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Significant characters and concepts
"Hello, I'm the Doctor."
(The Doctor, not "Doctor Who"), a Human Alien who travels through time and space. He started off as an Anti-Hero (or even Anti-Villain) but soon settled into the hero role. He usually (though not always) functions as the series' moral center.
"So, you're my replacements, hm? A dandy and a clown!"—The First Doctor, "The Three Doctors"
One of the key abilities of the Doctor, which has helped the show's longevity to a huge degree, is his ability to "regenerate." When faced with imminent death, he transforms into a basically different person, with an entirely new appearance and altered personality -- but the same memories as the previous incarnation. These moments, of which eight have actually been seen on screen so far (the Second and Eighth Doctors regenerated off-screen), are usually as big and dramatic as they sound.
The tone surrounding regenerations has changed over the years. Early regenerations were treated as a mere change in appearance. For example, when the Second Doctor was forcibly regenerated into the Third, his main concern was his new appearance. Newer episodes treat regeneration more like an actual death. The Tenth Doctor says that when he regenerates, it feels like he dies and a new man takes his place.
The Doctor has been played by eleven different actors in the TV series to date.  That's them in the picture at the top of the main page.
The "current" Doctor, the eleventh incarnation, is played by Matt Smith. This form's persona is of an eccentric scatter-brained old professor in a young man's body.
In anniversaries, the different regenerations will often meet, and sometimes outside of anniversaries. The records for most times returning are the Second Doctor in canon (The Three Doctors, The Two Doctors, The Five Doctors) and the Sixth Doctor overall (The One Doctor, The Two Doctors, Dimensions in Time, The Eight Doctors, The Four Doctors).
The sonic screwdriver
First used by the Second Doctor in "Fury from the Deep", this has now become an iconic item carried by the Doctor and has had at least seven different versions to date, not counting future ones. Basically a fancy tube with a light in prop form, it has a wide variety of functions including opening most locked doors, accessing computer information and actually being a screwdriver. What it doesn't do is triplicate the flammability of port. Neither does it do wood. Yes this is ironic.
Have you ever thought what it's like, to be wanderers in the fourth dimension?—The First Doctor, An Unearthly Child
Stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space (but not In Space!) A combination Cool Ship, Living Ship, Sapient Ship, Alleged Ship, Time Machine and Bigger on the Inside (the trope-namer for that last one), who as well as having Time Travel abilities and the power to traverse the universe, can do pretty much anything. In a subversion, while the TARDIS is a product of Time Lord über-tech, it was gradually revealed as old, obsolete, and barely functional. It's gotten worse since then--like the alien equivalent of a jalopy held together with duct tape--though it's still light years ahead of all other such technology currently known to exist. The TARDIS dematerialisation noise is the distorted sound of a door key being scraped along the bass strings of a piano. This sound effect, dating back to the very first serial in the sixties, is still used as of today, and still gives millions an inevitable chill through their spines whenever they hear it.
It's Bigger on the Inside (to this day, nobody knows exactly how big other than "ridiculously huge") and has the exterior appearance (because the chameleon circuit broke in the first episode) of a police box. That appearance has become so iconic of the show that when the BBC trademarked the TARDIS in 1996, the British police took them to court over it and lost!
The Doctor is rarely alone in his travels. For the purposes of Exposition and for someone the audience can identify with, he has had a large number of companions (mostly non-romantic, though Fanfic disagrees). In the show's very early days, he just traveled with his granddaughter and two of her high school teachers--who, in the very first episode, he actually kidnapped in a He Knows Too Much scenario. The idea was that the companions would be the "point-of-view" characters for the audience at home, in contrast to the mysterious, anti-heroic Doctor. Even as the Doctor became more identifiable and less of a curmudgeon, the companion remains the human element to tie him down, especially post-revival. They also give him someone to talk to. In The Deadly Assassin, the lone serial without a companion (other than Mission to the Unknown, which didn't feature the Doctor, and The Doctor The Widow And The Wardrobe, which featured substitutes) the writers found it difficult to explain what he was thinking. In-universe, he claims that he's "lonely", while others have surmised the same and that he "needs someone to stop him" from making drastic and, sometimes, awful decisions to rectify situations.
