'Who,' 'Wild Things,' 'Avengers' loom 50 years later

05:00 AM, Nov 20, 2013

In 1963, William Hartnell debuted as the first Doctor of "Doctor Who", a sci-fi franchise now more popular than ever. BBC/


Written By by Brian Truitt, USA TODAY

The year 1963 had some hugely seminal historic moments — the March on Washington, the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas — but it also launched pop-culture touchstones that have maintained their relevance for 50 years.

Multimedia franchises such as Doctor Who, the Avengers and the X-Men, plus books such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, have staying power because there is a high level of quality inherent with them, according to Rob Weiner, associate pop-culture librarian at Texas Tech University Library.

Who cares about Doc Savage or The Shadow today?” he says of the pulp heroes of the 1930s and ’40s. “I think they’re really cool, but most young people aren’t going to care. But I guarantee you people will go see The Avengers 2, and Doctor Who is hotter than it’s ever been.”

Iron Man, the Avengers and the X-Men rule the box office as superhero movies have proven more and more financially powerful in recent years, yet in ‘63 they were just creative comic-book musings hatched in Marvel Comics’ New York City office by writer Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

The Avengers have featured a revolving door of characters over the years to become Marvel Entertainment’s biggest brand, and the mutant members of the X-Men have long been a product of their era.

They were always a metaphor for tolerance and civil rights and diversity, and we’re still wrestling with those issues 50 years later,” Weiner says. “There are still some things in society that the X-Men provide potent lessons for, and we’re on the verge of next summer getting another X-Men movie.”

Where the Wild Things Are has long spurred children’s imaginations while also telling a memorable story of a youngster’s anger vs. a parent’s love. Encyclopedia Brown also tapped into kids’ problem-solving skills for the first of many mysteries in 1963, a year that also featured the debuts of Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes (which spawned the classic sci-fi movie) and Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut’s literary take on the global arms race of the times.

On TV, Wild Kingdom set the stage for years of tuning into animals in their natural habitat — there is still a version of the show airing on Animal Planet — and at the cinema, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World mastered the “epic comedy” template of Around the World in 80 Days seven years earlier and set the stage for the later cameo-filled hijinks of 1941, The Blues Brothers and The Cannonball Run.

Meanwhile with The Birds, director Alfred Hitchcock created a classic horror-movie villain out of a seemingly innocuous animal, foreshadowing the likes of Cujo. While the popular notion is that it was all downhill for him after 1960’s Psycho, The Birds is both highly underrated and enormously important, according to Piers D. Britton, associate professor of visual and media studies at the University of Redlands.

It represented a way of doing mainstream filmmaking that was very daring and really seriously engaging with all kinds of art-house films in Europe,” Britton says. “That’s had a huge impact on what we could imagine and wrap our heads around as filmgoers since.”

Doctor Who — which premiered on Britain’s BBC network on Nov. 23, 1963, one day after JFK was killed — was influential for years in Britain and in international waters. Now, though, in America the Doctor has risen from niche cult fandom to one of the top characters in science fiction and geek culture: Saturday’s 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor will be globally simulcast (2:50 p.m ET/11:50 a.m. PT) on BBC America and also 3-D theater screens across the country.

Conceptually, a guy who time-travels in a phone booth? That’s still quirky enough to be pretty cool,” Weiner says.

With its habit of in-story character “regeneration” — the Doctor mantle has passed on screen between 11 actors, with a 12th later this year — Britton feels Doctor Who is perhaps the ultimate example of a pop-culture vehicle of a bygone era that thrives on being reinvented.

Whereas in many series the resignation of a lead character is problematic and you have to recast or change the story, Doctor Who is actually built around the principle of change,” says Britton, the author of TARDISbound: Navigating the Universes of Doctor Who.

It epitomizes the way in which all kinds of media we’ve seen rise to prominence in the last 50 years do best when they are open and allow for changes and shift and mutation.”

Another reason many of these franchises still loom large in the zeitgeist is because the early 1960s was a birthplace of fandom — people began to find others who shared their loves (sci-fi, comics, etc.) in a way that was a precursor to today’s social media, Britton says. “It boosted this kind of interactivity that has become the norm.”