Since 1963, the hero of a cult British TV show called ''Doctor Who'' has been battling monsters on distant planets. But that's nothing compared with his latest achievement: winning over the American public.

”I want to show you something,” says Doctor Who star Matt Smith, excitedly jabbing at a cell phone in his trailer. For a longtime fan of the cult British science-fiction TV show like myself, these are thrilling words. Smith plays the titular alien time traveler on the now-49-year-old Doctor Who, and today is in the small Welsh town of Llantrisant shooting an episode for the upcoming season. As usual, much about this new batch of shows (premiering later this summer on BBC America) is being kept hush-hush in an attempt to prevent spoilers from appearing in the Who-obsessed U.K. media. Until — maybe — now.

Is Smith going to show me some revelatory footage of the Doctor’s married sidekicks, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), and their already-filmed departure from the show? Will he preview the new monsters the Doctor will battle this year using just his intellectual brilliance and a few flourishes of his multipurpose tool, the ”sonic screwdriver”? Or will the 29-year-old Smith unveil some new area of the TARDIS, the Doctor’s home/time-travel machine, whose exterior resembles a ’50s-era old British police phone box but is famously much bigger on the inside (the thing’s got a swimming pool, for Who’s sake!). No, no, and — you’ve guessed it — no. Although what Smith does finally reveal is something the actor clearly considers just as amazing as any of these things: American Doctor Who fans.

”This must have been about three in the morning,” he says, pointing at footage of an endless sea of shouting spectators. Smith shot the video in April, when Doctor Who decamped from its base in South Wales to New York City, where Amy and Rory’s last episode was filmed. Eventually so many people turned up to watch the cast filming in midtown Manhattan that the first assistant director asked Smith to talk to them. If the hope was to calm the crowd, it’s safe to say it didn’t work, as the madly enthused throngs on Smith’s phone demonstrate. ”I mean,” says the still-flabbergasted actor, ”we don’t get that in England!”

The thought that Who fans in the U.S. are more passionate about the show than those in its homeland might seem a perplexing one. For Brits like me, watching Doctor Who has long been situated in the pantheon of beloved national pastimes, somewhere between drinking tea and discussing whether it is time to drink another cup of tea (which it always is). The show was forced to go on hiatus in the ’90s, due largely to falling viewership and, many fans felt, creative decline. But since its relaunch in 2005, Who has proved to be a ratings blockbuster for the BBC. Nearly 11 million people watched last year’s annual Christmas special in the U.K. On this side of the Atlantic, however, the adventures of the so-called Time Lord — who travels the universe helping folks in distress and battling space beasts — enjoy a more select appeal. True, there have long been hardcore fans (or Whovians) here: In 1983, 7,000 folks attended a Who convention in Chicago, and Fox’s 1996 Who TV movie starring Paul McGann did briefly place the show in the mainstream spotlight. But during Doctor Who‘s initial 26-year-long run, its scheduling in the U.S. was a patchy, often-delayed business. And the revived version didn’t debut in America until March 2006, when it was finally screened on Syfy, a full year after it had premiered in the U.K.

Over the past few years, however, the profile of the Doctor has gradually, but perceptibly, grown on these shores — thanks in large part to BBC America, which secured the U.S. rights in 2009 and began broadcasting episodes on the same day they aired in the U.K. The cast has also repeatedly hopped the pond to shoot scenes — including for last season’s premiere, partly shot in Utah — and publicize the show. Who‘s exec producer Steven Moffat and his stars attended this year’s Comic-Con, where the enormous popularity of Gillan’s leggy, red-haired Amy Pond was confirmed by the number of people who wore ginger wigs to the Who panel. The sixth-season premiere of Doctor Who, which was broadcast in June of last year, garnered an audience of 1.3 million — the highest ratings BBC America has seen. Doctor Who also beat out Dexter and Modern Family to become 2011’s most downloaded series on iTunes. ”It’s not an obscure show anymore,” says Moffat. ”It’s not even ‘a British import’ — it’s just ‘Doctor Who.’ ”