Companions are predominantly human, young, female, and attractive. In the early episodes there would also be a companion who was young, male, and heroic. Sometimes they are humanoid aliens, or, famously, a robot dog. They have joined and left the TARDIS for various reasons. The Doctor reserves the right to kick a companion out of the TARDIS for bad behaviour (The Long Game is the only episode in which he has done it so far), or to take on a new companion even over the objections of present companions. Classic Series companions tended to have few or no ties to their homes (and often lose such ties, like in The Evil of the Daleks), and--anniversary specials aside--did not cross paths with the Doctor after leaving the TARDIS. RTD era companions don't divide their lives as neatly: they continue to interact with their families while away with the Doctor, and with the Doctor before, after or between their travels with him. SM era companions are like the Classic Who companions.
It's most common for the Doctor to have one companion along at a time, though periods with two (standard formula for the First and Second Doctors, and briefly the Fourth Doctor) or even three companions (Susan, Barbara and Ian - or Nyssa, Tegan and Adric) are not unknown. Older Doctors usually referred to their companions as "friends" or "assistants"; Recent Doctors, in a bit of Ascended Fanon, tend to use "companion".
Female companions are stereotyped in pop culture memory as helpless screaming women, and the males were stereotyped as Action Heroes (and the show accused of sexism), but a number of the females have been surprisingly kickass (Sarah Jane, Leela), and some males have been quite accident-prone (Adric, Rory). They're not always female, either.
See also : List of characters.
UNIT, Torchwood Institute, etc.
"Ah, Doctor, glad you could make it."
Secret (or, in some stories, not-so-secret) organizations designed to kick alien ass and/or aid the Doctor. UNIT, a Unified (originally United Nations) Intelligence Taskforce that deals specifically with alien or superscientific threats, was introduced in 1968. Torchwood, an organisation funded by the British royalty (as opposed to the government) with the specific aim of arming The British Empire with alien technology, was introduced in the 2005 Christmas special, ten months before the Darker and Edgier spinoff series.
The Doctor detests Torchwood on general principle (the feeling is mutual--the Doctor is specifically named in Torchwood's charter as its first alien enemy known), though Captain Jack, former companion and leader of Torchwood 3 , has been doing his best to change the Doctor's mind. The Doctor's relations with UNIT are much more cordial--he's even worked for UNIT, as a scientific advisor, for much of his third incarnation and occasionally since then--though he has little patience with its bureaucracy, established procedures, and chains of command, just as he did with his own people's.
The Evolving Show
First, a quick note: Classic Who tends to be referred to by serial, not by episode. A serial is a multi-episode story. For most of the show's history--aside from a little experimentation with 45 minute episodes--episodes lasted 25 minutes (give or take a few minutes). From the early '70s onwards, serials were usually four episodes in length, with six or two episode serials here and there. During the McCoy years, when the series had its number of episodes halved, the production team instituted a mix of three episode and four episode serials. A few one-off epic serials lasting 8 (The Invasion), 10 (The War Games), 12 (The Daleks Master Plan) and even 14 (Trial of a Time Lord) episodes were also broadcast.
The 14-episode The Trial of a Time Lord arc was officially split into 4 stories, however all 14 episodes carried the single title, and "Part 10" , "Part 13", etc.
Generally, serials weren't continuity-heavy; one self-contained story ended and another began. Some might be loosely linked: by a common villain, for instance. But sometimes serials followed on very closely, and are thematically linked to such an extent that a Story Arc takes up a whole season. The whole of season 16, for instance, is informally called "The Key to Time", and Season 23 was presented as a single fourteen episode story "The Trial of a Time Lord", though it was, in fact made up of four separate stories with a Framing Device.
