Since making its BBC debut on November 23, 1963, Doctor Who has entranced several generations of fans (including a few of its future Doctors) with its quirky mix of history and sci-fi, and even inspired plenty of Doctor Who gift ideas. Here are 35 fascinating facts you might not have known about the groundbreaking series.
1. Doctor Who was created as a kids' series.
Though it certainly maintains plenty of pint-sized fans to this day, the original concept for Doctor Who was specifically an educational program aimed at teaching kids about science and history. In an interview with the BBC, Waris Hussein—who, at the age of 24, directed the very first episode of Doctor Who—said that the series “was meant to be educational for kids. We were trying to educate kids about certain things about the human condition.”
2. The Doctor was partly inspired by Sherlock Holmes.
As one of the most adapted literary characters of all time, it’s hardly surprising that The Doctor shares a few characteristics with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed detective. According to the BBC, Doctor Who was partly inspired by Sherlock Holmes (and both the Fourth and Eleventh Doctors have even dressed up as him).
3. The Doctor didn't become a "Time Lord" until 1969.
While even the most casual of Doctor Who fans can probably tell you that The Doctor is a “Time Lord,” an ancient alien species that has the power to travel through time, the term itself wasn’t actually used until the series’ sixth season episode “The War Games.” His home planet of Gallifrey wasn’t mentioned by name until 1973.
4. The Doctor may or may not be a doctor.
Is the Doctor really a doctor? According to the Second Doctor (played by Patrick Troughton), the answer is yes … or at least he thinks so. In the season 4 episode “The Moonbase,” the Doctor’s companion, Polly, asked what audiences had been wondering for years: “Are you a medical doctor?” To which the Doctor replies, “Yes, I think I was once, Polly. I think I took a degree once in Glasgow. 1888 I think.”
5. The First Doctor's health problems led to the regeneration concept.
William Hartnell, who played the First Doctor from 1963 to 1966, was having health problems toward the end of his run on the series. To ensure that the show could go on without its original star, and to avoid enraging viewers who had come to love Hartnell, the showrunners decided that, instead, they would make the ability to regenerate be a part of The Doctor’s mythology.
6. The Doctor's regeneration is supposed to feel like a bad acid trip.
Years after it was written, an internal BBC memo was uncovered that outlined the “metaphysical change” that would take place as the First Doctor became the Second Doctor. “It is as if he had had the L.S.D. drug,” the memo explained, “and instead of experiencing the kicks, he has the hell and dank horror which can be its effect.”
7. The TARDIS isn’t always supposed to look like a police box.
The TARDIS has always looked like a police box, but it turns out that’s only because of a technical malfunction. In “An Unearthly Child,” the pilot episode, we learn that the TARDIS is supposed to blend into whatever time and place it has traveled to. But its cloaking device, known as a chameleon circuit, is broken.
8. Ridley Scott was supposed to design the Daleks.
Considering what he did with Alien and Blade Runner, seeing what Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott would have dreamed up for the Daleks would have been pretty fascinating. Unfortunately, we’ll never have the chance. Though Scott, who worked for the BBC at the time of Doctor Who’s creation, was assigned the enviable task of designing the show’s devilish Daleks, he ended up leaving the network to concentrate on becoming a director.
Instead, we have the late Raymond Cusick to thank for the Daleks’ iconic design. "People do say I was inspired by a pepper pot—but I always think 'If that's all it takes to become a designer then it's a doddle,'” Cusick once said of the final design.
9. One of Doctor Who's original creators was not happy about the Daleks.
Sydney Newman, the BBC’s then-head of drama and one of Doctor Who’s original creators, was very specific about one thing he did not want to see in the series: “Being a real aficionado of science fiction, I hated stories which used bug-eyed monsters, otherwise known as BEMs,” he recalled. “I write in my memo that there would be no bug-eyed monsters in Doctor Who. And after a few episodes, [producer] Verity Lambert turned up with the Daleks! I bawled her out for it, but she said ‘Honest, Sydney, they’re not bug-eyed monsters—they’re human beings who are so advanced that their bodies have atrophied and they need these casings to manipulate and do the things they want!’ Of course, the Daleks took off and captured everybody’s imagination. Some of the best things I have ever done are the thing I never wanted to do.”
10. Operators controlled the Daleks from inside—and it was no easy task.
The Daleks were designed in two parts so that an operator could wedge themselves into the bottom portion in order to operate the device. The space was hot, cramped, and made it difficult to hear anything going on outside the Dalek. “You had to have about six hands: one to do the eyestalk, one to do the light, one for the gun, another for the smoke canister underneath, yet another for the sink plunger” John Scott Martin, one of the original Dalek operators, said. “If you were related to an octopus, then it helped.”
11. The Daleks almost didn't make it into Doctor Who's revival.
When Doctor Who made its triumphant return to television in 2005, it almost happened without the Daleks. The estate of Terry Nation, who created the mutants, had initially attempted to block their return to the new series, claiming that it would “ruin the brand of the Daleks.” At one point, when negotiations between the BBC and Nation’s estate seemed to have broken down, the show’s producers even created a new villain. Fortunately, they were able to work it out.