Of course, 1.3 million viewers is chicken feed compared with the audiences of most network shows: Fox’s always-on-the-brink-of-cancellation sci-fi show Fringe usually manages to pull in twice as many. But just as the TARDIS is ”bigger on the inside,” Doctor Who‘s impact on pop culture is far greater than its ratings indicate. Today it routinely receives onscreen tips of the hat from a large and fascinatingly diverse number of American TV shows. Craig Ferguson has been a huge booster of the Time Lord on The Late Late Show, and last October three different TV dramas referenced Doctor Who — on successive nights. In the Oct. 5 episode of Criminal Minds, Joe Mantegna was informed that a missing character had in fact been ”at a Doctor Who convention in San Diego since Saturday”; it came close to entirely hijacking the Oct. 6 episode of Grey’s Anatomy, in which hospital staff treated a fan who had lost his ear in the stampede to buy an autographed TARDIS collectible; and on the Oct. 7 Supernatural viewers met a character called ”Amy Pond,” prompting Jared Padalecki’s Sam to compliment her on having a ”cute name.” And let’s not forget the most recent season of Community, which celebrated Abed and Troy’s obsession with a suspiciously Who-esque show called Inspector Spacetime.

Grey’s Anatomy creator and showrunner Shonda Rhimes is a self-described ”psychotic” fan of the new Doctor Who incarnation. ”I’m not even a giant sci-fi watcher,” she says. ”I’ve never seen an episode of Star Trek. But if you are at all interested in television that’s taking chances, you like it.” Rhimes is such a fan that when she learned Gillan was leaving the show, she tried to recruit the actress for a ”top secret” project but was thwarted by Gillan’s busy schedule. (She’s set to shoot the Scotland-set romantic comedy Not Another Happy Ending and a horror movie called Oculus.) In the meantime, says Rhimes, ”I keep trying to figure out a way to build a TARDIS in my house, and live in it.” Craig Ferguson insists his Who references on The Late Late Show reflect less a desire to publicize this icon from the old country than an attempt to keep his own show fresh. ”I have to do a show that’s interesting to me, because you’d lose your mind otherwise,” says the Scot, whose Who viewing dates back to the late ’60s. ”My show is about whatever the f— I want to do. If I want to dance around singing Doctor Who tunes, I’m going to do it.”

The Time Lord’s road to global domination officially began on Nov. 23, 1963, when Doctor Who debuted on the U.K.’s BBC TV network with the white-haired, grandfatherly William Hartnell in the lead role. The show swiftly established a dramatic template that remains intact today. A typical adventure starts with the Doctor hanging out in the control room of the TARDIS with his ”companion,” more often than not a young and comely woman who has abandoned her boring, earthbound life to roam, platonically, through galaxies and millennia with the Time Lord as her guide. The Doctor usually assures said companion that their next destination will be somewhere nicely free of imminent danger and deadly monsters, but thanks to the TARDIS’ idiosyncratic steering system, he is always horribly wrong. Things tend to get particularly unpleasant in episodes involving the Doctor’s archfoes, the Daleks, a race of robotlike beings whose civilization-obliterating ways can be summed up by their catchphrase: ”Exterminate!” But no matter what peril the pair encounter, it is ultimately overcome through a mixture of pluck on the part of the routinely bewildered companion and intelligence on the part of the Doctor. Cue credits and crazy, futuristic theme music.

”It’s about a silly man who turns up, ready to save the world with a smile,” says Smith, whose own iteration of the Doctor believes bow ties are ”cool” (sales skyrocketed in the U.K. following the actor’s arrival on the show) and has been known to sport a fez.

