22 Fascinating Facts About Doctor Who

Sophie Mutevelian, BBC
Sophie Mutevelian, BBC

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. Here are 20 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 didn't become a "Time Lord" until 1969.


Michael Webb/Keystone/Getty Images

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.

3. 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.”

4. 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.

5. 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.”

6. Ridley Scott was supposed to design the Daleks.


Mike Lawn/Getty Images

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.

7. 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.”

8. 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.

9. 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."

10. The 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.

11. 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.

12. David Tennant became an actor with the specific goal of playing the Doctor.


Chris Jackson/Getty Images

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."

13. 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.

14. Catherine Zeta-Jones could have been The Doctor.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

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.

15. 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.

16. Matt Smith auditioned to play Sherlock's Dr. Watson a week before auditioning for Doctor Who.


Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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.)

17. Jodie Whittaker was Chris Chibnall's first choice to play the Thirteenth Doctor.

Jodie Whittaker stars as The Thirteenth Doctor in 'Doctor Who'
Sophie Mutevelian, BBC

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."

18. 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.”

19. 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.

20. 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.

21. 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.

22. 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.

One episode in particular, “The Power of the Daleks,” saw new life in November 2016. More than 40 years after it was destroyed in 1974, the episode was recreated as a BBC-approved animated special. It screened in U.S. theaters courtesy of Fathom Events.

License to Bird: Meet the Real James Bond

American ornithologist James Bond, circa 1974.
American ornithologist James Bond, circa 1974.

On January 4, 1900, a child was born in Philadelphia. His name was Bond. James Bond. He would not grow up to be a globe-trotting, license-to-kill-carrying playboy spy like the other James Bond. Instead, he became an ornithologist, and lived a fairly quiet, normal life—until someone borrowed his name.  

Bond lived in New Hampshire and England while growing up, and developed an accent that a colleague described [PDF] as an “amalgam of New England, British, and upper-class Philadelphian.” After graduating from Cambridge, Bond returned to the U.S. to work as a banker, but his childhood interests in science and natural history spurred him to quit soon after and join an expedition to the Amazon to collect biological specimens for Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences.

After that, and with no formal training in the field, he started working as an ornithologist at the Academy, and was “among the last of a traditional museum breed, the independently wealthy, nonsalaried curator, who lacked advanced university degrees.” Working at the museum, Bond became an authority on the bird species of the Caribbean, and his 1936 book, Birds of the West Indies, was considered the definitive guide to the region’s birds at the time. 

Despite his many scientific accomplishments—which included dozens of papers about Caribbean and New England birds, more books and field guides, numerous medals and awards and other researchers using the term “Bond’s Line” to refer to the boundary that separates Caribbean fauna by their origin—that book would be what catapulted Bond, or at least his name, to international fame.

In 1961, Bond was reading a London newspaper’s review of the latest edition of his book and found eyebrow-raising references to handguns, kinky sex, and other elements of a life that sounded very unlike his. He and his wife Mary quickly learned that another James Bond was the hero of a series of novels by Ian Fleming, which were popular in the UK but just gaining notice in the U.S. Mary wrote to Fleming to jokingly chastise him for stealing her husband’s name for his “rascal” character. 

Fleming replied to explain himself: He was a birdwatcher and when he was living in Jamaica beginning work on his first spy novel, Birds of the West Indies was one of his bird “bibles.” He wanted his main character to have an ordinary, unassuming name, and when he was trying to drum one up, he remembered the author of the book he turned to so often. “It struck me that this name, brief, unromantic and yet very masculine, was just what I needed and so James Bond II was born,” Fleming wrote to Mary. (Fleming later called “James Bond” the “dullest name I’ve ever heard.”)

Fleming told Mary that he understood if they were angry at the theft of Bond’s name, and suggested a trade. “In return I can only offer your James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purpose he may think fit,” he wrote. “Perhaps one day he will discover some particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion.” 

He also invited the Bonds to his home in Jamaica, which they took him up on a few years later. During the Bonds’ visit, Fleming gave James a copy of his latest novel, You Only Live Twice, inscribed with the message “To the real James Bond from the thief of his identity.”

For the next few decades, until his death at the age of 89, Bond’s famous namesake caused the ornithologist a few minor annoyances. Once, he was supposedly stopped at the airport because officials thought his passport was a fake, and the occasional bank teller would likewise think the same of his checks and refuse to cash them.

Young women would often prank call the Bond house late at night asking to speak to 007, to which Mary would reply: “Yes, James is here. But this is Pussy Galore and he's busy now."

Beyond Queen Elizabeth: 10 Fantastic Shows to Stream After The Crown

Olivia Colman stars in season 3 of The Crown.
Olivia Colman stars in season 3 of The Crown.
Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix

So you’ve already torn through the latest season of The Crown, which arrived on Netflix in mid-November. You’ve watched and evaluated the performances from the new cast, including Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip, and Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II. You’ve done your Google searches on the events depicted in season 3, from the Cambridge Five to the Aberfan disaster. You’ve played back every scene featuring a corgi. What are you going to do now?

