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