A good many of the Time Lord’s adventures occur in contemporary Britain, but the format allows writers to deposit the show’s reassuringly familiar core elements — Doctor, companions, TARDIS, occasional fez — in a literally infinite number of settings. ”What’s clever about the program is that the episodes can be really different and yet always the same,” says Doctor Who director Saul Metzstein, who helmed several of this season’s shows, including a Western-themed outing filmed in Spain. ”It’s bloody amazing.” Back in 1966, after Hartnell decided to leave the show, producers devised another twist that gave them even more freedom: It turns out that the Doctor — who hails from the fictional planet of Gallifrey, has two hearts, and is incredibly ancient — can periodically change his body, or ”regenerate,” due to his alien physiognomy. This extremely-convenient-for-producers concept meant Hartnell could be replaced in 1966 by the impish Patrick Troughton, who himself ceded the role to the suave Jon Pertwee in 1970. By the time the twinkly-eyed, scarf-wearing Tom Baker took over in 1974 for a record-breaking seven-year run, the show had become a seemingly permanent part of the BBC’s early-Saturday-evening schedule, where it was delighting a second generation of young fans.

Did I say ”delighting”? I meant ”scaring the crap out of.” It may be a cliché that kids watch Doctor Who from behind household furniture, but it happens to be true. I was almost 7 when Baker debuted on the show, and as he faced off against the Daleks, the similarly terrifying Cybermen, and a host of other monster-y foes, I may have spent as much time cowering behind an armchair as I did sitting in it, my heart filled with both terror and delight. And I was far from alone. Craig Ferguson has no trouble recalling the fear the show engendered in his own young ticker. ”Really, it was the villains that impacted me,” he says. ”Things would go terribly wrong in some time period, and people are disappearing or something, and then suddenly you see a f—ing Dalek and go, ‘Oh, Christ, not again!’ ” These days, of course, Ferguson has his own show — and his own life-size Dalek. ”We’re still going through the ramifications of actually using the Dalek,” he admits. ”The BBC, understandably, are extremely protective. The Dalek’s waiting in the wings, standing by, till fleets of Beverly Hills lawyers figure out what the f— it can and can’t say.”

By the mid-’80s, Doctor Who had begun to ail. The show started to look creaky and old-fashioned compared with Star Wars and the special-effects-heavy Hollywood extravaganzas that followed its 1977 release. And after the beloved Baker left in 1981, subsequent actors struggled to escape his shadow. The situation was exacerbated by the BBC hierarchy’s somewhat dismissive attitude toward all things Who. ”The old show was made for no money at all,” says Moffat. ”The people at the time didn’t know the strength of the franchise they had. They didn’t know how to care for it, or that they should care for it. So it withered a bit on the vine.” By 1989 the series had been shunted to Monday nights, and its ratings had fallen from a mid-’70s high of 15 million viewers to a comparatively meager 6 million. At the end of the year, production on the show was suspended. Initially it was intended that Doctor Who would be farmed out to an independent TV-production company, but that plan ultimately foundered, and the temporary suspension became a permanent one.

In 1987, a production company called Daltenreys had put together a consortium of investors — including Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry — and acquired the movie rights to the show. When they approached major studios in the U.S., Warner Bros. executives proved particularly enthusiastic, and suggested casting Jack Nicholson as a villain and maybe Bill Cosby as the Doctor. That attempt came to naught, and the rights fell under the control of British-raised, U.S.-based movie exec — and Doctor Who fanatic — Philip Segal. He partnered with Universal Studios to make the Paul McGann-starring TV movie, with the agreement that if it proved a success, they would consider collaborating further on a full series. As one Australian newspaper waggishly pointed out, this was “doubtless the only time in history that a ‘pilot’ has been made for a 33-year-old series.”

