Fifty Years of
The Doctor of TV’s Doctor Who travels through time and space, rescuing the distressed. Every few years he regenerates into a new body: Eleven actors, starting with William Hartnell in 1963, have played the role, and Peter Capaldi is slated to be number 12. Even the program itself was canceled, in 1989, and resurrected 16 years later. This map shows why fans have spent 50 years following this mysterious character across the universe.
If the ideal British protagonist is both brilliant and emotionally stunted, Sherlock Holmes is the template. Holmes can solve any mystery using only a pipe and a magnifying glass, while loathing “every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul.” In 1963 the BBC’s head of drama, Sydney Newman, invented the Doctor in the same vein. A two-hearted alien armed with a sonic screwdriver, the Doctor unravels the mysteries of the universe like a cosmic Holmes. Both characters also experience debilitating discomfort with intimate relationships. Matt Smith, who played the Doctor’s 11th incarnation, has said, “The Doc’s idea of an orgy is playing chess with an ostrich.”
Holmes and the Doctor share a sometimes questionable fashion sense. Holmes is commonly depicted wearing a deerstalker cap, a chapeau faux pas. The fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) sports an outrageously long woolen scarf and a head of hair that could fend off wildlife; the sixth (Colin Baker) wears a suit too colorful for the circus. In their television reboots (Doctor Who in 2005, Sherlock in 2010), both icons are noticeably better dressed. Not coincidentally, Steven Moffat, lead writer and executive producer of Doctor Who, is the cocreator of Sherlock.
Sherlock Holmes has only one companion: stalwart, enthusiastic Dr. Watson. A foil to the detective, bumbling Watson serves as a gateway for explanations of Holmes’s intricate deductions and a dose of humanity against his freakishly analytical nature. The Doctor, however, has picked up an impressive collection of sidekicks, ranging from a modern-day London shopgirl and an 18th-century Scottish Highlander to a doglike robot named K-9. The Doctor accrues these stragglers seemingly to assuage his loneliness.
When the classic Doctor Who series began, the Doctor was a renegade from his people, the Time Lords from the planet Gallifrey. By 2005 he was the only one left, the rest of his ancient race having been killed in a great war (which the Doctor may or may not have caused). Another character refers to him as the “lonely God.” And his companions always end up leaving him; in some cases, sadly, any trace of the Doctor is erased from their memories. Those relationships have been more successful in real life. Tom Baker, the Jelly Baby–bingeing fourth Doctor, married Lalla Ward (his on-screen companion Romana). David Tennant (the 10th) wedded guest star Georgia Moffett, though she played his daughter on the show.
In the 1920s British cities began building “police boxes” to assist their overwhelmed crime-fighting forces. Situated on the streets and equipped with desks and telephones, the booths acted as intermediate bases, so officers didn’t have to trek back to a station. But the outposts had an unintended effect: Law enforcers used the unsupervised boxes to waste time. These bright blue structures were ubiquitous in 1963, when Doctor Who’s creators chose to disguise the Doctor’s time-machine spaceship as one.
Called the TARDIS, for “Time and Relative Dimension in Space,” the ship is “bigger on the inside,” as many characters note. And indeed, hidden in the small kiosk are lengthy corridors and even swimming pools. The Doctor uses the TARDIS to greater ends than the British bobbies used their boxes, as he surfs across time and back. Facing death in the episode “The Parting of the Ways,” the ninth Doctor instructs his companion to “let this old box gather dust.… Let it become a strange little thing standing on a street corner.” Owing to the rise of police radio, only a few such boxes still stand in the U.K., mainly gathering dust as tourist attractions for Doctor Who fans.
Parallel universes are commonplace in Doctor Who. In “Rise of the Cybermen” the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) and his companion Rose (Billie Piper) land on an alternate Earth where Rose meets variations on her family. Her father, an impoverished dreamer long dead in her dimension, is a successful businessman. But there’s no need to plunge through a wormhole to see a variant of Who. Look no further than Futurama, the animated sitcom headed by Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Futurama follows Professor Farnsworth and his Planet Express package delivery ship. Like the Doctor, Farnsworth owns a time machine and travels through space, but while the Doctor is a brilliant philanthropist, the professor is a senile crank. The Doctor saves the universe time and again, while the professor errs his way into destroying it. And where the Doctor’s companions are brave and kind, the Planet Express crew includes a chain-smoking robot named Bender and a naive pizza delivery boy from a past millennium. Groening peppers Futurama with references to Who: The ship’s maverick cyclops pilot, Leela, is named after a barbarian 1970s Who companion, and in the Futurama episode “Möbius Dick,” the fourth Doctor’s likeness emerges from a cosmic whale.
