Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Doctor Who

The fourth Doctor played by Tom Baker

Doctor Who was a British science fiction television series, concerning the adventures of a mysterious time-travelling adventurer known only as "The Doctor".

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Origins
3 The story
4 Viewership
5 Characters
6 Spin-offs
7 New beginnings
8 Scriptwriters
9 Related topics
10 External links


The show was and remains a significant part of British popular culture, and was widely recognized for its creative storytelling, use of innovative music and special effects which were produced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The show has also gone on to be cult television favourite.

In the series, "The Doctor" is a Time Lord, a race from the planet Gallifrey and is not subject to the normal constraints of mortal life. His first incarnation was played by the irascible William Hartnell, later to be followed by seven more — perhaps the most enduring incarnation being the fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker (pictured).


The programme ran for 26 seasons on the BBC from November 23, 1963 until December 6, 1989; the longest-running television science fiction series. It was created at the suggestion of Sydney Newman after lengthy brainstorming sessions that included such (largely forgotten) people as Alice Frick (whose suggestion it was to make the show about time travel), C. E. 'Bunny' Webber, and David Whitaker.

The story

The Doctor travels in a fictional vehicle called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) which enables him to travel to any point in time and space, anywhere in the universe. For the most part, he explores the universe at random (usually because the vessel's navigation system is old and unreliable), using his extensive knowledge of science and advanced technology to heroically avert crises on various worlds. The weekly episodes would form part of a contained story or "serial", of between 1 and 8 episodes, but usually 6 in earlier years and 3-4 in later years. Two notable exceptions were the "The Daleks' Master Plan" epic that made it to 12 episodes (plus a 1 episode Doctor-less teaser entitled "Mission to the Unknown"), and the 10 episode serial "The War Games". The Doctor is accompanied by between 1 and 3 companions: people who choose to travel with him for a period of time for a variety of reasons.

It was initially devised to be partly educational for family viewing on the early Saturday evening schedule. A proportion of episodes would see the characters travel to important periods in human history, such as the French Revolution, or the Roman Empire. These so-called "historical" stories were dropped after the first few years in favour of the more popular science-fiction stories.

Most of the show's mythology and backplot was developed gradually by later writers. Early on, nothing is known of the Doctor at all, not even his name: in early episodes he is referred to as "Grandfather" by the character of Susan. Barbara Wright, a teacher who later becomes one of the Doctor's companions, refers to "The Doctor" and Ian Chesterton, her fellow teacher at Coal Hill School, who (about to take a trip or two in space and time in the TARDIS) then addresses the Doctor as "Doctor Foreman", the junkyard in which they have found him having the name "Foreman" outside. The Time Lord responds "Doctor who?" Hence the series' title. They meet the Doctor after following his "granddaughter" Susan (a pupil at their school by whom they are both intrigued) home in the fog and managing to follow her into the TARDIS. On occasion he is referred to as "Theta Sigma", apparently a University nickname, and has been mocked by his own people for adhering to such a 'lowly' title.

In many of the series stories, The Doctor has also saved the Earth (and a number of other planets) from such notable adversaries as the Cybermen, the Sontarans and the Silurians. However, the factor which probably most ensured the series captured the public's attention was the introduction of the Daleks in the second storyline: a lethal race of metal-armoured mutants, whose chief role in the great scheme of things would appear to be, as they frequently observe in their instantly-recognisable metallic voices, to "Exterminate!".


There was some controversy over the show being suitable for viewing by children. One campaigner, Mary Whitehouse made a series of complaints to the BBC over its sometimes gory or scary content. However her actions gave the programme a certain reputation which made it even more popular, particularly with children.

This gave rise to the phrase in popular culture; 'Behind the sofa'.

Watching Doctor Who from a position of safety behind the sofa, peering cautiously out to see if the scary bit was over, used to be one of the great shared experiences of British childhood. However others contend this was a myth, pointing out that the traditional positioning of a sofa did not allow for this. Regardless, the series has traumatized many a young child.

There is a reference to the show (that is, as a work of fiction) in the show itself. In the serial Remembrance of the Daleks, set in 1963, a television shows a BBC Television caption of the period with a continuity announcer saying "This is BBC television, the time is quarter past five and Saturday viewing continues with an adventure in the new science fiction series Doc—", but is cut off by a scene change before completing the title.


Seven actors played the Doctor in the original series:

  1. William Hartnell (November 23, 1963 - October 29, 1966)
  2. Patrick Troughton (November 5, 1966 - June 21, 1969)
  3. Jon Pertwee (January 3, 1970 - June 8, 1974)
  4. Tom Baker (December 28, 1974 - March 21, 1981)
  5. Peter Davison (March 21, 1981 - March 16, 1984)
  6. Colin Baker (March 22, 1984 - December 6, 1986)
  7. Sylvester McCoy (September 7, 1987 - December 6, 1989)

In 1996 there was a one-off television movie in which Sylvester McCoy's Doctor regenerated into:

8. Paul McGann (May 27, 1996)

See List of Doctor Who serials.

