“I can’t stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations – terrible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls. And then there’s unrequited love, and tyranny, and cruelty.” (Ghost Light, 1989)
“There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things, things which act against everything that we believe in. They must be fought.” (The Moonbase, 1967)
“The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour. The entire planet is hurtling around the sun at sixty seven thousand miles an hour. And I can feel it. We’re falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world. And, if we let go…That’s who I am.” (Rose, 2005)
I’ve been watching Doctor Who since 1983. At that time, the show was celebrating its 20th anniversary. And not just an anniversary of its first airing but a proper 20th Season on the air. For a low-budget science fiction show, that was a remarkable achievement. (For context, the original Star Trek ran for three whole seasons. Four if you include the animated and you should, it’s awesome but that’s another story for another time.)
With Doctor Who making its long-awaited (by many) resurgence in 2005 after an extended hiatus, the show has risen to higher public profile than ever before. Some folks have dived right in but a lot of my friends have asked me all kinds of questions like “How do I watch Doctor Who? Do I start with the old series or do I watch the new one? Who are the Daleks and why do they have plungers? Wait…it’s bigger on the inside? How does a sonic screwdriver work? What is a Capaldi?”
But the big one is “Where do I start watching Doctor Who?”
Doctor Who ran for 26 original seasons, a BBC/Universal made for TV movie on Fox and now 10 years of the new relaunch. That’s A LOT. And that’s just TV. There’s also a wide variety of stories on audio, in comics and in all kinds of books. So asking where to begin and what one needs to know about Doctor Who is a fair question.
And it can be tricky to answer. I’m not sure I can even answer the question, “Why do you love Doctor Who so much?” I remember watching it as a very young kid, not at all understanding it but thinking it was cool nonetheless. As I grew up, the show grew up with me and rewatching the episodes, I understood more and saw new layers to the stories.
But honestly that answer is lame. So are answers like, “It’s like this but in space with space-ships and monsters.” I can’t define why I like this show so much and I don’t want to. Doctor Who is just a part of my life and always will be. Doctor Who is magic and brilliant and wonderful and you should just enjoy it.
So if you’re looking to start watching Doctor Who, bookmark this page because I’ve got spots for fans who never watched, as well as old series and audio story recommendations for those who are enamored with the new series but want to explore the show’s history.
Just to say it because this is the era we live in, I don’t pretend to be the final word on any of this. What’s presented here is just one longtime fan’s opinion for new people on how to approach the series. You may hear different recommendations/suggestions from other fans and those are just as valid.
What do you need to know to start watching Doctor Who? After much thought and deliberation I came up with this answer:
Honestly. You don’t need to know anything. If you start from the spots I recommend, everything will be made clear as you watch. So don’t worry about any Time Lords, why Cybermen delete stuff or what Cybermen even are or any of that stuff. Listening to Doctor Who fans talk can be a foreign language with Blinovitch Limitation Effects being met by Tissue Compression Eliminators. Or mentions of the lost moon of Poosh and Raxacoricofallapatorius.
Don’t sweat any of it. All will be made clear.
OK, here’s one basic thing that you should know. But again, don’t have to. But it’s a question I get a lot. The Doctor is one character played by numerous actors. Unlike James Bond, the changing face of Doctor Who is part of the mythology. This was another example of necessity being the mother of all invention as the first actor to play The Doctor, William Hartnell was suffering from deteriorating health and couldn’t carry on in the role. But the show had become such a hit that the BBC didn’t want to pull the plug. Since the Doctor was a mysterious alien from unknown (at the time) origins, his ability to “regenerate” into a totally new person was introduced. You will see one Doctor turn into another on-screen. And it’s always always always sad to see the old Doctor go and it’s always always always exciting to see the new Doctor appear.
David Tennant explains it to David Letterman here:
I will argue this is one of the strokes of genius in all of TV history. Yes, there are stories were the various incarnations of the Doctor have met. But think about your own life. Imagine if the 10-year-old, 20-year-old and 30-year-old version of you were all put in the same room? Three totally different characters but essentially the same person. The Doctor’s different incarnations are a genius metaphors for every person’s own individual growth and change.
