Since it began in 1963, Doctor Who has delighted audiences with its fun and exciting storylines. The series follows a time travelling alien journeying through space and time with his human companions. Throughout its original run and again in its re-launch, the series has seen a number of changes to its format and casting, most notably with the Doctor himself. Doctor Who was a massive success when it originally aired and since its revival in 2005 it has brought in huge audience numbers. Whilst Doctor Who (post-2005) is a continuation of the original series and not a remake of what had already been done, it is important that we distinguish between the two series as separate entities as well as one series as a whole. I will be discussing Doctor Who from its 1963-1989 run as well as the series from 2005 to the present day. As I examine the similarities and differences between the two series, I will see how these changes have affected the audience of the programme. I am going to compare the opening episode from 1963 with the opening episode of the re-launch in 2005 along with various other episodes, exploring their social and cultural context.
On November 23rd 1963 the first episode of Doctor Who, ‘An Unearthly Child’, aired on the BBC. The programme begins in a similar fashion to that of Dixon of Dock Green (1955), with a policeman walking towards the camera and searching around the outside of an old junk yard. Inside the junk yard we see an old police box outside of its familiar locations on the main streets. Despite its resemblance to a popular crime drama of the time, the programme soon shifts to a school setting, establishing a ‘normal’ environment with children and teachers walking around the familiar school setting. As an audience we can assume that this ‘normality’ is soon going to be disturbed. This is soon confirmed when two of the schools teachers are discussing one particular pupil, Susan Foreman, who appears to “know more science that I’ll ever know” according to one of the teachers, Ian Chesterton. With the teachers unable to explain Susan’s odd behaviour and their concern and interest over her personal life, they go to her registered home address only to come across the junk yard seen within the opening sequence of the episode. This leads to their discovery of Susan and her grandfather and soon become involved with the duo. During ‘An Unearthly Child’ it takes almost twelve minutes before the lead character of the Doctor is first introduced to the audience. By doing so, the audience is able to build up the excitement and suspense surrounding the Doctor and the mysteries involving the previously seen police box and Susan.
Before the 1960s, space travel seemed like a distant dream and something that belonged simply to science fiction. However, in the 1960s space travel soon became possible with the ‘Space Race’, occurring between America and the Soviet Union, with both parties attempting to explore space on a faster and bigger level than the other. Two years previous to the start of Doctor Who, the Soviet Union were the first to achieve sending a man in to space in 1961. The US President, John F. Kennedy stated that America would be the first to send a team in to space and land on the moon before the decade was over. Although America would later achieve this in 1969, President Kennedy was assassinated on 22nd November 1963, the day before Doctor Who first aired in the United Kingdom. It was during this time the 1960s that science fiction became less than just fiction and became real life and possible. Science fiction novels, television programmes and films were increasing in popularity with films such as The Time Machine (1960) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) being released as well as the start of the hugely successful sci-fi television series Star Trek (1966).
The early episodes of Doctor Who heavily referenced the popular culture of the 1960s. The Doctor’s grand-daughter, Susan, “resembles one of the teenage ‘pop’ star products of that culture, Helen Shapiro” (Tulluch & Alvarado, 1983. P25) By heavily incorporating popular and youth culture, the writers have tried to include a larger audience. Doctor Who could be compared to the other popular British fictional hero of the time, James Bond. James Bond was first adapted to film, Dr No (1962), a year before Doctor Who first aired, therefore giving similarities between the two franchises and their nods to the 1960s culture.
Having been off screen for sixteen years, in 2005 the BBC felt that it was time to bring back Doctor Who. The revival would see British actor Christopher Eccleston take on the role of the infamous Doctor in his ninth incarnation. The ‘new’ series would not simply be a continuation from the ‘old’ series but almost a different programme altogether. Chapman believes that “the series was able to reinvent itself for the vastly different cultural conditions of the early twenty-first century” and was able to do so because it “was produced, and promoted, as a new series in its own right” (Chapman, 2006. P184) It is with this in mind that we can make comparisons between the old and new series, seeing how the revival may have been influenced and inspired by the original series.
Similarly to ‘An Unearthly Child’, the opening episode to the 2005 revival of Doctor Who, ‘Rose’ opens with a sequence setting up the introduction of the Doctor’s soon to be assistant, Rose Tyler. The sequence follows Rose as she leads her life; going to work, spending time with her boyfriend and living with her mother. Once again the sequence showing how ‘normal’, and ultimately boring, Rose’s life is emphasises and foreshadows that something out-of-the-ordinary is going to happen. This is soon established when Rose is targeted by the ‘living plastic’, or the mannequins from the department store where she works. As if out of nowhere, the Doctor comes to Rose’s rescue and orders her to leave the building, then outside Rose sees the department store blow up. The Doctor is introduced much earlier than he was in ‘An Unearthly Child’, appearing on screen after just five minutes. This could be due to the fact that audiences are aware of the Doctor – both in terms of his character, as known by old fans of the series, as well as who he was being portrayed by due to the media attention surrounding the new series. The following day Rose once again comes across the Doctor and orders him to tell her who he is and why the mannequins attacked her the night before. Unlike ‘An Unearthly Child’, the Doctor’s main assistant is unrelated to him and is more similar to the several other companions that Doctor had over the course of the original run of the series.
