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A Decade of Doctor Who: A look at the show's impact 10 years post-regeneration

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Mar 21, 2019, 12:56 PM EDT (Updated)

This is the time of the Doctor. After debuting in 1963 and eventually fading into obscurity for all but the most dedicated fans, Doctor Who has now become a contender within mainstream popular culture. From TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly covers to packed Hall H crowds at San Diego Comic-Con International to record-breaking ratings in the United States to chart-topping iTunes downloads and a petition to keep the show on Netflix, the British sci-fi show has never been as popular as it is today.

But the show’s success has less to do with its 50th, or 51st, birthday and much to do with its 10th -- or, more accurately, the 10th anniversary of its revival. On March 26, 2005, exactly a decade ago today, Doctor Who returned to the air with new episodes following a long absence. Nine years after his last appearance in a TV movie, and more than 15 years after he’d been seen in new episodes, the Doctor was once again in. And since then, the time-and-space-traveling British science fiction show has become a relatively well-known entertainment mainstay and a global brand. Broadcast weekly in more than 50 countries, Doctor Who was one BBC Worldwide’s top-five highest grossing titles, and the company’s CEO John Smith described it as a “superbrand” to the Wales on Sunday.

And for at least one former Doctor, the Tenth incarnation David Tennant, the reason for all the success begins with Russell T. Davies, the executive producer who brought Who back.

“Why is it bigger now? Russell T. Davies probably,” said Tennant on a recent panel with me at Wizard World Raleigh Comic Con.  “He wanted to bring Doctor Who back; it was his idea, his passion. He re-invented it and made something that connected to people. The show always had that, but he managed to find a way to connect it with an audience in the 21st century.”

Time-travel with me back to 2005, and you’ll see that audiences may have been looking for something with heart(s). After all, it was not shaping up to be a good year. 

The effects of a massive Indian Ocean earthquake, which caused a devastating tsunami in Thailand, Sri Lanka and other areas, were still being felt. Wars were still waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and insurgent attacks worsened. North Korea announced it had nuclear weapons. And the world was only days away from the death of Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II, a figure generally regarded as an ambassador for peace.

But along came Davies’ relaunched Doctor Who -- a story about an ancient, eccentric, traveling Time Lord who zipped through the universe in his TARDIS, permanently camouflaged as a blue, 1950s-era British police call box. Instead of a gun, blaster or phaser, he wielded a tool -- the sonic screwdriver. And instead of a crew, he had a human travel buddy. Starring Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and Billie Piper as his companion, Rose, this new Who re-introduced the world to one of Britain’s, and science fiction’s, most iconic characters.

As it turns out, Davies -- a successful creator for the BBC -- refused to work on anything else until he could kickstart Who. But the lifelong fan was initially hesitant when his dream came true. In a BBC press release, Davies said he had to spend three days thinking about it when the offer to do the show came down because “part of me thought 'If you love something maybe you should leave it alone'.” However, Davies took the job, along with the mission that the show would be "funny, scary, fast-moving, adventurous, but above all the new Doctor Who is fun.”

It was immediately clear that this was a very different Doctor than we had previously seen. This ninth regeneration of the Doctor still had two hearts, hated Daleks and had a soft spot for Earth -- but he was darker. The last of the Time Lords, he was the lone survivor of the Time War that destroyed Gallifrey. He was often angry, then sorrowful, but masked his emotions in humor. He also was a bit of a rebel, used “hell” as a swear word and sported a V-neck shirt and leather jacket instead of donning a suit. Executive producer Julie Gardner called this Doctor intense but frivolous -- “but with an enormous pace and energy.”

In a way, this new Doctor was a product of the current era. While he hadn’t lost his sense of hope, he was a war-weary figure. In a post-9/11 world, the Sixth Doctor’s amazing Technicolor Time Lord Coat probably wouldn’t fly. 

Heading into the series, Eccleston told the BBC News in April 2004 that his character would “have a slight dark side” while remaining a “man who enjoys himself.” He added that his episodes would have a “strong emotional story” and would address social issues. But that he wasn’t “going to be as eccentric and as foppish as he was in some of his incarnations.”

“For a show with that much humor and sci-fi, the emotional high points of this series are incredibly powerful,” echoed David Bushman, a television curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York City. “That’s not something you can always say about sci-fi.”

This sturm und drang version of the Doctor connected with audiences, and though Eccleston left after only one season, the show had returned in a big way. In October 2005, Eccleston won Most Popular Actor at the British National Television Awards that year, Piper won for Most Popular Actress and Doctor Who won for Most Popular Drama. 

In addition to being a strong ratings performer (the 2005 premiere episode, “Rose,” attracted 10.8 million viewers), the British newspaper The Telegraph reported in 2009 that the revival had enjoyed the highest audience “Appreciation Index” for any TV drama aside from soaps, and that it was watched by a cross-section of the population (the so-called “three-generation TV” show that attracts grandparents, parents and grandchildren). 

