Doctor Who for beginners

This is the Doctor:

The Seventh Doctor

And so is this:

The Ninth Doctor

And these guys:

First, Second, Third and Fifth Doctor

As of New Year, this is also the Doctor:

The Eleventh Doctor

Confused? I would be too!

Doctor Who is a science-fiction show that ran from 1963 to 1989, then stayed alive through books, audio plays and fan enthusiasm until it was brought back in 2005. Unlike many shows that have been re-made/returned recently, when Doctor Who returned it was done as a continuation of the original albeit with better effects (you couldn’t have worse effects than some of the early episodes) and slightly different story-telling styles. It’s the longest-running sci-fi show out there (no, really, it is) and you only need to mention the Daleks to anyone in the UK to have them yelling “Exterminate!”. As you can imagine, there is a lot of history out there and this guide is not going to attempt to fill you in on it. It’s an overview to get you up to speed so that you can pick up the new show and watch it. I’d still recommend watching from season 1 of the new series to get the full effect, but hopefully it won’t be impossible to watch from the newest episodes if you need to. Things that are revealed through the course of the new series are getting their own pages that you can click into, thus saving you from spoilers if you plan to watch the lot while giving you the option of reading up and diving in without watching the 52 episodes plus eight specials that have aired since 2005.

The Doctor

This is the guy. The key guy. The guy that the entire series is based around. And yes, there are rather a lot of him. Eleven to be precise. We first saw him in 1963 as a crotchety (sometimes quite ruthless) old guy from a race of aliens that look rather like humans and have two hearts. He’s a Time Lord, from the planet Gallifrey, and he rattles around the universe having adventures through time and space in his TARIDS (more on this later). He tries to save everyone and he hates guns, which is why it’s a huge deal if he does pick one up. When William Hartnell (the original actor) decided that he wanted to leave in 1966 the BBC was faced with a dilemma. They didn’t want to end the show, it was hugely popular, but how could it be Doctor Who if the Doctor left?

So the show’s producers came up with an idea so incredibly, amazingly genius that it enabled the show to carry on for decades. They came up with regeneration.

Basic idea: when the Doctor’s body is so old or so injured that it can no longer continue, he regenerates into a new body. All the memories remain, but he looks different, acts different, wears completely different clothing and thus can be played be a totally new actor. Genius? I think so! As of January 2010, eleven actors have played the Doctor. Three of those actors have come since the show returned.

Christopher Eccleston (Nine):

His Doctor had big ears, was Northern (it was a running joke due to his accent), had deep, dark trauma and said “Fantastic” quite a lot. He wore black jeans, black boots, black sweater and a black leather jacket. No cliches there, then.

David Tennant (Ten):

This Doctor continued the deep dark trauma thing, but instead wore natty pin-stripe suits with Converse sneakers, had rather mad hair, was disappointed not to be ginger, tended to be very excitable and said “Brilliant” and “Allons-y” a lot.

Matt Smith (Eleven):

We know very little about this Doctor. He’s quite excited about having a full complement of arms and legs, disturbed that his face is a bit girly, disappointed to still not be ginger and is probably going to be saying “Geronimo” a lot. The last time we saw him, the TARDIS was crashing and he seemed disturbingly happy about it. Hopefully he’ll calm down slightly.

The regenerations are usually pretty traumatic, with the Doctor spending his first episode in his new body either very ill or quite mad. Sometimes both. There is an implication that this is because he’s not very good at doing it. One companion, Romana, came right out and said it so it’s not all fan speculation.

Dedicated fans know there is a slight problem coming up sometime soon. Back during the original run, it was established that Time Lords can only regenerate 12 times i.e. having thirteen bodies. In fact, this was a crucial point in many of the Doctor’s battles against his arch-nemesis, the Master. You’re seeing my concerns, right? The producers have said many times that all the previous stuff is canon so I foresee that in a few years they’ll have to invent a deus ex machina to get around that little issue. It could be interesting.

The Doctor left Gallifrey and became a renegade because the Time Lords had a strict non-interference policy even when interference should be happening to keep time working. He likes to interfere. Over the years, the Time Lords have tampered and interfered with his life at various points. They even made him President a couple of times but he usually runs away before they can make him actually do anything. They also confined him to Earth at one stage, although they let him roam again after he saved them from another renegade Time Lord.

Time Lords in the new series (Spoilers through to the beginning of S5)


The Doctor rarely travels alone.

