|British science-fiction drama series
|23rd November 1963 (original series)
12th May 1996 (TV movie)
26th March 2005 (current series)
C. E. Webber
|William Hartnell • Patrick Troughton
Jon Pertwee • Tom Baker
Peter Davison • Colin Baker
Sylvester McCoy • Paul McGann
Doctor Who is a British science-fiction television series which started in 1963 and was relaunched in 2005 following its original 26-year run on the BBC, plus a 1996 television movie. On television and in other media, it features the adventures of a time-traveller known as the 'Doctor', who journeys through time and space, righting wrongs and fighting injustice, usually accompanied by friends known to fans as 'companions'.
The programme has lasted since 1963 partly because the Doctor, who has an alien physiology, is able to 'regenerate' when badly injured, allowing the lead actor to be recast. As of 2022, thirteen successive actors have played the lead role in the television series, as listed in the panel on the right, with others appearing as additional Doctors and stand-ins in some programmes and in unofficial or alternative productions. His/her time machine, the TARDIS, is famously disguised as an old British police box and is bigger on the inside than out; some well-known adversaries include the Daleks - mutants inside pepperpot-shaped casings - and the Cybermen.
Doctor Who is executive-produced by Russell T. Davies, who took over from Chris Chibnall in 2022. Chibnall cast Jodie Whittaker as the first woman to play the Doctor in the official broadcast series. Her successor, David Tennant, returned to the role with Davies in 2022 for three forthcoming special episodes to celebrate the programme's 60th anniversary. Tennant previously played the Doctor from 2005 to 2009, and will be succeeded by Ncuti Gatwa in 2023. Gatwa will be the first non-white actor in the lead role, and is also the first to have been born after the original series ended in 1989.
Whittaker's predecessor, Peter Capaldi, took over at the end of 2013, and made a short cameo in the 50th anniversary special, Day of the Doctor, broadcast on 23rd November that year. Capaldi announced in January 2017 that he would step down from the role with the following special Christmas episode.
Currently, Doctor Who appears to have won a new generation of followers of varying ages: the UK children's magazine show Blue Peter, for example, reported that their 'Design a Doctor Who Monster' competition received the largest number of entries for any such event since 1993.
In the early 1960s, Doctor Who was the eventual product of a desire within the BBC to bring science fiction to the small screen. Something was also needed to plug a gap in the Saturday early evening schedules of sport and music programmes; Doctor Who was created by Sydney Newman, Donald Wilson and C.E. Webber, and produced by the BBC's drama department as a family viewing, intended to be educational and exciting. With Verity Lambert at the helm, William Hartnell was cast as the grandfatherly, enigmatic 'Doctor' and the series was first shown on 23rd November 1963.
Doctor Who initially endured a rough ride, though audiences seemed positive on the whole. The series was only intended to run for a few episodes, but all that changed with the second serial - The Daleks. Terry Nation's script ushered in the mid-sixties 'Dalekmania' craze, with millions of children and not a few older viewers taking the evil Daleks to heart. The Daleks secured the show's future, and over time, appeared more regularly both in the series and in two cinematic productions starring Peter Cushing. More aliens appeared in the programme as successive production teams took the TARDIS further out into time and space.
By 1966, changes were afoot as audience ratings began to decline. If the show was to survive, a new lead actor was required; ultimately the concept of a mysterious 'renewal' process, explained as part of the TARDIS, was shown to change the Doctor's physical appearance and, to some extent, his personality. Patrick Troughton first appeared as the Doctor in 1966; over the next few weeks, it became clear that audiences were warming to his portrayal of the Doctor as a dishevelled figure with a determination to overcome the terrors of the universe, and the series entered its so-called 'Monster Era', with more alien creatures appearing.
1969 saw Troughton's departure; his final episode saw the Doctor captured and put on trial by his own people, the 'Time Lords', accused of meddling in the affairs of other races. His sentence was exile to Earth and a second change of appearance, heralding another radical change for the series.
