For almost 60 years now and nearly 300 stories, Doctor Who has transported viewers around the universe, exploring different times and places, and running into all kinds of danger. Lead actors and showrunners come and go, but the secret to its success lies in its continued reinvention. This formula is what makes Doctor Who so special and is the key to its longevity — and it’s a strategy that has essentially been implemented since the very first episode back in 1963.
Throughout the show’s history, the stories in Doctor Who have centred around a mysterious and eccentric traveller — the Doctor — who usually appears near the start of the story, by accident or by design, in a time machine disguised as an old British police box. The Doctor likes to travel with friends — companions he picks up along the way — and the number of fellow travellers can vary from series to series.
Before long, in each story, the time travellers run into trouble. Luckily, the Doctor is extremely clever and generally knows how to make things better. At the end of the adventure, it’s back in the TARDIS and off to another time and place for more of the same the following week. These are the basic, and largely unwavering, rules of the show.
However, as we discovered in “The Timeless Children“, the concluding story of the latest series, there are some stories that change everything and make us rethink what has gone before.
“The Timeless Children” effectively performed a factory reset on the series with revelations about the Doctor’s past changing what we (and the Doctor) believed to be true from years of established Doctor Who history. And it’s a genius move. Now, we just don’t know who this Doctor really is, taking us right back to the start as we ask “Doctor who?”
It’s a bold move, for a series with such a legacy, to reveal something this major that changes the way we think about it so far down the line. But, Doctor Who has been doing this right from the start. The journey that is Doctor Who, from 1963 to the present, is a long and thrilling ride. As we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the show’s return to the small screen — following a 9-year hiatus — with Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, let’s take a look at the stories that made us change the way we think about Doctor Who. May we present: the Game-Changers.
Innovation From the Start
From the start, the series hit the ground running and the first story, “An Unearthly Child” (1963), is a classic TV game-changer. There had been nothing like this before. And even to this day, it’s an ambitious budgetary concept to take viewers to a completely new setting every few weeks. Full credit to producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein for what they achieved in this magical first 25 minutes.
The adventure begins as two school teachers discover that their smarter-than-average pupil lives in a time machine hidden away in a junkyard with her grumpy old grandfather called the Doctor. All we discover at this stage is that they are exiles from another time, cut off from their homeworld with the intention of going back one day.
To prevent the teachers from reporting them, the Doctor decides that the best option is to kidnap them. And off they go into the unknown… in a ship that we soon find out he can’t work quite properly.
Here There Be Monsters
“The Daleks” (1963-64) introduced the idea of monsters to the series. This first game-changing story happened just five weeks into the show’s existence. Doctor Who’s original remit was to have educational trips through time – more history lesson than tea-time terror. Thankfully, Verity Lambert chose to ignore this, and in the second story, the time travellers land on a planet ravaged by a nuclear war where they meet the Daleks for the first time. These distinctive creatures changed everything and established Doctor Who’s enduring place on television.
A year into the series, we find that the time travellers can run into old enemies again. Thus setting up recurring storylines and a wide re-visitable fictional universe, and setting out the show’s ambitions to weave a thread of rich lore throughout.
In “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (1964), Terry Nation’s popular creations, the Daleks, returned to enslave our own planet Earth in the 22nd century. This story also establishes that travelling with the Doctor doesn’t have to be forever and we see the first change in the line-up of the regular cast. At the end of the adventure, with the Daleks defeated, the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan decides she wants to stay on Earth with a chap she met called David. The Doctor says he’ll come back to see her one day. This hasn’t happened yet, but there’s still time…
There Are Others Out There
During “The Time Meddler” (1965), the Doctor runs into an irresponsible Monk, who is taking all sorts of delight in messing with history for his own gain. And how is he able to do this? Major shock! He has a TARDIS like the Doctor’s. Viewers now realised that there are others like the Doctor with the ability to time travel.
DEATH IN SERVICE
In the epic adventure “The Daleks’ Master Plan” (1965-66), there are two major — and shocking — game-changing moments for viewers. To prove that travelling with the Doctor can have terrible consequences, not one but two main characters, Katarina and Sara, die needlessly while helping the Doctor defeat the Daleks.
