Doctor Who first aired on British television on 23 November 1963 (the day after JFK’s assassination, for fact fans) – making it by some distance the longest running popular drama series (excepting soap operas) in the history of television. But why have the adventures of an otherworldly eccentric in his unreliable time machine disguised as a blue police box proved so popular and enduring?
When we look at any long-running popular fiction, we have to consider what I call its internal and external histories. By the ‘internal history’ of Doctor Who I mean the evolving mythos of the fictional universe of ‘The Doctor’, his friends, companions and enemies. There’s no question that Doctor Who has served up a mythology as rich as other big science fiction and fantasy franchises: Star Trek; Star Wars; Harry Potter; The Lord of the Rings. The Daleks are surely one of the most iconic alien monsters in the history of the SF genre, while in the character of ‘The Master’ – a fellow Time Lord, but a renegade – The Doctor has an arch foe equivalent to Sherlock Holmes’s Professor Moriarty.
But I think it’s the external history of the series that really explains its place in cultural history. By ‘external history’ I mean the contexts and influences on Doctor Who. In its more-than-half-a-century, Doctor Who has been transformed from a product of the traditional Reithian ethos of public service broadcasting into one of the corporation’s biggest global brands. One of the most striking aspects today when watching the early Doctor Who episodes starring William Hartnell – the first and, in my view, still the best incumbent in the role – is how didactic they seem. The Doctor’s first companions, Ian and Susan, were schoolteachers, whose role was to explain the science of the futuristic adventures and the historical contexts of the period stories.
A third of all Doctor Who stories in the series’ first three years were set in different periods of the Earth’s past – including trips to the ancient world (‘The Romans’ and ‘The Myth Makers’), the Middle Ages (‘Marco Polo’ and ‘The Crusade’) and the Old West (‘The Gunfighters’, which saw the Doctor at the Gunfight at the OK Corral). It’s become something of a received wisdom that the historical stories were not as popular with audiences as the science fiction stories, though this is not borne out by either the viewing figures or the qualitative research undertaken by the BBC’s audience research department.
I think one of the key reasons for Doctor Who’s longevity has been the series’ ability to refresh itself periodically by bringing in new recurring characters (in its recent incarnation, especially, Doctor Who has often been compared to a soap opera) and even recasting its star. Peter Capaldi, was the 12th Doctor in the series’ internal timeline. (Or – depending upon one’s point of view – the 13th if John Hurt’s previously unknown ‘War Doctor’ from the 2013 Golden Jubilee special is included). One of the beauties of Doctor Who is that the series is able to rewrite its own mythos. As the current ‘showrunner’ Steven Moffat has remarked: “It’s impossible to have continuity errors in a series that includes time travel and parallel universes.”
In fact, the idea that the Doctor is able to physically renew his body and appearance (only later did this come to be known as ‘regeneration’) was originally a response to an external determinant. By 1966 William Hartnell’s health had deteriorated and he was no longer able to keep up with the nearly year-round recording schedule of Doctor Who. Hence the production team hit upon the entirely practical solution of replacing him with another actor – Patrick Troughton. Once the precedent had been set, Doctor Who was able to recast its lead every time the current star tired of the role (or, notoriously, in the case of the sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, when BBC executives ousted him from the role).
Like all successful long-running cultural phenomena, Doctor Who has responded to changes in wider society and culture. The alien menaces of the 1960s, pre-eminently the Daleks and the Cybermen, reflected that decade’s obsession with technocracy and technological advancement. The Cybermen, who were arguably a more plausible enemy than the Daleks, were the products of ‘dehumanised medicine’: they were not robots, but human beings who had replaced their flesh and blood bodies with mechanical parts to the extent that they lost all emotion and ceased to be human.
The early 1970s brought third Doctor Jon Pertwee down to earth as scientific adviser to UNIT (the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) and addressing environmental threats in stories such as ‘The Green Death’ and ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’. And 1980s Doctor Who may have hinted at the Thatcher era through the presence of a powerful female villain known as The Rani. Unfortunately by this time declining audiences – in sharp contrast to its mid-1970s heyday – meant that the future of the series had become uncertain.
Doctor Who was ‘rested’ in 1989 and – with the one-off exception of a US co-produced television film in 1996 starring Paul McGann (the George Lazenby of Doctor Who) – was absent from television screens until its triumphant return in 2005.
There are all sorts of reasons why the new Doctor Who has been successful – even more so than what is now referred to as ‘the classic series’. For one thing, it finally has the production values to match its cultural imagination, while advances in special effects technology mean that Doctor Who is able to visualise the epic spectacle that characterises US-made sci-fi series such as Star Trek and Babylon 5. And under the guidance of showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, Doctor Who has cannily incorporated aspects of ‘cult’ television – story arcs, spoilers, and an active engagement with its own fan culture.
Yet the underlying reason for Doctor Who’s continuing success, I would maintain, remains the same: its quintessential Britishness. For all that the Doctor comes from the Ancient and Worshipful World of Gallifrey, everything about him – from his Edwardian fashion sense to his preference for tea and jelly babies – suggests a certain eccentric brand of Britishness. The fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, even wore a cricket outfit and bowled a mean leg cutter. As a heroic archetype, the Doctor is more ‘eccentric professor’ than the young, clean-cut heroes of US science fiction.
Moreover the Doctor stands for the values traditionally associated with Britishness: understatement, opposition to injustice, and resistance to tyranny. The many waves of alien invaders throughout the series’ history – not just Daleks and Cybermen, but Sontarans, Ice Warriors, Zygons, Slitheen, Adipose, Weeping Angels and the rest – can be seen as stand-ins for historic would-be invaders such as Philip II’s Spain, Napoleonic France and Hitler’s Germany. It’s long been said that the Daleks, with their desire to exterminate all other life forms, were an allegory of the Holocaust: the 1975 story ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ made this explicit by turning the Daleks’ creator Davros into a ranting Hitlerite madman bent upon mass genocide.
For more than 50 years, Doctor Who has been a part of the British cultural landscape. And there’s every reason to suppose that Britain’s (and the world’s) favourite Time Lord is here to stay.
James Chapman is professor of film studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History (I. B. Tauris, London, 2006, 2nd edition 2013). To find out more, click here.
This article was first published by History Extra in 2015