A Beginner's Guide to Doctor Who

There is a considerable volume of information available about Doctor Who, both online and in print. This website alone offers more than 1,000,000 words on the topic, including summaries of each story, detail on the production of every season, and more.

Unfortunately for newcomers to Doctor Who, most sources assume a basic familiarity with the programme. If you've never heard of “Peter Davison”, or the date “November 23rd, 1963” means nothing to you, you may find yourself lost in a morass of strange names and terms. So what do you do if you've only seen a handful of episodes -- or perhaps none at all -- and want to learn more? Well, you've come to the right place.

These 13 questions and answers should tell you everything you need to know to gain a basic understanding of Doctor Who and its history.

1. What is Doctor Who? 8. What is the format of a Doctor Who episode/story?
2. What is Doctor Who all about? 9. Does the Doctor fight the same villains in every story?
3. How does the Doctor travel in time? 10. How can I watch Doctor Who today?
4. Why do different actors play the Doctor in different episodes? 11. Is it true there are “lost” Doctor Who episodes?
5. How many Doctors have there been? 12. Are there any Doctor Who spin-offs?
6. Does the Doctor travel alone? 13. Where do I start?!?
7. How long has Doctor Who been around?

What is Doctor Who? 1

Doctor Who is a TV show. It has aired on the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), in the United Kingdom, since November 1963 (although not continuously). Because it's about time travel, Doctor Who is usually considered to be a science-fiction series. However, individual stories run the gamut from action-adventure to gothic horror to dark comedy.

What is Doctor Who all about? 2

Doctor Who is about an alien time traveller known as the Doctor (“Doctor Who” is very rarely used as the name of the character -- typically only in the end credits). The Doctor is a member of a race of beings called the Time Lords, from the planet Gallifrey. Most Time Lords obey a strict policy of non-interference in the events of the universe, but the Doctor is a renegade, willfully intervening in history in order to fight evil and aid the oppressed.

How does the Doctor travel in time? 3

The Time Lords use a type of time machine called a TARDIS (which stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space). The Doctor's TARDIS is a very old model which doesn't always work properly. The TARDIS is dimensionally transcendental -- which is a fancy way of saying it's bigger on the inside than the outside. The interior (which comprises a main control room and a plethora of other rooms and corridors) exists in its own dimension. The TARDIS exterior, on the other hand, is usually quite small. By virtue of its chameleon circuit, the exterior is supposed to transform in way that will blend seamlessly with its surroundings -- appearing, for example, as a Corinthian column upon landing in Ancient Greece. However, on a trip to 1963 England, the chameleon circuit in the Doctor's TARDIS broke down and has never been successfully repaired. As a result, the Doctor's TARDIS is now permanently stuck in the shape of a blue police box. The Doctor's TARDIS is pictured on the right (click on the image for a larger view).

Why do different actors play the Doctor in different episodes? 4

The Doctor was originally played by an elderly actor named William Hartnell. However, by 1966, Hartnell's health was failing and it became obvious that he could not continue on as the star of Doctor Who. It was decided to cast a younger actor the role. To explain the Doctor's different appearance, a concept was invented which eventually became known as regeneration. When afflicted by very old age or a mortal wonded, a Time Lord's body undergoes a transformation, generating a new physical form and a somewhat altered personality. This is why you will often see references to, for example, the “Fourth Doctor” -- referring to the fourth incarnation of the Doctor to have served as the programme's protagonist.

How many Doctors have there been? 5

This is a bit tricky to answer, because there have many different spin-offs of Doctor Who, and many of them used actors/Doctors different from those who appeared in the TV series (see Question 12, below). In principle, though, it is generally agreed that there are thirteen “official” Doctors: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whittaker. The Doctors are pictured below, in order from left to right (click on the image for a larger view). In addition, John Hurt portrayed an incarnation who fought during a terrible battle called the Time War, and who refused to think of himself as “the Doctor” due to the awful decisions he was forced to make. Meanwhile, Jo Martin currently appears in a recurring role as a previously-unseen version of the Doctor who may be from the current Doctor's past or future.

Does the Doctor travel alone? 6

Not usually, no. The Doctor has a habit of picking up travelling companions (sometimes referred to as assistants), by accident or by design, who participate in several adventures before they eventually part company. More often than not, these are young people from modern-day Earth, but others have come from Earth's past and future, and even from other planets. There have been more than thirty companions over the years (the precise number is difficult to determine, as it's not always obvious whether a character officially “counts” as a companion). A few of them are pictured below (click on the image for a larger view).

How long has Doctor Who been around? 7

The original Doctor Who series ran for twenty-six seasons of various lengths -- encompassing more than one hundred and fifty stories and over five hundred episodes -- before its run finally came to an end in December 1989. Despite this, in November 1993 a brief two-part made-for-charity story aired, reuniting many past castmembers to celebrate Doctor Who's thirtieth anniversary. Then, in May 1996, an original TV movie aired on both the BBC and the FOX network in North America. It was hoped that this would lead to a new ongoing series, but this did not come to pass. In September 2003, however, the BBC announced that they were developing a new Doctor Who series, picking up where the original left off. This premiered in March 2005 and is still running.

