How the Time Lords Invented TV: 50 Years of Doctor Who

The Heart of the TARDIS

On the 23rd of November 1963, an old man stepped out of a box that most people had written off as garbage, and casually remade the world. That’s a big claim – a laughably hyperbolic claim – but it’s true. Everything about this man and his box was incongruous, paradoxical. Appearing innocuous, almost banal, in actuality both man and box bristled with depthless potential; and together, over the course of the subsequent five decades, they would go on to upended every expectation, every convention, every limitation that they faced. And so, 50 years later, that same man stepped out of that same box (for some viewers literally, as it was filmed and screened in 3D) and did it again.

First Doctor, William Hartnell

The man, both then and now, was known only as ‘The Doctor’. He looked and sounded like Ebenezer Scrooge, but was adept at twiddling the dials of the universe’s most technologically avant-garde (if temperamental) mode of transportation, and batted away the laws of physics like a tedious housefly. He was a contradiction. A conundrum. His name itself would prove to be a mystery (Doctor Who?); so much so that for the next half century he would gather people in his wake – assistants, companions, enemies, viewers, fans – all of whom would run desperately to catch up, hoping to glimpse the truth behind this enigma.

And that box from which he emerged? That magical, sprawling, illogical box that is bigger on the inside and is the source of so many of his magnificent powers? That box that can be anywhere and anywhen? That allows him to traverse the stars and to jaunt across time? To travel with friends and defend against foes? To view and review and rewrite history? To alter the very fabric of the universe? The one with the eclectic design scheme and the inexplicable round bits that look cool, but don’t appear to do much?

No, not the TARDIS.

The other magical box. The real source of the Doctor’s powers.


Because if Doctor Who is anything – and it is many, many things – it’s a product of, a response to, and a celebration of television. Consequentially, on this 50th year anniversary, ‘The Day of the Doctor’ was a love note, not only to that marvellous, inscrutable alien, but to the frequently maligned box that gave him life – an audio-visual canvas of vast breadth and scope, of endless evolving potential.

‘Let There Be Light’! Television’s Unearthly Child

Like television itself, the Doctor’s magic box was flexible enough to bounce from historical costume drama to high-concept sci-fi, from adventure tales to parody, from anti-utopian think pieces to schlocky horror, from thrillers to war fiction to political satire to broad fantasy, love stores, action, farce.

For a show so concerned with history – how it repeats; how it shapes and defines us; how it is apparently lousy with alien bug-monster invasions – it’s no wonder that when people speak of the beginnings of Doctor Who, they frequently reference the way in which it premiered under the cloud of a momentous international tragedy.The day before the show’s launch, United States President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, leaving an experimental little show about a space-faring vagabond to barely make a splash amidst all the din. It was only when the program was repeated the next week that the greater portion of its audience even discovered it.

Understandably, what is less frequently acknowledged is that the show also premiered just as television was becoming the most influential and ubiquitous popular culture medium in the western world, establishing itself as a unique delivery format for entertainment, news coverage, and social discourse. Programs like The Andy Griffith Show, Coronation Street, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Avengers were becoming cultural touchstones, establishing new serialised formats distinct from the cinema, theatre and radio that preceded them.

Live reportage of Kennedy’s assassination, and his televised funeral, were some of the first global satellite broadcasts; his accused killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was murdered live on air. In May of 1964, only months before the Doctor left Earth’s atmosphere, images filmed from a manned space capsule, the Faith 7, were screened on NBC. Able to reach into the homes of millions of people, uniting them all with a shared experience, television was swiftly becoming the new campfire around which society could gather to hear its stories retold.

Despite its evident potential, the medium was not without its detractors however. Indeed, although recent critical darlings like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Arrested Development have helped silence the debate about the legitimacy of the medium’s storytelling potential and reward for audience investment, for the majority of its lifespan narrative television has been largely derided or ignored. Often seen as mere sugar coating for the commercials that really payed the bills (admittedly not a criticism applicable for the BBC’s television licensing arrangements); television was accused of being derivative; gratuitous; and of borrowing too much from other forms.

Sitcoms were little more than the cheap vaudevillian theatre from which they sprang (and that laugh-track still lingers like a vestigial limb), weepy drama series were merely overblown radio soaps (‘Brooke, what do you mean you’re having an affair? Let me just stare into the camera and awkwardly emote about this…’), and there was a cavalcade of cheesy wannabe genre series, aping cinema, stifled by their dwarfed budgets, shonkier effects, and a narrative constraint that dictates everything has to return to a relative status quo at the end of the hour.

Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton

As early as 1961, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow, in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters famously declared television a ‘vast wasteland’ for these very same reasons. He was referring to American television in particular, but the criticism has resonated for the entire medium:

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, cartoons. And endlessly commercials – many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

The original version of Minow’s speech was said to have read ‘a vast wasteland of junk’, but he decided to shorten the line when he delivered it. In hindsight, the edit is a shame because when speaking of Doctor Who it is curiously prescient; after all, it is literally from a junkyard that the Doctor and his fantastical, logic-defying box emerge…

The first episode of Doctor Who, ‘An Unearthly Child’ may have become somewhat overshadowed by the one that followed, ‘The Daleks’ (in which audiences were introduced to the universe’s most fearsome pepper shakers) but ‘An Unearthly Child’ is a marvellous expression of the show’s central conceit. The plot, such as it is, is elegantly simple, and offers an arresting metaphor for the revolutionary intellectual and imaginative journey about to take place. Thus this introduction fittingly plays out like an episode of The Twilight Zone – with a sense of nagging curiosity pervading the action, propelling its minimalist narrative.

Two high school teachers, Ian and Barbara, each representing the practical, objective world that seeks to shape young minds in the pursuit of facts and figures (one teaches history, the other science), are intrigued by the odd behaviour of one of their students, and follow her home to glean some answers. In doing so however, they meet an impossible man who shows them a wider universe of wonder that blows their quaint, objective worlds apart, offering them a means to explore a universe of new questions, heretofore inconceivable from their limited perspectives.

In quick succession we move from the rational, recognisable world, where two teachers are swapping anecdotes about their weird student, to the utterly fantastical: they discover she lives in a junkyard with her grandfather; that they live inside a police box (that’s bigger on the inside!); that they are aliens; that they are hiding in a space ship; that can travel through time and space! After a brief scuffle, where Ian and Barbara thrash about trying to convince Susan that this is all nonsense, a few buttons get pressed, a soon-to-become-familiar groan of the engines kicks in, and they are all suddenly transported back to the dawn of human civilisation, where a cluster of cavemen are squabbling about who can make fire, similarly showing the difficulty in adapting to a new age of (this time literal) enlightenment.

Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee

For the remainder of the episode, while caught in a prehistoric turf war, The Doctor, although begrudging and irascible in this first incarnation, acts as a Promethean figure for humanity. He widens Ian and Barbara’s sense of their place in the universe, and he actually gifts humankind with fire (the episode even contains the line, ‘With fire it is day’). But 25 minutes in (the first of the four-part tale) and the show had already articulated the infinite wellspring of imaginative possibility that inspires all speculative fiction, and that has remained at the heart of the Doctor Who mythos throughout the entirety of its run. It taps into the fundamental truths that children, and the child within us all, instinctively recognise: imagination is more powerful than fact; do not accept anything at face value.

Things are bigger on the inside.

‘Run!’ Keeping up with the Doctor

This capacity to thwart preconceptions, to upend expectation, extended beyond the confines of the narrative to become a mission statement for the program itself. If television was the junkyard that Minow had accused it of being, rather than seeing this as a failing, Doctor Who exploited it as a boon. Given the plasticity of its premise, the show proved that it could go anywhere, be anything. Like television itself, the Doctor’s magic box was flexible enough to bounce from historical costume drama to high-concept sci-fi, from adventure tales to parody, from anti-utopian think pieces to schlocky horror, from thrillers to war fiction to political satire to broad fantasy, love stores, action, farce.

It reappropriated (some would say ripped off) an eclectic mix of source material to inspire its stories: a healthy smattering of H.G. Wells, Sherlock Holmes, C.S. Lewis and Arthur C. Clarke, genre films, historical record, and myth. One week the characters were bumping up against Marco Polo, the next they might be negotiating a political struggle between moth people and telepathic ants. But it was this repurposing that inspired the writers to explore narratives that it would take decades for other fictions to articulate; Doctor Who had riffs on the plots of James Cameron’s Terminator, Ridley Scott’s Alien, and the Wachowski’s The Matrix years before they were devised.