Sometimes he travels with one companion:


Sometimes he travels with several people: Adric, Nyssa and Tegan

Sometimes he travels alone:

In recent years, he’s tended to have one companion at a time. They’ve been female, male and even aliens-that-look-exactly-like-humans once or twice. Two have died saving worlds. Sometimes they make an informed decision about travelling with the Doctor, sometimes they wander into the TARDIS by accident (no, really, go and have a look at Tegan Jovenka) and quite often the Doctor has difficulty returning them to their own times when they ask to leave. The number of times that the Doctor couldn’t find Heathrow for Tegan…

Companions usually hang around for a couple of years before deciding to leave for a variety of reasons: falling in love, saving lepers, being tired of getting knocked out, wanting to be warrior queens, excessive vocal damage…

Historically, companions have screamed a lot, been kidnapped for at least half of every story and required a lot of rescuing. Modern companions tend to be a little more self-sufficient, thankfully. They are there as the audience view-point character, forcing the Doctor to explain things to us when necessary. Please forgive them when they have to ask really stupid questions, it’s not their fault.

New series companions (lots of spoilers to the start of season 5)



The Doctor’s ship. Stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. It travels through time and space, so it can effectively go anywhere in the universe at any point in time although it turns out that getting too close to the Big Bang isn’t always a good idea. It’s the other reason that this show has lasted for so long: totally unlimited story-telling potential.

It’s bigger on the inside. The current run hasn’t shown us anything beyond the control room, but the original runs showed bedrooms, miles of corridors and a garden called the Cloister Garden. People can get lost in there for days.

The Doctor’s TARDIS is an old Mark 40 and there has long been an implication that he might not have asked before he took it to travel in. I’m just sayin’.

It looks like a 1950s police telephone box. Every TARDIS is equipped with a chameleon circuit that allows it to seamlessly blend in with its surroundings, but the Doctor’s TARDIS is broken. Not just in the chameleon circuit – the TARDIS rarely lands on target in either time or space. It’s quite a useful plot point, really…

The Doctor did once attempt to repair the chameleon circuit. As that ended with him falling off a radio telescope and regenerating into Peter Davidson, it’s understandable that he hasn’t tried again since.

Very, very rarely you will hear a deep, booming bell toll in the TARDIS. This is the Cloister Bell and it signifies deep, terrible, world-ending danger. We’ve heard it once in the new series. The only time I remember it in the old series, the Master had done something that was destroying the TARDIS and causing the entire universe to start going into heat death. If you hear the Cloister Bell, it’s bloody serious shit going down.


The Doctor has acquired a lot of enemies over the years, largely because he is very good at thwarting dastardly plans. Most stories involve an alien or mad scientist of the week that we never see again, but there are a few that keep coming back and are considered iconic classics for the series.


AKA big pepperpots. They are the most famous bad-guys in the show and have inspired generations of school kids to run around playgrounds shrieking “Exterminate!”. Despite looking like large pepperpots, they have little squidgy alien things inside.

The back story is that they came from the planet Skaro. There were two races on Skaro, the Kaleds and the Thalls, that went to war. As a final solution (yes, the Daleks are quite obviously Nazi ciphers) a scientist called Davros genetically altered some Kaleds to the ultimate (in his opinion) form of life. It was a little squidgy green thing that was incapable of anything useful so he build them machines to ride around in that just happened to be almost indestructible and carry heavy weaponry. The new creatures were called Daleks.

As part of the alteration, Davros implanted the Daleks with a total belief that they are the supreme beings of the universe and removed all ‘soft’ emotions such as mercy, compassion, kindness, joy etc. Their mission is to destroy all lesser lifeforms and become the supreme rulers of the universe. Davros slightly miscalculated because the Daleks are very smart and quickly worked out that if they are the supreme lifeform, they must be supreme to Davros as well and…

Yeah, that’s bitten Davros on the butt many times.

The Daleks in the original run popped up every couple of years all over the place. Sometimes they had spread through the galaxy and were destroying everything in their path. Sometimes they were coming back from massive defeats. They quite liked trying to invade the Earth. Every Doctor faced them at least once and they never quite got entirely wiped out.

Daleks in the new series (Spoilers to the end of season 4)


Where the Daleks want to destroy everything, the Cybermen want to convert you. Oh, and they’d quite like to take over the Earth thank you.

In the original run they were from Mondas, a twin planet to Earth that somehow left the Sun’s orbit and started wandering. Like the Daleks, they started out as humanoids. As things got colder, they began replacing their body parts with mechanical prosthetics to survive until they were almost entirely mechanical. They wanted Earth as a new planet to replace cold Mondas. Sadly for them, they are deadly allergic to gold (best rubbed into their breathing thingies) and Earth has rather a lot of that so they never really succeeded.

