Looking back as classic sci fi and fantasy shows that aired from 1949 to 2010.
What Is It? This series follows the time traveler known as the Doctor who comes from a race of Time Lords who live on the planet Gallifrey. The Doctor helps those threatened by other time travelers or nefarious alien races and goes through transformations from time to time when his/her body is mortally injured.
When Did It Air?
The Classic Series: 1963-1989, BBC, 26 Seasons Totaling 841 Episodes
Revival: 2005-Present, BBC, 11 Seasons Totaling 120 Episodes (So Far)
Starring: William Hartnell, Tom Baker, David Tennant, Jodie Whitakker, et al
Created By: Sydney Newman, C.E. Weber, Donald Wilson
Is It Must-Watch Sci Fi? Absolutely. It is the longest running sci fi TV show of all time and is world-renowned, so you need to see what it is about. Feel free to sample episodes from its different eras and to look for must-watch episode lists if you are just starting out because this show has been on for a long time.
The Skinny: The original run of Doctor Who along with its 21st Century revival (I discuss the latter in more detail below) have established this series as iconic among sci fi TV shows and together make it the longest running genre entry worldwide. It started out with a simple premise designed to teach young audiences about science and important historical events, but quickly morphed into a very different show that has built up an elaborate mythology and introduced audiences to a colorful cast of ever-changing characters.
While Doctor Who started out with more of an educational bent, that changed with the introduction of the villainous race known as the Daleks in the second serial (the original series aired multiple 4 to 6 episode serials each season). The Doctor’s first major adversary proved immensely popular and the series shifted direction to focus more on its sci fi and fantasy elements as well as its rogues gallery. And what a collection of bad guys the show has delivered! The Daleks, the Cybermen, the Master, Davros, the Zygons, the Sontarans, the Autons, and many, many more. And many of these villains have become just as iconic as the show.
Of course, we can’t forget about the Doctor himself as well as his many companions. Each actor added his (and now her) own unique touch to the character and the gimmick of regeneration allowed the show to live beyond its lead player and also reinvent itself every few years. Add to that the stream of companions that the Doctor picked up on his travels who not only shared screen time but who became pivotal to the show and its legacy.
The classic run of the series does tend to get knocked because of its classically bad special effects, but it was made on a BBC budget and it still managed to deliver many great sci fi and fantasy stories (with a bit of horror mixed in as well). If you can cringe your way through some of the substandard optics, you can find plenty to like about the show, especially the various Doctors and his multitude of companions who did what they could within the production limitations to make this a stand-out sci fi series.
Cancelled Too Soon? Possibly, but can you really say that a show was cancelled too soon after 26 seasons? During the last few years of its classic run, the ratings were slipping for Doctor Who even though Sylvester McCoy proved more popular than his predecessor Colin Baker and revived some interest in the show. But after the 26th season ended, the BBC just did not commission a 27th season which effectively cancelled it. The network indicated that it planned on revisiting the show, so in their minds it was not ended. And eventually it did return, after one failed, start as I cover in the next section.
Revival: The first attempt to revive the show come with a join venture between the BBC and FOX and delivered the 1996 telefilm that introduced Paul McGann as the eight Doctor. It remained within the continuity of the original series and Sylvester McCoy showed up briefly for the regeneration scene. But the film was poorly received and did not continue into a new series, though Paul McCann did voice his character in multiple audio adventures for the eighth Doctor (most of which are considered canon). Then in 2005, the BBC made another attempt to revive the series starting with Christopher Eccleston as the ninth Doctor. This picked up the continuity from the classic series and the one telefilm, and for the first time Doctor Who actually had a decent budget to bring its imaginative stories to life (even if some grumbled that the sfx did not quite measure up to American TV). The revival has since proved immensely popular and has now worked through five incarnations with Jodie Whitakker taking over recently as the first female regeneration of the Doctor.
Interesting Fact: The regeneration of the Doctor was not part of the original plan for the series. As mentioned above, the show was intended to be educational and the origin of the Doctor was left mostly a mystery at first. But when William Hartnell’s health began to decline, the producers came up with the idea of regeneration in order to replace him as the show’s lead (originally referred to by the first Doctor as a “renewal”). After the arrival of Patrick Troughton, more of the back story of the Doctor was explored which included introducing the Time Lords and Gallifrey. And that decision to recast the lead from time to time (and now even changing the gender) helped the show survive over the many years by reinventing itself at various times during in its run.
Where Can You Watch It? Many episodes from the classic era and the revival have been released on DVD, though they tend to be a bit pricey and the classic run usually has one 4 to 6 episode serial per DVD. For the revival, the DVD sets collect entire seasons. The classic series is available for streaming on the BritBox service which carries quite a number of British shows. The revival is available for streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video.