clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Everything you ever wanted to know about Doctor Who, but were too embarrassed to ask

Peter Capaldi settles into his second season as The Doctor.
Peter Capaldi settles into his second season as The Doctor.
BBC America
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

A new season of Doctor Who — the ninth since the series' revival in 2005 — begins Saturday, September 19, on BBC America at 9 pm Eastern. The British sci-fi institution — which ran from 1963 to 1989 in in its initial incarnation — commands a legion of fans all over the world, who await Saturday's new episode with feverish anticipation.

There's good reason for this: This premiere features not just the debut of a new season, but also the return of the latest Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, one of the best actors of his generation and someone who once seemed a decidedly odd choice for the role. The Doctor has been played by men of Capaldi's age — 56 — before; until now, he had never been played by a man whose best-known role was as foul-mouthed as Capaldi's role on British political sitcom The Thick of It.

But Capaldi has proved an enormously capable Doctor, giving a tremendously funny, occasionally manic performance that also taps into the character's rage issues. He's worth checking out. The show itself is struggling, but there's plenty of great stuff in its past worth catching up on.

You may be vaguely aware of Doctor Who, but you also might feel intimidated by just how much history there is to the show, and feel like you'd have to watch 34 seasons of television to get caught up. To which we would say a.) don't and b.) you couldn't even if you wanted to.

To that end, consider this quick guide to the world of Who.

Who is Doctor Who?

He's the Doctor, that's who!

You're the worst

Right, but that's the joke. Get it? The character is known only as "the Doctor," and thus, the title of the show is a question: Doctor Who?! But nobody really has asked that question since, like, season one of the show, so you'd be forgiven for thinking this an elaborate, medical-themed riff on the "Who's on First" routine.

So who's the Doctor, then?

He's a time-traveling alien from the planet Gallifrey. He makes his way through all of space and time in a spaceship/time machine shaped like a British police box (think of a blue phone booth). This vehicle is called the TARDIS, which is short for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. It should be able to assume any form but somehow broke and got stuck on the police box. The TARDIS is larger on the inside than it appears to be on the outside, and it's the greatest vehicle known to man (or alien).

The Doctor and the TARDIS are the two constants of the program, even if the former has been played officially by 12 different actors. (He's also been played by other actors in other instances, but let's not wander too far into the weeds here.)

Doctor Who

The first 11 Doctors (BBC)

Hold up now, really?

When original Doctor William Hartnell was ailing toward the end of his run on the show, the series' producers hit upon something ingenious: Since the Doctor was an alien, he could appear to "die," then stand right up as another actor. This was known as the Doctor's "regeneration."

Hartnell was replaced by Patrick Troughton, and a terrific way to periodically refresh the program was discovered. (For more on Hartnell and the early days of Doctor Who, check out 2013's excellent TV movie An Adventure in Space and Time.) Matt Smith regenerated into Peter Capaldi at the end of December 2013's Christmas special.

Doctor Who

Peter Capaldi is the new Doctor. (BBC America)

What's the show like?

Generally, the Doctor and a human companion (at present, Jenna Coleman's Clara) fly around the universe, having sci-fi adventures. Different writers on the show like different things, some enjoying epic science-fiction, with others liking to explore the show's roots as a children's educational program. (The Doctor was a time traveler so he could show kids earlier eras.)

Current showrunner Steven Moffat loves complicated puzzles, and his seasons have been filled with intricate structures that reveal themselves at the last possible moment. Then the Doctor points his sonic screwdriver at something. Moffat loves the idea of the Doctor as the smartest, cleverest being who ever has lived, and his seasons of the show reflect that idea. The puzzles can be fun, but his seasons can occasionally feel like he's pushing the characters around on a giant board to achieve his various ends.

Moffat's predecessor, Russell T. Davies, was fond of big, emotional gestures, and that meant he would conclude episodes or seasons with moments when, say, everybody resurrected the Doctor just by believing in him. Every writer makes his or her mark on the show and the character, which only adds to the series' popularity. The endless malleability is part of the appeal.

This show sounds kind of hokey

It's definitely the sort of show that can be hard to explain without making it sound silly. Doctor Who started as a series for kids, and it has kept at least one toe in that world ever since.

What keeps the series from going too far over the top is that it always commits to what it's trying to do. It might be doing something unbelievably corny, but everybody involved really cares about the situations and characters on screen. It helps that the Doctor is such an institution that every actor who plays the role brings prior associations with the character to their portrayal.

But the show also isn't hokey, ultimately, because it carries with it the ultimate blank canvas. A Doctor Who story can, essentially, be about anything. The potential for the show's setting is limitless, which is what makes it so enduring.

Doctor Who

Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor (center) and his companions face down the Daleks in an earlier episode. (BBC America)

What about the little salt shaker guys who say "EXTERMINATE!"?

You're talking about Daleks, a species of merciless killing machines and the Doctor's greatest foe. Watching Capaldi yell at Daleks is a highlight of his tenure.

Do people have allegiances to particular Doctors?

Hello and welcome to the Internet. Of course they do.

Probably the most beloved Doctor — and certainly the longest-running — is Tom Baker, who played the Fourth Doctor and wore a fancy scarf. But nearly every Doctor has his adherents. Since the series was revived in 2005, all three actors who have regularly played the Doctor — Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith — have their fans.