Doctor Who was new – startlingly, audaciously new – and was willing to innovate and experiment both on screen and behind. It’s producer, Verity Lambert, was the youngest and first female producer for a drama series on the BBC. It’s theme music, a concoction of composer Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, was an unprecedented experimental wonder – the first theme to ever be made entirely from a harmony of electronic distortion. It’s title sequence was swirling optical illusion created by toying around with the cameras and monitors.

Although it may be hard to perceive now, looking back, Doctor Who was frequently at the forefront of television special effects and practical design. Some of the earliest serials created otherworldly effects with camera lenses and perspective shifted sets. Even the later years of the original series (where budgetary restraints are more evident) can be resplendent with unique design and costuming, emulating M.C. Escher drawings, sleek modern sterility, or Gothic decay, in service of the tone of the story.

Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker

Originally aimed at children, its writers never talked down to their audience, and pitched concepts and references for any age (I hereby redact the name ‘K-9’ from my memory), utilising its wide canvas and endlessly malleable form to reflect its audience’s society and play out myriad ideological and philosophical debates. Thus, in the wake of the Second World War and in the midst of Cold War paranoia, invasion stories and monster tales became commonplace (particularly so under the second and third iterations of the Doctor); Daleks became squawking, dispassionate fascists; the Cybermen embodied our fears of an increasingly automated, dehumanised world.

Environmental sustainability, totalitarianism, determinism, communism, nuclear power, governmental conspiracies, multiculturalism, consumerism, apartheid, even taxation, all were played out in expansive metaphors through which the Doctor, ever curious and swayed by compassion, would ramble. Over the course of its 50 year run, with the rise of a more progressive view of women in society, companion characters like Sarah Jane Smith, Romana, Leela and Ace helped break the tired mould of the helpless damsel-in-distress in adventure tales (although it did require one of them to be wearing a revealing loin cloth to do so, and the show would occasionally lapse back into ‘damsel’ territory). Diversity, sexuality, equality were respected; class divides, cruelty, intolerance were staunchly condemned.

The Reciprocal Feedback Loop

Throughout it all, Doctor Who was a show that embraced rather than condemned television’s inevitable limitations. The most visible and ideologically transformative exhibition of this arose when the ailing health of the series’ titular star, William Hartnell, forced him to retire. This was nothing new, television is replete with such production necessities (actors leave, plots get rewritten, things don’t get filmed); but rather than shamelessly trying to emulate Hartnell’s characterisation, as though swapping out one Darren for another in Bewitched, Doctor Who’s producers incorporated it into the DNA of the show.

Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison

Embracing his alien nature, they had the Doctor regenerate into a whole new persona, one filled with his predecessor’s experiences and history, but free to be remade anew. Patrick Troughton, taking up the role, presented a unique take on the same man – now a disarmingly playful, Chaplinesque figure, disguising his ageless wisdom with foolery. The result, which has been continued for each subsequent retirement of the principle actor, was a program and character elementally designed to evolve with the circumstances of his fiction, to adapt to each new generation of viewership. Beside a few inviolable personality traits – he remains largely pacifist, moral, and altruistic (even in the intentionally atypical Colin Baker years) – from that point on i>Doctor Who was a show that embraced rather than condemned television’s inevitable limitations.

In the wake of the Second World War and in the midst of Cold War paranoia, invasion stories and monster tales became commonplace (particularly so under the second and third iterations of the Doctor); Daleks became squawking, dispassionate fascists; the Cybermen embodied our fears of an increasingly automated, dehumanised world.

Thus, as television altered over the years, the Doctor adapted along with it, winding the realities of its production into an organic, necessary part of the fiction. Cast members would come and go, evolving the dynamics of his makeshift companion family. When the sets got too drab, suddenly the TARDIS, like its pilot, can get a makeover. When colour television emerged, it was introduced in tandem with the Doctor remaking himself into his most sartorially vibrant version. Why does everyone in the universe speak English? Because of the telepathic circuit in the TARDIS, of course.

When budget constraints impacted the show’s production (it was expensive to make so many sets and effects for foreign worlds), the third Doctor was suddenly grounded on Earth, serving a form of Time Lord house arrest while employed as an advisor to humanity’s planetary defence force, UNIT. And each time, these adaptations of necessity informed and enriched the fiction. Even the drastic removal of the Doctor’s defining feature – being on the run through space and history – allowed the show to explore new territory. With more of a sense of immediacy and threat (this was, after all, contemporary Earth that he was protecting from harm now), and a fish-out-of-water Doctor who was now manacled to a backwater rock that he begins to regard with some affection, the show had a unique flavour that revealed even further dimension to the character, even if it had to sacrifice some of its scope to do so.

