Next week will be a big one for Disney+ as it will have the debut on the streamer of the long-running British sci-fi series, Doctor Who! It includes a trio of new specials marking the 60th anniversary of this epic franchise.
However, some folks may be a bit confused as to what this series is about. So, for helpful viewing, here’s a quick primer on the Doctor, his ship and why this show has been such a success for six decades.
What is Doctor Who?
Debuting on the BBC on November 23, 1963 (yes, the day after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated), Doctor Who was originally intended to be a children’s show with some educational elements. But from the start, the show’s unique vibe caught on with audiences, and before long, it was a huge hit.
The show’s setup was each storyline divided into four to six episodes that varied from half an hour to 45 minutes. When the show began reaching the United States in the 1970s (usually on PBS stations), these episodes were bundled together to make a big two to three-hour-long story block.
The series remained dominant with a great international presence into the 1980s. However, some behind-the-scenes conflicts with the BBC and faltering ratings led to the show finally ending in 1989 after 27 seasons. It still had popularity, and in 1996, a TV movie on FOX tried to reboot it.
The show retained its following over the years with novels and audio dramas often involving the original series actors. In 2005, the BBC finally revived it, and since then, the series has become more popular than ever before. Fans love the writing, some of the fun old-fashioned effects, but especially its main character.
Who is the Doctor?
Hailing the planet of Gallifrey, the Time Lords are a near-immortal race of beings who long ago mastered time travel. While they can “dabble” now and then, the Time Lords prefer to stay out of things and rarely travel.
One of their number, known only as the Doctor, got bored with that. So he “borrowed” (i.e., stole) one of their craft to explore the universe. He often travels with a companion (usually a woman from Earth) who gives him some balance as he finds himself often trying to save a world or even the universe from various threats, all with good humor and an eccentric attitude.
He can vary his outfit, sometimes a darker attitude, but the Doctor is dedicated to helping anyone who needs it and can’t resist the challenge of saving the day against all odds. A constant is his sonic screwdriver, a device capable of anything from hacking systems to opening doors, and a handy tool in his pocket.
What is the TARDIS?
Standing for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, the TARDIS is the time/spacecraft for the Doctor. It has a “chameleon circuit” that’s meant to make its exterior blend in with its surroundings. But the model the Doctor took was faulty, and the circuit broke during a trip to 1960s London. Thus, the outside of the TARDIS is forever stuck as a police call box of the era.
The interior is another story as it is utterly massive, dominated by a control room that often changes its appearance. This has led to the decades-old running gag of someone entering, staring in shock and muttering, “it’s bigger on the inside.”
The TARDIS does have a bad habit of going off course and rarely taking the Doctor where he wants to go…yet somehow always taking him where he’s needed. It’s hinted that it’s alive in its own way and a side effect is how it automatically translates any language for its occupants (thus why anyone from alien races to various time periods speaks in modern English).
The Doctor’s enemies
Many of the villains the Doctor clashes with don’t survive their first encounters, but a few do make returns.
- The Daleks: Hands down the most popular baddies, these twisted robots are dedicated to the extermination of all organic life. They may look a bit silly with the plunger-like attachments but are utterly ruthless and capable of galactic genocide without the Doctor there to stop them.
- The Cybermen: An android race who wish to convert all living creatures like them, they’re also deadly in a fight and a constant thorn in the Doctor’s side.
- The Weeping Angels: A newer enemy introduced in 2007, the Angels appear to be regular statues when you look at them. But look away or blink for an instant and they move lightning fast to attack. If you’re lucky, they kill you quickly. If you’re not, they send you back decades into the past while living on your life energies. Either way, they’re quite deadly.
- The Master: Once the Doctor’s best friend, the Master is now his oldest foe. He’s the mirror opposite of the Doctor, a sociopath who desires power and is completely insane. Like the Doctor, he changes his appearance a lot, and just when he appears gone for good, he’ll pop up again to cause trouble.
Why are there different Doctors?
One thing that may confuse newbies is that the show has the same main character but different people in the role. That’s due to necessity.
The original actor, William Hartnell, was already elderly when cast in the role and began becoming ill and missing shows. So the producers came up with the wild idea that Time Lords could “regenerate” a brand new body. This allowed Patrick Troughton to replace Hartnell.
This regeneration is the key to the show’s longevity as each new Doctor brings a fresh energy in how they play the role. Most stick around for three to four years, with the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, setting the record with seven years.
There was also the “War Doctor,” a variant version of the Doctor played by John Hurt who appeared in the 50th anniversary special "Day of the Doctor." When the show returned in 2005, Christopher Eccleston was set as the Ninth Doctor and, at the end of the first season, regenerated into David Tennant.
Since then, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi have taken on the role, with Jodie Whitaker making history as the first female Doctor. Her exit sets up the coming 60th-anniversary specials.
What are the 60th Anniversary Specials about?
When Whitaker ended her run on the show with the 13th Doctor regenerating, fans expected to see Ncuti Gatwa, who had already been announced as the first black actor in the role. Instead, in a huge twist, Whitaker transformed into what appeared to be the 10th Doctor David Tennant.
The producers have made it clear this is not the 10th Doctor, but Tennant is the 14th Doctor with the same face but a slightly different attitude. The first special, “The Star Beast,” will have this Doctor reunite with popular 10th Doctor companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate). The pair had a great friendship, but tragically, to save Donna’s life, the Doctor had to erase her memories of him.
The storyline has the pair on a journey that leads to a clash with the Doctor’s old foe, the Celestial Toymaker (Neil Patrick Harris). The first special, “The Star Beast” airs on November 25, two days after the show’s true 60th anniversary.
That will be followed by “Wild Blue Yonder” on December 2. Then December 9 has “The Giggle,” which is expected to end with Tennant regenerating once more and Gatwa taking over as the 15th Doctor.
This will pave the way for 2024 as Disney+ becomes a new home for the regular series with Gatwa and Millie Gibson as his companion, Ruby Sunday. The eight-episode season is expected to air sometime in the summer of 2024.
Where can you watch past Doctor Who episodes?
Fans who want to get in on the ground floor are in luck. Besides BritBox, the free streamer Tubi has just uploaded almost every story from 1963-1989, divided by Doctors. Note that several episodes were lost over the years by the BBC, and while some are recreated with audio and animation, others are sadly long gone.
For the 2005 series, the only place to watch it now is on MAX. While Disney+ will be airing these 60th-anniversary specials, there’s no word on when or if they can stream episodes of the current series.
So there’s a quick primer for the world of Doctor Who as the 60th anniversary is a good time for fans to lock onto this show and see why this Doctor has been a popular figure for six decades.
Doctor Who: The Star Beast premieres Saturday November 25 on Disney+.