Although the movie was a hit in the U.K., it was crushed in the ratings here by an episode of Roseanne (damn you, Conner family and your hilarious blue-collar shenanigans!), and any hope that McGann might reprise the role evaporated. While the Time Lord disappeared from TV, he was not forgotten by fans, who continued to follow the Doctor’s adventures in licensed novels and audio plays. The BBC also pumped out the old shows on video and, in time, DVD, providing a useful revenue stream for the vast, always-overstretched, publicly funded corporation. BBC One controller Lorraine Heggessey wanted to put Doctor Who back on the small screen as early as 2001, but had to wait two years while the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, fruitlessly tried to interest U.S. studios in another movie. Finally, in September 2003 the BBC announced that a new Doctor Who was being developed by Russell T Davies, the creator of the original, U.K. version of Queer as Folk. ”I grew up watching Doctor Who, hiding behind the sofa,” Davies said at the time. ”He’s had a good rest, and now it’s time to bring him back.”

Davies cast Shallow Grave actor Christopher Eccleston as the Time Lord and ex–pop star Billie Piper in the role of his latest companion, Rose. The producer assembled a writing team that included Moffat, who had created the British sitcom Coupling and who would over the next few years write some of the best, and scariest, episodes. When the show’s revival was announced, Heggessey sought to placate fans alarmed that their hero was now in the hands of the man who had come up with the extremely risqué Queer by stating that she didn’t expect Davies to make the Doctor gay. But the revived show would prove a friskier affair, thanks to the guest appearances of John Barrowman’s bisexual — indeed, omnisexual — Capt. Jack Harkness. As Eccleston’s Doctor says to Rose in one show, summing up Captain Jack’s wandering ways: ”So many species, so little time.”

Having moved to the U.S., I missed the March 2005 premiere of the new Who, which scored 10.8 million viewers, but I happened to visit a friend in London not long afterward and was surprised when this thirtysomething music publisher insisted we watch that Saturday’s broadcast. I was even more surprised when he warned that he might start crying during the course of the show. As it turned out, he wouldn’t be on his own. I can only compare seeing that episode to meeting a childhood best friend whom you had mistakenly been informed was dead but who had now returned, just as you remembered him — and yet somehow improved. Before the Doctor and Rose were too deep into their latest adventure, the two of us were weeping like children — the children we had once again become.

Why has the revived Doctor Who been so successful? One word: love. First of all, the BBC allowed the TARDIS asylum to be taken over by Who-adoring lunatics like Davies and Moffat. ”Doctor Who used to be a show made by people who didn’t necessarily love it,” says the latter. ”Some did — Tom Baker did. But it was a workaday show. Everybody who works at Doctor Who now is a devotee, somebody who grew up loving it. We regard it as a sacred trust.” Davies, in turn, took a page from Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, making the relationships between characters as important as their acts of derring-do. ”It’s become a hugely emotional show,” says Moffat. ”We do big emotions, and that’s what got us a far bigger female audience than we ever had before.”

British viewers from every demographic fell in love with Piper and Eccleston, and when the latter left after just one season, they fell harder for Piper and David Tennant, whose cheeky and handsome Doctor became the most beloved TARDIS inhabitant since Tom Baker. In 2009 Davies left to oversee the Barrowman-starring spin-off Torchwood and was replaced by Moffat, as true a Who believer as ever walked the earth. With Tennant also exiting, Moffat was able to start his reign as executive producer with a clean slate. He brought in Smith (best known in the U.K. for the political series Party Animals) as the Doctor, and Gillan and Darvill as the Time Lord’s new companions — the spiky, Scottish Amy and the danger-averse yet stouthearted Rory. He also promoted the character of River Song to series-regular status. Played by ER actress Alex Kingston, River Song is another time traveler and a girlfriend of the Doctor’s who had been introduced to viewers the previous season, in what Kingston assumed would be just a two-episode gig. Moffat decided the character would not only return but also act as the linchpin of the most ambitious, overarching plotline ever featured on the show: In last season’s most shocking twist, viewers discovered that River is in fact Rory and Amy’s daughter. (Confused? It’s time travel — just go with it.)

