Doctor Who, is one of my favorite sci-fi shows, and I wanted to write a little about it now, in case there are any non-Who fan’s that might be interested in getting into it. I think I may be the only one here at World’s Best Media who is a fan of the Doctor, and so I’ll be your guide to the Whoniverse.
First, I want to let you know a few things about Doctor Who. The name of the show is a joke, the main character is only known by the name “the Doctor” which often prompts new characters to ask “Doctor Who.” This will be important because if I refer to “Doctor Who,” I mean the show, and if I refer to “the Doctor” I mean the character.
Doctor Who first aired November 23rd 1963, and continued until 1989 before being canceled. There was then a 1996 reboot/continuation movie which failed, and finally a series reboot/continuation in 2005, which is currently still going on.
The Doctor is a time-traveling alien from the planet Gallifrey, and a race known as the Time-Lords. When the show started, episodes in which they traveled to the past were largely educational teaching history, and when they would travel to the future they would teach about science and technology. Eventually, the show became more or less, just entertainment.
When the first actor to play the Doctor (William Hartnell) became too ill to continue on the show, the producers had to come up with a way of replacing him, which wouldn’t cause too much disruption to the show itself. Their idea, was that Time-Lords (not referred to as such until later) were able to ‘regenerate’ into a new body. This over the last 54 years has allowed for multiple actors playing the Doctor to cross paths, and for the show to go through mini soft reboots of the character every time. The Doctor isn’t entirely the same man, with the same quirks across multiple bodies, which has allowed for actors to play the character differently, and allows it to remain fresh.
Now, my own knowledge of Doctor Who, mainly focuses on the series starting in 2005, although I have made a point of watching some episodes from each of the previous incarnations. As of today, we’re on the 12th version of the Doctor (except for one that was retconned in known as The War Doctor), but on this year’s Christmas special we will get the 13th Doctor, and the first female to play the Doctor. I’ll talk more about her in a “What I Want to See: Doctor Who” which I’m planning to be out sometime later this month.
Last think you should know about the plot and structure, is the TARDIS, which is the Doctor’s time-machine, space-ship, friend, and occasional lover. It’s the blue police box that you see at Newbury Comics, or on Facebook. It is essentially an all-powerful vehicle for the Doctor’s personal use. Also, it’s bigger on the inside.
Alright, so know you know the idea of the Doctor, and the tenure of the show, but what I want to talk about is the tone of the show. The show is very much a serialized show, which follows story archs across episodes and seasons, but the tone is not necessarily. The tone can vary from episode to episode, in a way that is similar to something more like an anthology. Some episodes are whimsical and silly, like the works of Douglas Adams (Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but also wrote for Doctor Who in the 80’s) or more serious and dramatic, showing off the Doctor’s emotional range, and then there are some very scary horror episodes.
I thought it might be helpful, if I recommended some episodes based on these different breakdowns, so you can get a sense not only of the character, but of the different tonal shifts. It’s kind of a long list, but I’m covering about 10 years (you’re welcome for not trying to cover 54) worth of TV spanning 4 actors.
So here’s the list:
- Rose- Season 1, episode 1. This episode serves to introduce a new generation to Doctor Who. It is a little bit goofy, a little bit dramatic, fast paced, and kind of manages to fit so much of what Doctor Who is into an hour. It also starts us off with Christopher Eccleston who is the Ninth version of the Doctor, as well as introducing us to Rose, whom is his companion. (The Doctor always has a companion, typically a young woman.)
- Dalek- Season 1, episode 6. This introduces us to the Dalek, which is a race of armored aliens, which are arguably the quintessential Doctor Who villains. In this episode we also get to see a combination of the Doctor’s wrath as well as the Doctor’s compassion.
- Father’s Day- Season 1, episode 8. The reason I’m suggesting this one, is that it goes into 2 things that the show really has a great opportunity to do. They get to tell intricate time-travel stories which are both using the time travel as a plot device, as well as using it as a genuine part of the story. Also it’s a really touching story of the redemption of a character who wouldn’t have had one without time travel.
- The Empty Child, The Doctor Dances- Season 1, Episodes 9 and 10. This is a two part story, and it is simultaneously in the top 5 scariest Doctor Who episodes, and a genuinely heart-warming story. I can’t tell you too much about it without giving away too much, but if you want an idea of how creepy it is, imagine a young child in 1940’s England with a gasmask stuck on his face asking everyone “Are you my mummy?” I cannot even do an impression of that voice without my wife getting mad at how creeped out she is!
