Note: an earlier version of this article originally appeared in the Norwegian publication, Z Filmtidsskrift, Number 4 in 2013, editor-in-chief: Ingrid Rommetveit, guest editor: Marte Stapnes.
For those poor, deprived souls who have never encountered this most wonderful institution, Doctor Who is a weekly British sci-fi (or more accurately, fantasy) television series, produced by the BBC, which began, just a few months before I was born, in November 1963 and ran successfully until 1989. Apart from one brief revival attempted in 1996 it lay dormant until a major relaunch in 2005, which has seen it scale heights of mass popularity with the general viewing public that are genuinely surprising in an age of dumbed-down, lowest common denominator appeal programming.
At its core the show is a simple and ingenious idea, a person of mystery on the run, able to travel anywhere in time and space, through means of a machine permanently disguised as a 1960’s London Police Box (which is bigger on the inside), alongside one or more companions who act as the viewer’s eyes on the Doctor’s never ending adventures.
Rather unusually, the show was created not for children and not for adults. Instead it was a drama show intended to appeal to the entire family, broadcast in an early evening spot where it was reasoned that everyone would be together. That reasoning worked perfectly in my household; I can still feel flickering, luminous black & white images of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor imprinting on me, as he did battle with Yetis on the London Underground and evil Daleks swirling around Victorian England while my parents and grandparents sat close by, never more than the safety of a comforting lap away. Thankfully, young and imaginative minds such as mine were oblivious to the show’s paucity of production budget during its original 26 year run, reveling instead in its wild flights of fancy.
The show took a bold leap in regards to its casting. After three successful years in 1966, lead actor William Hartnell’s deteriorating health could have signaled an end to its run; instead, the producers decided to take a chance on re-casting the role with a new actor, the mercurial Patrick Troughton, by use of a plot device which saw the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords, able to physically regenerate themselves twelve times, thus gifting the character with a distinct new personality every few years and thereby ensuring a potentially limitless run for a successful TV show. It was a brave move from the producers, but one that still attracts massive amounts of publicity for the show, as seen with the recent casting of the Thirteenth Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, boldly changing the character’s gender for the first time.
Fans of the show are often asked “Who (pun no doubt intended) is your favourite Doctor?” the answer to which is usually the one you grew up watching. For me, however, that’s a tricky question, as I have brief memories of irascible First Doctor, William Hartnell and stronger memories of the playful Patrick Troughton. I suppose Jon Pertwee’s eccentric but groovy, uncle-like Third Doctor was probably where I became hooked (probably because I also had an eccentric but groovy uncle in real life), but it was with the truly off-the-wall Tom Baker that I became a die-hard fan, rubbishing rival TV channels’ attempts to lure me away with imported productions such as The Man from Atlantis and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century; glossier undoubtedly, but with far less substance.
We are regularly treated to storylines which feature the likes of shape changing robots powered and driven by miniature people, religious orders focused on bringing about the death of the main character, multiple timelines, Winston Churchill ruling the Roman Empire from a steampunk London overrun by Pteranodon, life or death chess games, heartbreaking nods to characters in the show’s past, ingenious resolutions to character relationships and infuriating solutions to questions posed in the last few years of story lines and yet more questions set up for the future.
And the show still has the ability to chill and delight, as illustrated by one of its more recent creations, the Weeping Angels; a fearsome race of aliens which disguise themselves as stone statues, unable to move so long as you watch them, but ready to ready to pounce as soon as you blink or look away. The children’s game of peek-a-boo has been craftily subverted by successive showrunners Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall, and is guaranteed to have children and adults alike scurrying to watch from behind the sofa.
The show’s attitude to sex and relationships has also been a delight since the relaunch, openly espousing not just a confident attitude to heterosexuality or homosexuality, but indeed to omnisexuality: just one more way in which the makers refuse to speak down to the audience, and one more reason why the BBC should be held in such high regard, for supporting such a consistently adult outlook for a family appeal show.
And above all these values, Doctor Who consistently succeeds at what its far-sighted creators set out to achieve in the dim and distant early 1960’s, to make a drama show for the whole family that educates and entertains. Almost fifty years later it’s still doing that, with a flair, creativity and an ability to stimulate the imagination that dazzles and leaves me breathless with envy and awe.
Doctor Who’s approach to creative drama is one of the reasons I pursued and have succeeded in a creative career, and it continues to inspire me as an adult as much as when I was a child. Its sheer breadth of imagination stirred, thrilled and excited me, fanning the flames of my own need to create stories, a thread which has run through my career, from my years as a comic book writer and artist into my later work as a writer and director for animation.
My love for the show also led me to bring the 50th anniversary film, The Day of the Doctor, to Norwegian cinemas in 2013 (but that’s a story for another time).
Doctor Who is a series which rewards both the casual and dedicated viewer, and in a television landscape littered with deathless reality shows and tired genre formats; it rises high above its faults (which now tend towards a surfeit of ideas rather than the dearth of budget which often plagued the original run). It is unique, charming, exciting, terrifying and thought provoking in equal measures, and I will always adore this wild and wildly eccentric show.
Dave King is the creator and editor of Out Of Dave’s Head. For his sins, which are many and varied, he also works in animation as a writer, director, producer and lecturer. He still waits to be acknowledged for his talents as a lounge singer.