What better way to catch up on the sci-fi craze of Doctor Who than with animated GIFs?
You’ve heard your friends go on about Doctor Who in a way you haven’t seen since the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But for a show that’s been airing on and off for 50 years, it’s not too late to jump in. Here’s an easy-to-understand, GIF-based primer with 13 facts about Doctor Who that will get you up to speed and into the current season.
1. The Time Lords
The main character is a Time Lord, a member of an ancient alien race that learned how to bend the laws of time to their will. The Doctor (whose real name we don’t know) is — at least in the revived series of Doctor Who — the last of his race. (Sort of. More on that later.)
While the fact that they’re all dead has allowed the series to romanticize them, most of the Time Lords we’ve met in the past are arrogant jerks who think little of the lesser races (like, say humans). This puts them in stark contrast to the Doctor, who’s a big fan of the human race, even if he does occasionally call us “stupid apes.”
This is probably why the Time Lords don’t like him very much, calling him a renegade and a thief. What did he steal? Why, a TARDIS, of course.
2. The TARDIS
The Doctor’s time traveling machine is called the TARDIS (which stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space) — and it doesn’t look like any space ship you might have seen in other sci-fi. The Doctor stole an older, decommissioned Type-40 TARDIS to explore the universe, but it’s still the most high-tech thing you’ll see on the show.
The TARDIS designed to camouflage itself to appear like it belongs in its surroundings… but when the early showrunners realized that changing the look of the ship every episode wouldn’t be cost-effective, they decided to nix this idea. When the series launched in 1963 in the UK, blue police boxes were a common sight in England, and the TARDIS took that form — and kept it, because its chameleon circuit malfunctioned. (And, apparently, the Doctor hasn’t found the time to fix it in the hundreds of years that have passed since.)
Also, it’s bigger on the inside, powered by an exploding star in the process of becoming a black hole suspended in a permanent state of decay (because…science!) and once took humanoid form to inform the Doctor that she stole him.
3. Time Travel
There are rules to prevent things from getting too timey-wimey (and to prevent “time travel” from being used to solve all of the problems the show encounters). Here are the main ones:
- You can’t enter your own timeline.
- Some events — the Doctor usually calls them “fixed points” — are so pivotal to history that they can’t be changed.
- To travel in time, you need some kind of machine, ship or device (the Time Lords themselves have no inherent time travel powers, they’re just clever).
But the biggest rule of all is that any of these rules can be broken for the sake of convenient storytelling — like how the show likes to do big specials with several Doctors crossing over their own time line — so take them with a grain of salt.
Historical tidbit: Doctor Who was originally intended to be at least semi-educational to appeal to children and families, and that’s a big reason for the time travel element. The Doctor and his companions — who were originally a science teacher and a history teacher — would go into the future and talk science, then go into the past and talk history. You know, for kids.
4. The Time War and the Daleks
The Time Lords’ mortal enemy is a race of aliens called The Daleks. Driven by pure, unadulterated hatred and bent on the total annihilation of all life in the universe, the Daleks conquered much of space and finally surrounded the Time Lord homeworld of Gallifrey with their warships. Desperate not to let them win, The Doctor used an ancient weapon that destroyed his home planet, but took the entire Dalek fleet with it.
This war took place before the revival in 2005, serving as a delineation between new Who and classic Who. Since the series was started again, the Doctor has been haunted by survivor’s guilt, knowing that he was responsible for the genocide of both his own race and the Daleks. (Even though the Daleks were evil, the Doctor had previously shied away from destroying them completely.) But as the show continued, it became clear that not all of the Daleks were destroyed… and even Gallifrey survived by being moved into a pocket universe and frozen in time. The Doctor doesn’t know where Gallifrey is anymore, but he’s looking.
Yes, the Daleks look like a giant pepper shaker with a toilet plunger and an egg beater stuck to them. (When they were introduced in 1963, the show was low budget. Really low budget.) And though they’ve kept the look, they come off as inhuman and thoroughly dangerous on the show — so much so that they are considered the iconic villains of the series.
When a Time Lord dies, due to injury or old age, they return to life through a process called regeneration. They can do this 12 times for a total of 13 lives. Each time they regenerate, they appear with a different face and a somewhat altered personality, though they share the same memories. This, of course, made it easy for the BBC to replace the main actor and keep the franchise going — a dilemma they were faced with when in 1966, first Doctor William Hartnell had to step down from the role due to deteriorating health.
The classic series ended with seven different actors having played the Doctor, an attempt to revive the series in 1996 with a TV movie gave us the Eighth Doctor, and the revived series has brought us Doctors Nine (Christopher Eccleston), Ten (David Tennant), Eleven (Matt Smith), and now Twelve (Peter Capaldi). And, yes, most fans refer to different incarnations of the Doctor by number.
