Who’s Better, Who’s Best. The Rise, Fall And Rise Of Doctor Who

It’s typical isn’t it. You wait five decades for the anniversary of a fictional British hero and then two come along at once!

Much has been made of 2012’s fiftieth anniversary of James Bond’s film debut, with Skyfall hailed by many as the best Bond film to date. But 2013 sees the fiftieth anniversary of another of our home-grown heroes, and one for whom James Bond’s many death-defying escapades would probably seem like a walk in the park; resolved with the simple application of a sonic screwdriver. That Doctor Who has survived –and now positively flourishes – for fifty years is fitting testimony to the enduring popularity of one of British television’s most iconic characters.

On Saturday 23rd November 1963 at a quarter past five, British viewers were introduced to a family-oriented drama serial whose remit was intended to be educational; the exploration of significant historic events as interpreted through the eyes of a mysterious and vastly intelligent humanoid alien known only as ‘The Doctor’. Little did the original creators Cecil Webber, Sydney Newman and Donald Wilson know that they were about to create television history themselves.

Such was the instant appeal of Doctor Who among children and adults alike that the show returned in one format or another (either as serial stories or feature-length episodes) for the next twenty-six years. However, despite attaining cult status, Doctor Who’s popularity began to wane in the late 1980s,  and was not helped by a perceived lack of investment by the BBC, the postponement of the showing of the 23rd series in 1985 and a scheduling change which saw the good Doctor battling a virtually unassailable foe in the form of ITV’s Coronation Street. The series was axed (or ‘suspended’, to use the BBC’s euphemism) in 1989. Prophetically, the last story for Sylvester McCoy’s seventh incarnation of the Doctor was titled ‘Survival’.

One lifelong fan didn’t give up on Doctor Who. Celebrated writer Russell T. Davies, responsible for acclaimed TV dramas such as Casanova and Queer as Folk, lobbied the BBC throughout the 1990s to bring back the Time Lord. In 2003, following the resolution of rights issues arising from an ill-fated TV movie starring Paul McGann as the Doctor, Russell T. Davies got his wish and was commissioned by the BBC to produce and partially write a thirteen-episode series intended to resurrect and rehabilitate Doctor Who. The agreement was conditional: the new Doctor Who demanded increased production budgets, shooting on film as opposed to videotape and a doubling of standard episode-length from twenty-five to fifty minutes.

The involvement of Russell T. Davies proved to be an epiphany for Doctor Who when his TARDIS landed back on our screens in 2005. Strong casting, engaging stories that combined excitement, scares, humanity and humour in equal measure, an obvious respect for Doctor Who’s history and a return to prime time Saturday night scheduling all contributed to the runaway success of the regenerated Doctor. Today, with two more regenerations under his belt, Doctor Who is once again riding high in the popularity stakes worldwide, each adventure followed avidly and in some cases recorded and watched repeatedly on TV catch up and digital TV boxes like youview, by eager fans in fifty countries around the world. And since the Doctor appears to be immortal, here’s hoping that he’ll be protecting us all from the Daleks, Cybermen, the Master and the Weeping Angels for another fifty years at least.

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John is a feature writer from the UK