Thursday, January 19, 2012

Doctor Who: Just the Doctor, I Presume?

The following is meant as a basic introduction to the BBC series Doctor Who and is by no means intended as an exhaustive study of the show’s vast universe. I would like to express my gratitude for my lovely and intelligent wife, a devout fan of the series who provided me with info, tidbits, and insights. Without her, this post would have been nothing more than links to other sites and several dozen pictures.

Time is transitory. The present is ever-changing, the past stays the same, and the future is unknown. For the extraterrestrial Time Lords, however, their abilities make time malleable, like a piece of clay. While stability is best, time can be manipulated to mend imperfections and strengthen its entirety. The Time Lords can travel back to fix a mistake or move forward to prevent it from happening. Perhaps the most famous member of this race of beings is one known as the Doctor.

Doctor Who is considered the longest running sci-fi TV series – in the world, not just in the UK. It was created by Sydney Newman (who also created The Avengers), C.E. Webber and Donald Wilson. The series premiered in November of 1963 (the day after JFK was assassinated) and ran until 1989. A TV movie in 1996 failed in resurrecting the series, but it was finally revived in 2005 and is currently still airing. This year will see the Doctor return for a 33rd series (or what yankees would call a season). Each of the six series since the relaunch has been a compilation of 13 hour-long (with commercials) episodes, discounting specials. The 26 preceding series consisted of a number of serials per series, each serial with varying numbers of episodes, anywhere from two to 12. Episodes were usually about 25 minutes. On DVD or a streaming service such as Netflix, you may see what look to be feature-length films but they are in actuality collected serials (you’ll know when you watch one, as closing and opening credits will roll at the appropriate intervals).

The Doctor has the unique talent of being able to regenerate when death is imminent. In effect, he never dies, but this plot point has likewise allowed the series to never die. A new actor portraying the doctor is literally playing the same character, and there are frequent references throughout the series of the previous versions of the Doctor, called “incarnations.” Officially there are 11 incarnations of the Doctor, portrayed by 11 different actors. There are, in fact, many more actors who have played the Doctor, but specials and movies are not considered part of the official series. Peter Cushing, as a for instance, played the part in two movies, Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 AD (1966). Similarly, Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death, a telethon charity event broadcast in 1999, featured five variations: Rowan Atkinson, Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, and even a woman, played by Joanna Lumley.

William Hartnell had the distinction of
being the first actor to play the Doctor (credited retrospectively as the First Doctor). In 1966, Patrick Troughton was the Doctor, and Jon Pertwee took over the role in 1970. One of the most popular actors to portray the Doctor was Tom Baker, who held the role from 1974-81. Baker was also the narrator of the UK sketch comedy show, Little Britain, as well as its American version, Little Britain USA. Peter Davison, who starred in All Creatures Great and Small and who recently joined the cast of Law & Order: UK as the Director of CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) London, was the Fifth Doctor from 1982-84, while the Sixth and Seventh Doctors were played by, respectively, Colin Baker (1984-86) and Sylvester McCoy (1987-89). McCoy technically played the Sixth Doctor briefly before regenerating into the Seventh (Colin Baker would not reprise the role), and he also returned to the role in the 1996 telefilm before being regenerated into the Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann. Christopher Eccleston was the Ninth Doctor in the 2005 revival, followed by the immensely popular David Tennant for three series (2005-10) and the current Doctor, the 11th incarnation, portrayed by the likewise well-received Matt Smith.

As the 2005 update is truly a continuation of the series, the Doctor has acknowledged the previous incarnations, and they’ve sometimes even appeared together. In the four-episode serial, The Three Doctors (1972-73), the Third Doctor gets help from his two former selves. In the comparably-titled The Five Doctors (1983), the fifth incarnation learns that the previous Doctors are being pulled from their time streams (Richard Hurndall played the First Doctor, as Hartnell had died in 1975). The Two Doctors (1985) showcased… well, two doctors: the Sixth and the Second. In the latter episodes with Tennant and Smith, there have been flashes of previous incarnations, often as pictures of the actors who had previously helmed the role.

