‘Doctor Who’ turns 50 and fans’ lives will never be the same

Henry Hanks


(CNN) — In 1996, John Reid Adams received a phone call that changed his life.

His oldest brother wanted him to record the movie that was airing on Fox one Tuesday night.

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“I just did it to avoid a beating,” Adams admitted.

As the eighth-grader surfed the Internet, he continued to get distracted by the movie unfolding on TV. He saw a British police box from the 1950s — actually a disguised spaceship known as a “TARDIS” — on the screen.

“This blue box was bigger on the inside! This had to be the maddest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Soon, Adams was hooked on “Doctor Who.”

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Seventeen years later, he has become a writer and actor with two “Doctor Who” fan films on his resume. He credits the show for many of his friendships and his marriage.

All of this because of a show about an alien with two hearts who travels through space and time, keeping the universe safe.

Ever since the BBC first aired this little science fiction series for families on November 23, 1963, it’s gained a fan base – often called “Whovians” – that has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, especially in the U.S.

“It’s certainly a broader base now, that’s certainly true,” said Peter Davison, who portrayed the Fifth Doctor in the early 1980s. There have been 11 Doctors in all, with a 12th on the way next month — though they’re all the same character, much like James Bond, but not exactly.

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People will tell Adams “how important the program was to them. Perhaps they saw it at a very difficult time in their life and they could identify with the Doctor or the companions in some way, and it became very important to them. And I don’t think I’ve done another program where anyone’s said that to me before.”

The show is celebrating its 50th anniversary, a rare feat for anything on TV, and has shaped the lives of generations of fans. It holds the Guinness Book world record for longest running science fiction television program.

A shared love of ‘Who’

Caitlin Beerer’s life was affected quite quickly after being introduced to “Doctor Who” in 2011. The Cleveland student was a fan of the show, but that fandom turned into something bigger when she saw that same 1996 Fox TV movie starring Paul McGann (the only episode of “Doctor Who” where he was the star up until very recently).

“The Eighth Doctor is completely wonderful and terribly underrated,” she said. “I quickly fell in love with him.”

She joined Tumblr and dived into the Eighth Doctor community there, soon coming upon a photo of a man named Owen Rickard, portraying the character. Her message to him: “Marry me. Please.”

The two soon began a long-distance relationship driven by “Doctor Who” (Rickard lives in London).

“It’s been a wonderful journey through time and space, and it certainly didn’t take long for us to figure out that we had found soul mates in each other, even though we live on opposite sides of the Atlantic.”

Jared Claxon, who goes to fan conventions dressed as the Third Doctor, has a similar story.

His future wife saw him in costume at the 2010 EXPcon in St. Augustine, Florida, and wanted a photo with him.

“Throughout the rest of the day we just talked about our mutual love of ‘Doctor Who’ and science fiction,” he said.

” ‘Doctor Who’ has a magical quality about it that it can instantly break barriers and give someone hours and hours of conversation. Two weeks later we were dating and we haven’t looked back ever since!”

Bonding over ‘the Doctor’

Just as “Doctor Who” has brought people together, it has also kept them from drifting apart.

“Because of my job, we have had to move a couple of times,” said Mark Tuttle.

“All of them have been hard moves for the kids, particularly with my daughter Bailey. As she constantly had to say goodbye to her friends, her and I became best friends. ‘Doctor Who’ became the show that really cemented our relationship through our love of the characters that shared a lot of the same stories of travel and loss that we did.”

Tuttle spent months writing a 68 page eBook called “Bailey and the Doctor” which he gave his daughter for Christmas in 2010.

“There is the lesson that there are those in your life that you’ll leave, that will leave you, that will be taken from you and that will just fade away,” he said.

“But they live in your heart and no one can ever take that from you. Essentially, I was able to use the Doctor to tell her what I as her father couldn’t.”

They even went to San Diego Comic-Con this year in costume and waited six hours in line to see the “Doctor Who” 50th anniversary panel.

“We were in the last 100 people to get into the 6,500 person audience and were the first in the world to see the trailer for the 50th Anniversary special!”

A fandom that has stood the test of time

So what is it that has drawn fans to this quirky show over so many years?

“It transcends genre,” according to Marcus Hearn, author of “Doctor Who: The Vault: Treasures from the First 50 Years.”

“It has certainly been a science fiction show in its time, but it’s also been a horror show, a comedy, a historical adventure … even a Western,” he said.

“It’s an institution — part of the fabric our popular culture.”

John Rabon, a fan from Easley, South Carolina, has noticed an increase in the show’s popularity lately.

“I’ve always considered myself a geek and felt the things I liked were pretty exclusive to like-minded people,” said Rabon, who often portrays the Ninth Doctor in costume.

“However, it feels like in the last few years, the show’s exposure led to this massive increase of mainstream popularity.”

He says there is a big difference between the small but devoted fan base who watched the show in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and the current, broader fandom that was introduced to the show by the rebooted series in 2005.

Some of it could be attributable to the Internet where “Doctor Who” memes abound on social media sites like Tumblr. The likable, youthful portrayals of the Doctor, especially by David Tennant and Matt Smith could also explain its appeal to those in their teens and 20s, who may have considered it a “kids show” in the past.

“I often hear stories about how ‘Doctor Who’ has really reminded people to embrace learning and creativity again,” said author and iReporter Alan Kistler (“Doctor Who: A History” is his latest book).

“It’s great to see a hero who gets so excited by scientific progress and society rising above things like hatred and petty rivalry. It reminds the rest of us what’s supposed to matter.”

He said the show’s family-friendly nature doesn’t hurt either, as it can get passed down from generation to generation.

The Doctor’s lesson plan

To that end, Sarah Townsend, a high school teacher in Hope Mills, North Carolina, incorporates “Doctor Who” into her classes.

Townsend has been a life-long sci-fi fan, with fond memories of “Star Trek,” but she discovered “Doctor Who” over the past few years.

“As a teacher, I take this idea of sharing the wonders the world has to offer and bring it to my classroom,” she said.

“To me, the story of the Doctor embodies many wonderful things we wish to strive for: being a hero, fighting for what is right, making the best out of bad situations, and most importantly, teaching others how to appreciate the wonders that surround us. We are able to take in the wonders and the excitement of the universe.”