Doctor Who is a British television institution, and the longest running science-fiction series in the world, first airing on BBC TV on 23 November 1963. It takes place in and established the Whoniverse, which has a continuous and constantly adapting story involving many different timelines. It also spawned the truly vast Doctor Who Expanded Universe.
The premise of the show is simple enough: it follows the adventures of a renegade Time Lord—the Doctor—and their various companions through time and space. The Doctor travels in a living and sentient time machine, the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), and meets many foes, ranging from heavily armoured robots to killer microbes and pollen to — well, members of their own race. Part of the longevity of the series is that when the actor playing the Doctor leaves, the show gets around this by killing the character off, only to "regenerate" the Doctor into a new form played by someone else (sometimes by someone significantly older or younger, or a different gender). As a result, the same character has appeared in the series from the beginning but their new personality and new tastes gives the show a distinctly different atmosphere with each regeneration, and the producers (and, often, fans) treat the introduction of a new Doctor as a relaunch of the series. The show also frequently changes companions (over its history only a relative handful have ever actually stayed longer than one or two seasons), and once again the change in companion is also treated as something of a relaunch, especially in the 2005-present era where the stories are more frequently told from their perspective.
The show originally ran from 1963 to 1989 (with an 18 month hiatus in 1985-6 caused by Executive Meddling, during which it "rested" and saw only a radio drama air), before being pulled from the airwaves after the conclusion of its 26th season; the BBC has always insisted that the show was merely placed on hiatus, but the general understanding is that it had actually been cancelled. In the "Wilderness Years" when Doctor Who was off the air (1990-2004), independent productions ranging from direct-to-video companion adventures minus the Doctor, stories about monsters from the series, spoofs, in-name only stories featuring former Doctors on the show, licence-restricted stories featuring no familiar characters from the series, audio releases, and anniversary specials technically kept the franchise alive.
A Made-for-TV Movie aired in 1996, in which the Seventh Doctor returned at the end of his life and regenerated into the Eighth. This was created as a pilot for an American-led revival, but although the Eighth Doctor became part of the continuity as a whole, no actual return of the series resulted due to the film's poor ratings in the United States (it was, however, a success in the UK). Throughout the remainder of the decade, The BBC made attempts to relaunch the series as a theatrical film, to no avail, and between 2001 and 2003 produced a series of webcasts which it considered in every way an official continuation of the series (insofar as the Beeb ever indicates what is and isn't canon). It is possible more would have been made but for a very exciting development on the television front: in 2005, the BBC regenerated the show.
This new "Revival Series" is a direct continuation of the 1963-1989 "Classic Series", rather than being a Continuity Reboot, and the first Doctor depicted here was a successor to the previous eight incarnations. The Revival Series has radically upgraded production values (the original series is notorious for its often rubbery monster prosthetics and bad Chroma Key), shorter story arcs but much more continuity throughout, and deeper Character Development and romance to the series than what the previous 26 seasons depictednote . As such, 2013 marked the show's 50th anniversary. The original show lasted 26 "seasons", whereas the new annual runs of episodes are called "series": officially, the show went from Season 26 to Series 1, and so on; despite this, it's important to note, once again, that the Revival Series is still very much a continuation of the Classic Series. Even subtracting the 16-year "interregnum", the show still holds the record of longest-running English-language sci-fi series, with its nearest rival being the 12-season run of the UK series Red Dwarf.
Doctor Who is a British institution and considered a key part of British culture: even Her Britannic Majesty is a fan, and threw the show a birthday party in her palace for its 50th anniversary in 2013. It is also notable that Michael Grade, the BBC Controller when the show originally went off the air in 1989 and a vocal critic of the classic series (thus leading him to be the one most commonly blamed for cancelling Doctor Who), is the only BBC Controller not to have received a knighthood— entirely coincidentally, we're sure.note In addition, the Royal Mail honoured the show's anniversary with a set of stamps one for each Doctor (and the TARDIS) plus the show's villains.
The original 1963-1989 episodes are now considered such an important part of the BBC's home video output that they have their own freelance Restoration Team, devoted to restoring and remastering vintage episodes to as much of their former glory as possible, as well as doing some additional touch-ups to amend some of the... less graceful moments. In the process they have pioneered a number of brand new restoration techniques, such as Reverse Standards Conversion (recovering PAL footage from NTSC copy), Chroma Dot Colour Recovery (using leftover dots to recolour a black and white copy) and Vid FIRE (increasing the frame rate of a film copy to that of the original video), which have since also been applied to other vintage TV shows. Until 1978, the BBC had a policy of junking episodes they no longer needed; as a result, the master tapes for many episodes that aired from 1964 to as late as 1974 were in fact demagnetized for later reuse. Since 1978, a concerted effort by fans and the BBC itself has resulted in many episodes being recovered, as recently as 2013. At present, 97 of the 253 episodes from the 1960s remain missing from the BBC archives, though it is widely speculated that a number of episodes have been located. Fortunately, audio recordings survive of all the missing episodes, and all of the incomplete or missing storylines have also been adapted as novels over the years. In more recent years, the BBC has even commissioned animated re-creations of missing episodes for DVD release, making use of reference photographs and utilizing the audio recordings.
