The quintessential "mortgage lifter" for many a financially flagging PBS station, the long-running British science fiction series Doctor Who was not always a big favorite in America. The series detailed the wide-ranging adventures of Doctor Who, a 750-year-old denizen of the planet Gallifrey, who came to earth in human form by way of a London police call box. In truth, it wasn't a call box at all, but instead the doctor's TARDIS, a vehicle which enabled him to travel through space and time. Garbed in a floppy hat, tattered overcoat, and colorful muffler, and hopelessly addicted to "jelly babies," Doctor Who embarked upon his various journeys through the cosmos, accompanied by a succession of attractive female earthlings. Debuting in England on November 23, 1963, Doctor Who ended up the longest-running science fiction series of its kind in TV history, remaining in active production until the fall of 1989 (not counting the 1965 feature film Doctor Who & the Daleks and a brace of "revival" episodes in 1993 and 1996).
Since no one actor could be expected to devote his life to the series, it was decided early on for Doctor Who to be periodically "regenerated," obtaining a new body and personality in the process. Thus, the character was portrayed by eight different actors: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Paul McGann (Richard Hurndall briefly essayed the role in the series' special 20th anniversary episode in 1983). Though incredibly popular in England and Europe, the series had a hard time getting started in the United States. Time-Life Inc. offered the series for commercial syndication in 1970, 1972, and 1978. Each time, station managers were either resistant to the property or ran the program in "fringe" time slots, often showing the serialized episodes out of their proper order. It helped matters not at all that American TV reviewers poked cruel fun at the series, reserving their nastiest comments for the program's tacky production values (which, to dyed-in-the-wool fans, was actually part of its charm). Only when the series began popping up on local PBS stations in the late '70s did Doctor Who finally build up a loyal and dedicated fan following in America. By the mid-'80s, the series was one of the highest-rated noncommercial programs on the market, literally rescuing more than one educational TV outlet from bankruptcy. The BBC revived Doctor Who in 2005, with a new cast. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi