Doctor Who 101

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Our friends at have posted a Doctor Who primer so good, that I thought I’d post it here also:

Doctor Who‘s the highest rated show in BBC America’s history, and the time-traveling alien is such an icon, people are calling for him to be Britain’s new patron saint. But what’s Doctor Who really about? How can you appreciate it?

It may sound daunting when you hear that Doctor Who is closing in on its 50th anniversary in just a few years. It’s a long, sprawling saga, with characters and creatures that turn up again and again. How can you possibly understand what’s going on, without watching classic episodes like “Rider From Shang-Tu,” “The Snows Of Terror,” “The Day Of Armageddon” and “Horse Of Destruction”? (Those are all individual titles from the show’s early episodes.)

The good news is, Doctor Who has a pretty simple format, and usually keeps all of the backstory under wraps. The other good news is, when the show was relaunched in 2005, it was a pretty clean break, so you can just start watching with the first episodes of “Series One,” starring Christopher Eccleston. You can even start from scratch with the first episodes of the current season, starring Matt Smith — which has only aired one episode so far in the U.S.

Once you’ve watched the current series, if you want to start delving back into the “classic” series, which ran on BBC from 1963 through 1989, that’s pretty easy too.

That said, Doctor Who is a show with a rich universe, and a lot of quirky traits have been added over the years. If you want to get more out of the show, it’s helpful to know a bit more about what’s going on.

1. It’s about a man in a time machine.

At its most elemental, Doctor Who is a story that’s been around for a lot longer than 50 years. The Doctor travels around in a time machine, just like H.G. Wells’ time traveler. The main differences are, the Doctor is an alien, and his time machine also travels through space. (It’s called the TARDIS, which stands for “Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.”)

The Doctor’s time machine is in the shape of a police telephone box, which would have been a common sight in 1960s London. The idea was that something totally ordinary and everyday could turn out to have amazing wonders inside — but the show’s been on so long, Police Boxes are no longer commonplace, and in fact the police lost the trademark for the boxes to the BBC. According to the show’s lore, the TARDIS is supposed to change its appearance to blend in with its surroundings, but the TARDIS has gotten stuck as a Police Box. The Doctor repaired this feature at one point, but it didn’t take.

Because a police box is pretty cramped inside, the TARDIS is actually much bigger inside than out — the current version is pretty palatial, in fact. The inside of the TARDIS is often portrayed as a kind of maze. The relationship between the inside and the outside of the TARDIS is actually pretty complicated, and changes a lot from story to story. The TARDIS exterior gets referred to pretty often as a “shell,” and it’s implied that it’s just a kind of projection into our universe from the null-space in the time/space vortex where the TARDIS interior lives. Thus, in theory, the TARDIS exterior is “indestructible” — except when the story calls for it to be vulnerable to attack. Also, nothing can get inside the TARDIS except by using the Doctor’s special key. (Unless the story requires otherwise.)

How the TARDIS travels is also a tad inconsistent. Sometimes, it appears as though the TARDIS moves through the “time/space vortex,” outside of normal space. That’s how the TARDIS can disappear in 19th Century London and reappear, moments later, in 29th. Century Alpha Centauri. But at other times, the TARDIS seems to be “flying” through space. Perhaps it does both. The main thing to know about the TARDIS is that it can disappear in one time and place, and reappear in another, and its interior appears not to be in the “real” world.

The TARDIS also has magical abilities, beyond its capacity to jump through time and space. The Doctor often claims the TARDIS is “alive,” and it seems to have regenerated itself like a living organism in the first Matt Smith episode. The TARDIS communicates telepathically with the Doctor, and his tendency to arrive someplace just as the green blobs are about to hit the fan seems to come partly from the TARDIS’ desire to give him interesting adventures. The TARDIS also allows the Doctor and his companions to speak the language wherever they’re visiting — unless the Doctor’s out of commission. And (some) fancy weapons won’t work inside the TARDIS.

The Doctor often claims not to have read the TARDIS instruction manual, and it’s been hinted that there’s a lot he doesn’t know about it. It’s also an out-of-date model, a “Type 40 Travel Capsule,” and probably should have been junked long ago. The Doctor stole the TARDIS from his home planet (more on that later) and apparently nabbed it when it was being repaired — a job the Doctor has since attempted to complete, with mixed results.

