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All the WHOS in WHOville

By now you’ve probably figured out that the rejuvenated, regenerated, reWhovanated Doctor Who is the best thing to happen in geek television since the first season of Lost. You probably know that even if you’ve never watched a single episode. The buzz around the British import is as loud as a whole army of Daleks screaming EX-TERM-I-NATE. The series has been on a tear ever since it rewhooted – er, rebooted – in 2005. Since then, it’s gone on to become the textbook on how to execute a great SF/Fantasy show. The Pop Culture Universe is full of sad cases like myself who have caught a virus that can only be treated by way of weekly visits to The Doctor.

For all that, though, there are plenty of you who haven’t discovered the show, and who are feeling left out. The new season starts this weekend, but if you’re like me, you might be hesitant to leap into an ongoing series without building up a base of knowledge first. Nothing worse than inserting yourself into a conversation that has been going on for a while without you, right?

Well, first of all, no. One of the reasons the show continues to build its audience is because its so damn welcoming. The plot is simple enough. There is a man called The Doctor, and he has a spaceship/time machine that looks like a 1960s era London police box (broken camouflage drive – ugh, I hate when that happens!). Actually, he’s not a man, but he looks like one, and he’s fond of humans, and has had a series of tough, smart, curious, funny, usually-but-not-always female companions. And him and his companions run around having fun and occasionally saving the world. Sometimes he dies – happens to the best of us! – but he has it in him to regenerate in a new form. He’s had ten regenerations in all, leading up to his current form, which looks oddly like the actor Matt Smith. There. If you want to start watching the new season, you now know enough to enjoy it.

(Um, the box the Doctor travels around in looks like this.

But actually this isn’t from the show. It’s in my living room.

Did I mention I’m kind of a fan?)

 

Still not satisfied?

You are faced with three choices. The first, somewhat unrealistic option, is to go all the way back to the surviving episodes from 1963, when The Doctor was played by William Hartnell, and try to watch everything. If you have 971 hours to spare, and a high tolerance for men wearing sheets of tinfoil and pretending to be robots, this is the way to go.

If you don’t quite feel like you have the time/patience/sanity for that, you could always hit Netflix or Apple or Amazon and begin with “Season One” starring Chris Eccleston as The Doctor. In this case, Season One is actually more like Season 27, since Eccleston is playing the same man, in the same continuity, that William Hartnell was playing in 1963. But The Season One tag works too because this is where the series refreshed itself after being off the air for about a decade, and it’s where it began to build the creative team (and the passionate audience) that makes it such a compelling show today. If you take this approach, the good news is that you will have a lot of wonderful viewing… a little over 80 episodes in all, and some great standalone movies. The bad news is that’s still a hell of a lot of TV watching to do, and you’ll have to put up with some Power Rangers style SFX in the early going (it gets better, and the acting and writing is always top-notch). And the new season is starting now and you’ll be missing ALL THE FUN.

Option three? Watch Joe’s Guaranteed Good-Time 10-Best.

Here are 10 episodes that entertained the shit out of me and which I think will entertain the shit out of you. They will not catch you up on any of the season-long story arcs, but again, don’t worry about that. Doctor Who is far less fixated on its own mythology than a lot of other SF/Fantasy shows, such as Lost and X-Files. No, the ten episodes listed below were hand-picked to give you a good time; and along the way you’ll get a sense for the flavor of Doctor Who, for its humor and its ability to shock and inspire. If you watch nothing but these episodes, you will still be able to talk Doctor Who with all your fanboy friends like an expert. You will also probably be as addicted as all the rest of us. Which is a good thing. Trust me: regular check-ups with The Doctor are in everyone’s best interest.

The Episodes:

Tooth & Claw

In a lot of ways, Tooth & Claw, from the 2nd season, is the ideal way to start with Doctor Who, because it’s so fundamental. All the basics of a great Doctor Who episode are here: time travel, an apparently supernatural menace that is more than it appears, and some high intensity sequences of suspense and terror. Did I mention that Doctor Who is really a horror show pretending to be a science fiction show? Cause, like, werewolves. Big ones. Mean ones. Yeah.

The Girl in the Fireplace

The Doctor faces off against masked robots with scary-beautiful clockwork innards back in 18th century France… and in the process of skipping through time changes one woman’s life forever. Mixed in with its customary jolts and laughs, Doctor Who deals in a strain of tragic romance (he is a man doomed to see everyone he loves die and be lost to time), and Girl in the Fireplace is a good showcase of that aspect.