On a few occasions, former actors guest-starred in episodes featuring past incarnations of The Doctor:

The changing of actors is explained within the series by the Time Lords' ability to "regenerate" after suffering mortal injury, illness, or age; the process repairs and rejuvenates all damage, but as a side-effect it reconfigures the Time Lords' physical appearance semi-randomly and also affects their personalities. This explanation was not developed until after the elderly William Hartnell had already retired from the show for health reasons. It was later established that each Time Lord can regenerate 12 times before permanently dying, though as with most such "rules" there were occasionally exceptional cases, such as when a renegade Time Lord at the end of his regeneration cycle possessed the body of another person to continue living.

Another Time Lord was introduced into the series during the Pertwee period, in the form of "The Master", an arch-villain who began to appear regularly until the actor playing the part, Roger Delgado, was killed in a car crash in 1973. In 1977, the character reappeared, this time played by Peter Pratt. In this episode, the Master was heavily disfigured, and on the verge of death due to using up all his regenerations. The Master appeared again in 1981, still disfigured, and now played by Geoffrey Beevers. This time, he absorbed a leader of the planet Traken, and regenerated into a new body. Anthony Ainley played this new Master until the series ended.

The Doctor was played in the film versions (Doctor Who And The Daleks in 1965 and Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD in 1966, both essentially retellings of existing episodes on the big screen and with a bigger budget) by the actor Peter Cushing. In these films, the character introduces himself as "Doctor Who", and is apparently human.

Doctor Who has appeared on stage, numerous times. Almost all the TV stories have been novelised, and there are also a number of series of original novels - many of these are well-regarded and are considered to fit into the official Doctor Who universe. The pilot episode for a potential spinoff series, K-9 and Company, was aired in 1981, but was not picked up as a regular series.

Doctor Who was largely brought to an end by the actions of then-Director of Programmes for BBC Television, Michael Grade, who has gone on record as saying that he disliked science fiction, who pulled the series from its prime Saturday tea-time slot which it had occupied for 26 years. He has appeared on television series, Room 101, to disparage the programme. The cancellation caused furore in the British press. Grade contended that Doctor Who had become something of a joke, ever since 1977, with the release of Star Wars, which, with its far greater budget for visual effects, underscored Doctor Who's cheaper production values. Ironically, it was Grade who was responsible at the time for the show's budget, and his increasing restriction of the budget in part led to the series' demise. Another factor was the decision to screen the show at the same time as "Coronation Street", a long-running and highly popular British soap drama.

In 1996, an attempt was made to revive the series with a telemovie starring Paul McGann as the Doctor. A co-production between the BBC and 20th Century Fox Television, it aired on the Fox Network on May 14, 1996, and in the UK on May 27, 1996. The movie was simply titled Doctor Who, but many fans refer to it as "Enemy Within" (suggested by the movie's executive producer, Philip Segal) to distinguish it from the Doctor's many other adventures.

In 1999 a four episode special called "Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death" was made for Red Nose Day and later released on VHS. This was a parody of the original series. In these episodes the Doctor, played by Rowan Atkinson, meets both the Master, played by Jonathan Pryce, and the Daleks. During the episodes the Doctor is forced to regenerate several times, so he's also played by Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley. The script was written by Steven Moffat.


Since the end of the television series, "official" (which is to say, BBC-sanctioned) Doctor Who has survived in a number of forms.

The hunger for more Doctor Who on television has been partly answered by direct-to-video productions by various companies. The BBC has never authorised any Doctor Who video productions (presumably on the basis that one might as well make a new television series), but production companies have been able to license individual characters and alien races from the show directly from the writers who created them, and feature them in adventures of their own. Companies who have released videos of this kind include Reeltime Pictures (also known for the long-running Myth Makers series of documentaries) and BBV (who have also released a number of Doctor Who-related audio adventures on the same basis). BBV is also known for a number of productions that, while not using any elements from the show itself, tell a similar style of story and feature ex-Doctor Who stars in roles similar to those they played in the series; these include a direct-to-video series starring Colin Baker as "The Stranger", and a series of audio dramas starring Sylvester McCoy as "The Dominie".

New beginnings

On September 26 2003 it was announced that Doctor Who will return to BBC One, written by Russell T. Davies (creator of the original Queer as Folk), to be produced in 2004 for transmission in 2005. The new series is rumoured to be comprised of thirteen 45 minute episodes. Speculation on who will play the Doctor has included Alan Davies, Richard E. Grant, Bill Nighy and at Tom Baker's suggestion, Eddie Izzard.

The BBC has confirmed that another Doctor Who movie is in development, as it has been for much of the last ten years. Details on the movie are very sketchy and it is not even known if a script exists. The Doctor in his fourth incarnation is frequently impersonated by Jon Culshaw in the Dead Ringers series.


Other scriptwriters have included

Related topics

External links