The Doctor Is In

April 15, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

The average life cycle of a television program is a known quantity: birth, first-run, repeats, death, syndication, DVD release. For some shows, the steps get jumbled a bit (with repeats and first-run episodes interspersed and DVD releases preceding syndication), but that's pretty much the way things go. No matter how successful the program, it will eventually lose viewers and be exiled to a place where it fades from memory. American Idol may be huge now but there will be a day in the not-too-distant future when it will be a dimly recalled blip on the pop culture radar. Just as it was with Friends and Seinfeld and Cheers and The Cosby Show and MASH.

There are always anomalies - shows with fan bases so large and so loyal that they get the bigwigs to take notice. The most obvious example of this was Star Trek. The series ran on NBC for three years in the late 1960s and was canceled because of poor ratings. In syndication, however, it thrived, bolstered by a die-hard core that swelled as more viewers discovered the series. After Star Wars made science fiction hip, Paramount decided to try out a big-screen Star Trek movie. This led to a film series and a rebirth of the show on television, albeit radically re-imagined (but with hooks to the original). "New" Star Trek survived for about 18 years on television, spanning four series (some better liked than others) before eroding popularity removed it from first-run existence. Yet Star Trek isn't dead. Paramount is using CGI to modernize the original episodes and is planning another movie for next year. (The question of whether or not overexposure damaged Star Trek will be left for another column; I believe that's the case.)

Something similar has happened across the Atlantic. In the U.K., Doctor Who is a national institution. In the U.S., it's a cult phenomenon. The program debuted on British screens the day after JFK was assassinated. It reached its popular peak in the late '70s and early '80s, which is when it received an injection of enthusiasm from American devotees as the program became widely available on PBS stations. By the mid-'80s, however, it was in trouble and the ax fell in 1989, when its weekly U.K. broadcast struggled to draw 4 million viewers. Doctor Who, one of the longest-running television programs in the world, was dead at age 26. Or was it?

As with Star Trek, the fans wouldn't let it die. All around the world, they lobbied for its return. Actors from the series willingly participated in audio dramas (sold on CD) that continued the Doctor's adventures. The line of Doctor Who books expanded. In 1996, FOX-TV and the BBC co-produced a made-for-TV Doctor Who movie that was intended to be a "back door" pilot for a new series. However, American audiences were lukewarm to the production (which was placed in the unenviable position of airing opposite the series finale of Roseanne) and it became a one-off outing. Doctor Who returned to hibernation.

Fast-forward to 2003, the series' 40th anniversary. During that year, the BBC made the announcement fans had been longing to hear - the Doctor was returning. Saturday night - family TV night in England - had once been the bastion of Doctor Who. Lately, the BBC schedule had been trounced on Saturdays and something was needed to stop the bleeding. It was decided to modernize Doctor Who and bring it back under the auspices of producer Russell T. Davies, one of the hottest names in British television (and an avowed Doctor Who fan). New Who debuted in the Spring of 2004 and proved to be an escapist favorite. Gone were the pathetic viewing figures of 15 years earlier. One generation later, Doctor Who had returned to its former glory.

New Who was sold worldwide and it wasn't long before audiences everywhere were getting a chance to observe Christopher Eccleston (and later David Tennant) in the title role. Because of a lengthy dispute with Universal's Science Fiction Channel about the disposition of the old series (the BBC initially wanted SciFi to purchase the rights to all the episodes, not just the new ones – an expensive proposition), the United States was one of the last countries to broadcast New Who.

In the U.K., season three debuted two weeks ago. Ratings have continued to hold and aren't far from where they were two years ago. Doctor Who is consistently the highest rated non-soap opera on British TV (beaten only by Coronation Street and Eastenders) and the #1 kids' program. There are two Doctor Who spinoffs - Torchwood (a kind of British X-Files) and The Sarah Jane Adventures (a science fiction mystery series aimed at younger viewers) - and the future looks rosy for the parent series which has officially been renewed for a fourth season and carries expectations that it will last for at least two additional years. In the United States, while Doctor Who has not garnered spectacular ratings for the SciFi Channel, they are good enough for the station to stay with the program.

Rumor has it that season 3 will debut on SciFi in early July, shortly after it ends its run on the BBC. Die-hard fans, however, will not wait that long. In this era of on-demand viewing for programs with die-hard fan bases, any delay is unacceptable. Within 24 hours after anything has been broadcast somewhere in the world, it will be available to everyone. New Who episodes are widely circulated via Bit Torrent and YouTube shortly after their Saturday evening airings on BBC1. Roughly 50,000 U.S. fans download the Doctor's latest adventures every Saturday night. (The number doesn't substantially impact SciFi's ratings, as it represents only about 3% of Doctor Who's audience, and there's good reason to believe many fans who have downloaded the episodes still watch them on SciFi and buy the DVDs - this is one reason why neither the BBC nor SciFi has become aggressive in killing Who torrents and YouTube postings.)

The strength of Old Who was its whimsical quality. It was never intended to be hardcore science fiction – in fact, it was closer to fantasy than sci-fi. It was often silly and acknowledged its silliness, and that was part of the fun. While much has changed with New Who, that aspect remains the same. Plot-wise, Doctor Who episodes vary greatly in quality, but fans tolerate the bad and the ugly - especially since they remember the dregs of the late 1980s when the wheels came off. Those of us who cut the program a break when it missteps can be excused for our largess. Nostalgia is a powerful factor and absence does make the heart grow fonder. After a 15 year vacation, it's nice to be able to acknowledge that the Doctor is in, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.