Up until this point, travelling with the Doctor had always been dangerous with lots of near misses, but never resulted in a death before. Their deaths are a surprise, and have a major impact on the Doctor and space pilot companion, Steven.
Regenerating Show and Doctor
The biggest change during the early years of Doctor Who was brought about by necessity. With lead actor William Hartnell’s health deteriorating three years into the show’s life, the production team found themselves needing to replace the main actor.
While recasting of a main character in a series isn’t ideal, the fact that the Doctor is an alien makes this whole process a lot easier, and changing the lead actor became an established fact and helped to keep the show alive.
In the closing moments of “The Tenth Planet” (1966) the Doctor collapses and changes. Viewers find out for the first time that, in times of need, the Doctor is able to renew his body. Patrick Troughton became that initial new Doctor.
The BBC’s Audience Research Department shows that not everyone was convinced that this was a good idea at the time.
Meet the Time Lords
Until “The War Games” (1969), the Doctor’s past was still a complete mystery and audiences knew nothing about where he came from. In desperation during this adventure, the Doctor calls on his own people for help, and we discover that he is actually a fugitive from a race called the Time Lords.
He explains how he ran away from his unnamed home planet because he was bored. But the Doctor has broken the laws of the Time Lords, so they put him on trial. His punishment is exile on Earth without use of the TARDIS, and he is forced to change his appearance again…
We get a new Doctor in the form of Jon Pertwee in “Spearhead from Space” (1970). This story is distinctively new and sets the tone of the series for the next five years. The story is shot in colour and on film, so looks incredibly different from what had gone before (although filming this story completely on film was down to strike action at the BBC).
This new decade of Doctor Who is more Earth-bound than before, as the Doctor takes up residence as UNIT’s scientific advisor alongside the Brigadier and co while he tries to work out how to get the TARDIS working again.
“Terror of the Autons” (1971) introduced us to the idea of a regular enemy in Doctor Who in the form of a nemesis who could match the Doctor’s smarts and abilities. This new foe was the Master, played by the wonderfully charismatic Roger Delgado, who went on to appear in every story that year, and made regular appearances until “Frontier in Space” (1973). After Delgado’s untimely death in 1973, the character of the Master didn’t return until 1976, and has been played by several different actors to date.
“The Three Doctors” (1972-73) expanded on what’s possible in Doctor Who by reuniting the previous two Doctors with the current one to defeat Omega. The idea of bringing lead actors back has continued several times across the series – usually to create a sense of occasion around an anniversary. See “The Five Doctors“ (1983), “The Two Doctors” (1985), mini-episode “Time Crash“(2007), “The Day of the Doctor” (2013) and “Fugitive of the Judoon” (2020) – the last two both memorable for including unseen versions of the Doctor.
The Three Doctors is also notable for the Time Lords giving the Doctor his powers of time travel again. Suddenly, the Doctor can get back to exploring space and time.
Ten years into Doctor Who, the Doctor’s home planet Gallifrey is finally given a name on-screen in “The Time Warrior” (1973-74). While not particularly game-changing a story, it does let us know a bit more about the Doctor, and takes away the Who from the title of the series.
The planet doesn’t get a mention again until “Pyramids of Mars“ (1975) where we find out that it’s in the constellation of Kasterborous with the coordinates ten-zero-eleven-zero-zero by zero-two from galactic zero centre. Don’t bother typing that into Google Maps, as the planet has moved several times since then…
The First Instance of the Term ‘Regeneration’
By 1974’s “Planet of the Spiders“, although regular viewers of the series accepted that the main actor could change his appearance, the process had never been referred to as regeneration until this story.
Goodbye Earth, Hello Universe
Almost as soon as the Doctor has changed his appearance in “Robot” (1974-75), he wants to get into the TARDIS and explore the universe properly again. After an Earth-bound Pertwee-esque adventure battling a giant robot, the Doctor scoops up Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan and off they go. This story moved the characters away from working alongside UNIT, and being tied to Earth for a long time.
A Moral Decision
The Time Lords always know best. In “Genesis of the Daleks” (1975), they send the Doctor and his friends back to the beginning of Dalek history, where they meet Dalek creator Davros and try to stop their creation, or at least prevent them developing into the aggressive creatures we all know (and love).
