When a television program has been on the air—sort of—for what is rapidly becoming five decades, finding a place to start watching that program is certainly intimidating. There aren’t many other shows like the venerable Doctor Who, but—as complicated as his varied adventures may seem—the show is ultimately a simple story, with a single protagonist: A 900 year-old alien traveling through time and space looking to help others and find a little truth in the process.
Welcome to Timelordology 101.
Beginning in 1963 as a children’s educational program, the Doctor of Doctor Who, as played by William Hartnell, was introduced as the eccentric grandfather of Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford) an “enearthly child” with exceptional intelligence. In the first serial, two of Susan’s schoolteachers, Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian Chesterton (William Russell), follow her “home” only to discover her living out of a 1960s-era British “police box” that, as they quickly find, is bigger on the inside. Together—along with many other “companions”—the Doctor, later revealed as an alien Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, has traveled across time and space aboard his “TARDIS” (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), occasionally “regenerating” as actors have moved on or lost interest in the role through eleven incarnations.
Told in chunks of four half-hour episodes per “story,” or serial, the original Doctor Who benefited from a fortuitous licensing deal between the BBC and American PBS affiliates in the 1980s. For many years in the US, Doctor Who was best known as the trippy, cheaply made show filled with actors speaking in funny accents seen on the fuzzy end of the dial. The appearance of the Fourth Doctor, played with impish zeal by the great Tom Baker—with his floppy hat and ten-foot long knit scarf—became an iconic representation in America of the high-minded stories Doctor Who was trying to tell while trapped in a low-budget world of papier-mâché monsters and cardboard spaceship sets.
Finally losing steam in 1989, Doctor Who was cancelled in Britain and all but vanished in America. But, like Star Trek and Star Wars before it, a generation of children had grown up with fond memories of fantastical planets, devious villains and intricate backstories of Doctor Who that were likely much better in their heads than in their realities. BBC producer and screenwriter Russell T Davies—coming off the phenomenal success of Queer As Folk, of all things—was given the opportunity to work on a project of his choosing. A lifelong Doctor Who fan, Davies oversaw the show’s relaunch in 2005 with the manic Christopher Eccleston as the ninth incarnation of the alien Doctor.
After four series’ worth of hour-long episodes, David Tennant’s overwhelmingly popular interpretation as the Tenth Doctor, and smashing success, Davies left Doctor Who. Steven Moffat, a writer of some of the new series’ best stories (“Blink” is now synonymous in some circles with absolute terror) took over the direction of the series, imbuing it with a more overtly fantastic flavor.
But where best to begin? The DVDs, Netflixes and Amazon Primes of the modern entertainment landscape offer up a lot of options, but not much guidance. Baker is probably still the best-known Doctor, but there were so many Doctor Who print ads with Matt Smith everywhere just a few short years ago. And that David Tennant sure is dreamy (or so I’m told), but aren’t there more Doctors between the fourth and the tenth? Or eleventh? What of all that talk about “reversing the polarity of the neutron flow”? And so on and so forth…
So for you, loyal AiPT reader, we have outlined five possible routes to beginning your Doctor Who experience, separated by watching habits. If you’re…
5. The Sophisticated, Modern Day Television Watcher
If you’re the sophisticated, modern day television watcher, the fifth series of the new Doctor Who is the best place to start. Steven Moffat embraces the tools of modern television production more than Davies did for the previous four series, and Doctor Who only benefits from his approach. While there were loose connections between episodes, the first, second, and third series were considerably more episodic than series five, which is tightly crafted and serialized to tell a story that rewards attentive viewers.
The creative minds behind Doctor Who have used the main character’s regenerations to clean the slate before, but never before to the degree it is in “The Eleventh Hour,” the first episode of series five. Matt Smith’s Doctor is childlike and playful. He thinks quickly, tends to act before he thinks and, like a child, is quick to throw a temper tantrum. His meeting of the young Amelia (Caitlin Blackwood), who later grows up into the fiery Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), makes it necessary for him to explain himself to a kid, and the audience, in the simplest terms. He’s smart. He knows stuff about the universe. He has a time machine. He can save the world.
