A beginner's guide to Doctor Who: 13 questions, answered
Doctor… who? By the way fans of the enduring British sci-fi series go on about Time Lords and TARDISes, you’d be forgiven for feeling somewhat left out of the time loop if the inner workings of Doctor Who continue to elude you.
After all, in this Peak TV era, it can be mightily intimidating to dive into a new series, let alone one that comes parceled with a lengthy history, rich mythology, and somewhat intimidatingly devout fan following.
Fortunately, we’re here to help. Here are answers to 13 of those niggling questions you’ve been too embarrassed to ask, before heading over to BBC America to join the Doctor on his — and soon-to-be her — future romps through space and time.
1. What is Doctor Who about?
Surprisingly, for a series that tangles with all manner of space-time shenanigans, its basic premise can be summed up in a single sentence. The Doctor (yes, as in the title) may look human, but (s)he’s actually an alien being (known as a Time Lord) who travels through time around the universe in a nondescript spaceship (called the TARDIS), accompanied by a (usually female) human companion. The Doctor has the ability to regenerate into a new human form, explaining why so many different actors have been tapped to play him over the decades. Okay, so that was two sentences. Please don’t tell my editor.
2. And it’s been on for how long?
When fans of Doctor Who talk about the series, they typically divide it into two eras: classic Who, and new Who.
The first era kicked off back in 1963. A cult sci-fi series aimed at younger audiences, it occupied a rather beloved spot in the British pop-culture landscape, which it largely retained despite gradually declining in viewership over the decades. After 26 seasons, it was finally shelved in 1989, despite returning for one TV movie in 1996. That’s where new Who comes in.
In 2005, the BBC relaunched Doctor Who, to a hugely positive reception and strong ratings. The new Who was a direct continuation of the original series and telefilm, albeit with a freshly regenerated (read: newly cast) Doctor at the helm. It’s been going strong ever since.
3. Oh, (Time) Lord. Do I have to watch from the beginning?
Honestly, please don’t. You’d spend your whole summer indoors, and we here at EW are big proponents of sunlight and fresh air. Doctor Who is unique in that it’s part-anthology and part-procedural, meaning you don’t need to watch every episode to know what’s happening most of the time. And you definitely don’t need to watch all the outings of one Doctor to enjoy the adventures of the next. We’d advise skipping the classic episodes altogether for now and diving in with new Who, from 2005 onward. Out of the kindness of our hearts (and also because it’s our job), we’ve ranked our favorite 50 modern Who episodes. Why not binge the top 10?
4. Wait, so what’s all this about multiple Doctors?
The Doctor is an alien from the planet Gallifrey; like others of his species, he has the biological ability to rebuild his cellular structure and appearance. To translate that from Geek, the plot device of “regeneration” provides a neat opportunity for the show to recast the Doctor when an actor moves on. It’s in no small sense the secret to Doctor Who‘s long life.
5. If that’s the case, how many Doctors have there been?
Technically 12, though no. Thirteen — the first female Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker — is coming this fall, and she’s already appeared once, at the end of the most recent Christmas-special episode. The full list reads: William Hartnell (1963-1966), Patrick Troughton (1966-1969), Jon Pertwee (1970-1974), Tom Baker (1974-1981), Peter Davison (1981-1984), Colin Baker (1984-1986), Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989), Paul McGann (1996 – that aforementioned telefilm), Christopher Eccleston 2005), David Tennant (2005-2010), Matt Smith (2010-2013), and Peter Capaldi (2013-2017). Other actors — like John Hurt, for one — have played the Doctor in individual story lines or web series, but fans generally agree to limit the official count to those 12.
6. If so many actors have played him, isn’t the Doctor a different character every time?
Every actor brings their own personality to the character, of course, but there are some consistencies. In addition to his regenerative properties, the Doctor has two hearts and has lived for thousands of years (his exact age is a source of some debate among Whovians). He carries a sonic screwdriver that’s usually quite helpful in a pinch, and he always flies around in the TARDIS. In the modern era, he’s also the last of the Time Lords, their species having been essentially wiped out in a great Time War against the Daleks (more on them later). As you can imagine, this means the Doctor’s pretty angsty, carrying survivor’s guilt and grief around the universe with him/her. It informs much of his/her decision-making.
