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As Doctor Who celebrates big 5-0, another era ends

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Sci-fi show's cast and creatives talk Matt Smith's departure and the anniversary special


When it was first pitched to the BBC it was described as "C.S. Lewis meets H.G. Wells meets Father Christmas."

But, somehow, a quirky series that seemed doomed to cult status when it debuted in 1963 is now celebrating half a century as one of the most influential science fiction programs of all time.

Yes, Doctor Who is 50 years old.

After 11 different doctors and close to 800 episodes, the beloved British series is TV's longest running sci-fi show, according to Guinness World Records.

Like haggis and deerstalker hats, Doctor Who is an acquired taste. Yet the cheesy eccentricity of the series is also what makes it endearing and enduring.

After all, who could hate a show that featured alien Daleks as the doctor's mortal enemy, especially when they looked like giant salt shakers created in a Rubbermaid factory? (The special effects have gotten better over the years.)

For North American audiences today, the contemporary Doctor Who is like a time-travelling Sherlock Holmes or MacGyver.

Or as star Matt Smith told media at the Television Critics Association summer conference: "It's a show about a man who is a thousand years old that travels around the world in a blue box that is bigger on the inside than the outside and picks up a load of hot chicks."

That blue box, by the way, is called a TARDIS (for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space) and it looks like a British policeman's box, common in the U.K. from the 1930s through the early 1960s.

And Doctor Who is not human, he's a time lord, a humanoid alien who travels through time. And by the way, he "regenerates," which means every few years a new actor plays the good doctor.

And in the best MacGyver fashion he carries a "sonic screwdriver," a kind of futuristic Swiss Army knife that can pick locks and track aliens.

Yes, it's weird, but that's the charm.

Smith, at 30, is the youngest to be cast as the doctor. But he will be replaced by a new, as yet unannounced actor, after the series' 50th-anniversary special in November.

He and co-star Jenna-Louise Coleman will be joined by a cast that includes John Hurt (Alien, V for Vendetta) and Joanna Page (Love Actually) in a 50th-anniversary special in November, featuring Smith's last appearance.

The new doctor will be unveiled in the annual Christmas special. (The series airs on Space in Canada.)

Producer Marcus Wilson says fans won't be disappointed.

"It's our most ambitious episode yet," said Wilson. "We wanted to give Matt the proper send-off."

Wilson said he tried to change Smith's mind about leaving more "than a few times."

"I'm slightly in denial that Matt is leaving," said Coleman, who plays the doctor's companion.

"It's going to be emotional, it's been four years," said Smith. "It's been a transformative experience as an actor. But there was a natural tipping point. ... It was a hard choice. It wasn't an easy choice to make."

Smith recalled phoning his father when he first got the role.

"There was consistent panic. I told him I was screwed. I didn't know the language. I couldn't figure it out."

Fast forward four years. Smith was at the Comic-Con convention in San Diego and he had to wear a Simpsons mask to avoid the frenzied fans.

"It was the closet thing to a rock star that you'll get," Smith said.

What most people don't know is that Doctor Who has Canadian roots.

Toronto-born Sydney Newman is considered the father of the franchise and was head of drama at the BBC when he greenlit the series, originally aimed at children.

Newman had envisioned an "educational" program that would use time travel to show different moments in history and to explore science. He would also be responsible for that other great BBC franchise, The Avengers.

Brian Cox will play Newman in a biopic about the creation of Doctor Who, An Adventure in Space and Time, also airing in November.

David Bradley, known as Argus Filch in the Harry Potter movies and as Walder Frey in Game of Thrones, will play William Hartnell, the first Doctor Who.

Hartnell came off as sinister and edgy in the beginning, but he soon softened the way he played the role, gaining new fans as he scared fewer children.

The fact that the series got made at all is a minor miracle. Even Hartnell didn't want to sign on at first.

"I could understand Hartnell's reluctance initially ... because he just saw a couple of kids with a crazy kid's idea," said Bradley. "And I mean, it's easy to look back now and ... and just imagine it arrived fully formed. This had more problems than most, I suspect, in terms of the head of the BBC after the first pilot said, 'Just kill. Kill Doctor Who.'"

It was Newman, who died in 1997, who insisted that the first episode be remade.

"Newman insisted they reshoot the whole thing. He just wasn't happy with the quality of it," says biopic director Terry McDonough.

The Canadian prevailed. And as a result, Doctor Who, in his quirky blue box with his sonic screwdriver, sailed into pop culture history.

Jenna-Louise Coleman, who plays Ciara, companion to Matt Smith's Doctor Who, says "it's going to be emotional" when Smith leaves.

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  • APA 6th ed.: (2013-07-28). As Doctor Who celebrates big 5-0, another era ends. Toronto Star .
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