When I was a kid, Doctor Who was not cool. Nor was I — I grew up a nerd in '80s and '90s Britain, derided for my interest in computers, my side-parting, my big glasses, and for watching Doctor Who and Star Trek.
Hey, those things are all cool now. It's a funny old world. Anyway, this little trip down memory lane is prompted by the fact that today, March 26, marks the 15th anniversary of a day many thought would never happen: the return of a certain much-loved but long-departed British sci-fi series to TV screens.
Beginning in 1963, the classic BBC series Doctor Who spotlighted a time-traveler who saved the day armed only with his wits and his wit. After 26 seasons, competition from big-budget US rivals made the cardboard sets and "charming" effects look old hat, while science fiction in general fell out of favor in the school playground. Shunted from its flagship position at Saturday teatime, the show finally fizzled out in 1989, leaving 9-year-old me bereft.
But 15 years later, Doctor Who roared back to the forefront of British telly, revived by Queer as Folk writer Russell T. Davies, and Julie Gardner, head of drama at BBC Cymru Wales. The first episode, Rose, was broadcast on Saturday, March 26, 2005, and introduced a new generation of kids to a new Doctor and a new companion, played by feted actor Christopher Eccleston and one-time pop star Billie Piper.
The show was an instant hit — 10 million people watched Rose, with at least 6 or 7 million tuning in each week as the series progressed, even when they could watch it any time on iPlayer. Here's 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi remembering that triumphant return, having loved the show as a child:
We've since enjoyed 12 seasons traveling the universe in the Tardis, as well as numerous specials and Christmas episodes. Not only is Doctor Who once again popular among British fans, but the internet and BBC America have welcomed an international community of fans of all ages. When the series celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013, special episode The Day of the Doctor packed cinemas and was broadcast to 94 countries.
Following the revival of the show, Christopher Eccleston bowed out after one season. He was replaced by David Tennant, who was then succeeded by Matt Smith when Steven Moffat stepped into Russell T. Davies' showrunner role in 2010. Chris Chibnall took over in 2018 and cast Jodie Whittaker in the lead role, the first woman to play the Doctor.
Such is the excitement still surrounding the show, the announcement of each new Doctor is broadcast as a prime-time TV event in itself. And such is the esteem in which the show is held. Guest stars have included Dame Diana Rigg, Timothy Dalton, Sir Derek Jacobi, John Simm, Maisie Williams, Lenny Henry, Sir Michael Gambon, James Corden, Sir Ian McKellen, Simon Pegg and Kylie Minogue.
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As a kid, I got to enjoy two seasons of the original Doctor Who before it disappeared in 1989, apparently for good. The seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, was maligned at the time, but those two seasons stand up for their really interesting, nuanced and darker storylines.
Those episodes — and the spin-off novels which, in the '90s, were the only original "Who" available — sowed many seeds for the new series: a darker tone, ongoing story arcs and character arcs for the companions. Several writers on the revived series wrote novels during these wilderness years, including Gareth Roberts, Russell Davies himself, and — in his first published work — Mark Gatiss.
There was a brief glimmer of hope in 1996 when the Beeb teamed up with US backers for a TV movie starring Paul McGann, but sadly it was not to last. Laudably, the TV movie tied in to the classic series, but didn't quite nail the story. In hindsight, however, the TV movie also anticipated the new series in many ways: the standalone episode format, the frenetic pace — and the snogging. McGann made an engaging Time Lord, and certainly deserved the proper regeneration he was belatedly granted in an online short heralding the 50th anniversary.
When Doctor Who returned, Russell T Davies deftly combined these various modern elements with a return to the show's roots as an entertaining show for kids of all ages. Continuity was sidelined in favor of pacy action, witty dialogue and much-loved monsters back to scare a new generation, alongside companions we could all identify with.
'You were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic'
The revived series has thrown up so many great moments, from Eccleston's first "Fantastic!" to his ninth Doctor's showdown with the last Dalek in the universe, to his promise "Rose — I'm coming to get you!" Tennant's highlights range from the first time his 10th Doctor yelled "Allons-y" to the time he fell in love with Madame de Pompadour, to the time he became heartbreakingly human, to his tearful goodbye to Rose on a desolate beach.
Smith's 11th Doctor burst onto the scene dipping fish fingers in custard, wooing River Song and defeating Daleks with jammy dodgers. He saved the day wearing a fez and saw off alien hordes left, right and center, from his "silly little guns" Stonehenge speech to his final farewell on the fields of Trenzalore.
The series was then sensationally turned on its head by the bombshell of John Hurt revealed as a previously unseen Doctor, while fans around the globe squee-ed when Peter Capaldi's eyebrows arrived in the Tardis. When he wasn't fighting Robin Hood with a spoon or playing guitar on a tank, the 12th Doctor went to some intense places including a show-stopping speech about war and forgiveness. Today, the Tardis is piloted by Jodie Whittaker's hopeful 13th Doctor, last seen discovering a shocking mystery about her own origins.
From "Are you my mummy?" to "bow ties are cool," these renewed years of timey-wimey adventures have been quite a ride. In a lifetime of cinema-going, I've never felt an entire movie theater ripple with such emotion as when a certain face from the past sauntered on screen to bring the curtain down on the show's first 50 years.
I was 25 when the Doctor returned, just like he always does, and a long way from the 9-year-old who had loved the show and thought it lost. I could have felt like I'd missed out, except the revived show was too exciting, too compelling and just too much fun. Best of all, I got to see my nephew and a whole new generation discover the magic of the show.
So here's to another 15 — heck, another 50 — years of Doctor Who, the TV show that's always been bigger on the inside.