The early 1970s saw the first episodes of Doctor Who broadcast in colour - a move which certainly suited the flamboyant third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee as something of a dandy. This incarnation would emphasise the Doctor's love of technological wizardry and high-powered vehicles. Under outgoing producer Derrick Sherwin, the series moved to an Earth-based background where the Doctor would be aided by a military organisation known as the 'United Nations Intelligence Taskforce' (UNIT). However, new producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks found the UNIT format too restrictive, and so gradually steered the Doctor's adventures to ever-lengthier forays back out into time and space. The 1970s were also the years when critics of the programme increasingly labelled the programme as too violent and unsuitable for children.
In 1974, Pertwee moved on, and was succeeded by Tom Baker, then the youngest actor to take on the part. At 40, Baker would go on to become the best-remembered Doctor to date, playing the role for a record seven years and depicting the Doctor as a more 'bohemian' figure, usually clad in a long coat, wide-brimmed hat and trademark scarf. By this time, Doctor Who was a mainstay of Saturday-evening entertainment, regularly pulling in over ten million viewers a week, and towards the end of the decade had become notably more humour-driven and aimed at younger viewers. Change, as ever, was just around the corner.
John Nathan-Turner became the producer of Doctor Who in 1980, at the time of Baker's final season. 'JN-T' would go on to produce the programme right through the 1980s, and in 1981 cast the well-known actor Peter Davison as Baker's much younger successor. Nathan-Turner was determined to court the series' fans by bringing back old adversaries, and also introduced more unconventional companions that were a sharp contrast with the mostly female, human occupants that until then had made up the majority of TARDIS travellers.
Davison would ultimately decide that three years was enough, and Nathan-Turner again had to find a replacement, casting Colin Baker in 1984. Baker played a loud and unashamedly arrogant sixth Doctor, and would ultimately complete only two seasons. The BBC considered Doctor Who vulnerable against competition on other channels, and possibly too violent. Creative differences among the production team reached a low point at this stage. A decision was taken in 1985 to 'suspend' Doctor Who, with effect from early 1986, but a fan campaign backed up by the media ensured its return in late 1987, with Sylvester McCoy in the role. McCoy's early clownish seventh Doctor became much darker and manipulative under the direction of script editor Andrew Cartmel; this era of the show also encouraged young and inexperienced writers, leading to some of the most innovative but controversial stories of the original series. By 1989, however, ratings had declined once more, and this time no media campaign backed the series when it was quietly killed off after 26 years.
Doctor Who survived throughout the 1990s as a series of original novels produced by Virgin Publishing, and later the BBC. In 1996, the Doctor returned to the small screen in a U.S.-backed TV movie which saw McCoy hand over to Paul McGann. The production fared well among UK audiences, but was poorly scheduled in North America and ultimately it failed to go to a series. McGann's Doctor was a gentler figure than his predecessor, and his adventures continued in print, in audio recordings, on radio and in comics into the twenty-first century, before he returned in a short 50th-anniversary production, The Night of the Doctor, in 2013.
Following the programme's 1989 cancellation and failure of the 1996 TV movie to secure a new series, the return of the show in 2005 was largely due to the persistence of the Controller of BBC One at the time, Lorraine Heggessey, backed by the Controller of Drama Commissioning at the time, Jane Tranter, and Mal Young, the Controller of Continuing Drama Series. The lack of support for further films had finally convinced the BBC that an in-house series was the best way to secure the future of the programme. The 'new series' retained the TARDIS and other key features of the original 'classic series'. Going into production in 2004, it was executive-produced by writer Russell T. Davies and BBC Wales Head of Drama/BBC Television Controller of Drama Commissioning Julie Gardner. Davies cast the highly-experienced actor Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor, who declined to appear in a second run of adventures, leading Davies to cast David Tennant as the tenth Doctor, a role he relinquished in 2009 (his last appearance was broadcast on New Year's Day, 2010, but was of course recorded earlier).