Love & Monsters

One of my all-time three favorite episodes, Love & Monsters is notable because The Doctor is barely in it. It is, instead, the story of a gang of lonely weirdos who form a club obsessed with proving the Doctor is real. Other episodes are about The Doctor himself, but this one, man, is about Doctor Who’s FANS. I dig. (Also, best use of an ELO song in recent memory)

Human Nature

First of a two-parter, this creepy motherfucker is about The Doctor disguising himself as an ordinary human to escape the attentions of a sinister crew called The Family; the Doc’s disguise is so complete, even he himself believes he’s just an ordinary guy named Johnny Smith*. He becomes a schoolteacher in early 20th century England, falls in love, and knows contentment, maybe for the first time in his hundreds of years of life. Yeah, you just know that’s going to end badly.

The Family of Blood

The second part of the two-parter, wherein things end badly. More badly for some than for others.

Blink

My favorite and everyone’s favorite. Simply the scariest hour of television in recent memory. Maybe ever. Scripted by current showrunner Steven Moffat (who in his own way is as relentlessly curious and inventive as The Doctor himself).

The Next Doctor

One of the last stories featuring David Tennant as The Doctor, this is a great one to see him out on… a sprawling narrative set in 19th Century London, built around a great mystery, a blood-chilling-if-sooper-hawt villainess, and stunning action set pieces. Also: giant London-stomping steampunk robot. You know you’re going to like that.

The Eleventh Hour

I have watched this episode over and over again and I still don’t know how Steven Moffat did it. Here is an episode with all the lush summertime beauty of any of Spielberg’s early films, and the soul of any of Ray Bradbury’s classic short stories. Should be mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to write fantasy, horror, or sf in any form, be it television, novels, or comics. Also, this is the episode that introduces the current Doctor, Matthew Smith, taking over for David Tennant (but remember! They’re the same guy! New face, same soul).

The Doctor’s Wife

This one goes with Blink and Love & Monsters as a favorite among my favorites. Written by Neil Gaiman, The Doctor’s Wife is scary and heart-felt and beautiful and tackles The Doctor’s longest and most passionate love affair: the romance between himself and the TARDIS, the blue phone booth he uses to wank about time and space. IF YOU ARE NOT MOVED BY THIS YOUR HEART IS MADE OF STONE.

The Girl Who Waited

The Doctor can’t stand to be alone for long; hence his many traveling companions, the folks he hauls into the TARDIS for some laughs and some adventure. It’s all pretty cheerful stuff, but The Girl Who Waited is a stark reminder that The Doctor is capable of making some pretty shocking choices, and that beneath his surface air of humor and warmth is a lonely, possibly unwell man. Very hard to watch this one and not feel shock at the end. Also, y’know, there are robots and sword fights, so that’s pretty great too.

Bonus:

The Doctor’s most recent companions have been Amy Pond and Rory Williams, although lately he’s been journeying without them. The Who Crew are running a set of short mini-films about Amy and Rory leading up to this year’s season. Here’s the first… you can find the rest on YouTube.

 

* that might be a reference to something but I can’t think what.

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47 Responses to All the WHOS in WHOville

  1. JJ says:

    As a recent convert of your Dad’s books, I’ve recently bought your 20th Century Ghosts book and then stumbled across your blog. And what should I spy upon my first visit? A post about the greatest show ever made!!! Seriously, this made my day.

  2. Jo Leigh says:

    Really interesting list. I agree with most of your selections. Or would that be concur? Anyway, the romantic in me keeps going back to Doomsday, and I’m so madly in love with River Song that I have to re-watch her wedding a lot. A note, though, that I have converted more people into Whovians by Blink than I ever imagined would happen.

  3. DJ Paterson says:

    Love that you have a Tardis at home, Joe!

    And I would certainly add Blink to that list, as mentioned by Jo, above. Fantastic episode. Haven’t told the kids it starts Saturday on the BBC as we’re off skiing for the weekend and they won’t want to go if it means delaying watching the first episode of series 7 (reboot). I know how they feel.

  4. DJ Paterson says:

    Doh! When I say ‘add to that list’, I clearly meant move to the top of that list. Doh, again.