All this was before the new Doctor Who debuted stateside. 

But it isn’t as if America was particularly interested for more Time Lord adventures, outside a small and dedicated fan base. After the original series had debuted in 1965 in Canada, it made its way to America in 1972. Despite added voiceovers and clunky new edits for commercial breaks, the show enjoyed some success on PBS channels in the late 1970s and '80s. Four former Doctor Who leads appeared in the U.S. to support the show’s 20th anniversary in 1983, and a traveling Doctor Who USA Tour was mounted in 1986. But after the series ended in 1989, a 1996 Doctor Who TV movie, produced by both the BBC and Universal Pictures, was a ratings failure. 

“There wasn’t a clamoring for it at all, and the attempt to make an American/British/Canadian film and bring it back with Paul McGann was not successful,” said Bushman. Doctor Who was something that, in America, was pretty dormant.”

On the Raleigh panel, Tennant -- Eccleston’s successor, whose first full episode aired Christmas Day 2005 -- seemed to agree with this sentiment. While he said the show was part of the “cultural furniture” in Britain, he was always told it didn’t translate elsewhere.

“We were always told growing up that Doctor Who is big in the UK, but didn’t really travel because it was so English, so British, so peculiarly of our country the rest of the world didn’t get it,” he said. “It turns out that’s not true.”

The new Who aired on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation beginning April 2005, but it was a year later, in March 2006, that it began its telecast on the SCI FI Channel. By that time, Eccleston had long departed the show under circumstances that continued to be speculated about. When it did show in the States, the ratings on SCI FI -- before the show moved to its current U.S. home on BBC America in 2009 -- were moderately successful (around one and half million viewers total).

But an interesting fan base was taking shape in the United States. Tennant, who grew up a “massive fan,” said that growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, the show was “something everyone was aware of.” But it was also largely thought of as primarily a children’s show that grownups could enjoy.

Not so here. 

“Intended as a children’s program when it was introduced [in the United Kingdom], people were largely introduced to it as children, which is different than here,” observed Bushman. “Here in the States, it is not considered predominantly a children’s program ... and the reboot wasn’t marketed or programmed that way.”

The romance between Tennant and Piper’s characters (and Tennant did admit in Raleigh that Rose was the Doctor’s girlfriend) felt young and fresh to some American audiences -- as did the energy of Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith, and companions Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill. Also, compared to the cheesiness of the old series, higher production values and better special effects played better with audiences on this side of the pond. Anecdotally, instead of being “cultural furniture” with nearly a half-century of stories (led by largely older white men) behind it, there was a sense of novelty to the show in the United States, and millennials were embracing it. 

Bushman said the popularity in America was cumulative, and that the show benefited from a lot of online social communities. In addition to a new and coalescing fan base on social media, the series was a popular download on BitTorrent. 

Plus, the BBC and BBC America became more media-savvy about Doctor Who right around the time Tennant was departing -- and coinciding with the rise of so-called nerd culture. Along with Davies, the actor took the stage at San Diego Comic-Con International in 2009, his first fan convention ever. It was something of a farewell address in the months before his final episodes aired at the end of the year. 

But by 2011, Doctor Who was saying hello to SDCC in a larger fashion with Smith. After he made his appearance in “The End of Time, Part Two,” which was Tennant’s final episode, Smith’s first full entry as the Doctor aired in the UK on April 3, 2010, and on BBC America on April 17. “The Eleventh Hour” averaged 1.2 million viewers, a record for the network. But before the episode even aired, BBC America had introduced the U.S. to Smith and Gillan, and new showrunner Steven Moffat, at New York’s Paley Center on April 12.

The youngest actor to appear in the role, 26 when he was cast, Smith laid out some rules for the show for the American audience at the Paley Center: “There is no other show, to my mind, that is not bound by space or time or logic or genre or place.”

That Dec. 25, BBC America aired the Doctor Who holiday special “A Christmas Carol” on the same day it premiered on the BBC. This was a first for the series, and would continue with the sixth season, beginning in April 2011. Also in 2011, Netflix reached an agreement with the BBC that would allow the series to be shown on the streaming service. 

The ability to binge-watch “obviously played a huge role in exposing people here to the show,” said Bushman, and Tennant agreed.

“Once something is on Netflix, it’s everywhere,” he said. “That seems to be the key; that’s where it’s at" (aside: Netflix had become such a gateway to the series that when it was announced last January that Doctor Who might be removed from it [due to an expiring contract], enough outcry took place that the service renewed its contract with the BBC).

By July 2011, Smith and Gillan packed SDCC’s Hall H. From there, BBC America brought the cast out for subsequent appearances at Comic-Con, or for screenings at landmarks such as New York’s Ziegfeld Theater. Famous fans such as Craig Ferguson and Chris Hardwick used their platforms to tout the show, which certainly didn't hurt its profile in this country. Then the two-part sixth-season premiere, “The Impossible Astronaut”/ “Day of the Moon” marked the first time the show had filmed in the United States, as it would again with 2012’s seventh-season episode “The Angels Take Manhattan.” Filmed partially in Central Park, the pivotal installment featured the departure of companions Amy and Rory (Gillan and Darvill, respectively).