The Daleks had returned to Doctor Who many times up to this point, but here we find out much more about their development and get a deeper understanding of what they are about. Given the chance to destroy them though, the Doctor realises he would be no better than them if he completes his mission.
More to the TARDIS Than Meets the Eye
In “The Masque of Mandragora” (1976) we learn more secrets about the TARDIS. As the Doctor takes Sarah for a tour around the corridors, they stumble across another control room. With its elegant wood panelling and simple control desk, this control room appears in only four stories before the Doctor returns to controlling his TARDIS from a gleaming white interior in “The Invisible Enemy” (1977).
Return To Gallifrey
When Doctor Who returned to Gallifrey in “The Deadly Assassin” (1976), the story sparked controversy amongst fans. For the first time, we had an entire story set on the Doctor’s home planet, and we discovered a lot more than we bargained for.
While the Doctor is trying to prevent the destruction, with no companions, of his home planet at the hands of the decaying Master, we discover that Time Lords don’t have an infinite number of regenerations – they only have 12. You can imagine the shock at the time. This meant, back then, that the series would have to end after the 13th Doctor dies.
Why the production team decided to put this limit on the series is unknown and has/had interesting implications… but as we have recently found out in “The Timeless Children“, this doesn’t actually apply to the Doctor anyway. Phew.
The Key to Time
In 1978-79, the Doctor accepted a new mission to prevent the universe descending into chaos – not for the Time Lords, but this time for a new entity called White Guardian. The Key to Time is made up of six segments that maintain the balance of time itself. Thankfully, when all the segments come together, time can be stopped to restore any chaos. Sort of like jump-starting your car, but on a universal scale.
A series-long mission like this was a first for Doctor Who. The Doctor, with his new assistant, Romana, and K-9, accepted the assignment and spent the next set of adventures tracking down the segments…
A New Look!
As Doctor Who entered another new decade, the series was given a radical refresh, first glimpsed in “The Leisure Hive” (1980). Under new producer John Nathan-Turner, many of the changes here were mainly cosmetic, but these changes helped revitalise the show, bringing it into a new era while it competed for ratings against rival channel offerings.
With a brand-new title sequence, logo and new synthesized Doctor Who theme and incidental music, the story looked, sounded and felt quite different to what had gone before… little wonder this beautifully shot and tightly paced story went badly over budget.
The return of new-look Cybermen in “Earthshock” (1982) changed how Doctor Who episodes were promoted before transmission. The closely guarded reveal of Cybermen at the end of Episode One created a satisfying surprise for viewers, and then-producer John Nathan-Turner gave up the chance of a prestigious Radio Times cover to maintain the surprise.
With more scenes recorded for this than ever before, Doctor Who had never looked so good. But also, as a reminder that travelling with the Doctor can be dangerous — like the two companions from the 1960s — poor Adric doesn’t survive this encounter with the Cybermen.
Mirroring what was happening with the series at the BBC at the time, “The Trial of a Time Lord” (1986) put the Doctor on trial for his life. The 14-part story jumped from past to present and future to prove the Doctor was fit to travel in time and space.
We’re introduced to a future companion here – Mel – who is denied the usual introduction story. By the end of the adventure, it is revealed that the person behind the whole trial is actually a future version of the Doctor himself. At the end of the trial, the Doctor manages to get away. Lead actor Colin Baker wouldn’t be returning to the series when it returned the following year.
Secrets of a Time Lord
For the 25th-anniversary story “Silver Nemesis” (1988), the seeds of an idea were unwittingly sowed for something that would not be touched upon until 2020’s The Timeless Children.
Lady Peinforte taunts the Doctor, saying that she knows his secrets, promising to reveal them to the Cybermen. “I shall tell them of Gallifrey, tell them of the old time, the time of chaos,” she says. But the Doctor doesn’t care. The mystery of this particular Time Lord isn’t revealed here – and we don’t get to find out what these actual secrets are for a long, long time.
As well as a complete rethink on the inside of the TARDIS, the script reveals that the Doctor is human on his mother’s side, which is never mentioned again in Doctor Who. Also, the Eye of Harmony now appears to be inside the Doctor’s TARDIS – the power source at the heart of his ship.
