Who Are the Whovians?: Fandom’s Impact on Doctor Who’s Enduring Presence

By Tai Gooden

Who else but the time-twisting Doctor could appear in 94 countries at once?! This outstanding achievement is testament to the fact that the longest running sci-fi TV show in history is not just a well-loved UK institution but a truly global success adored by millions of people.” – Craig Glenday, Guinness World Records Editor-in-Chief

Doctor Who has been one of the most influential and progressive television shows in the past 50 years. The British sci-fi series premiered in 1963 with a woman producer, Verity Lambert, at the helm of the show and quickly captured the hearts of the British TV audience. The mysterious humanoid time-traveling alien known as The Doctor (first portrayed by William Hartnell) and his enchanting TARDIS drew in families on Saturday nights as they explored science through the lens of his travel companions. Over the sometimes tumultuous years of the show, the show’s greatest success has endured – the dedicated fans now known as Whovians. The symbiotic relationship between Whovians and the show has been equal parts love story, business partnership, and creative exchange as the show has grown into a global giant.


From the beginning, Doctor Who saw a steady increase in viewership as the burgeoning fan base began to form, going from 4.4 million to 6.4 million viewers during the first 4-part serial. However, the Doctor Who fandom was truly born in conjunction with the debut of the show’s most enduring villainous entity, The Daleks. The second serial introduced the Nazi-inspired mutant alien species to the audience and resulted in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) first merchandising boom. The BBC capitalized on the Daleks’ popularity and mass produced novels, movies, toys, children’s playsuits, board games, and apparel featuring the foes and their catchphrase “Exterminate.” The movement eventually became known as Dalekmania and resulted in the show becoming a staple in British popular culture. Daleks, the TARDIS, and The Doctor himself soon became recognizable even among people who didn’t watch the show. The BBC’s capitalization on Doctor Who fans obsession with Daleks led to a boom in viewers with a reported 10.4 million people tuning in by the end of the Dalek serial.

The relationship between the Whovian fandom and the show continued to evolve as Doctor Who cemented itself into the public consciousness. In response to actor William Hartnell’s failing health, Doctor Who writers/producers developed a plot device known as regeneration (then known as a “renewal”) which allowed The Doctor to reconstruct his body when he is faced with a fatal injury. This concept allowed the show to continue many times after an actor left the titular role. The new actor was also allowed to put his own artistic take on The Doctor’s wardrobe style and personality. Similar to The Doctor, the TARDIS went through a renewal process in the form of new console rooms as well as outward cosmetic updates. And, as The Doctor continued to change and travel, so did his roster of companions. The constant flux of the show was an ingenious idea – it kept viewers engaged and provided plenty of new merchandise opportunities.

Whovians became emotionally invested in different incarnations of The Doctor. As the show went on, fans latched onto the now-iconic Fourth Doctor’s costume – particularly his multicolored, long scarf and hat. Actor Tom Baker’s incarnation of The Doctor, which is still the longest-running version of the character and a favorite among the fandom, represented a pivotal point in the show’s popularity in the United States. Many American Classic Who fans were introduced to Doctor Who on PBS when it aired in syndication during the late 1970s and 80s. The show’s presence in the US led to the simultaneous rise of fan-run Doctor Who conventions in America, many of which were frequented by actors/writers from the series. Conventions were a place for fans to find a sense of community and a way to meet the stars that had a profound influence on their lives.

It was during this time that the term “Whovian” was used by fans to describe themselves. The term was coined by members of the Doctor Who Fan Club of America and their Whovian Times newsletter. In addition to conventions, the BBC commissioned the Doctor Who USA tour. The tour traveled across the United States in 1986 and included exhibits of the TARDIS console, replicas of characters, and appearances by the then-current Doctor (the Sixth Doctor, actor Colin Baker) and his companion (American student Peri Brown, actress Nicola Bryant) as well as a few previous Doctors. The tour was a thank you for current supporters and a way to pique the interest of potential fans. After over 20 years on the air, the show was naturally going through a ratings decline, but Doctor Who had a cult following who stuck by the show even when it reached a hiatus period.

