Giving you the who, what, who, where, who, why, who, how, and who of the sci-fi super-show.
With Doctor Who airing on BBC America right now, we thought we’d get our resident British guy to explain just what the hell this show’s actually about. Be warned: The following may contain spoilers, obscure foreign pop cultural references, and words spelled with ‘U’s. You have been warned.
Photo: Ray Burmiston / BBC Worldwide
Doctor Who is a British sci-fi show (with a very distinctive theme tune) that’s been running almost continuously since 1963, with a break of a few years in the 90s because everyone was too busy thinking shows like Home Improvement and American Gladiators were a good idea. Mixing adventure and human drama with sci-fi concepts and a delightfully weird sense of humor, the show has managed to run for so long thanks to one of its central conceits: The fact that the Doctor himself is capable of regenerating when killed, coming back in a new body, with a subtly different personality, thereby allowing a theoretically endless string of actors to portray him in subsequent seasons (for a while there was a limit of 12 regenerations, but that got quietly switched to 507 in a spin-off show). Most actors get to end their tenure as the Doctor on a suitably epic, dramatic death scene, but occasionally the writers will have him fall off something, just for the lulz.
The main character in the show is The Doctor (you must never, ever refer to the character himself as “Doctor Who” unless you want a British nerd to spontaneously materialize out of thin air and beat you to death with a replica of The Eagle from Space: 1999). He is a centuries-old alien from the planet Gallifrey, and – depending which episode you’re watching – is often depicted as the last of an extremely powerful race known as the Time Lords, who are able to manipulate – spoiler alert! – time. While physically human-looking, the Doctor has two hearts and is capable of withstanding conditions that would kill most humans, such as being gassed, drowned, or sharing a confined space with Bonnie Langford. Aside from his super-genius intellect, advanced technology, and generally wacky demeanor, his defining character trait is his abhorrence of violence, always eschewing weapons and killing in favor of defeating his enemies through wit and cunning. The previous sentence also explains why it took most Americans nearly 50 years to get their heads around the show.
As previously stated, his personality varies slightly depending on who’s playing him. In chronological order (to us, at least), the Doctor has been played by:
- William Hartnell - an old, Grandfatherly character, described by Hartnell himself as “a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Father Christmas”.
- Patrick Troughton – a more comical, sneaky Doctor, with a fondness for hats and playing the flute.
- Jon Pertwee – a tech-loving, dandy-ish martial artist with a penchant for frilly shirts.
- Tom Baker – manic yet aloof, the fourth Doctor was the most clearly alien yet. Known for his iconic, improbably long scarf and crazy-bag-lady eyes.
- Peter Davidson – a less effective, more sensitive and indecisive Doctor who wore Edwardian cricket whites, because if there are two things no one fully understands, it’s time travel and the rules of cricket.
- Colin Baker – an egotistical, petulant character with clothes that looked like clown vomit. All in all, a bit of a tit.
- Sylvester McCoy – a slightly sinister character with superior planning skills and a talent for magic tricks, although not, apparently, the power to stop his own show from getting cancelled.
- Paul McGann – a fine Doctor, but lumbered with the fact his only major appearance was in the terrible, terrible, terrible 1996 TV movie made by Fox.
- Christopher Eccleston – an intense, capable, but less eccentric take on the Doctor, and the first of the post-hiatus Doctors, in the run popularly known as “Nu-Who” (we’re using the term “popularly” very loosely here).
- David Tennant – adored by most fans (but aggravating to others), Tennant portrayed the most human, emotional Doctor, but was bogged down somewhat by nonsensical storylines towards the end of his tenure, which too often came across as bad fan fiction.
- Matt Smith – once again more clearly acting like an alien, the current Doctor seems childishly naïve, but is not a man to be trifled with. Unless you have trifle, which is something he seems like he’d enjoy.
The Doctor travels in time and space, meaning that he tends to live his life in the wrong order, once even living out a whole relationship in reverse, only meeting his future wife for the first time (as he experienced it) on the occasion of her death. Since time travel is a signature element of the series, episodes have been set in every time, from primeval Earth to the last outpost of humanity at the end of the universe. This setting allows the show’s writers to mix Tudor queens with killer robots without anyone finding it odd, and occasionally leads to gloriously, deliberately absurd episode titles like Dinosaurs On A Spaceship.
The Doctor travels in a spaceship called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), which, confusingly, is shaped like a phone booth (it was supposed to blend into all environments, but got stuck on that setting, largely due to the BBC’s inferior 1960s budget). Aside from being a time machine, it is also much, much larger on the inside than the outside, a feat which sounds impossible, but can be understood by anyone who has ever witnessed Maxim editor Patrick Carone at an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet. The Doctor also has several smaller gadgets to aid him on his various journeys, including his Sonic Screwdriver – a sort of sci-fi Swiss Army Knife, that was actually banned from the show for several seasons after writers became too reliant on it as a plot-resolving device – and a sheet of “psychic paper”, which is blank, but causes whoever looks at it to see whatever is most convenient to the Doctor at the time (normally a form of I.D. that will allow him entry into places he wishes to go, such as military installations, prisons, and the backyards of 7-year olds).
While not weapons, all of these devices – and more – aid him in his endless battle with his enemies, which seem to comprise most of the known universe. His most frequent foes are the Daleks, which look like toilet plunger-waving traffic bollards, but whose obsessive preoccupation with exterminating things scared the shit out of several generations of British school children. Other notable foes include the Cybermen (body-snatching robot creatures), the Master (a sort of evil Doctor, who’s normally seen with a pointy little beard because of course), and the Weeping Angels, which look like ordinary statues until you stop looking at them, at which point they become toothy specters of death. It…it’s much better than it sounds. Honestly.
The Doctor is a sort of wandering adventurer, but his favorite pastime is toppling evil regimes and protecting the innocent. Being particularly fond of Earth and its inhabitants, he spends a lot of time there, a fact particularly convenient to the set-building department of BBC Television. The Doctor frequently invites select Earthlings to accompany him on his travels: Plot-wise, this is convenient for both exposition and for giving him someone to rescue, but in terms of his character, it has been hinted at on several occasions that the Doctor requires such companions to keep him from becoming too cold and detached; anchoring him to a moral compass that keeps him from abusing his vast powers. It also, of course, gives dads something to look at while their kids are watching, going by the addition of companions like Amy Pond, Leela, Martha Jones, and current companion, Clara Oswin Oswald. Because everyone knows that space + boobies = onscreen magic.
Look, if you couldn’t be bothered to read all that, just watch this video, it’ll explain everything in the form of a catchy song. It even has a dance routine!