‘Doctor Who’ lords it over time and space, and TV

March 24, 2013 | 4:00 a.m.
doctorwho Doctor Who lords it over time and space, and TV

"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 lords it over time and space, and TV

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

11 Doctor Who lords it over time and space, and TV

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

The signs of a seismic shift became clear a year or so ago, in even the nonhipster communities of Los Angeles: a tween boy in a “Bow Ties Are Cool” T-shirt, a silver Camry with a license plate holder reading “My other car is a TARDIS,” a girl at an elementary school Halloween costume parade dressed in a homemade blue police box and bearing a sonic screwdriver.

By the time TV Guide got around to putting Matt Smith on its cover, it seemed almost old news: The Doctor, ancient and perpetually regenerating Time Lord, savior of multiple universes, wearer of classic bow ties and trench coats, wielder of the multi-purpose sonic screwdriver and intergalactic protector of Earth, has at long last jumped the pond.

It’s a triumph for long-term fans, the newly high profile of “Doctor Who” — now celebrating its 50th anniversary — but more than that it’s proof that Americans are really and truly taking television seriously. Contemporary and canonical, with low-tech sci-fi roots and doggedly whimsical tone, “Doctor Who” is among the most influential television shows in history, creating a new complexity of tone, a different sort of hero and a whole new order of fan.

QUIZ: Test your smarts as the Doctor turns 50

First conceived by Sydney Newman, the Canadian who was head of drama at the government-run BBC, as a semi-educational family program that would use a time-traveling alien to take viewers through history, “Doctor Who” debuted in November 1963 and quickly developed a personality all its own. It was smart but sentimental, narratively ambitious but with an endearing cheekiness that quickly made it a national obsession. Americans, distracted perhaps by “Lost in Space” and later “Star Trek,” never quite caught on.

“In Britain, you can practically define yourself, your generation by which actor played the Doctor when you were a kid,” says Steven Moffat, the show’s current executive producer. “There is no other show like it. And there can be no other show like it because if there was, it would be such an obvious rip-off of ‘Doctor Who.'”

"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. (BBC)

The Doctor, who regularly regenerates as another version of himself, moved through seven actors before “Doctor Who” went off the air in 1989. From the moment it ended, attempts were made to bring it back. There was a TV movie, radio shows and talk of a feature film. But it wasn’t until 2005 that Russell T. Davies finally accomplished a reboot, which became one of the most popular shows in the U.K.

Pop stars, opera stars, movie stars and stars of British theater regularly make guest appearances, with A-list screenwriters contributing episodes. Books, magazines, blogs, fan sites and chat rooms are devoted to the Doctor, deconstructing every word in every episode in a way that makes even “Lord of the Rings” fans look lazy. There have been three spinoffs, including “Torchwood,” which recently migrated from the BBC to Starz, and constant references on British and American television shows including “Extras,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Community.”

ESSAY: Why ‘Doctor Who’ is so fantastic 50 years later

For many years, the ability to identify the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver (his only “weapon”) or any of his antagonists (the Daleks, the Cybermen) was the mark of High Geekdom. Because beyond its longevity, “Doctor Who” sparked the rise of the Super Fan, that deeply devoted viewer who now dominates so much of American television.

“In America, it had always been a more adult audience,” says Perry Simon, general manager of BBC America, “a more Comic-Con audience. But there just comes a moment when a show breaks through. This is that moment.”

Left, a "Doctor Who" cosplayer at Stan Lee's Comikaze in Los Angeles in Sept. 2012. Right, Katelyn Glumace, 6, and her brother Jonathan Glumace, 9, dress as Amy Pond and the Eleventh Doctor during Comic-Con International in San Diego in July 2012. (Noelene Clark / Los Angeles Times; Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles Times)

Left, a “Doctor Who” cosplayer at Stan Lee’s Comikaze in Los Angeles in September 2012. Right, Katelyn Glumace, 6, and her brother Jonathan Glumace, 9, dress as Amy Pond and the Eleventh Doctor during Comic-Con International in San Diego in July 2012. (Noelene Clark / Los Angeles Times; Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles Times)

The vivid combination of drama and comedy, sci-fi and psychology, history and imagination that makes “Doctor Who” special may have been what kept Americans at arm’s length — for years a show was either “3rd Rock from the Sun” or “Battlestar Galactica.” Yet “Doctor Who” began the cross-pollination of genres that has inserted humor and eccentricity into even our most serious dramas, so it’s only fitting that Americans turn their attention to the original text.

The Doctor’s influence extends beyond his sci-fi borders — he set the template for the Brilliant But Lonely Man found at the heart of modern heroes as varied as Iron Man and Gregory House. He is a wiser, wackier version of James Bond, with whom he shares a birthday, but he’s also related to Captain Kirk and Kara “Starbuck” Thrace and “Fringe’s” Walter Bishop.

GALLERY: New ‘Doctor Who’ episode posters

“He is never content,” says Moffat. “While the rest of us sit around getting fatter, he is endlessly searching for something.”

Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman film an episode of "Doctor Who" in London on Oct. 16, 2012. (Neil Mockford / FilmMagic)

Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman film an episode of “Doctor Who” in London on Oct. 16, 2012. (Neil Mockford / FilmMagic)

Moffat grew up watching “Doctor Who.” When he began writing for television in the late ’80s he dreamed of resurrecting the show. When Davies did so, Moffat contacted him almost immediately and went on to write some of “Doctor Who’s” most memorable episodes. When Davies left to take “Torchwood” to Starz, he passed the show to Moffat.

