The Newbie’s Gentle Guide to “Doctor Who”

Doctor Who begins anew on October 4th, and while a fresh Doctor is a pretty common thing — there’ve been 12 so far, after all — this time is extra special. Firstly because the Doctor will be played by a woman, of course. Secondly because this upcoming cast of companions is more diverse than ever. If you’re already familiar with the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey shenanigans of the TARDIS, you’re probably looking forward to Jodie Whittaker’s appearance with an equal mix of excitement and trepidation. If you’ve never even heard the phrase “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey,” you might be curious and confused. Well, don’t worry; this guide is just for you!


Who is the Doctor?

The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who has taken a special liking to earth in his 2,000-year-long life. He travels through space and time saving the universe, sometimes doing wacky monologues and sometimes wallowing in the angst of all the things he’s seen and done and the people he’s left behind. He’s silly a lot and cruel a little; he make a lot of impossible decisions. When the Doctor is close to death, he regenerates, which means he keeps living but in a completely different body and with tweaks to his personality.

So far there have been 12 Doctors. Jodie Whittaker will be number 13. The first seven Doctors happened during the show’s “classic” run, which took place between 1963 and 1989. The eighth Doctor stood alone in 1996. And in 2005, the show rebooted in what we think of as the “modern” era, with the ninth Doctor. Most current fans of the show started watching with Nine, and everyone has a favorite Doctor (mine is Eleven — so far!).


What are Companions?

The Doctor is a lonely guy! You could argue that he makes most of his worst decisions because he’s scared of being alone! (#Relatable) Every season the Doctor has a companion (or two or three) who travels with him. Some companions last multiple seasons, some last just a few episodes, some get their own spin-offs. It’s not all fun and games being a companion; sometimes they die or get trapped in an alternate universe or get scarred for life or, worst of all, are deposited back on earth without any of their time-traveling memories and forced into lives of boring, tedious, patriarchal oppression. Hem hem. The Doctor also has a recurring cast of pals who show up from time to time to lend a hand. They make up some of the audience’s most favorite characters.


TARDIS What Now?

TARDIS stands for Time and Relative Dimension(s) in Space. It’s a blue police box and it’s how the Doctor travels everywhere and anywhere that ever was. “The inside is bigger than the outside” is the longest running joke about the TARDIS. Someone says it at least once a season. We usually only see the control center of the TARDIS but there’s loads of other stuff in it, like libraries and swimming pools and sleeping quarters. Like the Doctor’s face and body, it gets an interior update every time there’s a regeneration. The TARDIS also kind of has a consciousness; it’s in love with the Doctor.


The Big Bads

Like every superhero, the Doctor has a revolving group of villains who torment him. There are the Cybermen, the Daleks, the Weeping Angels, and some bigger bads too, like The Silence (just the Gentlemen from Buffy‘s “The Hush,” to be honest) and The Master and the Time Lords. Sometimes the Doctor fights monsters like these guys. Sometimes he fights real world historical bad guys like Hitler. Sometimes he fights his own insecurities and fears and hang-ups and the decisions that haunt him. There’s some serious KAPOW-ing in this series, and also some serious existential crises.


The Real World Timeline

It would be impossible to explain the full Doctor Who timeline without a gymnasium filled with murderboard-style charts and graphics, so let’s keep it real-world simple. “Classic” Doctor Who was mostly promoted as a family-friendly sci-fi show, with a side-dish of education. “Modern” Doctor Who came about in 2005. Russell T Davies (yes, the Queer as Folk creator) showran until 2010. That’s when Steven Moffat took over; he showran until 2017. Chris Chibnall is the current showrunner. He worked on Davies’ Who spin-off, Torchwood, and on Broadchurch, which is where he met Jodie Whittaker. Each showrunner brings a new vibe to the series. Both Davies and Moffat have come under — in my opinion, very fair and valid — criticism for sexist storytelling and playing into cliched gay tropes, and both have handled that criticism with unfortunate combativeness. It will be really interesting to see what Chibnall brings to the series.


But is it Queer?

Yes, Doctor Who is suuuuper queer. The Doctor has a queer sensibility as a character, just for starters, but there have also been several queer humans and aliens in an out of the TARDIS over the years. During RTD’s run, he introduced Captain Jack Harkness, who ended up headlining Torchwood. He was played by very unapologetically gay John Barrowman and was himself very unapologetically pansexual. He had a serious relationship with one of his Torchwood colleagues named Ianto. (Ianto died, it was horrible.) Bill Potts was a lesbian companion of Twelve. She also died (but was reborn as sentient oil, which: same as being dead, honestly). Madame Vastra, a lizard woman from the dawn of time, is married to a Victorian badass named Jenny. Jenny died in a dream but was was resurrected in her human form and exists on the show still. They are beloved; every episode they’re in is a gift. Companion Clara Oswald was bisexual; she said Jane Austen was a great kisser. And then there’s River Song. The show’s creatives have said she’s bisexual and that makes an extra lot of sense now that the Doctor is a woman because River Song was (…is?) the Doctor’s wife. Which means the Doctor also is legitimately queer.