The BBC suspended the program in 1989 after a major ratings slump. The suspension was intended to be a short break to refocus, but it turned into the 16-year gap of no new Doctor Who TV episodes known as the “Wilderness Years.” During this timeframe, there were various forms of official spinoff media that brought fresh adventures from a roster of talented Whovian authors. The same year the TV show was cancelled, BBC granted Virgin Books the license to produce novels that picked up the Seventh Doctor’s story where it ended. Doctor Who: The New Adventures featured contributions from writers who would go on to be instrumental in the modern series – Russell T Davies, Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffatt, Paul Cornell, and others. One of the best examples of Whovian writing turned into TV canon was current through 2017 showrunner Steven Moffat’s novel contribution, Human Nature. The 1995 story was later loosely adapted for the revived series during the Tenth Doctor’s era. In addition to the novelizations of Doctor Who, the flagship fan-created magazine of the show, Doctor Who Magazine, ran monthly issues about Doctor Who and gave Whovians new adventures from previous Doctors in the form of comics. Doctor Who Magazine offered fans a space to ask questions and released magazine specials surrounding anniversary milestones for the show.

It was obvious that Doctor Who still had franchise power so the BBC reacted to fan demand by trying to revive the series with a new twist. In 1996, the BBC Worldwide production team partnered with 20th Century Fox to produce a film that picked up where the series ended. The film was the first attempt to revive the series and was geared toward the American audience in hopes of starting a Doctor Who series in the USA. Doctor Who: The Movie’s overall script was panned and did not catch on in America as producers hoped. The US series was never developed despite fans positive reaction to Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor. In short, American fans didn’t want to see an Americanized version of a British classic. So, once again there was no more Doctor Who on TV and fans primarily looked to each other to fill the void. And, the BBC kept their eyes and ears on their biggest source of creative inspiration.

In July 1999, audio production company Big Finish studios began producing Doctor Who audio dramas that featured the Fifth through Seventh Doctors. The company itself was formed as a result of unlicensed audio dramas (Audio Visuals) by British fans in the late 80s and early 90s.

Even though they were infringing on the BBC’s copyrights, the company gave fans the creative license to create their own stories.

One of the producers, Gary Russell, went on to create the first licensed Big Finish Doctor Who dramas and had a position as the editor of Doctor Who Magazine from 1992-1995. For those outside of the UK and/or who weren’t familiar with Audio Visuals, the Big Finish audio plays opened up an entire new world of Doctor Who adventures. The stories brought a feeling of nostalgia of the Doctor Who days gone and featured voice work from the original actors from the series.

New villains and companions – some now accepted as canonical – were introduced to the greater Whovian fandom all because of grassroots effort by Whovians.

The fandom also kept the show alive in their inner circle and ushered in new fans through their comics, fanfic, and essays. One lifelong fan who happened to be a TV writer/producer, Russell T Davies, began the push for proper, British Doctor Who to return to television with 21st century updates. His efforts soon paid off and a few Doctor Who geeks began to inherit the Whoniverse as they were brought on board to revive the series.

In 2005, Doctor Who made a triumphant return to TV with the episode “Rose.” The BBC ran an aggressive media blitz prior to the debut and launched an official Doctor Who website with games and information about the Ninth Doctor. As anticipation built toward March 26th, everyone involved with the revival knew there was a lot at stake in the debut episode. The titular character, shop worker Rose Tyler, needed to resonate with fans as the audience surrogate who was stuck in the daily grind and hoping something incredible would happen to her. The Doctor and the storyline needed to reveal just enough about the series to capture new viewers, yet provide enough of a nod to Classic Who to make fans feel like it was a true revival instead of their Doctor Who. The first episode ended up being a success that drew in 10.81 million viewers and led to the beginning of the BBC’s modern era merchandise and marketing strategy. The New Series Adventures, hardback books published by BBC Books, were published to feature imagined off-screen adventures of Nine and Rose. Eccleston’s action hero type Doctor led to several action figures in his honor along with extensive comics about his adventures. The new Doctor, Rose, and new characters in the series were cosplayed by Whovians at conventions around the world. Fan inspired art also began to take off and featured Nine’s eerie TARDIS console room as well as his trademark phrase “Fantastic!”