What is the format of a Doctor Who episode/story? 8

During its original run, most Doctor Who stories (also called serials or adventures) were made up of a number of individual episodes. These episodes were usually about twenty-five minutes in length, though some were longer. A cliffhanger ended every episode, and each episode usually started with a reprise of the previous one. Stories ran for ten or more episodes and for as little as just a single episode, but most were either four or six episodes long. The new series, on the other hand, is mostly comprised of standalone forty-five minute episodes, with occasional two-part stories. Doctor Who serials from the Sixties were all in black and white; episodes from 1970 on have been in colour, although some survive only in monochrome (see Question 11, below).

Does the Doctor fight the same villains in every story? 9

No, although some enemies have appeared more than once. Amongst the Doctor's most famous nemeses are the Master (an evil Time Lord, several incarnation of whom have faced the Doctor), the Daleks (metal-cased mutants famous for their “Exterminate!” battle cry), the cybernetic Cybermen, the reptilian Ice Warriors, the warlike Sontarans, the ferocious Yeti, the sinister Weeping Angels, and more. Some members of the Doctor's rogues' gallery are pictured below (click on the image for a larger view).

How can I watch Doctor Who today? 10

The new Doctor Who series can be seen on BBC1 in the UK, Space in Canada, BBC America in the US, Prime Television in New Zealand, ABC in Australia, and several other channels internationally. Both the original series and earlier episodes of the new series also continue to be rerun in some locations. This Week In Doctor Who maintains an updated list of Doctor Who broadcasts. Most Doctor Who adventures are now available on DVD/Blu-ray, in both NTSC format (for North America) and PAL format (for most other viewers).

Is it true there are “lost” Doctor Who episodes? 11

Sadly, yes. In the 1970s, before home video recorders became popular, the BBC felt that they had essentially exhausted all the commercial possibilities for early Doctor Who episodes. Because storing and maintaining the old tapes was becoming prohibitively expensive, the BBC decided to start destroying certain episodes (this didn't just apply to Doctor Who, by the way, but virtually the entire BBC back catalogue). There was no real pattern to the purge, but by the time it was halted in the late Seventies, dozens of episodes dating from the start of the series to the mid-Seventies were no longer held in the BBC Archives. Luckily, many have since been recovered. Nonetheless, just under a hundred episodes remain “lost”. Sometimes, entire serials have been destroyed; in other instances, just one installment is missing. Some episodes originally in colour survive only in black and white. The search continues for these “lost” stories, but the likelihood that they will all be found is remote. Fortunately, the soundtracks to all the “lost” episodes exist; these have been made commercially available by AudioGo, and have also formed the basis for animated reconstructions of certain missing episodes on DVD.

Are there any Doctor Who spin-offs? 12

Most certainly. Doctor Who has been adapted in the form of novels, comic strips, movies, audio plays, stage plays, and more. Some of these feature Doctors, companions and villains from the TV series, while others introduce entirely new characters. A couple of Doctor Who feature films from the Sixties featured a human “Dr Who”. An Eighties comic strip gave the Sixth Doctor a talking penguin for a companion. A comedy charity special broadcast in 1999 featured Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean), Hugh Grant (Notting Hill), Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge), Richard E Grant (Withnail And I) and even Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous) as future Doctors! In 1981, a pilot episode aired for a proposed spin-off series called K·9 And Company, featuring the Doctor's robot dog, K·9. In the twenty-first century, Doctor Who spawned two long-running television series: Torchwood (2006-2011), starring former companion Jack Harkness as the leader of a group which investigates alien phenomena on modern-day Earth, and The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007-2011), in which another ex-companion -- reporter Sarah Jane Smith -- explores the unknown with a group of young friends. More recently, Class (2016) chronicled the efforts of a small group of students at Coal Hill Academy to prevent the Earth from extraterrestrial threats.

Where do I start?!? 13

With hundreds of episodes to choose from, getting into Doctor Who can be a little intimidating. But the truth is that most episodes are pretty self-contained -- especially if you're armed with the information in this Beginner's Guide. Still, there are some stories that are particularly good jump-on points. The introduction of pretty much any Doctor can be a good choice: you could start with the very first episode (100,000 BC), or the first colour episode (Spearhead From Space), or the first episode of the longest-serving Doctor (Robot). If you're wary of sampling television from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, you could start with the first episode of the current century (Rose) or the first episode of the current decade (The Eleventh Hour). The first episodes of two recent seasons (The Pilot and The Woman Who Fell To Earth) were designed specifically to appeal to new viewers. Or you could just try one of the best-regarded stories from a Doctor of your choice. Click on an image below to check out a recommendation. Have fun!

Intro Historium Diary Lost Spin-Offs Cast & Crew Site Info