50 Years of Doctor Who

02/12/2012  -  3.02

Dorothy Hobson, Senior Lecturer and Course Leader in Contemporary Media

Who's the Doctor in the house: 50 years of Tardis time travel

It would have been hard not to know that Doctor Who BBC1’s sci-fi drama series was 50 years old last weekend.   

First transmitted 5.15 on the 23rd November 1963 the Children’s programme has become a cult classic and a global brand for the BBC. The celebrations for the anniversary have reflected the immense appeal of the programme for fans and cultural analysts alike.

The most important was the one off  drama Doctor Who – An Adventure in Time and Space which told the story of the creative activities at the BBC when the programme was conceived by the Head of Drama, the Canadian Sydney Newman, who gave the job of producing this new project to his PA Verity Lambert. She was one of the first women producers in the television industry who went on to produce numerous very successful television series and films including Minder, The Naked Civil Servant, and Rock Follies.

This drama revealed much about the politics and procedures of production at the BBC in the 1960s. It showed how a drama was conceived and the component roles of all those involved. 

The question can be asked, ‘Why has Doctor Who survived for 50 years?’ It is a classic battle of good and evil. A male hero, a young female assistant and a young male side-kick who is never as important as the female and usually gets left behind when the adventures get going. The location is the universe and the time is past, present and future.

The incarnations of evil have been legend; Weeping Angels, Cybermen, the Zygons but leading the threats to the universe is a group of tin can like creatures providing an outer shell to the most evil of all – the Daleks. Just to hear their cry ‘Exterminate’ in their mechanically evil and hyperactive tone evokes the culture of the series.

A major element of Doctor Who is that he can and must re-generate into his next incarnation when the moment is deemed right. (This happens when the producers wish to refresh the production. We must never forget that this is a fictional creation.)   But it enables the series to constantly innovate and change.      

The build up to the anniversary edition transmitted on 23rd November at 7.50 on BBC1 could have easily resulted in disappointment after the heightened expectations. But viewers are used to living with delayed gratification for forthcoming television events as the marketing creates the tension which is part of the shared promise of what is to come. 

In the event, this production held all viewers in is thrall.10.2 million viewers tuned in. It was spectacular. Visually exciting and as impressive as any feature film in the genre, there were depths of literary, historical, comedic and philosophical content.  

The ability for three Doctors to appear at the same time in the same time zone and to discuss their role in destroying Gallifrey in the battle with the Time Lords was moving. Discussion, justification and the regret of the slaughter which had ensued in the past, was able to be rectified by changing the actions of the three Doctors. The slaughter was averted by the will to change what had or maybe had not happened the moment before the battle was frozen in a painting. 

And behind all the action, was the powerful message of collective re-consideration and responsibility. In retrospect we may all wish we could change our actions. The Doctors Who could do that.       

The power of Doctor Who is always in its writing. Everything else, even the skills of the various actors the design and the current digital technology is secondary to the story and the words.

While the series has a history of 50 years, its current incarnation was brought about by Russell T Davis, who rescued the series from its hibernation since 1989 to return in 2005.

In 2010 Steven Moffat took over as show runner – the role which incorporates producing and writing, and he created the most recent Doctor Who played by David Tennant and currently Matt Smith. The success of the anniversary edition must be attributed in the main to Steven Moffat. The man is a creative genius. 

As with the creation of the series in 1963 it is the creative vision of the producer together with the actors and creative team which works on the drama that will ensure its enduring appeal.