The doctor who cheated death

In its 50th year, 'Doctor Who' remains an icon of continuity in a changing Britain

Philip Larkin's "Annus Mirabilis" characterises 1963 as a year of beginnings, and one in which life was never better. The first transmission of the BBC science-fiction drama Doctor Who, a show in which a time-travelling humanoid alien called the Doctor adventures his way through the universe, is strangely absent from Larkin's account of why the people of 1963 had never had it so good. Yet this is a programme which holds an unusually privileged position in the British psyche. Even those poor souls who have never seen an episode will be more than familiar with the show's principal iconography. These include the Doctor himself, his trusty time machine that's bigger on the inside, and some of his more persistent enemies. Chief among these are the Daleks, a sinister race of emotionless cyborgs determined to remove happiness from the universe and consequently famed for sending people scuttling behind the sofa in terror. In Britain, the only other broadcasts which provoke this response with the same frequency or intensity are those containing government ministers announcing further cuts to public spending.

Doctor Who has become such a part of British life that extracts were scheduled to feature amongst the cavalcade of cultural icons in the Olympics opening ceremony last summer, although, ironically for a show centred on time-travel, these extracts were much reduced due to time-constraints. Hindsight now tells us that this lost section would surely have been preferable to the extended homage to another cultural behemoth of 1963 Beatlemania which closed the ceremony. Even the most die-hard fan must admit that Paul McCartney's rendition of "Hey Jude" made the world a little colder.

Fortunately, the Royal Mail has now made amends by issuing a series of stamps in honour of Doctor Who's 50th anniversary. Forget the Fab Four, these stamps are all about the Eclectic Eleven, that is, all the actors who have played the Doctor, from the crusty, avuncular William Hartnell, to the neutrally-named but extravagantly bequiffed Matt Smith. The various incarnations of the Doctor reveal a gift for evolution shared with James Bond, another icon from 1960s Britain featured (rather more prominently) in the opening ceremony. As with Bond, the re-casting allows the programme, and its protagonist, to be simultaneously old and new, helping it remain fresh over its many decades on screen. Unlike Bond, though, these drastic changes in personnel are frequently referenced rather than silently absorbed into the broader narrative; the Doctor cheats death by regenerating into a new body whenever mortally wounded. This allows a peculiar, but effective, mode of continuity through change which doesn't run the risk of pastiche.

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