7. Okay, fine. Now explain this TARDIS nonsense.
Glad you asked! The TARDIS is the Doctor’s spaceship; it’s an acronym, meaning Time And Relative Dimension In Space. It appears from the outside like a blue police box (which was a fairly common sight in England back in the ’60s when the show first premiered), but — and stay with me here — it’s… a little different on the inside. For one, it’s bigger. No one’s sure exactly how big, but it’s got (among other attractions) a swimming pool and a library. The TARDIS is basically a supporting character in the series, a sentient entity that influences where the Doctor lands and occasionally directs him toward his next adventure. They’re even in love, sometimes.
8. What happens on these adventures?
It varies, quite enormously. The Doctor is all about protecting life (not just human life, though he’s got a well-earned reputation as Earth’s greatest protector) and maintaining peace around the universe. That said, he gets caught up in a fair number of conflicts with adversaries who greet other forms of life with hate, distrust, or violence, leading some of the stories in a darker, more action-packed direction.
9. Who are these adversaries?
The Doctor has encountered hundreds of enemies at this point, but the main ones you need to keep in mind are the Daleks. An extraterrestrial race that has quite a lot in common with the Nazis (not surprisingly, given when the show premiered), the Daleks are engineered mutants in tank-like, robotic shells that view themselves as the most advanced race in the universe. Militant by nature, they often attempt to purge the universe of non-Dalek life, leading to their iconic catchphrase, “Exterminate!”
Elsewhere, the Cybermen are humanoid cyborgs bent on assimilating other races through forcibly “upgrading” them with weaponized, cybernetically enhanced body armor. The Sontarans show up a little less frequently; they’re angry, militaristic aliens who bear an unfortunate resemblance to Mr. Potato Head. And out of the new-era baddies, the most terrifying are definitely the Weeping Angels, alien assassins disguised as statues who can (and will) kill you as soon as you’re not looking at them — even if only for a second. In other words, don’t blink.
10. And who is the Doctor’s companion?
The Doctor usually has at least one human companion, which has long been a handy way for the show to explain the more intricate workings of travel through time and space, and to uncover new information about the Doctor. They play a massive role in the series and in some episodes are even more central to the plot than the Doctor. These companions’ relationships with the Doctor — especially in the modern era — are often fairly complicated; they all have their own arcs in the series, and some would argue the biggest dramatic through-line of Doctor Who is that the companions’ journeys with the Doctor radically transforms them as people, also impacting their families and loved ones. Some fall in love with The Doctor, others become close friends, and others still have more acrimonious dynamics with the Time Lord.
11. Does he have gadgets?
Let’s put it this way: James Bond’s got nothing on him. In addition to that nifty sonic screwdriver mentioned earlier, the Doctor often makes use of psychic paper (which appears to others as whatever kind of credentials they were expecting to see), 3-D glasses (ideal for seeing residual radiation from passing between galaxies), and all manner of helpful doodads. He even had a robot dog companion named K-9 at one point, who (yes) was a total badass.
12. Is Doctor Who a kids’ show?
That’s tough to answer. Doctor Who was originally aimed at kids but in the revival has steered closer to being a family show that likes to traumatize the youngsters every now and then. Old Who was scary in its time, but new Who occasionally goes to some terrifying places. Still, the overarching themes of Doctor Who are concerned with discovery and adventure; life and purpose; following one’s moral compass in a universe where that’s sometimes an incredibly difficult, confusing thing to do. It’s a preeminently hopeful and good-hearted series — the kind of show I’m glad I grew up watching.
13. Okay, you’ve convinced me. I’m in. Where can I watch?
All ten seasons of modern-era Who are available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video. And if you want to go back through the archives to familiarize yourself with some of the early Doctors, we’d recommend trying out the seven-day free trial over at Britbox. Luckily, you have some time (ah, puns) — Whittaker will kick off her first real season as the Doctor on BBC America this fall.