Smith was arguably the mainstream Doctor for America. In 2012, even before the show’s 50th anniversary a year later, Doctor Who had landed on the covers of Entertainment Weekly (a first for any British show, ever) and TV Guide, was mentioned on the cover of Rolling Stone and was at one point the most downloaded show on iTunes. These were “signposts” that the show’s reach had significantly broadened, said Bushman.

“That’s been one of the most exciting parts of my tenure, really, is seeing the growing evolution of the show in the States -- and just the general awareness of the show,” Smith told me in 2012. TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly -- things like that are real big steps for the show, and I feel very proud to be a part of it. It is nice to work on something that feels like it’s in a moment, or of a moment.”

But while the show was making an impact over here, it was still going strong on its home field. Tennant’s departure/holiday netted 11.5 million viewers in the UK, Smith’s first episode drew 10 million (the best-rated premiere since the show returned). The show’s Christmas specials tend to pull bigger numbers, but Smith’s 2010 “A Christmas Carol” was still impressive with 12.11 million viewers. That episode would not be surpassed until November 2013’s 50th-anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” which starred both Tennant and Smith and attracted 12.8 million viewers in the UK (and was broadcast simultaneously in 94 countries).

However, ratings have recently sagged somewhat in the UK, from an average of more than 8 million viewers per episode during Smith’s run to fewer than 7 million during last fall’s season eight -- which featured the 12th regeneration of the character, played by Peter Capaldi. Showrunner Moffat, at a November 2014 event covered by The Hollywood Reporter, emphasized that the numbers “are the same” when delayed viewings are included.

He also noted that American viewership was up 30 percent. This is true; ratings in the States have been climbing. In fact, BBC America announced in January that the show experienced its best season yet, with an average of 2.3 million viewers. This is especially interesting considering that Capaldi is the first older Doctor that American audiences have known.

Bushman pointed out that 2 million viewers is still a small audience by American network standards -- by comparison the latest episode of The Walking Dead attracted 13.7 million viewers -- but that Doctor Who is more in the country’s public imagination now. He said it is “night and day” compared to 10 years ago, even though the show has not reach British-level recognition.

The Paley curator also think it is relevant that, in addition to Doctor Who, there is a lot more access to media overall right now, and much more attention paid to all of it.

“It is a much more media-saturated world, and there’s more opportunity to indulge your obsessions,” said Bushman, before adding, “But the show has a hugely higher profile today, and he’s a more meaningful character now.”

This new iteration of Who also seems to embrace the changing nature of the show, but that change (or regeneration) isn't always so fun for the Doctor or his companions. Even though the concept of the show allows new actors to take over and embody the same character, the revival has explored the trauma surrounding that transition. When Eccleston left, and the Ninth Doctor regenerated into the Tenth (Tennant), Piper's Rose was reluctant to accept him. Similarly, the companion Clara (Jenna Coleman), who had a crush on Smith's Eleventh Doctor, was suddenly dealing with Peter Capaldi's older-looking Time Lord. Not even the Doctors themselves go easily into that good night. Tennant's final words in character were "I don't want to go." And Smith's regeneration scene was likewise heartbreaking. This makes for emotionally nuanced and compelling television.

For Moffat, it is also part of the show's enduring nature, and why "Doctor Who is so much better than anything else in the world."

"He doesn’t really just change his face," he explained to me in August 2014. "Things about him are not the same. Things he reaches for aren’t there. He has feelings he didn’t have before. That must be awfully alarming and make you wonder who you are."

Regardless of the whys and hows, Tennant agreed the show has grown into something more.

“It is has certainly changed, even since I was in it,” he said. “I was in America very early into this, and you’d always get a bit of attention; there was always people who knew the show, like once a day -- but over the years, and since I stopped being in Doctor Who, it seems it has exponentially exploded. Now, when I come to America, it’s like being at home and it seems to have this reach now, and this ubiquity which is never something I thought would happen.”

But the erstwhile Tenth Doctor also noted that this Doctor Who is still the same one he grew up with and loved as a child.

“The fact that we’re here and that it’s extended around the world, and there’s nowhere I can go in the world now without a hat on has got something to do with the way Russell just tweaked it,” said Tennant. “He didn’t change much, and it’s the same show it always was, but he gave it an emotional accessibility. He gave it a heart, or two.”

Now, 51 years after its birth, and 10 years today after its rebirth, Doctor Who appears to be flying high in the TARDIS. Filming is currently underway in Cardiff, Wales, for season nine, which will air in fall 2015. It remains to be seen whether audiences will return with the new episodes, but so far there’s little indication that the time of the Doctor is nearing an end a decade after he checked back in.