After four series and several specials, Davies left the programme in the hands of Steven Moffat, a frequent writer for the series, who was made executive producer from series five onwards. Moffat cast first Matt Smith to play the Doctor, then Peter Capaldi. Chris Chibnall replaced succeeded Moffat in 2018 and decided to cast the first woman in the role, Jodie Whittaker.
The new series had already been thinned out by years off, and this was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Whittaker left in 2022, with two new Doctors announced to succeed her: David Tennant again for three 60th-anniversary specials, followed by Ncuti Gatwa.
The Doctor is the main character in the series, but "information" is fragmentary and sometimes apparently contradictory. In real life these contradictions may be explained as script writers or editors not knowing or not caring what had been said in previous episodes. In-universe explanations include the emphatic statement by River Song, (apparently) his fourth wife, that "The Doctor lies." Various aspects of his/her character and past have been revealed, but much remains mysterious. Even their name remains an enigma; he has variously introduced himself as Doctor Caligari (The Gunfighters, 1966), Doctor von Wer (The Highlanders, 1966) and Doctor John Smith (various stories, 1970 on), and signed a letter Doctor W (The Underwater Menace, 1967). A fellow Time Lord addresses him as Thete (The Armageddon Factor, 1978; actually, as that Time Lord talks with a Cockney accent, this is pronounced Fee', with a glottal stop), which is later explained as derived from a nickname (The Happiness Patrol, 1988). In the dialogue he has only once been referred to as Doctor Who (The War Machines, 1966). Despite this, the character is usually referred to as 'Doctor Who' in the media, and indeed the programme's end credits included 'Who' for the first four Doctors and the Ninth, with just "The Doctor" for the others. Also on screen appeared the episode title "The death of Doctor Who" (1966) and the serial title Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970). A few explanations for the title have been presented over the years, such as the Doctor obtaining various doctorates (e.g. The Armageddon Factor, 1978). It is unclear whether they are a medical doctor or not, and early on he referred to himself as a scientist and engineer, "a builder of things" (The Aztecs, 1964).
In The Timeless Children (2020), much back-story was apparently revealed. It now starts with the discovery of a little girl of unknown alien origin with the power of regeneration, known as the Timeless Child. This power is transplanted into inhabitants of Gallifrey. The Child had many incarnations before his first appearance in the series as the Doctor but his memory was wiped and his regeneration as a boy therefore thought himself the first. This suggests that the family he grew up in, and mentions various "facts" about, is not his real one. His statement that he was half-human on his mother's side seems to be corroborated by the Master's finding that his DNA is half human, however.
It has been confirmed on a number of occasions that the Doctor had children and grandchildren, including his grand-daughter, Susan (An Unearthly Child, 1963), who was travelling with him in the TARDIS in the start of the programme. Although a previous marriage might be considered implicit in the existence of a grand-daughter, it is not explicitly mentioned until Blink (2007). Since that episode, the Doctor says, he has been married to Queen Elizabeth I of England (The End of Time, 2009; confirmed in The Day of the Doctor, 2013), and taken part in a legally invalid marriage ceremony with Marilyn Monroe (A Christmas Carol, 2010), and he is the bridegroom in the episode The Wedding of River Song (2011). In Death in Heaven (2014), his companion Clara, trying to convince a Cyberman that she is the Doctor, says she (he) has been married four times and had children and grandchildren.
Over the course of the programme's first few years, it becomes clear that the Doctor is not a human being, though in the 1990s and later, it was shown that he may have some human roots (Doctor Who, 1996), and that he is also able to become human (Human Nature, 2007). From 1969's The War Games, the Doctor's own people, the Time Lords, appeared regularly in the show, but in the 2005- production it was suggested that they had been destroyed in a 'Time War' with the Daleks, the Doctor's greatest adversaries. However, the series elaborates that the War exists 'time-locked' in another realm from which it is possible to escape.
