Doctor Who began airing on November 23, 1963. This year it will celebrate its 50th anniversary. That’s a hell of a long time by many measures, and it’s almost an eternity in TV years. It was several years before I was born, and I’m willing to bet it was several decades before most of our readers were born. The amount of time that has passed can therefore be somewhat hard to get a handle on, so let’s see if we can break it down into digestible segments for us so that we can better appreciate this accomplishment and get a real sense of the distance between 1963 and 2013.
To start with something very US-centric, consider that Doctor Who began airing the day after President John F Kennedy was killed. New episodes of the old series aired during the administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. During the mid-1990s, the TV movie aired, thus giving us new televised Who during the Bill Clinton years. Then the new series started up in 2005, adding new Who stories during the administrations of George W Bush and Barack Obama. It’s a TV show that has ran during the terms of nine US presidents.
To translate this into British standards, consider the fact that, yes, there’s only been one queen on the throne during the entire run of the show. But that queen has had ten ministers prime during that same time period; Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Harold Wilson again, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
On things scientific, consider that Doctor Who was already six seasons old and was about to start up with its seventh season with the Third Doctor, when Apollo 11 reached the Moon. The series continued through the entirety of the Apollo Moon missions, through the entirety of Skylab, past the Challenger explosion and into the Mir missions.
It is also worth noting that in 1963, 405 line black and white TV with mono sound was the going thing, at least for the BBC. The series didn’t transition into color until the start of season seven, back in 1970. Now it airs in full and glorious high definition widescreen with 5.1. surround sound. Much of that technology wasn’t even a dream back in 1963.
Speaking of technology, Doctor Who is regularly one of the most purchased shows in the iTunes store. Consider how much technological advancement that sentence requires. Back in 1963, if you wanted to watch an episode and missed it, you were basically screwed. Now some people put audio tape recorders in front of the speaker so they could at least hear the story later (which is why we have soundtracks for every episode, even ones where the video is missing), but there were no VCRs, no DVRs, few reruns, and no internet. Heck, even putting the words “personal” and “computer” together wouldn’t have made sense to basically anyone.
During those 50 years, Doctor Who has made and aired 798 episodes. By the end of this year, that will be up to 800. To watch all of them in under a year, you’d have to watch about 3 episodes a day every day. If you watched one a day, it would take…well, 800 days. More than two years.
As a side note, those 800 episodes are more episodes than Star Trek, Star Trek: The Animated Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise COMBINED. They are also more than the combined total number of episodes for The X-Files, Firefly, Fringe, Lost, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe. Only by adding, say, Battlestar Galactica into the mix, can we get over 800 episodes, and even then that only gets us up to 866. Doctor Who, at its current rate, will pass that number in season thirteen, probably sometime in 2018 or 2019. It is also worth noting that if we added in Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, the total becomes a mind-boggling 891 televised stories in the Doctor Who universe.
If you want to take a step further, you can try listening to the Big Finish Doctor Who audio stories. There’s 177 of them in the monthly range. At about 2 hours each, it would take you 354 hours to listen to every single one. Once you’re done with that, you can start with the 71 or so Companion Chronicles, the four seasons of Lost Stories, the Fourth Doctor Adventures and the Eighth Doctor Adventures. Add ‘em all together, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Big Finish alone has added almost as much to the Who cannon as the BBC has.
And as a final angle, let’s take a look at the differences in money. In 1963, the series cost about £3,000 per episode. In modern pounds, according to an inflation calculator I found online, that’s about £52,000. By contrast, the current series, which is FAR from the most expensive TV show currently in production, costs about £1 million per episode.
Every show hits its 50th anniversary eventually. Star Trek will do it in 2016, for example. But almost no TV show manages to hit its 50th while still on the air, and even with the Dark Times the show had from the end of the old series to the start of the new, I think we can all be impressed by the achievement. IT’s been 50 mostly great years so far, and hopefully the next 50 will be even better!
This article was first posted on September 17, 2013