[Opinion] - Why Has Doctor Who Lasted 50 Years

[This is the part of a month long series of articles, lists and other features celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who.]


"I can't imagine what'll happen to Doctor Who in the next 50 years. I would say that I'm absolutely confident that it'll still be around. Heaven knows in what form, heaven knows there will be interruptions at some point. There's no evidence of that right now... It's a massive thing. If letting it die in public sight and leaving it off the air for 15 or 16 years didn't work, what the hell's going to work? It's indestructible."
That's current showrunner Steven Moffat talking about the resiliency of Doctor Who, and he's not wrong. It's no small thing to have lasted fifty years. Bond has done it. The Rolling Stones, against all odds, have done it. And Star Trek looks poised to do so in a few years. But why did Doctor Who? How did a shoddy looking children's educational programme manage to stick around for half a century, and in the process garner enough influence and appreciation that London is effectively shutting down to celebrate it, that Google has created a cracking little 8-bit game to commemorate it, and that despite being cancelled, it managed to return after 16 years stronger than ever?

Can the show be boiled down into bullet points, to syphon out the magic elements that set this show aside from so many others that have come and gone. If Doctor Who were a person, they'd be nearly able to draw their pension. Actual people have lived their entire lives exclusively in a world where Doctor Who exists. What is it about this show that makes it apparently impervious to time and entropy? Can such a thing even be determined?

After the jump, I'll try my best to find out.


To me, Doctor Who speaks of a specific cultural mentality. When Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, it was the vision of a final frontier, very much an American ideal, that drove him. The endless unknown, the prospect of ever going forward, and making discoveries that would improve and give greater meaning to life. It was the American Dream, star ward bound. Doctor Who is then based on a very British idea. In 1963, the effects of the war were still very much being felt. Britain's status in the world was in decline, the empire had fallen and their perceived best years were behind them. Yet, despite America's growing influence on the world stage, the British still thought of themselves as the world's authority figure, after all they had ruled so very much of it for so long.

So, here you have a programme, a children's educational show centred around an authority figure, who drops out of space into the great conflicts of time, in a police box, and tells everyone what they should be doing. A conscious meaning inscribed on the show or not, at the dawn of the sixties, that was still a very appealing role for Britain to be in. To be viewed as the old man with all the answers, whom others could turn to when times were at their worst, and be counted on. As time wore on, and the show along with it, the image of the Doctor softened a bit. Instead of the old professor, suddenly you had the charming adventurer, the loyal friend, the grumpy man of deliberate action, the war weary, the hopeful, the irrepressible, the lone and eternal. It isn't hard to see the best face of the Great British Public reflected in the Doctor. But is that reason enough to account for the show's success? No. There is, as always, more to it than that.

The Enemies

It is important to remember that Doctor Who owes it's success to the Daleks. "No bug eyed monsters," that was the charge Sydney Newman put to the show's producers. Doctor Who was to be a serious show, an educational programme. And that lasted all of four episodes, until Terry Nation's fascist pepper pots rolled onto screen, and Dalekmania took hold. The introduction of the Daleks saw the new programme's ratings double, and despite holding on to those viewers, the success of the show became irrevocably linked with the popularity of what were instantly declared his greatest enemy.

The Peter Cushing films weren't about adapting Doctor Who to film - admittedly impossible, due to copyright issues - but about bringing the Daleks to the big screen. The image of Daleks rising out of the Thames was a stark reminder of all the warnings of Nazi invasions during the war. The Daleks themselves, a dark reflection of the Germany war machine, were a cold and hateful reminder of what bigotry can breed, and the British ideals exemplified in the Doctor were a kind reminder to the populace of the feeling of victory. So popular were the Daleks that Nation tried to bring them to America, but was stunned to find they didn't work without the Doctor. The Americans didn't have the same reaction to his faceless, inhuman death machines. They had never taken the War personally, and couldn't project the same raw hate onto his creations as the British could.

Without the Daleks, it's entirely possible that Doctor Who would have lasted for two or three series, been cancelled, then wiped from existence by BBC policy, little more than a footnote in the history of science fiction. The Daleks provided them that bump, that extra something special out of the gate that drew the population to the front of the telly, then to behind the sofa. And by the time Dalekmania had worn off, it was the Doctor and his box that people had fallen in love with, and stayed with.