The show isn't formatted into serials since its return. It follows the more recent pattern of The X-Files, Buffy, etc., of standalone episodes (sometimes with two-parters and even one three-parter) that develop a season-long (or longer!) arc.
Doctor Who serials vary wildly in its style and tone, depending on writers and executive producers. Serials and episodes range from comedic to gothic or nihilistic, and the Science Fiction goes all over the place on Mohs Scale of Sci Fi Hardness. Officially there have been 224 serials aired to date, counting season 24's The Trial of a Time Lord as one arc, and not counting the abandoned Shada. That Other Wiki has them all numbered at the bottom of this page. Since the series returned in 2005 there have also been 5 canonical mini-episodes broadcast as of March 2011, each lasting no more than 8 minutes, aired as charity specials or during special events. Making matters even more confusing, BBC Radio has also produced or co-produced a number of audio-only Doctor Who serials since 1985.
The above number 224 does not include the 2 Comic Relief mini-episodes aired in March 2011, the Children in Need episodes aired in 2005 and 2007, and the mini-episode produced for the 2009 Doctor Who at the Proms concert special, or Shada. If you count Shada and Trial of a Time Lord as four, this makes 228. The mini episodes are rarely counted - if spinoffs are including, that's probably the only time you'll see them.
Those aspects of the show that would normally be set by the series creator--style, tone, mythology--are largely the province of the executive producer, or showrunner, who may or may not write episodes. Over its forty years, the show has seen several executive producers (producers in the old days), each of whom has left his or her mark for better or for worse. Every showrunner is, for some fan, the one who Ruined It Forever. Possibly even Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman, who co-created the show.
Children's or Family Show
Technically, the BBC classify (and have always classified) Doctor Who as a drama series, created under the aegis of BBC Drama, rather than a children's series under the aegis of the BBC Children's department. The Beeb has no such thing as a "Family Show" department.
That said, of the most controversial discussions in fandom is whether Doctor Who is a (to quote a line from a newspaper article which used to explain the show's appeal on the blurbs of the novelizations) "the children's own program that adults adore", a "family show" or a "dark and edgy show like Battlestar Galactica meets The X-Files, at midnight in an unlit cellar! Constant death and misery! Pain! Lots of pain!" That Doctor Who can plausibly be described in all of these terms is a possible key to its long-term appeal. In the opinion of Steven Moffat it's fundamentally a children's programme that adults can appreciate; if an episode of Doctor Who isn't keeping kids entertained, it isn't doing its job properly. A large part of this disagreement is down to the fact that most American Who fans would have discovered the show as teens or adults, while many older Brits remember the show as a ubiquitous childhood favorite. An examination of broadcast schedules for the show around the world reveals the schism in its audience: in the UK, the show traditionally airs around the supper hour on Saturdays. In the US, Canada, and other countries the "classic" series is often shown late at night, and newer episodes often air in prime time, often at "late hours" such as 8 and 9 PM.
Doctor Who was originally intended to be an educational show explaining science and history to children in an entertaining science-fiction context (this is why two of the first three companions were a science teacher and a history teacher). However, the popularity of the outer-space romps and outlandish aliens (particularly the Daleks) eventually shifted the series' emphasis from education to adventure. The TARDIS' police box appearance was, apparently, a matter of budget. Just as the Star Trek transporters papered over the Enterprise's budgetary inability to send shuttles, the TARDIS' supposed shape-shifting circuit was jammed from the outset to avoid having to create a new TARDIS prop for each episode. The First Doctor acts as if this is the first time it's happened: "It's still a police box! Why hasn't it changed? Dear dear, how very disturbing."
Since the beginning, the show has had a high number of deaths which are unpleasant in many cases (the show has been mild on blood since it returned). However, sometimes the level of violence and gore can be downright brutal, ranging from stabbing to graphic dismemberments, impalements, blood squibs and implied decapitation. The show occasionally features difficult subject matter such as implied rape, racial hatred, genocide, drug use and very discreet references to child molestation.
