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Allons-y! Why We've Been Traveling With 'Doctor Who' For 50 Years

Jenna Coleman plays Clara, companion to Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith. The relationship between the Doctor and his companions is at the core of Doctor Who's long-lived appeal. (Adrian Rogers/BBC)

This afternoon, millions of fez-wearing fans around the world will tune in to a very special episode of Doctor Who. The venerable British sci-fi series turns 50 today — though the time traveling alien Doctor himself is probably somewhere on the wrong side of 1,000.

From scrappy, low-budget beginnings (bubble-wrap monsters, anyone?), Doctor Who has become a global phenomenon. Only soap operas can match it for longevity and popularity. So what's the secret to the Doctor's appeal?

Well, let's start with a ringtone — mine, to be exact. Call me, and my phone will play the famous grinding, screeching sound of the TARDIS taking off. That's Time and Relative Dimensions in Space for you non-fans — the Doctor's beloved bigger-on-the-inside time and space machine.

Whenever that ringtone goes off, heads pop up all around me, and I know that everyone's thinking the same thing: he's come. He's finally come. For me.

The Doctor is an ancient two-hearted alien from a long-dead far-off planet. He can go anywhere, any time, and do just about anything — he's sort of a superhero without much of a mission besides his probably misguided love of the human race. And he almost always has a human companion. It's a way for those of us who watch to imagine ourselves into the action, to cherish a little corner of hope that one day it might be us out there among the stars.

And who wouldn't want to travel with the Doctor? "He was terribly like me, really," says Tom Baker, who played the Fourth Doctor. "Absolutely charming and unpredictable, and had a kind of benevolent alien quality."

Eleven men have played the Doctor so far — he has the alien power of regeneration; very handy when you need to swap out actors on a long-running show. But it also means that whatever your tastes, there's a Doctor for you: cranky, whimsical, debonair, manic, hopeful, bitchy, scheming, elegant, wounded, youthful, weird — and always, always bigger on the inside.

"We find our consolations in heroes and heroines, and Doctor Who was one of those charismatic figures who wasn't necessarily beautiful, but he did things which bordered on the miraculous," Baker says.

Bordering on the miraculous, yes, but he doesn't always get across that border. The Doctor's no Superman, no Captain Kirk — sometimes he doesn't save the day. Sometimes the companions get killed, or mind-wiped, or lost in an alternate universe. And sometimes, the Doctor is just scary; in one episode he's famously described as "like fire and ice and rage ... like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun."

But it's always the companion who holds his hand, who brings him back. It's that relationship between the Doctor and the companion — and by extension, the viewer — that's at the core of the show: we may need the Doctor, but he needs us just as much.

So I've got my bags packed and one eye on the sky. Here I am, Doctor — allons-y!

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This afternoon, millions of fans around the world will tune in to a special episode of "Doctor Who." The venerable British sci-fi series turns 50 today. It had a low-budget start. Of course, it's now become a global phenomenon. And NPR has its own in-house fan, Petra Mayer, who will now explore the Doctor's lasting appeal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TARDIS EFFECT)

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: OK. That's actually my ringtone. But admit it, a lot of you out there, you heard that sound and you thought he's here. Finally, he's come for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCTOR WHO")

CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON: (as the Doctor) You could come with me. This box isn't just a London Hoppa, you know; it goes anywhere in the universe, free of charge.

MAYER: That box is the TARDIS, short for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space. It looks an antique blue British police call box, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCTOR WHO")

BILLIE PIPER: (as Rose Tyler) The inside's bigger than the outside.

ECCLESTON: Yes.

PIPER: It's alien.

ECCLESTON: Yep.

MAYER: The Doctor is an ancient two-hearted alien from a long-dead far-off planet. He can go anywhere and do just about anything. He's sort of a superhero without much of a mission besides his probably misguided love of the human race. And he almost always has a human companion. It's a way for those of us who watch to cherish a little corner of hope that one day it might be us out there among the stars. And really, who wouldn't want to travel with the Doctor?

TOM BAKER: He was terribly like me, really, absolutely charming and unpredictable, and had a kind of benevolent alien quality.

MAYER: Old-school fans may recognize that voice. It's Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor, he of the endless scarf and the fondness for candy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCTOR WHO")

BAKER: (as the Doctor) Would you like a jelly baby?

MAYER: Eleven men have played the Doctor so far. He has the alien power of regeneration. It's very handy when you need to swap out actors on a long-running show. But it also means that whatever your tastes, there's a Doctor for you: cranky, whimsical, debonair, manic, hopeful, scheming, elegant, wounded, youthful, weird - and always, always bigger on the inside.

BAKER: "Doctor Who" was one of those charismatic figures who wasn't necessarily beautiful, but he did things, you know, which bordered on the miraculous.

MAYER: Bordering on the miraculous, yes, but he doesn't always get across that border. The Doctor isn't Superman. He doesn't always save the day. Sometimes the companions get killed or mind-wiped or lost in an alternate universe. And sometimes the Doctor is just scary.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCTOR WHO")

CATHERINE TATE: (as Donna Noble) That place was flooding and burning and they were dying and you stood there like, I don't know, a stranger.

MAYER: But it's always the companion who holds his hand, who brings him back. And it's that relationship between the Doctor and the companion - and by extension, the viewer - that's at the core of the show. We may need the Doctor, but he needs us just as much. So, I've got my bags packed and one eye on the sky. Here I am, Doctor. Allons-y.

Petra Mayer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DOCTOR WHO" THEME MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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