The BBC science fiction family show, Doctor Who, just celebrated its 50th anniversary. If you’re a fan, then you’ve devoured every bit of the celebration and every featurette associated with the long-running history of the show. If you are not a fan, then you’ve probably been annoyed at the constant Doctor references on Twitter and Facebook.
Even as the show passes 50 years, it has never been more popular. The 50th Anniversary special hit telecast records as it aired worldwide at the same time this past weekend. Also, this week marks the first Doctor Who U.S. theatrical premiere. While trying to buy a ticket, I’ve noticed that most of the screenings had sold out. Just a few months ago at the Salt Lake Comic Con, it was clear to see that the highest percentage of cosplay was Doctor Who themed. While I normally hate trends, this Gallifreyan popularity could not make me more happy. This show was a British commodity for far too long and has now gained worldwide success. I think there are a number of reasons why this show is now catching on in the U.S. I’ll detail the reasons throughout this
love letter article.
Who is Doctor Who? (For Beginners)
Without being a condescending geek, the question is not “What’s so important about this Doctor Who fella?” It’s more “What is so important about The Doctor?” His name is The Doctor. The misleading title spawns from several characters asking “Doctor Who?” when he introduces himself as only “The Doctor.”
Because this show has been running for a half a century, the character logic gets all “wibbly, wobbly, timey, wimey.” The Doctor is an alien from the planet Gallifrey. His race of people is known as the Time Lords. He travels to any point in space or time using his craft, the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space). This TARDIS is an old-fashioned police phone box because, while it can adapt to appear inconspicuous, it broke and stuck with a common 1963 blue police box. While this box is approximately 4″ by 4″ on the outside, it is considerably larger on the inside.
The Doctor doesn’t do very well on his own, so he chooses to travel with “companions.” These companions are typically from Earth, so the audience will have an anchor point to relate to. He has traveled with family members, friends and teachers. But his typical companion is an attractive British woman.
You may be wondering what is up with the number of actors who have played the iconic Doctor. In December, we will see the 12th(ish) Doctor appear. Having several actors play the Doctor was not the original intention of the creators, but it’s turned into its greatest asset. In 1963, William Hartnell played the role. In 1966, after a few production problems and declining health, he decided to leave the role. The producers came up with the fantastic plot point of allowing a Time Lord to regenerate into a different actor. The Doctor still kept his memories, but he would look entirely different and his personality would be slightly different.
But Isn’t that Show Pretty Lame?
You would not be faulted for being naive and thinking that Doctor Who is lame. In fact, this show has a pretty inconsistent record of quality. The show lost its way through much of the ’80s and was cancelled in 1989.
I remember tuning into a strange, crappy-looking British sci-fi show in the early 90’s. During that time, PBS was airing reruns of Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor. All I remember from that time is wondering why anyone would allow an ugly white guy with an afro to be the lead character and why there were so many guys in dodgy alien costumes. The sets were bad, the acting worse and it was a little boring. Before I started watching the 2005 version, I too had a bad taste in my mouth of the effects-challenged light sci-fi series.
With the exception of a 1996 American movie, Doctor Who was off the air for 16 years. Execs at the BBC were convinced to revive the classic series with a “modern” Doctor in Christopher Eccleston. While there may be a few spotty episodes in that first season, it brought Doctor Who to a new British audience.
Doctor Who is meant to be a show for families. Sure, it wants to scare kids, but in the most PG way possible. People who are used to more mature shows may look at Doctor Who as nothing more than just a kids’ show. But it is one of the few television shows that can appeal to everyone.
Why It’s Now Okay for Americans to Like the Doctor
It took about 45 years but Doctor Who somehow became relevant to audiences in the United States. Props to anyone who started watching the show back in the day, but most American fans caught on only in the past couple of years. There are several reasons for this American fandom.
First off, it should be said that British TV has become very successful stateside as of late. While British comedy has always had its fair share of fans, it’s series like Downton Abbey and Sherlock that have driven people to find similar shows that appeal to their cultural senses.
Putting David Tennant in the role of the 10th Doctor was brilliant. He was a character that everyone wanted to relate to. Whether he was your first Doctor or not, he had the boisterous sense of adventure that made you want to jump into the TARDIS and take a trip through time. During Tennant’s tenure as the Doctor, the show was at its peak, often displaying the best episodes of the entire series.
I’d say the main reason that it’s no longer embarrassing to say you love Doctor Who is that the geek stigma is dying off. It’s perfectly acceptable to be a geek now and let your freak flag fly. I’d attribute the rise of comic book movies becoming Hollywood’s biggest summer blockbusters to give geeks credibility. Without Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, RDJ as Iron Man and Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, geeks would still be hiding in their mother’s basements. Now, it’s not unusual to see a bumper sticker saying “My other car is a TARDIS.”
Where Should You Start?
You may be hesitant to start on a show with 50 years of history, but if you think about it, it’s a show about a time traveler, so it really shouldn’t matter where you start. For now, you should disregard the classic series of Doctor Who. I’ve already written about the gateway episode that would be a great place to start. From that point you should start with the first episode of the 2005 revival, Rose.
Once you make it through two seasons, you’ll go to Wikipedia and research the history of the show. It’s at that point that you’ll realize what level of geek you are. Once you are up to date on the current seasons, you can go back and watch the available classic series on Netflix.
There’s no better time than now to start watching Doctor Who. It has now become a cultural phenomenon here in the U.S. and you’re missing out if you don’t see what all the fuss is about.
We have seen great shows come and go. Even some of television’s best shows, like Breaking Bad, have to end at some point. If you’re looking for a show to get excited about and one that (even if it does get cancelled) will keep running for another 50 years it’s Doctor Who. It’s a great show if you have children and want them to get into sci-fi or even for the child inside you.
Once you watch this seemingly simple show, you’ll realize that there’s far more on the inside.