Even in the more recent series the show has proved to be just as adaptive and resourceful. When the shooting schedule of David Tennant’s second series necessitated producing an episode that barely contained the principle actors, Steven Moffatt devised the masterful ‘Blink’, an episode in which both the Doctor and his companion are trapped back in time and can only communicate with a heroine in the present day through cryptic DVD Easter Eggs and messages left scrawled on the walls of a decrepit old house.

Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker

The show was not blind to criticisms of the television format, however, and even its own contribution to the medium.Tennant’s run contained the episode ‘Idiot’s Lantern’ in which the influx of television sales in the ’50s, in preparation for the communal bonding act of watching the Queen’s coronation, is seen as a harbinger for social ruin. An alien is living in the television signal, sucking people’s identities away and thereby literalising the accusation that television rots your mind. (The creature is soon overcome though, leaving the far more psychologically corrosive monster – an abusive father – still to be defended against.)

Similarly, Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor in ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ was kidnapped and plunged into a gladiatorial arena where he was watched by bloodthirsty pan dimensional beasts (depicted much like a television viewing family), who were titillated by the senseless violence on display. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor seemed to be a season long exploration of the potential corruption of the media: in ‘The Long Game’ he visits a television broadcasting hub called Satellite Five that is methodically manipulating all news disseminated to the universe, actively impeding the development of humanity; in ‘Bad Wolf’ he travels even further into the future to discover that all television entertainment has been overrun by reality shows – gory, gratuitous spectacles based on programs like Big Brother and The Weakest Link in which ‘five minutes of fame’ has been reduced to a temporary reprieve from death.

Doctor Who even metatextually put itself on trial when it was at its greatest threat of cancellation in the mid-’80s (the show had just come back from a forced 18 month hiatus that was threatening to become permanent). ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ was a season long arc in which a series of (vaguely) interconnected Doctor Who adventures presented the Doctor being called to account for his actions and asked to justify his very existence. In case the analogy to the program itself was too subtle, the courtroom even watches his adventures taking place on a view screen. Unfortunately, the show didn’t give the greatest defence for itself – the stories offered were occasionally incoherent; the twist at the end is naff; and poor Colin Baker, playing a Doctor widely disliked for being atypically erratic and vain, has to stand there wearing a costume that can best be described as ‘hosed out of a unicorn enclosure’ – but the show was afterward able to eke out for a few more brief, innovative seasons with the new, more inscrutable Doctor played by Sylvester McCoy.

Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy

Doctor Who remained intimately aware of the privileged position that a television show holds with its audience, and the opportunities for storytelling that this long-form dialogue between viewer and text presented. A television program can live with its viewer, enter their house with a regularity that breeds familiarity, inviting a sense of ownership unique to the medium. This was particularly true in the United Kingdom where, for the majority of its run it was a Saturday evening fixture, shared by generations of families – children cowering in fear at their first sighting of a Cyberman; parents coded with nostalgia watching their childhood adventures live on.

It’s why fans speak of ‘their’ Doctor distinct from his other personas, why the Doctor’s enemies, revisited and expanded upon, enter the communal conscious; it is all part of a reciprocal feedback loop: the text reminding the viewer of its history; the viewer aware that it is within their own memory that this history has been lived. As Jonathan Bignell has described in his analysis of Doctor Who’s history, ‘Space for “Quality”: Negotiating with the Daleks’ (Popular Television Drama, eds. Jonathan Bignell and Stephen Lacey, 2005), in a real sense the show lives, and is exponentially expanded upon, in the minds of its audience:

Doctor Who’s mysterious fictional world and the lack of conventional closure in individual episodes or in series as a whole leaves room for sustained involvement, repeated viewing and intense attention…. the persistence of memories of the Daleks in these different situations testifies to another kind of quality, measured by the enduring affect of television and its embedding in processes of identity-formation.

In such a multiform, generational text as Doctor Who, the audience grows with the program, reflecting it, giving life to it. And it was this interdependence that would prove so essential, and allow the program to transcend its boundaries even further, when in 1989 the series was cancelled (the euphemism at the time was ‘rested’) ending an already unprecedented two and a half decade run.

