In November last year we saw Doctor Who reach it’s sixtieth anniversary, cementing it’s unique place, not just in BBC Television history, or even in the history of British television, but also around the World.
The series is an asset to UK culture, UK television, and Science Fiction in general, and yes I am very biased, I have been a fan of the series ever since I was five years old and saw Tom Baker’s Doctor fall from a radio telescope and regenerate into Peter Davison’s Doctor. I was fascinated that someone could change their appearance like that.
But it is not just about regeneration that makes Doctor Who a success, but it’s unique Britishness. The Doctor, for all his alien origins and personality, appears as a quintessential gentleman (in a couple of cases a gentlewoman) with a strong British mantle about him or her in its many forms. Be it Liverpudlian, Scottish, Mancunian, or Londoner.
It is also something of a constant comfort in people’s lives and with that in mind we must take a close look at how it began.
It’s Saturday 23rd November 1963 at 5:15PM, many are in their living rooms watching television it is already dark and cold outside, and people are still reeling from the shock of the assassination of President Kennedy the day before. And here we are seeing two teachers whisked away in a Time and Space machine (called TARDIS), by an old man and his granddaughter, to a prehistoric past. Weeks later they would be witnessing a far away planet called Skaro and unnerved by cold and ruthless aliens encased in metal called Daleks, and yet they would be defeated (as they would continuously be over the decades) by the Doctor and his companions.
The series, at some stages practically the only homegrown Science Fiction series on British television at peak time, was there to entertain, comfort, terrify, amaze, enthral, and living the old Reithian BBC remit to educate (teaching history and some scientific theories), entertain (with thrilling plots), and inform (with some stories echoing real life events).
But that in itself has not ensured it’s longevity. If that was all it was, then the series would have ended a long time ago. When William Hartnell started to find the role too much (he was suffering from arteriosclerosis) and that was affecting his ability to effectively learn his lines, and it was agreed he would go. They hit on the idea of not just replacing him with another actor, but that the new Doctor would be different in looks and personality. Those changes of actors and their differing approaches has helped ensure the series survival. But not just that, the series changed it’s style and approach. When the budget for making the series got too problematic in the late 1960s and Patrick Troughton decided to leave, then the new Doctor (played by Jon Pertwee), found himself exiled on late 20th Century Earth, and fighting against alien menaces and home grown villains. That brought more of an edge to the series. In the late 1970s, the influence of both the then lead actor, Tom Baker, and the then Script Editor, Douglas Adams, ensured the series was guided by undergraduate humour, which was appreciated by some and not by others.
Sometimes the series has lost it’s way. In the 1980s, if it had any failings it was seen as obviously low budget, somewhat of a pantomime, and occasional poor scripts. It may also have got smug on occasion, and given the stories of the situations with those involved with the series, it had definitely got dysfunctional. So it was that Michael Grade and others, who hated the series, put it on hiatus for eighteen months in the Mid 1980s, and then put it on the shelf indefinitely. However, by then, such was the widespread global support amongst fans, not least caused by the rise of Doctor Who conventions among fans in the US in the 1980s, that it stayed in the public consciousness, and continued in spin off novels, comics, and audio series. After a failed attempt to restart the series in the US in 1996, it came back on our screens via the BBC in 2005, bigger and more popular than ever, and to the point where I for one would be surprised if I outlive the series, no matter how long I am around.
Wonder what the faces of each Doctor looks like? Here is an awesome video showing the Regeneration between every Doctor!
It is still a comfort blanket on the psyche of fans and casual viewers, and it still addresses the thoughts and fears of our times, and it still enthrals us, and it will likely do so for the rest of our lives. Part of the fabric of television history.