In the modern day, there is a much darker view of mankind than there has been previously. The world today is engrossed with fears of ‘Carbon Footprints’ and damaging the earth that we live on. There are concerns that mankind itself is damaging the earth by using cars, too much electricity and generally polluting the planet. This has led to people questioning whether this will damage the earth enough to destroy it. Several films and television programme episodes have been made to outline these worries such as WALL-E (2008), Children of Men (2006) and I Am Legend (2007). These films all show worlds in which there are not many human survivors and suggest that this has happened due to mankind. In Doctor Who these concerns are outlined by Donna (Catherine Tate) in ‘Planet of the Ood’. When she learns that she and the Doctor have travelled to the year 4126, Donna exclaims; “4126? It’s 4126? I’m in 4126? What’s the earth like now?” to which the Doctor (here in his tenth incarnation, portrayed by David Tennant) simply replies, “A bit full… but you see the empire stretches out across four galaxies.” Donna then says, “It’s weird, I mean it’s brilliant, but, back home, the papers and the tele, they keep saying that we haven’t got long to live. Global warming, flooding, all the bees disappearing, but look at us. We’re everywhere!” Here Doctor Who is suggesting that the planet and the universe will still exist in more than 2000 years time, it will just be ‘a bit full’. The writers and programme are almost suggesting that there is no need to be concerned with how we are living our lives on earth and perhaps attempting to calm the audience and the public from such fears.
The growing advances in genetic modification and cloning have also become real life fears for the world today. Similarly to dystopia themes, the theme of cloning has been explored in recent literature as well as in Doctor Who. Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro tells the story of three students who have been cloned in order to provide their organs for transplants, however they are not aware of the reason behind their existence. In ‘Planet of the Ood’, the Doctor and Donna visit the Ood-Sphere and explore the company Ood Operations as they are selling the Ood for slavery. It comes to their attention that the Ood are turning against their creators to stop doing what they were created for, serving. This is also explored in My Sister’s Keeper (2009) in which the lead character, Anna is seeking medical emancipation from her parents for the rights to her own body. Anna’s parents discovered that their elder daughter, Kate had leukaemia so they conceived Anna through in vitro fertilisation in order to become a donor for her sister. The film (and original novel by Jodi Picoult) explores Anna’s determination to defy her parents to stop her being used as a donor for Kate. Likewise, in Doctor Who thousands of Oods are created to obey and serve humans. The Oods begin to defy the humans they are serving with their instinct to kill the humans. Throughout the episode we learn that the Ood have not simply been created in order to serve but they have been modified by removing their brains.
Whilst there are huge differences between Doctor Who’s original run and the new episodes of the last six years, it is clear that the recent episodes have paid homage to the previous series. There are several factors that have been kept very similar to the original. Most notably, the theme music of the series has remained relatively the same, although it has been slightly modified and updated. The theme is just as iconic as the title character, being instantly recognisable to both existing fans and to those who may not have even seen the programme. By keeping the theme music almost the same, it adds familiarity to a programme that has been off air for a number of years. Tulloch and Avarado suggest that theme music “pronounces that the programme remains stable and the same” (p. 18) By keeping a small, yet important, factor the same in the revival of the series, Doctor Who is not only paying homage to what has come before it by allowing a sense of connection to the previous work despite the numerous changes that have been made. It is factors like this that have helped maintained the show’s popularity throughout the years it has been on.
One consistent change throughout both the original series and the new series is the changing appearance of the Doctor. The Doctor allegedly has thirteen lives and in the present day, he is in his eleventh incarnation. With each new Doctor there have been several distinct differences between each personality. The original Doctor, portrayed by William Hartnell, was almost rude, arrogant and a bit of a know-it-all character in the opening episode. When we compare this to the Doctor in the opening episode of the revival series, portrayed by Christopher Eccleston, he is more sarcastic and funny and often needs assistance from Rose, his new companion, for example when she realises that the London Eye is the transmitter needed to stop the ‘living plastic’. Eccleston “brings a greater emotional intensity to the role than any of his predecessors” (Chapman, 2006. P190) making him a much more likable Doctor to the one seen in ‘An Unearthly Child’. In both episodes we are not told who the Doctor is right away, although in ‘Rose’ the audience has a more cultural understanding of the character through the media coverage surrounding the series. In both episodes, the question “Doctor Who/Doctor What?” is asked when trying to discover who the Doctor is. Although there is some explanation in both episodes as to who the Doctor is, his story is not told right away, it is something that is to be discovered throughout the remainder of the series.
