A disappointed reviewer at The Guardian newspaper called the debut “little to thrill,” with equally little hope the show would be around for long.
Nearly 50 years and 800 episodes later, Doctor Who is recognized by the recordkeeping folks at Guinness as the longest-running science fiction show in television history. Eleven men – not counting those in a few non-canon productions – have played the titular alien Doctor, more than the number of actors who have said “Bond, James Bond” during the same period. A worldwide hit today, Doctor Who has faced down death by poor ratings countless times, even returning to global applause after a 16-year hiatus.
Survive it does, and largely due to one powerful influence:
Counting Queen Elizabeth, writer Stephen King and metalhead Bruce Dickinson among its many diverse admirers, Doctor Who fans – often called “Whovians” – are as quick to praise the show as criticize its shortcomings, but their commitment to the Time Lord and his companions is steadfast. They kept the program alive through its history of uneven writing, dodgy sets and tepid effects, even past the usually mortal wound of replacing its leading man – a creative approach called “regeneration,” conjured when William Hartnell, the first Doctor, became too ill to continue.
Fandom kept the Doctor alive during its 1989-2005 respite with audio adventures, comic books and an ill-received Fox Television film. And fandom exploded around the globe when producer Russell T Davies brought the show back, bigger and better than ever. Today, Doctor Who is a hit everywhere, including the U.S., where current lead Matt Smith receives a rock-star greeting whenever he tours the States.
True, that level of support is uncommon. For every thousand Whovians or Trekkies, there’s a lonely, morose fan of Cop Rock. But much of the longevity of Who fandom is connected to the relationships – real or virtual – built by the producers and actors with their audiences, and the connections the fans themselves share. Hiding behind the couch for fear of a Doctor Who monster is a rite of childhood passage in the UK. And once again we see the strength of story in bringing people together.
Regardless of your enterprise, it’s important to make those connections, to foster that kind of dialogue. Building relationships, making it personal, is the foundation of fandom.
Like the time-traveling TARDIS, people are bigger on the inside. It’s important that organizations, leaders and public relations recognize and honor that.