Celebrating 50 Years of Doctor Who
Love it or loathe it, Doctor Who is a major part of the national zeitgeist – a bit like Eastenders, Yorkshire Tea and casual xenophobia – and this Saturday it turns fifty years old. Even if you think the show is the worst thing in the entire World, you have to admit that it’s quite an impressive achievement that a publicly-funded science fiction enterprise has lasted this long. Few television shows ever even make it double figures, let alone fifty, and you can pretty much count on one hand the ones that have hit the magic half-century.
As a dedicated Whovian (yeah, I know, I hate that label too…), I’m obviously pretty stoked for Saturday. Despite my reservations about the return of Mr Tennant, I have full confidence that Steven Moffat will deliver an episode that is emotional, exciting and full of pizazz that respects the show’s past but also looks forward to its future. Yet as someone who loves science fiction, there are quite a few things about the show that I find really annoying; I hate the fact that it’s “family-friendly”, I hate the fact that none of the companions ever seem to die properly, I hate the lack of terror that personified much of the show’s initial run and I abhor the deus-ex-machina that is the sonic screwdriver so fucking much, to name just a few.
Why then, you might ask, do I still watch? What is it about Doctor Who that still appeals, after all these years, to me and to audiences across the World? After all, back in 1963 the show was simultaneously lauded and lambasted; on the one hand it was seen as an exciting new venture from the BBC while on the other it was seen as cheap, derivative and shoddy; not the type of dumbed-down trash that people want from their public service broadcaster! Nevertheless, in spite of its detractors, the show has survived cancellation, a terrible film and a whole host of issues – from backstage rivalries to edicts from the powers that be at the BBC that the show be wound down – and is about to turn into a fully-fledged, middle-aged man, much like the Doctor’s next incarnation.
For me, the power of Doctor Who rests on the fact that it is constantly shifting and changing. I came to the show as a teenager in 2005, back when the marvellous Christopher Eccleston was in charge of the TARDIS, and since then the show has evolved in a multitude of ways. We’ve seen two new Doctors (soon to be three), countless new companions, numerous villains – some old, some new, some better best forgotten – and an absolute fuckton of stories for the viewers to sink their teeth into. If you hate the show one week, chances are you’ll love it the next. If you don’t like Matt Smith‘s portrayal of the Doctor, you can console yourself with the fact that he can easily be replaced. If you thought Tennant was a gurning moron (am I projecting? Probably…) then that’s alright because he’s just one of the eleven (soon to be twelve…) people to take on the role. Everyone has their favourite Doctor, their favourite companion and their favourite era, and that’s what makes the show so irreplaceable in the eyes of its fans.
Similarly, Doctor Who taps into a huge number of great audience desires. It gets our desire for adventure, it gets our desire to explore the universe, to change the past, to alter the future and to experience historic events first-hand. Deep down, we all want to be mad men / women with a box, and the show does a superb job of making the audience feel involved and invested in each little adventure, whether it be a battle to the death with the Cybermen or the personal tale of a woman who must allow her Father to die, lest the universe come to an end. One of the reasons the show has lasted so long is because these innate desires never go away. Humans are curious creatures; we’re always exploring, we’re always looking for fun and seeking to make the universe a better place. At heart we’re all idealists, just like the Doctor, and we all sometimes feel that need to just get in a strange blue box and fly away with a weird man. Unless that man is Tom Baker of course, in which case most of us would just run in the opposite direction…
However, that doesn’t quite explain the show’s longevity. There’s only so much the audience can take before they’ll want to switch off, so the show has to be as creative as possible in order to survive. For me it achieves this not through its heroes but through its villains. The Doctor is a great character but his righteous attitude and his constant desire for peace can be a bit grating. The villains offer a relief; they’re vicious, nasty and full of hatred. The Doctor’s greatest enemies – The Master, Davros, Omega – are people you just love to hate and they grant the show a palpable sense of dread. Watch, for example, the video below; it’s one of the best scenes in the whole of “NuWho” because it gets right to the heart of the battle between the Doctor and his enemies. It’s brimming with tension, it’s full of bitterness, anger and hatred, and it sums up the conflict at the heart of the show quite wonderfully. It’s also the Ninth Doctor’s finest moment.
I still have a lot of episodes to watch, and I can’t claim to know much about Hartnell‘s portrayal of the Doctor as I’ve only seen a few of his adventures. Nevertheless, the beauty of Doctor Who is that it’s a show you can return to again and again and again. I accept that Doctor Who might lack the gravitas of a show like Star Trek, and it might not be as hi-tech as more contemporary offerings, but to me the show has a real charm and a sense of warmth and joy that simply cannot be matched. There are lots of things about the show that I dislike but they’re outweighed by the things that I love, forever and always.
To bring this little piece to a conclusion (perhaps stoking up some much loved controversy along the way…), here’s an order-of-preference list of how I rank the Doctors, based on what I’ve seen;
11. Colin Baker
10. Sylvester McCoy
9. David Tennant (He’s a great actor but I just don’t like his Doctor very much)
8. William Hartnell
7. Jon Pertwee
6. Peter Davison
5. Paul McGann (awful film but McGann is superb)
4. Matt Smith
3. Patrick Troughton
2. Christopher Eccleston
1. Tom Baker (obviously, the man is a living legend!)
If you disagree, which I’m sure you will, leave your list in the box below. Other than that, I hope you enjoy the fiftieth. I’m sure it’ll be, to quote Mr Eccleston’s Doctor, “fantastic!”