The recent revelation that there was regeneration during the Time War — between the Eighth and Ninth Doctors — has thrown off the numbering, but most fans are keeping to the original system and simply referring to this in-between incarnation, played by John Hurt, as The War Doctor.
Because of the War Doctor regeneration, the so-called Eleventh Doctor had reached his final regeneration — but at the last minute was granted another full regeneration cycle by the Time Lords.
6. Matt Smith
Matt Smith played the Eleventh Doctor, the incarnation that came just before the current one played by Peter Capaldi. His manic portrayal of everyone’s favorite Time Lord was very popular and, despite being the youngest actor to ever take on the role (at age 26), he managed to create a character that seemed both young and old at the same time — an ideal Doctor.
His character’s trademark bow tie and obsession with hats were hallmarks of his style.
7. Peter Capaldi
A popular Scottish thespian, known primarily for his foul-mouthed character in the British comedy The Thick of It, Peter Capaldi took over as the Twelfth Doctor in August 2014. Capaldi’s darker take on the role is in stark contrast to the charming and playful Doctors in recent incarnations — now the character is blunt, to the point, and even a little mean.
The Doctor always likes to have a company to bring along on his adventures across space and time, and fans refer to them as “companions.” Though the show tends to cast young, good-looking women in the role of companion, we’ve also seen men, married couples, androids, and even a robot dog traveling in the TARDIS.
Eventually, however, all of his companions leave him — some outgrow adventuring, some run off to get married, some die, and some wind up in fates even worse than death… which leaves the Doctor as a rather lonely figure. He doesn’t talk very much about his companions, regardless of their fate.
9. Jenna Coleman
The current companion is Clara Oswald, played by Jenna Coleman, who was introduced during the run of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor. Initially her only role was largely to follow along and get captured by the bad guys, but with Capaldi’s Doctor she is starting to come into her own as smart, independent woman who questions the Doctor as much as helps him. Rumor has it that Coleman is leaving the show at the end of the year, which opens the door open for a new companion next season.
10. Steven Moffat
A writer on the show since its return in 2005, Steven Moffat wrote many of the most popular episodes of the time including The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace and the scary-ass demon garden statues episode that some considered one of the best, Blink — all of which won Hugo awards. In 2010 he took over as showrunner — meaning he writes many episodes, edits all episodes, and decides the show’s general direction — with the arrival of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor.
Reception of the series has been mixed since Moffat took over. Moffat’s fondness for clever stories worked great when he wrote an episode or two a season, but attempting to stretch the same ideas over an entire season has created stories that are less coherent… and with some alarmingly sexist overtones. However, the ratings are doing well — and are on the rise in America — so Moffat is expected to continue in the role through season 8 and 9, at least.
11. Sonic Screwdriver
The Doctor hates weapons almost as much as he hates soldiers. He doesn’t carry any weapons of his own (with the rare exception), but instead defeats armies and stares down intergalactic evil with his wits, his fast talking and his handy sonic screwdriver.
It’s basically used as a magic wand for all things technological. It can scan items to give him information (think Star Trek’s tricorders). It can also open locked doors, disable electronics (including weapons) and control computers. And every time the Doctor regenerates, his sonic screwdriver tends to get a new design as well.
12. Renegade Time Lords: The Master and The Rani
The Doctor’s arch-nemesis, The Master (most recently played by John Simm), is a renegade Time Lord that also survived the Time War. His goal is to rule the universe and hurt the Doctor as much as possible, the latter of which he manages to do every few years. The Master is supposedly dead… but that rarely seems to stick, so we may yet see him show up again.
The Rani is another renegade Time Lord — or, technically, Time Lady — who has served as the Doctor’s nemesis over the years. She’s usually less interested in world domination and more interested in science… though she rarely cares who or what she might hurt in the name of scientific progress. She’s not yet been seen in the new series, but rumors suggest she could show up this season.
13. The Christmas Special
Being considered a children’s show in Britain (with an enormous adult following), an extended-length special is made for the holidays. These stories are usually one-offs that may not tie into the rest of the season at all — but what they all have in common, of course, is a focus on Christmas.
The end result is usually fun, even if it’s not always very weighty, featuring a lot of running in the snow and the Doctor occasionally falling down chimneys (Christmas Eve on a rooftop. Saw a chimney, my whole brain just went ‘What the hell!). In the last Christmas special, however, was a big one, plot-wise, with the Doctor regenerating.
Now you’re more or less up to speed on all things Doctor Who… so you can head over to Netflix or Hulu to watch your way through the revived series or catch the latest episodes Saturday nights on BBC America. Geronimo!