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.

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Nicholas Slayton is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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