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.


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.


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...


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


PIPER: It's alien.


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.


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.


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.


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