So you can’t stop hearing about this British television show that’s been on forfreakingever, “Doctor Who.” And, frankly, you think it all sounds sort of childish and dumb (it’s OK, we get it), but you’re also — admit it! — a little bit intrigued. What could possibly have all these people in such a frenzy?
Well, we were once you, fair naysayer. Up until two years ago we never understood the appeal nor did we much care about things like TARDISes, regenerative abilities, sonic screwdrivers, and silly-sounding things called Daleks. But nay no more, because we’re here to set you straight about the timey-wimey world of Who and explain why it’s sort of the best.
In fact here’s everything we think you need to know about “Doctor Who” heading into its 8th season of the series’ reboot. Ready? Well then, allons-y and Geronimo! It’s time to gear up for a fantastic ride.
Who Is The Doctor?
So, we’ve seen a bunch of dudes of varying age playing this flighty and flibbertigibbety alien, all carrying the same name “The Doctor.” But who is this being so full of knowledge, wit, and knowhow, really? And how does that all fit into one single, solitary person?
Well he’s an alien known as a Timelord. Now before you run out of here rolling your eyes, hear us out: these were a race of mighty folk who ruled the planet Gallifrey and were once widely known as some of the most powerful humanoid creatures ever. Their impressive civilization ruled the known ’verse for around 10 million years, thanks to their control over the space-time vortex. Their ability to manipulate history was pretty helpful in that regard, as was their ability to be very nearly immortal.
…That was until the Great Time War took place — between the Daleks (their arch nemeses) and the Timelords — and where our renegade hero, the Doctor, comes in. Deciding one day to take an old, slightly broken TARDIS* out for a spin, he began to travel the universe and see everything there is to see and decided to not come back.
That is until the Time War made it impossible for him to ignore. You see he ended the Time War by locking the planet of Gallifrey in a moment of time (not that he knew that’s what he did at the time. It’s…complicated) and ending the Timelords’ what-became-tyrannical rule.
This makes the Doctor, essentially, the last of the Timelords. So he floats around in his magic blue box, helping those in need of his wit and wisdom (and sonic screwdriver), doing right to balance all the wrong he and the Timelords have done in the universe.
*What Is A TARDIS?
That magic blue box we spoke of before? That’s the Doctor’s time machine, regularly referred to as a TARDIS. Time And Relative Dimension In Space is what it’s short for — because the Doctor’s blue police box is so much more than a time machine. It’s bigger on the inside!
Which is to say the TARDIS itself is infinite, which makes it pretty cool. (Not as cool as a bowtie or a fez, but close enough.)
How is that possible? Well…because the interior of the TARDIS exists in a different dimension from its exterior. So basically you can think of the exterior as a gateway to…another plane of existence in space! (If we had two boxes and some time to play around with forced perspective we’d show you. But just trust us, it’s legit.)
As for why it’s shaped like a 1960s British police box from planet Earth? Well: it’s a camouflage device built into the TARDIS’ system. Only… it got stuck one time as a police box and the Doctor never thought to fix it (well, OK, he did fix it once but ultimately his love of the ol’ bright blue called too hard). It’s fun! It’s quirky! It’s affectionately Doctor-esque. Embrace it.
Speaking Of: Why’s He Had So Many Faces?
Well that’s because Timelords, to evade the sweet, sweet clutches of death, were able to extend their lives via regeneration. It’s the ability to, essentially, rewrite your DNA and start over fresh — the only caveat being that you’re a completely different person (body and personality-wise) once it’s done. (Which is very convenient for casting purposes.) This also means that the Doctor can conceivably change gender, sex, race, and the like with each regeneration.
It also comes in really handy when you’re being chased by your evil nemeses and want to evade them for just a teensy bit longer (they always figure it out, though: evil smartypants that they are), like the Cybermen or the Daleks.
Wait… Daleks? Cybermen? What?!
Ahh yes, you’ve also probably heard of these two things — maybe even seen photos of them — and rolled your eyes. How can a squiggly weird alien called a Dalek, that moves quite cumbersomely throughout the universe inside a cone on wheels with a candy button-esque exterior punctuated by what’s essentially a plunger and a whisk, be the Doctor’s scariest nemesis?
Well, because of the history and backstory. Sure they may look a little goofy and ineffective at first glance, but the Daleks are a power-hungry, obsessive race of xenophobes hellbent on controlling the universe at all costs. What they lack in mobility, though, they more than make up for in intelligence, cunning, battle strategy, and sheer numbers.
