Russell T. Davies, Jo Whiley, Chris Chibnall and Steven Moffat celebrating the show's 60th birthday in Cardiff last monthBBC WITH PERMISSION FOR VARSITY

“One day I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.” These were the famous lines uttered by William Hartnell’s First Doctor way back in 1964, just Doctor Who’s second year on our screens – words which didn’t just conclude a classic episode but have come to define the series as a whole. Doctor Who has, after all, ‘come back’ time and time again; battling against meagre budgets, apathetic BBC high-ups, and, initially, a TV landscape which looked pretty snobbishly upon science-fiction. Its survival is testament to the timelessness of its premise which, even for the non-Whovians among us, should provoke pride as the programme’s sixtieth anniversary approaches.

Ever since its troubled TV debut the day after JFK’s assassination, this quintessentially British TV show has fought the odds. In 1966, the ailing health of Hartnell, the lead actor who brought the titular character to life, seemed an insurmountable obstacle to the survival of the only major sci-fi show on the BBC. Yet regeneration, a concept so genius it would make the Doctor blush, provided the show with a stay of execution. Patrick Troughton’s sparkling performance as the Second Doctor illustrated that the programme was far more than a one-man band, and established the template that has persisted right through until today. It was only briefly, in 1989, that BBC executives thought they’d finally managed to cancel the programme. The series was ‘rested’, a decision which beggared belief as that year’s 26th season, headed up by Sylvester McCoy, is still regarded as one of the show’s best. Yet, once again the programme ‘came back’, in the form of books, radio plays, animated episodes, and even a glitzy TV movie, starring Paul McGann.

“It’s only through ingenious sparks of ‘serendipity’ that Doctor Who ever made an imprint on our screens in the first place”

Most casual Doctor Who fans may well have nodded off at this point, but it’s only through ingenious sparks of ‘serendipity’ that Doctor Who ever made an imprint on our screens in the first place. Never mind battling Quarks, Kryons, or Kraals, it was real-life TV critics who always gave the Doctor the most trouble and whom the show had to confound, time and time again, to ensure its survival, using creative zeal to fly brazenly in the face of TV convention.

Doctor Who has long been the underdog on British TV, pitted against gaudy game shows or big-budget American imports throughout its lifespan. Lesser programmes fell to Play Your Cards Right or Dallas, yet it was the boldness of producers like Barry Letts, Phillip Hinchcliffe, and John Nathan Turner, unafraid to push the boundaries, which gave Doctor Who its resilient streak. Letts was a pioneer of CSO, an early form of green screen technology, and played a pivotal role in its adoption by shows like Star Trek. Hinchcliffe went head to head with Mary Whitehouse, Britain’s most puritanical TV campaigner, increasing the violence in the show and challenging the norms of what TV was expected to give to a ‘family audience’. Nathan Turner’s final years as producer were almost exclusively under siege from critics, but, under script-editor Andrew Cartmel’s direction, the show dealt with then taboo themes of same-sex relationships and family breakdown.

“Using creative zeal to fly brazenly in the face of TV convention”

This kept the show going throughout the 20th century and it was the legacy of these figures, and the admiration they provoked amongst a sizable minority of the British public, that meant that, when Russell T. Davies arrived in 2005, there was a series worth reviving. And what a revival – Kylie Minogue kissing a spiky red robot! Multicoloured Daleks! It’s safe to say that fans have been treated over the past 18 years.

But while this multifaceted resilience has brought rewards for long-serving fans, it should also matter to people who are not ‘Whovians’. This resilience has, after all, helped more widely to shape the technically inventive and permissive wider media landscape that we all enjoy today – Stanley Kubrick sought technical advice from the show’s team when creating 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Edgar Wright has cited several episodes from the 70s which earned Mary Whitehouse’s ire as direct inspiration for the final part of his ‘Cornetto Trilogy’, The World’s End. This show has been, above all, a trailblazer. Yes, it’s a bit silly. You just have to watch 1964’s The Web Planet to see that. And yes, Doctor Who can be rubbish; 1986’s Timelash is a steaming pile of effluence. But for each dud, there are at least ten episodes laden with brilliant scripts, performances, and directorial methods. The programme has also directly launched the careers of generations of writers, actors, and film and TV production workers. Steven Moffat, the creator of Sherlock, was directed towards the industry by his love of Doctor Who, as was Mark Gatiss, Frank Skinner, Peter Capaldi, and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. The show also gave the first major opportunities to Martin Clunes, Billie Piper, Karen Gillan and Douglas Adams (amongst others) to extoll their talents.


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Doctor Who is more than a series which its fans obsess over, more than just wobbly sets and tenuous plots – it is a programme which has fully embodied its message, continuing to ‘come back’ and, as such, helping shape the broader TV landscape within which it exists. This is what is worth celebrating on November 23rd as the show turns sixty; and surely if it continues to retain its unique admixture of inspiration, vibrancy, and courage, then as Hartnell’s Doctor once prophesied, “it’s far from being all over”.

Doctor Who is available to stream on BBC iPlayer