So clear your mind, make some popcorn. For those of you who take a drink, feel free to pour one. Here’s how you watch:
DOCTOR WHO – SERIES ONE
Start here. This is the relaunch series starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper. First episode is called “Rose” and is one of the hardest episodes of TV ever written because it establishes the show’s mythology while regenerating it 😉 for a new generation. Everything you need to know to enjoy Doctor Who is in here.
The story basically sees bored teenager thrust into an adventure of alien intrigue with a mysterious stranger known only as The Doctor.
Here’s a link. It’s available on itunes and netflix as well.
Now, here’s where some confusion needs to be cleared up. Yes, it’s called Series One but technically it’s Season 27. For marketing purposes, the BBC booked this as Series One because who wants to start a show at Season 27? But it is the continuation of the old Doctor Who. But again, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen a minute of the old series. Russell T. Davies does a masterful job setting up the universe of Who for you to relax and enjoy. Just make no mistake, the show has never been rebooted. It is a direct continuation of the classic series. (My apologies for being pedantic and I know reboot no longer means reboot but there’s no Doctor Who reboot.)
Why not start with the original or classic series? You can but I think the new series is more accessible to many of today’s viewers. That’s not to say the new series is better. But it’s designed like today’s TV with 45 minute episodes and a proper production budget. (Mind you, I’ve heard some viewers knock current Doctor Who as low-budget.) Classic Who has some great stories and we’ll get into those in a bit. But at 25 minute serials and with a downright frightening small budget, it might be viewed by some as a nostalgia piece instead of the same show as today.
The low budget of the classic series can’t be overstated. The budgets were TINY. Honestly, as a TV professional, it’s a miracle some of these stories were actually pulled off. Before you laugh at some of the rubber monsters and toy spaceships, know that the crew of Doctor Who has featured some of the very best folks in the industry, including Oscar Winners. And even Douglas Adams. The Classic Series of Doctor Who is what it looks like when you give brilliant, creative people a lot of brilliant, creative ideas and then take away all their money.
Also, I recommend not starting with David Tennant’s era because it is a direct continuation of the Eccelston era. I think David Tennant’s first season starting with the Christmas Invasion would be a bit confusing to any first-time viewer. Rose on the other hand was designed for first-time viewers.
So for you first timers, I’d say start with Series One. Here’s the trailer, which I watched about 5000 times in 2005:
There’s one other spot I’d suggest:
DOCTOR WHO – SERIES FIVE
Matt Smith’s era also starts fresh. This season does refer back to the previous seasons but not in a way that alienates viewers. A new Doctor, new friends, new foes and a new showrunner.
Doctor Who’s relaunch has been overseen by two of the best writers in the history of television. I make no exaggeration when I say that. Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant’s Doctors were overseen by Russell T Davies. Matt Smith and now Peter Capaldi were overseen by Stephen Moffat.
There’s eras are both drastically different yet warmly familiar. Each showrunner has their critics and detractors. Each has their champions. At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of taste. The past 6 years or so, after each new episode airs, my facebook is 50-50 split, “That was wonderful.” “That was terrible.” Make up your own minds. And take anyone who says “so-and-so is the worst showrunner of Doctor Who EVER” with a grain of salt.
What about the latest Doctor, the incredible Peter Capaldi? You could start with Series 8, his season, but again it’s a direct continuation of the Matt Smith era so might be confusing to new viewers.
Now, some folks will welcome that confusion and mystery. Like I said, I didn’t understand anything about Doctor Who when I was little kid but there I was riveted. But if you want to follow in a clear, linear line – Series One and/or Series Five won’t steer you wrong.