Even though series five begins with a “simple” alien invasion, the plotting gets more conceptually complicated as it goes on. What it would truly mean to have access to time and space are explored, and those ideas are tightly woven together. Unlike some other shows that might introduce ideas only to abandon or forget them (ahem Lost, Heroes), everything with Doctor Who pays off, even if there’s some patience involved to get to the final answer.
4. The Historian Who Wants to Know How it All Began
Should you fall into this camp, 1970’s “Spearhead from Space” serial—introducing the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee)—is a good place to start. Yes, it skips the contributions of the first two Doctors (Hartnell and Patrick Troughton), but those adventures; the black and white film, the shaky special effects, the difficulty to obtain…might be a little too off-putting for new viewers.
“Spearhead from Space” is the first Doctor Who serial filmed in color, and temporarily limits the journeys of the Doctor to Earth. Arriving just after he’s regenerated, his race has banished him to his favorite planet. His slow recovery allows ample time to reintroduce companion Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), a founder of the global “United Nations (later “Unified”) Intelligence Taskforce,” or “UNIT,” which immediately mobilizes to respond to an invasion of the Nestene Consciousness and its servants, the Autons. Recruiting the Doctor for help, viewers are introduced to his fondness for Earth automobiles, his mastery of Venusian Aikido, and the hyper-competent Dr. Liz Shaw (Caroline John).
After Spearhead, the Third Doctor meets the Silurians (“Doctor Who and the Silurians“), tangles with his eternal enemy the Master (Roger Delgado) in “Colony in Space“, and gains a new companion in the form of the adorable Jo Grant (Katy Manning). There are still some issues with obtaining all the serials in proper order starting this far back, but some of the best classic Doctor Who stories—”Carnival of Monsters” and “The Green Death“—are easily available, and aren’t tied in too heavily with the show’s overall mythology.
3. The Pop Culture Enthusiast
The Fourth Doctor story arc “The Key to Time” is a fun introduction to the floppy-hat and knit scarf wackiness of Tom Baker. Consisting of “The Ribos Operation,” “The Pirate Planet” (written by Douglas Adams), “The Stones of Blood,” “The Androids of Tara,” “The Power of Kroll,” and “The Armageddon Factor,” “The Key to Time” has a simple structure, with the Doctor given a quest that stretches across the six serials by the extra-chronological White Guardian (Cyril Luckham), who hopes to keep the mythical Key to Time artifact out of the hands of the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall). The White Guardian is not only powerful enough to recruit the Doctor, but also one of his fellow Time Lords (or in this case, Time Lady)to help him complete the task. Mary Tamm plays the first incarnation of Romana as clever and droll, the perfect foil for the nutty Fourth Doctor.
2. The Casual Television Viewer
Series three of the modern Doctor Who (and I might lose some “geek cred” with this call), starring David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor and introducing Freema Agyeman as his companion Martha Jones, is a better place to start than series one for casual viewers.
Many fans of the new Doctor Who are particularly fond of the characters Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) and Capt. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), both of whom are introduced in series one. In fact, Harkness was so popular he got his own show, Torchwood. Rose, an “everygirl” teenager from London. was used to great effect as the audience surrogate for series one, helping introduce Doctor Who to a new generation. However, through this and the following series, Rose becomes almost comically infatuated with the Doctor, and their adventures take on a maudlin, “Will-they-or-won’t-they?” undercurrent. It’s cute, and entertaining at times, but threatens to drown the show.
Martha Jones, on the other hand, is more capable and confident. She has her own issues when it comes to her feelings toward the Doctor, but is mature enough to understand them and deal with them on an adult level. Her cutting remarks concerning a wistful Doctor’s reminisces about Rose Tyler serve as a kind of commentary on her presence on the show, but serves to build the legend of the character, preparing for her eventual return.
