Clifford Skridlow teaches at a small Chicago college run by his father. Conned into managing four prostitutes by their pimp, who skips town to escape the mob boss known as Mom, Clifford draws on his course in medieval literature in his quest to save the women from Mom.
Devo did the film's theme song.
- As Himself: James Brown
- Author Appeal: Of course one of the Blues Brothers would show off James Brown.
- Bad Boss: Mom threatens to be this to the call girls in front of Clifford, which offends his sense of honor and forces him to play out Smooth's trap of having him play the role of Doctor Detroit.
- Balanced Harem: The four call girls that Smooth manages and whom Clifford ends up protecting from Mom: Blonde, Brunette, Asian, and Black.
- Becoming the Mask: What slowly happens to Clifford as he takes on the role of the dreaded Doctor Detroit: That he's turning into a pimp. So much that he suffers a terrible nightmare.
- Subverted in the end when he lives out the better dream of being a heroic knight, saving the girls and the city of Chicago in its hour of need.
- Berserk Button: Smooth Walker needs his good friend Diavolo to beat him up to make it look like Dr. Detroit did it. Diavolo refuses til Smooth starts making racial insults.Smooth: My grandfather owned your grandfather! (beatdown ensues)
- The Cameo: James Brown As Himself.
- Dirty Coward: Smooth Walker for dumping his problems on poor Clifford.
- The Dreaded: Mom. So much so that most of the criminal underworld is thrilled that an unknown (and fake) crime figure from Detroit stood up to her.
- Fish out of Water: Clifford
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: The call girls end up being helpful to Clifford not only in stopping Mom's takeover of Chicago's underworld but also with Clifford's efforts to keep his college funded.
- Karma Houdini: Smooth again. He set Cliff up for the fall, and in the end he's shown living happily ever after on a tropical island.
- Knight in Shining Armor: Clifford eventually becomes this, even defeating Mom in a sword duel and bringing peace to the streets of Chicago.
- Large Ham: Clifford intentionally overacts as Doctor Detroit.
- Line-of-Sight Name: This is how the title character is named. A pimp named Smooth Walker is in the office of Mom, a competitor, and he convinces her that he's leaving because "the Doctor" has forced him out.Mom: "Doctor?"
Smooth: "Yeah. Doctor...(Looks around frantically, spies a travel poster for Detroit behind her head) Detroit."
- Mercy Kill: Asked for by Mom when Clifford defeats her in the final duel. Clifford refuses, finding mercy sending her into exile instead.
- One Bad Mother: The ruthless drug dealer is called "Mom".
- Pimp Duds: Clifford raids his college's Theater department to find the most outlandish outfit he can find to pretend being the Doctor. Including a medieval knight's glove.
- Pretty Fly for a White Guy: The Dr. Detroit persona.
- Snobs Versus Slobs: Underplayed as Clifford has to bounce between the upper-class world of academia and the lower-class world of Doctor Detroit. Played for laughs when Clifford stages the criminal's annual bash at the same hotel as the school's annual alumni dinner, and where the two groups inevitably mingle with hilarious results.
- Title Theme Tune: Performed by Devo.
- Two-Timer Date: This is the device employed for the climactic sequence. Clifford is running back and forth between a society function and a pimps'/hookers' bash, both in the same hotel, and has to switch clothes and personae between them as well. With predictable results.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Where we find out the fate of the main characters.
- Who Wears Short Shorts?: Cliff wears some alarmingly tiny shorts while power-walking during the theme song sequence. When the call girls in the limo see him, they can't help but laugh. But it also means they recognize Clifford later at the restaurant and point him out to Smooth, who's desperate to find a patsy...
- "Will Return" Caption: Parodied when the end credits proclaim that Doctor Detroit will return in Doctor Detroit II: The Wrath of Mom.