By Alexander Winning
LONDON (Reuters) - Thousands of "Doctor Who" fans from across the world descended on London on Saturday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a sci-fi series that has gripped generations with a quirky blend of time travel, merciless robots and evil aliens.
"Doctor Who", first aired on British television on November 23, 1963, is the world's longest-running science-fiction series according to Guinness World Records, telling the story of a half-human with two hearts and the power to travel in time. It is now a major part of BBC efforts to press sales overseas.
From its inception it had British children cowering behind sofas, untroubled by sometimes less than convincing sets and aliens that looked frequently like men in rubber suits.
The doctor's chief enemy, the Daleks, are an alien race forced by an apocalyptic war to retreat into robotic shells, bereft of all emotions bar hatred; mansized salt cellar-shaped villains with probes reminiscent of sink plungers and flashing lights on their heads strangely similar to those on a car seen widely on British streets in the early 1960s.
Scrapped 24 years ago, it re-emerged in 2005 in what many view as a more sophisticated form, going from strength to strength.
As well as building a strong fan base in Britain among so-called "Whovians", the show has made its mark in the United States, Australia and Canada and is expanding in other languages to markets such as China, Brazil and Mexico.
Randy Bloch, a computer engineer from Chicago, Illinois, was one of an expected 24,000 fans gathering at a conference center for a 50th anniversary edition, "The Day of the Doctor", to be broadcast in more than 90 countries and 15 languages.
Some wore Dr Who costumes, took part in workshops, bought up merchandise and took part in workshops.
"I like Doctor Who's idealism and optimism. It offers hope and acceptance for people who need it," Bloch, wearing a Dr Who-themed stripey scarf, commented.
"WHEELIE BIN WITH A PLUNGER"?
The show, joined by current and past doctors, is a key part of the publicly-funded BBC's efforts to win a global audience for this and other drama shows.
Steven Moffat, the show's chief writer, attributed its success to having "a simple hero who can go anywhere in time and space" and transforming itself every few years with a new lead character and updated technology.
One center piece is the Doctor's Tardis time machine, taking the form of a blue police box. The Tardis had been designed to melt in with its surroundings, which it did nicely in the 1963 broadcast set in a London where such boxes were a common sight, a constable's telephone link to the station.
Unfortunately, the function froze after the first series leaving the Tardis in the same, subsequently rather incongruous form for future visits to far away planets and distant times.
The show has its detractors, as even the BBC acknowledges.
"Daleks are like a wheelie bin with a plunger. I am simply not scared of them, no matter how much people may scream," wrote one observer, Chris Sallis, in an article on the BBC website. "The Tardis itself just doesn't interest me either. What is interesting about a blue police box compared with the star ship Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon?"
Yet the fans keep clamoring for more.
The lead role has been played by 11 actors, starting with William Hartnell in 1963 through to the incumbent doctor Matt Smith who will hand over the keys to the Tardis later this year to the 12th doctor, Oscar-winning Peter Capaldi.
Each doctor has brought his own character to the role and the reinvention of the time lord has been hailed as also showing the possibility of change at the BBC which has been attacked in the past year for its management and strategy.
"I suppose you can't be the home of "Doctor Who" for 50 years without learning something about regeneration," the BBC's new Director General Tony Hall quipped last month.
Colin Baker, doctor in the 1980s, said it might be time for change. "I want to see a lady play the Doctor," he said.
Moffat played down fan concerns the show could grind to a halt because the Doctor has the power to regenerate 12 times.
"We are not going to disregard that but as to whether the BBC will discard one of its most successful programs, I will leave you to make your own conclusions," he said.
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Ralph Boulton)