Their backstory is quite different in the new series. Cybermen in the new series (Spoilers to the end of season 2)

The Master:

He’s another renegade Time Lord, but he’s evil. He usually worked through other beings rather than directly combating the Doctor, although he did a bit of that too. In the early seventies he had a bit of an obsession with taking over the Earth and using that as a base for galactic domination. He’s quite mad, obviously.

He was in his final regeneration when we first met him and later in the series he did various things in an attempt to steal the Doctor’s remaining lives. Finally he took over someone’s body (the father of one of the Doctor’s companions), but still wanted some regenerations and the Time Lords sometimes used the promise of granting him a full set as a way to get him to work for them. It usually back-fired on them and he never got those extra lives.

<The Master in the new series link goes here>

Sonic Screwdriver

It’s a screwdriver. And it’s sonic. This has been around in the series for a long, long time. Sometimes it’s disappeared entirely for a while (Five’s got destroyed and I don’t think another one appeared until Seven) but it never goes away completely. It can open any lock unless it’s deadlock sealed and appears to have other settings that do things like repairing barbed wire. The Doctor once tried to use it to resonate concrete to escape from a locked room, but we never found out whether that was going to work. He got distracted by…

Wait, I’ll let you watch the new series to find out.

It’s described as a deus ex machina quite often, but it does provide a good short-cut if you don’t want the entire adventure to stall the first time someone locks a door that the Doctor needs to get through.

Watching Doctor Who

I’m biased, but I’d say that it’s a good idea to watch all the new episodes in order because you miss stuff if you don’t. The writers plant payoffs in there for people who are loyal and don’t skip bits or, worst of all, watch out of order. If you haven’t had enough after 52 episodes plus specials then that would be the time to start delving into the history. I warn you, this was the BBC and the budget for Doctor Who was always very small so the effects require a large suspension of disbelief. Bubble-wrap monsters (you could hear the bubbles popping!) is all I’m saying on that.

There is no best place to start with the originals. Dive in with what you can find. I grew up with Peter Davidson, but Sylvester McCoy was the Doctor that I really loved. His first few stories aren’t great, but as soon as he got Ace for a companion the quality went way up and some of those stories are terrific. Try to find his Dalek story, it’s genius. Battlefield is another favourite of mine.

Tom Baker was the longest-running Doctor and he had some amazing episodes. Some were amazingly bad, I grant you, but many were genius. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor did Venusian Aikido. He’s worth it just for the ruffled seventies shirts. Many stories from the first two Doctors were lost when the BBC cleared out their archives, which is why they’re not well represented in the DVDs. Try not to watch any Colin Baker until you’re a truly dedicated fan.

Honestly, when you run out of new series then you need to try the classics but it’s impossible to tell you where to start. If, on the other hand, you decide to dive right in with the newest series (starts in March or April in the UK, often on the Easter weekend) then hopefully this guide is enough to get you going.

Doctor Who on the Web

Doctor Who has an enourmous web presence. The sheer volume of fan activity is a large part of why it’s back. For some reason this was a show that the fans never abandoned and there has been some kind of book series or audio play going ever since the show went off the air in 1989. The web allowed the Doctor Who presence to expand and induct new people.

There are a few places to start, depending on your interest.

BBC Doctor Who – Unlike many shows, the official series page is a massive treasure trove of information. Not just on what’s currently airing, either, but also on all the previous stuff right back to 1963 (Classic stuff direct link). Lots of games and promotions around the new series, obviously, and even a few stories hidden here and there. When the show is actively airing, the website updates each week with new themes, games and info for each episode.

Wikipedia Portal – Even more detailed than the BBC site, there are articles and photos on just about everything Doctor Who related. You could read for days and still only get through a small fraction of it.

The Doctor Who News Page – Anything that’s going on for Doctor Who is linked here. New reports, interviews, official announcements, everything is linked here. There is even a Twitter feed.

who_daily – Another place to get all the news, this is a daily LJ newsletter that covers all the fan stuff as well as the official stuff. A lot of DW fandom is based on LJ, so this newsletter links to all the commentary and discussion posts around LJ as well as the press coverage. They also link to all the art and fanfiction that appears each day. When the show is officially airing, they’ll have a post (or two or three) dedicated to collecting all the post-episode discussion.

Big Finish – Producer of amazing audio plays featuring Doctors Four, Five, Six, Seven and Eight plus their various companions.

A Teaspoon and an Open Mind – Main Doctor Who (and spin-offs) fanfiction site. Fanfic follows Sturgeons law of “90% of anything is crap”, but the good stuff is very good and a good way to get more Doctor Who if you’re feeling desperate.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. rookie
    Nov 10, 2012 @ 13:51:45

    thanks! really helpful 🙂


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