Doctor Who has never been more popular. A staggering 1.1% of the world’s population watched its 50th anniversary special. How did an eccentric old man in a blue box captivate the hearts and imaginations of so many? Its origins lie in a political context besieged with nuclear threat and the thrills and dangers of the Space Race, at a time when interest in technology and the extra-terrestrial had never been so high. For the story of how Doctor Who came to be, I would direct you towards Mark Gatiss’ wonderful docu-drama ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’, as I intend to focus on the context of the world Doctor Who was coming into.
‘Sci-Fi’ as a concept and a term were first used in the USA in 1954 and the decades that followed showed a huge growth in the genre and its popularity. As television became more prolific and its opportunities for home entertainment were realised in the early 1960s, it is no surprise that this became the medium of choice for science fiction greats such as Doctor Who and Star Trek three years later. New technologies (and tin foil) could be embraced to bring alien worlds to the viewer in a way that was far more dynamic than the novel could achieve. Gripped equally by future capabilities of technology and new interpretations of history in a country that was redefining itself, Doctor Who soon became a success with audiences.
One beloved aspect is its typical battle between good and evil. Despite being an alien, the Doctor is at his heart(s) a British eccentric, who more often than not is forced to save Britain from a foreign invasion. He is a hero, and alongside his ordinary world companion, they typify British values in their efforts to save the day. Along the way they raise deep moral questions about sacrifice and the greater good. These dilemmas are always relevant to life but never more so than with the threat of war and possibility of mass destruction looming over you.
But it isn’t only monsters that The Doctor must fight off. He must also battle robots like the cybermen and those whose lives can only be maintained by the use of technology, like the daleks. Of course, the super computer console of the TARDIS will always help him, along with the invisible calculations of the sonic screwdriver. Doctor Who has always pushed the limits of technology, both in its stories and in its filming. It tackles a very real question from the second half of the twentieth century and one that is still very relevant today: how far can technology take us? As wars become more automated, such as the use of drones, there seems an increasing possibility for there to be an invasion completely carried out by robots.
As the world’s longest running science fiction show, Doctor Who has continually drawn record audiences for the BBC. In its early years it wasn’t unusual for this to exceed 10 million viewers, peaking in 1979 to almost 19 million in the UK alone, albeit during an ITV strike. It’s unique capability to renew itself through new companions and regenerations of The Doctor played a large role in maintaining its popularity. Doctors could become funnier like the third incarnation Jon Pertwee, or younger like the fifth Peter Davison, to reflect the desires of the audience. Spawning novels, toys and even a movie, audiences continued to adore the whimsical Doctor no matter what form he came in.
It is interesting to note that ‘classic’ Doctor Who ended in 1989; the same time as the end of the Cold War. The BBC was heading in a new direction and one in which they didn’t think Doctor Who could fit. Losing viewers due to its broadcast opposite ITV’s Coronation Street, Doctor Who was seen to be a part of the BBC’s past and the script editor, Andrew Cartmel’s departure to write for Casualty can be seen as a case in point of the new focus on ‘realistic’ drama. However, at the show’s revival in 2005 it proved to be just as popular as ever and thrilled a whole new generation with The Doctor’s adventures in space and time. While the show constantly evolves to reflect the world it is broadcast into, it also demonstrates that a good adventure and battle between good and evil will always delight audiences of all ages.
Here’s to Doctor Who’s next fifty years!