FAQ for Newbies (to Doctor Who)

by Steve Manfred

updated by Siobahn Morgan (2005)

This is a FAQ to help out the American newbies who discovered "Doctor Who" thanks to the Fox movie and would like to know more about the 26 year long BBC series that preceded it. Also, with the new series starting in the UK in spring 2005, some folks may need a refresher.

"Doctor Who" was an idea conceived by Sydney Newman and Donald Wilson of the BBC in 1963. It was to be a science-fiction series aimed at children ages 9-14 that could explore both science and history via a time/space machine and so both educate and entertain this age group. The education aspect soon went out the window as the entertainment aspect soared, and towards the end of the 60s and certainly into the 70s, the age group was enlarged to include adults, though certain topics such as sex and graphic violence would only ever be superficially touced on.

The plot of the first episode is still one of the best introductions to the series. The setting is an English school in 1963, where a science teacher named Ian Chesterton and a history teacher named Barbara Wright have become intensely curious about a peculiar student of theirs, Susan Foreman. She seems to have superior knowledge of history and science, yet is quite ignorant of everyday things such as the British monetary system. Barbara's interest has grown larger since she discovered that Susan has an apparantly false address, (it's just a junkyard) and she and Ian agree to stake out this location and see if she turns up. She does, but when they follow her inside, she has disappeared, but the one thing they do find is a strangely humming police box. (more on what a police box is in a bit) They are then confronted by an old man who demands to know why they are there, and they reach en empasse until the police box door opens and Susan calls for him, her grandfather. Barbara and Ian push their way inside and find it to have an impossibly large and spacious high-tech interior. Susan and her grandfather, the Doctor, explain that this is their ship, the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), and it is capable of travelling to any place or time, and that they are in fact from another time and another world. Susan asks the Doctor to let Ian and Barbara go, but he insists he cannot since they will give them away to the police, and so instead he sets the ship in motion, plunging them all back to a prehistoric age. Once there, the Doctor and Susan are disturbed to find that the TARDIS has not changed its outer shape to blend with its surroundings as it's supposed to do, and still looks like a police box, which it does for almost the entire series. This is just one sign that the TARDIS has a number of faults, the most important of which is that it's navigation system is unreliable, meaning that the Doctor cannot return Ian and Barbara to their own time.

The Doctor himself is simply called that, the Doctor. He doesn't reveal his name, prompting Ian to ask the question "Doctor Who?" It's a question that's never been answered in 33 years.

(Before I go on, I'll explain what a police box is. Police boxes were common- place objects in Britian from the 1930s to the 1970s and were the primary means of communication for police officers in the field (and the public) with their stations via telephone, and vice versa, each station being able to summon an officer in an area by activating the light on the top of the box. They were also used as a temporary lock-up for criminals apprehended by officers on a foot or bicycle patrol. As personal radios became smaller and cheaper, police boxes were gradually phased out.)

The Doctor was originaly played by William Hartnell as a very tetchy old man who was senile one minute and then terribly brilliant the next. At first he was very hostile towards Ian and Barbara and the people they encountered until over time Ian and Barbara and Susan manage to show him how the people they meet should be pitied and helped rather than indifferently ignored. One trait the Doctor has always had and continues to have is a strong sense of curiosity, that on more than one occasion gets him into vast trouble. The most famous instance of this is when in the second story of the series he tricks the others into thinking that the TARDIS needs some mercury to become operational again and that the only place to find it is this metal city outside that he wanted to explore earlier that they didn't. Little did he know that they'd be walking in a radioactive area, and that they would meet a race of aliens that would become his most popular and deadliest enemies: the Daleks.

The Daleks appear to be robotic creatures, but inside every Dalek casing is a "living, bubbling lump of hate," a mutation brought about by the centuries of chemical and nuclear warfare between their former selves, the Kaleds, and their race enemies, the Thals. The casing is a nearly impregnable war machine with a formidable energy weapon which gets a lot of use as the Daleks are conditioned to believe that they are the supreme creatures of the universe and that all other species are to be subjegated or, preferably, exterminated. Later stories would show that they were masters of a vast space empire, and one of the worst scourges the universe would ever see. Another story would reveal Dalek origins in detail, and it is there that we first met a crippled scientist named Davros, who created the Daleks via genetic engineering of the Kaled mutations and their casings based in part on his own life-support wheelchair. The Daleks obeyed his conditioning too well and tried to exterminate him in the belief that he was inferior too, but he survived and over the course of several stories eventually was able to start afresh with a new Dalek race of his own while the originals were relegated to a renegade status.