12. Douglas Adams wrote several episodes of Doctor Who.
At the same time he was creating episodes of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for BBC Radio 4, Douglas Adams was commissioned to do some writing for Doctor Who. According to Adams, the first episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide “more or less coincided with the summer period at the BBC, where, in order for anything to get approved, you have to wait for people to come back from whichever beach they're lying on. So that took a long time. While I was kicking my heels, I sent in my pilot episode to the then script editor of Doctor Who, Robert Holmes, who said 'Yes, yes. Like this. Come round and see us.' So we discussed ideas for a bit, and I eventually got commissioned to write four Doctor Who episodes. It took a long time to reach that decision, and then, after all this period of nothing happening, I was suddenly commissioned to write four Doctor Whos and the next five Hitchhikers all at once."
13. Tom Baker had the longest tenure as The Doctor on Doctor Who.
Fourth Doctor Tom Baker played the Doctor for seven years and 172 episodes—longer than any other actor. As far as the rebooted series goes, David Tennant holds the record with six years and 47 episodes.
14. The Fourth Doctor hawked computers in the 1980s.
In the 1980s, personal computers were still pretty futuristic. So it makes sense that Prime Computer would enlist Tom Baker, who played the Fourth Doctor from 1974 to 1981, to serve as their spokesperson/spokestimelord. His faithful companion Romana (Lalla Ward) made an appearance, too.
15. It took six years to trademark the TARDIS.
In 1996, after years of selling TARDIS-branded merchandise, the BBC attempted to officially trademark The Doctor’s preferred mode of transportation—but the move was met with resistance from the Metropolitan Police, as the time-travel machine is essentially a police box. Six years later, in 2002, the BBC finally won the case, while the Metropolitan Police were ordered to pay £850, plus legal costs.
16. David Tennant became an actor with the specific goal of playing the Doctor.
When the Tenth Doctor was just a kid, he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up: the star of Doctor Who. It was Tom Baker’s version of The Doctor in particular that inspired David Tennant to become an actor. He carried around a Doctor Who doll and wrote Who-inspired essays at school. "Doctor Who was a massive influence," Tennant told Rolling Stone. "I think it was for everyone in my generation; growing up, it was just part of the cultural furniture in Britain in the '70s and '80s."
17. Peter Capaldi was a major Whovian, too (and wouldn't leave the BBC alone).
Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi was obsessed with the series as a kid, too. As a teenager, he created a ton of Doctor Who fan art and even managed to get some of it published. More than 40 years before he became The Doctor, some BBC staffers already knew his name—because he used to inundate them with letters requesting production photos and begging to be named president of the show’s fan club.
“He haunted my time running the fan club, as he was quite indignant he wasn’t considered for the post,” recalled Sarah Newman, an assistant to the show’s producer at the time, who was forced to tell the teenage future-Doctor that they had already named a president.
18. Catherine Zeta-Jones could have been The Doctor.
Though Jodie Whittaker is the series' first official female Doctor, she's not the first actress to be considered for the role. Back in the 1980s, Sydney Newman had an idea for how to revitalize the show: regenerate the Time Lord into a Time Lady. For years, the show’s producers have toyed with the idea of making The Doctor a woman. In 2008, showrunner Russell Davies broached the idea yet again, citing Catherine Zeta-Jones as his top pick to replace Tennant.
19. Benedict Cumberbatch and Hugh Grant both turned down the chance to play The Doctor.
Catherine Zeta-Jones isn’t the only famous could’ve-been Doctor: Hugh Grant was offered the role of The Doctor when the show was being revitalized, but reportedly turned it down because he worried it wouldn’t be a hit. Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch also said no. “David and I talked about it but I thought it would have to be radically different,” Cumberbatch said.
20. Matt Smith auditioned to play Sherlock's Dr. Watson a week before auditioning for Doctor Who.
Though Cumberbatch was always the first and only choice for Sherlock’s lead role, a number of actors—including Matt Smith—auditioned to play his sidekick, Dr. John Watson. Smith auditioned for the role just about a week before he went in and read for the Eleventh Doctor. Fortunately, the latter worked out for him. (Steven Moffat was the showrunner on both Doctor Who and Sherlock, though Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall took over those duties beginning with season 11.)
21. The Eleventh Doctor was originally supposed to have a buccaneer-inspired look.
Matt Smith’s professorial tweed jacket and bow tie ensemble are now pretty iconic in the Doctor Who universe, but it took a while to land on that look. The costume department tested a lot of different looks (you can see photos here), though everyone eventually agreed that the geek chic bow tie look worked for him.
22. The Eleventh Doctor’s look created a demand for bow ties.
While Matt Smith, as the Eleventh Doctor, was finding his look in his first episode, he declared that “bow ties are cool”—and he was clearly on to something. In 2010, British-based retailer Topman said that "Since the new Doctor Who aired, we have seen a dramatic rise in bow tie sales, in the last month up sales have increased by 94 percent.”