2. The Doctor is obsessed with Earth, and kidnaps Earthlings.

Actually, when we first meet the Doctor, he doesn’t seem to like Earth much. He’s stuck in 1960s London because his time machine has broken down. By some weird coincidence, the Doctor looks like one of us, despite being from the planet Gallifrey. While he’s stuck on Earth, he enrolls his granddaughter, Susan, in an Earth school, but this attracts the wrong kind of attention from curious Earthlings. (And yes, as far as we know, she really is his granddaughter.)

Two teachers from Susan’s school decide to investigate her background, and wind up seeing the inside of the TARDIS. The Doctor decides he can’t risk having them tell anyone about his time machine, so he kidnaps the two teachers, Ian and Barbara. (He’s a paranoid psycho in the early episodes.) Soon, the Doctor feels bad about abducting the two teachers, so he tries to take them home. But because he can’t control his time machine, he winds up visiting Earth in its past and occasionally future, but never quite hitting 1960s London again.

Something about these repeated visits to Earth must have a profound impact on the Doctor, because he becomes obsessed with the place. Even after he gets the two teachers home, he keeps visiting Earth all the time, and he starts inviting other humans to travel with him. (Or in some cases, they force themselves on him.) Some of these relationships seem ultra-casual, consisting of a handful of adventures together, but others become really intense, with the Doctor and his traveling companion learning a lot from each other. They’re usually female, but have also been male, or robots. Some of them have also been aliens, who just happened to look human, and in one case he traveled with another member of his own race.

We’ve also recently met a woman, named River Song, who has had a lot of adventures with the Doctor — but due to the vagaries of time travel, he hasn’t experienced them yet.

The more time the Doctor spends on Earth, the more he shapes the history of our planet. At this point, alien war machines should have crushed our world hundreds of times over, in the distant past as well as recent history. The Doctor won’t change who won the Battle of Hastings, but he’s very happy to prevent potato-headed clone warriors from cooking the entire planet. As he says in “The Eleventh Hour,” he’s put a lot of work into this planet. So much so, that when his own race needed to strand him someplace for a few years to punish him for his arrogance, they chose Earth.

He’s also become so indispensible in times of crisis, he’s well known to the world’s governments. And he’s got a longstanding relationship with a paramilitary United Nations task force on aliens called UNIT, which he worked for more or less full-time for a while. The British government also created a secret organization called Torchwood, partly to cope with alien menaces and partly to keep tabs on the Doctor.

So the Doctor has gone from a reluctant visitor to Earth to referring to our world as his favorite planet. And it often seems like he has some reason, other than sentimentality, for keeping the Earth from harm. Something to do with our role in the future of the universe, which he wants to safeguard.

3. The Doctor’s own people were bastards.

The fonder the Doctor’s gotten of Earth, the more we’ve learned that there’s not much to like about his own race, the Time Lords. For the first six years of the show, we don’t know much about the Doctor’s background except that he was on the run from his own people. Since then, we’ve learned a lot, much of it a bit contradictory.

So here’s what you can piece together from studying all the TV episodes. (Forget the books and audio plays — they’ll just make your head spin.) The Doctor comes from an ancient race of Gallifreyans, who discovered the ability to control time itself, thanks to two people: Omega, a “stellar engineer” who detonated a star as a source of power, and Rassilon, who learned to harness the power of a black hole. Omega got trapped in the anti-matter universe as a result of his experiments, but Rassilon survived and went on to be the founder of Time Lord society.

At first, the Time Lords were arrogant and toyed with lesser species, trying to reshape the universe to their liking. They meddled everywhere, and also kidnapped lesser species to take part in gladitorial games for their amusement. And then they repented, deciding only to observe the universe and never to interfere.

The Doctor found this policy boring, and thus he decided to steal one of their time machines and take a more active role in the universe. A number of other Time Lords decided to leave Gallifrey and go live elsewhere, including a handful of them hiding out on Earth — and a few, such as the Doctor’s friend the Master, turned evil and decided to subvert/conquer the universe. Meanwhile, it seems as though an influential group of his fellow Time Lords also disagreed with the non-intervention thing, so they started using the Doctor as their unofficial agent/scapegoat. (There are even jokes about a secret Time Lord organization called the Celestial Intervention Agency, or C.I.A., sending the Doctor on missions.)

The longer the Time Lords wielded absolute power over the universe, the more corrupt they got, until they were screwing around with entire planets for petty reasons. The Doctor kept rebelling against his own people over and over, until the Time Lords got into a huge war against the ultimate war machines, the Daleks. (More on them below.) And something about the war brought out the power-madness and viciousness of the Time Lords. They became just as great monsters as the creatures they were fighting against. Led, apparently, by their original founder Rassilon, they hatched a scheme to destroy the entire universe and ascend to become beings of pure energy outside of creation.

