It’s hard to describe to people who don’t watch Doctor Who the sense of kinship I feel towards the millions of other fans on this day as the program celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its launch.
Others have tackled the question how a television show, launched to capture the audience trapped in the awkward timeslot between the end of the weekly sports showcase and the pop music program Juke Box Jury, could still be a going concern a half-century later. They’ve noted the program’s appeal to a wide audience (offering things to delight kids and adults alike), but in its refusal to be confined to a single genre. The program has been called the most flexible format in fiction, where the Doctor is a wizard with a magical cabinet that can take him and his friends anywhere in the universe and anywhen. The fact that the Doctor can die and regenerate into another persona, allowing more than eleven actors to take on the role, is brilliant in its creativity and effectiveness.
But all that is ephemera. The show has lasted for fifty years and is still going; that alone is proof enough of its success. The question is, why do I like Doctor Who so much? Why is it so important to me?
My first memory of Doctor Who has been dated to 1978. I remember my parents and I visiting my aunts in Kitchener. I was six at the time. In the middle of the dinner conversation, one of my aunts asked that we pause a moment to turn on the television, as there was a serial running on TV Ontario, and the sixth and final part was on that evening. The other guests agreed, and on went the television. I remember a grotesquely disfigured man in a wheelchair talking to older men in white uniforms (even then, I recognized them as scientists). He was delivering some speech, and offering to do something that involved a big red button on a console. There were squat robots that glided across the set.
Doctor Who fans may recognize the scene, of course, as coming in part six of Genesis of the Daleks — specifically where the Dalek creator Davros offers the Kaled scientist the option of blowing up the bunker, destroying the Dalek production line.
I wasn’t particularly impressed at the time. I remember I left the room to go play with some toys, but the scene stayed in my memory, and so it must have had some impact. It must have also had an impact on my parents because, when we came back to Toronto, we kept watching. A few years later, by the time The Robots of Death debuted, I was hooked, even though my parents’ interest waned. My parents still watch and enjoy Doctor Who, but they’ve maintained their objectivity in ways that I have not. Not that I’m complaining, mind.
Later in 1978, at grade one recess, I would chase the other kids, pretending to be a Dalek (that involves sticking an arm out and marching around going “EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE!”). At Christmas, my parents gave me my first Doctor Who book (a novelization of The Hand of Fear). Within a year, I had a small collection and, within a few years, I was spending most of my allowance at used bookstores, trying to grab every single copy of the Doctor Who canon that I could find.
When I was twelve, however, I learned that there was a much larger world out there. Inside Doctor Who: A Celebration (a coffee table book produced for the show’s twentieth anniversary), I learned that people had organized clubs out of a shared interest in the program. They were doing things like running conventions, producing magazines, discussing news of upcoming seasons, and writing their own Doctor Who stories.
This was a revelation: there were people out there as interested in the program as I was, and there were ways to express that appreciation that I hadn’t yet tried. I wrote my own Doctor Who story. Then I wrote some more. Eventually, I started submitting material to Doctor Who fan magazines. Eventually, I started editing them.
As a television show, Doctor Who is remarkable for its longevity and its flexibility. Its stories can be straight science fiction, or feature more fantastical elements, or be straight historicals where the arrival of the TARDIS is the only science fiction element to be found. The Doctor can fight monsters, or he can wrestle with flawed characters. He can be funny, he can be serious, he can be loud with action, he can offer quiet moments, or do all at once. The potential is just so great, and dozens of people have taken the program in different directions over the years, not only on television, but in the forms of radio plays and in books. On this level, the program offers a lot for me to enjoy.
But Doctor Who means more to me than just enjoyment. It is through Doctor Who that I started writing fiction. It is through Doctor Who that I met people who were okay with the fact that I was something of a geek. It is through Doctor Who that I made many lasting friendships, and it is through Doctor Who that I met the woman who became my wife.
Doctor Who is not my only passion. I also love trains, I love computers, and I like to talk about a lot of things, including politics. But without Doctor Who, I might not be writing about trains. I might still be toiling away on databases or web applications, not realizing the potential within my soul. Until I went to a Doctor Who convention in Chicago to meet Erin face-to-face for the first time, I’d only been outside the province of Ontario three times (and one of those times was to attend a Doctor Who convention in Montreal). Without Doctor Who, it’s possible that my life and my world experience would have been substantially different. Maybe other things would have brought me out of my shell, but the fact remains that it was Doctor Who which did so.
My kids are growing older and they are developing their own passions. Doctor Who is just another television program to them, and one they’re not particularly interested in watching. I have to accept that. I like Doctor Who because I am me, and they’re not me. But because I liked Doctor Who, it changed me and grew me into the person I am. It’s an important part of me, and it’s remarkable for me to look back and see how long it has been a part of my life. This landmark 50th anniversary has, for me, been thirty-five years in coming. It is a journey shared with dozens of people I know. And so, today, I raise a glass not in gratitude and affection, only to the program, but to the community that helped make me into who I am.
Thank you all, and here’s to the next fifty years.