On April 23rd 2011, Doctor Who’s sixth series since its return began on BBC One. Starring Matt Smith as the Doctor in his eleventh incarnation, the series opener, ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ was seen by a staggering 8.86 million viewers. The viewing figures achieved by Doctor Who emphasises the importance and relevance of the programme in modern day Britain but also the gives us opportunity to think about the varying ways in which technology has improved and altered audiences viewing habits. Speaking about the large number of viewers, Dan McGolpin who is Head of Planning and Scheduling for BBC One says, “Once you take in to account catch-up viewing, the total audience for episode one is around 9 million… BBC iPlayer figures will take this even higher- last year’s opening episode was the most watched show on its platform, being streamed over 2.2 million times.” Doctor Who is much more accessible today than it was when it had its original run. Due to technology, the television record and online catch-up services available allow people to view television whenever they wish. This kind of viewing makes the series available to a wider audience and therefore can increase its popularity. When Doctor Who began in 1963 there were simply only two television channels to choose from, whereas today there are hundreds of channels, some dedicated to specific themes and topics meaning that gaining a large audience for one programme, albeit on one of the main television channels available, is a huge accomplishment.
The outstanding audience figures are likely to stem from its wide ranging audience members as both children and adults alike watch and enjoy the series. “The series boasts a wide following, with audience members aging from young children to adults. Doctor Who enjoys a fairly unique audience demographic, boasting as it does a core audience of 30–45-year-old fans who watched the original series when they were young, as well as a large number of children who have discovered the programme during the 2005 re-launch.” (Perryman, 2008. P36) Due to its nature, Doctor Who is able to target audiences of a variety of age ranges with each taking something different from the programme. However, recent reports suggest that the latest episodes of the sixth series have come under criticism for being too scary and too complex for the children in the audience. A recent blog post on The Guardian website has one contributor suggesting that “the writers seem too intent on proving how clever they are through too much complexity and too many cheap shocks”. Despite this, a second contributor argues that “if it’s too scary, a child can leave the room, or turn off the TV, or hide behind the sofa, like an older generation did when the Daleks rolled on to the screen.” This suggests that Doctor Who has always been about installing fear into its audience. It could be argued that perhaps the latest episodes are deemed more frightening as minor shocks are not enough to scare modern day children.
It is through the recent advances in technology which, since its revival in 2005, allows fans of the show to now share their experiences of the programme together all across the world. We can argue that the show may not be simply watched today, it is instead lived. Today avid fans and audience members eat, sleep and breathe Doctor Who and will spend endless hours discussing recent plotlines and theories on dedicated website forums and message boards. It is this kind of interaction that allows the show to grow in popularity, giving fans to opportunity to marvel in the shows stories, giving their opinions and hopes on what will happen next.
The series, since it was brought back in 2005, has become more than just a television programme and has spawned two spin-off series, Torchwood (2006) and The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007) as well as the behind the scenes documentary, Doctor Who Confidential (2005). Once again, these spin-off series allow for fans to enjoy the programme on a deeper level, finding out how the episodes are made and seeing their favourite secondary characters on their own adventures. The Sarah Jane Adventures was “designed to appeal exclusively to children” (Perryman, 2008. P36) on the children’s BBC channel CBBC and allowed for children to become even more involved with the series, added to that the endless amount of merchandise available for children such as magazines, stationery and toys. Torchwood, however, was “aimed squarely at adults” and was aired on BBC3 at night. However, Torchwood came under fire as it followed one of the series favourite supporting characters, Captain Jack Harkness but was not appropriate for children to watch. The series is much scarier than Doctor Who and features sex and swearing. The programme has come under criticism due to the fact that the series is “publicised via a Radio Times cover, large-scale advertisements on public transport and, more importantly, pre-watershed trailers.” (Perryman, 2008. P36)
The development in technology has also allowed for an improvement in the special effects in more recent Doctor Who episodes. During its original run the Doctor Who sets, costumes and stunts were extraordinary but in comparison to its later episodes, these factors often look cheap and sometimes humorous. With these technological advances, it could be argued that the programme has been able to go much further in terms of storylines due to the advances in technology. It could also be suggested that the technological advances between the first series’ end in 1989 and the revival in 2005, such as internet and mobile phones, has led to an advance in what could be used for modern day advances in technology as well as advances in the distant future. For example, in ‘Rose’ the use of mobile phones and the internet is the ‘norm’ much like it is to the audience members watching, but there are also huge advances in the technology used by the Doctor. In comparison we could look at Blade Runner (1982) which takes place in Los Angeles 2019. Not only has technology advanced enough to create human clones known as ‘replicants’ but the film also features flying cars. Today we are eight years away from the year in which Blade Runner is set however we have not seen such a huge wave in technological advances to allow us to create human clones or flying cars.
By comparing the first episode of Doctor Who, ‘An Unearthly Child’ with numerous post 2005 episodes of the series, it is clear that while several factors may remain the same, for example the regeneration of the Doctor, the theme music and the format of the programme, the revival series is very different from the original. Since 2005 the programme has established itself as a separate television series, gaining new fans and followers thanks to the changes in television viewing and to technological advances. In gaining such mass audience figures the new series of Doctor Who is arguably much more successful that the original series, given to the fact that audiences have a much larger range of choice given to them in the modern day. Having been such a major part of television from 1963 – 1989, the recent series Doctor Who has ensured that this is still the case in modern day Britain.