Do you need to watch previous seasons of Doctor Who before season 14 to understand it?

As Doctor Who prepares for its debut on Disney+, do you need to watch previous seasons to understand the series?
Doctor Who. Credit: BBC Studios
Doctor Who. Credit: BBC Studios /

As fans prepare for the debut of Doctor Who on Disney+, they may be faced with a big question: How do you jump into a show that’s been running since 1963? 

The history of Doctor Who can be a bit daunting. The show ran on the BBC from 1963 to 1989, living on for a while with audio dramas and books before being fully revived in 2005. With such a long run, the idea of being able to just jump into it may be tough, and no wonder some are wary of doing so as it makes its debut on Disney+. 

Yet, for all its history, Doctor Who’s continuity isn’t as seriously connected as it may seem. The show would often use short story arcs, self-contained tales that rarely attached to each other, as crafting a grand mythology wasn’t a thing for TV shows in the 1970s and ‘80s. If anything, much of Doctor Who was simply the writers making things up as they went along, from the Doctor’s ability to regenerate a new form to his backstory. 

At its heart, it's a simple concept: An eccentric time-traveling alien in a space/time machine shaped like a police box on the outside while massive on the inside travels the universe. He's often aided by a companion (usually a female from Earth) as he gets into adventures saving civlizations. It's the formula that's worked for 60 years with most of the series being stand-alone tales.

That’s shifted a bit with the 2005 revival, with some past plot elements coming up and attempts to craft a larger mythology for the Doctor. That included the controversial "Timeless Child" arc claiming the Doctor was much older than he seemed with previous forms even he didn't know about.

However, given the character’s status as a time traveler combined with some unique reboots of the universe and changes in creators, it’s not uncommon for some plots and mythology arcs to be retooled or just ignored in later seasons. So, fans shouldn't be too tied to whatever "history" comes up.

What also aids in allowing fans to leap onto things better is that the show has a great way of splitting things up thanks to the change in actors. 

The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) Credit: James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios /

How a new Doctor leads to a new jumping-on-point

One easy way for fans to divide up Doctor Who eras is that the Doctor will regenerate into a new body now and then with a new actor taking on the role. This allows fans to easily be able to figure out a period for the show. 

Some classic episodes can be considered essential. “The War Games,” the end of the Second Doctor’s run, finally reveals his origins as a runaway Time Lord. Also, the Fourth Doctor story, “Genesis of the Daleks,” is the origin of the Doctor’s robotic arch-enemies. Yet it’s also common for the producers to use a new Doctor as a clean slate for new stories. 

The producers have long used the arrival of a new Doctor to create a fresh jumping-on-point for new viewers. Each actor plays the role differently and often gets a new companion to be the audience surrogate. That’s continued with the revival as some arcs can be longer with the Time War that almost wiped out the Time Lords often referenced, yet that has also been retconned. There can also be the return of an old face from the Doctor’s past, either an enemy or a past companion that does carry more impact if you’re an older fan. 

There are complex bits like River Song (Alex Kingston), whose time-traveling history can be pretty convoluted for a casual viewer. The producers do like throwing in references to past tales but are smart to let new viewers know why they’re important. A good case is the return of the Celestial Toymaker, a foe unseen since the 1960s, with the Doctor relating why he’s such a huge threat. 

With this new Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, set to give a fresher direction and an emphasis on fantasy over sci-fi, it shows that Doctor Who’s history is pretty unique. Binging on the classic series can be fun and catching up on the revival also good yet it can be easy to leap onto the show without too much knowledge as it’s more about the current adventures than being too tied into the Doctor’s wild past. 

Doctor Who season 14 premieres Friday, May 10 on Disney+.

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