Note: this article was also published on Project Quinn (website no longer active).
On Saturday, November 23, millions of people came together to celebrate a British cultural icon. No, not One Direction. I’m talking Doctor Who, celebrating its 50th anniversary.
First broadcast November 23, 1963, Doctor Who is a science fiction show produced by the BBC about an alien who can travel through space and time. The original series (known by fans as “Classic Who”) ran until 1989, where it was put on unspecified hiatus, where – due to low ratings and rising costs – the show went away … seemingly forever.
In 1996, there was an attempt at a revival with a TV movie produced by Fox that was intended to be a backdoor pilot, but nothing really came of it. There were novels and audio radio plays and comics, but interest in an actual television show seemed like a far-fetched idea. Until 2005, when Russell T. Davies (then known best for the British version of Queer as Folk) was able to relaunch the series (known by fans as “NuWho”) – where it’s been running ever since.
Part of the reason the show has been as successful as it is, and why it’s been able to survive 50 years, is that the main character – known only as the Doctor – has the ability to change his appearance and personality in a process called regeneration. Matt Smith, the latest Doctor, will be regenerating into Peter Capaldi in December, for example. I’d give you the number of regenerations, but that’s actually a bit of an issue/spoiler for the 50th anniversary special broadcast on Saturday, “The Day of the Doctor”. But, like with James Bonds, there are fan arguments as to who the best Doctor is and everyone has their favorite.
I first got into Doctor Who when I was around 12 or 13, which – to date me – was the mid-’80s. I grew up in a small town about an hour southwest of St. Louis, and the PBS station broadcast repeats (and for a brief while the new episodes) of Doctor Who on Sunday evenings. I remember coming in to ask my mom something, and she was watching this odd show. I waited for a break in dialogue, and the show hooked me. (For those of you who are fans, it was Tom Baker’s “The Key to Time” series that snagged me.)
But back then, it was still a cult phenomenon – and being a fan of science fiction television (along with being labeled a nerd or a geek) was still a negative thing. None of my (few) friends were fans of the show, at least to my knowledge, and there wasn’t anyone I could talk to. When I was 15 or 16, PBS’s broadcast also brought the knowledge of a Doctor Who fan club based out of St. Louis. I convinced my mom to drive me to a meeting once, and when I turned 16 and able to drive myself, I attended a couple of meetings on my own. When I went to college, I remember how hard it was to find Doctor Who-related merchandise, whether it was the episodes on VHS, the novels and radio productions listed above, or even a PC game.
Oh, how things have changed. For the 50th, the BBC rolled out all the stops with a limited theatrical release 50th episode (“The Day of the Doctor”), a special docudrama detailing the origins of the TV show (Mark Gatiss’s “An Adventure in Space and Time”, which I’ll admit I was looking forward to more than the anniversary episode, and ended up loving much more), a special interactive graphic detailing the various travels of the Doctor, themed episodes of other shows (like “The Science of Doctor Who”, hosted by Brian Cox), and broadcasting some of the audio productions on BBC Radio 4.
Not only that, but the world stood up and took notice. The Royal Mail created special stamps, YouTube partnered with the BBC for a pre-event launch party, other YouTube channels gave us special Doctor Who-related content (such as Head Squeeze showing how to recreate the old title sequence), Google gave us an interactive game for their doodle, and even Ron Burgundy got in on the action. (Heck: even Peter Davison, known as the fifth Doctor, chimed in with a humorous 30 minute sketch starring the Colin Baker – the sixth Doctor – and Sylvester McCoy – the seventh Doctor – and featured loads of cameos from the series.)
The simulcast of the anniversary episode received a Guinness World Record for largest ever simulcast of a TV drama, being broadcast in 94 countries.
My inner 15-year old, who had to travel almost 70 miles to participate in a fan club so I could find SOMEONE to talk about my love of Doctor Who, is still reeling from this. My inner 20 year old, who could only find episodes at Suncoast – and that was the only way you could watch episodes of the series – is blown away by the fact that Doctor Who has graced the cover of both Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide, and that I was able to attend a screening on the big screen of an episode with other fans.
I won’t go into a review of “The Day of the Doctor”. I went in wanting to like it, and so I was happy with it. All I know is that finally, something I loved – something that I felt for the longest time I was the only one to love – was being recognized. (Note: I did end up doing a write up of the episode here.) And while fans are still somewhat facing a stigma (when David Tennant and Matt Smith appeared on The Graham Norton Show, a fan – who had tattoos of autographs all the other Doctors who were alive but Tennant – asked for Tennant’s autograph, he was asked by one of the people there ‘what do you think it’ll be like to touch a girl’), the fact that we helped make history happen (not only with the Guinness World Record, but with Tumblr and ratings records) makes most of us feel warm and fuzzy and like it’s okay to be a fan of something. It was, after all, the fans that made this happen (Davies and current show runner Steven Moffat, as well as Tennant and Capaldi, all acknowledge that they are fans of the show).
So, from this author – who is still somewhat that little girl who fell in love with the idea of a man who could travel in space and time and save the universe and individuals both – I say thank you, Doctor Who. And thank you, fans, for letting me realize that I am not alone in my love of this madman with a box. May there be enough fan interest that in 50 years time, we see a 100th anniversary episode.
Now … time to count down to the series premiere of Sherlock series 3.
Want to see how I celebrated Doctor Who? Check out my Tumblr tags for ’50th anniversary’ here.