Happy 51st birthday, Doctor!

It’s November 23, 2014, fifty-one years after the first broadcast of ‘The Unearthly Child”. The day before, President John F. Kennedy had been killed in Dallas, and so no one was paying attention to a new children’s science fiction show, and the BBC had to re-broadcast that episode the next week, to give this odd little programme a fair chance.  Fifty-one years later, that show is still going (admittedly, it was off the air for sixteen years), with seven million viewers tuning into each new episode. The eighth series of the modern show, featuring the twelfth actor to portray the Doctor for at least a full season, concluded a couple of weeks ago, and in a month, there will be a Christmas special. Beyond the telly, there’s a multitude of books, comic books, and audio plays – hundreds of stories from across the universe and all eras.

It’s almost impossible to describe what Doctor Who is; I think David Tennant said once that it’s impossible to describe the show without sounding like a raving lunatic. It’s generally classified as science fiction, and most of its stories involve aliens or at least some kind of technological gadgetry, but there’s so much more to it. Some stories are action-adventure, others are Gothic horror. There are political dramas, historical fantasies, and, to the anger of some purists, even romances. One week, they’re battling an army on war-torn planet, the next week they’re solving a murder mystery, and the next, they’re shrunk down to microscopic size and climbing through the brain of some creature. You never know what you’re going to get when you tune into an episode, in any of its media. And that’s one of the core attributes of the show. Its main character changes every few years, with a new personality and a new way of putting together an eye-bending outfit that somehow makes sense. If you’re not fond of a particular Doctor (episode) then come back in a year (week) and there’ll be something new for you to like.

But something about the heart(s) of the show stays the same, to keep its audience close in its constantly shifting world. The show has changed a lot over its fifty-one years, starting as a simple children’s show meant to teach science and history, evolving into episodic adventures of a man on the run from his own people and getting embroiled in the machinations of evil aliens and monsters, then, as the audiences tastes changed, developing longer story arcs and delving deeper into the companions’ lives and relationships. But there are three things that I think that make Doctor Who stand out. The first is the construction of its hero, the Doctor, who fights for what he believes is right, no matter what, standing against all the evil he encounters and even against his own race when he must. No matter what face and personality he wears, that’s always him. The second is the quality of the stories. There will always be stinker episodes, and some seasons will be not as good as others, but in general, the stories told are fantastic. The show takes full advantage of all of time and space to tell some of the most wonderful stories ever. The third is its complex history and exploration of deeper themes. The Doctor stands at the intersection of humanity’s everyday world and the rest of the universe. He deals with people on an individual basis, but also comprehends the bigger picture, how all the races of the universe fit together with each other. And he’s been doing this for hundreds of years. Thus, his stories draw on themes, problems, dilemmas from all levels of life, from the struggles of a single person to the grand schemes of the Time Lords, and the audience gets to explore it all with him.

As Mr. Tennant said, describe the show, and you sound like a raving lunatic. There’s really no other fictional universe that can do what Doctor Who does, none that has the reach or, honestly, the courage to try. And that’s what draws us back to it, to watch the explorer in his wooden police box, as he travels the universe with his loyal friends. We get to travel with him, see all of time and space and all the nasty, horrible wonderful things out there. Thank you, Doctor Who, and happy birthday!

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