When I was in high school, wayyyy back in the 80s, I hung out with a pretty geeky crowd. (Fortunately, it was a magnet school, so nobody really noticed.) My little group passed around communally owned, dogeared copies of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy triology, whiled away our lunch hours with Monty Python quote-a-thons, and, yes, gathered at my friend Aimée’s (pronounced “ay-may,” being in New Orleans and all) house to bask in the glow of a little import called Doctor Who, long knitted scarves diligently donned even in the searing Southern heat.
I must confess I lacked many of my compatriots’ slavish dedication to the show (“what’s a Dalek again?”), but enjoyed our sporadic gatherings nonetheless. Nor have I kept up with the Time Lord’s adventures much since then, being known to mutter “Good Lord, that show’s still on?” when friends posted about it on Facebook.
And then came Sunday’s BBC announcement that Doctor Who Number Twelve will be played by Scottish-born actor Peter Capaldi.
Man, and I thought the #RoyalBaby was a big deal.
As soon as the announcement dropped, my Facebook feed lit up like a Christmas tree as friends I’d never pegged as fans cybersquealed with glee.
The Telegraph‘s Robert Colvile pegged the move as “less a casting announcement than a global product launch, an exercise in brand-management equivalent to the unveiling of the latest iPhone.”
All of which begs the question: How is a niche sci-fi program that originated 50 years ago (!) not only still alive, but captivating fans across generations and around the world?
While I claim no special expertise (or even run-of-the-mill expertise, for that matter) on the Doctor Who ecosystem, I’ve got a few ideas.
1. They Know — and Respect — Their Audience
Believe it or not, Doctor Who first appeared on the BBC in 1963 as a children’s adventure show. As audiences grew older and more complex, the producers responded with more mature storylines.
To this day, Doctor Who fans — affectionately called Whovians — are not simply consumers of the show. They’re a part of it.
Each episode is merely the producers’ latest iteration in an ongoing dialog with the throng of faithful pilgrims who trek back to the show week after week, month after month, year after year, rerun after rerun. The show’s powers-that-be are well aware that Whovian Nation is the reason they all still have jobs, and they gladly return the favor by giving fans a prominent seat at the table.
I’m writing this on Monday afternoon, and much of yesterday’s elation has been supplanted with hand-wringing articles and blog posts asking whether fans will accept Capaldi as The Doctor No. 12. That, my friends, is power.
2. They’ve Not Only Embraced Change — They’ve Made It a Feature
It’s a common occurrence in TV-land: the actor playing a key character, perhaps even the main character, for whatever reason, leaves the show. If the show is to continue and the role must be recast, producers will usually try the ol’ switcheroo and sub in a new actor while everybody else pretends nothing happened. (Darrin Stevens, anyone?)
But when the original Doctor Who, William Hartnell, had to leave the show for health reasons in 1966, the writers invented one of the most genius plot maneuvers in the history of television: regeneration. In the context of the show, the Doctor could survive a mortal wound by simply morphing — regenerating — into a new physical body, with many of the same memories but a slightly different personality.
With this development, the writers freed themselves from reliance on any one actor to keep the hero-driven storyline alive and well. In the years that followed, The Doctor would regenerate 11 more times to tremendous fan buzz — sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but always passionate. Gradually the changing face of the Doctor became part of the journey, spawning endless fan debates over which one was “the best Doctor Who ever” and even “Which Doctor Who Are You?” personality quizzes.
3. They’re Created a Compelling Mythology
Just for kicks, I did a search for “Doctor Who” on Wikipedia, and here’s just a smattering of what came up:
- Doctor Who
- Doctor (Doctor Who)
- List of Doctor Who villains
- Companion (Doctor Who)
- Master (Doctor Who)
- Sarah Jane Smith (redirect from Sarah (Doctor Who))
- K-9 (Doctor Who)
- Gallifrey (redirect from Doctor Who: Gallifrey)
The list goes on, but you get the idea.
Now, how many brands do you know of whose proprietary lexicons take up an entire wing of the Wikpedia library?
And then there’s that blue telephone booth.
The TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) stands as an icon of all things Whovian, as globally recognizable as the Apple logo and Superman’s iconic “S.” Its image has appeared on countless bumper stickers, paintings, beach towels, and even a full-size door sticker. Miniature reproductions double as coffee mugs, talking cookie jars, salt and pepper shakers, and USB hubs.
The words and symbols of the Doctor Who universe are the stuff of sociological studies, the trappings of a distinct culture that are handed down from generation to generation of Whovians. Even as the face of its hero has changed (and changed and changed), the most compelling facets of the show live on in words and images that, to the faithful, need no explanation.
OK, companions, now it’s your turn. What’s your take on the phenomenon that is Doctor Who … and what can we as marketers learn from it?