A Postmodern Prometheus

Fittingly, for a fiction about a being that can transform himself to defy death, Doctor Who found a means of surviving its cancellation by expanding wholly into other media. As early as the first years of its original run it had begun releasing new tales of the Doctor and his companions in comic books and short fiction – an an act that would come to be emulated by most every other popular science fiction program that followed. When the series ended, however, the narrative made the revolutionary leap into an ongoing series of novels, called New Adventures, that directly continued the journey of the seventh Doctor and his companions new and old. (It is of note that this series was written by several authors who would go on to pen scripts for the revived series several years later, including Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts, and even executive producer Russell T. Davis.) No longer restrained by the budgetary and censorship constraints of television, these tales trended a little darker and more expansive, but it was with the coming of the eighth Doctor that these secondary texts would prove most pioneering.

Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann

In 1996, with its fandom still clamouring for a continuation of the series, an attempt was made to revive Doctor Who as an international coproduction between the BBC, Universal, and the US FOX network. The resulting television film, intended to operate as a potential pilot for a new series, was, to put it kindly, a mess. A promising, flawed mess. The plot was too bogged down in the history of show to be coherent to the new viewers it was seeking to attract, while many fans of the original were put off by some of the concessions made to an assumed ‘American’ sensibility: motorcycle chases, the Doctor’s (frankly, all very chaste) flirtation with his new companion, the Master’s sudden ability to turn into the T-1000, etc. The makers of the show clearly had their hearts in the right place (‘Beloved seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy is back at the beginning! Yay!’), but the film fumbled its juggling of fan service and innovation (‘Oh look, he’s being arbitrarily gunned down by street toughs…’)

It tried to inject some intriguing Frankenstein imagery into the mix, and the TARDIS for the first time looked spectacular, but the only element that rightfully received almost universal praise was Paul McGann’s new vision of the Doctor. Unscathed by the melodramatic clutter of the plot (Eric Roberts appeared to have misread the character description for ‘The Master’ as ‘Cackling Pantomime Dracula’) McGann’s Doctor is a debonair Romantic; charming, heroic, and with a dry wit.

And so, despite the series itself not going ahead, McGann’s swashbuckling Doctor lived on. Soon he was the official Doctor of the expanding multimedia pantheon. His adventures played out across the comic series, through another continuing series of novels, in newly produced radio plays that actually starred McGann. Other television shows that had appeared after Doctor Who began its run had followed in Doctor Who’s footsteps and similarly produced supporting media – Star Trek cartoons, Battlestar Galactica novels, etc. – but this was one of the first and most vital examples of how resilient a television fiction could be, evolving its journey onward, even in the absence of the television show itself.

This continuing interest in the Doctor Who property enabled the eventual BBC rebirth to occur, and in recognition, the series acknowledged both the McGann Doctor (he is officially the eight incarnation), and the sprawling narrative hydra over which he presided. In ‘Night of the Doctor’, a prequel to the 50th anniversary special, Paul McGann himself returns to portray the final moments of his Doctor’s life. In a handful of the most extraordinary minutes in Who history, in which his wearied but still feisty Doctor radiates, he references the companions he travelled with, thereby loosely canonising all of those ancillary fictions, and is shown to regenerate into the next version of the Doctor in the narrative’s through line. Unlike innumerable other franchises that play coy with their secondary fiction, Doctor Who embraced it, acknowledging that the borderline between audience and text is in a perpetual state of flux, and that without those fans who had kept the show alive, had poured themselves into its fiction, it could not have returned – certainly it could not have prospered – as it eventually did.

Given the general consensus that the film had failed, it took another decade for Doctor Who to emerge again. When it did, though, it returned as a prestige program, entering a landscape of television niche programming in which shows such as Stargate, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had reconfirmed the viability of the sci-fi format. And rather than rebooting itself (such as Battlestar Galactica had done the year previous), Who – as it always had – continued on, trusting the wealth of its lineage, and once again incorporating the realities of its audience and its medium into the narrative.

