It was an inauspicious weekend during which to launch a new television series. The day before, November 22, 1963, the President of the United States, “leader of the Free World,” had been assassinated, and all over the globe people were glued to their radios and televisions watching the grim aftermath. Especially of course in the U.S., it was a weekend of unremitting grief and disbelief, in nearly equal measure. The American networks, of which there were then only three, broadcast live first from Dallas, then from the Capitol, and the nation ground to a halt—even commerce stopped to witness the horror.
In the United Kingdom that Saturday evening the twenty-third of November, however, on the state-owned British Broadcasting Corporation network, Dr. Who began its first season. Fifty years, and ten regenerations of The Doctor later, the series celebrates its 50th anniversary with a special episode scheduled to be simulcast world-wide at the exact time that the first show was broadcast.
Let me repeat part of that: 50 years later. Yes, half a century! Think about popular TV shows these days and fast-forward. Can you imagine 50 more years of At Home with the Kardashians? Another 600 months of Real Housewives of Wherever? I don’t know about you, but that is definitely not a future with which I would want to be associated! Dr. Who, though, lives on.
For those of you unfamiliar with the show, let me give you the very short version: the title character, Dr. Who, is the last of the Time Lords, a powerful alien race whose members appear human, although they have two hearts. He can move through time and space via the Tardis, which appears to be a blue police call box (common in the U. K.), but which is bigger on the inside (way bigger!) and which functions essentially as a combination time machine/spaceship. On meeting strangers, Dr. Who very often says, “I’m the Doctor,” to which people tend to respond, “Dr. ….,” well, you know! And that’s where the show gets its name.
The Doctor travels sometimes alone but far more often with “companions,” usually humans from Earth, but not always, and usually volunteers, but not always. Over the 50 years he has faced Evil in various forms, sometimes human, mostly not, and saved humanity/the Earth/the universe with great regularity. Very conveniently, Time Lords can regenerate, so over the decades eleven different actors have taken on the title role. Fans of the show have their favorite Doctors, their favorite companions, and of course their favorite villains. Proudly, they proclaim themselves Whovians in countless creative ways: http://www.thinkgeek.com/brain/whereisit.cgi?t=dr+who.
Each new incarnation of the Doctor has had his trademark and a distinct personality to go with it, as the following examples reveal:
The scarf (and similarly flamboyant personality) of the fourth Doctor (Tom Baker):
Photo Credit: Google Images
The pristine cricket whites (and posh accent) of the fifth Doctor (Peter Davison):
Photo Credit: Google Images
The leather (and working-class accent) of the ninth doctor (Christopher Eccleston):
Photo Credit: Google Images
When the show first began, special effects, especially on TV, were minimal—no CGI of course, far from it. I distinctly recall thinking, “Is that a colander on its head??” when I watched an early show. The alien invader depicted in the episode, intended to be very scary, looked like something I would have put together to dress for Halloween when I was a kid. The Daleks, aliens who would become one of the Doctor’s most frequently appearing, and dangerous, enemies, had a disconcerting similarity to enormous salt and pepper shakers. (As a side note, to this day, I regret not being a millionaire for the sole reason that had I been one, I could have purchased my very own Dalek, on sale—who knows why—at the Forbidden Planet store in London about 25 years ago!)
Fortunately, the writing and the acting nearly always made up for what we have to think of now as pretty low production values, at least at the beginning. And it’s the writing and the acting that created the phenomenon that Dr. Who became. Viewers got hooked by the story lines and the intriguing, often contradictory, character of the Doctor himself.
Has the show changed over the decades? Budgets, and hence production values, have dramatically increased. Because it is now seen as quintessentially British, taking on the role is an enormous step in an actor’s career; even becoming a companion—or playing a villain (provided you are not covered with prosthetic make-up and consequently unrecognizable)—can give an actor’s career a big boost. Billie Piper, once known as the “British Britney Spears,” a dubious distinction, jump-started her U.K. acting career by becoming the non-singing Rose Tyler, one of the most popular companions ever. Carey Mulligan, now on the big screen opposite A-list actors, appeared in Blink, regarded as one of the all-time best Who episodes, in 2007.
See for yourself what the show looked like that first season, when William Hartnell portrayed the first Doctor as a very crotchety grandpa who appeared strangely ineffectual given that he was supposedly a member of a race so superior to humans as to be virtually God-like:
And here’s a peek at the 50th anniversary special—enjoy, and on the 23rd, consider becoming part of the phenomenon that is Who! (teaser for 50th)
JoAnne Podis, Ph.D. is the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Ursuline College.