If you’re looking for something else that’s historical, royal, or just vaguely British, give one of these shows a try. They’re all available on a major streaming service (Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime) and they all feature the same whispered bombshells and meaningful glances that make The Crown such a quietly devastating—and highly addicting—drama.

1. Victoria

Like The Crown, Victoria opens with a young queen ascending the throne after a death in the family. Only in this case, the queen is 18-year-old Alexandrina Victoria, who would rule Great Britain and Ireland for an astonishing 63 years. This costume drama hasn’t even covered a third of that reign, but it’s packed plenty of royal scandal, real-world politics, and dramatic gowns into its three seasons. There’s no official word on when fans can expect the next batch of episodes, but writer Daisy Goodwin has promised “an absolute humdinger” of a fourth season.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

2. The Tudors

Henry VIII famously had a problem with commitment. He married six women, more than one of whom he had executed, making his life prime material for a soapy drama. Showtime delivered just that with The Tudors, which aired its final episode in 2010. The show covered each of Henry’s marriages and various international affairs in between, casting now famous British actors in some of their earliest roles. Henry Cavill appears in all four seasons as the king’s brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, and Natalie Dormer (aka Margaery Tyrell) dominates the first two seasons as Henry’s doomed second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Outlander

Take all of the historical intrigue of The Crown, add in some time travel and a lot more sex scenes, and you have Outlander. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling book series, this Starz original centers on Claire Randall, a nurse living in post-WWII Britain who is sent back in time to 1740s Scotland. Her travels don’t end there. Over the course of the show, Claire schmoozes with the French royal court in Paris and gets shipwrecked off the coast of the American colonies. She also falls in love with a Highlander named Jamie, even as she attempts to reunite with her husband Frank in the present day.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. Call The Midwife

Drawing on the diaries of a midwife who worked in the East End of London in the 1950s, this BBC show follows young women in medical training as they travel in and out of the homes of expectant Brits. By focusing on a working class neighborhood, Call the Midwife paints a picture of the London outside Queen Elizabeth’s palace walls, exploring in particular the stories of mothers in a post-baby boom, pre-contraceptive pill world.

Where to watch it: Netflix

5. Upstairs Downstairs

The first Upstairs, Downstairs aired in the 1970s—and when it ended, the tony Bellamy family had just been devastated by the stock market crash of 1929. The reboot (note the lack of comma in the title) picks up in 1936, with one of the original series' housekeepers serving a new family. Just like the original, it shows the very different lives of the “upstairs” aristocrats and their “downstairs” domestic staff, while nodding at current events that would’ve affected them both. A special treat for fans of The Crown: Claire Foy playing the frequently misbehaved Lady Persephone Towyn.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

6. Versailles

Ever wondered what it was like to party in the Hall of Mirrors? Versailles takes you inside the grand French palace of the same name, fictionalizing the lives of Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) and his court in the mid-1600s. Versailles isn’t quite as critically adored as The Crown and its cohorts—many reviewers have written it off as a slighter historical series—but it’s got all the requisite melodrama and the jaw-dropping sets we’ve come to expect from these costume epics.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Poldark

When war breaks out between the Brits and American colonists, Ross Poldark leaves his hometown of Cornwall to fight for King George III. After eight years of battles, the redcoats lose, sending Poldark back across the ocean, where he finds that everything has changed: His father is dead, his estate is in ruins, and the love of his life is engaged to his cousin. This is where Poldark, the BBC adaptation of Winston Graham’s eponymous novels, picks up. While Ross Poldark is a fictional character, the show incorporates lots of real history, from the aftermath of the Revolutionary War to the subsequent revolution in France. Amazon Prime has the first four seasons, but you’ll have to head over to PBS Masterpiece for the fifth and final season, which just wrapped its run a few weeks ago.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

8. The Borgias

Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia Borgia were extremely influential nobles in 15th and 16th century Italy. In 1492, Rodrigo claimed the papacy, and with it, control of the Roman Catholic Church. That basically meant he and his children ruled the country: as long as Rodrigo was Pope Alexander VI, the Borgias could get anything they wanted. Showtime dramatized their power plays, betrayals, and rumored incest over three seasons of The Borgias, with Jeremy Irons in the lead role as Rodrigo.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Downton Abbey

If you missed out on the Downton Abbey craze in 2010, now is the perfect time to catch up. The entire series—which concerns the uppercrust Crawley family and their many servants—is available on Amazon Prime, and the movie, which premiered earlier this fall, is still playing in select theaters (and is quickly making its way to on demand). Though the story is primarily set in the 1910s and 1920s, Maggie Smith’s withering insults are timeless.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

10. Coronation Street

If you want to understand the royals, you have to watch their favorite shows—and Coronation Street has long been rumored to be Queen Elizabeth’s preferred soap. (Prince Charles is also a fan; he appeared on the show’s live 2000 special.) Airing on ITV since 1960, Coronation Street follows several working-class families in the fictional town of Weatherfield.

Where to watch it: Hulu

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