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Doctor Who at 60: The making of a time-travelling treasure

Doctor Who at 60: The making of a time-travelling treasure

As Doctor Who reaches its 60th anniversary, we look back on six decades of terrifying Daleks, Time Lord regenerations and time-travelling escapades

This year is the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who and the celebration is already in full force. With three televised specials on the way, alongside plenty of other surprises, the event is really starting to ramp up.

Trailers, comic releases, Big Finish audio productions and exciting novels are just the tip of the iceberg for what’s in store for sci-fi fans.

Doctor Who has proven to be a huge commodity for the BBC and a British icon. The Doctor and his TARDIS are held up alongside the likes of Paddington Bear, Eastenders and Winnie the Pooh. But how did the 1960s black and white show go from obscure genre piece to a national sensation?

The early years

Daleks in original Doctor Who serial"Dalekmania" gripped the nation when the terrifying, bin-like villains came to the screen for the first time

Doctor Who first began in 1963, designed by the BBC as an educational programme that would be both entertaining and enlightening for younger viewers. The time travel element was perfect for sending the Gallifreyan Time Lord through history, shining a light on important conflicts and events.

Created by Sydney Newman, C E Webber and Donald Wilson, the popularity of the show began to build, with audiences immediately drawn in by Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire’s iconic and unique opening theme.

"The time travel element was perfect for sending the Gallifreyan Time Lord through history"

Regeneration was built into the narrative of the show so that the lead actor could continue to change, and the Doctor could live on.

With seven different actors portraying the time travelling hero between 1963 and 1989, alongside two out-of-continuity movie specials featuring Peter Cushing, the height of the franchise’s viewing figures ultimately came with Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor.

Across those early 26 seasons, the show experienced high points, such as the advent of “Dalekmania”, and significant low points, partially influenced by the writing and production design. Although Doctor Who had come a long way from its mission statement, it could no longer sustain the momentum it once had.

A dormant period

Sadly, many of the episodes from that first run have been lost to time, although there is always hope that they will be recovered, as has already been the case. There’s every chance the original copies can turn up in someone’s storage.

The era left a lot of fond memories, but the show had to come to an end, after declining ratings put the nail in the coffin. The TARDIS flew off into the cosmos, with Sylvestor McCoy at the helm.

The dormant years were sporadically filled with spin-off materials and the odd audio drama, but for Doctor Who fans the period between 1989 and 2005 was a wasteland.

1996 television film

The only hope was a television film in 1996, which saw McCoy regenerate into Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann.

With a Hollywood tone and larger budget, somehow the movie just didn’t capture the magic of the series and failed to transform The Doctor into an action hero on a cinematic scale. The concept had seemingly run out of chances.

Reboot success

Jodie Whitaker as Doctor Who, courtesy of BBCCourtesy of the BBC. Jodie Whitaker made history as the first woman to play Doctor Who

Nostalgia is a funny thing and luckily for Doctor Who, there were plenty of talented people who loved the show when they were younger and wanted to bring it back in some form. Enter Russell T Davies, whose CV is spectacular and who truly understood the character of The Doctor.

In 2005 the show rebooted, keeping the continuity of the original run, but launching so a new generation could enjoy it free of the burden of previous seasons.

"Classic villains were combined with new creations, acting as the perfect bridge between old fans and new"

Christopher Ecclestone took to the TARDIS alongside Billie Piper, and suddenly the fresh coat of paint led to a renewed sense of relevancy. Angled as a Saturday night event-watch, the sci-fi series leaned into its genre tropes, but didn’t shy away from important topic matters, from environmentalism to diplomacy.

Classic villains were combined with new creations, acting as the perfect bridge between old fans and new.

The incoming Tenth Doctor in David Tennant catapulted the show to further success, and it has been a juggernaut ever since. Each successive actor brought something new to the role, with the latest iteration, Jodie Whittaker, breaking down barriers and once again welcoming a new generation of viewers.

Disney+ surge

Ncuti Gatwa as new Doctor Who, courtesy of the BBCCourtesy of the BBC. Sex Education’s Ncuti Gatwa joins Doctor Who this year as The Doctor

Although the viewership might have been on a slight decline in recent years, the message is clear. Doctor Who has managed to sustain itself as a show that can be constantly reinvented, but still pays homage to its rich history. That’s the kind of franchise huge studios are looking for.

With the return of Russell T Davies, who ushered in that reboot, the sky is seemingly the limit. And now, Disney+ are on board, bankrolling the show to an even more cinematic visual style and ensuring it has a place on its streaming service alongside BBC iPlayer.

"With the return of Russell T Davies, who ushered in that reboot, the sky is seemingly the limit"

For those looking to enjoy the anniversary celebrations, it’s important to note that fan favourites such as David Tennant and Catherine Tate are returning to their roles, while newcomers such as How I Met Your Mother’s Neil Patrick Harris, Heartstopper’s Yasmin Finney and Frozen’s Jonathan Groff are joining the team.

With Sex Education’s Ncuti Gatwa and Coronation Street alumni Millie Gibson looking to pick up the reins from there (as the new Doctor and companion respectively), Doctor Who is in for a bright future.

No better time to join The Doctor

The premise has come a long way since those early years and has become a hotpot of different narrative tropes, legacy characters and large-scale spectacle. Somehow, Doctor Who can be anything, from a swashbuckling pirate adventure to a James Bond spoof.

Its charm, wittiness and heart is still the core of the show to this day and for those who are yet to dip their toes into the waters, there’s no better time!

Banner: Courtesy of the BBC

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