Hordes of Whovians, as they're called, voted for the British sci-fi series to win our third Fan Favorites cover poll — galvanizing support through countless blog posts, message-board comments and tweets. The consensus was it's about time Doctor Who (beloved back home in the U.K.) got the props it deserves in the States. And that the fans love Matt Smith, who currently plays the show's titular time and space traveler known only as the Doctor ("Doctor who?" Get it?). "That's amazing!" Smith shouts on the road to a shoot in Wales, before turning serious. "Thank you to everyone who voted, because this is a huge, huge accolade. Fans mustn't underestimate their role in the emergence of the show in America." He's not kidding. Who's had a long, strange trip on the way to the exciting place it's in now.
Let's go back in time, shall we?
Doctor Who debuted in Britain on November 23, 1963, the day after the Kennedy assassination. The First Doctor, played by wizened William Hartnell with Einstein-esque hair and a frock coat, barked pedantically at his three companions (two schoolteachers and his granddaughter) while holding his lapels.
Together they traversed the universe battling baddies in the Doctor's signature ride, the TARDIS, which could theoretically change shape to blend into its surroundings but was stuck as a 1950s-era British police call box. Five episodes in, the Doctor faced the Daleks, who would become his most long-standing foes, extraterrestrials resembling big metal pepper pots with one plunger-like hand and a goal that doubled as their favorite word: "Exterminate!"
When Hartnell's declining health forced him off the series, Who's writers introduced their concept of "regeneration," which allowed the Doctor, a member of a human-looking alien race called the Time Lords, to transform into a different being. So in 1966, Hartnell's Doctor collapsed and woke up a newer, younger man, portrayed by mop-topped Patrick Troughton. "I remember realizing that somebody else was playing the Doctor and complaining to my dad that that wasn't the Doctor," recalls current executive producer Steven Moffat, who'd been watching the series since it began — when he was just 2 years old. "It was seeing that show that made me want to know what went on behind the scenes."
Troughton turned into the dashing Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee, the first to appear in color), who in turn became the utterly bananas Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker, in an impossibly long striped scarf) and so on. The one constant besides the TARDIS and the inevitable traveling companions: The Doctor was open-minded and tolerant. And crackers. "Essentially the show is about a madman fighting aliens with a plunger, a toaster and some orangutan fur who saves the world by default or mistake and [is] cleverer than everyone else," Smith says. "That's got a universal appeal, I suppose."
Time-Life Television counted on that when they began syndicating the Pertwee years Stateside in 1972, though the show didn't find a more permanent American home until PBS picked up Baker's episodes in 1978 — where it played as a cult series. By 1985, Who was shedding much of its U.K. audience, and the BBC put the show on hiatus in 1989.
Whovians waited seven years for a poorly received TV-movie, and then...nothing. "There was a sense of defending Doctor Who. It was the underdog," says Matt Hills, author of Fan Cultures and Triumph of the Time Lords. "The show wasn't something you could talk about," says Lynne M. Thomas, coeditor of the anthology Chicks Dig Time Lords. "People would tilt their heads and be like, 'What's that? Star Trek?'"
Then, in 2005, the BBC resurrected Doctor Who full tilt, with diehard fan Russell T Davies (who had created Queer as Folk) at the controls. Leather-jacketed Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston brought acting cred and the catchphrase "Fantastic!" while his teenage companion Rose, played by pop star Billie Piper, attracted the kiddies. Their occasional partner, lusty swinger (men, women, aliens...) Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), added a modern edge. "Fans-turned-showrunners want the show to be the very best it can," says Hills. "They remember when it wasn't as brilliant as it should have been, and they strive not to repeat past mistakes."
The new Who was a hit and Syfy brought it Stateside a year later. BBC America took over in 2009, just as Tenth Doctor David Tennant was finishing his run. "Doctor Who conventions went from 800 people — the same 800 people for years — to suddenly exploding to 3,000 people," recalls Thomas. "It was wonderful."
For more on Doctor Who, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, December 6!