‘Doctor Who’ clocks 50 fantastic years through space and time

March 22, 2013 | 1:58 p.m.
doctorwho Doctor Who clocks 50 fantastic years through space and time

"Doctor Who" has clocked more than 50 years, transporting fans through time and space on remarkable adventures. Here's a look back at the Time Lord's regenerations over the years. (BBC)

7 Doctor Who clocks 50 fantastic years through space and time

Sylvester McCoy played the Seventh Doctor from 1987 until the show's cancellation in 1989.

11 Doctor Who clocks 50 fantastic years through space and time

Matt Smith has played the Eleventh Doctor -- the Time Lord's current incarnation -- since 2010. (BBC)


In the annals of space, time and television, there is nothing quite like “Doctor Who,” the British sci-fi series that this year is celebrating a 50th anniversary, in your Earth years. Only “Star Trek” comes close for persistence of a franchise, and it does not come close.

What sets “Doctor Who” apart is that, notwithstanding the distance from its paint-and-cardboard, spaceship-on-a-string early episodes to the beautifully realized, seamlessly fantastic creation it is today, the current series is the same one that began on the BBC in 1963 — neither a sequel nor a re-conception, but the identical show.

It has centered on the same character: an extraterrestrial Time Lord who travels all of creation in what looks like an old London police box and who has been played by 11 actors, each new Doctor a “regeneration” of the last, different but the same, the same but different. Whether a clown, a dandy, a toff or a don, curly-headed or lank-haired, younger and older, wilder or milder, tall or short (but mostly tall), they are all one.

It’s an invention whose necessity arose from the retirement after three seasons of the first Doctor, William Hartnell: The moment when the reedy, aristocratic Hartnell was succeeded by the thicker, excitable Patrick Troughton was the moment that fused the DNA of the character and the series that contains him — for, like the Doctor himself, “Doctor Who” lives by dying, by periodically cutting away old growth to let new shoots sprout.

QUIZ: Test your smarts as the Doctor turns 50

It survived even what might be called an extended state of suspended animation, from its cancellation in 1989 to its revival in 2005, interrupted by a single TV movie (and failed pilot) in 1996 and kept alive through a stream of radio dramas and novels featuring a variety of former Doctors and companions — he has a habit of picking up fellow travelers, usually British earthlings — that continues to this day alongside the recent series.

"Doctor Who": The 11 regenerations of the Doctor include William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith. (BBC)

“Doctor Who”: The 11 incarnations of the Doctor include William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith. (Getty Images; BBC; SyFy)

The cultural penetration of “Doctor Who” is deep and widespread in Britain, where every schoolchild knows what a TARDIS or a Dalek is. (The Doctor’s space-time machine and his greatest enemy, respectively, for you who don’t.)

There is a sense of possession there, and of passion shared across and among generations: Britons speak of “my Doctor” to denote the version they grew up on, or came to love best. (Good science fiction unites young and old: It lets adults play like kids, and treats kids like grown-ups.) And possibly not least, the series gives the nation a central role in the affairs of the universe: The Doctor may come from the planet Gallifrey, but he always speaks with some sort of British accent.

The show didn’t make its way to the U.S. until the 1970s, when it was spottily syndicated with fourth Doctor Tom Baker — with his Harpo Marx eyes and hair, his wide-brimmed hat and absurdly long mufflers, the Doctor previously best known to Americans.

A cult following formed here — there have been “Doctor Who” conventions in this country as far back as 1979 — but it was not until the 21st century revival that the series really caught hold, first on the network then known as the Sci-Fi Channel and now on BBC America.

Russell T. Davies (BBC)

Russell T. Davies (BBC)

Former show runner Russell T. Davies, who revived the series and was a fan from childhood, had worked in children’s television and created the original “Queer as Folk,” which reflects the range of sensibilities he brought to the job. His version sings with the show’s traditions and details, to the point that even the rhythmic pulse of its opening theme was converted into a plot point.

He has not so much changed the series as he has plumbed its depths and teased to the surface what it always contained, or at least implied: romance, trauma, humor, sexiness, poetry.

He also gave the TARDIS a soul and, crucially, made the Doctor not only the last survivor of his race (or so he believed) but also the instrument of its apparently necessary destruction; his Doctor is, newly, a haunted man. The character, who always had been a bit of a man on the run — “Run!” is, in fact, the first word the ninth Doctor speaks — was now also on the run from himself.

He’s a savior and a danger, depending on where you stand — a man without a mission except as missions find him. The 21st century Doctors — Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith — play him, in different ways (roughneck, charmer, weirdo), with the depth you’d expect of a man nearly a millennium old who has seen the best and the worst the universe has to offer, from one end to the other and from its first moments until its last.

