Doctor Who has arrived to become one of the biggest shows of 2024! But with so many new viewers joining the Whoniverse, it’s time for a quick guide to the Doctor’s world

Season One of Doctor Who is here! Or is it Season 14? Perhaps even… Season 40? Because Disney+’s hottest new show (the trailer has 5.2m views on Disney+’s YouTube channel) has been around the block. In the United Kingdom, the show’s a national institution for decades. But now thanks to a new production deal between British broadcaster the BBC and Disney, more people than ever around the world will get to see new episodes at the exact same time. For those new fans jumping on board the iconic British phenomenon with Space Babies, there will be questions about exactly what they’re getting into. But Blogtor Who, who’s been covering all things Who for over a decade has the answers! So welcome to the Whoniverse, faithful viewer, and strap in for the cosmic joyride!

 

Season One? So is the show on Disney+ a reboot?

Short answer: no. Long answer: no, it’s a continuation of the same universe as previous eras of Doctor Who but anyone can easily start with the new episodes and enjoy them as much as long term fans.

Doctor Who is now in its 61st year since its debut since November 1963 on the UK’s BBC. Unlike other long running franchises like Star Trek it’s followed the adventures of the same single character, the Doctor, for all that time, rather than jumping from ship to ship and crew to crew. As a result, it’s developed a pattern more like a long running comic book series. The 2024 Season may be a new #1 in a fourth volume of adventures, following the 1963, 1996, and 2005 editions but they all share the same underlying continuity.

But like comics, Doctor Who has also developed a pattern of regular jumping on points for new viewers. The new season features 21st century human Ruby Sunday joining the Doctor’s adventures, as we see his world through her eyes. So the show explains everything you need to know to you, just as the Doctor explains it to her.

 

All the Doctors to have appeared in the show so far, led by Ncuti Gatwa's Fifteen. Art by Lee Binding. (c) BBC Doctor Who
All the Doctors to have appeared in the show so far, led by Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteen. Art by Lee Binding. (c) BBC

61 years? Ncuti Gatwa’s looking good for his age!

Fans actually call Doctor Who’s star, Ncuti Gatwa (Sex Education) the Fifteenth Doctor (or ‘Fifteen’ if you’re in a hurry). This is because he’s actually the fourteenth actor to be the series lead, and the eighteenth to play the Doctor in the show overall. And, yes, those numbers don’t seem to add up but that’s Doctor Who for you. Within the show, though, he just introduces himself as ‘The Doctor,’ or the obvious pseudonym ‘John Smith.’

‘Doctor Who’ isn’t the character’s name, but rather the show’s title playing on the fact we don’t know who he is!

One Doctor’s era only lasted for one TV movie, while another stayed in the role for seven straight seasons. But on average, each Doctor’s reign lasts about three seasons. As for Gatwa, he’s already almost finished filming his second season and says he’s no plans to move on soon.

The only thing you really need to understand is that a huge part of the show’s longevity has been thanks to the way it can change the show’s lead actor while still keeping the same character.

 

Do they really not expect us to notice it’s a different actor?

The changeover is actually part of the story. Being an alien, the Doctor has a special ability called ‘regeneration.’ You can think of it as being like Wolverine’s healing factor, except it only kicks in when the Doctor is mortally wounded. So they can’t instantly heal scrapes and bumps, or broken limbs. But if they’re on the point of death, they can heal themselves and recover. Unfortunately for the Doctor, but conveniently for decades of showrunners, it heals every cell in their body, whether it needs to or not. And the process leaves every cell healthy and renewed, but slightly different than before. This means the Doctor completely changes their appearance (or rather actor) each time.

More than that, because even their brain cells are effected, their personality can change to a lesser or greater extent, as with some real life cases of head trauma. Regeneration gives each actor a chance to stamp their own take on the role, rather than simply copy their predecessors. However, the character’s core values and experiences remain the same. As the Eleventh Doctor said when he was near the end: all of us are different people all through our lives. The important thing is to never forget all the people that you used to be.