The TARDIS is the Doctor’s constant companion through centuries and galaxies. Over the years they have developed a close relationship, like that of an old married couple. The Doctor talks to the ship by turns in love and exasperation. Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman (Sandman, American Gods) embraced this notion when writing the episode “The Doctor’s Wife”: When the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) is lured beyond the universe, an evil being extracts the matrix from the TARDIS and inserts it into a female body. The circumstance allows the Doctor and his ship to ogle each other mercilessly. When companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) learns of the TARDIS’s fleshly form, she prompts the Doctor, “Did you wish really hard?”
The TARDIS being the exception, most science fiction spacecraft are more dangerous than flirtatious. In Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the ship’s computer, HAL 9000, maroons an astronaut in the cold wastes of space. In Futurama’s “Love and Rocket,” a 2001 parody, the Planet Express spaceship’s artificial intelligence falls in love with crusty robot Bender, who soon cheats on her. The machine has a psychological crisis and flies its crew into a quasar. Hell hath no fury like a spaceship scorned.
The Doctor’s companions often steal the show—quite literally in the case of Captain Jack Harkness, an immortal Time Agent and swindler with an insatiable bisexual appetite. Played by marquee-handsome John Barrowman, Harkness first appeared in the 2005 episode “The Empty Child.” He was so popular, a year later he received his own program: Torchwood (an anagram of “Doctor Who”). In Torchwood Harkness assembles his own companions to investigate alien activity on Earth as he incorrigibly chases both skirts and trousers.
Torchwood paved the way for more companion spin-offs. The Sarah Jane Adventures, which first aired in 2007, follows Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). Sarah Jane was a Doctor Who companion in the 1970s and remains one of the most well-liked personalities in Who history. At a time when female characters were mostly distressed damsels and eye candy, Sarah Jane was a tough, willful feminist who could match the Doctor in both wit and courage. In Adventures she works as an investigator while juggling a team of teenagers—not much of a task after taking care of the Doctor. The show lasted until Sladen’s death, in 2011.
The Doctor’s nemeses are the Daleks, squirmy little beings from planet Skaro, created by a lunatic, Davros. Daleks are really the fabrication of Doctor Who writer Terry Nation, and they first appeared in 1963 as an overt analogue to the Nazi regime. Like the Nazis, the Daleks believe in their race’s superiority and are bent on applying their eugenics to the universe. They speak primarily in the imperative, screaming, “Surrender! Surrender!” or, when that fails, “Exterminate! Exterminate!” At a glance, the Daleks are relics of old science fiction. Their design has changed little across 50 years: Protected inside clunky metallic housings like mod R2-D2s, they have all the mobility of a canister vacuum cleaner. But the Daleks’ persistence and cruel intelligence make them truly terrifying. The phrase hiding behind the sofa originated in the effect the Daleks’ sinister machinations had on British children watching the tube.
Although the Doctor travels circuitously through that “big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff,” as the expressive 10th Doctor puts it, the show progresses in a linear fashion. The special effects get better with the years and the electronic theme music gets faster, but the Daleks remain the same—horrors from the future past.
Through the years, the Doctor has amassed an impressive base of fans from virtually every demographic. Whovians, as they call themselves, include Queen Elizabeth II, Steven Spielberg and, allegedly, Bob Dylan. Every Whovian has a favorite Doctor. For most, he is the one they grew up with (although the queen fancies the more recent Christopher Eccleston, who played the roguish, leather-jacketed ninth Doctor). Beyond the royal family, the show attracts some of the greatest contemporary sci-fi writers. Douglas Adams, famous for his classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels, worked on the program in the late 1970s. He was particularly keen on introducing the Krikkitmen, a band of villainous robot cricket players. Nobody else, except for Tom Baker (the eccentric fourth Doctor), seemed to like the idea, and Adams turned instead to the Doctor’s go-to enemies, the Daleks. Serving as script editor, Adams is credited with almost completely redrafting longtime Who screenwriter Terry Nation’s 1979 serial “The Destiny of the Daleks,” even inserting references to his Hitchhiker’s series. Stung by the rewrite, Nation never wrote for the show again. He moved to the United States and started working on episodes of MacGyver.
Truly understanding the Doctor is nigh-impossible. For one thing, the BBC destroyed many episodes from the 1960s and ’70s, mainly those starring the great Patrick Troughton as the second Doctor. (Some copies made for the international market were discovered in 2013.) In addition, the Doctor’s personality changes with each regeneration. But no matter who plays him, the Doctor has a dark side. For instance, in “Image of the Fendahl” the usually goofy fourth Doctor hands a gun to a crazed cult member, who commits suicide. The seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) often displays sociopathic signs, manipulating his friends and ruthlessly plotting against his enemies. And when the Daleks turn up, so does the darkest side of every doctoral incarnation, from the regal third (Jon Pertwee) to the peace-loving fifth (Peter Davison). In the break between the classic series and the 2005 reboot, the Doctor’s “history” was even updated to include his attempted genocide of the Daleks.
But the Doctor’s friends straighten him out when he lapses into cruelty, serving as floodgates for his temper. In “The Runaway Bride,” the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) tells companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) he doesn’t need anyone. She responds, “You need somebody to stop you.”