However, for you fans who have seen the new series or those of you who wish to start with the classic series, allow me to suggest these titles (again most of which are available through your trusted retailers/online providers)
The first two Doctors adventures are all in Black & White but you’ll be deal, I’m sure:
THE FIRST DOCTOR
The Daleks: Actually the second story in all of Doctor Who history and I will argue makes a better pilot than the caveman murder mystery of “An Unearthly Child.” One part sci-fi horror, one part 50’s sci-fi expedition, Terry Nation introduces the Doctor’s most famous enemy with immediate, frightening effect.
The Romans: Doctor Who was originally designed to be science fiction and educational historical episodes. For real. Several early episodes like this one featured no monsters or aliens. The Romans is a comedy of mistaken identity that sneaks in some real depth during the time of Nero. An underrated gem.
THE SECOND DOCTOR
Enemy Of The World: Speaking of mistaken identity, a power-mad dictator happens to look just like the second Doctor. A product of James Bond 60’s with plenty of twists, turns but real characters. Doctor Who (and TV in the 60‘s) wasn’t always great in its portrayal of other races but this episodes features a Black character who’s given her fair due on screen. And it also features the best cook in the show’s history.
The Mind Robber: The Doctor and his friends are thrust into a world where make-believe comes to life. And the limitlessness of Doctor Who, even on a low-budget, is brought to life when one of the Doctor’s companion’s loses his face.
The War Games: This is an investment. A 10 part epic in which The Doctor confronts a species exploiting the war’s in Earth’s history. The Doctor may have finally met his match and needs to call for never-before-seen reinforcements.
THE THIRD DOCTOR
Inferno: While exiled on Earth by The Time Lords, the Doctor tries to get his TARDIS working again during an experimental operation drilling into the Earth’s crust. Instead he ends up in a parallel world where that same drilling operation is destroying the planet. Lots of proper science exploration but even some real philosophy as well. Widely considered one of the best stories ever.
Frontier In Space/Planet Of The Daleks: The final and possibly the best appearance of the original Master, Roger Delgado. What’s the master up to? Using xenophobia to pit two parties into war. An example of how in staying topical, Doctor Who becomes timeless as the themes are just as accurate today. Frontier ends in a cliffhanger so you may want to check out Planet to see how the Doctor gets out of this one. Planet Of The Daleks is fine, a good old-fashioned “let’s stop the Daleks from blowing up the world in a forest of invisible people” romp.
The Green Death: Talk about topical. A corporation puts profits over safety standards which results in giant maggots invading the countryside. The brilliance of producer Barry Letts & script editor Terrance Dicks is exemplified in this, possibly the best story of the Third Doctor. And don’t let anyone tell you the old series wasn’t about characters or the Doctor not loving his companions. Katy Manning cried during the DVD commentary AND at the Gallifrey One convention when talking about the final scenes.
THE FOURTH DOCTOR (this is the one with the scarf)
The Ark In Space: Steven Moffat called this the prototypical Doctor Who story. A lost colony in space is trapped on a space station infested by an insectoid alien race. The Doctor must rally his companions and inspire the surviving humans to fight or perish. “Indomitable.”
Genesis Of The Daleks: My personal favorite of the classic series. And I’m not into origin stories or prequels. Terry Nation delivers possibly the greatest villain in the show’s history, Davros, brought to life with chilling exactitude by Michael Wisher. An exploration of the evils of war as well as the blindness to the causes of wars. Something special. Trivia note: One of the few stories to not feature the TARDIS in any capacity.
Horror Of Fang Rock: A love letter to Agatha Christie that new series writer Paul Cornell calls a perfect story. Imagine some of the shadier characters in Downton Abbey trapped in a lighthouse and then a shape-shifting alien kills them off one-by-one. Awesome.
City Of Death: Just watch it. Ghost-written by Douglas Adams. The villain is played by Julian Glover. Pure bliss. “I say, what a wonderful butler. He’s so violent. Hello, I’m The Doctor.”
