It’s been interesting for the evolution of Doctor Who since its rebirth in 2005, watching in its nascent early times, seeking to regain what made it noteworthy in the past. It achieved early success in the UK, once again becoming the cultural touchstone the iconic series achieved back in the 70s, but it’s really only in the last two or three years that it’s achieved international acclaim and popularity — the kind that few other TV series have aspired to, even from the worldwide domination force that is Hollywood and the US market.
What makes this notoriety all the more impressive is truly the age of the series. Last year’s 50th anniversary celebration not only broke records with its global simulcast, but it was a ubiquitous milestone discussed widely across the entertainment sphere. While it hasn’t been a constant stream of new episodes, to still be on the air 50 years later is inarguably an impressive feat, especially given that, unlike other similarly aged franchises, it remains the very same series at its core.
Almost by happenstance, Doctor Who has stumbled upon a few key narrative and character ideas that have enabled this longevity. The kind so fundamentally brilliant that it’s a surprise other studios or story writers haven’t tried to emulate them. The kind that, in this era of reboots and remakes and sequels, serve up a number of solid reminders — stories are made to be retold; they change with each retelling and are dependent upon who’s doing the telling; stories live on, even past that their initial inception; and once a story enters a public sphere, it can belong to just about anyone, beyond even the person who initially conceived it.
It helps that the series utilizes these all so well. Reboots and sequels are seen as somewhat troubled, because they’re not always very good in the end. However, particularly with the new era of Who, the series has maintained a solid level of quality and adaptation to the new time period — in culture, in technology, and in evolving narrative forms. The two biggest conceits that can be held in esteem come down to its malleable premise and the concept of regeneration. While it’s hard to believe that when the original makers of the show back in the 60s stumbled on them had any notions of their true potential, that only makes it all the more exciting. There’s something about the grasping in the dark, making it up as you go that synchronizes beautifully with the very open ideas enabled by Doctor Who.
The show can, in a sense, be almost anything that it wants to be. Television series have to establish and maintain a status quo — something that can be both a boon and a burden, as it gives the show stability, but it can sometimes trap characters, storylines, and writers in a particular set of circumstances. The only maintained idea in Doctor Who is that there’s a Time Lord named the Doctor and he travels around in a blue phone box that can go anywhere and anytime in the entirety of space. That’s a huge open world of imagination that is allowed — and it means that each new showrunner, even when inheriting plotlines like the Time War or ideas like the Daleks, still has enormous amounts of freedom of what to do with it.
Stories are made to be retold. The next person who passes it on is going to change it by virtue of being a different individual. They might make alterations, intentional or otherwise, and so, the story evolves. When a person is handed a character and an idea with truly limitless possibilities, it means there are enormous amounts of character and ideas that each individual storyteller can put forth, which is to say, embedded in the fabric of its very premise, Doctor Who allows for the kind of rebooting that so many other stories will strive for, ignoring continuity or by pretending the previous never occurred. Doctor Who never has to become burdened by such issues, because that was a different era of the show and there are brand-new areas of the universe — literally and figuratively — to be explored that won’t necessarily step on what came before.
Replacing an actor with the same character isn’t a exactly a new idea and probably wasn’t even so much back in the 60s, but the decisions around it make up the key differences. For one thing, the character remains the same, just carried on from that previous actor — as opposed to, say, Mark Ruffalo taking over Bruce Banner and acting as though he was Edward Norton in the previous film and that Eric Bana never existed. William Hartnell still existed when Patrick Troughton took over — but in a past form. Additionally, this means that the new actor has the ability to inherit everything from the previous character: the concept of the series, the history with the Time Lords, and all his knowledge and experience. As is the case with each successive Doctor, he both is and isn’t the same man.
With the revolving door of showrunners — which is as it should be — and supporting characters like Companions — also as it should be — what this means is that no one actor ever has to be tied down to the series long-term. The series’ continued survival isn’t dependent upon any one actor — many fans can and have attested to the difficulties of transitioning from one Doctor to the next, but never begrudgingly. We mourn the loss of the old, but then always come to love the new. This isn’t like Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, a role that might be nearly impossible to recast when the time comes. The character doesn’t belong just to one actor: he belongs to all of them. He also belongs to all of us.
As the world prepares for the arrival of Peter Capaldi, whose premiere episode will have aired by the time this article is published, it’s hard not to admire the implicit longevity of the series and how it’s been accomplished. Indeed, it serves as a demonstration of what makes storytelling great: that it can keep going but with new voices contributing ideas and quality. We’ll all likely come to love the 12th Doctor, as we loved Matt Smith, David Tennant, Christopher Eccleston, and all the Doctors before him. Thanks to this TV show, more than any other series or franchise on the market, we fans are well prepared for the change. Thanks to this consistency in change, it’s not implausible to say the series could very well go another 50 years.