By Sarah Pridgeon
On November 22, 1963, the world changed forever. Here in the States, a beloved president was assassinated and the oft-asked question was posed for the first time: “Where were you when JFK died?” Tragedy shook the world, but something else had just happened that turned out to be almost as influential.
Over the way in Britain, a weird and wonderful television series crept onto our screens. Not many people were watching that day, as you might imagine, but the word very quickly spread and it wasn’t long before the country was well and truly hooked. From inauspicious beginnings, an icon began to evolve into an intrinsic part of our culture. And half a century later, he’s entrenched in yours as well.
The show that aired for the first time that day was Doctor Who and, as I write this column, the world is rejoicing in its 50 year anniversary. I say “the world” rather than Britain because it has now gained so much popularity in so many places that the celebration was simulcast across the planet.
At precisely the same moment – 12:50 p.m. on Saturday for us and 7:50 p.m. in England – millions of fans gathered to watch the anniversary special in 94 countries across six continents. A lucky few secured tickets to the 3D cinematic experience, which was screened in 1500 theaters worldwide; the closest to us was in Laramie. It won a Guinness World Record for the largest ever simulcast of a television drama.
Not bad for a show that was created on a shoestring budget and features bad guys who resemble salt and pepper shakers with toilet plungers where their noses ought to be.
It’s hard to explain exactly why Doctor Who is such gripping entertainment. Some say it’s because each episode is an adventure, others praise its whimsy and humor, while some of us have noticed that it’s unusual to reach the end credits without claiming there’s something in your eye. It’s true that the storylines will edge you to the front of your seat, but equally important is their ability to move you without your ever really knowing what it was that tickled your tear ducts.
It’s the show that was made for the whole family but never pulled its punches: generations of children have peeked out from behind the sofa, terrified of the weekly monster. It’s a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the tropes of science fiction that never takes itself too seriously – The Doctor even carries a “sonic screwdriver” as a loving mockery of futuristic gadgetry.
It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will make you do both at the exact same time. And it will make you wish you could disappear with The Doctor to explore all of time and space.
You might be wondering how the show is still running when the title character must surely be nearing his dotage. Actually, he’s in his late twenties. The Doctor, you see, is the last of the Time Lords and can regenerate when he’s badly hurt.
This means that, every so often, the series receives a reboot in the shape of a new Doctor, with new quirks and traits, new storylines and new companions to travel with him. This cunning clause was embedded in the mythology to allow the BBC to extend the series past an actor’s contract.
But every time it happens, the nation goes into mourning. Three years ago, The Doctor was played by David Tennant. On hearing of his imminent sort-of-death, we swore we’d hate his replacement, muttered that David Tennant was the best Doctor there has ever been, lamented that Matt Smith wouldn’t be a proper Doctor and promised to boycott the show.
Five minutes into his first episode, we’d fallen in love with Matt Smith and forgotten all about his predecessor – except to declare that he couldn’t have been as good as we remembered, because Matt Smith is definitely the best Doctor there has ever been. We do this every time.
Each one of us has our own Doctor: the one we watched first, the one we mourned first, the one we quickly forgot about when he left the show. For me, it’s Sylvester McCoy, a version of the Doctor who was generally regarded as barking mad. He turned up recently in The Hobbit as a barking mad wizard, so apparently not much has changed since the 1980s. My grandfather did actually manage to despise him for his entire run, thus entering the record books as the only recorded case of Doctor Hatred that lasted past the first episode.
My husband is envious of our Doctor Who traditions because he can’t think of an equivalent over here. We Brits have mastered the art of refusing to let things die; shows such as Eastenders, The Antiques Roadshow and Blue Peter have been gracing our screens since before I was born. My husband discovered the Doctor when he returned from his first trip to England and was searching for shows that featured London landmarks, so his Doctor will always be David Tennant.
If you have not yet watched the show, you may be pleased to know that the next series begins soon on BBC America and will feature a new incarnation, so you will soon have a perfect opportunity to fall in love with your own version of The Doctor. But before you do, a little primer might come in handy. With 50 years of back story behind him, you can imagine how complicated things have become:
The Doctor is a thousand-year-old Time Lord whose soft spot for humans brings him rushing to our planet in times of galactic need. We do not know his real name – hence the title of the show – because revealing it would have consequences that have yet to be made clear. It’s known as “the question that must never be answered.”
The rest of The Doctor’s race was destroyed in the Time Wars, fought against the Daleks. These are the plunger-nosed baddies, who are significantly more frightening than they sound and spend their time arranging the genocide of any species they consider below them. Which is all of them. The Daleks are certainly not the only aliens he encounters during his travels, but they are the most iconic.
The Doctor travels through time and space in a Tardis, which is disguised to look a lot like a 1950s police box, which in turn looks a lot like a telephone box (or port-a-potty, depending on your reference point). The Tardis is bigger on the inside – there’s even a swimming pool and a library somewhere in its infinite depths.
It is also a sentient being that draws its power from an Eye of Harmony: an exploding star in the process of becoming a black hole, suspended in a permanent state of decay. That might sound far-fetched but, like much of the show’s lore, is based on real astrophysics. Time slows down so much at a black hole’s event horizon that it really would appear to be suspended.
Together, The Doctor and his Tardis travel to the past and the future, on this planet and out across the universe. A peaceful man, he does not kill and is never armed, unless you count his sonic screwdriver and rather brilliant brain. Even so, he commands a healthy respect across the cosmos that sometimes causes entire alien armies to flee in terror – he is our planet’s first and best protector.
Doctor Who holds the world record for longest-running science fiction television show in the world and is also the most successful sci-fi of all time. It’s won plenty of awards over the years, including a Peabody Award here in the US for evolving with technology and the times like nothing else in the known television universe. Hokey and peculiar it may be, but that does nothing to diminish its excellence.
So if you’ve spotted Doctor Who on your television schedule and you’re starting to feeling tempted, I highly recommend giving it a go. I’m perfectly aware that the premise sounds convoluted, but you’ll be surprised how entertaining it is once you’ve fought your way through the confusion.
There’s nothing quite like traveling with a Time Lord to far-reaching planets and distant times, a different place with every new episode. When you’re a fan of Doctor Who, to quote the character himself, the whole of space and time is at your fingertips…so where do you want to go?