Fifty years ago today, the world was recovering from the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy.But as that death rocked the world and dominated the media, something new was born. At 17:15 on BBC One, the first episode of a new children’s drama serial was broadcast.
At that time, it was practically a miracle that Doctor Who’s first episode An Unearthly Child had been made at all after the disaster of the initial pilot episode. But those twenty-five minutes about a mysterious teenage girl, two inquisitive schoolteachers, and grumpy old man with an impossible machine were the start of a legend that has stretched across fifty years and over two-hundred countries, and become an immortal component of science-fiction, television drama, and British culture.
But the next five decades weren’t plain sailing. Not by a long shot. Despite a successful run and one of the most visible fan communities of all time, Doctor Who was always facing problems in some way. But whether it was William Hartnell’s failing health, budget crises, or the successful attempt by BBC One controller Michael Grade to kill it in the late 80s, Doctor Who always came through and beat back. Like the homo sapiens in The Ark In Space, it was and still is indomitable.
Doctor Who is like the Tardis with its Extrapolator shielding activated: almost indestructible. Its quality and popularity protect it from having to adhere to the standards of television and allow it to fundamentally be its own organism. The original mandate from its creator Sydney Newman was “no bug-eyed monsters”. Its first producer Verity Lambert ignored him and ushered in Dalekmania. Michael Grade ran it into the ground and it came back kicking and screaming like Davros after every one of his defeats, to scale never before seen heights in family entertainment. Sixteen years with only one real adventure being released would have been enough to leave any other programme forgotten and ignored. Doctor Who kept going through books and audio plays thanks to devoted fans heeding the Fifth Doctor’s encouragement of “Brave heart” and creating and consuming all of that new media, and keeping Doctor Who ticking over until the building blocks for its return were laid down.
We’ve now come to a point where Doctor Who represents the best of family drama, has more supplementary material and merchandise than ever before, and is something that can connect people from all walks of life. Millions of people from children in the West Country, to office workers in Norway, to Stephen Hawking and even members of the Royal Family, are Whovians. As well as being a cultural phenomenon and a hugely entertaining piece of drama, it’s a societal leveller and it brings people together. It’s impossible to get a statistic for this but so many relationships and friendships (including a couple of my own) will have been forged in the past fifty years by a shared appreciation of Doctor Who. So little else (especially a TV drama that started its life with wobbly sets and tinfoil robots) is able to have that kind of influence on people’s lives. And that’s something we will at least try to pass on to our children and grandchildren.
But the handing down of Doctor Who to the next generation isn’t just limited to being a fan. The torch being passed is at the core of Doctor Who’s production as well. Ever since the 1980s, the lunatics have been running the asylum with fans John Nathan-Turner, Peter Davison, and Matthew Waterhouse joining the Doctor Who family in production and performing roles respectively. And in their wake came David Tennant, Russell T. Davies, Mark Gatiss, and Steven Moffat. All men who grew up on Doctor Who and later had an immense impact on it in their adult lives.
And that’s why it keeps improving and staying strong. Because it will almost always have a fan at the helm. A person who was raised with Doctor Who, developed their own appreciation and interpretation of it, and isn’t just working on it for a big fat cheque but is partly doing it because it’s something that influenced their childhood to such a large extent and something that they fundamentally love. David Tennant and Steven Moffat became actors and writers because of Doctor Who. And that’s undoubtedly true for other people on every level of its production. From the executive producers all the way down to the runners.
But the most important thing about Doctor Who isn’t how long it’s lasted or how popular it is, it’s the programme’s message. To quote Craig Ferguson, Doctor Who represents “the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism”. It also spreads the message of how (as the Doctor himself told us) “Some corners of the universe have bred the most terrible things. Things that act against our very beliefs. They must be fought.” But the most important message that we can take from Doctor Who is embodied through the Doctor’s companions. That we all have boundless potential and need only the right stimulus to unlock it and help us become something greater. And of course (my personal favourite) “There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.” That wisdom and so many other small messages threaded throughout its 798 episodes and counting is the greatest gift of Doctor Who.
Doctor Who has gone beyond a phenomenon and become something impossible to describe in a single word. Even if it sees a dip in popularity and ends up in the TV wilderness again, that funny little blue box will always be waiting for us with its doors wide open to take us through all of time and space. Doctor Who is completely ineffable in its continued cultural significance and will be a constant in science-fiction and drama circles around the world for decades to come.
And hopefully I’ll be expressing similar sentiments in 2063. But that’s dependent on me surviving that long. Not Doctor Who. Because the Tardis will never sit gathering dust as a strange curiosity like the Ninth Doctor had hoped. And neither will Doctor Who.
This article was first posted on November 24, 2013