THE FIFTH DOCTOR
Kinda: It’s pronounced like kin-da, as in “next of kin”-da, not like kinda of the “kinda, sorta” variety. The PBS station in New Hampshire promo-ed this as next week “Doctor Who: kinda” Bless ‘em. Why don’t people talk about this story more? A garden paradise, a mythological evil, genuine insanity and possibly the most frightening line in the show’s history: “You will agree to being me, sooner or later, this side of madness or the other.”
Earthshock: OK, honestly, the Cybermen’s plans for invading the Earth here are overly complicated and convoluted. But it’s a fun adventure with lots of shootouts, a brilliant Cyberleader (who exposes that maybe the Cybermen haven’t eliminated all emotion) and a shocking ending. And man, that’s such a great title.
Frontios: What happens when humanity reaches the end of the universe? Not a perfect story by an stretch but a cautionary tale about keeping horrendous secrets under the rug. And just some wicked cool lines. “Frontios buries its own dead.”
The Caves Of Androzani: Gun-runners, androids and a must for House Of Cards lovers as John Normington’s Morgus is Doctor Who’s Frank Underwood, directly speaking to camera with his plans and machinations. An epic final story for the Fifth Doctor. Sorry about the magma monster though.
THE SIXTH DOCTOR
Vengeance On Varos: More relevant now than its first airdate in 1985, The Doctor and his companion Peri find themselves trapped on world that exports videotapes of execution and torture for torture for entertainment. A grim but poignant look at both political ideology and the morality of voyeurism.
The Two Doctors: The Sixth Doctor finds a lost human on a ransacked space station. It’s his old companion Jamie who tells him that the Second Doctor has been killed. The future Doctor is sent on a rescue mission to save his old self and the entire universe.
The Trial Of A Time Lord: For the hardcores. Four stories in one which deal with Time Lord conspiracies, mind-transference and killer plants. Between the Time Lord manipulation and the creation of the Valeyard, this is a precursor to much of the new series more than some folks realize.
THE SEVENTH DOCTOR
Remembrance Of The Daleks: Who is The Doctor? What was he doing on Earth in the 1960’s? What did he bring with him? What is he going to do with it? Some of those questions are answered as a Dalek Civil War descends upon 1963 London.
The Greatest Show In The Galaxy: The Doctor goes from wanderer to confronter of ancient Gods. The champion of Time seen in the current series emerges here. Oh and there’s lots of evil clowns who want to kill people. And the way Sylvester McCoy plays the Doctor and how he’s directed here is nothing short of bad-ass.
The Curse Of Fenric: I will always argue this is one of the best Doctor Who stories ever. At least Top 5. Ancient Viking curses, underwater vampires, monsters from the future. All told against the backdrop of World War II England where Russian spies are on a secret mission to steal the an early computer prototype. But the heart of the story comes down to the trust between The Doctor and his companion, troubled teenager Ace who’s own demons come back to haunt her.
Survival: A direct prequel to Rose. A lazy Sunday in a surburban estate exposes an alien struggle right under everyone’s nose. There’s even a shouty Blonde who I’m convinced has the last name Tyler. The final episode of the classic series, the perfect lead-in to the new series.
Yes, I gave the 7th Doctor four stories. He’s my personal favorite and it’s my blog so there you have it.
THE EIGHT DOCTOR
The TV Movie: YES. Watch the TV Movie. A look at what might have been had Doctor Who become an international production aired on both Fox and the BBC. No, it’s not perfect but it’s an American TV pilot. The mythology is over-explained yes but it is FUN. Paul McGann is combines childlike wonder with a confident gravitas that assures you he IS The Doctor. And there really are some good lines. Why is the Master a disembodied ghost snake? “Because in the fight to survive, there are no rules.” Brilliant.
Quite a list so far but this blog needs a Big Finish, hahahaaaaahhhh ahem. Now, if you want to dive into the wonderful world of audio plays from the good folks at Big Finish (and you should, great stuff there), here are some suggestions. Some of the CD’s are out of print but there are downloads available here:
The Holy Terror: Still my personal favorite of the Big Finish stories and I’ll argue one of the best stories ever. The Doctor and his companion, the shape-shifting-but-loves-to-be-a-penguin Frobisher, land in a medieval theocracy. Sort of. I don’t want to say too much more as it might give away the layered reveals. Funny, thoughtful and then downright terrifying. I first listened to this at 27 years old and it scared the hell out of me.