The Daleks were an instant hit and became a British national fad for two or three years, and were brought back to fight the Doctor on numerous occasions. The word Dalek can even be found in the Oxford English Dictionary.

After three years of a mixture of historical and science-fiction stories, new producers came on to helm the show, and the style began to aim for a more sophisticated audience. Also by this time, William Hartnell was the only series regular of the original cast still on the series. Above all of this, Mr Hartnell's health was beginning to fail him. This coupled with his distaste for the new direction of the series led him to decide to leave the series in 1966.

The producers, however, decided to gamble and keep the series going with a new actor in the starring role, explaining that the Doctor's body had been "renewed" (later to be called "regenerated") with the help of the TARDIS. This allowed the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, to take over and continue the Doctor's travels.

The Second Doctor is often called the "cosmic hobo," a comical short dark-haired man who would do silly things or suddenly play a tune on a recorder at the drop of a hat. All this masked a darker side that was constantly listening to, thinking about, and anticipating events. The Second Doctor's era saw the total phasing out of historical stories and their replacement with science fiction ones, most of those starring alien monsters. Two of the more famous monsters were the Ice Warriors (large biped reptiles from Mars unable to stand heat), and the Yeti (robots disguised as Tibetan abominable snowmen to serve a disembodied alien intelligence).

The most famous monster of this period, however, was the one that the Doctor first faced in the First Doctor's last story, the Cybermen.

The Cybermen came from a twin planet of Earth's that was somehow flung out into the cold depths of space. The people living there were weakening as a result, and to survive, they began replacing their bodies' parts with artificial components. The full Cyberman has no human parts remaining at all apart from the brain and perhaps some of the nervous system. Most chillingly, the Cybermen have programmed out all their emotions and think completely logically and ruthlessly. Their first compulsion upon meeting humans or humanoids is to try and capture and convert them into Cybermen to ensure the survival of their race. Because of this, the Cybermen were most often seen to be attacking or invading Earth, but the Doctor always stopped them.

It was during one such Cyber-invasion attempt that the Doctor became allied with a military investigation team set up by the United Nations and helmed by an officer whom he'd met on a prior occasion, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. This group was called the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, and was a secret worldwide organization set up to deal with any odd or unusual occurances, such as alien invasion attempts, mutated creatures, security at science establishments, etc. UNIT would shortly become an integral part of the series, but first...

After three years as the Doctor, Patrick Troughton too thought it was time to move on to other things to avoid being typecast, and the producers thought it was also time for a more sophisticated and believeable direction for the series, and to also to begin to explain some of the Doctor's origins.

In the Second Doctor's final story, we learn for the first time that the Doctor is a renegade of a people called the Time Lords. He had in fact stolen the TARDIS in rebellion against their strict social order and their cardinal rule to only observe the universe and to never interfere in the affairs of other times and places. In this story he is forced to call on their help to send thousands of kidnapped soldiers back to their own times in Earth's history, and in so doing, he reveals his location and is captured.

At his trial, the Doctor argued that he had always interfered to act against terrible evils, and in light of this evidence, the Time Lords imposed a lenient sentence. They decided to merely cause him to regenerate once more and to exile him to 20th century Earth, letting him keep his TARDIS but grounding it to work only under their control and blocking his memory of how to repair it.

The first color episode in 1970 saw the debut of the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, and the beginning of the Doctor's Earth exile. He was almost immediately found and aided by UNIT, and the Brigadier asked him to stay on as their scientific adviser, a post he accepted since it allowed him access to facilities with which he could attempt to repair his TARDIS.

The Third Doctor is usually called the "dandy" for his taste in velvet jackets and frill-fronted shirts and his shock of white, curly hair. He was the most action-oriented of the Doctors, using "Venusian aikido" quite often, as well as every gadget and fantastic vehicle that ever crossed his path.

The Doctor's exile lasted for three years of the series, but was broken on occasion when a covert wing of the Time Lords would send him on specific missions in the TARDIS to other worlds. Most of his time was spent on Earth assisting UNIT in various crises.

