Allons-y! Why We've Been Traveling With 'Doctor Who' For 50 Years

This afternoon, millions of fez-wearing fans around the world will tune in to a very special episode of Doctor Who. The venerable British sci-fi series turns 50 today — though the time traveling alien Doctor himself is probably somewhere on the wrong side of 1,000.

From scrappy, low-budget beginnings (bubble-wrap monsters, anyone?), Doctor Who has become a global phenomenon. Only soap operas can match it for longevity and popularity. So what's the secret to the Doctor's appeal?

Well, let's start with a ringtone — mine, to be exact. Call me, and my phone will play the famous grinding, screeching sound of the TARDIS taking off. That's Time and Relative Dimensions in Space for you non-fans — the Doctor's beloved bigger-on-the-inside time and space machine.

Whenever that ringtone goes off, heads pop up all around me, and I know that everyone's thinking the same thing: he's come. He's finally come. For me.

The Doctor is an ancient two-hearted alien from a long-dead far-off planet. He can go anywhere, any time, and do just about anything — he's sort of a superhero without much of a mission besides his probably misguided love of the human race. And he almost always has a human companion. It's a way for those of us who watch to imagine ourselves into the action, to cherish a little corner of hope that one day it might be us out there among the stars.

And who wouldn't want to travel with the Doctor? "He was terribly like me, really," says Tom Baker, who played the Fourth Doctor. "Absolutely charming and unpredictable, and had a kind of benevolent alien quality."

Eleven men have played the Doctor so far — he has the alien power of regeneration; very handy when you need to swap out actors on a long-running show. But it also means that whatever your tastes, there's a Doctor for you: cranky, whimsical, debonair, manic, hopeful, bitchy, scheming, elegant, wounded, youthful, weird — and always, always bigger on the inside.

"We find our consolations in heroes and heroines, and Doctor Who was one of those charismatic figures who wasn't necessarily beautiful, but he did things which bordered on the miraculous," Baker says.

Bordering on the miraculous, yes, but he doesn't always get across that border. The Doctor's no Superman, no Captain Kirk — sometimes he doesn't save the day. Sometimes the companions get killed, or mind-wiped, or lost in an alternate universe. And sometimes, the Doctor is just scary; in one episode he's famously described as "like fire and ice and rage ... like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun."

But it's always the companion who holds his hand, who brings him back. It's that relationship between the Doctor and the companion — and by extension, the viewer — that's at the core of the show: we may need the Doctor, but he needs us just as much.

So I've got my bags packed and one eye on the sky. Here I am, Doctor — allons-y!

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Writer James Alan McPherson, Winner Of Pulitzer, MacArthur And Guggenheim, Dies At 72

McPherson, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, has died at 72. His work explored the intersection of white and black lives with deftness, subtlety and wry humor.
NPR

Oyster Archaeology: Ancient Trash Holds Clues To Sustainable Harvesting

Modern-day oyster populations in the Chesapeake are dwindling, but a multi-millennia archaeological survey shows that wasn't always the case. Native Americans harvested the shellfish sustainably.

WAMU 88.5

Your Turn: Ronald Reagan's Shooter, Freddie Gray Verdicts And More

Have opinions about the Democratic National Convention, or the verdicts from the Freddie Gray cases? It's your turn to talk.

NPR

Writing Data Onto Single Atoms, Scientists Store The Longest Text Yet

With atomic memory technology, little patterns of atoms can be arranged to represent English characters, fitting the content of more than a billion books onto the surface of a stamp.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.