Words by: Sam Herriman
The revived Doctor Who returns for its improbable ninth season on Sunday, which for a series debuting in 2006 is in and of itself a remarkable achievement, but when viewed in the context of its overall 52 year history, revolving door main cast, unceremonious demise, triumphant return, rabid fandom and continued international growth it becomes singularly superlative. No other scripted show in the history of television has been able to survive this long. What’s truly extraordinary though is that after 52 years the show only survives but thrives, with a global audience that multiplies every year.
The show’s longevity speaks not to the strength of the acting, writing or directing (all of which can at times be downright dreadful), but rather to the durability of the core concept itself, and the iconic imagery that has become ubiquitous throughout the western world. Even if someone has never seen the show they are almost certainly aware of the TARDIS, the Daleks and the digitized four-syllable recitation of ‘ex-ter-min-ate.’ Doctor Who has an unprecedented level of cultural currency at a time when we are consuming a wider variety of media than ever before.
For those unfamiliar with the epic tale of Doctor Who’s creation, here is a (hopefully) brief run down. In 1963 the BBC commissioned an educational show aimed at families that would look at historical moments and scientific theories in a fun and accessible way, with an eccentric doctor, his granddaughter and her school teacher traipsing through history. Things quickly got out of hand after the second episode – ‘The Mutants’ featuring the Daleks – proved to be a success. The focus of the show changed from education to entertainment, it became more of a sci-fi romp and its popularity grew.
After a number of years on the air it became evident that the leading actor William Hartnell’s health was failing. Not wanting to stop what had become both a big hit and a cash cow for the network, the creative team came up with an ingenious solution to replace the elderly actor with a younger, sprightlier incarnation (Patrick Troughton). Explained away as an alien technique of ‘cheating death,’ the regeneration process of the Timelords from Gallifrey is a brilliant conceit. It’s also a significant factor in the longevity of the show, ensuring the show wasn’t consigned to the footnotes of history.
Following the first regeneration, Doctor Who enjoyed a period of unparalleled success, with Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davison all portraying variations of the now fabled doctor. The show underwent a significantly creative upheaval in the 1980s, and when Peter Davison was replaced with a darker, more sinister Doctor played by Colin Baker the show began to haemorrhage viewers. After the show course-corrected too far in the opposite direction with the goofy Sylvester McCoy Doctor Who had become something of a joke – a show well past its prime. It was cancelled in 1989, but its legacy remained.
Through novels, audio books, merchandise, magazines and syndicated re-runs Doctor Who continued to pervade the public consciousness, and in 1996 a made for television movie starring Paul McGann as the Doctor was the first attempt to revive the series. It received mixed reviews and without strong support any thoughts of continuing the series were nipped in the bud. But the idea remained.
In 2006 a revitalised and revamped Doctor Who hit screens across the world. It was darker and grittier, and with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role was an assured reboot for the show that had gained a reputation in the preceding years as tacky and insubstantial. With heart-throbs David Tennent and Matt Smith assuming the roles in later years the show has now reached new heights in popularity. Conventions, panels and world tours are now regular parts of the Doctor Who calendar and with last season’s premiere ‘Deep Breath’ featuring the debut of new Doctor Peter Capaldi screening in over 1500 cinemas across the world it seems almost an understatement to say that Doctor Who is a genuine cultural phenomenon.
As I mentioned before, one of the keys to the show’s success is its ability to switch out the cast on a regular basis, meaning that if the audience, or sections of the audience, aren’t enjoying the show with the latest leading actor they merely have to wait a few years to have a brand new face and personality inhabit the character. Alongside the Doctor is his young, female companion. The companion changes even more frequently than the Doctor. Some leave, some get left behind and some simply die, but it is not uncommon to have two entirely new leading players. There have been slight variations on this format throughout the years, but the standard, basic, go to TARDIS crew is a middle-aged, white, male Doctor and a young, attractive female human.
That format probably appears a little stale, but the joy of Doctor Who is that the rules can change at any given moment. There have been growing calls for a female Doctor, for example, and last season the show introduced Missy, a female incarnation of the Doctor’s greatest nemesis – a fellow Timelord and ostensibly male ‘The Master.’ This was the greatest indication yet that a female doctor is not beyond the realm of possibility and opens up yet another rich vein of storytelling potential.
The other key to the show’s success is the limitless adventures and balls-out insane stories the show cooks up. The show has all of Earth’s history to explore – which by itself would be enough to fill a hundred seasons – as well as any permutations of Earth’s future as well as literally any planet’s existing or fictional history, present and future. It’s mindboggling to think how much ground the show is able to cover. Of course, the plurality of stories take place in modern-day London.
There’s a perpetual sense of excitement on the eve of a new season, about what the show can achieve this time around, how it can push the boundaries of its already elastic premise. It might not always come off, but when it does it can be spectacular. And boy, is it fun to watch.