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Doctor Who conquers TV universe

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The 52-year-old show "Doctor Who" has long been a staple of television in the United Kingdom, with generations of children there famously watching from behind the family couch, hiding from the show's various monsters, robots and aliens.

Overseas in America, however, "Doctor Who" was only known as an obscure BBC science fiction show rebroadcast on PBS — until now.

Today, a resurgent "Doctor Who" is the most commercially successful show in BBC history and has appeared on the front cover of magazines like Entertainment Weekly and, later this year, will be immortalized in Lego form. It's also popular enough to sell out Gallifrey One, a fan convention expected to attract 3,700 hard-core "Doctor Who" enthusiasts — also known as "Whovians" — to the Los Angeles Airport Marriott this weekend. Organizers boasts it's the largest convention of its kind in the country.

The Doctor, an immortal alien from the planet Gallifrey — who conveniently looks like a British human and who "regenerates" into the shape of a new lead actor whenever the character is killed — travels through space and time, originally to teach children about science and history. But more often now, the Doctor has been engaging in time travel tourism and, along the way, saves the United Kingdom and Earth.

"It's a show with a central concept where you can tell any story in any era, and that opens up an endless amount of creative opportunities," said Rob Williams, writer of Titan Comics "Eleventh Doctor" comic book series, which follows the adventures of the Doctor as portrayed by actor Matt Smith from 2010 through 2013.

"At its heart, it's fun, and aimed at a broad family audience," Williams continued. "There's not too many shows these days where kids and adults can watch it together. Add the fact that the lead actors have — 99 percent of the time — been very well chosen and are enormously charismatic and just plain good actors rather than just beautiful slabs of meat, and that certainly helps the show."

The BBC tried early on to market the show overseas, selling it into syndication for American children in 1972, without much success. In 1978, PBS began showing four seasons' worth of "Doctor Who," then played by Tom Baker, trailing his iconic scarf, which at one point reached 24 feet long. But while Baker's adventures, and those of his successors, attracted a committed American audience, it never reached more than cult status.

In 2009, BBC America picked up the show, which had been revived in 2005 after 16 years off the air, and began airing episodes on the same day as they premiered in the United Kingdom, meaning impatient fans had an alternative to the piracy that many had previously turned to instead of waiting days for the show to be rebroadcast in the United States.

"It took some time, for sure, when we brought it over and became the only home for it in America," said Richard De Croce, BBC America's senior vice president of programming. "It became our biggest priority."

The revived show had more heart along with brains, said Mark Masterston, a lifelong "Doctor Who" fan who lives in Fullerton and who hosts events at Long Beach's Pulp Fiction comic shop.

"If they had just started showing reruns of the '70s show, it would not have taken off in the same way. They took the classic elements and brought to it the emotional content," Masterston said.

It also had something else for the first time: sex appeal.

"You had these very dashing sexy Doctors, starting with Christopher Eccleston, and suddenly Doctor Who is wearing a black leather jacket," said Nalo Hopkinson, professor of creative writing and one of the core faculty in UC Riverside's Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies program.

The Doctor's human companions — many of them young women — changed as well.

"Slowly over the years, the companions got sexier and sexier," Hopkinson said. "And then, in the new series, they actually became love interests, and I think that helped a lot."

BBC America also made the show's fandom — now 50 percent women, according to channel spokesman Devin Johnson — a core part of its promotional strategy. From Gallifrey One to the ever-popular San Diego Comic-Con International, Whovians can get their fix all year.

"This is a show that, as you can imagine, has one of the most engaged fan bases of any show in America," De Croce said. "When we're not on the air, it's still a year-round priority."

The most recent season of the show is now helmed by veteran television actor Peter Capaldi, the 12th actor to portray the Doctor. It's brought in the show's highest ratings to date on BBC America.

"This show is no longer a cult show. It has entered pop culture and the mainstream, and I don't think we've hit our ceiling yet," he said. "I think there are a lot of people who are new to 'Who.' "

And that's equally true for the increasing number of "Who" tie-ins in other media.

"The popularity of the show seems as high as ever, both in the U.K. and in the States," Williams said. "When we launched the 'Eleventh Doctor' No. 1 comic in London with a signing, the queue was enormous — like nothing I've seen in my comic career before — and they were all there for the Doctor. The fans love this show in a very rare way."

But if the show does fade again in popularity as it did in the 1980s, that likely won't mean the end of the Doctor, nor of "Doctor Who."

"Part of 'Doctor Who's' appeal is that it did die away. But that's part of the process of change and renewal," Masterson said. "If the time came where they became really mainstream and knocked off the weird edges, then it really would be time for it to rest."

The next season of "Doctor Who" began filming in Wales in January and is expected to be broadcast later this year.

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