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An idiot’s guide to ‘Doctor Who’

During my time at the Hoot I have written quite a lot about “The Great British Bake Off,” its various spin-offs, and Shakespeare. Well, I have a new piece of British popular culture to add to my catalogue: “Doctor Who.” During quarantine, I watched every single piece of televised “Doctor Who” media ever made (including the stuff from the 1960s, and the various spin-off shows). In almost exactly two months, “Doctor Who” will be celebrating its 60th anniversary (it’s the oldest BBC show still on the air), so I have decided to write an article a week leading up to the release of the anniversary special. This week, I am going to discuss a very important question: what even is “Doctor Who” anyway?

The concept of “Doctor Who” is fairly straightforward. An alien who can travel anywhere in time and space goes around having adventures with some human companions along for the ride. The alien is called the Doctor. The companions rotate every couple of seasons or so. The show was the brainchild of Sydney Newman, the head of drama for the BBC from 1962-1969. Newman wanted a show that would keep children watching after the cartoons and get parents to the TV before the evening news. The solution was the then-maligned genre of science fiction. With young producer Verity Lambert at the helm, “Doctor Who” quickly went from being a scrappy little enterprise to a smash hit. It ran from 1963-1989, going through seven recastings of the Doctor, nine producers, and 26 seasons. The show was then canceled, and with the exception of a TV movie in 1996 and some very bad one-off specials, the show remained off the air until 2005. Then it was brought back with a more modern format, and the revived version of the show is still running today. So far, it has seen three showrunners, five Doctors (with a new one on the way), and 13 seasons.

You may have noticed that I mentioned multiple Doctors. That’s because in the lore of the show, the Doctor has the ability to regenerate into a new body. Think of it as a get-out-of-dying free card. The secret to the show’s longevity, along with just being good, is its ability to recast its leads constantly with a solid in-universe explanation.

I feel as though this is a good point to transition to talking about the main elements of “Doctor Who” lore generally. The first is, of course, the Doctor. The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. This just means that they are a powerful time-travelling alien from a planet of powerful time-travelling aliens. The Doctor’s backstory is that they stole a TARDIS and ran away from Gallifrey to see the universe.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “What on earth is a TARDIS?” 

I’m so glad you asked. TARDIS stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space and it is the Doctor’s time and space machine. Theoretically, TARDISes (TARDISi?) have the ability to blend in with their surroundings no matter the time and place. The Doctor’s TARDIS, however, is stuck looking like a 1960s police box due to a malfunction. Its appearance was a good idea in 1963, when police boxes were quite ubiquitous in England. Nowadays, people only know of them because of the TARDIS. Some more fun facts: the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than out, in one episode it takes human form, and in later seasons the Doctor can open the door by snapping their fingers.

Because the Doctor needs someone to travel with, they generally take a companion on board the TARDIS. Most commonly, companions are contemporary young women. Sometimes they are contemporary young men. A couple are historical (an 18th century Scot, a Victorian orphan), a couple are from the future, and a couple are aliens. One is even another Time Lord. Companions serve as audience surrogates, the heart of the show, and as easy characters to root for (usually). Generally, fans have very strong opinions about who the best Doctor and companion is.

The last thing I want to discuss is why you should care about “Doctor Who” in the first place. My answer is this: it is a very good show. Is it weird at times? Yes. Are the old episodes kind of painful to watch sometimes? Also yes. But what makes “Doctor Who” so good is its ability to do basically anything. One week you can be in ancient Rome, the next week you’re on a spaceship, and the next you’re in a parallel dimension. The companions, as well as their dynamic with the Doctor, gives the show its heart and makes it just as much a character piece as well as a sci-fi spectacle. “Doctor Who” has something for everyone, and now that you are armed with some basic knowledge, I encourage you to give the show a watch.

I will be back next week with this mini article series, where I will get a little more opinionated. Happy watching!

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