A Quick Guide to Doctor Who - dummies

A Quick Guide to Doctor Who

By Patricia Yuu Pan

Doctor Who (not Dr. Who) — a long-running British television series with a cult following — gained more momentum when it briefly introduced a new Doctor at the end of its 2013 season. The science fiction series is quickly increasing its equally fervent fan base in the United States as it airs on BBC America. If you’re new to the show, this quick guide sets you up with fast facts on the 12 Doctors, the TARDIS (the time capsule disguised as a police box), Time Lords, regeneration, and more.

London's last blue police box stands on Earl's Court Road. [Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Wanlorn 2

Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Wanlorn 2013
London’s last blue police box stands on Earl’s Court Road.

A bit of background on Doctor Who

The Doctor Who pilot first aired on November 23, 1963. Amidst concern that the show’s debut didn’t reach the widest audience possible — U.S. President Kennedy had been assassinated just the day before — the first episode aired again, right before the second episode on November 30.

The weekly show developed a solid following (ardent fans are called Whovians) and ran until 1989. In 1996 a made-for-TV film whetted fans’ appetite for more Doctor Who, and in 2005, the BBC revived the TV series. To differentiate the two sets of shows, fans refer to the pre-1989 episodes as the “classic” series; later ones, beginning in 2005, are considered the “new” series (nicknamed NewWho or NuWho). Classic or new, the show continues to garner more fans worldwide.

Basic plot of Doctor Who

The planet Gallifrey is home to the Time Lords, a superior race of humanoids who can see the past, present, and future all at once. Time Lords have two hearts, ultra-human powers, and the ability to regenerate (reincarnate).

After some disastrous meddling with other civilizations, the Time Lords decide to become observers of the universe and assume a code of non-interference. A Time Lord who has named himself the Doctor, however, feels otherwise; he defies the code and becomes a renegade, time-traveling throughout the universe to explore, battle evil, and spread around some positive influence.

An ongoing war, called the Time War, crisscrosses space and time. Here, the Time Lords battle their powerful archenemy, the Daleks. The Doctor knows that he himself is the key to the annihilation of the universe: It’s lights out for everyone if the Doctor ever utters the answer to the most dangerous question in the universe, “Doctor who?”

In a massive and final attack, the Daleks surround Gallifrey and bombard it from all sides. Gallifrey seems to be doomed when the planet suddenly vanishes in a huge burst of blinding light. The Daleks end up firing at each other across the now-empty space and obliterate themselves. But where is Gallifrey? The 13 iterations of the Doctor had combined forces to transport the planet to a “pocket universe” where it exists in a state of suspension. What lies ahead are more adventures for the Doctor.

So, who is the Doctor?

The Doctor is referred to as “Doctor Who” only occasionally on the show and in the credits, and his real name is a mystery to viewers. As a Time Lord, he has the ability to regenerate instead of die, and he can do this up to 12 times before death is final. (So, the Doctor has 13 incarnations: the original plus 12 regenerations.) The High Council of Gallifrey, however, can grant additional regenerations.

With each regeneration, the Doctor gets a new physical body, a new look (hair, clothes), and new personality (demeanor, quirks) — and it’s a great device for the show’s producers when they need to replace the actor playing the Doctor.

The Doctor actors

The television series, at more than 50 years old, has had 12 actors play the Doctor and one who played an interim incarnation named the “War Doctor.” Here’s an at-a-glance look at each incarnation:

Doctor Who, When, and Why
Which Doctor and which incarnation? Actor and when he played the role Why the Doctor regenerated
First Doctor and first incarnation William Hartnell, November 1963–October 1966 Old age
Second Doctor and second incarnation Patrick Troughton, October 1966–June 1969 By force, as punishment
Third Doctor and third incarnation Jon Pertwee, January 1970–June 1974 Radiation poisoning
Fourth Doctor and fourth incarnation Tom Baker, June 1974–March 1981 Injury
Fifth Doctor and fifth incarnation Peter Davison, March 1981–March 1984 Sacrificed himself to save another’s life.
Sixth Doctor and sixth incarnation Colin Baker, March 1984–December 1986 Apparent injury, circumstances unknown
Seventh Doctor and seventh incarnation Sylvester McCoy, September 1987–December 1989 (series cancelled) Injury
Eighth Doctor and eighth incarnation Paul McGann, May 1996 (TV movie) Injury
The War Doctor and ninth incarnation. Renounced the name of the “Doctor.” Instead of being a healer, he became a warrior to help end the Time War. John Hurt, May 2013 and November 2013.

Show producers created this role to preserve the storyline for the 50th anniversary episodes in 2013.

Old age
Ninth Doctor and tenth incarnation Christopher Eccleston, March–June 2005 (series revived) Sacrificed himself to save another’s life.
Tenth Doctor and eleventh incarnation David Tennant, June 2005–January 2010 Radiation poisoning
Eleventh Doctor and twelfth incarnation. At the cusp of his death, he gets a new set of regenerations. Matt Smith, January 2010–December 2013. Old age
Twelfth Doctor and thirteenth incarnation Peter Capaldi, December 2013–present ?

The newest Doctor

In 2014, actor Peter Capaldi plays the latest Doctor. He was born in Glasgow on April 14, 1958, and is the third Scottish actor to play the role — but the first one allowed to use his full-on Scottish accent! (Sylvester McCoy and David Tennant are the other Scottish actors, but they used English accents.)

Capaldi, a two-time BAFTA award winner, is widely known across Britain for his roles in television series such as The Hour, The Thick of It, Torchwood, Fortysomething, and many more. He has serious silver-screen credits, as well: You might recognize Capaldi as Azolan, John Malkovich’s page in the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons. And he won a 1995 Academy Award for the short film Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life, which he wrote and directed.

The TARDIS: How the Doctor gets around

The TARDIS (time and relative dimension in space) is the time machine that the Doctor uses to fly through time and space. It looks like a blue police box, which were common in London when the show debuted in 1963, and has since become an iconic symbol for the series.

A police box contained a telephone with a direct line to the police station, a first-aid kit, and a notebook. Patrol officers used the police box to report crimes or check in with superiors; it was also available to the public for emergencies.

What to know about the TARDIS:

  • It comes in two types: military and exploratory (the Doctor’s is the latter).

  • The interior is much bigger than it looks from the outside, similar to the magic tent in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

  • Like a chameleon, it can change its exterior to look like its surroundings. But a broken circuit (since the very first series) keeps it in police-box mode.

  • They are sentient. A TARDIS can react to the death of its Doctor.

  • Inside are lots of rooms: living space, control rooms, art gallery/power station, library, swimming pool, storage, kitchen, and more.

  • The actual interior dimensions of the TARDIS are unknown.

Would you like to enter a virtual TARDIS? Google Maps has hidden a nifty easter egg, which enables you to enter a London police box that turns into a TARDIS with a 360-degree view.