Doctor Who

Matt Smith (left) and David Tennant teamed up for the 50th anniversary special. (BBC America)

Has anybody other than a white guy played the Doctor?

No, and every new Doctor that's revealed to be a white dude prompts greater and greater irritation with this fact. That reached a fever pitch before Capaldi's tenure was announced, and it didn't really go away, even when a much-loved actor like Capaldi was named to the role. Showrunner Steven Moffat didn't help matters, which speaks to some of his seasons' larger issues with roles for women.

So Moffat's seasons have come under fire?

Somewhat. Doctor Who always comes in for criticism, sometimes because of legitimate problems and sometimes because Doctor Who fans are intensely devoted to their program of choice. But the issues critics and fans have raised with Moffat's female characters are particularly troubling.

Moffat's a sterling storyteller, and his seasons have ingenious clockwork structures that the Doctor has to deduce. But this means that for the most part, his female characters (usually the companions, but also River Song, a love interest for the Doctor) are reduced from human beings who drive the story forward to plot devices the Doctor has to figure out.

Moffat writes superficially strong women, who have facility with a quip and are able to think their way out of sticky situations, but they also tend to be reduced to damsels in distress when it comes right down to it, and they react to hugely emotional situations — like, say, having their child taken from them — in largely unbelievable ways.

The question is whether this is specifically a problem with Moffat's writing for women or more a problem with his writing of characters who aren't the Doctor, and it would seem to skew more toward the latter. For one thing, Moffat has written interesting, believable female characters on other shows, like his much-loved sitcom Coupling. For another, Moffat clearly just really loves the Doctor and seemingly would prefer to write only for him a lot of the time.

Okay, so... 34 seasons of television. How much of this do I actually have to watch?

Well, 97 episodes of the original series are lost to us, thanks to the BBC recording over them. We have audio tapes of them, which have been matched to production stills, but it's not the same, is it? So you can't watch all of Doctor Who. And you might not want to anyway.

This leaves you with three options.

  • Pick and choose episodes from the first 26 seasons, then dive into the new show: There are plenty of people out there who will offer you opinions on those first 26 seasons, and you can get a nice overview of every single Doctor before watching the new series. Several highlights from the earlier show are available on Netflix.
  • Just start with the new series: Yeah, there are eight seasons (and a weird mini-season of specials made with Tennant), but none of them is very long, and they go by quickly. Plus, the first episode tells you everything you need to know to enjoy the show. It's all on Netflix.
  • Start with the new episode on Saturday: Doctor Who has serialized elements, but rarely ones that are difficult to follow across seasons. Generally, a new season is a great time to hop on board.

Do you have some episodes I should watch before Saturday's premiere?

We're going to go with five from the new series. Episodes from the older series are generally best worked into after indulging in the more modern show.

  • "Father's Day": This terrific installment from Eccleston's first and only season reflects how well Davies handled the problems and sorrows of the companions.
  • "The Girl in the Fireplace": Moffat wrote this one-off during Davies' tenure, and it's a lovely, moving romance told in one hour, with time travel as the unifying element.
  • "Midnight": Another Davies episode features Tennant at his best and a great, involving conceit straight out of The Twilight Zone.
  • "Vincent and the Doctor": Smith's Eleventh Doctor runs into Vincent Van Gogh in a lovely tale of art, depression, and commerce.
  • "The Doctor's Wife": An ingenious episode written by acclaimed author Neil Gaiman reveals the true identity of the woman in the title.

Doctor Who

Jenna Coleman plays Clara. (BBC America)

Have you seen the new season premiere?

Yes! And it has its problems.

Though Capaldi remains a terrific Doctor, Moffat's approach to the show increasingly feels like having the Doctor Who Wiki read to you at an alarming speed. Since Clara's there, she can ask all the same questions the audience might have, but it still feels as if Moffat is spinning his wheels just a little bit, trapped in a long series of puzzles of his own invention. (At one point, the Doctor enters a gladiatorial arena on a tank, playing an electric guitar, seemingly because someone involved in the show saw Mad Max: Fury Road.) The new series has rather beaten the Daleks to death, but this premiere features many, many more of them. It all feels like an endless retread.

But if you're the kind of person who thinks they might like Doctor Who, then you are almost certainly someone who will like Doctor Who, warts and all. And complaining about the show's current direction is a time-honored tradition within the fandom, as you'd expect for a show with 34 seasons of history behind it. Go ahead and hop on board the bandwagon.

Doctor Who

Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi star in Doctor Who. (BBC America)

Last one: Has anyone ever tried to remake this in America?

Sort of. The Eighth Doctor was a one-off TV movie character whom Moffat resurrected for a short to celebrate the Doctor's 50th anniversary last year. Played by Paul McGann, he was British, sure, but he was meant to be the lead of a new series to air on Fox, rather than the BBC, and that TV movie (from 1996) was the pilot for that prospective series. Fortunately, nobody seemed too interested in a Doctor Who that would be an American co-production, so we didn't have to bear the indignity of this show being on Fox.

They would have canceled it anyway

Yeah, you're probably right.

The new season of Doctor Who debuts Saturday, September 19, on BBC America at 9 pm Eastern.