The Doctor most often travels with a companion. The companion is usually a young and beautiful woman, but while there have been instances of playful interaction, there is never a legitimate romantic interest between the two. An exception to this was the ’96 TV movie, in which the Doctor kisses his companion, Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), with accompanying dramatic music and a fireworks backdrop to refute any doubts of the intimacy. The first companion, to the First Doctor, was Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), a significant character as she is the Doctor’s granddaughter and has been traveling with him for some time before the series’ timeline begins. Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) is one of the most popular companions, first appearing with the Third Doctor in 1973 and acting as companion to the Fourth Doctor from 1974-76, as well as starring alongside other companions in The Five Doctors and with the Tenth Doctor in various episodes, including the two-parter, “The End of Time”, which introduces the Eleventh Doctor. In addition to Sarah Jane, the third series with Tennant’s Doctor included returning companions, Rose (Billie Piper), Martha (Freema Agyeman, who starred with another Doctor, Davison, in Law & Order: UK), and Captain Jack (John Barrowman). The Doctor’s current companions are Amy (Karen Gillan) and her husband, Rory (Arthur Darvill).

Spin-offs of a show as successful as Doctor Who are hardly surprising. Sarah Jane Smith had her own series, aptly titled The Sarah Jane Adventures, a children’s show which ran for five series and only ended due to Sladen’s death in April of last year. Tennant and Smith, as their respective Doctors, had cameos in separate episodes. Sarah Jane’s robot dog (and companion to the Fourth Doctor), K-9, had a spin-off, K-9 and Company, though it never made it past the pilot. There have been various models of K-9, but he’s appeared on The Sarah Jane Adventures and had a second offset, the kid-friendly K-9 (however, as it was not a BBC production, its ties to Doctor Who are superficial). Captain Jack leads a team of alien hunters in Torchwood, which recently completed its fourth series. Agyeman’s Martha appeared in two episodes of Series 2.

The Doctor’s means of travel is a police box, what we Americans would call a phone booth and which functions as a direct line to the police. In the series, the police box is in reality a TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), a machine designed by the Time Lords for traveling through time and space. The TARDIS can take different forms, but the Doctor’s is a decommissioned relict
stolen from a museum and is locked in its police-box shape. The craft is much larger inside than the exterior would suggest, a fact pointed out by numerous characters throughout the series. In the series with Smith as the Eleventh Doctor, the TARDIS’ essence is placed into a woman, and in this form, she claims that it is she who stole the Doctor, not the other way around.

There are other characteristics of Doctor Who that have been retained throughout the years. The Doctor has long battled the evil Daleks, who made their first appearance very early in the series and remain one of the protagonist’s most formidable opponents. The Daleks are a race of cyborgs hell-bent on intergalactic genocide, summarized by their oft-spoken (and rather brusque) line, “Exterminate!” Another Doctor Who enemy is the Cybermen, who look like robots but are actually cyborgs. They debuted in 1966 and are still showing up beyond the 2005 relaunch, even on the spin-off, Torchwood, in the episode, “Cyberwoman”. Perhaps the Doctor’s true archenemy is the Master, who, like the Doctor, is a Time Lord from the planet, Gallifrey. Quite unlike the Doctor, the Master is predisposed to universal domination. He was most recently portrayed by Derek Jacobi of the medieval murder series, Brother Cadfael, and John Simm of the original Life on Mars. The series has also, for the most part, preserved its wonderfully unsettling main theme, courtesy of Ron Grainer, who also wrote the themes for the cult British series, The Prisoner and Man in a Suitcase. The Doctor Who title sequence has had many deviations visually (though it’s always given the impression of traveling through outer space or with the TARDIS), but the music essentially stays the same.

Doctor Who has appeared in other formats, including novels, audio plays, webcasts, comic strips/books and animated serials. There have also been countless magazines and websites and merchandise. One can sometimes see its influence, not just film/TV (though 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure shared a shockingly similar time-traveling device), but also in the English language, as both “Daleks” and “TARDIS” are now included in the Oxford English Dictionary. One of its most significant aspects is its consistency. The ambiguity suggested by the show’s title is almost ironic, because while companions and Cybermen and even the Doctor himself will change, the series is unmistakably a one and only.


