Things you should know, to bring you up to speed: The main character in “Doctor Who” is the last of an alien species known as the Time Lords, a spacefaring and timefaring people. Doctor Who looks human, has two hearts, is more than 900 years old, and can regenerate whenever he dies, causing him to appear and act very different with each regeneration (therefore, a new actor plays him each time he dies).
For reasons unknown, this man refers to himself as “the Doctor,” and he travels the universe and time itself in a machine called the TARDIS (stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space), which looks like an old English police box on the outside, but inside it is a massive complex, filled with libraries and swimming pools, many of which we never even get to see.
This show is very old – it just hit its 50th anniversary – and has been through many incarnations. Originally a dark character, the Doctor’s personality has slowly morphed with each new actor playing him, becoming more humorous, whimsical, and fun-loving, while still maintaining a tragic air about him that has always defined the Doctor. For, you see, the Doctor will live a very, very long time, but we humans, his companions, we can’t.
As the Doctor put it in one episode to his love Rose, “You can live with me for the rest of your life … but I can’t live with you for the rest of mine.”
The Doctor was off the air for many years before the BBC brought him back in 2005, rekindling many people’s imaginations about the possibilities to the universe, and, of course, giving them a really, really good adventure with characters both funny and, quite frequently, terrifying (we’ll get to the Weeping Angels in a bit).
The Doctor’s Longevity
Doctor Who has existed for fifty years and with eleven separate actors playing him. In that time, the ideas have only gotten bigger, more exciting, and more interesting. Whereas most shows quickly go stale and run out of directions to go, Doctor Who continues to break new ground.
Why is this?
Well, part of the reason is that, early on, it was established that the Doctor could travel anywhere in space and time – this means he can go to any planet, any star, any galaxy he wants, whenever he wants, within seconds. And, since it was also established that he could go anywhere in time, the audience is literally given limitless possibilities about the next big adventure.
The Doctor has met William Shakespeare, inspired Vincent van Gogh, matched wits with Adolf Hitler and snogged (kissed for you Americans) Madame de Pompadour. And he’s done all of this while facing some of the most terrifying creatures and machines in the universe. This presents a level of surprise no other show can match. Where will the Doctor go next? Who will he meet?
Another reason for the Doctor’s lasting legacy is that he has a rich history. You see, it’s not like a Bond movie, where James Bond is replaced by a new actor, and that means there’s a whole new history. No, all of the Doctor’s fifty years’ worth of stories are made canon – what happened to the Doctor way back in 1963 when he was played by William Hartnell is still considered to have happened to the Doctor, with Matt Smith playing him now.
Now, fans aren’t required to watch any of these older versions … but it certainly makes it fun when the new episodes sometimes make reference an older adventure.
The Many Faces of The Doctor
Eleven men have played the Doctor (twelve if you count Hurndall, who played the First Doctor for a TV special after the original actor died), starting with Hartnell until Smith at present. Each actor has brought something else to the Doctor’s persona, enriching the mythology of the last living Time Lord with each passing chapter.
Originally a more brooding fellow, the Doctor saw a marked change when Tom Baker took over in 1974, when his attire became a bit more decorative and colorful. The Doctor became even more eccentric when Peter Davison played him from 1981 to 1984. In this incarnation, the Doctor continued with his new silly persona, going so far as to wear a piece of celery on his lapel.
Modern fans tend to favor either David Tennant, Christopher Eccelston, or Matt Smith, rather than the older Doctors. They frequently debate which one is the best, when the truth is they’re all great in their own way. They’ve all managed to balance humor and tragedy in a way that’s simply not done in American television – I can think of one example, and that’s the show “Firefly,” which was quickly stamped out for its criminal acts of originality.
And whereas we had so little time with “Firefly,” “Doctor Who” fans have been getting a regular fix for fifty years. Yet another reason fans cling to it – it’s one of the few clever shows that remains on TV. The regenerating, face-changing element to the Doctor’s character and story can be credited with helping this happen.
