Yes, that's right. November 23rd marks the 50th anniversary of “Doctor Who.” Other than the soap operas “Guiding Light,” “As the World Turns” and “General Hospital” is there another scripted television franchise that has lasted that long?
Certainly it's not fair or accurate to compare “Doctor Who" -- which was off the air from 1989-2005 except for a 1996 made-for-television movie on Fox and is,
like most television series, a seasonal effort -- with soap operas, which are continuous daily productions that almost never stop. Nevertheless, it is the only scripted television franchise I know of
outside of soaps that has produced original content in six different decades. Furthermore, that content -- regardless of gaps in production -- has been consistent and respectful of its own history,
even when written or produced by people who were small children or not yet born at the time that it began.
To that end, the current reboot of “Doctor Who,” which started in 2005 and has featured actors Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith in the title role (a character who regenerates as the stories and departures of actors dictate), continues the same extended tale that began with that very first episode way back on November 23, 1963, one day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
In a cool turn, it is that 1996 TV movie (titled “Doctor Who”), for many a mere footnote in “Who” history, that fueled the mini-episode. Paul McGann -- the actor who played the Doctor in his eighth incarnation in that movie -- was the main attraction in the mini, which in just seven minutes provides all kinds of new information about the history of the Doctor and changes the game entirely as the 50th anniversary special approaches. (It also reveals more information about a mysterious Doctor played by John Hurt, revealed earlier this year in the final moments of the seventh season.)
To put it another way, the mini-episode may contain the most powerful seven minutes in the history of all “Doctor Who” productions.
Excitingly, the mini-episode, written by the current head writer of “Doctor Who,” the scary-smart Steven Moffat, also includes references to characters from a series of “Doctor Who” audio recordings that were produced during a period of more than ten years when the “Who” television series was at rest (except for that TV movie). McGann gave voice to the Doctor in those audio recordings, which in tandem with his starring role in the “Who” movie makes him the actor who has played the Doctor for the longest period of time, although he had only been seen (prior to the mini) during the two-hour movie.
I'm not sure if it's fair to call “The Night of the Doctor” a webisode, which is why I refer to it as a mini-episode that happened to make its debut on the Internet. There have been formal “Doctor Who” webisodes produced in recent years, but none of them made the kind of impact that “The Night of the Doctor” did on arrival. The multimedia trajectory of this franchise -- from its exceedingly humble low-budget beginnings on the BBC in 1963, through countless audio dramas and books to the current version on the BBC and BBC America and now the mini-episode on the Internet -- has been extraordinary.
“The Day of the Doctor” already promised to be one of the biggest television events of 2013, not only marking a milestone but also bringing together Matt Smith and David Tennant, the two most recent actors to play the Doctor. But “The Night of the Doctor” has set it up as one of the biggest events in fifty years, at least for fans of the franchise.
BBC America will further fuel the excitement beginning Monday with several new and repeat specials exploring the past Doctors and marathons of previous seasons. Two specials that will debut next Friday night are of particular interest. The first, “Doctor Who Explained,” offers a helpful history of this admittedly complex franchise, including the stories of each of the Doctors and their many companions. (The companions, usually female, have traveled with the Doctors on their adventures.) It will be followed by “An Adventure in Space and Time,” a movie about the three people who created “Doctor Who” in the early Sixties, completely unaware that millions of people who had not even been born yet would be gathering in front of television, tablet and computer screens around the world fifty years later to celebrate what they were about to do -- and presumably watch as their uncommonly durable project reformulates itself at the start of its second fifty years.