Doctor Who at 45

45 years ago this month, on November 23, 1963, the first episode of Doctor Who, “An Unearthly Child”, debuted on BBC Television. Little did anyone realize at the time that, almost half a century later, it still resonates as a cultural institution in Britain. Indeed, the most recent episode to be aired in the UK, “Journey’s End”, was the most-watched episode that week, the first time Doctor Who ever achieved that milestone. If nothing else, it’s a testament to the principals of this decade’s revival, notably outgoing executive producer Russell T Davies, to bring back the magic and the wonder that millions of Britons experienced on Saturday nights in the 1960s and 1970s.

who-annuals(First Dr Who Annual [1965] and the most recent Official Annual)

As can be expected with any program lasting that long, Doctor Who has had its ups and downs. From Dalekmania of the early years, through to the high popularity of Tom Baker’s tenure, the slow decline in the 1980s, the new voice of original novels and audio plays in the 1990s, and the 2000s renaissance with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant at the helm, fans old and new have stuck by the show through and through.

Why has Doctor Who lasted 45 years? In my opinion, it has to be its flexibility. Daleks, Cybermen, stories in outer space, historicals, pseudo-historicals, contemporaneous stories with the military, attempts at a musical western: and all of this just during the 1st Doctor era. The program has certainly expanded its repertoire, but the main premise remains the same: a renegade Time Lord from Gallifrey and his bigger-on-the-inside ship that traverses space and time while stuck in the shape of a British police telephone box.

The fact the title character is allowed to change actors using a Time Lord’s ability for regeneration has certainly helped expand Doctor Who beyond its original three-year timeframe with William Hartnell. And since each Doctor has a personality distinct from that of every other Doctor, it allows the new actor playing the Doctor to find a new path; in some ways, it becomes a whole new show within a show. (And given recent developments, whoever replaces Tennant will have to do the same thing.)

On a personal level, I only became a fan about 10 years ago. I could never recall the exact circumstances in which I found out about Doctor Who, but I do remember the first-ever episode I watched was The Ark part 2. Obviously I didn’t catch on right away, but I stuck by it, and I’ve been with it ever since. Part of the appeal was its long history: I have yet to watch every story of the classic series, including the 1996 TV movie. Another is one of its original mandates: to educate about historical events by having the TARDIS travel back in time. Historical stories remain a favourite sub-genre within Doctor Who.

As Doctor Who turns 45, it definitely has a bright future ahead, buoyed by its many successes in recent years. The clip below is a trip down memory lane: it is a very impressive remix of the title sequences (and sequence tests) neatly matched with its corresponding theme tune. It’s 45 years in eight minutes.

Some links for consideration, good for the newcomer and the seasoned fan:

  • A very comprehensive overview of the program is provided on Wikipedia; the article has been designated as a feature article, which means it is a well-written piece. Pretty much everything in the Whoniverse has its own article, so this is a good place to start.
  • The BBC’s official site. Be warned: can be spoiler-ific if you haven’t finished series 4; in addition, most videos can only be played from within the UK.
  • The CBC’s Doctor Who site. It’s in the middle of airing series 4, the most recent episodes of which can be viewed online (within Canada, I’m afraid).
  • Doctor Who Viewed Anew: a fan’s reviews of every episode, right from the beginning.
  • James Bow’s reviews of new series episodes, as well as recommendations of classic-series episodes to watch (he’s currently at the 4th Doctor).

One Comment on “Doctor Who at 45”

  1. […] for a television programme to get to that point is more astonishing. When I wrote a reflection on Doctor Who‘s 45th anniversary, I noted that its flexibility in terms of storytelling has made the show endure the test of time. […]

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