(NOTE: It was brought to my attention that the last couple of pieces I did for my writing workshop referenced Doctor Who rather heavily, but didn’t make allowances for readers who might have no idea what those references meant. As the portion of the world that does get those references gears up to celebrate the Doctor’s 50th anniversary this week–as if a half-century means anything to a thousand-year-old Time Lord!–it seems like an appropriate occasion to address that. These posts are not sponsored by anything other than my own excessive enthusiasm for Doctor Who. Some photos via the BBC Doctor Who Shop.)
One Saturday evening about three and a half years ago, I wandered into the family room to find my husband watching Doctor Who. I joined him on the sofa, and we were both intrigued by the story quickly (and just as quickly annoyed by BBC America’s inopportune commercial breaks). Both of us had some basic knowledge of the character and the premise, but neither of us had ever really spent much time watching the show before–I had attempted it during the early 1980s, when some PBS stations began importing the series from England, but couldn’t get past the cheap sets and cheaper special effects back then.
Those things are not obstacles with the more recent years of the series, but that’s only a small part of why we are now genuine “New Whovians,” fans who came to Doctor Who after the show was re-launched in 2005 and have seen every episode since then (thanks to a lot of binge viewing to make up for being a few years late).
Getting to Know Who
Given my devotion to the Doctor, you may be surprised to learn that I’m such a relative newbie. We came to Doctor Who near the end of Matt Smith’s first series as the Eleventh Doctor–we were captivated, but understandably confused. However, British TV seasons are relatively short (usually 12-14 episodes) and spaced months apart, so we’d have time to catch up on previous seasons on DVD before the next one began. But first we’d have to decide just how far “previous” we wanted to go–back five years, or twenty-five, or all the way? The show started back in 1963(!).
BBC America has been running a monthly series of specials called “The Doctors Revisited” throughout 2013 in preparation for the show’s 50th anniversary; each one focuses on a different Doctor and his era of the show, followed by one of his most significant stories. We watched all of the documentaries and nearly all of the featured episodes–we couldn’t make it all the way through the Sixth Doctor story, but we liked most of the others, cheap sets and all. I understand more about where the show came from and how it developed now than I did a year ago, and I have more insight into how the new version honors the old. But I still don’t feel any need to go further into the older shows–I’m fine with what I’ve already seen. I appreciate that Doctor Who has an extensive history, and I also appreciate that it’s accessible at nearly any point during that history.
The casting changes can be a good opportunity to get started with Doctor Who; whenever a new actor takes over the role, the show adjusts its footing and re-establishes itself a bit. That can offer the new viewer an easier way into its world–you may feel less like you’re walking into the middle of something. Most fans tend to have a special fondness for their first Doctor–whoever was in the role when they began watching–which is why many long-time American fans are still likely to claim Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor as “theirs.” Maybe that attachment is even stronger when you and your Doctor start out together. (With the time of the Twelfth Doctor soon to begin, some new fans will have the chance to find that out for themselves.)
I don’t think that attachment should keep you from getting acquainted with the Doctors who came before yours, though, or make you hold back from those who come later. The beauty of the Doctor is that he is always the Doctor, in every form he takes, so it’s really okay to call more than one of them “yours.” My first Doctor, technically, is the Eleventh, but since we came into his first series three-fourths of the way through and we re-watched it all later, after we’d seen the full run of the Tenth Doctor, I count Ten as my first Doctor. And I can absolutely vouch for that special fondness for one’s first Doctor, even though mine was done being the Doctor by the time I got to know him.
A Brief History of Who
The very first episode of Doctor Who aired on BBC One on November 23, 1963. The Doctor was a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who wandered across time and space with various “assistants”–mostly women, sometimes men, usually humans–in a vehicle called the TARDIS (an acronym for Time And Relative Dimension In Space), which was surprisingly roomy inside for something that appeared to be the size and shape of a phone booth from the outside. The serialized episodes blended science and historical fiction with thoroughly contemporary elements, and the show quickly became beloved by British audiences. The low-budget production values didn’t seem to prevent viewers from being drawn in by the well-crafted stories and engaging characters. From the beginning, Doctor Who emphasized the writing, and even today, an episode’s writer is the only person other than the stars to get a credit in the show’s opening-title sequence.
The show was so popular that producers faced a quandary when William Hartnell, the actor who originated the role of the Doctor, wanted to leave, and they addressed it rather creatively–they recast the part, and then called attention to the change by giving the Doctor the ability to “regenerate” into a new physical form. This alone is a huge reason that the character has carried on for so long–at Christmas 2013, the Doctor will regenerate for the twelfth time. Every version of the Doctor has an appearance, traits and quirks that make him unique from the rest, but there’s never been any question that all of them are the same character.
By the late 1970s, the role had changed hands for the fourth time, and
Tom Baker’s Doctor was the first version that most Americans met, as the show began airing on some PBS and independent stations. (Baker played the Doctor for longer than anyone else, and his long, multicolored scarf is an iconic bit of pop culture–even people who know little about the show seem to know that prop is associated with Doctor Who.) But it was hard to find on TV, and thanks to poor reception in some places (and those low production values), hard to watch even if you did find it. The emergence of home video helped expand the audience through the 1980s and ‘90s, however–and by then, that was all there was. The BBC ended production of Doctor Who in 1989, after seven actors had played the title role.
Despite his absence, fans remained loyal to the Doctor, gathering to share their love and keep the legend alive at conventions like Los Angeles’ long-running Gallifrey One. Independent audio productions and tie-in novels continued to feature the Doctor and friends in new stories, and an American TV movie brought him back for a one-night-only appearance in 1995 (a one-shot Eighth Doctor, in a pilot attempt that didn’t take), but for the most part, the Time Lord was part of the past.
By the turn of the 21st century, Doctor Who had been off the air for over a decade. Its original audience had grown up, and some of them were working in television–and they wanted the Doctor there, too. Under the creative direction of Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who returned to the BBC in 2005, and came to America via the SciFi Channel some months later. (It later moved to BBC America.) The show had a new look and storytelling style, but the reboot was in touch with its roots. There would be blanks to fill in after sixteen years away, but this was clearly the continuation of a story that began more than forty years earlier.
Thanks to modern technology and the BBC’s increased international presence, more and more people have come to know and love the Doctor since his return to TV. For the last couple of years, the BBC has aired new episodes on the same day in the UK and US, and the 50th-anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” will be simulcast worldwide this Saturday, November 23. Now that’s an adventure in space and time!