If you haven’t lived in another dimension or under a rock for the past 55 years, you’ve heard of Doctor Who or Dr. Who to the uninitiated. This BBC show is only one of the biggest science fiction phenomena on both sides of the ocean. And they’ve just made history — again.

Who is the Doctor? A Short History of Dr. Who

Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor Who with companions.

Image by BBC, via IMDb

The first Doctor Who ran on Britain’s BBC from 1963 to 1989. There was a long hiatus, from 1989 to 2005. But in 2006, the Doctor returned, and now the show is bigger than ever. The Doctor’s popularity over time is pretty incredible, but what’s even more amazing is how the creators manage to keep it fresh.

Dr. Who began as a family-friendly educational program. It originally used time travel to teach about scientific inventions and important moments in history. But in July of 1963, the show took a sharp turn. Novelist and comedy writer Terry Nation penned an episode featuring the Daleks, an aggressive alien race. It was a controversial move, and not everyone was happy with it. But the Daleks would become one of the most beloved villains in TV history. And as a result, Dr. Who would go from being an educational kids’ show to a science fiction legend.

How does the show manage to stay relevant? In part because the actors who play Dr. Who change often. When the First Doctor’s (William Hartnell’s) health declined, creators knew they would have to replace him. Writers had already established that the Doctor was an alien who could die and return in a new body. Writers took the idea and ran with it. As a result, at the end of Series 1, viewers watched the first doctor become the second. After that, the Doctor’s “regeneration” into a new actor became a regular feature of the show.

The Doctor Who Cast in a Nutshell

Although the cast members have changed during the past 55 years, the fundamental characters fall into a few expected tropes, including the Doctor, his companions and sidekicks, and his enemies.

The Doctor

The Second Doctor and his companion, Rose Tyler

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He’s not just a doctor; he’s THE Doctor. Addressed only by the title “Doctor,” no one knows what his real name is, hence the question: Doctor who?

The Doctor Who cast has featured twelve different Doctors so far, and every fan has their favorite. Some prefer the Fourth Doctor, the jovial Tom Baker, with his iconic hat and long, striped scarf. Others prefer the intense Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor. The brooding Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and the manic Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) are also favorites. Moreover, for character depth and sheer pathos, it’s hard to beat the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi).

In autumn 2018, the Thirteenth Doctor will make her appearance. Yes, you heard that right. For the first time in the show’s history, the Doctor will regenerate as a woman. And she will be played by the magnificent Jodie Whittaker.

The companions

Dr. Who and Martha, the first Black female companion

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Everyone needs a friend. By the same token, every doctor needs a companion. The first one was the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan. Then, later, “Vicky” joined the Doctor Who cast. The male lead / female sidekick formula dominated the show in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the Doctor has had companions of both genders, of different races, different socioeconomic classes — and even different species.

Some of the early companions included Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elizabeth Slayden, and the robotic dog K-9. Sarah Jane would be one of the longest-serving companions. She traveled with the doctor on and off from 1973 to 2010.

Dr. Who and Amy Pond

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Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) was the first companion of the newly relaunched show. Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) was also a beloved companion, as was Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie).

Jack Harkness and Sarah Jane were so popular, they even had their own shows after their tenure ended: Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, respectively.

The Master

The Master is a recurring character that has looped in and out of the Doctor’s adventures since 1971. Eight different actors have played the Master, including, most recently, Michelle Gomez, who went by the name of “Missy” (short for Mistress). The Master is a renegade Time Lord, and the Doctor’s archenemy. However, toward the end of the Twelfth Doctor’s time, their relationship became significantly more complex.

Dr. River Song

Dr. River Song, played by Alex Kingston, is another recurring character in the modern series. She made her debut as a mysterious archeologist who knew the Doctor in intimate ways, including his name, but the Doctor had no clue who she was. Doctor Who finally revealed River’s identity during the sixth series as Amy and Rory’s child, with a little surprise.

