It’s an interesting time to be a geek, at least for me. It seems like a month hasn’t gone by without some movie, television series, or book marking an anniversary. Superman turned 75, Star Trek: The Next Generation turned 25, and on November 23rd another celebrated franchise is hitting its own milestone.
Doctor Who is turning 50.
Over the five decades of its lifetime, Doctor Who has developed quite a sprawling mythology. The hero who is as mysterious as he is alluring, the human and not-so-human friends who have journeyed with him, and the marvellous ship that makes every story possible. So it seems a little surprising when you consider how modest the show’s beginnings were.
It was created to fill a time slot in the BBC’s schedule which had become notoriously dead in the ratings, an experiment to see what children wanted to watch instead of the umpteenth serial of Oliver Twist. It was created by committee, with different producers and writers kicking ideas around for a science fiction program. And it was created in a cramped and impossible studio, with a budget that wouldn’t pay for the donuts on a modern American sitcom.
For some reason, I love figuring out great stories. Why do they work so well? How have they captured the imagination? What is it they’ve done that makes them so special? What, in fact, makes them tick?
The Mysterious Hero
The Doctor can lay claim to being the most multifaceted character ever created, because he’s been played by so many different actors. He’s been crotchety and carefree and awe-inspiring and playful and angry and overjoyed and frightened. The concept of regeneration, dreamed up in its earliest form to excuse an aging William Hartnell from the role, has paid off enormously over the years. Not only has it allowed the show to reach a longevity that most other programs don’t dare imagine, it also means that every fan of the show has “their” Doctor. Their favourite Doctor. The Doctor they grew up watching, perhaps, or just the one they fell in love with.
But this also means that the character is remarkably hard to pin down. It’s difficult to define the Doctor completely because he’s always changing. If anything is central to Doctor Who, it’s a sense of mystery. And the greatest mystery has always been the Doctor. Mysteries enthrall us. They beg us to seek the solution, to find the answer to the question. “Doctor?” people ask. “Doctor…who?” That answer remains elusive even after fifty years. Even after discovering he’s a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who stole a TARDIS to explore the universe. Ultimately, the only one who really knows the Doctor is the Doctor himselves.
The Constant Companions
The universe of Doctor Who is a wild and dangerous one. It’s often upside down, and sometimes inside out. We need an anchor to keep our sense of reality from spinning out into the ether. Fortunately, the Doctor likes the planet Earth — and more than that, he likes humans. So much so that he often invites them to travel with him, and they become Companions.
There are some Companions who are loved as much as the Doctor. There are others who are reviled by almost every fan. But the thing they all have in common is that they are really us. The best Companions are audience surrogates. They’re people who come from ordinary walks of life and have no pretensions about class or wealth. We like them because they seem as amazed as we are at the wonders of the galaxy, and ask all the questions we want to ask. None of this degrades them as characters; on the contrary, they need to be strongly developed and unique personalities in order to be our doorway into the world of Doctor Who.
The Miraculous Ship
Every story has an element without which everything else is impossible. It’s the lynchpin that keeps all the other elements securely in place. In Doctor Who, this lynchpin is the TARDIS (“Time And Relative Dimensions In Space”). Unlike the Doctor, the TARDIS never changes its outward appearance; unlike the Companions, it never says goodbye. It’s often in the background, what the Doctor and his friends step out of at the beginning and step into at the end, and sporadically mentioned in between.
The reason the TARDIS matters so much to Doctor Who is that it can travel anywhere — literally. Any setting you could imagine, it can go there. Anywhere in space. Anywhere in time. And if any setting is possible, so is any plot. Doctor Who is called a science fiction show, but the truth is far more wide-ranging than that. Horror, mystery, action, romance, war, and any other genre is up for grabs in this high-concept fantasy. In that respect, the TARDIS is actually more emblematic of the program itself than we’ve all realized: it’s bigger on the inside than the pigeonhole it often gets shoved into.
Most of the fiction franchises I’m devoted to were things I discovered in childhood. I remember when being young meant I could get away with dressing up as my favourite heroes and zooming around everywhere defeating Sauron and Darth Vader. So it’s with some surprise that I remember I never watched Doctor Who growing up. It took years to find out it even existed, and years again before I became interested enough to start watching. I began where you should always begin: at the beginning, with the very first set of episodes broadcast in 1963 starring William Hartnell. It started in a junkyard, where a couple of schoolteachers found a grumpy old man and his granddaughter living in what looked like a police box, and which quickly became the most amazing adventure of their lives.
50 years ago today, that’s where everyone started.
Happy Birthday, Doctor Who!