When I was 13 years old, I had a crush on a boy who wore a really long multi-colored scarf to school almost every day. Naturally, when I learned that he was a fan of this weird British sci-fi show called “Doctor Who,” I watched it too. How else was I going to make him notice me?
To be honest, my father introduced me to the show first, a few years earlier – but since it was, you know, my dad, it didn’t take.
Those of us who are long-time fans of the show all have our own geeky origin stories, of how we discovered the show, how we learned to enjoy it, and how we found other people who liked the series (it took some doing, back in those days). In my town, “Doctor Who” was shown on Friday nights at 10:30 p.m. The local PBS station, KCPT, showed entire stories together, which meant that the broadcast usually ended at midnight – or later. I didn’t even know until the 1990s that “Doctor Who” was originally aired in half-hour increments on the BBC.
My little sister and I would sneak home junk food bought at our school store and stay up till all hours of the night watching the show. I eventually learned to set my VCR to record on its EP setting (lower quality, but able to put six hours of material on one tape) and would just let it run, in case the story lasted over two hours and we fell asleep. I still have some of these tapes.
I eventually discovered a Doctor Who role-playing game (yes, there was one back then) and a group of nerds like me that got together to play it – although we never got past character creation. We watched the show instead, naturally. While I was in high school I went to my first science fiction conventions to meet John Nathan-Turner, John Levene and other companions, and a Doctor or two. I wrote Mary Sue-style fan fiction (before fan fiction was a thing) about being a Doctor’s companion.
I loved all the Doctors, although the first one I watched was Peter Davison – Fifth Doctor, 1981-1984 – and he will always be “my” Doctor. As with the Beatles, I could only learn to love the older stuff when I’d experienced enough of the new that I just needed more of it, even if it was in black and white. Each Doctor was different, but each had his charms – yes, even the poetic and dark Colin Baker version. And of course, I enjoyed all the companions, each classified as a “screamer” or “non-screamer,” in various ways as well. Even Peri. But Romana the Time Lady was my favorite (both regenerations of her).
Oh, sure, the special effects were always bad. Cheesy even then, the visual effects of the classic series were a longstanding inside joke among fans (that alien was made out of green-painted bubble wrap, right?). Our Steven Moffat was John Nathan-Turner, setting the tone and trying to keep the show afloat despite everything. The BBC was always attempting to shut the show down – “Doctor Who” was like a bastard stepchild of the network and no one important really seemed to want it on the air, but they couldn’t figure out a way to stop it until 1989. Even then, the show reappeared briefly in 1996 with the Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann (I actually interviewed his companion and one of the producers of the Fox TV movie in my first job out of school).
Today’s “Doctor Who” is different. It’s an hour-long show, there’s more emotional content, the effects are WAY better, and there isn’t anyone – right now, anyway – trying to kill it off. It’s more sophisticated, and it’s more accessible to the masses. The companions get more airtime and more action than the ones of old (and being on the show doesn’t kill the actors’ careers). As the TV landscape has changed, so too the new show conforms to new mores of what’s fun and exciting today. In this way, the show is almost more conventional than it used to be. I can’t imagine the Doctor being grounded on Earth the way the Third Doctor was, or having a companion he didn’t completely trust for more than an episode (Turlough), or taking on a robot companion that could be used against him (Kamelion).
But at its heart, the new “Doctor Who” retains all of the wonder and cleverness great storytelling and whimsicality that characterizes the classic show. And I’m glad all these new fans have discovered it, because it just proves I was right about how cool the Doctor was, and always has been.
For me, the 50th anniversary is really a celebration of my lasting love for a show that helped shape my life simply by always being there for me. Nothing more, nothing less. Many of us oldsters discovered “Doctor Who” as kids and never stopped loving it, even through the years of “Firefly” and “Star Wars” and “The X-Files” and “Star Trek” iterations and “Lord of the Rings” films and ALL the Harry Potter everythings. “Doctor Who” came before – and funnily enough (to those of us who were shocked they were bringing the series back in 2005), it’s still here after all this time, and we’re introducing it to our kids. Proving that time travel is possible, since the Doctor’s adventures have spanned my entire life, and he just keeps popping up in it (sound familiar?).
The Doctor himself may be immortal, thanks to his regenerations. But “Doctor Who” as a phenomenon definitely is, and for those of us who have cared about the show since we were young, that is a heady and beautiful feeling.
Happy birthday, Doctor. Here’s to another 50 years. Allons-y!