The most important new villain of this period was the introduction of the character seen in the Fox movie, the Master, a rival Time Lord with a death wish against the Doctor and bent on universal domination. His favorite tactics included manipulating the ignorant, hypnotism, disguises, and a gun that after killing its victim only left behind a doll-sized corpse (later to be known as the Tissue Compression Eliminator).

The series' tenth anniversary saw the first meeting between the Doctor and his past lives, engineered by the Time Lords in a last ditch attempt to save themselves from being drained by a black hole (by getting the Doctors to stop the renegade Time Lord behind it). At the conclusion of this story, the Doctor's exile was lifted, and he was once again free to travel where he pleased, though he still returned to Earth on occasion to help out UNIT.

After a total of five years on the show, Jon Pertwee decided to make his exit, and with the UNIT concept now beginning to age, the next regeneration saw a new Doctor whose wanderlust and general air of goofiness led to the phasing out of UNIT stories altogether. This was the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker.

Tom Baker's Doctor is very difficult to describe. It's best to see him at work, but his principal traits are a vast sense of humor, vast intelligence, at times an aloofness from humans, a sweet tooth for jelly babies, a twenty foot long scarf, and a deep, strong streak of morality. Tom Baker also holds the record for a Doctor's longevity, with seven full years of the series under his belt. His era is so long that it is often subdivided into two or three sub-eras owing to the different styles that his three main producers applied. The first era is best described as Gothic horror, and lasted three years. It featured a lot of 'borrowing" from classic horror tales and has a constant atmosphere of evil that's not pulling punches, but Tom's Doctor lightens this to a great extent. Such was the effectiveness of the production at this time that protests broke out from Britian's National Viewers and Listeners Association (run by a Mrs. Mary Whitehouse) on the grounds that it was much too violent for its time-slot. If Mrs. Whitehouse were to watch American prime-time television for ten seconds she'd have a coniption fit, but in the UK, violence is under much greater restriction. (on the other hand, sex and swearing have more freedom by and large than US TV does)

As a result of these protests, the new producer was given an edict to lessen the violence content and to increase the humor. This second era of more humor-driven stories also lasts three years. The general consenus among fans is that this one of the series' low points because the cast and crew look like they're not taking the series seriously, although the second of the three years is largely better than the other two.

The third producer, who worked on Tom's last year and then on every year of the rest of the series, was John Nathan-Turner, and he immediately reversed this trend and went for a much more glossy and professional look to the show and this was mirrored by his new writers who moved back to telling serious stories. After seven years, Tom was tired of the entire thing and decided it was time to be moving on to other things.

The Tom Baker era largely stayed clear of past monsters and villains, with four major exceptions. One of these was the further development of a new alien race called the Sontarans, one of whom had been seen in a story of Jon Pertwee's last year. They are a totally militaristic race of clones whose rapid breeding and equally rapid tactics are totally devoted to an eternal war with another alien race, the Rutans, a more cautious race of green blobs with shapeshifting abilities.

The next development started in a story called "Genesis of the Daleks," in which the Time Lords send the Doctor back in time to Skaro to attempt to avert the Daleks' creation, for they have forseen a time when the Daleks may indeed rule the universe. The Doctor fails at this, managing only to delay their development for a thousand years, but the most important insight in this story was the introduction of the Daleks' creator Davros, whom was spoken of already above.

The third development regards the Time Lords and the Master. This took place on the Time Lords' home world Gallifrey, making this the first story to take place entirely there. In a story called "The Deadly Assassin" it is revealed that the Time Lords are a lot more bureaucratic and impotent than we had known before this, and in some respects quite corrupt. Most of them have forgotten even what powers their civilization, a black obelisk beneath their Capitol called the Eye of Harmony in which the Time Lord founder Rassilon imprisoned the nucleus of a black hole to give Gallifrey an eternal and near limitless supply of energy. The Master attempted to gain access to it via an assassination of the Time Lord President so that he could restart his regeneration cycle, having wasted all his lives and now existing as a kind of walking corpse. (we saw the Master trying to do this same thing in the new Fox movie, using the link to the Eye of Harmony in the Doctor's TARDIS to steal the Doctor's remaining lives.) A second story set on Gallifrey the next year saw the planet invaded by the Sontarans and their agents the Vardans, apparantly with the Doctor's help, but this was in reality a trap he had set for these aliens so that they couldn't try it with someone less virtuous in the future.