The Doctor's physiology is rather different from humans: most spectacularly, as first shown at the conclusion of 1966's The Tenth Planet, is his ability to 'regenerate' - what he calls a "renewal" (The Power of the Daleks, 1966) or a trick for "cheating death" (The Parting of the Ways, 2005). In the latter story, for example, the viewer witness a tremendous burst of energy released from his body, and his features melt into those of a new individual - the Doctor's tenth incarnation, portrayed by David Tennant. It is quickly established that this new person is the same character, physically different and with some new personality quirks, but still the same adventurer (The Christmas Invasion, 2006). The process occurs again in the final episode of the tenth Doctor's era, this time shown capable of actually damaging the TARDIS as the Doctor regenerates into the form of Matt Smith (The End of Time, 2010). The programme established in 1977's The Deadly Assassin that only twelve regenerations are possible, giving thirteen incarnations, but both The Five Doctors (1983) and The Time of the Doctor (2013) show that the Time Lords can bestow a fresh cycle of regenerations. The Capaldi incarnation was the first in a new cycle for the Doctor, since John Hurt's was revealed to have been the ninth incarnation in Day of the Doctor (2013) and David Tennant's used a regeneration while managing to keep the same persona in Journey's End (2008).
Dialogue in The Doctor's Wife (2011) implied that Time Lords can change sex when they regenerate, and this was confirmed by the appearance of a female incarnation of the Master in Dark Water (2014). At present, the Doctor is female.
The Doctor rarely travels the universe alone, and many of their friends or 'companions' have shared their adventures over the years. The very first, Susan, was actually his grand-daughter, with her two human teachers completing the first TARDIS crew. Through curiosity, being rescued or taking up an offer to see the universe, many others followed over the years. In the 1970s, the Doctor was 'exiled' to Earth by his own people for a time, and became a reluctant member of UNIT, a special taskforce set up to counter alien threats. This 'UNIT family' memorably included Nicholas Courtney as its commanding officer, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Other well-remembered companions of the 1970s included the accident-prone UNIT agent Jo Grant (Katy Manning), the leather-clad savage Leela (Louise Jameson), and Sarah Jane Smith, a journalist played by Elisabeth Sladen.
From 2005 onwards, the Doctor is initially travelling alone, but former London shop assistant Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) joins him at the close of the opening adventure, with others appearing later, and also characters who fulfilled the companion role for just one story. Steven Moffat introduced Amy Pond, played by Karen Gillan, initially as a young girl whose life was a mysterious time-altered jumble, with an increasing role for Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams, later Amy's husband. 2012 saw the introduction of Clara, played by Jenna Coleman; her successor, Pearl Mackie as Bill, was announced in 2016.
In Doctor Who, the universe is a dangerous place. A frequently occurring theme is that of various alien races attempting to conquer the Earth or otherwise threatening the human race, only to be foiled by the Doctor.
Best-known villains in the series and wider UK culture are the 'Daleks', mutants inside metallic pepperpot-like casings equipped with a gun and an appendage not unlike a sink plunger. Envisaged as representing the Nazis, their best-known characteristic is frequently screaming "Exterminate!" at anything un-Dalek prior to destroying anything that gets in their way of eliminating all life other than that which is Dalek. They have appeared numerous times in the series.
The other villains appearing comparable numbers of times are the Master (a fellow, evil Time Lord; also known as Missy, short for Mistress, in a female regeneration) and the Cybermen.
Until recently the Daleks regularly topped the polls for the most "popular" enemy. In recent polls, however, they have been overtaken by the Weeping Angels, who first appeared in 2007.
