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Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)

Recently regenerated time-travelling adventures

Main image of Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)

The science fiction adventure series Doctor Who (BBC, 1963 - 89) has created a phenomenon unlike any other British TV programme. Despite having been off the air for 15 years, the adventures of the mysterious time travelling Doctor and his equally fantastic time and space machine the TARDIS - bigger inside than out and shaped like a 1950s Police box - continue to attract a loyal following.

The longevity of Doctor Who is partly due to the flexibility of its format. The TARDIS can travel anywhere in time and space, offering a huge potential for stories, while the show's ability to change its lead actor meant that it was possible to adapt its style to changing viewer tastes. For example, the Doctor, as first played by the ageing character actor William Hartnell (1963-66), would have been too paternalistic for later viewers, despite displaying the impeccable anti-establishment credentials that were central to the character throughout the show's run.

The programme was an immediate hit, quickly spawning a range of toys, board games and even wallpaper. However, Hartnell's increasingly ill-tempered behaviour and infirmity presented the BBC with a problem, one which was overcome with a stroke of genius: keep the show running with a different actor in the central role. The Doctor's ability to regenerate - swap bodies - saved the show, and from 1966 to 1969 the more youthful Patrick Troughton took control of the TARDIS, followed by the dandified and athletic Jon Pertwee (1970-74).

An integral element of the format was the use of travelling companions, ordinary people caught up in the Doctor's adventures. This provided the writers with characters who could ask questions on behalf of the audience, although the need to have them endlessly query what was going on often rendered them two-dimensional.

No history of Doctor Who would be complete without a mention of the Daleks, a race of militaristic machine creatures whose metallic cry of "Exterminate" has passed into popular usage. Their regular encounters with the Doctor were a guaranteed ratings boost, although other alien races such as the Cybermen also proved popular.

The show reached its peak during Tom Baker's early portrayal of the Doctor (1974-81), an era dripping with gothic imagery. However, growing concerns about violence resulted in a lightening of tone and the start of an erratic decline in both popularity and quality that finally culminated in the series' cancellation in 1989.

Anthony Clark

*This programme is the subject of a BFI TV Classics book by Kim Newman.

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)

Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)

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Thumbnail image of Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (1975)

Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (1975)

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Thumbnail image of Doctor Who: The Green Death (1973)

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