The fourth development lasted an entire season, and saw the Doctor searching the universe for the six disguised segments of an omnipotent object called the Key to Time, which are required by a being called the White Guardian so that the entire universe can be stopped in time, allowing him to restore the proper balances between order and chaos. His opposite, the Black Guardian, lies in wait over the final segment in an attempt to seize the Key for himself and set the universe at war with itself. The Doctor successfully assembles the Key and then shortly disperses it to prevent the Black Guardian getting it, and also to free the living person who was the sixth segment. To escape the Black Guardian's wrath, the Doctor then sets the TARDIS on random journeys for the next year, but his discarding of the randomizing device would get him into trouble in his next life.

The events leading to the Doctor's next death and regeneration also saw the return of the Master, now having stolen the body of another man for his own to continue to survive and threaten the universe. The Master in fact causes the Fourth Doctor to fall from the gantry of a large radio telescope, killing him. It is the end, but the moment has been prepared for, as a mysterious almost translucent figure called the Watcher who has been following the Doctor throughout the story merges with the Doctor to complete a regeneration, the Watcher having been a projection of the Doctor's next life.

The Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, is the youngest man to have ever played the Doctor, which he did for three years. Davison's Doctor is usually called the "reckless innocent," for his propensity to jump into trouble with little or no caution, and he did not always have a way out again. He has also been called the "gentle Doctor," seeming to be the most polite of the Doctors while at other times he would regain the tetchiness of the Hartnell incarnation. His quirks included a love of the sport called cricket (for which his costume is partly based), running a lot, and a stick of celery in his lapel. The principal developments of Davison's era were the returns of various monsters that had not been seen in many years, the most successful of these being the return of the Cybermen, which also saw one of the Doctor's greatest defeats in that his travelling companion Adric was killed at the end. The Guardians also returned, with the Black Guardian recruiting a young man to infiltrate the TARDIS crew and kill the Doctor, only to be foiled when he can't bring himself to do it. The Master made numerous appearances, and Davros and the Daleks had a particularly brutal return. The top of all these return appearances was when just about all the major villains and companions accompanied nearly all the previous Doctors in the 20th Anniversary Special, "The Five Doctors."

The most original villains seen in this period were the reptilian Terileptils, and a mental force called the Mara that takes the form of a snake and possesses people in the hopes of regaining physical form. Davison chose to do only three years of the series on the advice of Patrick Troughton for the same reasons he had: to avoid typecasting. Thus, in the 1984 story "The Caves of Androzani," the Doctor is poisoned by a substance called spectrox on the planet Androzani Minor. He gives the last of the cure to his companion Peri, and he himself dies and regenerates.

The Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, was decidedly the most unstable of the Doctors, with wild mood swings and a very loud voice. His trademark clashing-colors coat was in keeping with this idea that his psyche had been scrambled a bit by the latest regeneration.

This approach to the part was the first to be not entirely embraced by the public and the fans, for although his unpleasantness was very like Hartnell's, his relative youth didn't give him the excuse for being tetchy that Hartnell had. Near the end of his first year, these tendencies in his character were being softened, but the top BBC executives decided that the show should be placed on a 18 month hiatus while the series was rethought. Their brief was to lessen the violence in the show that had seemed to increase with the arrival of the new Doctor. (Some of us don't really know what they were talking about or what was wrong in the first place, but this is what they said at the time.)

The following year saw the series shortened to half the normal length, and all the stories were linked together into under the "Trial of a Time Lord" umbrella, which saw the Doctor being placed on trial again by the Time Lords and charged with interference in the affairs of other worlds. By far the biggest revelation of the Trial was that the prosecuting counsel, the Valeyard, was in fact a future incarnation of the Doctor that was a "distillation of all that is evil" in the Doctor, and apparantly the in-between projection of the 12th and 13th Doctors.

Ratings for the new season were very bad (though the horrible time slot didn't help), thus BBC executives decided not to renew Colin Baker's contract, and after just over two years, the Sixth Doctor's era was over, just when it was getting really good.

