Doctor Who Memories

The British sci-fi TV series Doctor Who turns 50 years old on Saturday. In a medium not typically noted (at least until lately) for producing work of lasting interest, this is a momentous achievement--all the more so because the show has never been more popular than it is now. Here in the US, the 50th anniversary TV movie will be simulcast in major movie theater chains across the country. Thirty years ago, I would have found such a turn of events about as far-fetched as an invasion by sentient shop-window dummies.

Like many American anglophiles of a certain age, I first discovered Doctor Who in the early 1980s via my local PBS station. I was nine years old at the time and deep in the clutches of a Star Wars obsession, but this far-stranger (and much lower-budget) take on the science fiction genre immediately won me over. Despite the show's complex and confounding mythology--the inevitable by-product of such a long run--its central premise was pretty easy to grasp: A mysterious traveler wanders throughout the universe, doing good where he can. Stripped to its core, this is the classic story of the stranger who rides into town, fixes a problem, and rides out again. There's more to it than that, of course: This traveler, known only as "The Doctor," journeys through space and time in a machine that looks like a British police telephone box. He is hundreds of years old and can "regenerate" his body if dealt a mortal wound (This clever ploy has enabled twelve actors--including, in the upcoming TV movie, John Hurt--to assume the lead role over the last half-century).

For me, Doctor Who became not just a favorite show but a way of life--as, I suspect, it has for many fans. How could a misfit kid not identify with the Doctor: the ultimate loner, a renegade from his own people? He had broken free of the constraints of his upbringing and went to places, and associated with people, of his choosing.

Yet despite the appealing premise, I found the show a hard sell to most of my peers. They couldn't quite grasp why alien races throughout the universe would speak in a British accent, or why they would continually use London as the staging ground for their attempted invasions of Earth. Most damning was the fact that, due to the BBC's budgetary constraints at the time, the special effects and rubber monster suits looked ridiculous to kids who had grown up with George Lucas's visual wizardry. No matter; I stuck with it. Doctor Who set my imagination on fire like nothing else I had ever come across. And as I eventually discovered, I was not quite so alone as I had once thought. In college and beyond, a scenario repeated itself multiple times: I would befriend someone who shared my interests in literature and history, and after several months--or sometimes even years--it would emerge that my friend had also obsessively followed the show on PBS back in the 80s. I discovered that some of my favorite musicians--Robert Smith of the Cure, Robyn Hitchcock, and Steve Kilbey of The Church, had all watched the show as kids. This is significant, I think. I've come to believe that a childhood steeped in Doctor Who fosters certain qualities: intense curiosity, open-mindedness, and, typically, interests in history and foreign cultures. I can't think of any other TV show that has anywhere near that effect.

The series' longevity was not always a foregone conclusion. In fact, the situation looked positively dire when dwindling ratings forced its cancellation in 1989. Yet the show had managed to cast a wide-enough net on my generation by that point that at least one of our number--Russell T. Davies--never quite let the dream die. Even as he enjoyed massive success as the creator and chief writer of the original Queer as Folk, he continued to nurse the seemingly quixotic ambition of resurrecting Doctor Who. When he was finally given the opportunity to relaunch the series in 2005, he very quickly transformed Doctor Who into the biggest cash cow in the history of British television. The once-maligned low-budget serial now boasts state-of-the art special effects and a rotating cast of A-list actors. There was a trade-off, of course: in my view, Davies appropriated some of the more egregious traits of Hollywood blockbusters into his version: frantic pacing, bombastic music, and the sacrificing of plot in the service of spectacle. But there can be no denying that Davies' vision struck a chord with younger audiences and made the series a far more marketable export than it had been in its earlier iteration. (I should mention that some of the aforementioned vices have lessened since Steven Moffat took over the show in 2010).

An oft-repeated statement of late is that the Doctor has now made the transition from a man of his time to a character for the ages: one that will return again and again, a la Sherlock Holmes. I suspect that's true. Great ideas have a way of sticking around--which is wonderful, because I'm looking forward to the day that I can begin watching Doctor Who with my daughter.

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