SF/F Saturday: Doctor Who

I’m mostly going to do book reviews for SF/F Saturday. But today’s an anniversary that it’d be a sin to pass over!

Fifty years ago today, a low-budget TV show debuted on the BBC in an unspectacular time slot. It was originally intended by the network to be a children’s educational program, and even that modest goal was overshadowed by the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination the day before. That show was called Doctor Who, and its creators could never have guessed the cultural impact it would have.

If there’s anyone who’s not already familiar with the premise, the main character is an eccentric, mysterious and effectively immortal alien known only as the Doctor (no, his name isn’t “Doctor Who”). His iconic ship, the TARDIS, looks like a 1950s blue British police box on the outside but is enormously bigger on the inside, and can travel anywhere in time and space. Although the Doctor can and does voyage to the ends of the universe, he has a fondness for Earth and can always be counted on to show up just when he’s needed most to defend our planet from invasion by unfriendly aliens: whether it be classic villains like the Daleks, genocidal mutants in armored casings who want to exterminate all life that isn’t Dalek, or newer monsters, like the terrifying Weeping Angels, which seem to be lifeless statues – until you look away, even just for the blink of an eye.

The original series aired from 1963 to 1989, when it was suspended due to declining ratings. After one abortive effort in 1996, the show was finally revived in 2005 to immense popular acclaim, achieving something the original never did by becoming a hit in America as well as in Britain, and it’s been running ever since. Over the show’s long history, famous authors from Douglas Adams to Neil Gaiman have all penned episodes.

Part of Doctor Who‘s longevity comes from the flexibility of its central premise: unlike other shows that are limited to telling certain kinds of stories, this one can literally go anywhere and do anything. It can be light-hearted comedy or dark horror. The Doctor and his companions can visit historical figures from Earth’s past, or they can battle malevolent aliens millions of years in the future, or they can travel to other universes where none of the usual rules apply.

The other reason for the show’s long life was a conceit invented early in its run, when the original actor William Hartnell was suffering from failing health and had to drop out: when the Doctor is near death, he can “regenerate” into a new body with a different personality. This turned out to be a brilliant innovation, since it’s allowed multiple actors to take up the mantle, each creating their own interpretation of the character – so far twelve in all. (That being said, the show has rightly been criticized for making every incarnation of the Doctor so far a white man, despite it being canon that the Doctor’s people can change race and gender when they regenerate into a new body.)

If you’re not a devotee of the show and want to start on it, there’s the question of finding a suitable entry point into Doctor Who‘s vast and sprawling canon. The original series, for all its great moments, tends to be clunky, slow-moving, and to have special effects that were unconvincing even by the standards of the era. If you have Netflix or similar, I personally recommend beginning with “Rose”, the episode that began the 2005 revival, starring Christopher Eccleston as the ninth incarnation of the Doctor and Billie Piper as his human companion Rose Tyler.

Meanwhile, for longtime fans, the 50th anniversary episode, “The Day of the Doctor”, is airing tonight, and I can’t wait. In the meantime, if you watch the show, what are your favorite moments?

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.