SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This afternoon, millions of fans around the world will tune in to a special episode of "Doctor Who." The venerable British sci-fi series turns 50 today. It had a low-budget start. Of course, it's now become a global phenomenon. And NPR has its own in-house fan, Petra Mayer, who will now explore the Doctor's lasting appeal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TARDIS EFFECT)

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: OK. That's actually my ringtone. But admit it, a lot of you out there, you heard that sound and you thought he's here. Finally, he's come for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCTOR WHO")

CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON: (as the Doctor) You could come with me. This box isn't just a London Hoppa, you know; it goes anywhere in the universe, free of charge.

MAYER: That box is the TARDIS, short for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space. It looks an antique blue British police call box, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCTOR WHO")

BILLIE PIPER: (as Rose Tyler) The inside's bigger than the outside.

ECCLESTON: Yes.

PIPER: It's alien.

ECCLESTON: Yep.

MAYER: The Doctor is an ancient two-hearted alien from a long-dead far-off planet. He can go anywhere and do just about anything. He's sort of a superhero without much of a mission besides his probably misguided love of the human race. And he almost always has a human companion. It's a way for those of us who watch to cherish a little corner of hope that one day it might be us out there among the stars. And really, who wouldn't want to travel with the Doctor?

TOM BAKER: He was terribly like me, really, absolutely charming and unpredictable, and had a kind of benevolent alien quality.

MAYER: Old-school fans may recognize that voice. It's Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor, he of the endless scarf and the fondness for candy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCTOR WHO")

BAKER: (as the Doctor) Would you like a jelly baby?

MAYER: Eleven men have played the Doctor so far. He has the alien power of regeneration. It's very handy when you need to swap out actors on a long-running show. But it also means that whatever your tastes, there's a Doctor for you: cranky, whimsical, debonair, manic, hopeful, scheming, elegant, wounded, youthful, weird - and always, always bigger on the inside.

BAKER: "Doctor Who" was one of those charismatic figures who wasn't necessarily beautiful, but he did things, you know, which bordered on the miraculous.

MAYER: Bordering on the miraculous, yes, but he doesn't always get across that border. The Doctor isn't Superman. He doesn't always save the day. Sometimes the companions get killed or mind-wiped or lost in an alternate universe. And sometimes the Doctor is just scary.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCTOR WHO")

CATHERINE TATE: (as Donna Noble) That place was flooding and burning and they were dying and you stood there like, I don't know, a stranger.

MAYER: But it's always the companion who holds his hand, who brings him back. And it's that relationship between the Doctor and the companion - and by extension, the viewer - that's at the core of the show. We may need the Doctor, but he needs us just as much. So, I've got my bags packed and one eye on the sky. Here I am, Doctor. Allons-y.

Petra Mayer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DOCTOR WHO" THEME MUSIC)

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