  5. Joe Hill says:

    Well, the list isn’t in order of preference (Then it would begin BLINK, DOCTOR’S WIFE, and LOVE & MONSTERS…), but in the order they were released, and probably in the order they should be watched.

  6. Rick Smith says:

    Always knew you were a right good sort, sir. The fact that you’re a Whovian too comes, actually, as no surprise. Great taste in episodes, too! Thanks!

  7. Iriel says:

    Great, GREAT selection!! It’s interesting that Love & Monsters is one of the people’s least favourite episodes, but I really liked it. And it had amazing quotes.

    I think my list starts with The Doctor’s Wife. Oh, I cried. A LOT. Fingers crossed for more episodes written by Neil Gaiman. I like that you included The Next Doctor, it’s my favourite special, but people skip the specials! I don’t understand why they do that! And I think I’d add The Empty Child, because it was so creepy… I barely slept that night. And John Barrowman was flawless.

    When I have my own home, the first thing I will buy it’ll be a TARDIS door. Who needs stuff?

  8. Nanou says:

    can I apply as your roommate ? because I am in love with you living room !! I stared at your picture for 5min, I want it in my home to…

  9. DJ Paterson says:

    Dr Who is great, but I find it funny that in two of the most popular episodes (Blink and Love & Monsters), the Doctor only features incidentally.

  10. CJWellman says:

    You’ve hit the bulk of my favorite Doctor Who episodes! Tooth & Claw was so brilliantly vibrant – story, colors, cinematography. I adore the running joke of trying to get the Queen to say, “I am not amused”, and I adore that David Tennant had the chance to use his proper Scottish accent. Best of all, this episode is the introduction of the Torchwood Institute!

    The Girl in the Fireplace was so beautifully tragic and as you say, showcases one of the biggest issues in the Doctor’s life – his crushing loneliness. This episode is also lovely at showcasing the timey-whimey nature of time travel and that it is not as exact as one would wish.

    Love & Monsters was very different from from many of its predecessor episodes and the fellow who played the main part tells the story beautifully. I also love the the creature, the Abzorbaloff, was created by a child who won a contest to create a Doctor Who monster. That must have been a thrill!

    Human Nature/The Family of Blood is one of my all time favorites because of the emotion and darkness. This is the episode that you see why the Doctor is feared, why he is The Oncoming Storm. There’s a beautiful monologue that a young boy gives in this episode that describes all that the Doctor is, and for that summation, these two episode rule.

    Blink was OMG. If you watch no other episode, just watch this one. I wish it could have been a full length movie. Still haunts my imagination. And much like Love & Monsters, surprisingly very little of the Doctor.

    I would add to these the two parter at the end of season two called Army of Ghosts/Doomsday. The first episode builds on the deep relationship between Rose and the Doctor and showcases how much they compliment each other when solving a crisis. But when they are separated – my heart broke. They way Rose aches for the Doctor and the hollowness – omg, I cry *every* time I watch these episodes. And that the Doctor was going to utter those words I as a fan so wanted to hear, just to run out of time. Beautifully devastating.

    And finally in the fifth series, Vincent and the Doctor. The actor who played Vincent Van Gogh was nothing short of BRILLIANT. He captured a beautiful but tortured life so wonderfully and believably. Also, for a children’s program, allowing the Doctor to share his sentiments about a person who is mentally tortured was so poignant and beautiful.

    Thanks for posting this Joe. It was really fun reflecting on the many wonderful Doctor Who episodes!

  11. Mark says:

    Great blog! Hope you convert more people to Dr. Who. One of the best shows on tv. I agree with the person up above. Vincent and the Doctor was a fantastic episode. That ending gets me every time.

    I grew up with the Dr. during the Tom Baker years on WGBH channel 2. I used to walk around my house with a long scarf and a pocketful of jelly beans asking all my family members if they’d “Like a jelly baby?”

  12. D to the J says:

    Dr. Who fan here. I’m so excited for the new season. Great choices to convert the great un-who.

  13. Stephanie says:

    Great list! I feel it’s a good way to introduce people to the show and are very great episodes. I would add to it: The Unicorn and the Wasp, Midnight, and the two episodes with Craig, The Lodger and Closing Time.