In The Sixties and The Seventies, BBC policy was to junk or overwrite the media of television programs that had already aired The upshot is that, out of around 700 episodes filmed, 106 are lost, with William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton's eras being the most affected, though audio tapes of all missing episodes still exist from fans who made recordings of the show when it aired (the BBC has released most of these commercially on cassette and CD, and occasionally have also produced reconstructions of missing episodes for DVD using them). Every Jon Pertwee onwards episode still exists, though a number of them exist only in black and white even though they were filmed in colour. There are currently 106 episodes missing.
A life-size Dalek is being offered for anyone who can find a missing episode.
There is also a lot of material on episodes that weren't made (such as the original Season 23, which would have included the return of the Celestial Toymaker, the Autons, and the Ice Warriors), some of which has been used by Big Finish, a production company that since 1999 has produced more than 100 BBC-licensed and sanctioned Doctor Who audio dramas featuring original cast members.
In 2006, the BBC and animation studio Cosgrove Hall released an animated reconstruction of Parts 1 and 4 of Patrick Troughton serial "The Invasion", using remastered audio tapes and the original stage notes. For the next few years, fans were disappointed that no similar reconstructions were made, with the company in charge of releasing episodes to DVD claiming that it was too expensive to hire an animation company to do a couple of one-off episodes. However, in 2011 it was announced that "The Reign of Terror" would be released in 2012 with two missing episodes similarly reconstructed.
No discussion of the show is complete without mentioning its Theme Tune, which has a number of variations (as do the logos and Title Sequences). The original 1963 version of the Doctor Who theme is a hallmark of pre-synthesizer electronic music and, when paired with the trippy feedback titles, looked forward to late-60s psychedelica. Ron Grainer composed the music, and Delia Derbyshire, working in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, realized it by taping a variety of electronic tones and distorted instruments, and splicing the tapes together by hand over many hours. It was so popular that it was one of the Trope Codifiers of early Electronic Music.
The original theme recording was used, with various edits and mixes, until 1980, when a totally new recording was made by Radiophonic Workshop member Peter Howell. Subsequent remixes were provided by Dominic Glynn, Keff McCulloch and John Debney (Debney arranged the theme for the American TV movie). All of the themes since the show returned have been arranged by Murray Gold, with the first (Series 1-3) remixing the original recording with orchestral and electronic embellishments, and was extended for the start of Series 2 to include a tribute to the 'Middle Eight' section of the original theme. Another version was recorded for Series 4, this one with more of a rock-n-roll feel (electric guitar, bass and drumkit). This theme was remixed for the the four specials that transitioned from Ten to Eleven with an orchestral backing. There's a rather different one for Series 5, featuring electronic instruments in a more central position as well as a strong brass sound at the beginning.
Along with countless books and semi-canonical audio/video releases, the show has three official television spin-offs: Darker and Edgier Torchwood (bisexual alien hunters in Cardiff); the (somewhat) Lighter and Softer The Sarah Jane Adventures (beloved ex-companion and a handful of Meddling Kids fight aliens in London); and K 9 by Park Entertainment, which was filmed in Australia and initially aired in Scandinavia in early 2010 before being broadcast on a UK cable network in the summer of 2010 and a terrestrial network there in the autumn; a US broadcast has yet to occur as of May 2011. It also falls into the Lighter and Softer category. A fourth spinoff, K-9 & Company, was stillborn in 1981, only producing a pilot episode. A fifth, Rose Tyler: Earth Defence, was actually given space in the BBC budget before the production team went back on the idea. There is also a behind the scenes documentary series called Doctor Who Confidential which has immediately followed every episode since "Rose" on BBC Three. An additional behind the scenes series, aimed more for children, was titled Totally Doctor Who and aired for two series; its primary claim to fame was broadcasting the first-ever animated Doctor Who serial for television, The Infinite Quest, in 2007.