The show has spawned several spinoffs within its canon Whoniverse, which have occasionally crossed over with the main series. Except where noted, these take place in (then-)present day Earth.
- K-9 and Company (1981), a failed Pilot Episode with the Doctor's former companions Sarah Jane Smith and K-9. The episode aired as a Christmas special in 1981.
- Search Out Space (1990), a one off special edition of Search Out Science, a children's education programme.
- With Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred retuning as the 7th doctor and Ace, and joined by K9.
- Big Finish Doctor Who (1999 - present), prominent audio stories overseen by Nicholas Briggs, starring virtually all the surviving original TV actors. Takes place in a variety of eras and worlds, as with the TV series. Although considered canon by the BBC from the start (and explicitly as of 2013's "The Night Of The Doctor"), Big Finish also has many different timelines/continuities, and includes adaptations of existing works from the Doctor Who Expanded Universe. Due to the audio series' sheer size and complexity, it plays by the rules of the Doctor Who Expanded Universe: the TV series sometimes contradicts or overwrites the audio stories, or adapts them for the televised continuity. Prior to 2015, Big Finish only had the rights to feature characters from the original 1963-89 era, plus the Eighth Doctor from the TV movie (but no other characters from the film); as of 2018, the licence was expanded to include all Doctors and characters introduced prior to the Twelfth Doctor's regeneration in 2017.
- Torchwood (2006 - 2011), a Darker and Edgier (as well as Hotter and Sexier) series focusing on Ninth Doctor companion Captain Jack Harkness. On indefinite hiatus after four seasons as producer/show runner Russell T. Davies is currently focusing on other projects, although beginning in 2015 Big Finish Productions (see above) started producing audio dramas featuring the original cast.
- The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007 - 2011), a Lighter and Softer kid-friendly spinoff focusing on Sarah Jane Smith (the second attempt after K-9 and Company). K-9 put in semi-regular appearances. The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, and original-series Who characters The Brigadier and Jo Grant guest-starred in one serial each. The series ended production after four and a half seasons due to the death of star Elisabeth Sladen.
- K9 (2010), an Australian children's show (produced by a company other than the BBC) which continues in the spirit of The Sarah Jane Adventures. It takes place in a late-21st-century Dystopian London and features an upgraded version of the robot dog that had been Put on a Bus back in the 1977 story "The Invasion of Time." A single season aired in 2010. In late 2015 plans were announced for a movie to premiere in 2017, but no further official comment has been made since then and there is no indication of such a film being released; the series itself is considered to now be concluded. Does not contain any Doctor Who concepts except for the central character, due to rights issues. (Due to the BBC's copyright policy in the seventies, the rights to K-9 himself are owned by the character's co-creator Dave Martin, and were separately licensed by him for this show.)
- Class (2016), premiering Autumn 2016, this series revolves around a group of sixth formers at Coal Hill School as they deal with typical teenager issues : relationships, school life, monsters from space attempting to destroy all of existence... turns out that the Doctor traveling through time again and again made the walls of space and time stretch thin around Coal Hill, to the point where they are about to burst. As such, who knows what kind of monster might take the opportunity to slip through next. A more adult-oriented series than Doctor Who aimed at the YA crowd (therefore allowing sexual content and violence similar to Torchwood), and produced originally for streaming on BBC Three. Cancelled after its first series due to low streaming and broadcast viewership numbers.
There are additionally many adventures in almost all types of media, often made by the cast and crew of the TV series, which freely contradict each other. Collectively, these are known as the Doctor Who Expanded Universe. (The BBC rarely comments on their, or for that matter the TV series', canonicity, causing a fair amount of debate and Epileptic Trees.) Stories outside the TV series tend to be Darker and Edgier, and often tackle themes that the TV series can't dive into for any reason, as well as story ideas that were proposed but simply never developed for television. Quite a few stories from the Expanded Universe ended up referenced in or even adapted for the revived TV series.
The series also had three behind-the-scenes Companion Shows. The longest-running was Doctor Who Confidential which debuted in 2005 and was canceled in 2011 due to budget cuts (a scaled-down version called Behind the Lens has since been featured on DVD releases), and Totally Doctor Who, a kid-friendly version of Confidential that aired two seasons from 2006 to 2007, the latter of which featured an exclusive animated serial titled The Infinite Quest. In 2014, the BBC launched a scaled-down version of Confidential titled Doctor Who Extra.
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I am the Doctor and you are the tropers:
- For tropes used in specific episodes of the TV series, see the Doctor Who episode recaps.
- For tropes relating to specific characters or monsters, see the Doctor Who characters pages.
- For tropes used in Doctor Who media outside of the TV show, see Doctor Who Expanded Universe.