Doctor Who is officially 60 years old after celebrating its diamond anniversary on Thursday, 23 November. It's also officially in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest-running science fiction show of all time.
The show is, of course, a British institution, but with 60 years’ worth of stories behind it, its mythology can be hard to untangle for all but the most committed fan.
So, if you’re feeling like you need a starter course in the show, or simply want a refresher, then our bluffer’s guide should bring you up to speed with all things Who before the birthday celebrations kick off.
If you’re ever asked, in a pub quiz or by a crazy-eyed man at a bus stop, what’s the world’s longest-running sci-fi show, then remember it’s not Star Trek, but Doctor Who, which arrived three years before Gene Roddenberry’s space opera.
Not that Doctor Who has been running continuously for the past 60 years. In 1989 it was quietly retired by the BBC and — apart from a single US co-production TV movie in 1996 — was off our screens for 16 achingly long years, until it was revived under the stewardship of Russell T Davies.
It’s had its ups and downs since (it was averaging an impressive seven million viewers a week during the David Tennant years), but it’s remained a prized jewel in the BBC’s crown, even spawning an ecosystem of spin-offs, including Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Class, Redacted and the current multi-platform epic, Doom’s Day.
The Doctor (technically, a pseudonym, as their real name is impossible for humans to pronounce) is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. They are wise, compassionate, occasionally heroic, although always a pacifist, and have a soft spot for Earth and humanity. They also have two hearts, and are immortal to a certain extent, having the power to 'regenerate' their body wholesale — when required. How many times they have done this so far is up for debate, and has been in flux since the series began.
Officially David Tennant is the Fourteenth Doctor (having already played the Tenth), and Ncuti Gatwa the soon-to-arrive Fifteenth. But the numbering system for Doctors has been becoming increasingly headachy over the years.
Until 2013’s The Day of the Doctor it was a cinch. But then writer Steven Moffat introduced a hitherto unknown incarnation (played by John Hurt) sandwiched between the Paul McGann (No.8) and Christopher Eccleston (No.9) Doctors.
But rather than start reordering David Tennant as No.11 and Matt Smith as No.12, fans decided to refer to this newcomer as the War Doctor, even though he’s technically Doctor No.9. But is he? (Now this is where it starts to get really complicated)
The Doctors (so far, sort of)
William Hartnell | 1963-1966
Patrick Troughton | 1966-1969
Jon Pertwee | 1970-1974
Tom Baker | 1974-1981
Peter Davison | 1981-1984
Colin Baker | 1984-1986
Sylvester McCoy | 1987-1989
Paul McGann | 1996
Christopher Eccleston | 2005
David Tennant | 2005-2010
Matt Smith | 2010-2013
Peter Capaldi | 2013-2017
Jodie Whittaker | 2017-2022
David Tennant | 2022-2023
Ncuti Gatwa | Coming soon
As Chris Chibnall’s The Timeless Children episode from 2020 revealed, there were incarnations of the Doctor before what we always thought of as the First Doc (as played by William Hartnell), including a version fans have christened the Fugitive Doctor (Jo Martin).
So, in essence, nobody has any idea which number Doctor we’re really on now, and the show has distanced itself from previously established lore that limited the Doctor's available regenerations to 13.
The Doctor’s trusty ship, a "dimensionally transcendental" (which means it’s bigger on the inside) spacecraft that’s been in disguise as a police telephone box ever since the first episode, having been designed to change to blend in with its surroundings.
As we later found out, the Doctor had snatched his TARDIS (that's Time And Relative Dimension In Space) from his home planet of Gallifrey and has been barrelling around time and space in it ever since. In the 2011 episode The Doctor’s Wife, we even discover the TARDIS has a soul, when it’s transferred into the body of a woman named Idris (“Hello, Doctor,” she tells him. “It's so very, very nice to meet you.”).
The interior of the TARDIS (known as its console room) has had a number of facelifts (or desktop changes, as Doctor now calls them) over the years, but the one constant has been the heaving time rotor at its centre. (Expect another decorating job when Ncuti Gatwa takes over)
It’s hard to get a precise fix on the number (fans squabble about which characters count as 'a companion'), but roughly speaking the Doctor has welcomed aboard around 50-plus travelling buds over the years, from school teachers (Ian and Barbara, latterly Clara) to 18th century highlanders (Jamie) to journalists (Sarah Jane) to Time Lords (Romana) to gobby temps (Donna).
While most leave of their own accord, some have perished on the Doctor’s watch (Sara Kingdom, Katarina) and some have kinda, sorta died (Bill Potts, Amy and Rory). There have been screamers (Victoria, Mel), schemers (Turlough), bruisers (Ace) and losers (Adric) and even some non-humanoid shipmates in the shape of robot dog K9 and the chameleonic Kamelion.
(Side fact – there’s only been one story in Doctor Who history, 1976’s The Deadly Assassin, where the Doctor didn’t have a companion by his side)
One of the show’s creative fathers, BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman, memo-ed that there should be “no bug-eyed monsters in Doctor Who”, later chiding producer Verity Lambert for introducing the Daleks in the second serial. It was a good job she didn’t heed her boss, as it was these fascistic pepperpots that sent Doctor Who’s ratings rocketing and kickstarting a wave of Dalekmania.
Since then, monsters have become a vital part of Doctor Who’s DNA, with the Cybermen, the Sontarans, the Zygons, the Ice Warriors and more recently the Weeping Angels among the show’s vast rogue's gallery.
The Doctor Who 60th anniversary specials start on Saturday, 25 November 2023 on BBC One and iPlayer and continue on 2 and 9 December.
Read more: Doctor Who
Watch: David Tennant celebrating Doctor Who day with fans