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'Doctor Who' at 50: A newbie's guide to the hit sci-fi series (FAQ)

The 11 Doctors of
The 11 Doctors of "Doctor Who."
Matt Burlem/BBC America

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“Doctor Who,” the British science fiction show that’s been a longtime hit overseas and gaining in cult popularity here in the States, celebrates its 50th anniversary this Saturday with a new special: “The Day of the Doctor,” which is also screening in local movie theaters with bonus content on Monday. Don’t know “Doctor Who”? No worries, there’s still plenty of time to get caught up.

Wait, 50 years? Isn’t that a lot to get caught up on? Sure, but there’s a relatively low bar of what you need to know to jump in. Plus, the show went off the air in 1989 and, ’90s TV movie aside, came back in a rebooted fashion in 2005. And the current Doctor (at least for a bit longer) has only been there since 2010, so even less history.

One good place to start: You can listen to a chat KPCC host A Martinez had with KPCC reporter Sanden Totten and myself before the 2012 season premiere.

Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman explains what you need to know pretty well in a small number of words. He told Comic-Con what he wants to say when people think there’s these decades of history to catch up on:

“No. Look, there is a blue box. It is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. It can go anywhere in time and space and sometimes even where it’s meant to go. And when it turns up there’s a bloke in it called the Doctor, and there will be stuff wrong and he will do his best to sort it out and he will probably succeed, because he’s awesome."

RELATED: New Zealand Google's "Doctor Who" doodle games all 11 Doctors

What’s with all these doctors?

The Doctor is a time traveling alien who can “regenerate” 12 times, meaning there are 13 different versions of him. Current Doctor Matt Smith is the 11th of those. And yes, his name is “The Doctor,” not “Doctor Who” — that “Who” is about the mystery surrounding him.

As University of Redlands professor Piers Britton put it, “Change is essential to [the Doctor’s] appeal."

Where should I start?

The go-to answer for this is the episode “Blink.” It’s a self-contained story that the Doctor plays a supporting part in, and it pays off if you stick with the show because the villains introduced here end up coming back on several occasions. It plays like an old “Twilight Zone” episode. In fact, many “Doctor Who” episodes have a hint of Twilight Zone with way more optimism.

In fact, as late night host Craig Ferguson explained when he provided lyrics to the “Doctor Who” theme song, the show is ultimately about “the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.”

Craig Ferguson's Doctor Who theme song

Another episode that many fans recommend is “The Girl in the Fireplace,” which shows you the far spanning reach of the show as it deals with windows from a 51st-century spaceship looking at a woman in 18th-century France. I’ll recommend two personal favorites: “The End of the World,” depicting the end of the planet Earth in our far future, and “Vincent and the Doctor,” an emotional episode as the Doctor tries to help the mentally ill Vincent Van Gogh.

Also, you know how we mentioned regeneration? The last episode of a Doctor is usually an epic turning point, and the first full episode with a new Doctor is a natural jumping on point, so those episodes are all great places to go as well. The episodes where you first meet the modern doctors are “Rose” for Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, “The Christmas Invasion” for David Tennant and “The Eleventh Hour” gives you the current Doctor, Matt Smith.

What’s going on now?

Sorry, Netflixers — while the rebooted “Doctor Who” is available for streaming, the last series has yet to appear online. However, BBC was kind enough to post the very last minute of last season so you can get a taste of whats in store:

The end of "The Name of the Doctor"

Long story short, there’s a mysterious new Doctor who’s not a Doctor anyone’s seen before. This webisode sets up that Doctor’s origin, teases the new season and throws you right in the midst of the action.

The Night of the Doctor

Also, don’t fall too in love with Matt Smith and his dreamy floppy hair yet — he’s being replaced come this year’s Christmas special. In the great British tradition of Christmas specials for regular TV shows, the new Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, is going to be making his debut this holiday season.

A Doctor Who glossary

We’re not going to even come close to trying to be comprehensive here, but here are a few more key terms to help you get just a little bit more of the richness of the “Doctor Who” experience.

Companions: The Doctor doesn’t just fight evildoers solo; he usually brings along a human companion, who often happens to be a young woman.

Cybermen: A race of cyborgs who the Doctor has had to fight since the 1960s TV shows. They are cool and calculating, as opposed to the more impetuous hatred of the Daleks. They also still have human brains underneath all that metal.

Daleks: The villains most associated with the show, these robot-like creatures (actually alien cyborgs — man, cyborgs really don’t like the Doctor) are known for their mechanical cry of “Exterminate!” as they seek to end everyone that gets in their way. They’ve appeared in almost 100 episodes of the show since first appearing way back in 1963.

The Master: A renegade Time Lord who’s the one singular, not-an-entire-race archvillain of the Doctor. You know, sort of his Moriarty — that’s how the Who creative team described him.

Sonic screwdriver: The Doctor’s weapon of choice, it essentially functions as his magic wand. He usually uses it to open doors, but it can do scans like a “Star Trek” tricorder and more.

TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space): It’s the time machine the Doctor uses to travel through time in space, and from the outside, it looks like a police box. No, we had no idea before seeing “Doctor Who” either, but those are apparently big phone booths that British police used back in the 1960s when the first version of the show began, and it’s stuck hard to the police box look ever since despite the growing but charming sense of antiquatedness it brings. Also, it’s much larger on the inside than the outside — in fact, it actually looks quite grand and futuristic in there. (Always ones to enjoy a good nerdy reference, the good folks at Google even hid a TARDIS on Google Maps Street View to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Doctor Who.”)

Time War: A giant war between the Time Lords — the alien race of which the Doctor is but one — and the Daleks, those archnemeses/annoying little robot dudes.

And, fine. Do you still want to get caught up on the entire run of the series, back to the ’60s? Then watch comedians the Fine Brothers run down the highlights of each and every one of the doctors in just six minutes.

Doctor Who: 47 Years in 6 Minutes