The pop culture impact
It has to be remembered that, during its most successful periods, the show has had a huge UK level of popularity, well above stereotypical "cult TV" or SF genre audiences. Current audience figures are regularly about 7 to 8 million an episode (with about 10 million for Christmas specials), often putting it within the top twenty or even ten broadcasts of the week, equivalent in US terms to something like 40 million viewers based on proportion of the population- some episodes from the classic series have clocked more than that, with "City of Death" getting an average of 14.5 million, although ITV was suffering from a strike at the time, and there were only three channels back then. It is beaten consistently in the UK only by Talent Shows and major sporting events (though "Journey's End" trounced Wimbledon), and often holds its own against Soap Operas (though this wasn't the case in the waning days of the classic series in the late 1980s when it was constantly beaten by Coronation Street). It is probably the only non Talent Show or Soap Opera to regularly have spoilers (accurate or not) appear in the mass market tabloid press.
The show, because of its heyday in the seventies and eighties, has resulted in children growing up and starting careers for the sole purpose of working on the show: Russell T. Davies started his screenwriting career with a (failed) submission to the BBC; David Tennant has confessed that the show got him into acting; and Steven Moffat has joked that he applied to be the executive producer when he was seven. Other people on the show also work so their kids can see their parents in something that's not inappropriate, such as John Simm, known more for gritty dramas before taking the role of the Master. Even if an actor wasn't a fan when he was a kid, it's almost certain their little kid will be.
The Daleks themselves are the show's most famous villains and instantly recognizable to any Briton. There was a major bout of "Dalekmania" in 1964-65, which nearly resulted in a Dalek-themed US produced show.
Unfortunately, in the United States, the show isn't as widely popular and is often considered the territory of nerds and public television. The 1996 movie was partially an attempt to gain enough American recognition to warrant an American co-produced revival of the series (which failed). Since its revival in 2005, the show has been acknowledged by the mainstream television press as among the best shows on television, and pulls consistently high ratings for a basic (when it was on Sci Fi Channel) and digital (now that it's on BBC America) cable television show. In fact, "The Impossible Astronaut" is the highest rated BBC America programme in the network's history. Since "A Christmas Carol" at Christmas 2010, the show now airs in the United States only a few hours after its original British airing (except for "The Almost People" and "A Good Man Goes To War", both delayed one week due to Memorial Day weekend). Compare this to the weeks or months of wait that Sci Fi Channel imposed on fans when they aired the first four revival series. An example of the show's slow acceptance into American pop culture is the parody Inspector Spacetime, which appeared as a Show Within a Show on the third season premiere of the sitcom Community, which has become a bit of meme here at TV Tropes (sadly, given Community's own low ratings and cult status, that isn't exactly a mainstream mention just yet).
This Very Wiki is proof of how much of a phenomenon the series has become - we have a page for guessing if characters are members of the Doctor's race.
- ↑ Not his real name, hardly anyone knows his real name, but the viewers might learn it soon thanks to Steven Moffat.
- ↑ Except when it is, like in The Highlanders
- ↑ That sound you heard was all the hardcore Who-fans going "Actually..." Some of the more knowledgeable ones can tell you which Doctors were played by more than one actor.
- ↑ or, alternatively, Time And Relative Dimensions In Space
- ↑ The Doctor's tried to fix it a couple of times, but eventually gave up - the in-story reason being that he'd grown fond of the police box appearance
- ↑ unless the companion in question is Sarah Jane Smith, who did indeed return in the RTD era episode "School Reunion" and was a mite ticked about being ignored for thirty years
- ↑ until Torchwood: Miracle Day, when he takes command of a kind of resistance movement of the same name
- ↑ Yes, this was short-sighted, but give them a bit of a break--the tapes they used were very expensive, and they didn't view such ephemera as having lasting cultural value, and there was no such thing as a "home video" secondary market. In addition, union performance contracts of the day only allowed for so many broadcasts of a programme.
- ↑ Try not to think too hard about the fact that the apparently 'family-appropriate' role is a genocidal psychopath