A little blue box. Time and relative dimensions in space. The Doctor and the TARDIS. Though meaningless to the average American, to a Britain or the Whovian savvy American, they represent a sci-fi icon: Doctor Who. If you ask any fan what exactly is Doctor Who, be prepared for a bombardment of information far beyond your initial question. Doctor Who is, in a nutshell, a show that follows the many adventures of The Doctor, an alien called a Time Lord. He looks human, is 907 years old and has two hearts. He eludes death by regenerating; flies around in a spaceship/time-machine called a TARDIS; saves planets, rescues solar systems, and has a right good old time doing so. In the nearly fifty years it’s been in existence, Doctor Who has grown to be a British TV landmark, (much like Star Trek is in the US). The show has a way of pulling at your emotions, making you care about the main character of The Doctor and drawing you into the story. Though it may not be as well known in America, its popularity is growing.
Doctor Who is listed in Guinness World Records as the longest-running sci-fi TV show in the world and as the most successful sci-fi series of all time (in terms of overall broadcast ratings, DVD sales, book sales, iTunes traffic and “illegal downloads”). The show had its very humble beginnings in 1963 in black and white. The series ran until 1989 with seven different actors playing The Doctor, 25 seasons, and 172 episodes. A 1996 film version was made, but it ended up a failure among fans. The series stayed dormant until 2005 when the BBC picked it back up with a brand new, modern, Doctor Who. So far the BBC has made five full Doctor Who seasons, plus nine specials. A sixth season is due to air in Britain by Easter.
So what it is about a British TV show that started out as a children’s program in the 1960s about a time-traveling, worlds -saving, death-defying alien? What’s the big deal? What is it about this crazy TV series that has let it stand the test of time and enthrall millions?
When I interviewed a handful of fans (all from the US), every single person mentioned The Doctor. “I suppose most of all, the Doctor’s character,” “…the continuing plotline of the Doctor,” “the Doctor has a quirky, crazy, awesome, somebody you should trust to the end of the universe personality that you can’t help liking.” He was the reason why most of them started watching, kept watching or become a fan (aka “Whovian”). In most sci-fi stories or TV shows in general, the protagonist does what he does because he gets paid to do it or is out for revenge. The Doctor simply travels. “All I am is a traveler.” He loves to travel and see new and exciting places; the whole rescuing worlds and saving lives thing is just something he does on the side. Though he is an alien, people can relate to him because of his loneliness and his desire to right wrongs. One fan puts it, “…even though the Doctor makes many mistakes – he’s weak like all of us, he always tries to make it right, and do what’s right in the end. If he does what’s wrong, he repents. He has been through so much yet is constantly caring for others.” The Doctor is over nine hundred years old, has fought battles, seen planets begin and end, and isn’t even human, but he’s still personal to every fan because there is a weakness there. In a way, he’s almost human, and it’s that human side that people can relate to. Also, he loves life. He hates killing, never carries a gun, and is willing to sacrifice his own life to save another.
The Doctor’s value of life, morals and loathing of violence is something very rare on television today. These qualities are just a few of the things that make Doctor Who stand out. Why? It’s refreshing. After loads of TV shows packed with violence and needless killing, having a show that tries to have the opposite with a hero who values life of any kind is a nice breather from the fighting and bloodshed TV usually feeds us. Yes people die in the show, but it’s not just pointless slaughter as the hero fights the bad guys.
Because he is lonely, The Doctor always travels with a companion. Most of these companions have been woman, but there have been some male characters other then The Doctor himself aboard the TARDIS. In their own way, each companion does something to change The Doctor for the better. They percent new challenges, ask questions and give him someone personal to care about. They become his family. If people don’t relate to The Doctor, they can relate to any one of the thirty-five companions he’s had throughout the years. Just as we in our lives have to say goodbye to people we care about, so The Doctor has to say goodbye to the people who travel with him. This is another way the show draws you in. Most of us know what it’s like to let go of someone you care about and when we see The Doctor grieving after a goodbye, we feel for him, understanding the emotional pain.
