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The least you need to know about Doctor Who

Whovian Sunday The BBC series Doctor Who continues to enjoy renewed popularity among science fiction and fantasy fans. Although it debuted in the United Kingdom in 1963, it did not reach the United States until the late 70s’.

The show chronicled the adventures of the Doctor; a time-traveling alien who, although human in appearance, is a Time Lord from the Planet Gallifrey. He becomes a renegade from his people, who generally refrain from interfering in the affairs of other cultures, and travels to across time and space to help others.

PBS aired the show when it first came to America’s shores. Although it did not enjoy the widespread popularity of Star Wars and Star Trek, it did achieve cult status. Its fans included science fiction writer and convention scene firebrand Harlan Ellison, who wrote the introduction to American editions of a line of novels based on some of the episodes.

The show currently airs on BBC America.

While a comprehensive history of this long-running show would be impossible for one article, there are a few basics that the curious should know about the show. Bear in mind that this list is intended for the uninitiated and not seasoned fans (called Whovians).

1. The Different Actors

There have thus far been twelve regular actors in the part since it first aired. Although they all look different and have their own takes on the role, the basic personality of the Doctor remains the same; a slightly arrogant but good-hearted eccentric possessing great knowledge and curiosity.

When Time Lords (or Time Ladies) die, they regenerate a new body with their memories generally intact. Each regeneration yields a new appearance and sometimes changes in mannerisms. A Time Lord can live 13 lives before permanently dying, and even then they have individual life spans lasting hundreds of years (there is some narrative flexibility to that rule).

The actors that have played the Doctor on a recurring basis are; William Hartnell; Patrick Troughton; Jon Pertwee; Tom Baker; Peter Davidson; Colin Baker; Sylvester McCoy; Paul McGann; Christopher Eccleston; David Tennant; Matt Smith; and Peter Capaldi. John Hurt (Alien, The Elephant Man) played a forgotten incarnation of the Doctor in the 2013 special episode Day of the Doctor.

2. Tom Baker

When the show first came to America, the first episodes shown were those featuring Tom Baker -- a veteran character actor whose movie work includes The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Tales from the Crypt. He was not only on the show for a long time but his adventures as the Doctor are considered among the best in the history of the program. His Bohemian personality and 70s’ rock star appearance summed up the Doctor’s quirky personality well and resonated with American audiences. To fans of a certain age he is synonymous with the Doctor.

3. Classic versus Current Doctor Who

The show’s production team structured the Doctor’s original adventures as multi-part serials. This format lasted from the show’s beginning to its cancellation in 1989 following the Sylvester McCoy era. But in 2005, the BBC brought back the show following the success of extended universe novelizations and audio dramas about the Doctor in his various incarnations.

The new show is not a reboot but a continuation of the classic series. It consists of 45-minute episodes rather than serials, although it sometimes uses season-wide story arcs and two-part episodes.

The first season featured Christopher Eccleston (28 Days Later) as the Doctor and pop singer Billie Piper as his sidekick/love interest Rose. Although Eccleston only stayed for one season, the show is still going strong. David Tenant and Matt Smith were popular enough to rival Tom Baker, according to some fans.

4. Paul McGann

Although the show remained off the air from 1990 until 2005, Fox Television secured permission to make a Doctor Who movie. The film, which features Paul McGann, contains plot elements that contradict the continuity of the original series but the BBC nonetheless confirmed that the movie was canonical when they restarted the series, making McGann the official eighth Doctor.


The TARDIS is the Doctor’s home and primary mode of transportation. Its name is an acronym standing for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. It is a combination of space ship and time machine.

The TARDIS also has a chameleon circuit that enables it to change its shape and blend in with whatever environment it lands. However, the one the Doctor stole to embark on his journeys was in for repairs and it is stuck in the shape of a British police call box.

It is also physically larger on the inside than the outside.

6. The Daleks

The Daleks are a race of hostile alien mutants from the planet Skaros that travel in large armored vehicles with gun turrets. They form an empire based on universal conquest and are arguably the principle villains in the series. They are known for screeching “exterminate” through the squawk boxes in their armor, and their initial inability to walk upstairs (something later episodes rectified) became something of a cultural joke.

Other popular enemies of the Doctor include the Cybermen, the Silurians, the Sontorans, the Weeping Angels and the Silence.

7. The Master

The Master is a renegade time lord that was introduced when Jon Pertwee was playing the third incarnation of the Doctor. Unlike the Doctor, he is evil; a Professor Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes. Roger Delgado first portrayed him in in the 1971 serial Terror of the Autons but others actors have portrayed him since, including Eric Roberts from Star 80, The Pope of Greenwich Village and The Expendables.

8. The Companions

A wide range of sidekicks from different worlds and time periods have travelled with the Doctor during his adventures. They have ranged from Scottish Highlanders and robot dogs to time travelling action hero and hustler Jack Harkness. One of the more popular companions, reporter Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen), even spawned a spin-off program.

9. The Sonic Screwdriver

This is an all-purpose device that the Doctor carries with him. It was originally just a common tool when it was first introduced but its functions were gradually expanded as the show evolved.

10. UNIT

UNIT (Unified Intelligence Task Force) is a military organization that debuted during the 1970 episode Spearhead from Space. The Doctor has sometimes worked as a consultant for the group, which faces hostile alien or abnormal threats. UNIT, which was formally known as the United Nations Intelligence Task Force, has branches in several major countries.

The Torchwood Institute, which is a similar but non-military British organization, appeared in the later episodes and a spin-off program.

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