Every regeneration of the Doctor means a parting, and there are further partings as companions come and go. The trepidation and excitement that attend these moments were only multiplied when, in 2009, Davies handed the keys to Steven Moffat, who brought with him new stars — Smith, the current Doctor, darkly goofy, and Karen Gillan, his first, now former companion — and a more cerebral sensibility; he loves making complicated puzzles with time, for dramatic or comic effect.

"Doctor Who" companions: Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Clara Oswin Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman). (BBC)

“Doctor Who” companions: Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Clara Oswin Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman). (BBC)

There are still those mourning the loss of Davies and of 10th Doctor Tennant, who, with companion Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper, gave the series its first full-on (if not exactly consummated) romance, but Moffat’s work has its own moving poetry.

Yet loss is the heart of the show — there have been more tears shed or choked back here, surely, than in any other science fiction series — and there are episodes I cannot re-watch unless I am in a mood to weep myself. Loss — and the connection that loss requires — that’s what powers “Doctor Who.”

The time-twisting gives the stories an element of fate; it is a show about people who are meant to be together. And behind all the swashbuckling, the suspense, the horror and the fun, beats a tale of love and friendship and bonds that the farthest reaches of space and time cannot break.

— Robert Lloyd

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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30 Responses to ‘Doctor Who’ clocks 50 fantastic years through space and time

  1. fleiter says:

    If one has never watched "Dr. Who," where does one start?

    • noelenecy says:

      Hi fleiter!
      Personally, I think there are two terrific places to start. One is at the beginning of the revived series, the 2005 Season 1 with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. Another great place to jump on is at the beginning of Season 5, when Matt Smith and Karen Gillan take over as Doctor and companion. The series sort of starts fresh at both of these places, and you'll be able to follow along without having seen all 50 years of "Who." Thanks so much for reading, and let us know what you think of the show!
      @noeleneclark // Hero Complex

    • @DanaLaMa22 says:

      Oh, DO start with Doctor #9 (series 1)!! These stories fly by, so well written & amazingly well acted!! The monsters are cheesy at first (but FUN!!). The heart & soul of the current show begins with these stories & builds & builds….it is a great ride to the present Doctor!!! But, whatever you choose DO NOT MISS Doctor #10!!! David Tennant's take on the Doctor & the writing of theses episodes makes for some of the best tv I have ever seen!!! ENJOY!!!

    • Katie says:

      I started with Season 5, Matt Smith's first season. It introduced me to what the show is now, and hooked me, so I wanted to go back and watch Eccleston's and Tennant's seasons (and, more recently, some of the older seasons.) If you are a definite fan of sci-fi, I'd start with Eccelston's season (season 1 of "New Who.") If you're a little wary of the genre, or just of the show in general, maybe start with Matt Smith. This way, you know what you're getting into come March 30th, and can then go back and delve into Eccleston and Tennant's interpretations. (Hardcore fans are going to hate me for this, but oh well.)

      • Brent says:

        Hardcore fan here admiring your ability to pick things for your generation. Once hooked, it's only time and pressure until they become Whovians.

      • Merle says:

        "…time and pressure…": Whovians = diamonds

    • Jenn says:

      I recommend starting with the ninth doctor: "Rose" episode. Starting from the beginning of the reboot makes it easier to follow later on

  2. liza says:

    this is a FANTASTIC article! doctor who is an amazing show, and deserves all the recognition it gets.

  3. jkedit says:

    Is the series available on DVD from the earliest episodes, or from farther on?

    • TARDIS traveller says:

      Older Doctor Who episodes (1963-1989) were 25 minutes long and each story would run through several of them (eg. Genesis of the Daleks is 6 episodes, City of Death is 4 episodes etc) and indeed each story has been released on DVD with loads of extras. There's even a blu-ray of one story (Spearhead from Space) scheduled to come out this year. There are loads boxsets with several stories and also individual releases for each story. The 'Doctor Who episodes' page on Wikipedia is comprehensive and explains it all well.

    • Liz says:

      If you have Netflix, you can watch all of New Who up til the Xmas episode of 2011 with Matt Smith. It also has some of the extra episodes that Tennant did (like Waters of Mars and his 2 part regeneration ep). Netflix also has a few select Classic Who episodes up as well.

  4. SmittyWestLA says:

    A great episode to start with is "Blink." But don't look it up ahead of time – just enjoy it as it unravels before you…
    3rd year, 10th episode.

  5. Karl Morton IV says:

    There's a third season (of the new show) episode called "Blink" that works just fine as a standalone story that you can watch with no foreknowledge of anything. "Blink" has helped me convert many. :)

    • Jenn says:

      I think that it's better to watch blink when the time comes because it barely has the doctor in it, so I feel like the people don't get the real experience if they watch that one first. I don't mean to be rude, just stating my opinion. :)

  6. Art says:

    None beats Tom Baker, period – end of story. He was the Doctor at its zenith.