Once again using this character to capture the cultural zeitgeist, the 21st century Doctor was a man who, like western civilisation, had been rocked by bloodshed. Thematically evoking the shadow of terrorism and the emotional baggage of participating in an unjust war, this Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston, was a profoundly altered man. Still erratic and adventuring, his disarming enthusiasm seemed to be played more as a defence mechanism, a tool to deflect introspection. In reintroducing the character, Russell T. Davis took the drastic but rather ingenious step of killing off the Time Lord race in a conflict called the Time War. As the sole survivor, the Doctor was a traumatised, orphan soldier, mourning the loss of his race and trying to outrun the horrors he had seen, and inflicted, in battle. The man who had inspired so much hope in others over the years had had his own profoundly shaken.

When Eccleston bowed out, replaced by the charismatic Tennant version, the tenth Doctor became more of a heartbroken, wandering god, and the high, operatic tone of the show was pushed to the forefront. Davis seemed intent on celebrating the potential for stateliness and majesty that an extended serialised form such as television (particularly with a history that had endured for generations) was able to evoke. Consequentially, his scripts explored tragic love stories (Rose), heroic, sacrificial calls to action (Donna; Martha), fatalism and arbitrary evil (‘The Waters of Mars’, ‘Midnight’), and he conceived interconnected seasonal story arcs (the ‘Bad Wolf’ mystery; the prophesy of the harbinger who will ‘knock four times’, ‘the stars are going out’, etc) that gestured toward a unity of narrative that had only been attempted before (poorly) in ‘Trail of a Time Lord’. He was also the first writer to seriously explore the potentially ruinous effect that travelling with the Doctor can have upon a companion and their family – that this was a man who, despite his noble intentions, inevitably left carnage in his wake.

In the Midst of Cold War Paranoia

This theatrical grandiosity spilled out into the show’s aesthetics, also. During Davis’ run the colour palate was striking – occasionally even garish – with fierce primary hues and high contrasts; villains like the Slitheen could be played for broad farce (farting and sniggering at their own horrid puns), while actors like John Simm, as the Master, were encouraged to maniacally chew the scenery. Davis’ Doctor Who tapped into a history of tele-visual cheesiness, but stirred it into a bombastic spectacle, allowing its operatic pathos to resonate; the tenth Doctor’s demise, for example, was punctuated by a soaring choral lament — the song of the Ood — which echoed into all space and time to sing him to rest.

Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston

When Steven Moffat took over the role of principle writer and producer, he shifted away from aligning the Doctor Who mythos with the rich history of theatre, instead drawing upon an even older source of iterative storytelling: fairytales. Unlike any writer before him, Moffat embraces the notion of ‘time’ in ‘Once upon a time…’ In his introduction to the eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith, the lonely Time Lord is recast as a creature from myth and folklore, and by the end of his first season, the Doctor is a story known across the universe (a legend with ‘spoilers’): the tale of a dangerous, mythical trickster who must be stopped.

For an alien over a millennia old – who was already a cantankerous grandfather before audiences had even met him – the Doctor is finally growing up. And so, too, the show, which started as a children’s program, but swiftly expanded through the generational inheritance of its legacy to become a mythic institution.

After a young girl called Amelia Pond (‘Like a name in a fairytale…’) sees him fall like a shooting star from the sky, she spends the rest of her adolescence trying to discern whether what she once experienced was real, or just a dream. He becomes, effectively, the invisible friend: the ‘Raggedy Man’, a Peter Pan figure who can perform miraculous feats and who invites you to come away with him on adventures through storybook wonders, who protects you from the creatures that exist only in the imagination: vampires; cowboys; minotaurs; scary dolls; creatures that only move when you close your eyes; that can make you forget them when you look away; things called the Whisper Men, spoken of only in nursery rhymes, that have no form or shape at all.

When the Doctor falls to Earth he becomes an imaginary friend to Amelia Pond, a source of comfort and inspiration; but he unintentionally abandons her, disappearing for years and only returning when she is grown. In this sense, Moffat has designed this character as perhaps the most multilayered metatextual commentary on the audience’s relation to their text in the show’s history. Amelia (as she is known when she was young) embodies the experience of a child seeing this extraordinary character for the first time, a childhood wish fulfilment fantasy of running off with the Doctor to a life of timeless adventure; but Amy (as she calls herself when she is older) represents a more jaded adult outlook, scrutinising the Doctor, measuring him up against her memory, and trying (at least at first) to contain this nostalgic adoration.

