Doctor Who montage courtesy of BBC
The cult British sci-fi series “Doctor Who” got its start before there was any such concept in television as a cult show, or a “special-effects budget.” Despite its legendarily flimsy sets and bargain-basement props, the show’s inventiveness and commitment to even its wildest storylines made it a fixture of British television for decades. From its grainy 1963 beginnings to the blockbuster reboot in 2005, the show has used its basic plot – the travels through time and space of an immortal, humanoid alien – to probe cultural anxieties from nuclear war to technological takeover, and to embrace the perennial themes of love, adventure, and death.
But as with any long-running show embraced by obsessives (known as “Whovians”) it can be hard for an outsider to know where to start. Here are ten things any newbie needs to know.
1. The weird guy at the heart of the show (and it has always been a guy, at least so far) is called “The Doctor,” and is addressed as “Doctor.” Never, ever, refer to the character as “Doctor Who” – only the show itself.
2. The Doctor is a “Time Lord” from the destroyed planet Gallifrey. He is basically immortal, but he can be mortally wounded. When that happens, he “regenerates” into a different body – a device originally invented to handle the departure of the first Doctor, William Hartnell, but that allows new actors to put their own stamp on the role. The current Doctor, Matt Smith, is the eleventh incarnation of the character, who is said to be able to regenerate up to thirteen times (watch a supercut of all the regenerations here).
3. The Doctor picks up helpful, curious adventurers on his travels, who are known as companions, and proxies for the audience. The companions aren’t always human, or female (although this tends to be the Doctor’s preference): a beloved companion of the Fourth Doctor was K-9, a futuristic robot dog that looked like an oversized wheeled toaster. K-9 was brought back with affectionate mockery in the 2006 episode “School Reunion,” alongside Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), a long-running companion of the Third and Fourth Doctors.
4. The Doctor travels through time and space in the TARDIS, an acronym for “Time And Relevant Dimension In Space,” a ship far bigger on the inside than on the outside. It is disguised on the outside as a blue police telephone box, a familiar sight on British streets in the 1960s, and is supposedly stuck in that form due to a faulty circuit. Since the 2005 reboot, plenty of jokes have been made about the ship’s obsolete “disguise,” but the TARDIS has become iconic – fans can buy everything from coffee mugs to life-size replicas of its bulky blue form.
5. The show’s long history divides into two main phases: the original show, which ran from 1963 to 1989, and the current reboot, launched by “Queer as Folk” writer Russell T. Davies in 2005. A one-off television film was made in 1996, starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, which failed to lead to a new series. Davies’s reboot, starring Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and now Matt Smith as the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors, has been a worldwide hit, adhering to the look and feel of the original show, but with a more modern sensibility (and budget).
6. The Doctor has had many enemies over the years, but most iconic and long-running are the Cybermen, first introduced in 1966 as a coldly logical race of cyborgs, and the Daleks, the butt of endless jokes, but also some of the Doctor’s most frightening enemies. The Daleks are essentially rolling trashcans with toilet-plungers for weapons, but their distinctive metallic voices, barking frenzied orders (“Exterminate!”) made them chilling. In the 2006 two-part finale “Army of Ghosts/Doomsday,” the two monster enemies met for the first time.
7. The theme tune to Doctor Who has been updated and rearranged over the years, but is instantly recognizable for its otherworldly swooping intro, created in the BBC’s sound-effects laboratory by Delia Derbyshire. A brilliant electronic composer whose work on the soundtrack went uncredited at the time, Derbyshire has since been recognized as a pioneer in her field.
8. The world of “Doctor Who” spin-offs is vast. The first season of the 2005 reboot threaded the mysterious word “Torchwood” through the show, which was eventually revealed as a secret alien research institute; the spin-off series “Torchwood,” starring John Barrowman, devised as a more mature sci-fi show, debuted in 2006. Other spin-offs have featured companions K-9 and Sarah Jane Smith, and there’s an extensive library of novelizations and comic books based on the show and its characters.
9. It’s said that every generation has its own Doctor, usually the one that they remember from childhood. Each Doctor brings his own quirks, and wardrobe, to the role: Tom Baker’s over-long scarf and Christopher Eccleston’s leather jacket were defining touches; Peter Davison’s cricketing get-up may be remembered less affectionately. Many different writers have contributed scripts to the show, including Douglas Adams, the author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the show can feel very different depending on who’s acting and writing it at the time.
10. The show’s flexibility in tone, setting, and mythology has meant that different series, even different episodes, can feel like unique productions. Although the series have character and plot arcs, it’s possible to watch episodes out of order: the show tends to play fast and loose with continuity. Wherever you dive in, the show is funny, thoughtful, moving, and sometimes very silly – but it’s like nothing else out there.