Times change, and Doctor Who changes with them – literally. What began as a curious science fiction television show for the BBC in 1963 has now evolved into an ever-expanding franchise – encompassing a variety of spinoff series, comic books, radio dramas, novelizations, non-fiction books, video games, and an endless stream of merchandise. While it was originally created by Sydney Newman, C.E Webber, and Donald Wilson, a variety of creative minds have left their mark on the property, and the latest passing of that baton is set to bring the biggest changes of all.
Its original run – iconic theme tune and all – began on November 23rd, 1963, and continued until 1989. A TV movie followed in 1996, then the TARDIS fell silent, until Russell T. Davies fired it up again in 2005. Since that reboot, Doctor Who has remained a fixture on the screens of fans around the world and shows no signs of fading from view. In fact, the entire storytelling endeavour is about to make a leap of epic proportions.
Before that leap, though, scheduled for December 25th, let’s take a look at this TV phenomenon as a whole, catching up on the history of The Doctor, before looking at what we can expect next from the flagship show.
In short, this is everything you need to know about Doctor Who.
Doctor Who centres on a rogue Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, referred to only as The Doctor. He’s known to have escaped from there in a stolen TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), which is essentially a transportation device designed for travel through time and space, and it’s much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Though it was originally designed to have a chameleon-like quality – enabling it to take on the appearance of objects around it in order to ‘blend in’ – it has long-since suffered a malfunction and is stuck with the appearance of an old, British police box. It changes on the inside, though, with each new Doctor.
As a Time Lord, The Doctor is centuries old and has the ability to regenerate when necessary. This process provides a new body and a new personality, while memories and knowledge are largely retained. In terms of the time-travel based narrative, this means that different incarnations of The Doctor can run into each other at pivotal points. The Doctor has an intellect that is far beyond genius-level, and uses this ingenuity – along with a trusty sonic screwdriver – to help beleaguered creatures across the universe. Though The Doctor assists a broad range of beings, a particular fascination with the planet Earth means that humanity receives special attention.
During Earthly escapades, The Doctor has often collaborated with the military taskforce UNIT (originally known as the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, but renamed the Unified Intelligence Taskforce from 2005 onwards). This has led to adventure and drama galore, as The Doctor and his associates fight to keep humanity safe from alien threat, while the majority of the population live out their lives oblivious to the precarious nature of galactic peace.
As a Time Lord with regenerative abilities, we have thus far met 12 Doctors – all of whom have had different adventures through time and space, and all of whom contribute snippets of information to build a picture of this mysterious, heroic character.
The First Doctor (William Hartnell) appeared from 1963 to 1966, and explained that he was an alien in exile. At the end of his time, he collapsed due to old age and exhaustion, after battling to save the universe. He regenerated into The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) – who appeared from 1966 to 1969. The Second Doctor was a younger man who ultimately sacrificed his freedom to ask the Time Lords for help in saving his friends. He was tried for illegal interference in time, was exiled to Earth, and was forced to regenerate.
The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) appeared from 1970 to 1974 and kept a lab at UNIT. He also maintained a number of additional vehicles – including a vintage roadster named Bessie, and a hovercraft. Since he was highly skilled in diplomacy, his exile was tempered by the fact that the Time Lords would occasionally send him on missions to thwart alien threats. His regeneration was caused by radiation poisoning.
The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) featured on the show from 1974 to 1981, and his more volatile personality saw him grow tired of his exile and his service to the Time Lords. He abandoned his lab at UNIT and headed off for adventures of a more intergalactic nature. This incarnation – who cited his age as being 756 years – was notable for having non-human companions join him on his adventures. He regenerated after being mortally wounded in a fight with his nemesis – The Master.
The tenure of The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) ran from 1981 to 1984, and began with a particularly difficult regeneration that saw the Doctor exhibit flashes of the personalities of each of his previous incarnations. This incarnation suffered the death of an assistant, and ultimately sacrificed himself to save his last assistant after suffering exposure to a toxic drug. His regeneration as the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) was a violent one and, though this tenure ran from 1984 to 1986, it was initially marred with guilt about his early actions. This incarnation of the Doctor – citing his age as 900 – found himself in conflict with a corrupt female Time Lord named the Rani, and was mortally wounded when she attacked the TARDIS.
