On November 23rd, 2013 Doctor Who turned 50 years old. This makes the British series the longest running science fiction franchise in television history. But the most extraordinary thing about the series is the different ways in which it keeps reinventing itself and expanding the storyworld.
Doctor Who is considered by some to be cross generational. Not only are there people who have grown up with the Doctor and have watched every episode, but there is a community of newer, younger fans that continues to grow. This is evidenced by the intensity of the Doctor Who fandom on the popular social blogging site, Tumblr.
Below is a breakdown of some of the interesting techniques that BBC has used to maintain their older fan base while cultivating a new one.
Television series – Doctor Who now has had 33 seasons (in Britain they are called series) over the course of 50 years. Because of the part of the conceit of The Doctor is that he can “regenerate” rather than die, the series is able to continue with various actors. This also keeps the character of The Doctor fresh, giving new actors the ability to put a fresh take on the character. Since The Doctor is 900+ years old it also allows for various travel companions to come in and out of his life.
Comics – Doctor Who stories have continued in comic form in a variety of publications, from standalone issues to strips running in the The Doctor Who Magazine. Whether the various storylines unfolding in comics are canon is open to discussion and creates a dialogue between the fans.
Doctor Who Novels – These official BBC publications are generally considered canon. They allow for more stories focusing on each of the various doctors, without the physical limitations of the actual actors.
Audio Plays – In the UK a company called Big Finish produces audio plays based off of the Doctors. After the 8th Doctor’s (Paul McGann) single made-for-TV movie he went on to have a long run making audio dramas. This was able to lengthen his stint as The Doctor in the years that new seasons of the series were aired on TV (and in the series television absence). In the recent short episode meant as a prelude to the 50th anniversary episode “The Day of the Doctor”, the 8th Doctor returned and, through on screen dialogue, made the Big Finish productions canon to the Doctor Who Universe.
Mini-episodes – Speaking of mini-episodes, the BBC uses online media in a very effective way to not only create buzz for new episodes, but also add story elements and answer fans questions about the Doctor Who mythology. Through these videos, distributed in various ways online, the BBC reaches fans across the world and maintains a high level of buzz that may not be possible without the steady release of new story elements.
Tumblr and fan outreach – Another avenue in which the BBC excels is in reaching out to their fans and nourishing the fan community. They have been doing this since the early days of the series through The Doctor Who Magazine and publications such as the Doctor Who Pattern Book published in 1984. More recently they have actively cultivated an active Tumblr community, even coordinating multiple fan events, including SDCC 2012 and 2013 and SXSW 2013. By engaging the communities of both older and younger fans through traditional and new media means they have ensured that the Doctor Who fandom is one of the strongest worldwide, and is ever growing as new people hear about The Doctor.
Simulcast for the 50th anniversary – Day of the Doctor – For the first time in the history of Doctor Who the BBC will air a simulcast allowing fans across the world to all watch Doctor Who at the same time. Not only is this good from a fan standpoint (it limits the amount of spoilers that someone may accidentally come across before the episode airs in their time zone) but it also creates a sense of unity in the Doctor Who community. This is also the first time that Doctor Who will be viewed in theaters and in 3D. By doing this in such a matter BBC has proven that they really care about their fandom and recognize that the fandom is what has kept The Doctor’s story going for so many years.
Many tactics were employed throughout the 50 years that Doctor Who has been in existence that has contributed to the longevity of the storyworld. It is also a testament to what telling a good story in multiple compelling ways, and listening to your fan-base can help you accomplish.
More of my articles on transmedia storytelling can be found here.