The Cybermen, similarly, are a race of humanoid robots wherein the human brain has its capacity for pain and emotions fully removed as they are seen as weakness. For that same reason the Cybermen are intensely and dangerously single-minded. They are a race of cyborgs obsessed with “upgrading” people to be just like them. No emotional, no variability, all sameness. Considering the state of technology today, it’s all pretty chilling and appropriate.
And Why Does He Always Fly Around With Humans?
Another thing you may have noticed about the Doctor are his companions and/or assistants (depending on who you ask). These smart, funny women (generally they’re women) though initially confused and weirded out by the 2,000 year-old alien as you or I might be upon first encounter, generally end up being his go-to in times of trouble while they travel through time and space.
They’re also very handy as a way into the series as a viewer! Played out almost like a hero/sidekick routine, the Doctor’s companions often prove themselves just as intelligent and valuable to the situation at hand as the Doctor — mostly thanks to their own humanity.
In the New Who iteration, the Doctor has had several companions, but the most notable are:
Rose Tyler: His first companion in the new series. Wildly devoted to the Doctor, Rose has helped save the world on more than one occasion.
Martha Jones: A smart Earthly doctor herself, her character was unfortunately written to spend more time pining over the Doctor than anything else — she was tough and strong, though! And deserved maybe better than she got
Donna Noble: The fastest temp in Chiswick and the most important person in human history. She saved the world and was the perfect comedic sidekick to the Doctor after a bunch of girls pining over him. Donna Noble was our personal favorite — all sass and spunk and vim and vigor to boot.
Amy Pond: Amy Pond was the Girl Who Waited. Her existence made no sense thanks to a crack in her bedroom wall. She was the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith)’s first companion after he regenerated from Ten (David Tennant). She and her husband, the devoted Rory Pond… err Williams, traveled through space and time with the Doctor and even had a child while traveling in the TARDIS. But it’s, naturally, a bit more complicated than all that (spoilers, sweeties).
Clara Oswald: The Doctor’s current companion, Clara holds second place in our personal “Best Companion” competition. And hers is a particularly special existence: she, in a scenario that’s too complicated to come across as anything other than silly when put into a single sentence, entered the Doctor’s time stream and managed to save the Doctor from those who were trying to kill him throughout all of his many lives. She was his Impossible Girl. But she’s real: really confident, intelligent, and a total pip. With her knowledge of the Doctor there’s no one better to usher in this latest iteration.
…So We Don’t Think It’s Weird That It’s Always Young-ish Women?
Well it is true that primary companions of the Doctor are often women, but! We’ve had our fair share of male companions in the past, including Mickey Smith, Captain Jack Harkness, and Rory Williams in the “New Who” seasons. And we’re fairly excited about soon-to-be companion Danny Pink in the upcoming season 8. So! You know, we’re getting there.
OK Well What’s The Difference Between “Classic” And “New” Who?
Well before its reboot in 2005, “Doctor Who” was off the air for several years, creating two different factions, if you will, of Whovian history. They’re all connected, natch, and the only reason there’s any real differentiation is mostly due to the off-air time between when it was cancelled and then picked-up again.
The biggest difference is really in the pacing and connection of over-arching storylines. New Who has a faster feel and higher stakes given the way so many of the stories connect, whereas Classic Who had mostly one-off stories that were told over several episodes.
So What’s So Special About It? Why The Fuss And Obsession?
Well what it really comes down to is the balance of heart and fantasy. “Doctor Who” shows us that in spite of all the terrible around us, all the scenarios that seem doomed to pass, there’s always another option, another way. Violence and/or death and destruction don’t always have to be the answer.
There’s a lot you can finagle in just a few minutes — all it takes is a bit of brain power. And in a society as addled and volatile as our own sometimes is, isn’t it nice to see a bit more humanity and compassion in the face of such potential danger and chaos?
And it plays with history (i.e. Queen Elizabeth was “technically” married, for example?) and our perception of how things were, are, and came to be. It’s fun to have a little bit of, well, fun with the ideas of how and why our world came to be, really. And it reminds us that anything is possible and that even the tiniest among us are more important than we might think.
So that’s “Doctor Who” in the briefest of nutshells, everyone. The only question that remains is: are you going to watch when it returns to BBC America on August 23rd?