It’s difficult to be geek-adjacent these days and not run into Doctor Who, even if it’s only seeing a ridiculously long striped scarf or a blue wooden box with a police logo. But with over 50 years of history, eons of time-traveling adventures, and over a dozen actors having played the singular role of the Doctor, it’s easy to see how getting to know BBC’s Doctor Who might be daunting.
Don’t worry, we have you sorted. Let's delve into just what is Doctor Who, how to make sense of the various actors and era, and several different ways you can watch the long-running BBC serial ahead of the upcoming new era with a new Doctor.
What Is It? (Classic Version)
Doctor Who, the longest-running (according to Guinness World Records) science fiction show ever, first launched in 1963. (People who first watched it as six-year-olds are now senior citizens.) It ran, with different lead actors (seven of them), supporting cast, story types, and producers, until 1989. This series is now called Classic Doctor Who.
The Doctor is a runaway alien (called a Time Lord) who stole a time-and-space ship (the previously mentioned blue wooden box) called a TARDIS, which frequently doesn’t go where the Doctor expects. In the TARDIS, the Doctor, accompanied by various humans called 'assistants' or 'companions,' journeys around the universe saving the world and helping the downtrodden.
(By the way, the show is called Doctor Who, and the lead character is called the Doctor. Most seasons, as a running gag, someone asks 'Doctor who?' when the Doctor first introduces himself.)
At its conception, the show was considered a children's show, with the time travel allowing for historical lessons (in the first story, they met cavemen). Then, in the second storyline, the Doctor met the Daleks, the iconic aliens that look like saltshakers, and their immense success led to monsters and aliens taking over the show.
(If you’re curious, the story of how the show came to be became a TV movie itself. An Adventure in Space and Time, made for the show’s 50th anniversary in 2013, can be streamed on BritBox.)
From 1989-2005, Doctor Who was ostensibly off the air. However, during this hiatus, there was a 1996 TV movie, a US/UK co-production, but it wasn’t considered successful then or now, though it has a certain kitschy entertainment value, particularly with Eric Roberts as the scenery-chewing villain. And with its first filmed appearance of the Doctor romantically kissing a human, it oddly prefigures a key change in the modern run, which is that the Doctor dates human women— and occasionally kisses male-presenting aliens.
What Is It? (Modern Version)
Modern Doctor Who began in 2005 helmed by Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk, It’s a Sin) who relaunched the series after its 16-year-hiatus (Davies will soon be returning as show runner to guide the series through its 60th anniversary in 2023 and onwards). Davies' new take was immensely successful, featuring respected actor Christopher Eccleston in the lead role and former pop star Billie Piper as his companion (later partner) Rose.
You may have heard of some of the modern Doctors. The most popular are David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor from 2005-2010; he went on to play Crowley in Good Omens and a different kind of time traveler in Around the World in 80 Days) and Matt Smith (the Eleventh Doctor from 2010-2013; he went on to play Prince Philip in The Crown and a villain in Morbius).
While there have been a lot of failed attempts to recapture TV magic of the past over the last few years, Doctor Who managed to return to great success. One of the program’s key characteristics, that it swaps the lead actor out every few years, often changing the show runner and supporting cast as well, has kept the series fresh, or at least varied. If you don’t like the current style of storytelling, there’s plenty more to sample.
Where Should I Start?
The simple answer is: wherever you want. You probably want to start at the beginning of a season, as the modern trend is to work a bigger storyline through the episodes, but you should pick a Doctor that interests you and go onwards. If you don’t like them, try another one.
Here are some key things to know about the Doctors:
The most recent Doctor, the Thirteenth, was played by Jodie Whittaker, the first woman in the role after 55 years of the character being played by a man. Her first season was family-friendly and easy to sample, with no multi-part stories and no returning villains.
You could start with Christopher Eccleston’s season as the Ninth Doctor, the first modern season. Eccleston was an acclaimed actor before he joined the series, and his talent allows for a great depth of character and a slow reveal of the Doctor's dark past. This run of the show was specifically meant to demonstrate what the new version of the series could do, so it’s a great starting point.
In this series there are 13 episodes that culminate in a big showdown. You get futuristic science fiction as well as historical cameos (I love the bit where the Doctor confuses Charles Dickens by telling him he’s a big fan in 'The Unquiet Dead'). There are also alien invasions, a brand-new take on the Daleks, philosophical questions (should someone, given the chance, go back in time to save their father?), and the pansexual, life-loving Captain Jack (John Barrowman).
David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor, is a favorite of mine, as he can do comedy, drama, adventure, and silliness. Some of the very best episodes were part of his run, including:
- The Girl in the Fireplace, in which the Doctor meets Madame de Pompadour while encountering her at various times in her life.
- Blink, introduced the most recognizable modern villains, the Weeping Angels, statues that move when you’re not looking at them.
- Silence in the Library, a science fiction take on a slasher movie, where characters die one by one. This episode also gave us River Song (Alex Kingston).
- Human Nature, a heart-breaker where the Doctor becomes human in 1913 England to hide from a family of monsters.
- School Reunion features one of the very best companions from Classic Doctor Who, Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen. Plus, Anthony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) plays an evil school headmaster.
The Classic Doctors
If you like retro TV and want to sample the classic version with its dodgy special effects, slower pacing, and stagier direction (I find it all charming), then try these Doctors.
Tom Baker was the Fourth Doctor, the one best known in the US before the modern series restarted. He played the role the longest, seven years from 1974-1981, and his distinctively elongated scarf gave his version of the Doctor a certain whimsy. Part of Baker's run veered into gothically tinged horror stories, and it was also during his run that much of the continuity about Time Lords and his home planet of Gallifrey was established. He captures the blend of wacky uncle and weird alien well.
If you like retro-flavored James Bond-style action, the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, is your man. This version of the Doctor was, for the first part of his run, stuck on earth, without the ability to travel in time and space, so his adventures were structured around facing off against the Master (Roger Delgado), his Moriarty. Plus, Pertwee adored gadgets and vehicles, so you’ll get to see car chases and hovercrafts.
Until you’ve decided you love the show, do not begin at the beginning. There’s a quaint charm to seeing William Hartnell launch the series as a cranky professor type, but the slow pacing, long takes, and black-and-white staging take patience. Plus, some of the best episodes are missing, junked by the BBC in an attempt to save on film costs.
Where do I watch the show?
UK viewers can find the modern episodes on the BBC’s iPlayer. In Canada, they’re on Crave. In the US, they’re on HBO Max up through season 13 (Whittaker’s third and final season). In the US, UK, and Canada, the classic episodes, all 26 seasons, are available on BritBox.(Update 10/25/22: Starting in 2023, Doctor Who will be premiering new episodes, as well as streaming old ones, from Disney+ for audiences outside of the UK and Ireland)
Try it out and enjoy your own journeys in space and time.
The newest Doctor Who episode is the final Jodie Whittaker story. The 90-minute Centenary Special (part of the BBC’s hundred-year celebration) has just aired. In the UK, that’s on the BBC; in the US, on BBC America. The studio is pulling out their best-known villains (and possibily heroes too) for this, with the big three antagonists of the Master, the Daleks, and the Cybermen appearing for the first time together in the modern era.
After Whittaker's run completes, the Doctor will be played by Ncuti Gatwa, best known for starring in Sex Education. He will be the first Black actor to play the role full-time, and his episodes will debut in 2023.
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