This Trial season also saw a major rift between the producer and the head writer (or "script editor" in BBC terms), causing the writer to leave in a huff at a critical moment.

The next year was the debut of Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor, and with a new script editor in place, the series went at first in the direction of more humor again, but this soon changed in favor of a more mysterious and New Age style that attempted to put the "Who" back in "Doctor Who" by presenting stories that suggested the Doctor had origins and did things in his distant past that we'd never known of before. Chief among these revelations were his involvement with a living metal statue capable of vast destruction that had been created as a Gallifreyan defence system of last resort, and his posession of an artefact known as the Hand of Omega that could manipulate and customize the cores of stars. How he had got hold of both of these is anyone's guess.

The other major progression for the series at this point was the introduction of a truly three-dimensional female companion, a teenager called Ace who led a very troubled life in suburban London and was mysteriously whisked away in time and space to where the Doctor met her, a place called Iceworld. Near the end of his third year it was revealed that she was one of the Wolves of Fenric, a group of people who down many centuries had been touched by the Curse of Fenric. Fenric was a powerful evil force from before the dawn of Time whom the Doctor once imprisoned in a flask, and his Curse was meant to assemble a group of people who could release him and solve the puzzle with which the Doctor had trapped him in the first place.

The final story of the entire original series was called "Survival" and aired in December of 1989, and saw the return of the Master, this time marooned on a living planet where the people were Cheetah-like and linked empathically to the world they lived on. They would teleport across the universe to hunt and then return home. The Master was mutating into a Cheetah himself, and it is perhaps a remnant of some of the abililites he gained in this story that allowed him his new powers in the new Fox movie.

In 1990, the conservative Parliament decreed that the publicly financed BBC be downsized so that it could only make 25% of its programs in-house. All other series would have to be made by outside production companies, and the accompanying diminishment of in-house resources mean that the BBC was no longer capable of producing a complex series like "Doctor Who," and until the deal with Fox and Universal, no outside producers were willing to make the series under the terms the BBC was offering. (they had wanted the production company to pay for a lot of it and not share in the merchandising)

The series had already achieved a certain level of cult success in the late 1970s and 1980s thanks to the syndication of episodes to stations in America. In most cases this was to PBS stations, for they were most able to cope with a) its Britishness and b) its odd format. "Doctor Who" was made to a very different pattern than American series are. Each single episode is only 25 minutes long, and it ends on a cliffhanger. Several of these episodes form a short serial of usually 4 to 6 parts, at which point the serial ends and the Doctor and the companions get into the TARDIS and go to another place and time for the next serial. One episode would be shown a week in the UK. PBS stations usually showed the series with the episodes edited together to form a 90 minute or 2 hour 20 minute movie, causing headaches for the time slotters since serial lengths vary within each season (but most often in the 60s and early 70s serials). The biggest upside to this format was, however, much more complex and almost cinematic plots since there was so much more time to tell a story in. This is one reason why many fans would prefer to see more movies rather than a regular series since this would mean the plots could stay as long as they traditionally were.

I hope that this answers many questions, and if you have more, feel free to post them. Someone here will know the right answer, and everyone else will enjoy arguing over the wrong ones. :)

stevenma@pressenter.com manfred@stdata.stsci.edu

Update: 2005

The BBC has started to produce a new series of Doctor Who, starring Christopher Eccleston as the 9th incarnation. Between the time of the last of the original series (Sylvester McCoy's Doctor in 1989), and this new series, there has been a steady production of fiction about the Doctor and some of his travelling companions. These have been in the form of books, currently produced by the BBC, as well as other products such as CDs, that have added to the Doctor's history, though some fans don't bother with the books or CDs. Some of the events that have taken place in the books have appeared in the new series, though they are not critical for some one to know all of the details about them to enjoy the show. Afterall, the Doctor's history and past were pretty much unknown throughout the many years he was on TV, so a little mystery is not unusual.

The new Doctor is quite a bit different from the other ones, and the show is much more "adult" than the original childrens production. The format is also different. There are 13 45-minute episodes for the 2005 series. It appears that the shows are very successful in the UK and it will be renewed for the 2006 season, though the actor portraying the Doctor is leaving.

For information on the latest season of Doctor Who, check the following websites -