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Dr. Song transformed into a Time Lord in utero because her parents spent so much time in the T.A.R.D.I.S., but she also ends up eventually marrying the Doctor, and ending her time on the show in the episode, “The Husbands of River Song.” Or did she?  The show’s creator hints that we may see her again in a future episode. And considering it’s a series about time travel, anything is possible.

The T.A.R.D.I.S

The 12th Dr. Who and companion

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No discussion of Dr. Who would be complete without mentioning the Doctor’s sentient, time-traveling spaceship, the T.A.R.D.I.S. There are different explanations for what the acronym stands for. However, most people agree that it stands for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space. The T.A.R.D.I.S. takes the form of a blue British police box and draws its power from the nucleus of a black hole.

Some Beloved Doctor Who Episodes

If you want to get caught up, don’t miss these iconic episodes.

The Daleks (1963)

The Daleks are a protagonist of the original Dr. Who series.

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The Daleks marked the transition of Dr. Who from an educational kids’ show to a science fiction legend. It introduced the first villains, the Daleks, who, 55 five years later, continue to threaten the Doctor and the universe.

The Tenth Planet (1966)

This is the last episode of the first series. It’s important because viewers got to witness the Doctor’s regeneration for the first time. Fans said goodbye to the First Doctor, played by William Hartnell, and said hello to the Second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton.

Dalek (2005)

The first Dr. Who from the returning series in 2006.

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In this episode, the Ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston, discovers a Dalek that has escaped the Time War. It also marks the turning point in Doctor-Dalek relations. For the first time, we see a Dalek experience pain and emotions. And for the first time, the Doctor behaves in a cold, merciless way. In a chilling scene, the Dalek tells the Doctor that he would make a good Dalek.

Blink (2007)

This episode introduced viewers to one of the most frightening — and memorable — Dr. Who foes of all time: the Weeping Angels. The Weeping Angels look like cemetery statues. They can only move when you’re not looking at them. But they move very quickly. And when they catch up with a person, they send them back in time, then live off of the years that might have been. Blink appeared during David Tennant’s tenure as the Tenth Doctor. However, he wasn’t a major part of the plot of that episode.

The Day of the Doctor (2013)

The Day of the Doctor was the feature-length Dr. Who 50th anniversary extravaganza. Not only did it feature three doctors interacting with one another — the Tenth, the Eleventh, and the War Doctor (John Hurt) — it was also highly entertaining. The chemistry between Matt Smith and David Tennant made for some moments of high comic relief. The return of Billie Piper (as the companion, Rose) and Tom Baker (as the Fourth Doctor) was also a fan pleaser. Additionally, the drama of the war between the Daleks and the Doctor’s home planet was perfectly pitched.

Smile (2017)

A future cyberman from a Dr. Who episode.

Image CC 2.0 by avaragado, via Wikimedia Commons

Amid the drama, scary monsters, and deep themes, it’s important to have a little comic relief. This episode, which featured Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, was a little tale about technology run amok. In Smile, the Doctor and companion Bill travel to an earth colony, only to find that the earthlings are gone. The colony’s only inhabitants are robots that communicate through emojis. The Doctor and Bill receive badges that broadcast their emotions. Because of a bug in the program, if the badges do not consistently broadcast a happy face emoji, the robots, who interpret unhappiness as a disease, will kill them. Which is why the original earth colonists are no more.

The Newest Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor

The Thirteenth Dr. Who

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Recent Dr. Who series’ have introduced a lot of “firsts.” Companion Rose Tyler was the first working-class main character in series history. Likewise, Captain Jack Harkness was the first bisexual character. Additionally, the Tenth doctor’s companions, Martha Jones and Mickey Smith, were the first Black companions. And, starting in autumn of 2018, there will be another “first” — the first female doctor.

First, what will she be like? Serious like Peter Capaldi? Or, by contrast, lighthearted, like Matt Smith? Next, how will her first adventure unfold? Also, will she have a signature piece of clothing, like Matt Smith’s fez or Tom Baker’s scarf? Theories abound, but so far there are more questions than answers. Looks like fans will just have to wait.


Featured Image: By BBC, via IMDb