Everything You Need to Know About Doctor Who If You’ve Never Watched It Before

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 22 2014 5:10 PM

A Beginner’s Guide to Doctor Who

Peter Capaldi
Get acquainted with the Doctor Who universe before the new season begins tomorrow.

© 2014 - BBC/BBC Worldwide

This article originally appeared in Vulture.

You don’t know why you haven’t watched it. Your nerdier friends have loved it since it was on PBS back in the day, and you knew a girl in high school who knit her own giant scarf during homeroom because that actor who looked kind of like Harpo Marx wore one when he played “the Doctor.” Maybe you’re like me, and when Doctor Who fandom started pushing Star Wars and Star Trek out of your local comic convention, your adolescent heart turned cold and rejected the low-budget British sci-fi series out of hand.

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But now you feel out of step. It’s one of those zeitgeist-y Game of Thrones “Winter Is Coming” moments, and you’re on the outside, looking in. You’ve heard that the new (well, newish, the reboot was almost 10 years ago) Who is more popular in the U.S. than it’s ever been and that the new (um… Peter Capaldi is a spry 56) actor playing the Doctor looks pretty cool. And wasn’t he in World War Z—yep, and his role was “W.H.O. Doctor,” oddly enough—and The Thick of It, and, well… it doesn’t matter. You don’t want to pay for Cinemax just to watch The Knick, and your other shows don’t come back until October. The newest Doctor makes his debut on BBC America on Saturday, August 23, and you’d like to give it a shot, but you need a way into a complicated, 50-year-long mythology?

Rest easy. While Entertainment Weekly recently advised that you binge-watch selected episodes to catch up, there’s time for that later. We’re going to give you what you need to know so that you can jump straight into the new series. If Peter Capaldi is going to be your Doctor, there’s no reason to get overly attached to the guys who ran the practice a half-century ago.

The Basics
Part of last year’s anniversary celebration of all things Who, the TV movie An Adventure in Space and Time does a nice job recapping how the low-budget show was a surprise hit for the BBC in the 1960s. But if you’re not already a fan, it can be summarized this way: The low-budget show was a surprise hit for the 1960s BBC. Oh, okay, there’s a bit more to it. But for our purposes, just a bit.

The “Doctor”—it’s a title, not exactly his name—is a Time Lord, a centuries-old human-in-appearance-only fellow who travels through space and time in the TARDIS, a vehicle that is supposed to blend in anywhere, but because of a malfunction looks like a blue British phone box. (As with everything in the franchise, the silly bits are perfectly charming and have loads of backstory, but we’ll leave the ephemera to your web searches after you get hooked.) The box is “bigger on the inside” than it appears from outside and contains all sorts of nooks and crannies.

When the series began in 1963, it introduced the enduring conceit that the Doctor takes normal-seeming humans as “companions” on his adventures, spanning space and time, and fighting weird threats in the present, past, and future. Among the threats were the robotic Cybermen (like Star Trek’s Borg, but decades earlier) and the Daleks, who issued a menacingly shrill chant of “Ex-ter-minate! Ex-ter-minate!” that was only slightly undercut by their resemblance to ventilation ducts outfitted with paint rollers and toilet plungers.

When the First Doctor (William Hartnell) left the series due to failing health, producers came up with an unorthodox way of replacing him, one that would become a signature aspect of the show and provide natural jumping-on points for new viewers: regeneration.

Growing Back Stronger
Instead of just recasting the lead and pretending that it had been that guy all along, Doctor Who makes a big deal of these transitions. The Doctor dies, usually in a self-sacrificing sort of way, there’s some face-morphing effects, and a new guy (never been a woman, yet, though it gets talked about a lot) materializes in his place, with the same abilities and knowledge (more or less), but a different personality and style. So Hartnell left, replaced by a variety of actors with varying degrees of success, and companions rotated through even more frequently as the role certainly wasn’t as glamorous as playing the enigmatic lead.