Fans were certainly receptive to the commercial marketing efforts by the BBC, but the show itself was the primary marketing tool. Simply put, it was new Doctor Who with compelling stories and strong performances by both Eccleston and Piper. It continued to impress established fans with a love for “proper” Doctor Who, yet it was progressive enough to hook those same fans’ children as well as new fans who were used to faster paced storylines with a tinge of romantic tension. But, as soon as the show began to see a wave of success, it nearly crumbled with Christopher Eccleston’s announcement of his departure. Fans were going to be hit with a regeneration after only one season and the BBC wasn’t sure how they would react to the Ninth Doctor’s regeneration into the Tenth Doctor.

When actor and Doctor Who fanatic David Tennant stepped into the TARDIS as the Tenth Doctor, the revival was a commercial/critical win. The Tenth Doctor’s energetic personality, romantic chemistry with Rose, catchphrases, and cosplay worthy pinstripe suit sent many Whovians’ feels into a frenzy. Ten’s ability to effectively display the quintessential Doctorish qualities – wisdom, heroism, weariness, quirkiness, and some arrogance – while bringing a youthful, guy-next-door charm to the role resonated with many fans who were already attached to Rose Tyler.

Ten’s impact was realized in 2006 when he edged out the ever popular 4th Doctor as the “Best Doctor” in a Doctor Who Magazine poll and was ranked as the “Coolest Character on TV” by Radio Times.

As the Tenth Doctor continued his run on the show, the fandom was hit with another major change when Rose Tyler was replaced by a new companion, Martha Jones. Whovians seemed heavily divided – many fans, particularly fans of color, were thrilled to see the first full-time Black companion in the TARDIS while others weren’t happy about Rose being replaced. But fans went with the changes and continued to enjoy the series.

The rise of social media networks like Twitter and Facebook during the Tenth Doctor’s run made building the Doctor Who community easier for the existing fandom. In terms of access, the barriers of Classic Who were now gone – it was no longer an arduous search to find episodes and obtain video copies of the program. The BBC was releasing Doctor Who programming on DVDs along with their books, audios, and magazines. Outside of products offered by the BBC website, other licensed Doctor Who merchandise was available through merchandisers like ThinkGeek, Amazon, and eBay. Much of the merchandise was marketed in response to Whovian’s love of all things Ten related, especially the variation of his suits and brown overcoat and catchphrases like “Allons-y.”

But, the most coveted apparel was the ones that fans designed. Fans on websites like Etsy created their own T-shirts centering on the Ten/Rose relationship as well as various ones of him standing outside of his beloved TARDIS. Ten’s good looks led to his mug on any and everything from T-shirts to…coffee mugs. Years later, when the Twelfth Doctor was announced, eBay experienced a surge of Doctor Who transactions that still had Ten outpacing the other Doctors in terms of sales.

Nine may have brought the show back into the public consciousness, but Ten propelled the rise of the new marketing and merchandise era.

Of course, things can and always do change on Doctor Who. Series 5 saw the departure of the beloved Tenth Doctor, the showrunner, and all of the companions and guests that fans had grown to love. Steven Moffat took over the reins and tapped an even younger, crazier Doctor to take over the TARDIS. It was a fresh slate and a prime opportunity to rebrand the show.  Prior to the Eleventh Doctor’s official debut, several teaser trailers were shown on TV, online, and even in 3D in cinemas. Matt Smith (the Eleventh Doctor) and Karen Gillian (his new companion Amy Pond) went on a promotional tour across the UK and allowed fans to see a special screening of the debut episode, “The Eleventh Hour.” The pair also brought joy to the USA when they came to New York City for an additional episode screening.

The show had a different vibe from the previous seasons with an updated opening sequence, a new musical score for The Doctor, a companion who was viewed by many as an outspoken feminist, and sleeker production/special effects. The revelation of the Eleventh Doctor’s penchant for tweed jackets, ankle high boots, bowties, and suspenders was yet again cosplay gold for Doctor Who retailers and fans who made (and sold) apparel. Matt Smith’s eccentric and almost comedic portrayal of The Doctor made him an even bigger favorite among young fans, leading to an expected increase in demand for Doctor Who games and toys. A fresh looking TARDIS and Eleven’s new and improved sonic screwdriver both became coveted pieces of memorabilia for fans. The BBC pushed their marketing efforts harder than ever with TV spots and a strong social media presence to propel the show to new heights in anticipation for its 50th anniversary.

