How Doctor Who Became Part of Mainstream British Popular Culture | History Hit

How Doctor Who Became Part of Mainstream British Popular Culture

Celeste Neill

06 Nov 2022
Dalek models and the Tardis from the TV series 'Doctor Who' at the Sci-Fi Scarborough convention
Image Credit: PJ_Photography /

On 23 November 1963, the first episode of British sci-fi series Doctor Who was broadcast on BBC TV. Named An Unearthly Child, it was well-received by an audience of over 4 million and would be the first of more than 850 episodes that have made the programme a stalwart of British popular culture.

The show, which is known for the intelligent, often whimsical character of The Doctor, details his time-travelling exploits as he combats foes, saves civilisations and restores harmony. Equally well-known are the ever-evolving Doctor’s companions, who support him in his inter-galactical fight against danger and villainy.

The show, which has been dubbed the most successful sci-fi series in history, has spawned numerous spin-offs such as comic books, novels, films, audio dramas and television series.

So how did it come to be so popular?

The first episode transported the characters to the Stone Age

Recorded in September 1963 on black and white video tape, An Unearthly Child tells the story of Susan, a schoolgirl who harbours strange, ‘alien’ views about the world. Concerned about her, two of her teachers visit her home, where they meet her cranky and mysterious grandfather – called ‘the Doctor’ – then hear Susan’s voice from inside a police phone box.

Perplexed, they are shown inside and see that it is not a phone box at all but a spaceship called the TARDIS. Alarmed by their discovery, the Doctor – who is actually a time-travelling alien, sets the TARDIS into flight and sends them all back to the Stone Age.

The image of the TARDIS is iconic in British popular culture. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The first Doctor was played by William Hartnell, a serious actor who was otherwise known for playing tough, hard men in various films. Initially hesitant to take part in what he saw as a children’s show, Hartnell allowed series director Waris Hussein to persuade him to adopt what would prove to be a career-defining role as the gruff and otherworldly doctor.

The first series was a hit

The success of the eagerly anticipated new show was cast into jeopardy before it had even been aired by something beyond Hussein’s control. Just a day earlier, US President John. F Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, and the frenzied coverage of the earth-shaking event ultimately delayed the programme’s launch.

However, the delay was slight, and upon broadcast, the 25-minute episode was largely well-received.

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However, it was not universally popular. Some commented acidly on the show’s unsubtle educational spin, most obviously in the form of the two schoolteachers, and derided scenes where stone age men were taught the value of democracy and liberalism.

None of these reviews made much difference to Doctor Who’s popularity, and over the course of the four-episode first series the ratings increased from 4 to 6.4 million viewers. A new cult hit had been born, which would thrust new words like Dalek, Timelord and TARDIS into popular consciousness.

The concept of ‘regeneration’ was invented to prolong the show

In 1966, Hartnell’s health began to fail, so the show-runners began to search for a replacement, and more fundamentally, an excuse for changing the Doctor’s appearance.

William Hartnell as the First Doctor. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the end, they decided that the alien Doctor could have a new power, regeneration: an idea which is partly responsible for the show’s extraordinary longevity. The character actor Patrick Troughton was cast in the role, and added a tougher, more piratical air to the now-famous character.

The show was cancelled in 1989

However, the show was not without its problems. In 1989, with viewing figures plummeting and the public tired of unrealistic sets and cheesy dialogue, the show was cancelled.

It was revived, however, with spectacular success in 2005 by Russel T. Davies, who updated it for a modern audience by casting the leather jacket-sporting Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and vastly improving the effects.

Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor in the television series Doctor Who

Image Credit: Fair use, BBC

It continues to captivate audiences

Today, the global phenomenon Doctor Who is the longest-running science fiction TV show of all time. It has consistently provided career-launching exposure for recent Doctors such as David Tennant and Matt Smith, and the first female Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, proved similarly popular.

Buzz around who will be cast as the new Doctor towards the end of each regeneration is always constant and exciting, and a dedicated fanbase, known as ‘Whovians’, make sure that the long-running series remains immensely popular.

Celeste Neill