Fans both lament and delight in each new transformation of the Doctor. It’s a tradition in the Who-verse. It’s a bittersweet moment, when we mourn the Doctor that we’ve been watching all these years and yet wait with bated breath to see who will carry the torch next, what amazing new adventures we’ll see … and new terrifying enemies.
The Doctor’s Enemies
The Doctor has made enemies throughout his travels, too many to count really. The most well-known of them are the Daleks, a race that was genetically altered so that all “useless” emotions were removed, and all that remains is hate. Hatred for all things not Dalek. They’ve encased themselves inside machine bodies and they have become famous for their one-liner, “Exterminate!”
One of the Doctor’s most chilling moments came when he ran into what he believed was the last remaining Dalek in the 2005 episode “Dalek.” Without any orders, or any reason to continue, the Dalek was left wondering what its purpose in life was, and demanded of the Doctor, its oldest enemy, to give it a purpose. When the Doctor, in anger and frustration at all the horrors they had wrought, commanded the Dalek to kill itself, the Dalek said, quite hauntingly, “You would have made a great Dalek.” A slap in the face and a hammer to the Doctor’s hearts.
This list of enemies could actually go on and on for pages, but I’ll just skip to my favorite: the Weeping Angels.
What can you possibly say to someone that has never seen an episode of Doctor Who with these creatures in it? Everyone hears the description and says, “Huh, just some statues that don’t move? What’s so creepy about that?”
Here’s the thing. The Weeping Angels are quantum-locked – they exist in a form that allows them to move around, but only when you’re not looking at them. When you look at them, they become frozen as statues. They place their hands in front of their eyes so as not to look at one another, lest they freeze one another in place. Hence … no one’s ever seen them move. And they live off of potential energy; when they touch you, they send you back in time and “let you live to death,” meanwhile they live off the potential that would have been your life presently. All your stolen moments, all that might have been your life, they somehow derive power from that.
There’s also the Silence, an alien race that you can’t remember you’ve ever seen when you look away from them. What a fantastic villain! I mean, how do you fight that?
Now these are the kinds of villains you’re never going to see on shows like “Supernatural” or even gonzo shows like “Lost” where everything is weird all the time. They can’t even come close to bending the audience’s mind the way “Doctor Who” does on a regular basis.
The Doctor’s Companions
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Doctor’s life is who he’s traveling with. These are men and women he has chosen to come along with him inside his TARDIS and travel the time vortex, visiting anywhere and everywhere in space and time.
Like the various actors who’ve played him, the Doctor’s companions also create much debate among fans. Some people like Rose Tyler the best, while others say she’s been used too much and much prefer Donna Noble, while others delight in the arguments between “the Ponds” Amy and Rory, and still others prefer classic Sarah Jane Smith.
Here, with his companions, the Doctor gives us another mystery. With a couple of exceptions, it’s never quite clear just how he chooses his companions, or even why he chooses to travel with anyone at all, though most people have said it’s very simple: he’s lonely.
The Doctor is over 900 years old, and though he’s gotten a bit softer and more jocular, every actor plays him with just a touch of loneliness. The companions help to keep him sane, level-headed, pulling him back from the deep end from which there might be no return.
The companions also serve another purpose, and that is that they anchor him to Earth. Perhaps this is why the Doctor is so interested in Earth and our history? We don’t know, because he’s never specifically said why he hangs around Earth so much. Just another one of a thousand mysteries surrounding the Doctor. Which brings us to our next and final item …
We commonly get to know the Doctor’s companions very well, which gives the show a richness few other shows are able to obtain. And whereas most shows would hammer away at the details of the main character’s life, the Doctor remains shrouded in mystery.
After 50 years of TV shows, films, comic books and novels, we know precious little about the Doctor himself and what he’s all about. Why does he favor Earth so much? Was he really a father before? A grandfather? How many transformations does he really have left before he dies for good? What exactly happened in the Time War?
In the end, we are left with that one lingering question. Doctor who?