Amy was not just some girl who got caught in the Doctor’s updraft – she was a fan. She articulated the fan experience that many viewers had shared: she watched and was delighted by the Doctor in her youth, but when he went away (was cancelled) she started to lose faith that she would ever see him again. (Moffat might even be throwing in a sneaky reference to the television movie – he does come back for one brief escapade and then disappears for a few more years.) And at the end of this season, when the universe has been rebooted (long story) with the Doctor, by necessity, erased, it is belief that is revealed to be the most powerful magic in all of space and time. Amy – like the Doctor’s fans – believes in him, wills him to life. She remembers his blue box (so vivid blue it is like something from a dream), and her investment in him, and the story that is his life, brings him back.

A Doctor a Day…

And so to ‘The Day of the Doctor’, in which Doctor Who gloriously revels in a feat that it alone, in the entirety of television fiction, can exploit: having one character meet and organically interact with multiple versions of himself. With 50 years of history behind it, Doctor Who, a show intimately concerned with the weight of history and the promise of the future, takes a moment to reflect upon its past, to validate its present, and to boldly set a new course for the years ahead.

Centring most specifically upon the events that were said to have occurred during the time in which Doctor Who was off air, the Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords, Steven Moffat returns to the Doctor’s greatest moment of regret – the act of genocide that wiped out both races – and in so doing finds an elegant means of interrogating the man that he always was, the man that he now is, and potentially, the man that he will become.

Understandably, along with all of the excitement of the return of Tennant, and the revelation of a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor in John Hurt, the show’s narrative looks back upon its long and storied history, both as a fiction and as a televisual artefact. There were little flourishes, such as revisiting the original title and theme tune, the sight of a policeman walking down Trotters Lane (where a certain TARDIS had been parked decades ago), and the revelation that current Doctor companion, Clara Oswald, has now become a teacher at Cole Hill Secondary School – just as the Doctor’s original human tag-alongs had been.

There were the subtler, self-aware allusions to ‘Reversing the polarity’, the catchphrase of Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor (I’m reversing it; you’re reversing it back. We’re confusing the polarity’), what was likely a subtle dig at 1996’s failed American relaunch of the series (‘Time travel… Americans with the ability to rewrite history? You’ve seen their movies.’), swipes at Tennant’s fake British accent (‘Brave words, Dick Van Dyke’), and even several grumpy asides from John Hurt’s more traditional Doctor chastising the youthful antics of his latter, more energetic selves (‘Timey Whimey. Do you have to talk like children? What is it that makes you ashamed of being a grown up?’; ‘Is there a lot of this [kissing] in the future?’; ‘Oh, again with the pointing – what are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?’)

Notably, there is also the highly metatextual motif of people emerging from paintings and coming to life. It’s the evil scheme of the episode’s villains, who stow away in artworks and erupt fully formed years later, and it’s also how the Doctor cannily wins the day, secreting himself away in a depiction of his worst, most hopeless day. For a show looking back upon its definitive contribution to the medium of television, it’s fitting that it acknowledges the ‘television’ of the past, the visual arts, another art form into which humanity has poured its narratives and sense of self; the paintings even erupt with a scattering of glass, as though puncturing a television screen.

And of course there were the larger narrative beats and call-backs, only possible in the long form medium of television. From the return of the Zygons (a classic Who enemy not glimpsed in decades), to the return of UNIT (with whom the Doctor apparently has a now hefty pension owing); from the revelation of the end of the Time War (central to the relaunch of Doctor Who in the 21st century), to the show-stopping reveal of every single one of the Doctor’s incarnations spinning around his homeland of Gallifrey, trying to rewrite the most horrific, lamented mistake in the Doctor’s protracted life. It is a thunderous adventure, one that offers the Doctor a moment of introspection that he is frequently denied; here he is literally locked (or as it turns out, unlocked) in a prison where he is finally compelled to confront his regret.

Moffat loads this self-assessment into the narrative at every level, inviting the viewer to explore their own relationship to a hero that they have watched for generations, one who was captured within, but managed to transcend their television screens. Some might question the inclusion of the Zygons as the Doctor’s enemies in this special (despite being a returning creature from the original series, they are hardly as iconic as Daleks, or Cybermen), but thematically, they prove to be profoundly resonant: these are shape-shifting alien frauds in a fiction in which the hero himself changes his face and is no longer sure who he is anymore. They are symbols of the perpetually fluctuating nature of the show itself, compelling us to question exactly what it is that unites all of these disparate versions of the same man who chooses to call himself ‘The Doctor’.

