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from "who am I?" to "physician, heal thyself"

The Basics of Doctor Who

I will admit, Doctor Who can seem esoteric and almost cultish to people who are not in the fandom. I thought much the same until March of 2015, after all! Thus, I want this page to help introduce the show as gently and easily as I can, since there's a lot of ground to cover.

In flavor, Doctor Who is like The Twilight Zone meets Star Trek, from its beginnings in November of 1963 up until now. It has thought-provoking, philosophical bents, plus action/adventure plots and technological marvels, plus a bit of romance here and there, all wrapped in a sprawling yet somehow tidy sci-fi package. The best thing about it, by far, though, is that you don't have to sit and watch all 50 years' worth of episodes to get into the series--it is open-ended, meaning that you can jump in pretty much anywhere and try episodes from all different eras of the show. Once you know the basics, you can enjoy episodes made at any point in time; a truly time-traveling show, indeed!

Let's Start at the Very Beginning...

We are introduced to the man known as "The Doctor" in the first episode, "An Unearthly Child," in which a young girl named Susan is attending Coal Hill School, and a couple of her teachers, Ian and Barbara, become concerned about her apparently living in a junkyard at 78 Totters Lane with her grandfather, an isolated, eccentric old man. But, as the teachers soon learn, Susan's cranky grandpa doesn't actually live IN the junkyard, and actually, that old blue police call box in the corner of the junkyard is the only working piece of equipment on the property. In fact, it's far more sophisticated than they could ever imagine!

Ian and Barbara investigate the blue police box and discover that it is actually a spaceship, much larger on the inside than it appeared. From there, they both become swept up in the Doctor's adventures as the spaceship whizzes away rather uncontrollably through space and time, sometimes by accident and sometimes by design...

Who is "The Doctor", Anyway?

The Doctor, who is never officially named in the series, is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, with a spaceship called the TARDIS ("Time And Relative Dimension In Space"). Primarily, he is an explorer/tinkerer with the best of intentions, using his time-travel capabilities and his TARDIS to help wherever he can, whether it's solving crimes or mysteries, preventing planetary disasters, or aiding alien races. In every incarnation, he's a scientist at heart, a logical thinker, yet still creative enough (and restless enough) to come up with off-the-wall solutions. Now, he may not always have the answers right away, but he's always got time to figure things out! (ha, ha, ha)

But the Doctor wasn't always a confident man of reason. He grew up as an everyman, out on a farm in the desert, desperately afraid of becoming conscripted as a soldier, according to the episode "Listen." Instead of being conscripted, however, the boy who would become the Doctor goes through training to become a Time Lord, learning how to manipulate and travel through time without wrecking it. We learn in the feature-length episode The Five Doctors that during the Doctor's Time Lord training, he actually attends classes alongside his future enemy, the Master. Additionally, there's a Gallifreyan prophecy about a supposed "hybrid" that would destroy the civilization as they know it; in the episode "Hell Bent", we learn that the Doctor feared he was the hybrid (half-human), and thus fled Gallifrey just after completing his Time Lord training to protect his home world.

But how does the Doctor flee Gallifrey? By using his TARDIS, the type of ship all Time Lords use to get around in time. (However, the TARDIS the Doctor's got is more of a junker than anything--in fact, the Gallifreyans considered it a relic, but that didn't stop the Doctor from fixing it up and, um, making off with it not quite legally. What can you say, he's got an appreciation for history and a hankering to fix things!)

A final curiosity about the Doctor: being a Time Lord, he has been blessed with multiple regenerations--meaning that if he is injured enough to die, he can instead regenerate himself into a new body (and with it, a slightly different personality). But more about that in the next section...

The Doctor's Regeneration: Myth and Reality Meet

The part about the Doctor being able to regenerate into a new body was actually motivated by a real-life need. William Hartnell, the actor portraying the Doctor in the early '60s, was already in declining health by the time he accepted the role in 1963, and by June of 1966 his health was so bad that he needed to be able to step down from the role. The problem was, Doctor Who was a huge hit show; how were they going to do this?

The answer: "regenerate" the Doctor into a new body, so that a new actor could take over the role. Producers approached actor Patrick Troughton about taking on the part, and on November 5th, 1966, Troughton debuted as the Second Doctor. From then on, Doctor Who stars could easily bow out when needed and the show could continue on. A neat solution to the problem, worthy of the Doctor's intellect!

(This did result in each Doctor's personality differing a bit, most likely because each actor who has portrayed the Doctor has a separate take on the character, but this just adds to the charm of Doctor Who as a franchise!)

Thirteen (Well, Actually, Fourteen) Men: The Doctors Thus Far

The timeline of actors who have portrayed the Doctor is as follows:

  • First Doctor: William Hartnell ♦
    (1963-1966, TV; 2007-present, audiodramas)
  • Second Doctor: Patrick Troughton ♦
    (1966-1969, TV; 2007-present, audiodramas)
  • Third Doctor: Jon Pertwee ♦
    (1970-1974, TV; 2007-present, audiodramas)
  • Fourth Doctor: Tom Baker
    (1974-1981, TV; 2007-present, audiodramas)
  • Fifth Doctor: Peter Davison
    (1982-1984, TV; 1999-present, audiodramas)
  • Sixth Doctor: Colin Baker
    (1984-1986, TV; 1999-present, audiodramas)
  • Seventh Doctor: Sylvester McCoy
    (1987-1989, TV; 1999-present, audiodramas)
  • Eighth Doctor: Paul McGann
    (1996 & 2013, TV; 2001-present, audiodramas)
  • War Doctor: John Hurt ◊
    (2013, TV; 2015-present, audiodramas)
  • "Shalka Doctor": Richard E. Grant ☆
    (2003, BBC Webcast)
  • Ninth Doctor: Christopher Eccleston ♠
  • Tenth Doctor: David Tennant ♣
    (2005-2010, TV; 2013-present, audiodramas)
  • Eleventh Doctor: Matt Smith
    (2010-2013, TV)
  • Twelfth Doctor: Peter Capaldi
    (2013-present, TV)

♦ The audiodramas for these Doctors are mainly Companion Chronicles, since the actors who portrayed the Doctor passed away well before the audiodramas began.

◊ John Hurt appears only in The Night of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor (both 2013), but his Doctor's canonical place is after the Eighth Doctor's run. The War Doctor's rather shoehorned existence is the source of some consternation among longtime fans.

☆ Richard E. Grant, famous also for his role in the 1987 film Withnail & I alongside Paul McGann, was tentatively selected as the Ninth Doctor in 2003 for this webcast event, but plans for an "official" Who revival in 2005 were already in the works before it was even finished. Nevertheless, the webcast went to production and stands today as another entry in the Doctor Who "wilderness years."

♠ Christopher Eccleston has not had anything to do with Doctor Who since his run as Doctor ended in 2005; the director at the time, Russell T. Davies, wanted him to drop his Northern England accent because it sounded too "working-class," Eccleston disagreed with the implied elitism, and the rest is, unfortunately, history.

♣ There are only a couple of audiodramas for Ten right now, and neither of them star David Tennant. Weird.

Sources Consulted for This Article