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'Doctor Who' looks back, forward on 50th anniversary

Published November 21, 2013 6:30 pm

Television • That's appropriate for a time-traveling pop-culture icon.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As "Doctor Who" heads into its second half-century, the worldwide television phenomenon looks back to its beginnings.

It's a heck of a ride at both ends.

"Doctor Who" is a worldwide phenomenon that's telecast in 206 countries. New episodes are seen by 77 million people across the globe.

But explaining the series to the uninitiated isn't easy.

"It's a show about a man who's over 1,000, who travels around the universe in a blue box, which is bigger on the inside than the outside," said Matt Smith, the 11th and current Doctor Who. "He can go anywhere in time and space, back in time, forward in time. Picks up a load of hot chicks, takes them around the world, around the universe."

If you want to get a bit more technical about it, Doctor Who is from the planet Gallifrey and is the last of the Time Lords. He travels in the TARDIS, a vintage blue police box that conceals a time machine. He battles evil "armed only with his incredible intelligence, optimism and a sonic screwdriver," said BBC America's senior vice president of programming Richard De Croce.

"It's a show about hope, about adventure, about excitement," said producer Marcus Wilson.

Got that?

You may have run across reruns of the original series, which ran from 1963-89. And, by today's standards, the special effects were, well, cheesy.

But "Doctor Who" is also a television pioneer. It debuted in 1963 on the BBC with pretty much everything going against it — a science-fiction series for kids produced by a first-time, woman producer (when women weren't producers), the only Indian director working for the BBC, and a reluctant, cranky star.

The thoroughly fascinating story of how "Doctor Who" got off the ground is recounted in the TV movie "An Adventure in Space and Time." The show almost never got on the air; it almost died a quick death. The first actor to play Doctor Who, William Hartnell, took the job with great misgivings.

"I could understand Hartnell's reluctance initially when he met [producer] Verity Lambert and [director] Waris [Hussein], because he just saw a couple of kids with a crazy kids' idea," said David Bradley ("Game of Thrones," "Harry Potter"), who plays Hartnell. "I mean, it's easy to look back now and just imagine it arrived fully formed. But, of course, television is never like that. And this had more problems than most, I suspect."

The head of the BBC hated it and wanted it killed. He was convinced otherwise when the ratings came in a great deal higher than anyone expected.

Director Terry McDonough said "Adventure" was made on a tight budget in only 20 days. But you'd never know from what you see onscreen.

"We pulled in favors left, right and center," McDonough said. "And then we found that a lot of the favors seemed to come from people who were just big fans of the show, and it was part of their childhood as well."

"Adventure" feels like an old Hollywood movie in which the kids put on a show. Only in this case, it really happened.

It's not all sweetness and light. Hartnell wasn't always the nicest of guys, and his declining health and failing memory forced him out of a role he came to love.

("Doctor Who" fans will want to make sure they watch all of "Adventure." There's a moment at the end that will make you gasp and, perhaps, bring a tear to your eye.)

The happy ending is that what Lambert, Hussein, Hartnell & Co. created ran for 26 years and then was revived in 2005 as a big-budget show aimed more at adults, with the kind of special effects the original series could only dream of.

"There's a huge legacy in the history of the show," said producer Marcus Wilson.

And Hartnell's forced retirement created the concept of regeneration — allowing new actors to assume the role. Hartnell's successors were Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith and the upcoming 12th Doctor, Peter Capaldi.

"I feel sort of very proud to be part of such a wonderful legacy of actors," said Smith, adding that in the 50th anniversary special, "We sort of honor the history and heritage of those who have gone before us."

Doctors 10 and 11 star in a that special, which is airing at the same time around the globe — Saturday afternoon here in Utah on BBC America. Titled "The Day of the Doctor," it features Tennant, Smith and John Hurt as the War Doctor. Not a lot of details have been released, but we know that the Doctors will be faced with the Daleks and the Zygons — enemies familiar to fans; something terrible is awakening in present-day London; a murderous plot is afoot in Elizabethan England; somewhere in space an ancient battle reaches a devastating conclusion; and the Doctor's past comes back to haunt him.

Smith is nearing the end of his run as the Doctor. In the annual Christmas Day special, he will regenerate into Capaldi.

"I've had a great time," Smith said. "I'll miss it, and it was a hard choice. I ponder it and think, 'I've made a huge mistake. What am I doing? Don't leave.' I mean, it's transformed my career.

"I think the thing about 'Doctor Who' is that it always looks forward. That's the key. And the show will get bigger and better and carry on without me."

spierce@sltrib.com

Twitter: @ScottDPierce —

BBC America

"An Adventure in Space and Time," which looks back at the origins of "Doctor Who," debuts Friday at 7 and 9 p.m. and repeats Sunday at 9 p.m.

The 50th-anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor," premieres Saturday at 12:50, 5 and 9 p.m.