For most of its 1963-1989 run, Doctor Who was broadcast in 25-minute episodes, with few exceptions. Initially the programme ran for most of the year, with only a few weeks' break between seasons. Over the decades, the number of episodes each year was reduced; about 26 was the norm for some years, though by the end of the 1980s this had fallen to 14. From 1966, each story had only one title, but originally individual episodes had separate titles, leading to considerable fan debate over what the overall titles for some of these early serials are. The very first story, for instance, is commonly known and marketed by the BBC as An Unearthly Child, which strictly speaking was only the title of the very first episode. Internal production documents have led some fans to conclude that the 'true' title is 100,000 BC.
Episodes of 'new series' Doctor Who run for about 45 minutes, except for special (usually Christmas) adventures broadcast between series (or, in one recent case, in the middle of a series). Two- and three-episode stories usually have separate titles for each episode, just as in 1963-6. However, whereas stories from 1963-6 are commonly referred to by overall titles (though as just noted not always the same ones), this is not usually done with the recent stories; instead they are usually named by just concatenating their episode titles, e.g. Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords. The increasingly involuted nature of plot arcs over the course of the new series has resulted in increasing disagreement among secondary sources on the grouping of episodes into stories. Since series two, the regular characters have had a reduced role in one or more episodes so the leads can concentrate on filming others.
Music and titles
The theme music for Doctor Who changed little for the first 17 years of the original series's run: composed by Ron Grainer and realised by Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, this example of electronic music played over the original series titles, which were achieved using a howl-round visual effect. For the new series, a new arrangement was produced by Murray Gold, whose predecessors on the original series included Peter Howell, who created a faster, more dramatic version for the period 1980-1985; Dominic Glynn (1986); and Keff McCulloch (1987-1989). The 1996 film also had new theme music.
Doctor Who was made available for broadcast outside the UK from the outset, and it is thanks to film copies sent to other countries that many early episodes now survive, since the original tapes were wiped for re-use. Some of these episodes were cut to conform with broadcasting standards in other nations, e.g. to remove violence. Several stories were sold to Arabic-speaking countries in the 1960s, with Arabic dubbing. Dubbed versions of adventures were also shown in other countries until the end of the programme in 1989, e.g. in French and German. The revived series has been distributed globally, and the BBC sought to build on these new markets by launching a 'global tour' to introduce Peter Capaldi's Doctor in 2014. This involved advanced screenings of Capaldi's first story plus Q&A sessions with the main stars, and took in Cardiff, Seoul, Sydney, New York, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro.
Spin-offs and alternative adventures
The original series had only one spin-off, which did not survive beyond its 1981 pilot. K-9 and Company starred Elisabeth Sladen and John Leeson, reprising their roles as former companions Sarah Jane Smith and K-9 (a robot dog voiced by Leeson; they had never appeared together in the series, though they did so subsequently). The new series has seen two spin-off dramas, Torchwood (2006-), starring John Barrowman, and The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007-2011) starring Elisabeth Sladen with appearances by K9, once again voiced by John Leeson. Like Sladen and Leeson, Barrowman appeared as a 'companion' in Doctor Who itself, starring as Captain Jack Harkness from 2005's The Empty Child onwards. Torchwood sees Harkness leading a team trying to prevent alien incursions via a 'time rift' running through present day Cardiff, while the Sarah Jane Adventures followed the adventures of investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith. The latter production aired on Children's BBC with an intended audience of younger fans, while Torchwood was presented as a post-9 p.m. 'adult' take on the affairs of the Doctor Who universe. A third spin-off, this time starring K-9 in an independent UK-Australia co-production, K-9, first aired in 2010.
Several shorter adventures have also appeared as part of charity events and the Proms, a long-standing evening of music at the Royal Albert Hall. 2005 saw the immediate aftermath of the Doctor's regeneration into the form of David Tennant broadcast as part of the long-running charity event Children in Need. Similarly, a second short Children in Need adventure, Time Crash (2007), contributed to the series' continuity.
The Doctor also appeared in The Music of the Spheres as part of the 2008 Proms, in an 'interactive' adventure which saw the TARDIS linked to the Royal Albert Hall via a hole in time and space through which an evil 'Graske' emerged to threaten the audience. This was the Graske's second appearance in what has become a significant run of extra adventures available on digital channels or the internet, the first being Attack of the Graske in 2005.
