Brilliant, miraculous, unique, supernatural, indestructible. All of these words describe the BBC science fiction show Doctor Who, which has been on the air for almost 60 years, has an incredible 870 episodes, a dozen and a half main actors, a plethora of sidekicks, and is the longest-running science fiction series ever made.
But, how did this small program, created with the purpose of educating children about historical events, become a phenomenon of science fiction/fantasy culture—and just as renowned, in its own way, as sci-fi tentpoles like Star Wars and Star Trek?
The Doctor is the most unique protagonist in the history of television
Today's television landscape is filled with dark anti-heroes, tortured souls who question themselves and their moral compass, are tormented by a dark past, and are simply not fun to hang out with. On the other side of the spectrum is the Doctor, an adventurer, a discoverer of the unknown, and a charismatic time traveler.
The Doctor is perhaps the only character in modern television who, despite all of their demons—and there are many—enjoys every moment of their life. The twinkle in their eye and their magnetic smile give them a unique dynamism and charm rarely seen in modern television.
On the other hand, the Doctor is a walking enigma. Although we have been following them for more than half a century, we know almost nothing about them. We do not know their origin or even their name. At a time when any mystery surrounding a main character is resolved within a season or two, our journey with the Doctor is still shrouded in mystery.
The Doctor: Anti-Violence Icon
What distinguishes the Doctor from all other protagonists is their moral code. Although they have a deep darkness inside them, they are always and primarily against violence. Instead of fists and weapons, they solve almost every problem with words and intellect.
There really isn't any other character on television quite like the Doctor, and even in a bad episode—and there is a bad one from time to time—one thing is guaranteed: you will never be bored in the Doctor’s company.
Companions are our eyes into the world of the Doctor
When the main character of the show is a time traveler who is millions and millions of years old and can cheat death by reorganizing their cells in a process that gives them a whole new face and personality, it can be a little hard to identify with them. We need the companions to be our gateway into this magical world.
Just like the Doctor needs a companion to see the world through their eyes, we need that companion to see the Doctor through their eyes. Each companion has their own personality, their own special relationship with the Doctor, and it is through these relationships and interactions that we as the audience experience this crazy world.
Companions rarely last more than a couple of years, and when they leave the audience gets to see the Doctor and his adventures through a different set of eyes. Each companion imbues the show with a subtly different feel.
Change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon.
When William Hartnell, who played the role of the first Doctor, had to leave the show due to illness it seemed that the program was coming to an end. But in a moment of incredible brilliance, one of the producers came up with an idea that would change the world of science fiction forever.
"Well, the Doctor is an alien. Why don't we just replace him with another actor and say he's rejuvenated to avoid death?" Such a simple and ingenious concept allowed the series to survive and remain fresh even today.
Regeneration & Doctor Who
Changing the main cast would spell certain death for almost any program, but that's where Doctor Who draws its greatest strength. The regular change of companions and the Doctor's ability to regenerate allows the show to put on a new coat of paint before the old one dries.
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Every few years, a new man or woman takes on the role of the Doctor, but reinterprets the role in a new way. What's best is that the external change of the main actor or actress due regeneration makes sense in the internal logic of the series.
The Doctor never gets stale because someone else always comes along to give us a completely different take on the character. For this reason, the show never really gets old. Like the main character, the show regenerates; it's never outstays its welcome.
The TARDIS: The Doctor's "Wife"
Although the series is in a constant state of flux, one small blue box has been there from the very beginning. The TARDIS is the most advanced weapon in the entire universe, a ship that can travel anywhere, anytime, and can adapt to any environment using the Chameleon circuit. But, due to a malfunction it's stuck in the shape of a police phone box from 1963. Seriously, who could even think of something like this?
In a final touch of brilliance, it doesn't even work that well. A trip to Las Vegas could get you to London, and you could end up on Mars trying to reach Liverpool. Heck, the first Doctor spent most of his tenure trying to get back to 20th century London, unsuccessfully, of course.
For all its faults, the TARDIS is the Doctor's greatest love and each week it will take him and us through all of time and space.
The Doctor in the TARDIS. Next stop, everywhere.
When the concept of "anytime, anywhere" falls into the hands of creative geniuses who have been working on the series for more than 50 years, the final product is a colorful arrangement of different styles and genres that make this show so special.
Many will naively characterize Doctor Who as science fiction, and it is science fiction—except when it isn't. In that sense, the show is the most versatile thing on television. Through more than half a century, the series was science fiction, fairy tale, western, comedy, a soap opera and all kinds of combinations of various genres. When you look at the nature of the series, there is simply no genre or sub-genre that it can't do.
You can't have the Doctor without the monsters
Given that the show is an epic adventure in which the protagonist saves planets from evil monsters, those monsters must be memorable and impressive. And in the entire world of science fiction, there are no more compelling evils than those in Doctor Who.
From the introduction of the Daleks way back in 1963, to angels who turn to stone as you look at them, to a child who has a gas mask instead of a face, constantly following you and creepily asking if you're his mommy, Doctor Who consistently creates the scariest, strangest, and most creative enemies on television.
The beauty of Whoniverse
When we look at all aspects, we come to the conclusion that there is simply nothing on modern television that can be compared to Doctor Who. There are shows and movies that can be described as the new Star Wars or the new Star Trek, but there is nothing on the TV landscape that is Who-esque.
The popularity and love that adorns this unique series is precisely the fact that it is different in a sea of the same. Originality is rare these days, and Doctor Who has it in spades. The series is the original, you might say. And every week when you sit in front of your screen and see the TARDIS drifting through the time vortex bringing the Doctor and us a new crazy adventure, one thing is certain: expect the unexpected!
© 2022 Ante Delija