Doctor Who is a BBC science fiction television programme originally created in 1963. It centres around a character named The Doctor, who travels around the universe in a time machine called the TARDIS ("Time and Relative Dimension in Space"), which resembles a 1950s British Police phone box, but is considerably larger on the inside than it is on the outside.
The programme ran for twenty-six seasons between 1963 and 1989, at which point it was canceled indefinitely. Various forms of the series continued after the cancellation, with popular series of novels published by Target and then BBC Books, along with audio serials and re-releases of past episodes on VHS and DVD. Since 2005, a "new series" has been produced by BBC Wales.
The Doctor has the ability to regenerate his body when mortally weakened, a useful plot device that has allowed the role to be played on TV by eleven different actors so far.
William Hartnell (1963-66)
The first actor to play the Doctor portrayed him as a cantankerous old man. Initially a somewhat dark character, he became more grandfatherly in later episodes. Hartnell's era introduced the most well-known of the Doctor's foes, the Daleks.
Patrick Troughton (1966-1969)
Troughton's Doctor was an impish figure, whose gimmicks included playing the recorder. In this period, much of which is lost, the program felt the influence of Star Trek somewhat.
Jon Pertwee (1970-1974)
The third Doctor was Earth-bound for much of his tenure, a move that was partly motivated by budgeting constraints in production. In the stories themselves, this was explained by the Doctor's race - the Time Lords - imposing an exile upon him due to alleged crimes prosecuted in The War Games. During this time, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce ("UNIT") was a key element of plots - the Doctor was officially UNIT's scientific advisor, but he frequently attempts to break free of the Time Lords' imposition of exile.
Tom Baker (1974-1981)
Arguably the most well-known Doctor, Baker, with his seven-foot long scarf and fondness for jelly babies played the role for longer than any other actor. Considered to be an "eccentric" character, he was capable both of representing human attributes and being aloof and of being detached from others around him.
Peter Davison (1981-1984)
The fifth Doctor became something of a vulnerable character, which was a conscious decision by the production team (led by John Nathan-Turner) to remove the aura of invincibility that they had felt was becoming part of the Doctor's characterization with Tom Baker. Shown to be a keen cricket fan, the Doctor was arguably more human than any of his predecessors and often relied more on his companions to assist throughout his missions.
Colin Baker (1984-1986)
The sixth Doctor was premised around being the antithesis of his predecessor, with his garish and color-mismatched costume reflecting the vast contrast with the mild-mannered fifth Doctor. In terms of characterization, the Doctor became something of an unstable character, often violently responding to people and events around him.
Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989)
After the departure of Colin Baker, McCoy's depiction of the Doctor saw the series shift mood considerably. Early stories within the era depicted a somewhat comic and light-hearted Doctor, but over time the Doctor's character became steadily darker - a development that has been commonly described as making the Doctor a manipulating, scheming character who influenced events like a chess game.
Paul McGann (1996)
McGann played the role for a television movie, with the creation of a new series by US producers dependent on the success of the movie. This was never made. The Doctor himself was perhaps more human than any other, with the revelation that he was "half-human" on his mother's side and displaying far greater emotional response than in the past. McGann would not be seen as the Eighth Doctor for another 17 years, until The Night of the Doctor, the minisode prequel to the 50th anniversary special, where he regenerated into his next incarnation.
John Hurt (2013)
Prior to the 50th anniversary, it was believed that at some point between the 1996 movie and the 2005 series restart, the Eighth Doctor regenrated into the Ninth Doctor during the Time War. However, in the minisode prequel The Night of the Doctor, it is revealed that the Eighth Doctor regenerated into another incarnation called the War Doctor. In The Day of the Doctor, which is the 50th anniversary special, the War Doctor is shown to be someone who has seen much, as this incarnation fought in the Time War.
Christopher Eccleston (2005)
The first Doctor in the "new series" created by Russell T. Davies, Eccleston's portrayal saw much of the eccentricity of the past integrated into the ninth regeneration of the Doctor. An indefinite amount of time has elapsed since he was last seen on television screens, and it is clear that the events of the Time War have scarred him: he is the last of the Time Lord race, or so he thinks. His character reflected a manic unpredictability that saw him capable of both compassion and apathy while maintaining a love-hate relationship with humans.
David Tennant (2006-2010)
The next actor to play the Doctor was also well-known beforehand (Casanova, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). His portrayal was more humorous and vivacious than Eccleston's. Yet, much anger and survivor's guilt was still present in his character. He destroyed the daleks again in "The Parting of Ways". Tennant was the first actor to be credited as "The Doctor" as opposed to "Doctor Who", a trend which Matt Smith kept.
