For over 50 years, Doctor Who has changed the face of science fiction. With more than 800 episodes, and adventures spanning all of time and space, this icon of television science fiction may seem a little intimidating. But the good news is, it’s really quite simple. Here’s the io9 guide to Doctor Who.
Welcome back to the io9 Guide series, where we write simple but comprehensive guides to the most important universe of science fiction and fantasy. These guides are aimed at lay-people in search of a quick refresher, as well as seasoned fans who want to debate the meaning and essential knowledge of a subject.
What is Doctor Who about?
Simply put, Doctor Who is a show about an alien time-traveler who goes around helping people, usually with the help of one or more human traveling companions.
Doctor Who stands out among other science fiction series, because it tries not to focus on the dark, gritty aspects of the medium. It’s a show about relentless optimism, both in the hope of finding a peaceful circumstance to any conflict, and in the hope of discovery and appreciating the beauty of the world around us. It’s about finding the joy in the extraordinary and the ordinary, from a majestic nebula to the smallest human act. The Doctor travels with people not just to save worlds across time and space, but to explore and see the universe, through his own eyes and through the lens of the friends he travels with.
Even in the show’s darkest moments, The Doctor’s fury often comes not from a place of anger, but a laser-focused sense of justice, an utmost belief that evil across the universe must be fought. And unlike many action heroes, The Doctor does not carry a weapon into battle — he uses his intelligence and wit to outsmart his opponents, and occasionally his trusty gadget the sonic screwdriver (which isn’t a weapon, but a high-tech tool that opens locked doors and acts as a scanning device). Even when Doctor Who is all about its hero fighting monsters and villains, it’s battles waged with words and wit rather than weaponry and explosions, a rare sight in science fiction on TV.
But perhaps above all in Doctor Who’s uniqueness is its thoroughly English sensibility. All media is inherently shaped by its country of origin, but few wear it so brazenly on their sleeves as Doctor Who. It’s steeped in British culture, a celebration of English eccentricity and the sort of stereotypically chipper reputation the little island nation has — and it’s been in turn embraced by that culture, and cherished as something truly representative of its ideals. Doctor Who’s iconic imagery — the Daleks, the TARDIS — have become more than just representations of the show, but of British popular culture as a whole.
The History of Doctor Who
Doctor Who was developed as an educational program aimed at young children: the idea of a grandfatherly alien taking friends through time and space to examine both factual historical events and scientific ideas through drama.
At the time of its creation, the show was beset by daunting odds: the BBC did not place much faith in the show, and as a children’s production its budget was restricted compared to the company’s traditional drama output. On top of that Doctor Who was also created by outsiders: The idea came from Sydney Newman, a Canadian who was looked down upon by his fellow BBC executives. It was initially produced by Verity Lambert, who was the only female producer at the BBC. Its first director, Waris Hussein, was one of a handful of Indian directors at the BBC at the time.
The show’s first episode broadcast on November 23rd, 1963, and garnered a lukewarm reception (it was also overshadowed by rolling news coverage for the assassination of President Kennedy, which had occurred the day before). The series found itself on the verge of cancellation almost immediately, but Doctor Who’s fate would be changed just a month later with the beginning of the second storyline, The Daleks.
At first, Newman was incensed, having previously demanded that the show never stoop to featuring “bug-eyed monsters” — but the story, which introduced the cyborg Daleks, was massively popular among audiences. The Daleks turned Doctor Who into a sensation overnight (and prompting a pop culture hysteria in the late sixties, dubbed “Dalekmania,” that spun off into toys, pop songs and even movies).
The show remained successful, but found itself on the brink of cancellation once again three years later. Leading actor William Hartnell had become increasingly ill, his deteriorating condition making it tough for the actor to learn his lines, and combined with the fact that much of the original cast and crew on the series had departed the show, he took the decision to leave the series.
Instead of canceling the show, the producers took an incredibly risky decision, recasting the role of The Doctor, coming up with a reason that the character’s alien biology allowed him to completely change his body and appearance when near death. In the 1966 episode The Tenth Planet, actor Patrick Troughton took on the role of the Doctor, ensuring that the series could go on to become one of the longest running science-fiction shows in history.
For the next 20 years, Doctor Who became a mainstay on the BBC, but eventually declining budgets and declining interest from upper management at the corporation saw the show come to an end in 1989, following seven Doctors and 26 seasons of stories. Outside of a 1996 made-for-TV movie produced with Fox in an attempt to establish an American-produced series, it would take another 16 years for Doctor Who to return to television.
When the BBC decided to bring the show back, it was produced by Russell T Davies, then known for his work on The Second Coming and the ground breaking gay drama Queer as Folk. The new version of Doctor Who (colloquially dubbed as“New Who”, or “NuWho” among fans) was not a reboot but a continuation of the “classic” era of the show, following the ninth incarnation of the Doctor and his adventures with a young London shop assistant named Rose, played by Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper respective. The series was an instant hit, and its blend of sci-fi adventure and human storytelling (focusing on the home life of Rose and her family) made it accessible to fans of the old series and newcomers alike.