The tenure of The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) was technically from 1987 to 1996, though his episodes only aired until 1989. This incarnation experienced a rather confused regeneration, and later proved himself to be a relatively manipulative Doctor, who pinpointed his age as 953 years. While transporting the remains of his nemesis to Gallifrey, he accidentally landed in the San Francisco of 1999, and was shot and killed in a gang shoot-out. This scenario – necessitated by the temporary cancellation of the series – made the Seventh Doctor the only incarnation to have died and regenerated in a morgue.
1996 saw the broadcast of a TV movie, featuring the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) – and this was intended as a feature length pilot episode for a Doctor Who relaunch on U.S television. The story had The Doctor assisted by the surgeon that operated on him after his shooting, and he battled the regeneration of his nemesis. This broadcast is notable for not depicting the regeneration of the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), which later gave rise to a new plot twist, featuring The War Doctor.
Though in broadcast, he appears at a different time, The War Doctor (John Hurt) actually occurs between the Eighth and Ninth Doctors – created consciously by the Eighth for the purpose of the Time War. He is, effectively, the embodiment of the regret, guilt, and shame experienced by The Doctor.
The Ninth Doctor saves a woman from an alien attack, and she becomes his assistant. This version of The Doctor reveals that the Time Lords were destroyed by the Time War – with the Gallifreans and the Daleks experiencing mutual annihilation. This is something for which The Doctor says he bears responsibility. However, during his one-season tenure, the Daleks resurfaced, and The Doctor’s assistant absorbed the energy of the Time Vortex to destroy them. The Doctor saved her with a kiss, but suffered catastrophic cell damage that caused his regeneration.
The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) appeared from 2005 to 2010, and experienced a lengthy coma after his transformation. In his first alien battle, he lost a hand, but it grew back due to his recent regeneration. During his time in the TARDIS, The Tenth Doctor lost an assistant to a parallel universe, met the character of River Song (who proved to be vitally important to the overall timeline of The Doctor), and sacrificed himself to save an assistant’s grandfather – visiting several previous assistants before regenerating.
The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) occupied the TARDIS from 2010 to 2013, and changed time after finding cracks that were erasing people from history. He had an apparent romantic entanglement with River Song, who was later revealed to be the daughter of two of the Doctor’s assistants. The tenure of this incarnation was dominated by prophecies of death, and The Doctor eventually sacrificed himself to destroy a Dalek mothership. As he grew very old, the Time Lords afforded him an extra regeneration cycle – leading to the appearance of The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi).
The tenure of The Twelfth Doctor ran from 2013 to 2017, and has seen the Time Lord battle a female incarnation of The Master, named Missy. An injury during a battle with Cybermen prompted his regeneration – but he refused to regenerate. This stubbornness caused him to come face-to-face with The First Doctor.
The Doctor’s ‘companions’ – or ‘assistants’ – are a vital part of the Doctor Who story, and are frequently found at the heart of the biggest plot twists. The Doctor is centuries old, and usually prefers to have company as he travels through time and space. It brings The Doctor great joy to have the opportunity to broaden the horizons of others, by introducing them to the universe beyond Earth.
The original ‘companion of The Doctor was a young woman who used the name Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford) and was, in fact, the granddaughter of The First Doctor. In the first ever episode, she draws the attention of her teachers at Coal Hill School, because she has unprecedented knowledge of mathematics and science. When those teachers – Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell) – follow her home, they find that she lives in a junkyard, where her grandfather is tinkering with an old police box. Assuming that her grandfather is where her extraordinary knowledge comes from, and that he would share the same name, the teachers address him as “Doctor Foreman,” to which he replies, “Doctor who?”
Ian and Barbara learn that Susan and her grandfather are exiles from another planet, and that the old police box is a machine that can travel through time and space – and since they’ve uncovered their secret, The Doctor essentially kidnaps them and sets off away from Earth with an entirely new set of companions. Susan, Ian and Barbara became the first of 46 ‘companions’, or assistants, to travel with The Doctor over the next 54 years. While some have had little impact beyond the episodes they appeared in, a small number have left a much bigger impression.
Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) is by far the most prolific companion – first appearing with the Third Doctor in 1973 as an investigative journalist, and remaining with the TARDIS until 1976 – making her companion to both the Third and Fourth Doctors. She appeared again in a spinoff pilot titled K-9 And Company, featuring Sarah Jane and the iconic robot dog that once accompanied The Doctor. That pilot was unsuccessful, but she returned in 1983 to appear alongside the Fifth Doctor and again for two episodes with the Tenth Doctor. The character then starred in her own spinoff series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, which ran for five seasons and led to crossover appearances with the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors.
Vislor Turlough (Mark Strickson) was a student from the planet Trion, who was placed with the Fifth Doctor by the evil Black Guardian, for the purpose of executing a nefarious agenda. This led to a particularly fraught interpersonal relationship for a Doctor with a broad range of companions. The Fifth Doctor’s last – the American botany student, Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant) – was the character for whom The Doctor sacrificed himself when poisoned.
Ace (Sophie Aldred) was a very popular companion when she appeared alongside the Seventh Doctor. She was a human teenager who had been suddenly transported to the planet Svartos by a freak time storm. When their paths crossed, the Doctor came to realize that a great deal of the trauma Ace experienced in her childhood was the result of the actions of his enemy Fenric, and Ace and the Doctor developed a close bond confronting their mutual Fenric-related issues.
Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) was the second of the Doctor’s companions to launch a successful spinoff series – this time in the form of Torchwood (2006-2011). Harkness first appeared with the Ninth Doctor as a time traveller from the 51st century. By the time he interacts with the Tenth Doctor, he’s immortal and on his way to running the Torchwood organization. His character is also particularly notable for being the first openly bisexual character in the Doctor Who franchise. He appeared in the same era as Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), whose introduction in the first episode of the Doctor Who relaunch in 2005 heralded a new chapter for the use of the companion characters.
Rose is used in this episode as an audience proxy – a move that’s vital to the success of the relaunch overall. By 2005, Doctor Who had been absent from television for almost a decade, and Rose allowed us to meet The Doctor anew, through her eyes. Rather than handing the lead over to The Doctor at that point, though, Rose retained essentially equal status within the story of the show and, as such, was instrumental in determining the direction of the narrative. Though she began the show as a teenage shop assistant from London, she spent her run as Doctor’s companion repeatedly saving the universe. With the Ninth Doctor, she absorbs the energy of the Time Vortex, and with the Tenth Doctor, she helps him combat the Daleks and is sealed in a parallel universe as a result.
Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) joined the Tenth Doctor on his travels after their paths crossed during an incident at the hospital in which she was studying. Martha proved to be a highly capable companion – as deft with action and adventure as she was with strategy and inter-personal relationships. Though she and The Doctor parted ways eventually, her character did not fall from view entirely. Instead, she cropped up within the realms of the spinoff show Torchwood on occasion – catching up with former fellow companion, Jack Harkness.
River Song (Alex Kingston) is perhaps the companion most integral to the overall story of The Doctor. She first appears with the Tenth Doctor, but soon makes it clear that her story with him is long and complex. At different times, she’s been his companion and his wife, but since they’re both time travellers, their interactions are out of chronology. This means that his first interaction with her, in a 2008 episode, is her last.
Over the course of the following seasons, however, The Doctor learns that River Song is the daughter of the companions accompanying the Eleventh Doctor – Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill). Since she was conceived by the couple aboard the TARDIS while it travelled through a Time Vortex, she absorbed traits and abilities similar to those of a Time Lord. This means she can regenerate and – though she was kidnapped as an infant – she’s actually been a regular presence in the lives of The Doctor and her parents.
Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) has a long and storied connection with The Doctor, too. The Time Lord encountered her as three distinct people in three different eras, and became determined to solve the mystery of her multiple lives. The 21st century version, as appearing with the Eleventh Doctor, is found to be a teacher at Coal Hill School – the location seen in the first ever episode back in 1963, and the series spinoff, Class, in 2016. During her tenure, she persuades the War Doctor to change time – resulting in the survival of Gallifrey and the Time Lords.