And the answer, it seems, is hope.

Tenth Doctor, David Tennant

Because the most revolutionary and yet utterly conventional thing that Moffat does in this special is restore the Doctor’s fundamental optimism. Despite the narrative potential that Russell T. Davis’ decision to make the Doctor a war criminal was, it had irreparably damaged him. He became the man who regrets; the man who sorrows for so long that even he forgets why. By returning to this point in his history, allowing him – with his broader outlook on life and loss – to remake his choice, Moffat legitimises the sacrifices of the Doctor’s former selves, but rescues the character himself from this desolation. The man who has brought so much hope to others, is allowed, at last, to feel it again himself.

And with this reaffirmation of the Doctor’s sense of self, the episode also projected forward into the show’s future: there were glimpses of the upcoming 12fth manifestation of the Doctor, who was likewise lending a hand to the proceedings; there was talk of the Doctor’s impending ‘death’ at Trenzalore; but most significantly, there was an acknowledged redirection of the show’s driving conceit. After jumping into a stolen time machine and fleeing his own people, the Doctor’s journeys have restored his faith in his homeland and in himself; so much so that he is now, after all these years, committed to heading back home. His quest is no longer one of escape, but of restoration. After all these years of running, there’s now somewhere to run to.

For an alien over a millennia old – who was already a cantankerous grandfather before audiences had even met him – the Doctor is finally growing up. And so, too, the show, which started as a children’s program, but swiftly expanded through the generational inheritance of its legacy to become a mythic institution.

As the culmination of Doctor Who’s storied history, it rightfully celebrated what makes this character grand, what has made him endure for generations – all of which, it is acknowledged, is inextricably tied to what has makes television itself such an appealing box to peer into, to travel away within, and to go in search of new adventures. A remembrance, a rebirth, a restatement of purpose; in an hour and a half, simulcast around the world to 94 countries, ‘The Day of the Doctor’ returned us to that same impossible, fantastical character emerging from that very same extraordinary box, in order to show, together, just how far they, their medium, and we their audience, have all evolved.

The Revolutions Will Be Time-Lord-ised

Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith

Television has always been illogical, has always embraced the irrational. It asks us to believe in artificial serialised dramas; weekly, resolvable conflicts; families communicating in snappy witticisms while all instinctively facing toward an invisible fourth wall; shoddy special effects that try to emulate cinematic spectacle on a limited budget and; inconsistencies in actors, writers and producers. But years ago, stepping out of a pile of trash and refuse, Doctor Who did something remarkable: rather than fight against those limitations, or pretend them away, it embraced them, subverted them.

In contrast, film and fiction are elegant mediums, but they remain static. As an audience you can return to them again and glean new meaning, but it is only you that has changed, not the text itself. A television show is not constrained in such a manner – again fittingly for Doctor Who, it is not beholden to the strictures of time. It can engage with its audience, and return again next week; can respond to audience feedback; can follow down new avenues of narrative. It’s characters can grow, its genres can merge and splinter, its plots can literally be rewritten. It is a text and an adventure that grows alongside its audience, that is given purpose through their investment.

In the first episode, on his first trip to Earth, the TARDIS breaks. No longer able to seamlessly disguise itself in any form it decides to remain a big, blue anachronistic box. It turns itself into a magic portal, bigger on the inside. It becomes television itself. And for a show that revels in contradiction, this has proved to be a powerfully symbolic and fortuitous act. It became a text that has consistently confronted limitation with ingenuity, cancelation with rebirth, constraint with transcendence. It is a show that reveals itself to be only as restricted as imagination itself; and for a program so entwined in the history of television, that says something rather extraordinary about a medium once dismissed as a ‘wasteland’, offending and dull.

Consequentially, the Doctor, his spacecraft, and the show itself, have celebrated and reflected everything that has made the television medium such an adaptable, enduring canvas through which it engages with audiences of every age. The entire program’s title is a question – Doctor Who? – and its genius is that it has never contented itself to provide a definitive answer, to ever stop exploring the potentialities that arise when the storytelling form remains malleable, and when the imagination is allowed to wander. Until then it will just keep inviting us off on new adventures, iterating, expanding, and exploring, showing us how the old can still be remade anew.