On November 23, 1963 – nearly three years before Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock began their Star Trek – another science fiction series first materialized on the BBC. The title of the program sounded like a question, Doctor Who. It initially offered few answers to viewers. Who was the old man who traveled through time and space in a London Police Call Box that was somehow bigger on the inside?
Produced on a shoestring budget, the show wasn’t an immediate hit, yet it slowly attracted an audience that tuned in every Saturday evening to see what trouble the Doctor and his companions would find themselves in. With the arrival of the insidious Daleks – a race of mutant humans who inhabited robotic war machines – the show became a cultural phenomenon in the UK before eventually attracting a worldwide audience.
Facing such other villains as the Master, the Cyberman and the Sontarians; the Doctor, who was eventually revealed to be a “Time Lord,” has always managed to save the day. The show’s longevity was made possible by the concept of “regeneration,” which allowed the Doctor (his/her real name has never been revealed) to change appearance. This was first done after the original lead actor of the series, William Hartnell, was forced to retire due to declining health.
Audiences not only accepted the change of lead actor – not to mention title character – and the show has thrived ever since.
Given the popularity of the series, it isn’t a surprise that #DoctorWhoDay has been trending across social media, as fans have shared clips and memes devoted to the longest-running science-fiction series in TV history. Many wished the 1,000-year-old+ Time Lord a happy 58th birthday!
The importance the campy little TV series has played in UK culture and beyond can’t be overstated.
“There’s an element of nostalgia for it in England, particularly back to the dandyesque John Pertwee and Tom Baker in the 1970s, and I think there’s an element of parents leading their own children through the same limit experiences of fun/terror combined,” explained Professor Roger Luckhurst, of Modern and Contemporary Literature in the Department of English and Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London.
“It’s located in the UK schedules at an important period – just before the bedtime of most kids,” said Luckhurst. “There’s this generational force at play, but it has also become a lightning rod for framing stories about the UK too – a bit like James Bond, there’s a kind of faded post-imperial melancholy to the central figure of the Time Lord, someone who will repeatedly save the world, but in a cack-handed, half-accidental way. It’s suffused with that aftermath sensibility.”
Even as ratings have slipped in recent years, the show has remained popular throughout the world, attracting a sizeable audience in the United States
“Doctor Who is part of the now 100 year-long history and success of the BBC. Doctor Who has accompanied generations of viewers of public service television. It reflects the combination of two elements of the public service ethos, namely to educate and entertain,” said Professor Christian Fuchs of the media, communication & society at the University of Westminster, and director of the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI). “Doctor Who‘s success has to do with its audience’s interest in the idea of time travel, a major science fiction trope reflected in the likes of H.G. Wells’ book Time Machine (1895), Robert Zemecki’s movie Back to the Future (1985), or television series such as Doctor Who, Timeless, Quantum Leap, 12 Monkeys, Outlander, and Dark.”
The series is remembered today for its rogue’s gallery of monsters and villains, but in its early days, the Doctor and his companions visited key moments in history from the French Revolution to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
“Given actual time and history is irreversible and unpredictable, the idea of travelling in time and changing the flow of events in the past and the future appeals to fans of Doctor Who,” added Fuchs. “In the 2010 episode ‘Flesh and Stone,’ the Doctor summarizes this idea: ‘Time can shift. Time can change. Time can be rewritten.’ The idea of rewriting time appeals to audience members because we are moral and mortal beings whose existence is limited in space and time. Doctor Who is an imaginary world that brings up questions of morality in the context of overcoming space and time. In the light of our own human existence as, among other things, being-towards-death, a significant number of audience members like the idea of the Time Lord.”
With all that in mind, it is easy to see why social media is saying “Happy Birthday Doctor Who.“