Okay But Where Do I Start?

If you’ve never watched Doctor Who, you probably don’t have time to get “caught up” before the premiere of the new season — but that’s okay. BBC says it’s going to be a great leaping-off point for new viewers. If you do want to be a completionist, though, just start with the modern era, which is labeled as Season One on Amazon Prime and Netflix. (But don’t let anyone tell you you can’t just pick up with this new season and enjoy it and still be a real fan! You absolutely can!)

If you have any specific questions, I’ll keep on coming back to these comments to try to answer them! If you don’t have any specific questions, I have one for you: How hyped/terrified are you for Thirteen?

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle managing editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 886 articles for us.

40 Comments

  1. I’m ridiculously excited and definitely watching it because otherwise I’m just paying my tv licence to fund anti corbynism crap by the BBC.

    Just kidding. Almost.

    I’m mostly excited to move away from Steven Moffat’s rain of horror. I’m sorry but I couldn’t get into the seasons he ran. He wrote great episodes with 9 and 10, but then he and Matt Smith decided the Doctor should just talkveryfastasawaytofakecleverness. I guess they hoped that the incredible fast pace of the episodes would distract us from plot holes/lack of any logic?

    • Me too!! I read something yesterday saying how Bill was one of the only companions in recent series that the Doctor hung out with because he just liked them. There wasnt any magical plot stuff about her, she wasnt caught up in a mess and he had to save her. He just met her, liked her and wanted to hang out/teach her. I thought it pointed out a refreshing change in the doctor companion relationship.

  2. I AM SO HYPED. I thought last series was an improvement on the couple before that, and I really hope that this series builds on that. I always think a new doctor can breathe a breath of fresh air, change up the dynamics and give an opportunity for new ideas and themes to be explored. And I love Jodie Whittaker so I am super excited. (Less keen about Bradley Walsh, urgh.) So ready to fall in love with the programme again.

    Also any newbies, this is aimed at everyone! But especially children. So worry less about starting at the ‘wrong’ place, you are starting at the same place a whole host of 4yos who cant work netflix and weren’t born even when new who came back, will be starting. It’s a magical position to be in!

  3. Doctor Who! Yay! Might we possibly get some recaps here at autostraddle?
    I agree Steven Moffat made a mess of 11, too silly and to convoluted a plot around River, even though she is amazing. 12 was better because Capaldi understands the doctor well as a fan himself, but definitely deserved more Bill (she asked the best questions) and less of the undying Clara (I was so mad when she was loopholed back from the dead.) Looking forward to the new season, Whittaker looks adorable! Also the best episode for newbies looking to understand what the show is about is definitely Blink

  4. More excited than terrified for No 13 (my lucky number!) I’m currently in the middle of catching up on the modern Doctor Who escapades. There were definitely some questionable characterisations of women, aliens and British exceptionalism (I live in London, so fully exposed to all of these ?). However, the series’ message of hope and love always comes out on top, which is brilliant.

    I tend to like the Doctor more/less depending on his/her companions. I started to watch the series live with No 12 and Clara Oswald / Bill Potts back in the day, who I adored and sometimes cursed at.

    But I must say, Amy Pond and River Song are spectacular (ok, Rory, too, at times). Esteemed Newhovians, please catch up on these two, if you can!

  5. I want a t-shirt saying, Some People Are Time Lords – Get Over It. I’ve been watching since the olden days, my first TV crush was Romana, a Time Lady who was companion to the 4th Doctor. She ended a story that was queer AF with a kiss for the elderly butch archaeologist lady. In 1978. I was eleven.

    I’m really looking forward to seeing Jodie Whittaker playing the Doctor. The way she said ‘aw, brilliant!’ as she saw herself as a woman and the way she’s been presented in the trailers seem to promise something a bit cheerier and kinder than the angry men who have been the Doctor for a while now.

  6. Hyped doesn’t even begin to describe my emotions right now.
    Ten has thus far been my favorite but I am open to letting Thirteen bump him down to 2nd fav. I am super pumped for Chibnall and for Jodie Whittaker and for some non-white people. I’m interested to see how Chibnall writes the Doctor as a lady. Like, is he going to have that be an issue for some of the people she encounters? Have her do a “I never had this problem before, the universe is super sexist and that is mega fucked up!” Or if he’ll be more subtle?

    I’m also loving that her sonic screwdriver absolutely looks like a vibrator. Which, I’m sure it has that setting too.