23. There's an asteroid named after the TARDIS.
On May 3, 1984, Brian A. Skiff discovered a new asteroid: Asteroid 3325 TARDIS, which he named for The Doctor’s police box time machine.
24. Jodie Whittaker was Chris Chibnall's first choice to play the Thirteenth Doctor.
Jodie Whittaker wasn't the only newcomer to the 11th season of Doctor Who: Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall, who worked with Whittaker for years and has written for the sci-fi series in the past, was tapped as the show’s new showrunner. While it’s always a big deal when the Doctor regenerates on Doctor Who, Chibnall made it clear that he wanted the next Doctor to be a woman. And Whittaker quickly rose to the very top of his list of the very few actors who could pull the role off.
"I always knew I wanted the Thirteenth Doctor to be a woman, and we’re thrilled to have secured our number choice," Chibnall said when Whittaker's casting was announced. "Jodie is a force of nature and will bring loads of wit, strength, and warmth to the role."
25. Jodie Whittaker doesn't think she was an obvious choice to play the Thirteenth Doctor.
Because so much of Whittaker's past work has been dramatic in nature, Whittaker is pretty sure that it was only because Chris Chibnall knew her offscreen personality that she was even considered for the part.
“If Chris had only known my work, I don't think he would've necessarily thought of me as right for the role, because a lot of my work has been emotional or heavily traumatized, with a quite heavy energy,” Whittaker told TV Guide. “But in real life, I'm quite hyperactive and manic. So I think he saw qualities in me that lent themselves to the role. I was lucky that he knew me personally, and knew that I was a team player and I really enjoyed being part of an ensemble, and I really love filming and being on set. You need someone who enjoys the job, because it's long hours.”
26. Jodie Whittaker's first episode was the most watched Doctor Who episode in more than 10 years.
When Jodie Whittaker made her official debut as The Doctor in the fall of 2018, approximately 9 million people tuned in to watch—making it the highest rated Doctor Who episode in more than a decade. Only Christopher Eccleston’s debut—which was the debut of the series’ reboot—beat Whittaker’s numbers (9.9 million tuned into that).
27. A 1979 episode is the most watched Doctor Who episode ever.
“City Of Death,” which aired in October 1979 and featured the Fourth Doctor, boasted an amazing 16 million viewers. “Voyage of the Damned,” the 2007 Christmas episode starring Kylie Minogue opposite David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, came in second with 13.31 million viewers.
28. A 2008 episode of Doctor Who featured both a future Doctor and a future companion.
The 2008 episode “The Fires of Pompeii,” which recreated the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, was notable for two of its guest stars: Peter Capaldi played a sculptor named Caecilius, while Karen Gillan—who played the beloved companion to Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor—was cast as a soothsayer.
29. Caitlin Blackwood, who played the young Amy Pond, is Karen Gillan’s cousin.
was just nine years old when she famously played the younger version of the Eleventh Doctor’s beloved companion Amy Pond. If you noticed a resemblance between Blackwood and Karen Gillan, who played the adult version of Amy, it might be because the two actors are cousins (though the first time they ever met was during an on-set table read).
30. A proposed Doctor Who movie, starring Michael Jackson, was abandoned.
In the late 1980s, at the height of Michael Jackson mania, Paramount Pictures proposed a Doctor Who movie that would see The King of Pop play a Time Lord. Obviously, and unfortunately, this never happened.
31. The Tenth Doctor married The Fifth Doctor's daughter, who played the Tenth Doctor's daughter.
Confused? In 2011, David Tennant married Georgia Moffett, who played his artificially created daughter, Jenny, in the 2008 episode “The Doctor’s Daughter.” In real life, Moffett really is The Doctor’s daughter; her father is Peter Davison, who played the Fifth Doctor from 1981 to 1984.
32. More than 100 Doctor Who episodes are lost.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, archiving media was a much more difficult—and physical—process. As a result, more than 100 episodes of the show’s original incarnation were deleted, destroyed, or otherwise lost. Fortunately, the series’ fan base has been able to step in and help, providing the network with their own personal copies to help rebuild the Doctor Who library.
33. The original Doctor Who pilot was among the missing episodes.
Initially, it seemed as if the very first episode of Doctor Who was one of the many that had been lost to time. However, in 1978 it was fortunately rediscovered in a mislabeled film can.
34. Several Doctor Who words have made it into the dictionary.
In 2017, sonic screwdriver was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defined it as "a (hand-held) electronic device which uses sound waves to perform various mechanical and technical functions. Originally and chiefly in (or in reference to) the British television series Doctor Who." It’s not the only one of the show’s phrases to make it into the OED: TARDIS, Dalek, and Cyberman are in there, too.
35. Only a few people know The Doctor's real name.
Though audiences only know him as The Doctor, the Time Lord does have a real name and a few people do know it, including The Master, River Song (the Doctor’s wife), and longtime companion Clara Oswald.
A version of this article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for 2022.