So the announcement last year that Gillan and Darvill were leaving the show represented something of a Whoverse supernova. Moffat says he first discussed Amy’s departure with Gillan in the spring of 2010. ”I said to Karen, ‘The first person you tell when you’re leaving must be me so I can put as much long-term planning into the story as I can,’ ” Moffat recalls. ”Sometime later she and Arthur said, ‘We think we should leave halfway through this series; that makes sense for us.’ And we started building the story to that end.” Gillan admits the last scene they shot was emotional, despite being mundane. ”It was just the three of us getting into the TARDIS, and obviously it’s not bigger on the inside,” says the actress. ”It’s basically the size of a toolbox. But this really insignificant scene was so significant to us. It was intense.”

While Smith seemed to suggest in a 2011 interview that he might also be departing the TARDIS someday soon, today he says he has ”no firm intentions to leave as yet” and is looking forward to playing the Doctor during the Time Lord’s 50th-anniversary celebrations next year. ”I think it’s terribly exciting,” he says. ”There’ll be, I hope, a great big event for that. But who knows what we’ll do?” Steven Moffat does, but he isn’t saying. ”It’s early stages,” he hedges. ”But we’ve had big meetings, and we know what we’re going to attempt.”

For now Moffat is busy overseeing the second half of the new season and this year’s Christmas special, which will introduce the Doctor’s new companion, played by the (as yet) relatively unknown Jenna-Louise Coleman. It is a task that seems to have energized — regenerated? — the exec producer. ”It’s exciting, because it starts the story again,” says Moffat. ”It’s somebody new to see all the secrets of the Doctor — that he’s got two hearts, that he looks young but he’s really old. There are some scenes you never get tired of writing.”

Such as?

” ‘It’s bigger on the inside!’ ”

Doctor Who 101

What Is It? A 49-year-old British time-travel science-fiction drama designed to mesmerize and terrify the young and young at heart. ”It was sort of the bad boy of children’s television,” says current showrunner and longtime Who nut Steven Moffat. ”It was all flavor and no nutrition.”

The Main Players The show’s constant character is the Doctor, an eccentric two-hearted alien capable of physical ”regeneration” who has been played by many different actors over the years. Together with a revolving door of sidekicks, he travels through time and space in a blue box called the TARDIS, resolving incidents of monster-featuring mayhem. ”He’s not Batman,” says current Doctor Who star Matt Smith. ”He’s sillier — and cleverer.”

The Monsters The Doctor has battled many beasties, from the reptilian Ice Warriors to the sucker-covered Zygons. But his archfoes are the Daleks, among the most feared beings in the Who universe despite their resemblance to giant pepper shakers.

Doctor Who season 7 preview
Dedicated Whovians know that Doctor Who spoilers are hard to come by, but we’ve managed to pull a few details about the upcoming season from exec producer Steven Moffat and the cast.

Daleks! The season premiere, titled ”Asylum of the Daleks,” will reintroduce Doctor Who‘s most famous, and famously ramp-loving, foes. ”To be honest, I’ve never been that frightened of the Daleks,” says Karen Gillan. ”They can’t go up stairs, so I don’t really see the problem. But these Daleks just look terrifying.”

Cowboys! The cast visited Almeria, Spain — where A Fistful of Dollars was partly shot — to film a Western-themed episode, which costars Ben Browder from another cult series, Farscape. ”The sets are just off the Richter scale,” says Matt Smith. ”I got to learn to ride a horse and talk to a horse. There you go: The Doctor speaks horse!”

The End of Rory and Amy! The fifth episode of the season will see the departure of Gillan’s Amy and Arthur Darvill’s Rory. Darvill won’t reveal whether their exit will be a happy or a tragic affair — ”I really can’t say anything” — but exec producer Steven Moffat advises viewers to have a hanky handy. ”It’s not a necessarily evil ending,” he says. “But not everybody gets out alive.”

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