  7. nel says:

    oh no no no, @fleiter do not listen to that advice, for then you'll miss the series with 10th Doctor David Tennant, and that would be a sad thing indeed. Just start with the beginning of the 2005 series (Series/Season 1) with Eccleston and continue from there. The first episode is called "Rose" And if someone like me–not a lover of sci-fi in general, barely aware of the show's existence before 2006–could fall in love with this show, then so can you. ;)

  8. @JuicyB27 says:

    The thing I love is that Doctor Who is really a framework for storytelling. One that leaves so many possibilities, writers are given wide berth for their creativity. Impossible situations, getting into and out of them, become the challenge. I love that there is structure – yet endless variety. The good stuff lies somewhere in between!

  9. Wonderful article! I do think Rory should be mentioned and pictured. His bold and complete love of Amy strikes at the heart of Doctor Who.. After all, omly love can bridge time, space and life itself. How many times did Rory die? And time after time he demanded "NO!!!" I will not be without my Pond!

  10. TransmatTrev says:

    SCOTLAND calling!
    What a fantastic article.
    Sitting at my daddy's knee, spooky eerie music, graphics the like of which we'd never seen. Entering that foggy junk yard in black and white, the night after your President was assassinated, , I was hooked as a 10 year old boy. Yes, Hartnell was my first Doctor but watching the show develop over the past 8 years has brought great joy to me as it allows one's personal, fading memories of childhood to return to this aging grey matter.
    I so loved your summing up of the piece, as yes it is about excitement, fear, happiness but ultimately, it is about loss and it has knitted itself into the fabric of British society over the years and has become almost a touchstone for the whole family to come together and enjoy. Tears of Joy! What more could a show offer to so many?
    Let's hope the lead up to the 50th is as exciting as promised. Enjoy America ;)x

  11. Dr. Franklin Ruehl says:

    As an avid Dr.Who fan,I was most disappointed to see that Peter Cushing was omitted from the display of the Doctors. In a pair of admirable portrayals,he starred as the celebrated time traveler in the films,"Dr.Who and the Daleks" (1965) and "Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. "(1966).

    For some reason,Cushing was also left out of the British Dr.Who stamps recently issued in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the character.

    By the way,Dalek is an inverted form of Kelad,the planet on which Davros created these entities.

    May the Power of the Cosmos be with You!

    Dr.Franklin Ruehl,Ph.D.

    Host of cable TV;s "Mysteries From Beyond The Other Dominion."


    • TARDIS traveller says:

      Nope. Dalek is an anagram of Kaled, the name of the race that were genetically modified by Davros to win in the war against the Thals for the dominance of the planet Skaro to which both races were indigenous.
      The Cushing films are fun, but they're a reboot, they don't belong to the canon of the TV series and were never meant to.

    • fred says:

      The peter cushing films are an abomination which shall not be mentioned and the daleks are from skaro

      • Bob says:

        I quite enjoyed the Peter Cushing films. They were remakes of two 1st Doctor adventures, with a bit of a twist. It should also be noted that the male companion in the second one was played by the same actor who later played Wilford Mott, Donna Noble's grandfather. The two movies used scripts that were almost identical to the original stories. The differences mostly had to do with Susan, since she was played by a little girl and it would not have been appropriate for her to have a love interest, as she did in the TV series.

  12. Jessica says:

    Dr. Ruehl,
    I believe they have not included Peter Cushing in the history of the television show because the movies were not connected to the BBC production of Doctor Who in any way. The two Dr. Who movies were made by a different studio and loosely based on Doctor Who but not part of the BBC's Doctor Who and not part of that canon. It was made by AARU and not the BBC.

  13. Guest says:

    Of all of the episodes I have seen, and I am a student of the 4th Doctor (Public Television in the '70's) I am most drawn to "The Doctor Dances" especially the end…of all the music in all of time and space, I hold a special place in my heart for "In The Mood" from the 1940's Big Band era….from my Mother who loved it to being "caught" when I was in High School ,a swing band in the lecture hall played that tune and I was the only teen ager who inadvertently began to keep time with it…a passing teacher razzed me for not being "old enough" for that.

  14. Mark says:

    Please explain what the comment below means:

    Former show runner Russell T. Davies, who revived the series and was a fan from childhood, had worked in children’s television and created the original “Queer as Folk,” which reflects the range of sensibilities he brought to the job. His version sings with the show’s traditions and details, to the point that even the rhythmic pulse of its opening theme was converted into a plot point.

  15. Jenn says:

    I LOVE doctor who. Does anyone know if they would be willing to have an American companion? Cause I really want to be a companion some day but I'm American

    • Guest says:

      He had one……kinda. Captain Jack Harkness, who though he was from the 51st Century, had an American accent, and even on his own spin-off show, "Torchwood" was constantly referred to as "an American". Also the actor who played him, John Barrowman, was born in Scotland but raised in Illinois.

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