In the 1960s, Terry Nation was unable to launch a U.S. spin-off series starring his creations, the Daleks, but they twice appeared on the big screen. Two televised adventures of Doctor Who were remade for the cinema: Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD (1966) starred Peter Cushing as 'Doctor Who', an elderly human scientist who had invented a time machine. These two films, which were not part of the television series's continuity, did well at a time when 'Dalekmania' was at its height.
Nearly all the stories broadcast up to 1996 have been novelised, and annuals containing new stories appeared in print from early in the programme's broadcast history, as did comic strips. In the 1990s two new stories were broadcast on BBC radio (out of sequence: they featured the 3rd Doctor), though one of them actually appeared after its novelization as a result of delays.
A stage play, Doctor Who and the Daleks in the Seven Keys to Doomsday, starring Trevor Martin, played in the early 1970s, and another theatrical adventure appeared as The Ultimate Adventure in 1989. Jon Pertwee reprised his role for the play's first run, and later shows featured Colin Baker as the Doctor. Baker and his co-star on the original series, Nicola Bryant, also appeared in a Doctor Who radio drama, Slipback, in 1985. The 1980s also saw a series of documentary films from Reeltime Pictures, as well as independent productions licensed to use certain characters from Doctor Who, the first being Wartime in 1987. Among others, Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans (1994) was a new outing for a classic Doctor Who race of villains, and this was followed by Downtime (1995), which saw the return of the Yeti, a 1960s monster.
Many of the original stars of the series appeared as different characters in several fan-produced video dramas in the 1990s. More recently, they have starred in officially-licensed audio dramas by Big Finish, some of which have aired on the digital radio station BBC 7. The BBC produced original adventures for the Doctor on its website, notably The Scream of the Shalka (2003), starring Richard E. Grant. Meanwhile, a series of original novels saw Doctors past and present battling adversaries old and new first for Virgin Publishing in their New Adventures series (1991-1997), then BBC Books (1997-). Telos Publishing produced an award-winning range of novellas over 2001-2004.
The BBC itself produced two spoofs of Doctor Who for charity. In 1993, Children in Need featured Dimensions in Time, which involved a crossover with several incarnations of the Doctor meeting characters from the British soap opera Eastenders. This was publicised as a "pantomime" and is not considered 'canon' by fans. In 1999, Red Nose Day featured the comedy Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death.
- This is the date of its first broadcast, as an independent film in Canada; after further broadcast in the USA it was shown as part of the BBC series on the 27th.
- In an example of how British culture has taken the programme to heart, on the occasion when London's Metropolitan Police challenged the BBC's ownership of the police box design, they lost as the court ruled that people associate such boxes with time machines rather than the police. See BBC News: BBC Wins Police Tardis Case, 23rd October 2002.
- BBC: Monster Success. 18th August 2005. The winning entry appeared in 2006's Love & Monsters as the fearsome 'Abzorbaloff'. Its creator, 13-year-old William Grantham, reportedly gave the seal of approval to the BBC's interpretation, though remarked that "it was supposed to be the size of a double-decker bus".
- Born in 1956, Heggessey was amongst the first generation of BBC executives and Doctor Who contributors who had actually grown up with the original programme.
- BAFTA: 'In conversation with Jane Tranter'. 30th September 2008.
- Daily Telegraph: 'Doctor Who ready to come out of the Tardis for Saturday TV series' 26th September 2003.
- BBC News: 'New Doctor actor is youngest ever '. 4th January 2009.
- The actress was credited as Jenna-Louise Coleman in earlier appearances but has now changed her stage name.
- Research publications by David J. Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen J. Walker hold to these behind-the-scenes titles, for example.
- DoctorWho.tv: 'Doctor Who: The World Tour. Accessed 21st August 2014.