36 Years Of Doctor Who

Dateline: November 4, 1999

In 1963, on the day after John F. Kennedy's assassination, the BBC premiered a new science fiction series that was designed to appeal to all members of the family. It succeeded wildly beyond the dreams of anyone. Even though it's been 10 years since the BBC made a new episode (with the exception of the Paul McGann TV movie three years ago co-produced with the Fox network), Doctor Who is still as popular as ever, with a night devoted to it recently on BBC-2.

Originally starring film veteran William Hartnell, the series didn't make an immediate impact due to events surrounding it, but its second story featured a monster that would - in Britain at least - be forever remembered along with the series. The Daleks were the Pokémon or The Phantom Menace of their day, hugely popular, and launching enough merchandise to keep eBay busy for years. Forgotten in all their hype was the fact that Doctor Who was originally supposed to be a historical program, with the monsters kept to a minimum. But no flies on the BBC, it was monsters the public wanted, and it was monsters they got. Cybermen, Krynoids, Silurians, and Autons were among the creatures the Doctor has battled over the years. It has also contributed to the impression that the series is a "children's show" although viewing figures always showed plenty of adults were watching too.

The ability to change the lead actor has certainly contributed to the series' success, enabling it to reinvent itself every few years to reflect the personality of the star. After Hartnell left in 1966, the Doctor was played throughout the rest of the 60s by Patrick Troughton, a short, comic figure who still managed to always outwit the bad guys. When the BBC switched to an all-color service in 1970, the Doctor changed as well, with Jon Pertwee adding a dash of James Bond daring-do to the mostly earthbound Doctor (sentenced by his fellow Time Lords at the end of the 1969 season for having meddled too much). Though very successful in his time, Pertwee was succeeded by the actor who forever put his stamp on the series, and finally won it huge audiences in America, Tom Baker. For many people, Baker is the Doctor, and frequently was the first one most people in the US were exposed to. There's no denying his impact on the series in the record seven years he played the part, assisted by scripts from such notables as Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy) and Bergerac creator Robert Banks-Stewart. In 1981, Peter Davison, most famous for playing Tristan in All Creatures Great And Small, became the Doctor, and saw the beginning of celebrities turning up more and more in guest starring roles. When he left three years later, Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) took over, although his tenure was cut short when BBC controller Michael Grade nearly canceled the series in 1985, and only brought it back after Baker's following year with a change of lead actors. Sylvester McCoy, a throwback to more "wacky" Doctors like Troughton and Tom Baker, at first appeared to be playing it all for laughs, but after his first season (and abetted by better and more consistent scripts than the series had seen in years) made a great impact with fans. However, by the late 80s, the BBC had grown tired of the series, seeing it as "old guard," and it was consigned to a timeslot against powerhouse Coronation Street on ITV where its ratings suffered.

But the Doctor was far from dead. Much as Star Trek fans had kept the series alive after its cancellation in 1969, Doctor Who, with fans across the globe, was kept in the forefront of popular culture via books, magazines, and video releases from 26 seasons worth of stories. BBC Enterprises, the commercial money-making arm of the BBC, loved Doctor Who and the income derived from continued sales of the series, and pressured the Beeb to make new episodes to capitalize on its popularity, much as Paramount eventually did with the Star Trek franchise. A proposed special in 1993 was scuttled by corporate infighting (although a brief 30th anniversary reunion was staged for Children In Need), but finally interest in America (and more importantly, US money) helped pave the way for a TV movie pilot in 1996 with Paul McGann taking over from Sylvester McCoy. Though it had respectable ratings for its British screening on the BBC, Fox was not inspired by its only screening to date to commission a series (though its setting on December 31st, 1999 would seem to suggest the perfect date for a rerun).

In March 1999 the BBC allowed a special Comic Relief version of Doctor Who to be made, starring Rowan Atkinson as the Doctor, shown over four parts on Red Nose Day. The episodes raised a lot of money for the charity and were recently released on home video in England. Also in 1999, writer Russell T. Davies (The Grand, Queer As Folk) was asked by the BBC to work on a new version of the series, but plans were scuttled when Hollywood showed some interest in doing a theatrical version of Doctor Who. For its 36th annivesary the BBC acknowledged the continued popularity and interest in the series with a "Doctor Who Night" on November 13th, hosted by Tom Baker. Fans Turned Professional such as Mark Gatiss (The League Of Gentlemen) made special comedy sketches, there were documentaries about the series, and screenings of classic episodes. If Hollywood drops the ball (again), is another series in the cards? Only Time will tell.

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