The Doctor destroyed his own race and the Daleks at the same time, in a huge conflagration at the end of the Time War. And that event is locked in time, so that nothing and nobody can escape from it. The Time Lords tried to, at one point, but they were unsuccessful. As for the Daleks, well, they’ve had better luck.

4. The Doctor fights post-humans and warmongers.

The Doctor’s most enduring enemies, the Daleks and the Cybermen, are both post-human cyborgs.

In the case of the Daleks, they’re also war machines, and clearly intended to be Nazis. The Daleks started out as a humanoid race called the Kaleds, who’d endured thousands of years of total war against another human race, the Thals. The Kaleds believed themselves to be the superior race, and wanted nothing less but to wipe the Thals off the face of their home planet, Skaro. The nuclear and biological weapons used in the war caused the Kaleds to mutate into hideous green blobs, a process that their main scientist, Davros, accelerated to see where it would end up. These mutations could only live inside of metal armor, which protects them and helps them in their quest to wipe out all inferior forms of life from the universe. (I.e., all other life.) And the racist, xenophobic Daleks are frequently portrayed using Nazi imagery.

The Daleks are basically super-tanks with little green monsters inside — but something about their relentless hatred for everyone who’s not a Dalek makes them unstoppable. The Time Lords only decided to start challenging the Daleks after they visualized a possible future in which the Daleks had won, succeeding in wiping out all other creatures.

The Cybermen, meanwhile, started out as actual humans, not just humanoids. (They’re either from an alternate Earth, or from Earth’s twin planet. It doesn’t matter which.) They’re a cautionary tale about the dangers of abandoning humanity — they started out just replacing internal organs and limbs with metal and plastic, but over time, they’ve replaced most of their bodies and brains with artificial parts. Along the way, they’ve abandoned our human emotions for pure (more or less) logic. Unlike the Daleks, they’re not hateful or malevolent, just ruthless.

And a lot of other nightmares the Doctor’s faced over the years have involved people losing their humanity and becoming either part-alien, part-machine, or something less than fully human.

A lot of the show’s other recurring threats are warriors, one way or another. The Sontarans are a cloned race who are obsessed with warfare, and they’ve been fighting the same war for thousands of years. The Ice Warriors are a noble race of lizard warriors (as their name implies) who are either from Mars or hung out there a lot. (And they like it cold.) There are also the Silurians and Sea Devils, a reptilian race who lived during the era of the dinosaurs, but then put themselves into suspended animation under the Earth’s surface, waiting for the planet to become hospitable again.

Since the show has come back, it’s introduced a few recurring monsters. There are the Slitheen, who are basically big evil babies who can hide themselves inside of humans — but only if the humans are fat, and even then there’s a lot of farting involved in the process. Oh, and the Slitheen are capitalist scam artists. And then there are the Weeping Angels, who appear to be stone statues, but they can move when you’re not looking. And they can zap you through time, into the past, feeding off all of the potential energy of the life you’re not going to have as a result.

There are also the Judoon, who are basically very literal-minded, stupid police officers who have a tendency to take extreme measures in the pursuit of justice. And the Ood, a race of telepaths who have one internal and one external brain — and who were mutilated and kept as slaves by the human race.

5. Other stuff it might come in handy to know.

The Doctor has the ability to “regenerate” his body instead of dying. (This was developed as a way to change the show’s lead actor when the original star, William Hartnell, left in 1966.) The Doctor can “die” and be reborn with a new face, up to 12 times, before he runs out of bodies. So he has two bodies left, after his current incarnation.

The Doctor also has two hearts, and a “respiratory bypass system” that can allow him to survive without breathing. He can also hypnotize other people to survive without breathing, but has only ever done this once.

The Doctor’s somewhat eccentric, and often acts as though he doesn’t quite know how to behave among present-day Earthlings.

The Doctor is pretty obsessed with gadgets, chief among them his “sonic screwdriver,” which can do almost anything the story requires. He also sometimes carries “psychic paper” that can look like any type of credentials he might need. And he’s been known to build an insanely sophisticated machine out of a wine cork and a few bits of string on occasion.

The Doctor is very into his identity as a scientist, even though he also received failing grades in the Time Lord Academy. He’s not very patient with stupidity or cruelty. His usual cheerful silliness drops away when he’s confronted with terrible injustice, at which point he reveals a savage temper.

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