that in droves.
It’s remarkable to consider that if you were born in Britain before, say, 1985, you’ll have been aware of Doctor Who for most or all of your life. “It’s part of a series of shows today that appeal to both children and adults,” says Dee Amy-Chinn. “But I think Doctor Who does that better than other dramas in that slot, things like Merlin, because adults remember it from their own childhood.”
Even if you’ve never seen a single episode, you’ll recognise the Tardis and know what a Dalek is. That, it must be said, is one powerful cultural imprint for a television programme to leave behind.
Similarly remarkable is that no-one seriously expected Doctor Who to be in this position in 2013. After being quietly dropped in 1989, ostensibly due to dwindling ratings – although the BBC essentially killed it off by scheduling it opposite Coronation Street – it mainly continued to exist on home video, the convention circuit and in a teeming range of spin-off novels, some written by the very people associated with the series today.
A 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann, while greeted favourably at home, failed to spark the hoped-for comeback when the US co-producers pulled out due to its poor performance over there. And that, it seemed, was that. Generations would grow up without the comforting presence of the Doctor by their side. He was yesterday’s hero.
Except, as we know, he wasn’t – you can’t confine a Time Lord to the past, after all. As much of a pioneering hero in his way as the people responsible for creating Doctor Who back in 1963, lifelong super-fan Russell T Davies – who also happened to be an award-winning TV writer of renown – revived the show in 2005 to spectacular effect . Casting “proper actor” Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor came as a surprise to some, but it also helped to convince sceptics that this revival meant business. Since then it’s gone on to win five Baftas, six Hugo Awards, and 14 National Television Awards. It’s also been credited with reviving the phenomenon of communal family viewing.
“As media consumption becomes more fragmented,” says Amy-Chinn, “anything you can do to bring people together in the way that Doctor Who does, with something for everybody because it works on so many different levels, is doing something quite rare and unusual. Its success says that audiences are interested in good storytelling, well-drawn characters, high production values, and something that can be a shared family experience.”
Not everyone loves it, of course. It’s been criticised for being emotionally manipulative, over-complicated, inappropriately sexualised and self-important. Some say it’s changed too much. And they’re right as well as wrong. It has endured because it has constantly evolved over the decades, but without ever losing sight of its fundamental reason for being: to inspire and entertain. Like the Doctor himself, it’s changed several times, yet always remained the same.
That simple yet inspired idea, cooked up 50 years ago in the corridors of the BBC, about an eccentric alien in a time machine has travelled farther than even the Doctor’s wildest dreams. Why? Because at its heart, it’s a triumphant celebration of inquisitive knowledge and heroic rebellion, of loyal endeavour and noble sacrifice, of liberal morality and the thwarting of evil. Plus it’s got loads of crazy aliens and explosions in it.
Few cultural artefacts have managed to cover such ground in a way that appeals to such an enormous, disparate audience. It’s an incredible achievement. Happy birthday, Doctor. Long may you roam.
• The new series of Doctor Who returns to BBC next Saturday at 6.15pm