Reviews / Television

“I never forget a face”: Doctor Who Turns Fifty

Dr. Who Turns 50

*Spoilers, Sweetie!  This entry contains spoilers for the episode “The Day of the Doctor.”

By: Casey Wilson

On November 23rd, the British science-fiction series Doctor Who celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a special episode meant to celebrate the series’ past and future. Although the show’s run has not been without its interruptions – it had been off the air for many years before its revival in 2005 – the anniversary still marks a significant milestone for the show and its viewers. The Doctor has been saving us now for fifty years, and although he might wear many faces, he has but one mission: to help the people (and aliens) he encounters as best he can.

At the center of Doctor Who is The Doctor, an alien time-traveler who has taken a special interest in Earth. His spaceship/time machine is called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) and is shaped like an old blue police phone box; it makes an exhausted wheezing sound upon takeoff and landing, a sound as integral to the show as the sight of the blue box itself. Most of the time, the Doctor travels with a “companion” – often a young woman, though there have been many variants across the years.

The most important bit of the show’s mythology – and indeed, the key to the show’s longevity – is the Doctor’s ability to “regenerate.” As a Time Lord, the Doctor’s life isn’t over when he ‘dies.’ Instead, he regenerates, a dodgy process that changes every cell in his body. The core character of the Doctor is the same across regenerations, but his personality quirks, style, and looks change each time. This allows the role to be recast on a regular basis, whenever an actor gets bored or decides it’s time to move on, and gives fans the chance to argue over who is the best Doctor.

For the uninitiated, being faced with fifty years of Doctor Who can seem overwhelming. Even if one attempts to start at the very beginning, with the episode that aired on November 23, 1963, there’s no easy path ahead. The show’s early years were marked by the lowest of budgets and the wobbliest of sets; entire arcs and episodes are missing entirely, much to the chagrin of completionists. Common sentiment often encourages new viewers to jump in with the 2005 relaunch – as I did – or with the introduction of a new actor in the lead role, but there are pros and cons no matter where you begin. Fifty years of history is a lot to sift through, when you’re fresh to the series.

And yet, it is the weight of the show’s history that makes engagement with the series so worthwhile. In fact, I would argue that the current run of the show is so effective precisely because it’s been part of British cultural history for so long. (The show has gained immense popularity here in the States of late, and has even filmed some episodes here, but there’s no denying: it’s still utterly British.) Even before the 50th Anniversary Special, the series has seen return visits from the Doctor’s oldest enemies and greatest friends: John Simm brought new life to The Master, the Doctor’s Time Lord antagonist; the late Elisabeth Sladen reprised her role from the 1970s as Sarah Jane Smith under the Tenth Doctor before heading up her own spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures; the Cybermen and the Daleks continue to stir up trouble for our hero.

The subtleties of these references and reappearances may often slip by young and/or new viewers, but their impact remains. In the series six episode “The Wedding of River Song,” for example, the Doctor is driven by a need to outrun the fate he knows is waiting for him. Rather than face the prospect of his death head-on, he has been seeking out old friends and saying farewell. As he grows ever more desperate, he places a phone call to 
an old friend from the show’s original run: Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. It is through this phone call that he learns of the Brigadier’s death, a moment that parallels the actor’s 
death shortly prior. Being faced with the news halts the Doctor in his tracks, and sobers him long enough to realize that he can’t escape his future. (Though he can, it turns out, outsmart it.)

I cannot speak to what that moment meant to those familiar with the Brigadier, those who had grown up watching his character interact with the Doctor. That experience does not match my own; the only knowledge I have of the Brigadier is from the Doctor’s occasional in-show references and the respect and admiration fans carry for the character in their online discussions. But in the moment, it didn’t much matter. I teared up as the realization crossed the Doctor’s face, less out my own connection to the character than the recognition that the moment meant something to the community of fans at large.

That’s part of why there had been so much controversy in the months leading up to the 50th Anniversary Special (called “The Day of the Doctor”). It had been announced that only the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors would appear, and fans were dismayed at the prospect that the earlier actors were being left out in the cold. It felt like a betrayal of history, on a show where history is all that matters. Of course, the reality was not as simple as all that. Many of the early Doctors appeared in a humorous online special; all of the versions of the Doctor were featured via archival footage and body doubles in the
 episode itself. The show’s history was not forgotten, even if its recent history was given more attention.

In perhaps the most moving scene in “The Day of the Doctor,” Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor is joined on screen by Tom Baker, the actor who played the iconic Fourth Doctor. Although Baker’s character is presented as the curator of a museum, the show hints at the idea that someday in the future, the Doctor might return to some of his previous faces – but just the “old favorites” – and that this curator might indeed be an older version of the Doctor himself. Baker’s appearance is not significant for nostalgia alone, however, as his character’s conversation with the Doctor ultimately opens up a new path for the character (and, by extension, the show) to pursue in the future.

Tom Baker and Matt Smith in “The Day of the Doctor”

Baker’s scene is the perfect example of the show’s indebtedness to its past. I watched the episode (for the third time) in a movie theater, and the older fans in the audience gasped with excitement upon hearing Baker’s voice alone. Stories abound online about kids watching the episode with their parents, and the parents being unable to contain their own excitement on having “their” Doctor back onscreen. On another series, the moment might have been a cutesy little wink at the audience; on Who, it’s the very foundation of the show.

Past, present, and future interweave on Doctor Who in nearly every episode. It’s a show about time-travel, after all. And yes, sometimes (often) the show gets bogged down in its own cleverness as it bounces around from era to era. But when it gets it right – and “The Day of the Doctor” mostly did – it can be an amazing example of the value in passing a cultural artifact down hand-by-hand from parent to child, generation to generation. The show belongs just as much to the grown ups who used to watch it from behind the sofa in the 1960s as it does to the kids who will watch it for the first time this Christmas. The Doctor’s face may have changed, the budget may have increased, and the interior of the TARDIS may look entirely different, but the show remains.

There’s a reason that one of the first questions fans ask each other is “Which Doctor is your Doctor?” – it’s because your answer helps situate you at a particular moment in the show’s history. It gives you a place to belong in the midst of the overwhelming cultural history of the series, a way to position yourself in relationship to fifty years of television (and books and radio plays and games). Ultimately, though, I think that the answers are all the same. The Doctor is the Doctor, no matter which one you claim as your own. He’s a point of relative stability in a world where your present can change your past and the future is ripe with possibilities. You may not recognize his face, but you recognize him, and that’s enough.

So happy 50th birthday to Doctor Who. May your history continue to unite viewers across generations for years to come.

Casey Wilson is a PhD candidate at the University of Florida.


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