The Regenerations

Obviously, without the regenerations, the show wouldn't have lasted past Hartnell. A brilliantly simple and completely alien idea, that the Doctor's race can assume a new face when near death as a means of survival meant that the doctor was not, and never would be, just one man. Even Bond hasn't escaped that, with every new actor in the role compared to Connery. But the Doctor managed to avoid that, by never being just Hartnell, or Tennant, or either of the Bakers. But those aren't the regenerations I meant. I meant the ones behind the scenes.

Doctor Who, because of it's rather simple and opened ended premise, is infinitely adaptable. Any genre or story concept that you can think of can, and probably has been, applied to Who. Historical adventure, certainly. Hard or soft science fiction, sometimes within the same story, absolutely. Fanciful fairy tale, war stories, camp farce, romance. It's all been done, and never with any subscription. The beauty of the serialised concept is that, players aside, the stories didn't have to relate to each other. The results were, if you tuned in and didn't like what you saw, you could take a couple weeks off and come back, and see something entirely new. The biggest knock against the return is that it became too focused on being a science fiction series, and all credit to Steven Moffat, series seven was an attempt to recapture that multi-genre structure. But because the show has never been just one thing, it has never had a chance to beat that concept down. There is no welcome to wear-out. 50 years and over two hundred stories later, and rarely has the show tread over the same ground (there are, as always, exceptions). By it's own design, it keeps itself fresh, and those times when things get a little too stagnant, a change in editorship is made, and the show regenerates into something entirely different.

The Companions

I disagree with Steven Moffat's claim that the story of Doctor Who is the story of the companions. Who is the story of the Doctor, told through the companions, and that is a significant difference. The Doctor is the man of action, the hero, the focus. The companion is the audience surrogate, the invitation into the TARDIS for us. As a function, the companion is there for the Doctor to explain things to, so that the Doctor can explain things to us. Which was why the companion was originally meant to be a student, to reflect the target audience. And why there were teachers in the TARDIS, and why the Doctor originally travelled with his granddaughter. It was meant to create a comforting learning environment for the young in the audience.

But as it went on, it became more and more about having someone to share in the Doctor's adventures, as the viewers were. To scream as the lumbering crab/bear/fishbowl monster stumbled out of the darkness. To point out to the Doctor that he maybe shouldn't provoke the nice man with the death beam. To say that none of what was happening made any sense at all. Because the that's what we were doing in our living rooms, half hidden under sofa cushions and comforters. Because we are the Doctor's constant companions. We come, stay with him for a time, then we leave, or he leaves us, but once you travel in the TARDIS it stays with you. It becomes part of you. The show has survived this long, and will continue to do so, because there will always be those willing - nay, demanding - to travel with him. Even when the show was cancelled, there were novels and comics and audio dramas and a steady demand for more adventures. Otherwise, it wouldn't have returned, twice.

A Mad Man In A Box

The show can be anything it wants to be. The dangers can take on any form. Those that travel with it can be anyone. But all of that is moot without a focal figure. The reasons above are all legitimate and quantifiable explanations for the success of the programme, but none of it would mean anything it you didn't care about the man in the box. The Doctor, a Time Lord, full or arrogant gusto and frantic humility as needed. A forever figure, simultaneously a child and an elder. Like the show itself, with it's constant reconfiguring, the Doctor is whatever the Doctor needs to be. Some are brash, some are absurd, and we take comfort in those we feel the most comfortable with.

Ask any Whovian who the best Doctor is, and you'll be able to settle in for the evening, because each Doctor means something different to everyone. People either love or loath Matt Smith, as they have every Doctor before him, and will continue to do so with every one after him, in equal measure. To some, he is the greatest, while to others he is the worst, and to many he falls somewhere in between. Last week, I spoke of your Doctor, the Doctor that touched you the most, the one whom, in the quiet parts of your mind, you wish you could have travelled with. That is why the show has lasted so long. Most people could care less about whether the TARDIS has set down on Peledon or during the French Revolution or into the heart of the Twelth Cyber Legion, but they're willing to follow the Doctor to those places.

Plus, the TARDIS is a sexy thing, isn't she?

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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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