A more tender and romantic side to the Doctor comes out for the first time here, as the Doctor kisses Grace twice in the story. We’d never seen anything quite like this in Doctor Who before, barring a hug and peck on the cheek with his companions Jo Grant and Nyssa as they were leaving.
The New Who
And into the modern era of Doctor Who. After a long rest from our screens (16 years since the last series; nine since Paul McGann’s outing), one of the biggest game-changers in the history of Doctor Who came along in 2005, when Russell T Davies brought us “Rose“.
While remaining completely faithful to the spirit of Doctor Who past, the showrunner managed to create something that was also fresh and exciting as he successfully rebooted a series the BBC had lost faith in.
Learning from the failings of Doctor Who: The Movie, out went all attempts at a complicated backstory and what we got instead was a repackaged, mysterious, eccentric traveller flitting about in a truly amazing time machine primed for adventures in time and space with shop assistant Rose Tyler. It felt modern and relevant. This reset series went on to explain that the Doctor was the last of the Time Lords and that his home planet was dead. As resets go, ten out of ten!
Blink and You’ll Miss This Change in Approach
“Blink“(2007) proved that with great writing and casting, you don’t always need the lead actors to appear in the centre of a Doctor Who story. Just the idea of the Doctor can be enough.
The Story of River Song
When the character of River Song appears for the first time in “Silence in the Library“(2008), the Doctor has no idea who she is. We soon realise that River has met the Doctor before, but later versions of him in his future.
The idea of a non-linear companion like this had never been explored in Doctor Who before, and she went on to play a big part in Doctor Who over the following years until “The Husbands of River Song” (2015), as River’s story weaves in and out of the Doctor’s and his friends’ lives.
‘You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go,’ says the Doctor. ‘No, but I always took you where you needed to go,’ replies Idris.
Giving the TARDIS some say in their destination changes the perception of the Doctor’s amazing time machine and why the Doctor isn’t always in complete control.
The Reveal of Missy
This idea was big in the great scheme of the series and what we’d seen before, and would be revisited again — once again in “Hell Bent“(2015) and then again, even more significantly, when Peter Capaldi’s Doctor regenerated…
The 13th Doctor
Much media attention centred around the notion of a woman taking on the role of the Doctor after many years of the character being played by men – and as you discover within minutes of Jodie’s Doctor adopting control, you completely believe that this new Doctor is still the Doctor.
The new-look Doctor with her new team of friends went through their first year experiencing all-new threats, with all continuity references, barring the TARDIS and the sonic screwdriver, stripped from the first full series of the show.
The last series of Doctor Who built up to one of biggest about-turns ever seen in Doctor Who. The two-part series opener “Spyfall” surprised us with the return of the Master, who told the Doctor of Gallifrey’s fate. The Doctor is shocked and upset to find her home in ruins at the hands of her old enemy.
Then finally, in “The Timeless Children”, the Master relishes telling his old frenemy what he discovered. Everything that the Doctor believes to be true about her past is a lie… and there are still many secrets to be discovered.
So the story goes, the Doctor was found as a child by a gateway to another world or dimension by a Shobogan woman from the old days of Gallifrey. This child regenerated countless times, and the secret was eventually gene-spliced into a new race of Gallifreyans – the Time Lords. For reasons not yet discovered, the Doctor has no memory of any of this. At this point in the show’s long run, we no longer know anything about the Doctor. And neither does she.
Why We Need These Types of Stories
It’s really simple. We need stories like all of the above in order for the show to survive. Doctor Who has always been and should always be about change, renewal, and acceptance of big ideas.
If the idea that the Doctor can change his/her body into someone completely different had been considered too radical in the past, with William Hartnell the only actor considered to play the title role, Doctor Who would have ended in 1966 after that first battle with the Cybermen.
Doctor Who‘s game-changing adventures inject something completely new into the life-blood of the show. And while some ideas might turn audiences off, at the same time they open up numerous opportunities for hundreds of new ideas to germinate into exciting plot developments. It’s this that will take Doctor Who into the future, and allow it to flourish.