When you think about it, ‘Doctor Who’ should really have ended in 1966. After all, the star of the series was involved in protracted and angry disputes with the show’s producer, and was also suffering from the first visible symptoms of the arteriosclerosis that would take his life less than a decade later. Sure, the show was doing well in the ratings, but it’s pretty rare that success like that survives replacing the star of the show. Admittedly, ‘Doctor Who’ had already replaced its entire supporting cast at least twice by the time Hartnell finally left, with no apparent loss of support (primarily due to strong viewing support for the Doctor’s recurring antagonists, the Daleks–it’s no coincidence that Troughton’s first outing was against the iconic pepperpots)…but really, there was no reason to ever believe that recasting the Doctor was going to work.
Especially because it was written into the series. The show has been around for almost fifty years now, and is on its eleventh actor to “officially” play the part; as a result, we’ve become so accustomed to regeneration as a concept that we’ve almost forgotten what an extraordinary handwave it is. “Oh, yes, I just changed my entire physical appearance and personality. We aliens do that every so often. Weird, huh?” (Speaking of things that are no coincidence, it’s only after regeneration is introduced that the Doctor’s alien physiology becomes a serious plot point. Hartnell’s “alien-ness” was primarily a matter of attitude, a cultural identity; with Troughton and afterwards, he becomes an alien with unusual racial abilities.)
What’s striking about this is that when you look at most of the American cult series who’ve taken a run at the Doctor’s longevity (…well, “taken a run” is putting it generously. The only shows to really come close would be ‘Stargate’ and ‘Star Trek’, and that’s if you decided to treat every single one of their spin-offs and relaunches as a single show. But we’ll consider anything that ran more than three seasons, the point at which ‘Doctor Who’ was forced to retool to account for Hartnell’s absence…) It’s amazing how many of them are set up better than ‘Doctor Who’ was to continue without their stars. All of the ‘Trek’ series are ensemble shows built around the crew of a Starfleet vessel; they even tease us, in the Season 3 finale of ‘Next Generation’, with the idea that Picard might be pensioned out/killed off as a result of the Borg crisis and Riker might become the captain. Such a thing would have been audacious, but would it really have been any more daring than replacing a 58-year old grandfatherly inventor with a 46-year old cosmic tramp?
‘The X-Files’ actually did make use of its series format to replace one actor with another, but only late in the series run and only out of necessity. It’s worth asking if they could have extended the show by making the switch sooner and getting the audience used to the idea that nobody was safe from the sinister conspiracy, or whether it would have gotten the series canceled that much quicker as fans who were really watching for the emotional dynamic between Mulder and Scully gave up on the show.
And ‘Buffy’ actually introduced first one, then a second, then a whole friggin’ raft of potential replacements, only to have them all serve as foils for the lead character and demonstrate, in one fashion or another, that Buffy Summers is special even among special people. Certainly, you could argue that the show was about Buffy in specific and not about Slayers in general, and that the creators weren’t interested in extending the show just for the sake of extending it…then again, you could also argue that the show was about transitioning from teenager to adult through making the metaphorical high school experiences into literal confrontations with the forces of evil, and the creators certainly seemed to be interested in extending that show just for the sake of extending it.
Even a series like ‘Heroes’, which was explicitly designed to have a sprawling, ever-changing cast, had problems adding people to it in later seasons…then again, it seems like the later seasons had a lot of problems beyond just “adding new characters that caught the audience’s interest.” But ‘Heroes’ does provide a particularly illuminating example of the problem that cult shows have when they try to outlast their actors, and the reason that ‘Who’ is not in much company as it heads to the 32-odd season mark.
Namely, that series don’t like changing their core dynamic, and do so only a) grudgingly, b) out of necessity, and as a result c) through desperation and not design. The concept of Agent Doggett was, at its heart, “Oh shit David Duchovny just served us walking papers what are we gonna do now?” The dynamic of Season Six of ‘Buffy’ was less, “Let’s do a meaningful and sensitive arc about how Buffy will cope without adult mentor-figures,” and more, “Um…Tony Head wants to go back to England. How do we work with that?” The actors who came in for the later seasons of ‘Heroes’ were working with a plot arc that was already flailing around for relevance, and were cast by producers who were trying to cast new roles while managing the day-to-day production of a complex series. These changes were reluctant, and frequently rushed.
Whereas ‘Doctor Who’, by this point, had already (as previously mentioned) changed its entire cast twice. The producers were very comfortable creating new characters to travel in the TARDIS, and the show’s format had shown that it could adapt to such changes. Recasting the Doctor was just the final step in a process that had begun with ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’, a process that showed that the concept, not the ensemble, was the star of the show. In that light, it’s not too surprising that the show made it through the transition with barely a bump.
Which makes the transition to the UNIT era, with ‘Spearhead From Space’, even more surprising. But that’s a discussion for later…