  1. Fantastic story of a long-running and well-loved series (or serial), Sark! Quite a coincidence for me, as I just read Caftan Woman's article about being a geek for Dr. Who! I have to admit I've never seen even one Dr. Who. I didn't know anything about it, thought a long time ago that it was a kid's thing, and was obviously wrong about that. Your synopsis of the series' history and story really interests me. I wish I could start watching it from the very beginning -- does Netflix have it from that far back? You and your wife make a great writing team -- you should collaborate more often to create such good stuff!

    1. Becky, some of the early episodes of DOCTOR WHO no longer exist, but Netflix does have some serials with the First Doctor. Quite interesting, especially when compared to the show today!

  2. What a great write up! I used to watch the Tom Baker episodes on PBS, but have not seen any of the other doctors, though I hear good things about the current episodes. This makes me want to explore the other doctors! Always did love the TARDIS and K-9.

  3. So much great information here, Sark--please thank your wife. Now, I've only seen the BBC charity event with Hugh Grant and others playing the role of the doctor, so I can't really comment on all the great tidbits your provided. The Hugh version was rather cheesy, but still enjoyable. I liked Joanna Lumley's version of the doctor--she is always funny.

  4. Sark, this was a fascinating overview of a landmark television series and contained much information I didn't know (being only a novice DR. WHO fan). Do you know if the decision to have different incarnations of Doctor Who was part of the original concept? Or was it a clever solution when William Hartnell left th series? Either way, I always thought it was a brilliant idea since each actor has brought his own unique perspective to the role. The first Doctor Who for me was Peter Cushing, since local stations used to run his movies rather often. In the 1970s, our local PBS stations ran the Pertwee and Baker episodes. I have never seen Peter Davison's Who except in clips, but would love to since he was so much fun as Siegfried's academically-challenged brother on ALL CREATURES. I'd never heard of the spinoffs (except for TORCHWOOD) and the specials. Speaking of composer Ron Grainer, his jazzy theme for MAN IN A SUITCASE is one of my current favorite tracks. Finally, isn't ironic that the title is DOCTOR WHO and the lead actor changes on a regular basis? Like Becky and Kim, kudos to your spouse to for her contribitions to this information, enjoyable post!

  5. A thorough and entertaining introduction to the series that should interest folks who have been wondering if "Doctor Who" is worth a look.

    When the series rebooted I was very impressed with Christopher Eccleston and it took me a little while to get used to David Tennant in the role. It was the fourth episode, "School Reunion" when Elisabeth Sladen guested as Sarah Jane, and Tennant looked at her with "Tom Baker eyes" when he completely won me over.

    Please share the above memory with your wife because I'm sure she'll understand, being a devout fan of the program.

  6. I got hooked on Dr Who with the Tom Baker incarnation and became a regular fan with succeeding Doctors. One question to ask might be the long-lived appeal of the series and character, in spite of its many ongoing changes. I often think it's because the Doctor has both a basic decency and a great sense of humor (the sense of humor is key; many other superheroes don't have it). Plus there's something reassuring in the Doctor's reincarnation ability; it's like he's surmounted death and will never leave us. (Plus his wacky space adventures are fun!). Thanks for such great information on your post!

  7. Sark, I'll admit that my husband Vinnie is the main source of all DOCTOR WHO fan knowledge here at Team Bartilucci H.Q.; he's even written "post-game recaps" of more recent episodes for the Newsarama Web site. Whatever DOCTOR WHO knowledge I have comes from Vinnie and friends who love the show. I'm sending Vin a link to this terrific post; great job!

  8. Oooh! Thank you for posting this! I've been wanting to check out Dr. Who, and this was a nice introduction for me. Thanks! ^_^

  9. Sark - Nice post ... I recently just started watching Dr Who again and love the more recent episodes. Every episode has great writing, special effects, and just enough comedy to make for a really enjoyable viewing experience. Many of the episodes, old and new, are also available on Amazon Video On Demand ...