Doctor Who is the world's longest continually produced science fiction serial. It aired on the British BBC network from 1963 until 1989, and was revived briefly as a television movie in 1996. In the United States, Doctor Who first began broadcasts on independent channels in 1972, and was still broadcasting on some local PBS affiliates in the late 1990s. It has, like Star Trek, engendered movies, radio dramas, lucrative novel series, non-fiction, comic books, and an extensive home video market.
Doctor Who revolves around the adventures of the mysterious time-traveling title character, simply known throughout as The Doctor. The Doctor, as first seen in the 1963 pilot episode, broadcast in the midst of the BBC's coverage of the Kennedy Assassination, is outwardly human. William Hartnell, the actor to first portray the Doctor (1963-1966), presented audiences with a cranky old man who had a gross lack of basic human kindness. Initially, the Doctor was accompanied on his travels through time and space by his granddaughter and her human school teachers. In the serial's second episode, he seemed to encourage his companion to kill an incapacitated caveman. Later, his selfish, obsessive desire to learn placed him and his companions in danger when they met the alien Daleks. The character began to soften his edges as he was exposed to the ideals and attitudes of his human companions. His scientific curiosity and towering ego remain, but his ego became tempered with an increasing respect for his companions and the races that he encountered.
When Hartnell became too ill to continue the role, the producers came up with the ingenious idea of having the character "regenerate" into a new body with a new personality. Since 1966, the Doctor has been played by seven more actors: Patrick Troughton (1966-1970), Jon Pertwee (1970-1974), Tom Baker (1974-1981), Peter Davison (1981-1983), Colin Baker (1983-1986), Sylvester McCoy (1986-1989), and Paul McGann (1996). Richard Hurndall also played the role of the First Doctor in place of the late William Hartnell in the 1983 anniversary serial "The Five Doctors." This change in the lead actor (and usually in the rest of the cast and the production teams) allowed the show to adapt to and change with the times. Hartnell's serials began originally as a children's program, but by the late 1970s Tom Baker's serials were also targeted towards the science fiction aficionado. Low ratings and lack of support from the BBC (it went on an 18 month hiatus in the middle of Colin Baker's tenure) soon saw the serial descending into self-parody. Towards the end it began to recover some of its ground, but in 1989 it was taken off the air, though never officially canceled. The 1996 television movie was co-produced by the BBC and the FOX Network in the United States at a sum of $5 million (an unusual amount for such a production), but it did not achieve great ratings. There are constant rumors among fans of another revival; meanwhile the serial continues in original novels published first by Virgin Books and later by BBC Books.
Two theatrical movies were made in the 1960s, based on the scripts of two of the television serials, Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks—Invasion Earth, 2150 A.D. (1966), starring Peter Cushing as the Doctor. In the television serial, it was the popularity of the Daleks, created by writer Terry Nation and a BBC special effects wizard, that propelled the Doctor to instant stardom in the United Kingdom. It was not until the first Tom Baker serials began broadcasting in the United States, however, that the show earned anything more than an American cult audience. The Doctor has since earned cameos in episodes of The Simpsons, and cancellation of the serial usually results in a PBS station being inundated with masses of fan mail.
Like Star Trek, the fans of Doctor Who run major conventions every year which are attended in the thousands by fans sporting scarves and cricket jackets. Instantly recognizable at these conventions is the Doctor's unique TARDIS—an acronym for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. On the outside it resembles a battered London police call box. Inside, however, it is, in reality, a large ship, its cavernous interior seemingly endless. The Doctor and his fans also have a strong presence on the Internet, where hints of new television projects compete for attention with spoilers of the novel plots.
Icons of the show include the pepperpot shaped Daleks, and the silver enshrouded Cybermen. Also earning a place in history was the show's electronic theme music, which evolved over the years but still retained an eerie hint of the otherworldly. On the whole, the show was a hodge-podge of what is good and bad about long-running serial television: devoted audiences, a long history, and very bad continuity. The video market ensures that the show is introduced to new audiences and that it has a life beyond its original television run.
—John J. Doherty
Howe, David J., and Stephen James Walker. Doctor Who: The Television Companion. London, BBC Books, 1998.
Tulloch, John, and Manuel Alvarado. Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text. New York, St. Martin's, 1983.