How Doctor Who Survived 50 Years

Infectious optimism, a sense of adventure, and limitless storytelling possibilities: For a low-budget kids' show, the BBC's original concept packed a lot of promise.
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When it started in 1963, Doctor Who should not have succeeded. A committee created it, to fill a time slot. It had a small budget. The BBC intended for it to be a children's educational show focusing on science and history. Oh, and it debuted the night after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

And yet it worked, as seen in the incredible hype preceding Saturday’s 50th anniversary special—an extra-long, star-filled special called “The Day of the Doctor.”

What went right? It's not just the always-exterminating Daleks, or the complex, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey plots. Those are fun, but there's something more primal that's been with it since it's start in 1963: adventure. A sense of the new. When William Hartnell debuted in November 1963 as the Doctor, showing off his time and space-traveling TARDIS, and asked his co-stars and viewers, “Have you ever thought what it's like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension?” And the truth was, they hadn’t. Not like this.

When there weren't a near-limitless option of television channels, viewers tuned in to Doctor Who because it was on. But they kept coming back because of the show itself. Doctor Who, in its original serial-based approach to storytelling, created a must-watch series of cliffhangers and resolutions that children and families loved. For those growing up in the United Kingdom, Doctor Who became a shared cultural touchstone, something to watch on Saturday so you could discuss it with your friends on Monday.

“The kids kept it alive being excited, by wondering what happened next.” said Tony Lee, writer of the Doctor Who comic books at IDW Publishing. “There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no messages boards. It was you and your friends and that was it.”

Even in those early years, Doctor Who drew in some of the top writers on television and beyond. Douglas Adams, the man behind The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, served as script editor for the show for a time in the 1970s, when the series consistently experimented with science-fiction tropes. In the 1980s, though, executive meddling started to interfere. Innovation scaled back as the BBC tried to streamline characters and keep plots simpler. BBC Controller Michael Grade hated the show and tried to cancel it in the mid '80s, leading it to go on an 18-month hiatus before returning with a smaller budget, running for a few more years, and getting canceled in 1989. A television movie and failed back-door pilot aired in 1996, but for more than a decade, Doctor Who lived off screens.

Live it did, though. Even with the show being gone, Doctor Who remained in the UK’s cultural imagination. People still knew what a Dalek or the TARDIS was. Hardcore fans were a big reason why. Magazines, novels, and audio plays went into production, the latter even using the actors from the show to craft new stories. These new stories kept many original viewers engaged with the show they loved, and offered younger people who might have caught the rare rerun a chance to explore the show further. For fans old and new, it was a time for them to formulate stories they wanted to tell.

“I got into Doctor Who 20 years ago, when it was still a little program to be slightly ashamed of,” said Scott Handcock, a former production secretary for the revival, and producer for the Doctor Who audio spinoffs Bernice Summerfield and Gallifrey. “Something about it caught my eye. Doctor Who was just slightly cleverer, and less conventional. Even as a kid, the less conventional side appealed to me.”

And part of that appeal, not just for viewers but also writers, is its limitlessness. Doctor Who can be anything. If you strip it down to its core concept, it's the platform for every genre and plot imaginable.

“It's a perfect story engine in many ways. The lead can change, you can go anywhere in space and time, the box itself is kind of weird, so we can have an excuse as to why it suddenly disappears at any moment,” said Rudy Jahchan, who along with Liz Shannon Miller hosts the time-travel and Doctor Who-themed podcast Timey Wimey TV. “They can always make it be whatever it needs to be for the years it's in.”

Early on, the show stepped away from its educational nature and started playing with more fantastic ideas, and also genres. There were seasons that played homage to the '60s spy craze, Hammer Horror, and the existential science-fiction stories that filled the '70s. And now the show has fully embraced its genre-busting nature. Recent seasons have mixed pirate adventures, government conspiracy thrillers, and ghost stories, sometimes back to back.

“The appeal of Doctor Who is that you can do anything, any when, you can have him meet anyone,” Handcock said. “That's irresistible as a writer. You're given a completely blank slate, but you're given one of the best characters ever devised in fiction to have an adventure there. You present someone with those two factors, and they're going to leap at it.”

And Doctor Who is uplifting. As dark as the show can get, and as high as the body count can rise (which is very high), there's always a sense of joy and discovery there. The Doctor can be manipulative and brooding, but he's always been an explorer first. The show is about saving people and helping others, not getting revenge or hurting someone, and its unabashed love of seeing new things and the best in people makes it fun. In a musical number on The Late Late Show, Craig Ferguson summed up Doctor Who’s charm: “It's all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.”

“I watch what they do and think 'that's wonderful!' There's this crazy mishmash of ideas and at the core, there's still this idea of humanity,” Jahchan said.

That combination of optimism and no-boundaries storytelling options has allowed the show to continue to this day. The fans kept the show alive for seven years between the end of the original series and the television movie, and nine more years until the show got a full restart. When the BBC brought the show back in 2005, there was not only an existing fan base, but people of all ages who had at least some knowledge of the show. And this time, it had the support of the studio, and not its disdain.

Some of the fans who had kept the show going, from original revival showrunner Russell T. Davies to writers such as Paul Cornell and Robert Shearman, also found themselves in major positions to run the revival.

“What was smart about the reboot was that it was all fans of the show,” said Maura Grady, a Doctor Who fan and an assistant professor at Ashland University who focuses on fan culture. “They weren't hired because they were fans, but they came into writing and directing through Doctor Who, so they had this big wealth of knowledge to tap into, but not in a way that's off putting.”

“If you look at the Doctor Who stories, be them the show, the books, the audios, every single person that writes one of them, you can see that they're fans,” Lee said.

And with the big relaunch, the show has also benefited from a whole new audience: North America. The Internet and changes in cable programming meant it was no longer only available in limited public broadcast networks or hard-to-find recordings.

“It's easier to watch it now,” Miller said. “Doctor Who was difficult to watch in the United States before. It was basically being shuttled off to the PBS's of the world. It eventually got to the US via SyFy, but that was on a year-long delay. From the new series premiere in 2005 to today, we've gone from literally waiting a year to watch new episodes to basically livestream of new episodes. Something is only popular if you can watch it, and that's something that people are figuring out.”

And when the show really became accessible, it won over a new horde of fans. It hit North America in the age of thrillers and anti-heroes on television. But Doctor Who was different—and for many viewers, what they were looking for.

“Because of the British sensibility, there's an emphasis [in Doctor Who] on nonviolence, there's an emphasis on philosophical issues,” Grady said. “There wasn't anything like that on TV at the time – there wasn't a Star Trek on at the time.”

Doctor Who was a hit again. Fans pack into the Doctor Who panel every year at the San Diego Comic-Con, but its appeal wasn’t limited to one group of geekdom.

“Fans of science fiction (or of anything, really) are frequently stereotyped in our culture as being only one sort of person, but Doctor Who fans are incredibly diverse,” Grady said. “Common denominator: they love this show and want to watch it and talk about it with others.”

In a way, it’s fitting that Doctor Who began so differently from how it’s ended up. The Doctor changes his face, and companions leave, but the adventures continue. It, in turn, kept regenerating into something new and different—but, unfailingly, enjoyable.

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Nicholas Slayton is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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