The Doctor has faced some memorable nemeses through time and space – many recurring through different generations. While some have been relatively easy and swift to deal with (such as Max Capricorn, the owner of the Titanic; Lady Cassandra, the last full-blooded human; the Empress of the Rancoss, a giant spider; the Ice Warriors from Mars; and the Sycorax from the planet Fire Trap), others have proven to be spine-chillingly iconic. While evil entities such as the ancient and influential Black Guardian have remained present throughout the Doctor Who mythology, there are four villains that truly invoke a terror response in fans.
The Weeping Angels are the most recent addition to this category of foe, having made their first appearance in 2007 with the Tenth Doctor. They’re predators taking the form of human-sized stone statues of angels, while sometimes also appearing as stone cherubims. The adult-sized versions are silent, while the cherubims giggle – and both advance upon their prey when their target blinks. They feed upon their victims by touching them once, and sending them into a Time Paradox – leaving them in a moment before their own birth, and consuming the energy that would have been generated had their victim had the opportunity to live their life.
The Weeping Angels are terrifying for three reasons. Firstly, it’s the way in which they creep up on victims while their gaze is averted. Secondly, it’s the way in which they simply erase people from time without any apparent motive. Thirdly, it’s the fact that stone statues are everywhere, and any one of them could be a Weeping Angel in waiting.
Then, there’s The Master. The Master is terrifying precisely because he’s a Time Lord, just like The Doctor. The Master can regenerate and manipulate space and time – but the difference is that The Master always seeks to use those powers for evil, rather than to help others. The Master seeks absolute power, wishes to conquer the universe, and would like to see the entire human race destroyed – simply because The Doctor is so fond of it.
The Master has been a core part of the Doctor Who story for many years – first appearing in 1971 (played by Roger Delgado) with the Third Doctor. The evil Time Lord has since been instrumental in a number of The Doctor’s own regenerations, having caused him mortal injury on many occasions. Having regenerated into versions played by such actors as Derek Jacobi, Eric Roberts, and John Simm, the character most recently transformed into Missy, played by Michelle Gomez.
The Cybermen are also a perennial foe of The Doctor, and have been responsible for many lethal confrontations. They’re a race of emotionless cyborgs who spread through the universe seeking other races to assimilate. This is how they ensure the expansion of their own race. They first appeared in 1966 with The First Doctor, and it’s this encounter that prompted his regeneration. The Cybermen have since encountered every Doctor except the Third, Eighth, Ninth, and War Doctors, and it’s their cold relentlessness that makes them particularly terrifying.
The most iconic of all the Doctor Who nemeses, though, is undoubtedly the Daleks. Like the Cybermen, these are cold, mechanical, relentless beings whose sole purpose is universal domination by any means necessary. They’re mutants from the planet Skaro, living inside drivable metallic containers equipped with a ray gun that allows them to vaporize their target at will. While the Cybermen desire something of a ‘hive mind’ expansion of their race, however, the Daleks seek something much more disturbing.
The Daleks are essentially the Nazis of the Doctor Who universe in that they seek absolute conformity to the will of their leader – Davros. Cybermen assimilate and effectively enslave, while Daleks simply destroy anything and everything that might undermine their desire to dominate the universe and all that live in it. They believe they are the superior race, and those that don’t conform face the haunting, robotic shriek of “Exterminate!”
The Daleks were one of the first enemies to face The First Doctor in 1963, and every Doctor since then – with the exception of the Eighth – has had to face them. Usually, more than once.
And so, we arrive at the next transition. The Doctor Who baton is being passed once more, with a changing of the guard both in front of, and behind the camera. Showrunner Steven Moffat – who has shepherded the series for seven years, through the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors – will hand the TARDIS key to Chris Chibnall, while Peter Capaldi will cede the title of Doctor to Jodie Whittaker. For the first time in the history of television, The Doctor will be a woman.
While the vast majority of fans welcomed this news – since it is 2017, after all – a vocal minority created something of a backlash at this casting, so all eyes will be on the BBC on December 25th, when the latest regeneration is due to be televised. Once the Thirteenth Doctor truly takes charge – with a 10 episode series of Doctor Who in the fall of 2018 – she’ll be joined by a set of new companions, played by Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, and Tosin Cole.
What the circumstances of each of these new fellow travellers will be remains unknown for the time being but, if the previous decade is any indication, these new characters are about to have a giant impact on time, space, and the whole of pop culture.