Nervous chatter about the November 23rd anniversary had been on Whovians’ minds for a while, but official buzz started with an announcement in Doctor Who Magazine about casting decisions. Fan favorites Billie Piper and David Tennant were returning to appear in the special along with the Eleventh Doctor and his companion Clara Oswald (actress Jenna Coleman). The inclusion of John Hurt, who was mysteriously introduced in the season seven finale episode “The Name of the Doctor” as an unknown version of The Doctor, set off a wave of fan speculation on social media, podcasts, and conventions around the world. Fans began to develop their own headcanon about how the Tenth Doctor and Rose would reappear in the episode. Would it be Rose and the Metacrisis Doctor from parallel Earth? Or did the Doctor yet again cross his timeline and meet Ten/Rose on an adventure? Would any of the living Classic Era Doctors make an appearance? And, who the hell was this mysterious incarnation of The Doctor? The growing list of fan theories led to a barrage of media coverage and even non-Whovians knew that some big event was going down in November.

The BBC made a controversial move to release the first trailer of the 50th anniversary episode at San Diego Comic Con in July of 2013, which was met with criticism by both fans who were not at the con both in the US and internationally. However, the BBC countered and said that there would be another special trailer for all Whovians to be released later that year. On September 28th, the BBC started a viral marketing campaign with its Twitter hashtag #SaveTheDay. The #SaveTheDay trailer was released during an episode of BBC One’s series Atlantis. The hashtag was meant to encourage fans to use their creativity to promote the 50th anniversary, but fan reaction was not as enthusiastic as the network hoped. Fans were still unhappy about the trailer not being released and created a hashtag of their own, #ReleaseThe50thtrailer, in response to the BBC. The BBC’s thought-process was somewhat understandable – keeping as much of the information under wraps would build anticipation and mystery around the episode and online chatter (both good and bad) was still free promotion. And, a trailer release closer to the debut date would reel in the casual and new viewers who wanted to tune in to be a part of this epic event, even if they didn’t know all of the details. But, in a world that thrives on epic trailers and a core fandom that has become used to being given a great teaser to speculate on, it may not have been the best overall move. Doctor Who was designed to put hardcore Whovians first and going against that design usually ended up not working in their favor.

Either way, the hashtag continued to be used for all promotional material and the BBC began to release a series of mini trailers starting in October. The Doctor Who 50 Years trailer, which included narration from the Eleventh Doctor, was a 3D sequence of the previous Doctors, companions, and popular enemies that began the final push toward the 50th episode. “The Night of the Doctor” and “The Last Day” mini episodes premiered in mid-November to provide a bit of necessary background information, including the 8th Doctor’s previously unseen regeneration into John Hurt’s incarnation (later known as the War Doctor). Fans were so impressed with the trailer that they started a petition that garnered more than 15,000 signatures for a Doctor Who spinoff featuring the 8th Doctor.

The BBC made sure that every fan across the world could view the 50th Anniversary episode at the exact same time in an unprecedented social event.

The program was broadcast in both 2D and 3D in 94 countries on 6 continents as well as a 1500 theaters worldwide. The live broadcast caught fire on Twitter with almost 500K tweets and Facebook impressions that reached 97 million people. The show gained yet another place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the “Largest Ever Simulcast of a TV Drama.” Fans were pleased by all of the nods to Classic Who, the appearance of the War Doctor, Billie Piper as The Moment, Tom Baker as a museum curator, and seeing the Tenth Doctor and Eleventh Doctor working together. “The Day of the Doctor” also featured a nod to the fandom in the form of Osgood, a UNIT officer who wears a Fourth Doctor-esque scarf and is an obvious fan of The Doctor. Fans collectively geeked out toward the end when the current Doctor, Peter Capaldi, made a fleeting appearance as a future incarnation of The Doctor.  