As the show grew more popular, with story lines playing out in novels, radio plays, and video games, the mythology grew more and more complicated, with complex rules developing over the decades. One rule, probably added to make sure that regenerating didn’t seem too much like a stakes-free enterprise, was that a Doctor can regenerate only a finite number of times: specifically, 12 (meaning there can only be 13 Doctors total). That must have seemed like plenty when the idea was introduced in the 1970s, but it became a little confining by the time the 21st-century reboot came along. Depending on who you ask (the web will either sort this all out for you or send you screaming into the night), the newest Doctor is the twelfth or the thirteenth. Either way, that would seem to be a problem for the longevity of the franchise. But there’s good news: The rules have changed—as they do a lot on this show—and now no one knows for sure how many more rounds the Doctor can go.

The seventies- and early-eighties Doctor Who starred the actor who made the biggest impact of any Doctor in the States before the 21st-century revival: Tom Baker. Easily recognized by his trademark ridiculously long scarf, the Fourth Doctor brought an appealing eccentricity to the role that led him to an as-yet-unmatched seven seasons in the role. Three more Doctors followed Baker before the show finally came to an end in 1989.

The “Doctorin’ the Tardis” era
Declining ratings, a general lack of interest by the BBC, and producers’ focus on relaunching the property in America all played a part in keeping Doctor Who off the airwaves from 1989 to 2005. A 1996 TV movie that was meant to work as a backdoor pilot did well in the U.K., but it aired opposite a “very special” episode of Roseanne in the U.S. (where John Goodman’s character had a heart attack), and in those pre-DVR days, that was all she wrote.

There were Who bits on charity specials in the U.K. that kept the character alive in native minds (you can find the clips online if you want to see Mr. Bean or Hugh Grant as the Doctor), and radio plays, comic books, and novels told new stories of the character in multiple incarnations, but the U.S.’s only taste of new Who was the incredibly forgettable 1988 novelty single “Doctorin’ the TARDIS” by the acid-house band KLF, recording as the Timelords. Its video combines Gary Glitter samples, the original Who theme music, and some other sound bites, and Benny Hill–level production values (seriously, a little “Yakety Sax” wouldn’t make it any worse).

Powered by generations of love for the Who-iverse in the U.K., the song became a No. 1 hit there, and gained top-10 status in Australia and Norway. So the Doctor was alive, but he wasn’t well.

The New Era, Part One (Davies, Eccleston, and Tennant)
In 2005, regime change at the BBC led to new interest in reviving the Who franchise (and the success of the 2003 Battlestar Galactica reboot probably didn’t hurt), and Russell T. Davies, producer of Queer As Folk and a longtime fan of the series, lobbied hard for the chance to helm the revival. He introduced a modern take that kept his favorite bits from the series’ long history and streamlined the mythology in order to bring in new viewers.

Among Davies’s choice bits to keep around were the Doctor’s primary gadget, the “sonic screwdriver”—a multipurpose lock pick that can also function like a Star Trek tricorder or almost anything else, depending on an episode’s specific needs—and a “psychic paper,” a blank card that looks to the viewer like whatever’s necessary to allow the Doctor and his companions safe passage, from plane tickets to government IDs. It’s like Ben Kenobi showing Stormtroopers a blank card that they believe reads “The Emperor Says: These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For.”

Davies also updated some of the classic Doctor Who villains, making the Daleks the race that wiped out Doctor Who’s native planet of Gallifrey, leaving him one of the last remaining Time Lords. (One particularly notable other surviving Time Lord is the subtly named Who villain “The Master,” who has also resurfaced in the new era.)

The first new Doctor of the Davies era—the Ninth—was Christopher Eccleston, a Brit who played the character with a supremely confident, less-eccentric swagger than some of his predecessors (and successors, for that matter). In his and Davies’ debut episode, we learn the new Doctor’s backstory on the run as he picks up a new companion, 19-year-old Rose Tyler (former pop singer Billie Piper), a working girl—not that kind, though she’d go on to play one as the lead on Showtime’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl—who happens into the middle of an invasion by living mannequins. Like many episodes of Doctor Who, it’s both scarier and more fun than it sounds.

