Doctor Who: 50 years on, global acclaim for a distinctly British TV icon

A time-traveling, sonic-screwdriver-wielding Doctor has battled the Daleks for 50 years. Why does Doctor Who have such staying power?

The 11 Doctors: from left, William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith. 'Doctor Who' is turning 50, and the BBC is throwing a broadcasting blowout for the sci-fi show, which began with little fanfare and few expectations on Nov. 23, 1963 but is now one of its biggest hits and major exports.

He’s battled murderous robots, confronted gooey aliens, and grappled with weeping angels. He’s traveled through time and space in an old police box and is supposedly more than 900 years old.

He is the Doctor, and as the titular character of BBC Television's Doctor Who, he safeguards the universe using only his brain and a sonic screwdriver with just an assistant for company. And his show is a British institution that has frightened generations of children hiding behind the sofa and garnered audiences drawn to its mix of quirk and quarks.

The BBC show now holds the honor of being world’s longest-running science-fiction series – albeit interrupted – and on Saturday, millions of die-hard fans across the globe will revel in watching the 50th anniversary of its inaugural broadcast, broadcast simultaneously worldwide.

“It’s very British, his emblem is an old police box – I can’t think of anyone else with one of those,” television critic Andrew Billen of the Times of London says. “He’s an anti-action hero, someone who wants to solve problem with his intelligence rather than using violence.”

Ahead of the anniversary, four of the 11 actors who have played the Doctor over the decades showed up at Buckingham Palace this week. Among the iconic props from the show that were set up in the palace were two versions of his time-traveling machine, the TARDIS; a pair of robots known as Daleks; and a robot dog called K-9.

The central premise of the show is that the Doctor, who comes from a species of perpetually reincarnating beings known as Time Lords, travels through time and space, tackling a range of alien enemies who threaten civilizations and, more often than not, mankind. He’s accompanied by a human assistant, who has frequently, though not always, been a younger woman, and he is constantly clashing with the Daleks, a homicidal race of robot-beings  who seek to take over the universe.

Illustrating the show’s persistent and growing popularity across generations and continents, the BBC is broadcasting the show simultaneously around the world, in more than 90 countries including the US, Canada, France, Mexico, Brazil, Russia, and South Africa, at exactly the same time: 7:50 p.m. GMT. (2:50 p.m., on the US East Coast.) Such is the growing international popularity of Doctor Who that the actor currently playing the Doctor, Matt Smith, was said to have a "rapturous" reception when he attended the Comic-Con International convention in San Diego in July where a snippet of the 50th anniversary show was broadcast.

So what is it about the show that attracts such a devout following and allowed it to continue in various forms since the first episode on Nov. 23, 1963 with William Hartnell as the lead character?  

Mr. Billen, who remember watching the first show at age 5 in 1963, says the show’s “Britishness” and well-written scripts were key to its longevity. Also, he adds, the adaptability of the main character who “regenerates” rather than dies meant the concept could go on indefinitely.

“The reason for its longevity is that it’s a very good idea, a spaceship that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside and a doctor who travels through time and space. Add to that enemies like the Daleks and Cybermen and the doctor who can keep changing through regeneration, bringing a new dimension each time,” he says.

Antony Wainer, at the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, a fan club with 1,500 members worldwide, says the fact the character is unarmed and not violent is part of the appeal.

“He occupies a position where it’s more positive to solve a problem by using the brain than violence. Doctor Who is quite cozy, someone you can identify with,” he says.

Mr. Wainer says the essence of the program was change: The lead character changes, his companions change, and the enemies change. The show’s programming format has changed as it has evolved.

“It’s a massive anthology, a massive soap opera with ever-changing narratives,” he said. “If you don’t like one episode, you can turn on the next week and enjoy another one. It’s all about change.”

The show has not been continuous in its broadcast: It was off air between 1989 and 2005, a period Wainer describes as the “wilderness years” when fans had to rely on books, a lone film, and old video releases. But since its reintroduction by the BBC, its popularity has increased among a new generation of fans, spurring spin-off programs such as Torchwood (an anagram of Doctor Who) and the Sarah Jane Adventures, both of which were created by Russell T. Davies, who spearheaded the 2005 revival. Both spin-offs feature previous characters from Doctor Who but targeted older and younger audiences respectively.

Meanwhile, the core show regularly garnered audience figures of around 6 million in Britain for the last series – meaning roughly 10 percent of the population tuned in. In the US, BBC America reported 895,000 viewers for a show in August which was broadcast in the middle of the afternoon.

Across British universities, the show has spawned a number of student societies who meet to discuss the show. Jonathan Martindale, president of the Oxford Doctor Who Society president, said 30 of his members would be watching the 50th anniversary special at a city cinema on Saturday.

Mr. Martindale, who is studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, was introduced to the program via his parents, and can easily discuss the ups and downs of the actors who have played the Doctor over the years.

“My favorite enemy are the Cybermen. They’re a more frightening concept, humans being taken and then having their brains zapped but they’re still human,” he says.

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