Another aspect of the series that people found interesting or really liked was its uniqueness. It has some very memorable aliens, monsters, props, and story lines. Those who watch the show don’t easily forget the witty dialogue between The Doctor and his companions. Or the wheezing-like sound the TARDIS makes as it takes off and lands, and it’s 1950’s blue, police box exterior and huge, spaceship/time machine interior. You can never run out of ideas with this series, you have countless galaxies and places in time to explore, plus the never ending character of The Doctor. When the series was first started, the writers of Doctor Who invented a clever trait for The Doctor. As a Time Lord he can regenerate. When he is dying he can change every cell in his body. In this way he can save his own life, but it also changes his face. This allowed the studio to run the show without worrying about losing the main actor and as a result gave the show its prolonged existence. It also kept the character of The Doctor interesting and never too familiar.
Yet another thing fans love about Doctor Who is it’s always fresh. “…it’s a new adventure, every week! A different time, a different place – so if you didn’t like last week’s episode, chances are, you’ll like this week’s.” “…people keep watching because it’s constantly fresh and exciting. You have all of space and time to work with- there’s no way to run out of ideas or seem unoriginal.” “…if you think about it, every time the Doctor regenerates, he’s technically a different person. So it never gets boring because of the same old same old.”  Each episode is a new story, a new time, a new place with new people. Even if you meet people you’ve meet before, it’s always different.
Now what about the aspect that sci-fi is known for, the aliens and futuristic technology? Well, Doctor Who is loaded. From The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver to fish-like aliens with “perception filters,” the range of wacky gizmos and bizarre creatures is limitless. I don’t think I’ve meet a Whovian yet who didn’t want a sonic screwdriver. The Doctor can fix anything with it, anything (except if it’s made out of wood). It unlocks doors, locks doors, repairs circuits, and gives your cell phone a “super signal”. But, as The Doctor will point out, it is not a weapon, “but it’s very good at opening doors.” The most memorable aliens of Doctor Who are the infamous Daleks, genetically manipulated mutants housed inside a tank-like shell that almost resembles a six foot tall pepper shaker. They are pretty much the Nazis of space, considering themselves the “master race” and “exterminating” every species that is not like them. They are The Doctor’s worst enemies, the ones he can never seem to fully defeat. Another well known Doctor Who alien race are the Weeping Angels; creatures that appear to be nothing but stone, angel statures when you look at them, but look away or blink and they come alive and you’re done for.
It’s aliens like the Daleks and the Weeping Angles that give Doctor Who that crazy and frightening fantasy element that fans love. People like it because it’s weird, quirky and distinctive. It’s humorous, exciting, entertaining and fun to watch. Sure, there are unnumbered aspects in each and every episode that are so far out there even a committed fan can’t help a smile and laugh about the absolute impossibility of the idea. But then again, this is a science fiction TV show; it’s going to be “out there.”
Doctor Who, as one fan put it, has a “child like imagination”. You can always expect the unexpected. It’s been around for nearly fifty years, but because of the BBC’s new and modern series, it appeals to a whole new generation of viewers. The show has a way of giving you a new view of the world, of life and most definitely of certain things that come up in Doctor Who. For instance, statues are suddenly creatures that are watching you when your back is turned and you may never want to go into a library at night every again. Allons-y, fantastic, and geronimo turn into favorite mottos, and you may become suspicious of Christmas trees once Doctor Who enters your TV viewing world.
So why should you dare to even Google the show and wade through the 210,000,000 web results to find out was it’s really about? For one thing you’ll go on an unforgettable journey with unforgettable characters. See amazing new worlds and maybe even learn something along the way. But most of all because “I think you’ll have fun.”
-Wikipedia Doctor Who
-BBC Doctor Who Christmas Special (2008)
-BBC Doctor Who series 2 (2007)
-Russell T. Davis, Doctor Who 101 BBC America (YouTube)
-Student interviews conducted on the One Year Adventure Novel Student Writer’s Forum.