Of course, fans knew that Capaldi had next in the TARDIS. Matt Smith’s departure announcement earlier that year led to speculation about who would be the Twelfth Doctor. In August 2013, BBC One held a live broadcast – “Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor” – to officially announce Capaldi as the next Doctor. The program ran simultaneously in the UK, US, Australia, and Canada.  In the 2013 Christmas special, the Eleventh Doctor bid farewell to Clara and millions of adoring fans around the world and Capaldi’s version of The Doctor took over. After years of having a relatively young and quirky Time Lord, the show took a bit of a risk by replacing him with an older actor. While fans of the Classic series were no stranger to an older Doctor, many kids and young fans had attached themselves to the Eleventh Doctor and weren’t so sure about this less amicable version.

In preparation for Peter Capaldi’s Season 8 debut, the BBC sent Twelve and Clara Oswald on an aggressive 12 day world tour in August. The pair, along with showrunner Steven Moffat, visited seven cities in 5 continents and took time to answer fan questions and allow fans to get up close with the man behind the Doctor. Fans in Cardiff were treated to the season’s first episode, “Deep Breath,” a couple of weeks prior to the worldwide TV broadcast. At the end of the episode, the Eleventh Doctor calls Clara (and the audience) from the TARDIS to implore that they give the new Doctor a chance. Series 8 was generally praised by critics, but the fandom was much more divided. There was an unofficial battle between fans who loved Capaldi’s Doctor and a stronger Clara Oswald and those who were unimpressed by the new Doctor and/or Clara’s character development. But, in the end, the show continued to prevail as it went through a series of changes that were good for merchandising – new TARDIS console room, a female Master, and the debut of sonic sunglasses as well as The Doctor’s rocking guitar. The BBC continued to encourage fans to develop their own stories through contests like Mission Dalek. The digital challenge encouraged fans to design their own stories for the Twelfth Doctor. Winners were able to visit the Doctor Who set and rub elbows with Peter Capaldi. The BBC also continued to remind the fandom of how much they matter with commercials thanking fans for their support and an interactive Twitter presence.

As the show takes a temporary break in 2016, fans are still busy with Big Finish audios, novels, comics, fanfiction, podcasts, conventions, DVDs, and many other Doctor Who related things. People outside of the fandom may wonder why fans are so willing to make a financial investment into the fandom and why the Doctor Who marketing machine is intent on bringing fresh events and demanded merchandise to Whovians. The answer is simple – the show and the fandom are one unit. As the show has grown and evolved over the years, it has surpassed its purpose as an education show geared toward children. Doctor Who is a show that has embraced the eccentric people and outsiders of the world and invited them into a world filled with even odder circumstances. It provides an escape toward what most people dream of – a life filled with adventure and remarkable traveling among the stars. For fans, The Doctor is more than a madman in a box – he’s an intellectual godlike hero who hates establishments that shove society into a proverbial box. It’s a show that reflects life (making tough decisions, friendships) on a grander scale and encourages conversations about our moral compass and the concepts of right/wrong. Doctor Who brings Whovians equal amounts of exhilaration and sadness as they become invested in the characters. The show is so brilliant and poignant that it’s reminiscent of a gospel that needs to be shared with the masses. And, particularly in the modern era, it is a show that has Whovians involved in every capacity from writer to actor to showrunner.  

Doctor Who’s marketing team is aware of how important the fans are to the show and they make fandom satisfaction the center of their efforts. Yes, like any company, bringing in new fans to make more money is certainly important, but the show is managing to expand its reach while staying loyal to the core audience that will return the loyalty by sticking through meh episodes and drastic changes. So, there will always be specials like “The Doctor’s Finest” that highlights episodes with fan favorite tweets and the “Doctor Who Fan Show.” The subset of the fandom that sees Doctor Who as more than a brand or a TV show will spend money on the show in some capacity, whether it’s on merchandise at a fan convention or purchasing DVDs online. The show is a key element of their identity and an integral part of their lives that they naturally want to share with others. They love Doctor Who for better or worse and the show will always love them back.

The Whovian fandom and Doctor Who will always operate with the same creative vein and have one mission – to make Doctor Who the greatest sci-fi show of all-time.

Tai Gooden is a freelance writer, mom, dreamer, and Whovian. She has written for The Guardian, Paper Magazine, Paste Magazine, The Mary Sue, and Geek & Sundry among many others. When she’s not waiting for the TARDIS, she can be found on Twitter.

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