After 50 Years, Regeneration Keeps 'Doctor Who' Current

Not counting a 16-year break the British science-fiction TV series took around the 1990s, Doctor Who is celebrating its 50th anniversary on Saturday. There's a special in 3D that's going to be simulcast in 75 countries, and the BBC has made a movie about the history of Doctor Who.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Tomorrow a certain time traveling doctor celebrates a 50th birthday. We're talking about Doctor Who. The British science fiction TV series predates "Sesame Street," even "Star Trek." And Saturday it celebrates its first 50 years with a 3D TV special to be simulcast in 75 countries. The BBC has also produced a documentary about the history of a show that has a fanatical following around the world. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans offers a simple reason for why the Doctor has maintained his appeal for so long.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: At the heart of England's greatest adventure series is the Doctor; maddening, eccentric, dashing, and oh-so-English.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DR. WHO")

DAVID TENNANT: (as the Doctor) I'm a Doctor. I'm a time lord. I'm from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I'm 903 years old. And I'm the man who's going to save your lives and all six billion people on the planet below.

DEGGANS: He travels through space and time, fighting evildoers threatening the Earth. Still, if you believe the BBC's new made-for-TV movie about the creation of Doctor Who, the original star, William Hartnell, had to be sweet talked by a producer into the role.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: He's something like 600 years old. Looks like a senile old man but he's tough. Trust me, Bill. You're perfect for it. No one will be able to resist you.

WILLIAM HARTNELL: Do you think so?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: C.S. Lewis meets H.G. Wells meets Father Christmas. That's the Doctor.

HARTNELL: Doctor...who?

DEGGANS: Even the name of the show sounds like a fortuitous slip of the tongue. But there's really one reason why the Doctor can still charm TV audiences 50 years on: regeneration. When a time lord's body wears out, he can replace it with a completely new one. Producers pounced on this idea while scrambling to replace an ailing Hartnell, a moment recreated for the BBC's movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ah, hell Bill, there's no easy way of saying this. We want Dr. Who to go on.

HARTNELL: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But not with you.

DEGGANS: Regeneration turned an awkward change into a showcase moment, complete with flashing lights and dramatic sounds. But the actor who plays today's Doctor, Matt Smith, revealed its true showbiz value in a BBC documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

MATT SMITH: He can turn into another actor, basically.

DEGGANS: That's right. When an actor gets tired of the role, or fans get tired of him or the show needs a little spicing up, producers can just switch out the star. And regeneration also keeps "Doctor Who" on the pulse of pop culture. When James Bond was hip in the late '60s, dashing Jon Pertwee played the doctor as action hero.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DR. WHO")

JON PERTWEE: (as the Doctor) You're risking the total destruction of the entire cosmos.

DEGGANS: And a few years later, when Monty Python's humor electrified British TV, curly-haired Tom Baker was a daffy Doctor with a penchant for jelly baby candies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DR. WHO")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as character) Doctor, you're being childish.

TOM BAKER: (as the Doctor) Well, of course I am. There's no point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes.

DEGGANS: Today's Doctor, Matt Smith, is a bow tied nerd with the face of an underwear model, perfect for the age of Facebook. Some things never change. He's always British, always white and always a he. Later this year, another flash of light will anoint Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor. Nerds familiar with past episodes know there may only be 13 total.

But if Capaldi works out, they'll probably find a way to craft a new string of Doctors. After all, there's a grand British TV tradition to uphold.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DR. WHO THEME")

GREENE: That's Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DR. WHO THEME")

GREENE: And this is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DR. WHO THEME")

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