Monday, November 24, 2008

The Day The Universe Changed: November 23, 1963

JFK in the East Room, November 23, 1963.

On Saturday, November 23, 1963, the people of the United States were in shocked mourning, trying to come to terms with the assassination of John F Kennedy the day before. His body had been shipped back to Washington and funerary technicians had worked in vain to cosmetically reconstruct the top of his head. As his widow's request, the body lay in state in the East Room of the White House, which was laid out and draped in a recreation of the way it looked when Abraham Lincoln's body lay there in 1865. The casket, closed at Jackie's behest, lay on the Lincoln catafalque, the pine bier on which numerous presidents and other governmental dignitaries have been laid over the years. There was a private service in the East Room; the public one would not be until Monday, after a day of lying in state at the Capitol Rotunda on Sunday.

The news of the day was about the man who had been arrested for the murder, Lee Harvey Oswald, who sneeringly denied everything; a short speech from the new President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, declaring a national day of mourning for Monday; and interviews and speculations from various people. It filled the airwaves, in the process transforming tv news forever, and inadvertently laying the groundwork for later conspiracy theories. Stores were closed; everyone stayed close to their tv. I stepped outside my family's house in Manlius on Sunday afternoon, the 24th, and was struck by the fact that nobody at all was outside: no other children, and no more than a single car going by on the main road between Fayetteville and Manlius, in five or ten minutes. For a six-year-old too young to understand the details of what was happening, the weekend was rather tedious. I didn't see the live shooting of Oswald on tv that Sunday, but did hear about it after the fact.

Across the Atlantic in Britain that Saturday, America's national tragedy was big news, but not an all-consuming obsession. The BBC rearranged its schedule only slightly to accommodate the news. A new science fiction series, scheduled to premiere that afternoon at 5:15 PM, began transmission just 80 seconds late. However, because of the assassination and a series of blackouts around the country, the network reran part one of the serial now known as An Unearthly Child on November 30th.

November 23, 1963 was thus the date of the first broadcast of the first episode of the first serial of Doctor Who, now the longest running science fiction series in the history of television worldwide. It was about two teachers, Ian and Barbara, who followed their most baffling student into a junkyard. They soon found themselves trapped in a blue box that was bigger on the inside than the outside, and whisked away from 1963 against their will by a brilliant but capricious, almost amoral old man who claimed to be from another planet, and his somewhat odd granddaughter.

In terms of reception, it was not a terribly auspicious beginning. The initial viewership of 4.4 million people wasn't terrible for a British tv series of the time, but it wasn't very good, either, and the cultural impact that first week was minimal. The serial peaked at 6.9 million viewers two weeks later on December 7th. The next serial, now known as The Daleks, steadily gained viewership (up to 10.4 million by February) as the eponymous metal-encased monsters caught the imagination of children on playgrounds across Britain and touched off a national craze. The show's future for the next few years was assured, helped along by the gradual mellowing of the lead character into more of a hero than an antihero.

But it took one more innovation to increase the show's lifespan from years to decades. When actor William Hartnell, who played Dr Who (as he was then known in the show's credits), became too ill to continue in the role, the show's producer and script editor conceived the idea that the Doctor could renew himself, transforming into a new appearance that could then be played by a different actor. This process, which eventually became known as regeneration, made it possible for the show to survive numerous cast changes, and occasional tweaks in the overall conception of the Doctor's character.

Every single Doctor Who story to date,
in order, in just under 8 minutes.

The series has had its ups and downs over the years. It was huge in Britain in the 1960s and only slightly less so in the 1970s, but by the 1980s it was in decline in terms of viewership and respect. In the United States the show achieved only cult status on PBS, with many casual viewers primarily familiar with the character as played by Tom Baker, the guy with the long scarf and curly hair. A BBC controller placed the series an 18-month hiatus between March 1985 and September 1986. At the end of 1989 the BBC decided to give the show a "rest," which was in effect a cancellation. Aside from a few charity sketches, the only television reappearance of Doctor Who over the next decade and a half was a controversial television movie on 1996. During that period, however, the Doctor's adventures continued in multiple series of novels, in comic strips in Doctor Who Magazine, and in audio adventures on CD and occasionally radio.

The Ninth Doctor tells Rose a little something about himself.

As the years stretched out since the last television serial in 1989 and even the 1996 movie, the chances of the show returning to television began to seem remote. Enter Russell T Davies, a successful writer-producer who had made a splash with several tv series and serials, most notably (and controversially) Queer as Folk and The Second Coming. A longtime fan of Doctor Who, Davies was given the task of returning the show to the BBC on Saturday at teatime. The announcement was made in September 2003, and the revived series premiered 18 months later, on March 26, 2005. Over 10 million viewers saw that first episode.

The Tenth Doctor regenerates - sort of.

Not all episodes did that well, but overall the show was more popular than it had been in decades, helped along by great scripts, high production values and two highly respected actors in the lead role: first Christopher Eccleston, and then David Tennant. A new generation of children played Doctor Who vs. the Daleks in British schoolyards, and new ranges of toys, books, magazines and even food products were issued. The 2008 series was so popular that it set new viewing records for the show. At the end of "The Stolen Earth," Tennant's Doctor began to regenerate after being shot by a Dalek, touched off a firestorm of wild speculation in the British press. 10.57 million viewers watched the following week as the Tenth Doctor found a way to avoid changing his face, but accidentally caused the creation of another, half-human version of himself. Now viewers anxiously await this year's Christmas special, with the maddening title of "The Next Doctor," and four further specials before Tennant's announced departure from the series.

Happy 45th (and a day) Anniversary, Doctor Who!



Anonymous said...

I was born on Nov 23 1963.
And I am A great fan of Dr Who!

Anonymous said...

Hi ,
Great blog about Dr Who.My sixth birthday was on that day.After a lovely party we settled down to watch Dr Who and I've be watching it ever since.I also enjoyed the Telegoons afterwards!It was my best birthday ever!