Posted on by Scott Delahunt

In 1963, a new science-fiction television series was being shopped around in the UK. It found a home in the Children's Programming department of the British Broadcasting Corporation, an unusual spot to be sure. With the requirement that the series include educational content, Doctor Who aired. The first broadcast ran into an unavoidable problem: pre-emption due to the John F. Kennedy assassination. However, the first episode was rescheduled and aired properly.

Doctor Who ran on the BBC continuously from 1963 until 1989. BBC executives were seldom confortable with the show. One of the original directives for the series was no bug-eyed monsters. (The first season's second arc introduced the Daleks. So much for the directive.) Despite allegedly being for children, writers seldom pulled their punches. Many a young Brit watched the show from behind the couch. But, they watched.

The mythos of the series grew as the show continued. When William Hartnell, the first Doctor, grew too ill to continue, the writers introduced a mechanism to ensure that the main character could remain: regeneration. Memorable characters, from Doctors and companions to adversaries, came and went over the show's long run. Even without modern special effects such as CGI, many adversaries, including the Daleks and the Cybermen, were fierce and memorable opponents.

However, the long run could not continue. The BBC eventually pulled funding for the series in 1989. Still, books and audio plays continued to be made during the interregnum. In 1996, Fox aired a made-for-TV Doctor Who movie. The movie was not well received, mainly for making the Doctor half human. Some of the Fox movie's influence did continue, though.

In 2005, Russell T. Davies brought back Doctor Who as a regular TV series. Working through BBC Wales, the new Who introduced the Ninth Doctor and gave him a dark, dread reputation throughout Earth's history. The Doctor's new companion, Rose, had more familial ties than previous companions, but still travelled in the TARDIS, meeting historical figures and running into one of the Doctor's oldest foes. Time had changed, though. No longer was the Doctor a renegade Time Lord. Now, he was the last Time Lord, with details revealed through the 2005 season. The season began with an episodic approach, but events grew together to form the plot arc. New characters were met and became popular in their own right. One, Captain Jack Harkness, managed to not only seduce two robots and the in-universe viewing audience but seduce Doctor Who viewers as well.

The following season saw Christopher Eccleston leave to be replaced by David Tennant. Although viewers were disappointed with Eccleston's departure, Tennant proved capable of keeping their attention. Old adversaries were brought back and, with the help of modern special effects, their fearsomeness was revealed. In 2008, Russell Davies stepped down as showrunner, letting Stephen Moffat take over.  Doctor Who took a different direction but is still airing and is still popular, having produced two spin-off series (Torchwood, a darker series based on events of the second new season, and The Sarah Jane Chronicles, a lighter series aimed at a younger audience.)

Doctor Who's 2005 reboot is a definite success story. The show is being watched by fans both new and old. Like Star Trek: The Next Generation, part of its success comes from the long drought between 1989 and the return in 2005. Also helping is having a showrunner who enjoyed the earlier series and understood why it had a fan base. The reboot felt more of an update, and bringing back classic opponents of the Doctor, beginning with the Daleks, helped keep fan interest. The Doctor of the new series was an amalgamation of the previous eight, and the TARDIS kept its familiar look, at least on the outside. Inside, the TARDIS resembled its counterpart in the Fox TV movie, looking both organic and technological at the same time. Still, the key feature – being bigger on the inside than the outside – was kept. The Doctor's desire to keep the peace was contrasted by his actions in "Dalek", an episode that managed to make one of the most monstrous beings in the Doctor Who setting sympathetic. The writing team for new Who is capable and manages to keep the show fresh while still respecting what has happened before. New adversaries, such as the stone angels, were dangerous without being unstoppable except for an impossible Achilles' heel.

The new Doctor Who's main point of failure was being a relative unknown in 2005. The show wasn't seen as often in syndication, unlike the original Star Trek. The fans who did remember could very easily remember just the parts they enjoyed. The Fox TV movie was not remembered fondly, and misgivings could abound from that. Episodic storytelling had also evolved since the Doctor's first appearance; audiences expected more out of a TV show.

Fortunately, fans were willing to give the reboot a try, even if some watched to be able to complain later. Characterization, well, with each incarnation, there was always a new take on the Doctor by both the writers and actors; a case of previously established continuity working for the reboot. The writers and showrunner took care to make sure that anything from previous seasons weren't dismissed out of hand. Even the TV movie has been absorbed into canon. The storytelling reflected a more modern expectation, but still harked back to classic episodes. Once again, a creative team that cares about keeping the best of an original prevented massive problems.

The new series has had a few misteps but, overall, holds well as an example of a reboot that respects its previous incarnations. Like the Doctor himself, the new Doctor Who series regenerated. Sure, there were a few quirks, but a Doctor without quirks wouldn't be the same. The new Who shows that respecting the original series while creating new twists makes for a new series that keeps gaining fans. (And having an influential fan never hurts. What BBC executive is going to cancel Her Majesty's favourite TV show?)

Next time, prequels fifteen years later.

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  • GregT

    Hm, did not know about the pre-emption. Random thought that occurred to me though, both this and the last column reference continuity. McCoy being in the TNG transition, and here using mythos from previous seasons… is that a key element? Might be interesting to look more in depth at the movie, which flopped. Was it that they tried to change too much (half human, new TARDIS look, shift to US), alienating the old while not bringing in the new? Yet they did bring back McCoy (er, the actor this time), so was it’s failure inevitable because not enough time had passed? I wonder.

  • Scott D.

    Using prior mythos might not necessarily be an element but is definitely a sign that the showrunners care about the property. It’s something that I’m finding as I look at the successful reboots and adaptations – someone is putting an effort into making sure the existing canon is respected.
    As for the Fox movie… Other than the half-human revelation, it did work as a Doctor Who story. The TARDIS interior seems to have influenced the current set. Even the half-human element can be worked back into prior events – didn’t the Time Lords turn the Third Doctor into a human for a bit? The reaction to the Fox movie could be fans deciding that there’s a problem and then looking for it.

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