  7. THE HYPE IS SO REAL, Y’ALL! I had gotten really behind on Who for a few years, but when I heard the news of Jodie Whitaker being the new Doctor I was excited enough to catch back up on the Capaldi seasons. I’m so glad I did! He was a great Doctor, and now I’ve been sucked back in to the fandom!

  8. I am excited. If I didn’t already know I love the ladies, I would have had to realize when Jodie Whittaker said her first line and I found myself attracted to the Doctor for the first time. Funnily enough it had to be her Time Lady attitude b/c I had no interest in playing a sad mother on Broadchurch.

    My favorite doctor is 7 maybe because Ace (super bad ass rebel) was his companion and 3 because he was a scientist/James Bond kind of guy. None of those modern doctors best out the classic ones in my book.

  9. Ahh I am excited for Jodie Whittaker! I love the accent and the coat (which are things Dr. Who takes very seriously each new regeneration, for some reason) and am open to the suspenders.
    More importantly, I think Jodie will bring her own twist on the Doctor’s delight with the universe. That is what charms the companions/viewers/older-white-dude-added-in-case-anyone-felt-threatened into going along with her in the first place.
    p.s. (Ianto died, it was horrible) is the perfect recap for all of Torchwood.

  10. i’m cautiously excited about this! i got incredibly fatigued with moffat and matt smith, and i only watched a few capaldi episodes because i just couldn’t stand how shitty the screenwriting was. and i never finished torchwood because a. ianto definitely isn’t allowed to die, and b. john barrowman is a huge transphobe.
    of the modern doctors, my favourite was probably nine, and then ten. classic who is impossible to pick a favourite from because there’s just So Much Good/Terrible Content. like i distinctly remember eight fighting a giant licorice allsort at one point?
    i’m also a little wary about chibnall – at this point basically anyone that isn’t moffat is a huge breathe of fresh air, but i have heard, in addition to the things heather brought up, that he has a pretty gross track record concerning the representation of SA in his stuff/SA as a plot device.
    that said, this is a great opportunity for showrunners to embrace the queerest season of dw yet – i mean the central character is now canonically genderfluid, which i am About. they probably won’t, but hey!

  11. I’m so happy Moffat is finally gone! While I’m very grateful for certain things he did, Vastra and Jenny, and especially Bill Potts, it’s well past time for a fresh voice running the show. I’m super excited for a new Doctor and a new direction. My only problem is Bill being gone after just one season. 🙁

  12. I was thinking earlier this week that I needed to read some explanation on Dr Who so I could start this season (purely because of a woman dr) and here comes autostraddle with what I need, as always <3

  13. This is what I needed, a friend told me to start watching it almost 10 years ago but I wasn’t really interested at the time, and when I was a bit later I was too overwhelmed and intimidated to know where to start – thank you!

  14. I wish you had mentioned there would be lots of spoilers in this! Was the list of dead characters and things that happened to the companions really necessary? The only part I didn’t already know and was upset to read relates to Twelve, but there are likely many people reading this that probably wouldn’t want all of these spoilers.

  15. This is great! Honestly, I have such a love/hate relationship with Doctor Who, especially the Moffat years, that I didn’t really realize how queer it is until you put it all there in a paragraph. It’s really super queer, huh??

    I was getting so annoyed with the show, but I enjoyed the last season a lot. Bill was so great! And it was so refreshing to have a Doctor-Companion relationship that was just like, friends palling around in time and space. I’m pissed that she only got one season, but I do consider her ending happy (sort of in the same vein as San Junipero — I guess it’s fucked up that I consider not-alive-but-together-forever a “happy” lesbian ending, but *shrug emoji*).

    Anyway, before Bill’s season I would have been very tentatively excited for 13, and now I’m like mostly just excited, but a little nervous? I hope it’s good! I hope he was responsible for the funny and good and queer stuff on Torchwood and not like, all the characters dying always. I just want a fun season! Ya know? Like, 1 major character death tops, please.

  16. A small correction: DW resumes on October 7th, which is (for the first time, I think) a Sunday, rather than its former home of Saturday.

    Needless to say, I’m thrilled the new season is only a few weeks away – from what little glimpses we’ve been offered, I’m looking forward to JW’s debut more than any other Doctor, and I began with Pertwee. =:D

    I doubt it’ll happen, but I’d still love to see Bill return now and then – one season is just way too little time.

  17. I would still seriously recommend watching the Classic Who episodes with Ace as a companion even though you don’t have to. She is really cool and seems super gay even though she was on the show in the ’80s.

  18. I’ve been watching Doctor Who since I was five years old and I could not be more excited for JW as the Doctor! Plus I trust Chris Chibnall as show runner to tell a compelling story that will have interesting branches and a cohesive trunk.

  19. Personally, I’d consider “sentient oil” to be a whole lot better than “dead,” especially considering the circumstances, benefits, and company.
    That being said, yeah, up to that point that was a pretty rough episode.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.