“The beauty of ‘Doctor Who’ is its incredible flexibility, anchored by this iconic simplicity,” Moffat says. “All the things that work against a show’s longevity work for us. If people get tired of the Doctor, he regenerates. We bring in new companions before anyone can get bored. We can do any sort of episode we want anywhere we want in space and time. And you don’t have to have watched the show from the beginning to enjoy it.”

An adventure may include Queen Victoria, Madame de Pompadour, Charles Dickens, Cleopatra, Vincent Van Gogh or any number of friendly and malicious alien life forms but is inevitably centered on the Doctor, aided by one or two companions from an ever-expanding assortment, doing battle for good.

“It’s a very simple idea, really, as most brilliant ones are,” says Matt Smith, who plays the 11th, and current, Doctor. “Here’s this mad, brilliant man who continually saves the day with a box of tissues and an orangutan.”

By the time “Doctor Who” regenerated in 2005, basic cable packages included BBC America, which embraced the show and promoted it heavily. Last season’s premiere drew 2 1/2 million, a record-breaking number for not only “Doctor Who” here but for BBC America itself.

"Doctor Who" stars Matt Smith and Karen Gillan attend the show's sixth season premiere in New York on April 11, 2011. (Ben Gabbe / Getty Images)

“Doctor Who” stars Matt Smith and Karen Gillan attend the show’s sixth season premiere in New York on April 11, 2011. (Ben Gabbe / Getty Images)

Simon says he noticed the change a year or two ago; the weedy sex appeal of 10th Doctor David Tennant and his various female companions, including Billie Piper and Catherine Tate, brought new viewers and by the time Smith arrived, “Doctor Who” was far more than a cultish import.

“Every episode enters the iTunes chart as No. 1 within 12 hours,” Simon says. “I was just in Los Angeles and a friend told me about his fifth-grader who was writing an episode for an independent study project, and that may be the best news of all. Because in the U.K. it’s still a very kid- and family-oriented show.”

Although there was criticism from British parents who found the last season too scary in parts, the show remains resolutely family friendly. Of the three recent Doctors, Smith is the most childlike and playful.

“It’s full of technology and a way of thought that are more familiar to young people than old,” says screenwriter Richard Curtis (“War Horse,” “Notting Hill”). “In our family, the dynamic is that, at the end, the children explain the episodes to us.”

Though a fan, Curtis had never thought of writing a “Doctor Who” episode until Moffat assured him he could write whatever he wanted. At the time, Curtis says, he was “obsessed by Van Gogh, very passionate about understanding depression, very interested in the idea that things are always going to be a mixture of sad and happy.”

The result was the haunting episode “Vincent and the Doctor,” in which the Doctor and companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) meet the artist and convince him that at least one of the monsters plaguing him is real.

Like Bond, or any part, the Doctor changes with the actor who inhabits him, but there remains an essential seductive quality of contradiction about him. A Time Lord who has literally seen everything, he is still capable of being surprised. Though high-tech on the inside, the Doctor’s vessel, the TARDIS, remains an old-fashioned police box on the outside (but bigger on the inside, as the running joke goes) and the Doctor’s favorite reaction to any sort of trouble is “Run!”

“He’s funny, he has to be brilliant,” says Smith. “I was drawn to his madness, to that image of Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out. He admires humans, but he doesn’t understand them. If you look at his history, there is so much blood on his hands but he keeps going. He’s like my granddad. I said, ‘How you doing, granddad?’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’m aching and I’m tired but you gotta laugh.’ That’s the Doctor. ‘You gotta laugh.'”

— Mary McNamara

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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12 Responses to ‘Doctor Who’ lords it over time and space, and TV

  1. Mary says:

    Pity no one mentioned Terry Nation and his vital contribution to the success of Dr. Who. Without him, there would be no Dr. Who !!!!!

  2. James says:

    Nice article but that Tardis filming picture is a bit spoilery.

  3. Scott says:

    Great show, Great actors. The Best

  4. Mike says:

    I watched a bit on PBS as a child (mostly the Tom Baker) years but didn't rediscover it until a) my cable outlet started carrying BBCA and b) re-runs of both the new and classic episodes appeared on Netflix (where I streamed a multi-part episode with the 3rd Doctor and realized I remembered it from childhood). The ability to stream and rewatch allows one to catch funny lines that may have been missed before. different companions and different Doctors allows the show to constantly reinvent itself and not get stale. The current episodes are well written, though there have been a few in the last year that scared my then 7 year old daughter away, that has made it a little less family friendly than it should be.

  5. flo says:

    I caught a few episodes of the other Doctor's here and there, but none of them kept my interest until Matt. I think Matt, Arthur and Karen had everything to do with Doctor Who's sudden surge in popularity stateside. They were all great, and had fantastic chemistry together. I miss Amy and Rory.

  6. Megan says:

    Holy heck thats me as the cosplayer!!!! *flails in joy*

  7. E_B says:

    I am pretty sure it started out in 2005 on the old SciFi network, (before the SyFy rebranding) and all before BBC America, but thanks to them for putting it on the same day as they are on in the UK and not weeks or months later as SciFi had done.

  8. David Hampson says:

    The BBC is not and never has been 'Government run'; the licence fee ensures total independence.

  9. david hickle says:

    hi i love all doctor who tv. shows but what i would really love is to know witch doctor who actor is a time lord in real life and to get him this message because his real biolagical son over the olympion time lords is searching for him that the nightmare child knowen as the helix monster and the helix mummy from mars have been uncovered and that only a time lord can save a time lord i live at 4045 castel dr, groveport ohio 43125 usa 1-614-3398 tell him i also need him if he wants to find me and tell him no doctor on planet earth can cure my problem that i want to go back to gallifrey

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