A medical doctor, Jones approaches her adventures reasonably and scientifically, sharing the excitements of the universe with a giddy curiosity, just like the Doctor. “Smith and Jones,” the first episode of the third series, portrays the Doctor’s world from her point-of-view, slowly peeling back the differences between the “real world” and the show’s U.K. Episodic stories are tied together loosely through the mysterious machinations of “Mr. Saxon,” and Martha comprehends the Doctor the same way the audience does, growing to trust the Doctor in an almost supernatural fashion.
And then, of course, there’s “Blink“…
1. The Trepidatious Holdout
For those not looking to make too much of an investment right away, a “sample platter” consisting of the Fourth Doctor’s “The Ark in Space“, and the Tenth Doctor’s “School Reunion“, and “Blink” will probably tell viewers everything they need to know about Doctor Who.
1975’s “The Ark in Space” is a definitely a product of its time. It’s goofily shot, with ramshackle sets and silly special effects, but it tells a story—the Ark holds the last vestiges of the human race the Doctor and his companions must rescue—that overcomes those limitations. It’s simple and suspenseful. There’s a threat onboard that threatens all of humanity, not because of its size or power, but because there are so few humans left. Plus, “The Ark in Space” isn’t her first adventure; far from it, but new viewers will welcome one of the most popular companions in Doctor Who history, the plucky Sarah Jane Smith. As played by Elisabeth Sladen, Sarah Jane had adventures with the Third, Fourth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, beginning as an impetuous young journalist and growing into a mother figure for her own cast of companions on The Sarah Jane Adventures.
But before that, Sarah Jane was so popular Davies felt he had no choice but to reintroduce her in the second series’ “School Reunion”, which also reintroduces one of the Doctor’s other beloved companions, the robot K-9 (voiced by John Leeson). School Reunion touches on the Doctor’s expansive mythology, tapping into the nostalgia of the show and what it means not only to the characters, but to pop culture itself.
“Blink” doesn’t have anything to do with Sarah Jane, or Martha Jones. But it has to do with the Doctor, what he has to save the world from on a regular basis, and how it affects the regular people the show rarely portrays. Carey Mulligan (before her Oscar nomination for An Education) plays Sally Sparrow, a young woman facing the monsters known as the Weeping Angels as they pursue her and her friends across time. Putting together clues as disparate as letters from the past and her own DVD collection, Sparrow meets the Doctor (sort of) and helps rescue him from the some of the most terrifying creatures ever created for Doctor Who. “Blink” isn’t just an excellent episode of Doctor Who; it’s an exemplary episode of television. “Blink” causes anyone who’s ever seen it, the first time or the tenth, to wonder whether that statue in the corner might’ve just moved…
Where NOT to Start
There are some bright spots—the companion Ace (Sophie Aldred), primarily—in the Sixth (Colin Baker) and Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) eras, but the creakiness of the show was really beginning to show by the 1980s. New ideas were ventured, but little was gained. British pop culture was moving on, for a time, and the property needed some time to breathe.
One attempt to revive it, the Doctor Who Fox television movie from 1996, is probably the worst place to start. It’s a decidedly American interpretation of the character, with the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) sporting an 18th century cravat and the innards of his TARDIS adorned with candlelight. Inexplicably, Eric Roberts (yes, that Eric Roberts) appears as his nemesis the Master, who has somehow become a large snake…
Exploring Doctor Who, like discovering anything unfamiliar, can be daunting. But like the man once said, “All of time and space—everywhere and anywhere—every star that ever was. Where do you want to start?”
As far as great cultural contributions go, Tobias E is beginning to think Doctor Who, Parks & Recreation, Star Trek and Superman have more to offer humanity than many of the planet’s more prominent religions. He’s currently writing Is There a Doctor In the House?, Godzilla: The Original Atomic Terror! and Instant Gratification for Mind of the Geek. Find him on Facebook and follow his sexy (and controversial!) tweets @callmetobias.