The show’s 50th anniversary special, The Day of The Doctor, holds a world record for being simultaneously broadcast in the most countries at once when it aired on November 23rd, 2013.
The Three Constants
Although by its very nature Doctor Who is a show about change and renewal, and its format has allowed it to dabble in many different genres over the years, there are three crucial components that have remained throughout: The Doctor himself, his traveling allies, and his time machine, the TARDIS.
The Doctor is from an alien race known as the Time Lords, an extremely advanced society who gained mastery over the ability to travel through time. Such power drove the Time Lords to adopt a strict policy of non-intervention, remaining isolated from other galactic races and to never interfere with the timeline. The young Doctor vehemently disagreed with this, and with his granddaughter Susan, he fled his home planet to travel the universe, helping people in need. Aside from a vast knowledge of science, the past (and future), and technology, the Doctor also has two hearts, and, like all Time Lords, the ability to come back from the dead in a brand new body, changing his personality as well as his appearance each time.
The Doctor rarely travels alone, instead recruiting friends and allies — sometimes called assistants, but usually known as Companions — to go on adventures with. These companions act as an audience surrogate, someone to ask questions so the Doctor can explain what’s going on. But they also offer an important human connection to the Doctor, a friend as well as a reminder of all the people he strives to protect on his travels.
Over 40 companions have accompanied The Doctor on his adventures, from a variety of backgrounds and occupations: Warriors and soldiers — like “savage” tribeswoman Leela, space pilot Steven Taylor, and Time Agent Jack Harkness — Doctors and Scientists — such as Zoe Heriot, Martha Jones, and Liz Shaw — Journalists — like the beloved companion Sarah Jane Smith — and“normal” people — like Shop assistant Rose Tyler or troubled teen Ace.
But The Doctor and his companions need to be able to travel through Time and Space for their adventures: and that’s where the TARDIS, or Time And Relative Dimension In Space, comes in. The TARDIS has a special piece of cloaking technology called a chameleon circuit that, upon landing in a new location, allows it to mask its exterior to help the ship blend in. When it landed in 1960’s London, it turned into a blue Police Public Call Box (at the time, they were a common sight in England, special phone boxes that the public could use to contact the Police), but the circuit broke, leaving the TARDIS stuck as a police box ever since.
Aside from its ability to travel back and forth in time and being nearly-impervious to attack, The TARDIS holds another secret: the fact that it is “Dimensionally Transcendental”, or “bigger on the inside than the outside.” The TARDIS holds a huge amounts of rooms inside its phone-booth exterior, from the console room where The Doctor pilots the ship, to bedrooms, libraries, gardens and even swimming pools. This aspect of the ship is so iconic in England that people have come to accept describing something as “Like the TARDIS” as a colloquialism for it appearing larger on the inside than you would have expected.
All The Strange, Strange Creatures
But there’s something just as important to the fabric of Doctor Who as these three elements: The monsters and villains that The Doctor defends the universe from.
Although there are an incredibly vast amount of one-off aliens and monsters across the shows run, there are also several recurring foes such as the iconic Daleks (cyborg creatures genetically altered to feel nothing but hate, and a yearning to exterminate all other life), Cybermen (cybernetically enhanced cyborgs who “upgraded” their bodies seeking perfection), Silurians and Sea Devils (aquatic reptilian creatures who occupied the Earth before humankind developed) from the classic series,and newer additions like The Weeping Angels (stone statues that can only move when you’re not looking at them).
Many of Doctor Who’s monsters play on then-current fears — the Daleks were inspired by the Nazis for example, and the Cybermen about a fear about the expansion of “spare parts surgery” and mechanical prosthetics. But another aspect of the classic Who nasty is the idea of turning an ordinary element of society into something scary and dangerous (a prime example of this are the Autons, plastic shop window mannequins that come to life and attack people), making them easily imitable by children on school playgrounds after watching an episode.
Doctor Who has had a long reputation for its scary monsters (the show was even the target of infamous social activist Mary Whitehouse in the 1970’s for being too frightening for children to watch), and its monsters have become such a cultural touchstone to the point that fans of the series coined the phrase “watching from behind the sofa” — children eager to watch but ready to hide when the monsters appeared on screen — another turn of phrase that has entered the U.K’s pop cultural lexicon.
Where To Start Watching
Given the fact that there is so much Doctor Who out there, getting into the series can be incredibly daunting for a newcomer — but there are several jumping on points, and for the sake of simplicity, let’s divide each one between the Post-2005 Doctor Who and the Classic series.
New Doctor Who
The revived version of Doctor Who is the easiest jumping on point: Not just because it was designed to be approachable to newcomers, but because (despite being 10 years old at this point), it’s a lot more palatable to experience if you’re not used to watching older television first. If you want to dip your toes in the show, start off here.
