Late on Sunday nights when I was a kid I used to sneak downstairs to our family TV room, where more often than not my father was asleep in his chair, the news or sitcom reruns droning on. I would do my best to slip the remote control from off his chair, turn down the volume and switch the channel. It was never easy—like fathers everywhere, he had a preternatural ability to awaken from even the deepest of slumbers when the remote left his immediate proximity or a show came on that did not suit his tastes. I’d turn to Channel 11, PBS in Chicago, where Benny Hill would be chasing women at ridiculously high speeds, or members of Monty Python would be prancing about doing silly walks and then something completely different.
It was for neither of these shows that I came, but for the program that followed, another British export, about a curly-haired, craggy-faced man with a ridiculously long scarf who traveled all of time and space (in a ship dressed up as a police box, no less) saving humanity, usually from itself.
This was “Doctor Who,” the strange and often wacky story of a being known only as “the Doctor.” To the naked eye he looked human, and spouted scientific insight like Einstein on speed. But the Doctor hailed not from Earth, but distant Gallifrey. Get out a stethoscope and you'd hear two hearts beating. Kill him, and he'd regenerate into a whole new form—a brilliant ploy for keeping a series alive."
The Doctor was the misfit of his race; unsatisfied with staying at home and basking in his technological savvy like his brethren, he hotwired a ship known as a TARDIS (which had the marvelous quality of being bigger on the inside than on the out), and traveled all of time and space with the human companions he met.
This weekend BBC America celebrates the 50th anniversary of “Doctor Who,” beginning on Friday night with “An Adventure in Space and Time,” an original film about the origin of the show, followed on Saturday—aired at exactly the same moment throughout the world (2:50 EST in the States)—by the 50th anniversary episode, “The Day of the Doctor,” in which the two most recent regenerations of the Doctor (played by David Tennant and Matt Smith) must combine forces to face their own darkest (and heretofore secret) regeneration, played by the great John Hurt.
The enduring success of “Doctor Who” is something of a puzzle. Developed as a semi-educational children’s show, “Doctor Who” in its early decades had the production values (and sometimes the writing) of a middle school play. It was the kind of concept that might have lasted a few years in the United States (or in today’s market, a few episodes). Even in Britain, where the show was an institution, “Who” finally caved in upon its own weak plots and strange characterizations (including a Doctor who begins his regeneration by nearly choking his human companion to death), to be cancelled by the BBC in 1989.
But the program never really died. Books and radio plays continued to be made.
1996 saw an attempt to reboot the series in the States through a TV movie on FOX. It failed, but it also updated the concept, making the relationship between the Doctor and his female companion the heart of the piece.
In 2004 the creator of the original U.K. “Queer as Folk,” Russell T. Davies, pitched an even modern version, with clever, energetic storytelling, great production values, and an end to the onerous mythology. He also gave the show a new point of view; we meet the Doctor through the character of London shop girl Rose Tyler, an ordinary girl who no one thinks much of, even her mum. As played by the marvelous Billie Piper, Rose became a way into his world that showed its magic and also its tremendous danger. (The great twist and curse of the Doctor in the new show is that while he needs companionship, his companions are almost always eventually harmed by their time with him.)
The restart was an immediate and massive success, and has remained so. Eight years later, to be Doctor Who in Great Britain is like becoming Tom Cruise overnight; the fan following is enormous, and in the hands first of Davies and now current show-runner Steven Moffat the show has become a truly international brand.
The last few months, in preparation for the anniversary, I’ve been re-watching parts of old episodes, trying to get a sense of what it was that drew me to risk my father’s ire and a good night’s sleep each Sunday, and that keeps me going back even today. Some of it is clearly the storytelling, which has mined so many clever ideas from the fact that the Doctor travels through time, like a love story moving forward and backward at the same time, or the Doctor interacting with a person over the course of their whole life (but all in 60 minutes).
The show has no explicit religious dimension—indeed I suspect many of its most ardent fans would identify themselves as secular humanists. But personally what affects me most about the show today is the encounter it offers with the open-armed love of God. Though the character of the Doctor has varied greatly with the actors who have played him, fundamentally he is a being who revels in humanity, who celebrates its idiosyncrasies and calls upon its strengths. He’s no fool; our flaws are ever on display. Indeed for as much as this is a children’s show, “Doctor Who” is often a show about the most terrible of human things—war, genocide, the death of a loved one, social persecution, the end of the world.
But in the eyes of the Doctor, our potential is always still there shining before us. He calls those around him to contrition at times, but always also to courage, to hope and to wonder. The universe is filled with the most exquisite and precious of experiences, he preaches, and we are to leap in head first, hollering “Geronimo” and letting it all transform us into the great souls that lie in wait in our hearts.
In the Jesuits, those who follow science fiction (and they are legion) can usually be divided into those who love “Star Trek,” and those who like to stand outside supermarkets acting as though the automatic doors open at their command. (If someone ever discovers how to make swords out of contained laser beams, God help us.)
For me, abstract humanitarianism of “Star Trek” has never been able to hold a candle to the lived wisdom or fully realized worlds of “Star Wars.” But maybe I need a third category, because when I imagine what might Jesus be like if he came today, I see no better image than that joyful spirit who has lived so many lifetimes on the BBC, inviting us to travel with him into a world filled with wonder, kindness and eyes-open delight.