    Thanks Joe! I think I might use your list to introduce my friend to it. I need to convert him. ;)

  14. J.M. Dow says:

    I got into Doctor Who about two or three years ago upon the urging of my college roommate. It took me an episode or two to get acquainted, but when I did, I was hooked. I liked Eccleston a lot, but Tennant is really my Doctor.

    Blink is, of course, my favorite of the episodes. Scary as all hell. But I didn’t really find the follow up all that interesting. It left me feeling very “meh.” The newest follow up doesn’t really strike me as being particularly innovative, but I’ll still give it a try.

    I’m kind of surprised that Vincent and the Doctor isn’t on here. That was one of my top 5 episodes. Sad, beautiful, sweet, awesome.

    The Doctor’s Wife goes without saying.

    If I could add two, the aforementioned Vincent episode would be one, and Silence in the Library would be the other.

    Great list.

  15. VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR, Joe, VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR!

    I wept buckets.

  16. Ryan says:

    Great list, I have to agree with many about Vincent and the Doctor though. Such a fantastic episode. Crazy giant chicken monsters, and time travel, and Vincent crushing on Amy, such great stuff.

    For me though, while the end is obviously heartbreaking, the scene where the Doctor and Vincent are staring at the sky and Vincent is describing how he sees the world around him, and the sky transforms into his painting….such a great scene.

  17. Ben R. says:

    Excellent, and somewhat surprising, list of choices. I’m a bit sad there’s nothing from Eccleston’s run though. As short as it was, I thought he did a great job, and some of those “season one” episodes were absolute gems. The end of “The Doctor Dances” is one of the defining moments of the show for me, personally.

  18. jedispyder says:

    I find it hard to not put The End of Time in the top favorites. I understand it’s a bit continuity heavy, but David Tennant passing away is one of the best performances of all the new Doctors. “I don’t want to go” brings me to tears each time I think of the scene. For beginners it’s obviously a bad episode, which is the point…so basically I’m voicing my opinion simply to say something that really has nothing to do with your list. Huh.

    Well, I guess carry on, lol.

  19. CJWellman says:

    Oooh Stephanie – I forgot about Midnight. Fantastic episode that shows the ease and danger of mob mentality. Fantastic supporting cast.

  20. http6592 says:

    Yup, The Doctor’s Wife for THE greatest piece of dialogue in ALL Who-History surrounded by at least a dozen other greats:

    (misquote, I know, but I’m not at home with the disc to play)

    Doctor – You never took me where I wanted to go!

    Idris/Tardis – No, I always took you where you needed to go.

    Absolutely beautiful though shockingly a bit Calvinisty-predestiny.

  21. Gerald Allner says:

    How come every single time I’ve been forced to watch DW except once, the show was irredeemably horrible? And I’m sorry, there’s just something about David Tennant acting like a manic f*cktard that makes me want to slap the crap out of him. “Excuse me! I must now go pull random levers and twist knobbly things on this control panel for no apparent reason or purpose!”

  22. This_Girl says:

    The new season is just what I need! I’ve been spending my free-to-choose viewing moments with the lot of Dawson’s Creek. Yes, I suck that badly! Ah, what can I say? Beyond this ever so cool exterior is a huge girl. Ugh, I have to vomit now. The truth shall set you free. The truth is the little coolness in me is exciting for the new season!

  23. Mark Masztal says:

    Interesting that I don’t see any Christopher Eccleston episodes in there. Not a fan? The Empty Child? The Doctor Dances? The intro of Rose Tyler and Captain Jack?
    Anything?

  24. JJ says:

    Vincent and The Doctor. A thousand times yes!

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. I just finished those recently during my re-watch and forgot how amazing (and super creepy) that two parter was.

  25. Joe Hill says:

    Gerald,

    Try the ten suggested on the list and see if you still feel that way. Or just try Blink. Or skip to the Matt Smith episodes.

    Or, possibly, Doc just ain’t for you. This happens.

  26. Joe Hill says:

    Love the Eccleston run. Am as surprised as everyone else that he didn’t penetrate the top ten. But there you go.

  27. Adam Short says:

    Good choices. I don’t think anything will ever beat Blink. All the hype before The Doctor’s Wife almost convinced me that might dethrone it, but it doesn’t quite manage to (definitely in the 2nd spot though).

    I really like The Next Doctor, though I know a lot of people who don’t. There are some hokey moments, but I think David Morrissey did a damn good job, while Tennant was predictably brilliant.