The Doctor’s been men and women, black and white. But never, to their continued disappointment, a redhead. If you haven’t already checked them out, last year’s specials are also on Disney+ right now, starring David Tennant (Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Star Wars: Ashoka) as the Doctor.

 

William Hartnell as The Doctor, Jaqueline Hill as Barbara Wright, William Russell as Ian Chesterton and Carole Ann Ford as Susan in the new colour version of The Daleks ,BBC,Archive Doctor Who
William Hartnell (left) was the first Doctor, piloting a familiar, but rather less vast, version of the TARDIS ,BBC,Archive

Okay, so that’s who the Doctor is, but what’s he do?

As we mentioned, despite his human appearance, the Doctor’s an alien, with his two hearts his most obviously non-human feature. His earliest memories are of growing up on the planet Gallifrey, before he graduated from the Academy to become one of the world’s ruling class: the Time Lords. The Time Lords wielded vast powers over time and space. But as the years went past the Doctor found it impossible to live under their most sacred rule, similar to Star Trek’s Prime Directive, not to intervene in the histories of other worlds.

Eventually the Doctor stole an old, obsolete and broken down time machine, the TARDIS, from a repair yard and ran away. Since then the Doctor’s done little else but intervene. In particular, he has a real affection for the planet Earth and has swept in to save it from alien invasion (or sometimes humankind’s own hubris) more times than he can count.

But the Doctor also saves plenty of alien worlds, or just helps out random strangers in trouble. Sometimes they’ve even stepped in to save aliens from us, with Earth’s future including some periods of colonial expansion. The Doctor likes humans, but he’ll stand up against humanity if and when he needs to.

In recent years, the Time Lords have been all but wiped out, leaving the Doctor alone in the universe. But he also now knows that he was adopted – found alone on an unnamed planet and brought to Gallifrey as a child. Could his original family still be out there somewhere waiting for him?

 

And the Doctor does all this alone?

Thousands of years old at this stage, the Doctor may be physically youthful thanks to regeneration, but he keeps himself mentally young by travelling with younger friends (or ‘companions’ as they’re usually known.) Most of the time these are humans from around the same year as broadcast to provide audience identification figures. Down the years these have included school teachers, scientists, flight attendants, medical students, and retired bus drivers. And now, Ruby Sunday.

The Doctor’s also made countless friends and allies across time and space. In particular since 1970 the show has featured irregular appearances by UNIT. The Unified Intelligence Taskforce (originally the ‘United Nations Intelligence Taskforce’ until the puzzled real UN started to get odd questions about it) is 20th and 21st century Earth’s first line of defence when the Doctor’s not around. Other recurring friends for the Doctor include the ‘Paternoster Gang,’ a trio of private detectives in Victorian London, led by the reptilian Madame Vastra alongside her human wife Jenny and their potato headed alien butler Strax. Who knows, maybe even the Doctor’s wife River Song will show up at some point! (Husband and wife time travellers makes synching calendars for date night murder.)

 

The Alliance - Doctor Who - The Pandorica Opens (c) BBC
The Doctor and his friends have faced many different enemies down the years (c) BBC

But I guess they make lots of enemies too?

Most of the time it only takes once for the Doctor to stop a villain’s plots for good. But there are some that have become part of his ongoing rogues gallery. Ever since the show’s second ever story 60 years ago, the Daleks have been our hero’s greatest foe. Genetically engineered creatures designed to hate all other forms of life, they’re obsessed with taking over the universe and exterminating what they view as the lesser races. Though incredibly intelligent, they’re physically relatively weak, and largely reliant on their armoured, and heavily armed, battle machines.

The Cybermen are in their own way even more terrifying. Once human, they replaced more and more of their bodies with mechanical upgrades until little more than the brain was left. And even the brain has been modified to remove all emotion. The Cybermen prize their own survival over all else, and believe the best way to ensure that is to force the rest of humanity to become cyborgs like themselves. (And just for the record, they debuted over 20 years before the Borg.)

