The Newbies Guide to Doctor Who
The first episode of Doctor Who aired on Saturday the 23rd of November, 1963. In the decades since then, there have been hundreds of TV stories, novels, audio plays, and comic strips (not to mention the various spin-offs) . For those new to the franchise, this can all be rather daunting. Even long-term fans are sometimes put off by the sheer number of stories, or by rumours that some stories are far too continuity-bound to be easily enjoyed.
The Newbies Guide is here to help you get through all those problems. Whilst 99% of Doctor Who stories can be understood and enjoyed with no prior knowledge, we provide you with all the information you need to follow the story. We don't explain every single offhand reference to the past (many references to previous adventures are stories that have yet to be told), but we do explain the important bits.
This guide goes through the series telling you what you need to know to follow the plot of any given story. It describes the main characters, recurring characters, and real life historical characters that the original audience would have been familiar with. It also describes anything from previous stories that are important to following the plot. This means that there will be spoilers. Any major spoilers for the story in question (e.g the surprise reveal of a recurring villain) will be hidden in spoiler tags, but minor spoilers and spoilers for other stories will not be marked.
Before we start, let's explain two things that are relevant to most stories.
The Doctor is the star of the show. He is an alien who travels through space and time. Most of the time he rights wrongs on the planets he lands on. His home planet is called Gallifrey and his people are usually referred to as the Time Lords. The most important thing to know about the Doctor's people is that they can cheat death by something called regeneration. This means that their body changes into to a new appearance, often with a very different personality. The guide will tell you which "incarnation" or "incarnations" of the Doctor feature in the story.
The TARDIS is the Doctor's ship. It can travel anywhere in time and space, and sometimes beyond. In theory it can take any form at all to blend in with its surroundings. In the first ever story it got stuck in the form of a 1960s police box. It is also is bigger on the inside than on the outside. The TARDIS is not just a machine, she is a sentient lifeform in her own right.
The Classic Series ran from 1963 to 1989, and starred the first seven incarnations of the Doctor. The 1996 TV Movie, introducing Paul McGann's eighth Doctor, is generally lumped in with the Classic Series. The series was originally made in black and white, before moving to colour in 1970. Unlike the new series, stories were told in multiple episodes (a story could be anywhere between 2 and 14 episodes, with most being 4 or 6) lasting around 25 minutes. Except at the end of a story, every episode would end with a cliffhanger. There were a few exceptions (some mid-80s stories were 45 minutes, and both The Five Doctors and The TV Movie are feature-length single-episode stories).
There are 97 black and white episodes missing from the archives (though we have audio for all of them, which has been officially released), but all surviving episodes have been released on DVD and some of the missing episodes have been animatied. There are also a variety of fan-made reconstructions using photos, captions, and, in some cases, fan-made footage alongside the audio track.
The First Doctor
The Second Doctor
The Third Doctor
The Fourth Doctor
The Fifth Doctor
The Sixth Doctor
The Seventh Doctor
The Eighth Doctor
The New Series began in 2005, and is still running today. To date it has featured four main incarnations of the Doctor - the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth. Although it has also featured cameos from Classic Doctors, and a couple of appearances from the "War Doctor". This is the version with which newcomers are most likely to be familiar. Most episodes are 45 minutes of self-contained story, although every series has some kind of plot arc.
Virgin Books published original Doctor Who novels from 1991-1997. They published two main series, and one standalone novel. They also published novelisations of TV stories, and also one of a radio story (though most of these were through the Target brand).
The first sixty New Adventures featured the Seventh Doctor after his final TV story Survival. When they were launched, Doctor Who producer John Nathan Turner (who was still in post) said that they were the official continuation of the TV Series, and have been a huge influence on everything that came after them. The sixty-first featured the eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, after The TV Movie. After virgin lost their license in 1997, the series continued featuring characters virgin had created (most notably Bernice Summerfield). The New Adventures contain a number of plot and character arcs, though even these books are usually easy to follow without the background.
The Missing Adventures featured the first six Doctors at various points in their history (though Cold Fusion also featured the Seventh Doctor). These books are almost entirely standalone stories, with a few sequels - mostly to TV stories.
Who Killed Kennedy is a standalone novel, which features a journalist investigating the Doctor and his world. It features a couple of Doctors making fairly minor appearances, and is mostly set during the time the Third Doctor was exiled to earth.
BBC Books have been printing Doctor Who novels since 1997. They have printed three main series one of which, the New Series novels, is in its own tab.
The Eighth Doctor Adventures, published from 1997-2005, feature the Eighth Doctor after The TV Movie. The cover design is very similar to the Past Doctor Adventures, and the only way to be sure which range you are reading is to check which Doctor is listed on the back cover (although a couple of Past Doctor Adventures featured the eighth). These novels have a number of plot and character arcs, some of which are difficult to follow if you are not reading them in order.
The range splits into two halves. The first half (from The Eight Doctors to The Ancestor Cell) has a lot of standalone stories at first and ties up all the remaining arcs with its final novel. The second half (from The Burning to The Gallifrey Chronicles) has rather more arcs, but starts with a blank slate and a new beginning for the Doctor.
The Past Doctor Adventures, published from 1997-2005, mostly feature the first seven Doctors. The Infinity Doctors features an unknown incarnation of the Doctor, Wolfsbane features the fourth and eighth, and Fear Itself features the Eighth Doctor. Most of these stories are standalone, though there are numerous sequels to TV Stories, Virgin Missing Adventures, and other Past Doctor Adventures. There is a plot arc running through many of the Seventh Doctor novels, and several novels featuring different Doctors tie into a plot arc within the Eighth Doctor novels (though all of these are easy to understand with no knowledge of the arc).
There have been a number of novels published by BBC books to tie in to the New Series since it started in 2005.
The main range is usually called The New Series Adventures. They were originally published in hardback, but most of them have subsequently been republished as paperbacks. All of these novels are standalone, though many feature enemies that have appeared onscreen.
The Quick Reads books were published in paperback as part of a campaign to promote literacy. The idea of the Quick Reads series (which has many non-Who books) is to provide books in simple english, so that adults who have poor levels of literacy have things they can read.
The Darksmith Legacy series is a series designed for younger readers, and has a continuing plot arc.
The Decide Your Destiny novels are choose-your-own adventure style stories designed for the same readership as the Darksmith Legacy series. Unlike most books of this type, your options are not limited to things your character can do.
There have been a number of short series of novels over the years.
The Companions of Doctor Who were three books published by Target. One was a novelisation of the spin-off K9 and Company, starring Sarah Jane Smith and K-9 Mark III. The other two were original novels.
The Missing Season novelisations, also published by Target, covered three unmade TV stories that were originally planned for Season 23, before the show went on an 18-month hiatus. They feature the sixth Doctor and his companion Peri.
The Telos novellas were a series of 15 novellas featuring the first eight doctors, one future doctor of their own creation, and one unidentified incarnation of the Doctor. They were published in two separate hardback editions - a deluxe and a standard. A couple were also printed in paperback editions. These novellas spawned the Time Hunter spin-off series of novellas.
There have been a wide range of Doctor Who audio plays made for both broadcast on radio and direct release on vinyl, cassette tape, CD, or download. Some of these stories have been made directly by the BBC, whilst others were made by a fan-run company called Big Finish Productions.