Season 1, 2005: The first season is naturally a good starting point, as it was intended to be. Introducing the new tone of the series, the new Doctor and his companion Rose, as well as familiarizing new audiences with concepts like the Time Lords, Daleks, and other Doctor Who hallmarks. The only downside is that the season is starting to show its 10 years of age — being shot in standard definition, and with CGI effects that haven’t quite held up.
Season 5, 2010: Season 5 didn’t just introduce the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), and a new companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillain), many behind the scenes changes occurred as well, with Producer Russell T Davies replaced by Steven Moffat as showrunner. This also signified a tonal shift for the show, with less of a focus on the home lives of companions, and a further drift into science-fantasy elements. The show’s visual aesthetic changed too, now shot in HD with a darker, more cinematic approach. This is also the season where Doctor Who really began increasing in popularity in the U.S, so if you’re an American fan-to-be, you can see where all the fuss about it started.
Season 8, 2014: The most recent season of the show isn’t as significant a break — the only significant addition is Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor. But there is also a larger separation from previous events from former seasons, a focus on a new season arc. You might not be familiar with some of the returning characters,but you can still hop in and be right up to where everyone else is currently.
There are also two spinoff series, a children-focused show called The Sarah Jane Adventures (featuring former companion Sarah Jane Smith) and an adult-oriented show called Torchwood (featuring 2005 companion Jack Harkness). Both have great moments, but they’re not necessary to watching Doctor Who, so only watch if you’re completely hooked.
Classic Doctor Who
If you find yourself enjoying the show and want to experience more, then it’s time to go back and try out the older series, where it’s more likely your interest in the series will counteract the aged effects work and old school cardboard sets. If you can, you’ll find a huge plethora of interesting stories.
The Fourth and Fifth Doctors: Some of the most popular of the Classic Doctors, The Fourth(played by Tom Baker) and Fifth (Played by Peter Davison) Doctor’s adventures aired between 1974 and 1984. The fourth Doctor’s era in particular is Classic Doctor Who at the height of its popularity, with many stories that fans consider to be iconic coming during this period. There’s also a great blend of different genres, from periods influenced by gothic horror, to more light hearted adventures, and to a shift to more a “hard science” in the 1980’s. The revived version of Doctor Who is heavily influenced by this period too, so it’s a natural stepping stone from there.
Third Doctor: Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Third Doctor is relatively isolated from the rest of the Classic series. For most of the period the Doctor is exiled on Earth,unable to use the TARDIS, and finds himself working with a UN-backed military taskforce called UNIT to fight alien incursions on Earth. If you like the sound of Earth-based science fiction, and a bit more of an action oriented tone (Pertwee’s Doctor had a James Bond-ian love of gadgets, vehicles and even kung-fu!), look no further.
The TV Movie: Just as isolated is the 1996 TV movie. The sole TV adventure of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor is not Doctor Who at is best, but the film does a relatively decent job of introducing the show’s concepts to a new audience. If you want to see an Americanized take on Doctor Who, it’s worth a watch.
Sixth and Seventh Doctors: These two Doctors, played by Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, presided over the Classic era’s decline. Affected by budget cuts and some middling stories, many regard them as “weaker” Doctors. There are still some great stories in there however, but I’d advise watching other eras of Doctor Who before trying out these two Doctors — although the final year or so of Sylvester McCoy sees a resurgence of quality and some challenging storytelling.
First and Second Doctors: For the most diehard fans. If you’ve gobbled up all of New Doctor Who, and trawled your way through much of the classic show, only then try to watch this early period. Many episodes from the era are missing, so you can’t watch everything, but the combination of being over 50 years old, being in black and white, and very much being products of their time mean that only the most loving fan should go back. If you do though, you’ll be rewarded with some fantastic stories, and a chance to see where iconic elements of the show began.
Want some more specific, tailored stories to check out? Here’s a list of must-watch classic episodes.
... And How To Catch Up
BBC America is the home of Doctor Who in the U.S., and the channel frequently runs repeats of Post-2005 episodes (especially in the run up to the show’s return, which now broadcasts on the same day as it does in the U.K, when there are lots of marathons of former series). However, you need to subscribe to get access, and it can be a pricy endeavour for a single show.
If you prefer streaming, Netflix currently has the first 7 seasons of the revived series available for viewing, as does Hulu, while Amazon Instant Video carries all 8. You can also purchase the entire series on iTunes, and they’re also readily available on Blu-Ray and DVD.
The classic show is a little harder to find: if you’re a completionist, the only way to get as much as you can is to purchase stories on DVD, with almost every available story released at this point. For streaming, Netflix has a handful of stories, but the selection is quite thin — Amazon’s selection is wider, but by far and away your best bet for streaming classic episodes is on Hulu, with stories from every one of the 26 seasons of the show available.
So there you have it: All of Time and Space, everything that ever happened or ever will. Where do you want to start?