    There’s one that’s not on your list that I think is absolutely essential, and that is Dalek. The best Dalek episode ever. The best illustration that sometimes the Doctor can be as bad as the monsters. That sometimes he’s just as flawed as the people he’s trying to help.

    One other thing, as you mentioned, you could go all the way back to 1963 for the classic series and watch everything (and I’d recommend it eventually), but there’s another way to experience classic Who. A company called Big Finish produce CDs every month with brand new audio plays (like the TV show, but without the picture) featuring all the surviving classic Doctor Who Doctors. From Tom Baker to Paul McGann, they’re all still playing the Doctor to this day, and they’re better at it now than they ever were before. They’re a bit pricey (or maybe not, depending on how you look at it), but they’re largely really good. Sort of a new series feel but with classic Doctors. Listen to Spare Parts, Jubilee and Doctor Who and the Pirates, and tell me you’re not hooked. I think it’s a perfect way to get a feel for the classic series before actually diving in and watching it.

  28. Stacy P says:

    You forgot Turn Left. :-)

  29. Jason says:

    All pretty good episode choices, Joe! … And your living room door is officially awesome.

  30. Joy R says:

    Much like the previous commenter ‘JJ,” I recently bought 20th Century Ghosts and stumbled across your blog after. Awesome post about Dr. Who. I am actually new to the series and am looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about. A lot of my “Whovian” friends have suggested starting out with the 2005 series. I have enjoyed it so far and look forward to checking out the “top 10″ episodes that you have suggested as well. Thanks!

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  32. Cheryl says:

    Great list!!! Most of my favorites are on here. I’m sad that “Turn Left” didn’t make the cut, because I adore that one and think it’s totally brilliant — although I can see where it might not be as accessible to new viewers.

  33. Cheryl says:

    Oh! I forgot — “Father’s Day” really ought to have been on the list. That one makes me cry every time. And it’s newbie-friendly, too.

  34. Michael says:

    Yeees, Ben Affleck make new movie – Argo. :)

  35. Vicki B. says:

    This will sound TOTALLY opportunistic, but some people don’t know that you can write off purchases on your taxes when you have to buy them for your work.
    I know it b/c I’m a medic, and I have to buy medical supplies all the time, and I’m not going to give the current LAZY Congresspersons my hard-earned money when they’ve used it for the last two years to deny everything placed in front of them for consideration.

    All that aside, I’d have to go with the fact that I’m the least geek-like person I know. In fact the only thing geeky about me is that I wear glasses. I’ve never watched Dr. Who, but I will now.
    I mean hearing the episodes described was more helpful than an ad for their shows. Especially since you get to watch the clips.

  36. Vicki B. says:

    I was referring to the police box, which I’m pretty sure cost a pretty penny.

  37. Daniel says:

    At everyone’s recommendation I rented Series 1, and the first 3 episodes were hard to watch so I’m done for now on Doctor Who. I’ll try again another time, maybe. It seems like a show you have to want to like, and then you watch it for the odd good episode. There are so many shows to watch and some which are consistently good. I could be convinced that this is like watching Buffy, where if you watch a couple random episodes, it seems super cheesy, and it is, but if you stick with it the characters are really well developed.

  38. Nigel Williams says:

    Joe; I grew up with the Doctors. My favorite was the feature length Green Death. Have you ever thought of writting an episode for the BBC

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  40. Sam Reeves says:

    If I watched no other television, I’d watch Doctor Who. My not-an-SF-fan wife and I can talk about it for hours. My son hurries-up to clean his room to watch it. My nephew-who-is-like-my son loves it. I have watched since PBS started showing the Tom Baker episodes back in the Precambrian Era. And, like Nigel above, Joe I wish you would join Neil Gaiman as one of the writers to contribute to this series.

  41. My family started watching The Doctor last year and are nearly caught up, which is sad since none of us like waiting to see another episode. Great top 10 by the way, “Blink” freaked my son out pretty bad.

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  43. Cory Cone says:

    Thank you for this list. It was exactly what I needed to finally sit down and watch this show. I’m completely hooked.

  44. Stacy says:

    I’m just starting Season 6 on Netflix. Many of the episodes you list here are among my favorites as well, though I haven’t yet seen THE DOCTOR’S WIFE or THE GIRL WHO WAITED.

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