Matt Smith (2010-2013)
Matt Smith is the youngest actor to play the role, and his portrayal of the Doctor was again very different. Despite being such a young actor, his character often has the feel of an old, wise man. He is much more eccentric and "alien" than his previous two incarnations, and while he seems to have mostly resolved his anger and survivor's guilt towards the time war, he can display a scary amount of anger towards percieved injustices (as with all Doctors), or towards those who have hurt his friends. This particular Doctor is being hunted by a mysterious religious order known as "The Silence", who believe that "Silence will/must fall" if the oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight, should ever be answered - "Doctor Who?".
Peter Capaldi (2013-Current)
Making his first appearance in closing moments of The Time of the Doctor, Peter Capaldi (best known for his role as Malcolm Tucker in the BBC drama, The Thick of It) is the first of a new regeneration cycle for the Doctor. Set to make his first regular appearance in Series 8, which is said to start Fall 2014, show runner Steven Moffat has promised a more raw turn for the Twelfth Doctor. Capaldi also made a guest appearance as Caecilius in the Series 4 episode, The Fires of Pompeii, which also saw Karen Gillan (Amy Pond) as a Soothsayer. Coincidentally, Capaldi also appeared in the 2013 film, World War Z, where he played a character called the WHO Doctor.
Political and Social Themes
Several stories in the series have been subtly or overtly political in their themes. For instance, The Green Death (1973) emphasized the dangers of pollution and big business; while the following year's Invasion of the Dinosaurs featured a contrasting menace -- pro-environment extremists. Other stories have taken their themes from current news stories of the time, such as the United Kingdom's entry into the Common Market. Many of these pro-liberal stories came during the period where the show was produced by Barry Letts, whose heavily liberal and environmentalist views shaped a lot of stories in the early 1970s. Apart from this period, the original series generally did not have a particularly heavily political leaning, and in fact The Sun Makers (1977) was a conservative story that told of the dangers of heavy taxes and overly complex governments.
In a recent episode, the Daleks - Doctor Who's most dangerous enemy, a race of creatures who are physically shriveled and weak, but who are contained within an armored tank-like body - take over Manhattan. They ruthlessly exploit workers engaged in construction and repair on the Empire State Building. This was reported in the British newspaper The Independent as a metaphor for the rampant abuse of capitalism. The lead writer of Dr. Who, Russell T Davies is known for aggressively promoting the gay agenda in his prior show Queer as Folk and continuing to promote it in Doctor Who (despite the fact that the show is supposed to be geared towards a young audience), with many openly gay or bisexual (or as the show jokes "omnisexual" due to relations with aliens) characters, including the lead of the spin-off Torchwood, Captain Jack Harkness. Davies' attitude has been contrasted with that of John Nathan-Turner, the final producer of the original series who, while being publicly known as a homosexual, never allowed this to overtly influence the stories written while he produced the show.
At the same time Matt Smith took over the lead role in the show, Russel T Davies was replaced as lead writer by Stephen Moffat. While gay and bisexual characters still appear in the show since Stephen Moffat took over, they do so in a more realistically low proportion, and less attention is drawn to their sexual orientation than it was under Russel T Davies - as in, a smattering of characters who happen to be gay, as opposed to a high proportion of characters for whom their sexual orientation is their primary feature. In Stephen Moffat's 51st century, the church has changed a lot, becoming more of a spiritual military force. Most church soldiers hold the rank "Cleric", and fall under the command of Bishops, all dressed in rather standard military uniforms. Most members of the church are given a "sacred name", such as a Biblical name or the same of a saint, although the (also militarised) Anglican denomination allows members to have descriptions rather than names, such as "The thin, fat, gay, married Anglican marines", who jokingly ask why they would need names with such a descriptive title (the individual men being known as "The thin one" and "The fat one"). This would appear to indicate that in the fictional future of Doctor Who, the Anglican denomination (and possibly others) have accepted same sex marriage.
Doctor Who is one of the best known cultural phenomena in the United Kingdom, and the iconic TARDIS is particularly well known.. It has been parodied many times by Family Guy, The Simpsons and other mainstream comedies. Doctor Who paraphernalia can be found in most conventions and at sites like Amazon.
Around the world, Doctor Who can be seen on:
- BBC One or BBC Three in the UK
- CBC Television and Space Channel in Canada
- BBC America in the US, or via Netflix
- ABC in Australia