The Master is an evil Time Lord and the Doctor’s direct opposite. Once close school friends, they now battle each other across all of time and space. While the Doctor wants to explore and experience the universe in all its diversity and complexity, the Master wants to conquer it all and force it to conform to their will. But sometimes, just sometimes, it seems the old bond between the two reappears to prevent them completely destroying each other.

 

So it always one of these archenemies?

The above classic bad guys show up pretty regularly. But typically only once each every couple of years. None of them are appearing this year, as far as we know, as they focus on creating new ones. But Ncuti Gatwa for one has been saying he wants a Dalek episode soon!

Recent addition to the rogues gallery include the Weeping Angels; terrifying stone assassins who can only move when you’re not looking at them, and sadistically delight in their victims’ fear. Then there’s the Ood, squid faced aliens whose spotless manners only make them scarier when possessed by powerful psychic forces. And the gaunt, black suited Silence are instantly forgotten as soon as the victims look away, enabling them to rule the Earth from the shadows for generations. All in pursuit of their ultimate goal: the Doctor’s death.

Every season finds new monsters to add, and thrilling new ways to make everything from blinking to breathing scary. And this new season promises even more new terrors for the Doctor and Ruby to face.

 

Doctor Who: Time Fracture. A new immersive experience coming to London in 2020 (c) BBC Studios/Immersive Everywhere
‘That Blue Box Thing’ – the TARDIS: the best spaceship in science fiction (c) BBC Studios/Immersive Everywhere

And that blue box thing?

One thing almost everyone knows about Doctor Who is that it’s ‘that Blue Box show.’ That’s the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) and with the Doctor regularly changing, it’s the show’s most enduring icon. The TARDIS is the Doctor’s gateway to adventure, a space/time machine that can bring him and his friends anywhere and anywhen.

More than a machine, she’s alive. In fact, there’s some disagreement about who stole who – the TARDIS herself maintaining that she stole herself a Time Lord because she wanted to see the universe. Except for a couple of exceptions, the TARDIS can’t talk as such. But she’s equipped with telepathic circuits, and the Doctor often describes the art of TARDIS travel as not so much piloting but negotiation on where to go. For her part, the TARDIS claims her job isn’t to bring the Doctor where they want to go, but where they need to be.

Or it might be just that the TARDIS isn’t very reliable. After all, that distinctive appearance as a tall blue box is because the ‘chameleon circuit’ is broken. The TARDIS is supposed to change shape every where she lands in order to blend in with the surroundings but after a visit to 1963 in the very first episode it got stuck in the shape of a Police Box – a pre-mobile phone way to contact the police in an emergency. However, you have to hand it to the TARDIS: that trick of being bigger on the inside is impressive!

 

So that’s the transport. But what sort of weapons does the Doctor have?

The Doctor doesn’t do guns. In fact they rarely uses any kind of weapon at all if they can help it. But they also always has their trusty sonic screwdriver by his side. Though it’s had almost as many incarnations as the Doctor down the years (the current version is dubbed the ‘organic pebble teddy bear’ edition by the design team) it’s always been a useful multi-tool. Over the years, it’s done everything from picking locks, to hacking computers. From time to time its even unscrewed screws! But it’s always there to help a hero who never carries a weapon out of a tight corner. In many ways, it’s symbolic of the way the Doctor likes to do thinks. It’s not a weapon to attack with, but a tool that, together with intelligence and imagination, can build solutions.

 

Anything else we need to know?

Just that Doctor Who continues on Disney+ internationally, and on BBC One in the UK and Ireland, next weekend with Boom!

 

Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON) & The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA) ,BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon Doctor Who Boom
Ruby Sunday (MILLIE GIBSON) & The Doctor (NCUTI GATWA)
,BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,James Pardon

Doctor Who continues next Friday at midnight BST with Boom on iPlayer in the UK, and on Disney+ everywhere else except Ireland

 

 

 

 

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