The Eccleston era introduced a bunch of new characters and companions, most notably Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), an immortal pansexual time traveler (again, I direct you to the web) who proved so popular he would star in the Doctor Who spinoff—and anagram—Torchwood, which ran for two seasons plus two miniseries. That show was more adult-themed, and found Captain Jack leading a bunch of secret-agent types based in the Welsh city of Cardiff, who protected people from the kind of alien threats that often followed the Doctor in his wake. It’s what Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tried to be at the beginning, but with better acting and more freedom to be weird and sexual. Less sexual, but still plenty weird are Doctor Who’s other modern spinoffs, The Sarah Jane Adventures and K-9, kids’ shows featuring a grown-up former companion (the former) and a robot dog (the latter). 

Eccleston would only do 13 episodes as the Doctor, but Billie Piper would hang around quite a bit longer, developing a flirty relationship with the next Doctor, played by David Tennant. Tennant’s Doctor was more joyful in showing off to the audience and to his companions, first Rose Tyler and then, among others, Donna Noble (played by acclaimed English comedienne and actress Catherine Tate) and Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman).

David Tennant
David Tennant in Doctor Who.

Photo by BBC/Adrian Rogers/BBC - © BBC 2009

Tennant’s episodes also introduced the best reboot-era villains: the Weeping Angels, beings that look like stone statues but which spring to life whenever no one is looking. In the episode “Blink,” Tennant’s Doctor faces the threat for the first time, in an episode that establishes complicated rules and principles guiding how the creatures function. (Rules that are largely ignored in later appearances, but the angels themselves remain terrifying.) Tennant’s run also introduces River Song (played by ER’s Alex Kingston), a once-enigmatic time-hopping romantic interest of the Doctor whose appearances were always welcome, though they became less interesting the more her history was explained.

Davies left the series in 2008, replaced by frequent Who writer Steven Moffat (who would later create Sherlock) as executive producer. Davies and Moffat’s last collaboration was the episode that saw Tennant’s Doctor die and regenerate as the Eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith.

The New Era, Part 2 (Moffat and Smith)

The youngest actor to ever play the Doctor, the 26-year-old Smith was something of a wild card, as he was more of an unknown than his predecessors. Upping the ante further, Smith’s debut also introduced a new companion, giving loyal viewers no one they recognized (really, the last thing you’d want if the new guy turns out to be a dud). But Smith, who played the Doctor with a loose-limbed, goofy irreverence, quickly staked out his place as a Doctor who could be likable and menacing in almost the same breath.

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Matt Smith in Doctor Who.

Photo by Adrian Rodgers - © BBC/BBC Worldwide

Smith’s main companions were romantic couple Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), who added a love-triangle dynamic to the proceedings (with loyal Rory being outshone by Amy’s childhood “imaginary friend” come to life) before getting bogged down in crazy internal mythology that drew River Song into the mix. After Amy and Rory left the show, the series began revolving around mysterious new companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), whose connection to the Doctor spanned an entire season, with Coleman playing multiple characters along the way. The mystery was resolved in last season’s Christmas episode, where Clara proved instrumental to changing the Doctor’s personal history, helping to engineer the rescue of the Doctor’s homeworld and the other Time Lords, though the planet remains sealed off (at least for now) from the Doctor. In that same episode, the Matt Smith Doctor dies, beginning a new regeneration cycle as he becomes the Twelfth Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi.

The Newest of New (Capaldi)
So that’s it. Apart from mentioning elaborate time-twisting story lines (“Bad Wolf”); guest characters (Craig Ferguson’s rumored replacement James Corden appeared on two great Smith episodes); the “War Doctor” who doesn’t count as one of the Twelve, even though he should; and, of course, the “Paternoster Gang,” comprised of an adorable married lesbian couple (one of whom is a lizard) who are detectives in Victorian England, and their manservant, Strax (an alien who looks like a potato), that should have you covered. The challenge is to not get overly worried about the continuity and minutia and instead enjoy the wit and high-paced, high-stakes adventure that Moffat & Co. (hopefully) bring to the proceedings.

Just don’t get too attached to Coleman’s Clara, as recent rumors suggest she’s leaving the show by Christmas, making an opening for yet another new companion.

(Did I mention that one previous companion was Kylie Minogue? Like I said, there’s a lot you can skip over ...)

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