Question: When I was a child, I loved this show called Doctor Who. I remember that it was on PBS, but no one else has ever even heard of it. I know I'm not crazy. It was about a scientist who traveled in an English phone booth to other planets and fought aliens. I know this sounds far-fetched, but I remember it clear as day. I remember that he always wore a scarf around his neck and a long coat. Any information would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
Answer: No one else has ever heard of it? Obviously, you need to hang with the comics convention and role-playing crowd a little more, dear lady. Then again, maybe it's easier to just read about it here.
I'll admit, though, that "easy" isn't a concept that applies to summing up the legendary Doctor Who, which was broadcast by the BBC from 1963-89 in its initial run, making it the world's longest-running TV series (and one that I'll add to my long list of series with top-notch theme songs). In addition to attracting the most rabid fans this side of Star Trek, the show employed enough actors to fill this column (eight just to play the doctor in his various incarnations, with more companion characters than I'm willing to count) and wound its way through a storyline far too convoluted to do justice here. So if you don't mind, I'll keep it simple and will ask the denizens of Who-ville (they prefer to be called Whovians) to cut me some slack for doing so.
When the doctor first appeared, he was played by actor William Hartnell as a cranky, aged antihero who goes galavanting through time with his granddaughter and two of her teachers (the show was first meant to be at least partly educational). They traveled about in his TARDIS (which stood for Time And Relative Dimension In Space, though it was originally intended by the creators to be a proper name for the vessel rather than an acronym), a small London police callbox from the outside but a much larger space inside. (According to the BBC, the original idea was for the booth to change appearance as it lands in different environs, but that was deemed too expensive an idea.)
In 1966, Hartnell left the show, so the Doctor merely regenerated and thus allowed the producers to replace the character with new actors, throwing in a new skillset and personality to match the different physical traits. The Doctor was a Time Lord, one of a race of beings from the planet Gallifrey who'd mastered time travel. (Again, there are way too many details to include here, but it was also revealed over the course of the series that the Doctor was half-human, had two hearts and was a Renegade Time Lord, but his fellow Gallifreyans eventually learned to like him again after he saved their butts several times.)
For my money and this is an argument akin to whether Picard or Kirk was the better Captain Tom Baker, who was the fourth actor to play the Doctor and did so from 1974-81, was the best of the lot. He's the fellow you remember wearing the scarf and coat topped off with a big, floppy hat. There are those who would no doubt "ex-ter-min-ate" me (and ain't I deserving of a vicious wedgie for that reference?) for saying so, but he's the one who introduced me to the series and so he remains my favorite. Sue me it's my column.
It's worth noting a couple of memorable folks who contributed their talents to the show, by the way. The late Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) was a script editor and writer on the show, much to the chagrin of some hardcore fans who didn't like his humorous take on the character. Also, John Cleese appeared in an episode.
The show gained a sizable following in the U.S. after viewers like you caught it on PBS. And I was certainly among them since, to my mind, Doctor Who was a great example of how stellar writing plus gobs of talent and creativity can make a low budget and laughable special effects seem downright charming. In 1996, Fox produced and showed a two-hour movie starring Paul McGann as our hero and Eric Roberts as his enemy, The Master, that was reportedly a pilot for a series but it never got off the ground (no pun intended).If you'd like to know what the doctor's up to these days, the Beeb is shooting a new version of the show, which you can read all about on their site. As Hartnell himself said in his last line delivered as the good Doctor: "'It's far from being all over."