The ultimate cheat sheet on ‘Doctor Who’ if you’re a new fan

A Timelord with two hearts, a time machine, and generations of pain and joy — this is essentially Doctor Who in a nutshell. We’ve put together a cheat sheet of everything you need to know about how to watch Doctor Who, the classic British science fiction TV show, for the first time.

With all the news of the new Doctor (who is actually an old Doctor), Ncuti Gatwa taking on the role, and that the upcoming season will be streaming on Disney+ outside of the UK, now may be the best time to get on the bandwagon. Don’t know where to start? Read on for our complete cheat sheet on how to get started on Doctor Who.

A cheat sheet to Doctor Who: The basics and key details

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David Tennant as the Fourteenth Doctor. (Image credit: BBC)

What is Doctor Who in the first place?

Doctor Who is a British science fiction TV show that first aired back in 1963. Yes, the show has been running for that long (though it stopped for a while from 1969 to 2005). No, the show hasn’t been rebooted, so it’s a show with a story that started all the way back in 1969. 

Okay, that’s a long time.

Yep, it is, but don’t sweat it. There are many missing episodes, so unless you were alive during 1969 and caught the original episodes that aired, not a lot of people have watched all of Doctor Who in its entirety. 

Why has it been going for so long? What’s it about?

The main character is simply called The Doctor. The Doctor has a name but it has never been revealed in the show’s 50+ years. The Doctor comes from a planet called Gallifrey and is known as a Timelord because Gallifreyans love travelling and messing with time. To that point, the Doctor travels in a TARDIS, which stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. It’s a spaceship and time machine all in one that’s disguised as an old police box, and more importantly, it’s bigger on the inside.

The Doctor goes on many adventures in time and space saving the universe. They’re usually accompanied by companions, normal everyday people that the Doctor whisks away from their mundane lives.

That doesn’t explain why the show’s been going on for so long

Right, right. The Doctor is a Gallifreyan, and the Gallifreyans have an interesting way of “dying”. When on the verge of death or mortally wounded, they regenerate, meaning there’s a new body and new personality, but the same person carrying the same memories. This is what happens to the Doctor every time they “die”. As such, there have been thirteen official incarnations of the Doctor. This is why you hear people say “First Doctor”, “Ninth Doctor”, or even just “Twelve” or “Thirteen” when referring to the Doctor’s different incarnations.

Behind the scenes, the concept of regeneration was invented by the writers because William Hartnell, who played the First Doctor, was starting to have trouble performing due to his ailing health. 

Wait, so thirteen people have played the Doctor?

Give or take. There are special incarnations like the War Doctor (played by John Hurt) or the recent Fugitive Doctor (played by Jo Martin), but there are thirteen official ones with the fourteenth and fifteenth on their way.

Okay, that’s confusing.

Oh it is, and even Whovians themselves sometimes get confused. If you’re going to try and make sense of Doctor Who’s plot and timeline, you’ll go nuts. There are many discrepancies in the show’s long history, and there have been many things that have been retconned and then reinstated again. But that’s what the Doctor’s adventures are like. They’re “time-wimey”. We’re all just along for the ride.

Timey what?

You’ll get it when you watch the Tenth Doctor.

Uh, okay. Also, is it just “The Doctor” or is it “Doctor Who”?

This is a debate that’s been going on for years. For the most part, people have referred to the character as “The Doctor”, but there have been times in the show’s history where the character is officially referred to as “Doctor Who”.

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Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor (Image credit: BBC)

This is a LOT.

It is, I understand, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed due to the almost 60 years of history. But most people who become fans of Doctor Who simply jump into the fray and get lost in the adventure. I started watching when the Eleventh Doctor started (played by Matt Smith; yes, he was the Doctor long before he was a Targaryen) and just continued from there. My advice is to do the same: pick a Doctor you want to start with in the modern era (2005 onwards because watching the old episodes is going to be a challenge) and just start there. You don’t need extensive knowledge of what’s happened before because most Doctors have their own arcs. 

Alright, that’s doable. Any suggestions on which Doctor to start with?

Matt Smith’s Doctor will always hold a special place in my heart because he’s the one I started with. Basically, he’s my Doctor, so it would be a mistake to not suggest starting with Eleven. However, if you don’t want to do any backtracking, starting with Chrisopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor is the way to go so you can just work your way forward. After that, you can try and search up some classic episodes to watch. In fact, you can watch the very first episode way back from 1969 in all its black-and-white glory right here

Got it. But man, that’s a lot of episodes.

We haven’t even talked about the audio dramas, the comics, and books. But that’s the fun thing about Who: you’ll never run out of content to consume. And there’s even more coming what with the 60th anniversary next year. That will see the return of David Tennant, who played Ten, but is now playing the Fourteenth Doctor.

How? No one knows yet. And, of course, there’s the new Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, who’s playing Fifteen.

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Ncuti Gatwa as the Fifteenth Doctor (Image credit: Doctor Who FB)

This is confusing.

Like I said, timey-wimey. But that’s the wonder, mystery, and chaos of the Doctor Who universe. Trust me, just go for the ride and you’ll have the time of your life. 

Here’s a rundown of Doctor Who from the upcoming Doctor himself, Ncuti Gatwa, if our cheat sheet wasn’t enough to prepare you. 

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