Before the USS Enterprise first voyaged into the final frontier or George Lucas created a galaxy far far away, there was a madman in a blue box.
Premiering in 1963, the BBC’s Doctor Who is — by a huge margin — the longest-running science-fiction series ever created.
It’s no surprise, then, that the show is dearly beloved by a diverse and widespread community with more history than just about any other pop-culture collective. And with the new season’s premiere last week, that already large fanbase has the potential to increase its numbers.
It’s not particularly strange for different generations of fans to have several opportunities to jump onboard a popular series. Take Star Trek for example. The franchise consists of five live-action TV series and 11 feature films. To call someone a Star Trek fan leaves a lot to question: Is a fan someone who’s watched every episode and film of every incarnation of Star Trek since the original series first aired in 1966, or a 10-year-old who knows nothing of the franchise beyond J.J. Abram’s 2009 blockbuster reboot?
When it comes to fan bases with differing levels of exposure to the franchise that they love, nothing quite matches the so-called “Whovians.” The simplicity of the show’s set-up allows for near-infinite storytelling and an equally infinite fanbase. The Doctor and his companions travel to different points in the history of time and space where something bad is happening. They have an adventure and the Doctor fixes it, because he’s the hero. From that premise, there’s been half a century of storytelling on TV and beyond, with plenty of ups, downs and new fans along the way.
Whenever the titular Doctor is in mortal duress, he avoids death through a process called regeneration. Thanks to his alien biology, the time-traveling adventurer can take on an entirely new appearance with a personality that, while altered, is still inherent to the spirit of the character. Thanks to this ingenious device, the continuation of the series has no dependency on the cast. Whenever the lead actor’s time on the show is done, the Doctor regenerates and a different actor takes over the role.
That spirit of rebirth and rejuvenation has extended to the series as a whole, and because of it, the franchise is thought of as more of an institution to which people are lucky enough to contribute than as somebody’s singular vision. Anyone who acts in or writes for the show does so with the knowledge that Doctor Who is meant to continue long after they’re done working on it. It’s a cultural landmark that — like the iconic blue TARDIS space ship in which the Doctor travels — is much bigger than the sum of its parts.
Ironically, the show’s effective cancellation in 1989 contributed to its current popularity. The BBC promised it would return one day, and true to their word, Russell T. Davies revived the series in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston as the ninth incarnation of the Doctor. Thanks to the global media landscape that arose while Who was absent from the airwaves, this “New Who” expanded the audience wider than ever before.
Now Americans could board the TARDIS and begin to discover what made the show so iconic across the pond. And though it might never be as universally recognized in the States as in the U.K., its popularity is on the rise.
In its most recent couple of seasons, nothing has done more to increase Who’s mainstream appeal than the takeover of the show by Steven Moffat, the writer behind some of the more celebrated new episodes. Under his direction and the introduction of Matt Smith’s manic Eleventh Doctor alongside Karen Gillan as companion Amy Pond, the show has a modern polish that Davies never really captured. Now sleeker than ever, Who actually looks like the science fiction marvel that it is.
The content itself, however, is a matter of some debate, especially when Moffat reaches for the stars with episodes and story arcs that can be outright outlandish or ridiculous in how far they’re willing to go. To get an idea, the most recent season featured an episode titled “Let’s Kill Hitler” and a finale that somehow saw all of time occurring simultaneously. Scientific accuracy isn’t the name of the game, as David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor made clear when he referred to time as a “big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.”
But as complicated or silly as things might get, every episode has the potential for greatness. Just last weekend, author Neil Gaiman won a prestigious Hugo award for writing “The Doctor’s Wife,” Who’s most celebrated installment of last year. It was a special point of pride for the writer, considering Gaiman watched the show as a child.
And that’s what’s so special about Doctor Who. It’s now been around so long that many of those most recently responsible for it — Davies, Tennant, Moffat and Gaiman, at least — were fans themselves, inspired by the very series they now get to work on. With creative forces working to ignite in viewers the same passion they once had for the Doctor’s adventures, there’s no reason the TARDIS can’t keep flying for generations to come.
New episodes of Doctor Who air on BBC America on Saturdays at 9:00 p.m. PST.
Michael Chasin is a junior majoring in narrative studies. His column “Fandomination” runs Fridays.