Spare Parts: The Doctor lands on the planet Mondas, where the people are slowly replacing their organs and body parts with cybernetics. The origin of the Cybermen doesn’t try to be Genesis Of The Daleks and therein finds its brilliance. Seedy, scary and unflinchingly tragic, this a genuine masterpiece in all of Doctor Who. “Oh Vonny, what have they done to you?”
Master: The Doctor ends up in the home of his old enemy the Master who has amnesia and is a good man doing good deeds in the town he’s settled in. It’s now The Doctor who must confront his own evil deeds. An exploration of the nature of good and evil. Brilliance.
Real Time: The far-flung future collides with a distant, parallel universe in an exploration of the Cybermen at their most frightening and gruesome.
The Unnatural History Of Fear: What can you do with the limitations of audio? This story tells you – A LOT. The Eighth Doctor’s visit to an alien world sets off consequences he can’t possibly imagine.
The Nowhere Place: The Doctor and his companion Evelyn find themselves on spaceship that contains a mysterious door. When your time is called, you cannot resist the call to the door.
Live 34: The Doctor and his friends join a planetary revolution – all on the radio.
Shada: Don’t worry about continuity, the Doctor sometimes treads the same trail twice. The Eighth Doctor finds his old companions Romana and the robot dog to settle some unfinished business in 1979. A unproduced script by Douglas Adams brought to life on audio with fun and flourish. “Well, when I was on the river, I heard a strange babble of inhuman voices.” “Oh, undergraduates talking to each other, I expect. I’ve tried to have it banned.”
The Renaissance Man: The Fourth Doctor’s first season on audio is highlighted by the wonderfully absurd tale which weaves the fanciful with the macabre, the calling card of this Doctor’s era. Pure bliss every time I hear it.
Shadow Of The Scourge: The manifestations of personal demons invade an unsuspecting hotel packed with conventions. We’ll get into the novels another day but if you want to dip into the books, this one is a great place to start. For the first time ever, The Doctor and Ace are joined by novel-only companion Bernice Summerfield brought to life with downright spooky accuracy by Lisa Bowerman.
OK, you should now be armed and ready for your journey into the world of Doctor Who. I hope you enjoy. Feel free to contact me with any questions. If you’re mad that I left off Terror Of The Autons or Seeds Of Doom on the list of classic episodes, fair enough, you can recommend those to your friends when they ask for an introductory list. I love those episodes too but can’t answer “all of them” to a friend staring at pages of stories, wondering what to watch.
There’s a whole universe of Doctor Who out there. Lots more classic episodes, audios, comic books and original novels. But these all should be a good start.
I leave you with this anecdote. In 2004, before the new series came back I attended the Gallifrey One convention, which I try to every year. The show had not yet returned and many of the old-school fans were filled with trepidation (to say the least) at the news series returning. The convention showed UK news clips as part of the closing ceremonies. When Russell T Davies came on screen during an interview, several folks in my section booed. Like for real, booed like he was a bad guy wrestler. And then the interviewer asked him why he was bringing Doctor Who back or why he liked it. I forget the exact question, but I will never forget the exact answer:
“Because it’s the best idea ever invented in the history of the world and I love it.”
The audience broke out in applause. Doctor Who was in safe hands. And has soared back to and surpassed its former glory.
“Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” (Dark Water, 2014)
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2 thoughts on “The Only Hope Is A Complete Stranger: A Guide To Watching Doctor Who”
well done. the third doctor WAS doctor who for me when i was a kid. his hair was awesome. also i haven’t watched the latest doctor, specifically because his face upsets me. i’m working my way up to watching because the show never disappoints, just…baby steps.
also i agree episode two is a better pilot than episode one.
*fourth doctor (tom baker), not the third.