- The Christmas Invasion- Season 2, Episode 0. This is the first episode with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, and while the plot is somewhat dumb in this episode, it’s a big tonal shift from the previous episodes, and it shows all of the range that David Tennant is going to have as the Doctor. Also it has one of my all-time favorite jokes in the show’s run.
- Army of Ghosts, Doomsday- Season 2, Episode 12 and 13. Another two part story (Doctor Who loves 2 part stories), is perhaps best watched after having had seasons 1 and 2 fully ingested to appreciate, but there are a lot of memes that you’ll understand better after these episodes.
- Human Nature and The Family of Blood- Season 3, Episode 8 and 9. This two parter is WWI era, and the Doctor thinks he is a human and not a time-lord. It shows a huge moral conflict, and some of the more sinister human villains in the show’s run. This leans on the dramatic/scary side of things.
- Blink- Season 3, Episode 10. This is a very Doctor-lite episode, and is very much a stand-alone episode, with the only real piece that ever has relevance again being the villains it introduces. If you’re looking for something scary with an interesting time-travel structure, this is the best episode to start with. Many people have done lists of Doctor Who episodes, and this is routinely placed as the best single episode, or the best episode to show a non-Who fan to try to show them. It’s undeniably great.
- The Doctor’s Daughter- Season 4, Episode 6. Some of the episodes on this list are cool in a way that can’t fully be explained, and the only thing that I can specifically point to in this episode is the Doctor’s monologue at the end, but it’s an episode on a future planet with a society of people being cloned rapidly, and killed rapidly in a war they don’t even understand. Honestly, just a cool episode.
- Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead- Season 4, Episodes 8 and 9. This episode tells the story of 2 time-travelers, the Doctor, and River Song, who meet while heading in opposite directions via time travel. I don’t want to tell too much about the structure, but at the time that I watched these episodes, this was the most innovative time-travel concept I had seen, and I think still may be.
- Midnight- Season 4, episode 10. This is another stand-alone horror episode. I have only watched it once, because whenever my wife and I rewatch the series, she makes me skip over this one, because it creeps her out too much (I think worse than the gasmasks). It’s about an alien virus which takes over a human host on a resort planet’s ‘excursion’ to a diamond waterfall. The whole episode basically takes place in a space version of a tour-bus, and if you’re not genuinely creeped out by it, you should get checked out.
- The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End- Season 4, episode 12 and 13. It wraps up some story-lines, and it gives characters their moment to shine, and is a bigger deal than when Eccleston left (because he didn’t like doing the show).
- The Eleventh Hour- Season 5, episode 1. This is your introduction to Matt Smith, the eleventh Doctor, the newest companion (Karen Gillan), and it’s a pretty cool episode. It tends to land on the goofier end of things, with the new Doctor making lots of goofy jokes, and with a little more sexual humor (nothing too risqué) than most other episodes. You may not fall in love with the 11th Doctor in this episode, but maybe you’ll fall in love with Amelia Pond.
- Vincent and the Doctor- Season 5, Episode 10. Honestly, the ‘bad guy/monster’ in this episode isn’t the highlight, in fact 7 times out of 10 on Doctor Who the monster isn’t the highlight, but in this episode the Doctor and Amelia, meet Vincent Van Gogh, and their interactions with him are amazing examples of character work.
- The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang- Season 5, episodes 12 and 13. These two episodes include appearances by nearly every alien race that the Doctor has faced, a really cool time travel structure (this might be the one that trumps the Silence in the Library and The Forest of the Dead), it has huge stakes and the Doctor delivers a kick-ass monologue. These 2 episodes might be the highlight of Matt Smith as the Doctor.
- All of Season 6. Matt Smith isn’t a bad doctor, but he comes immediately after arguably the best doctor, and so it takes a little while to fully get on the Matt Smith train. The 2 part finale of season 5 gets us there, and then season 6 has an over-arching story that is the best season in the shows run. I can’t really emphasize enough that this whole season is a gem. You have the doctor thinking he’s a cowboy, you start off the season and end the season in roughly the same place, with something catastrophic happening, and the whole season fills in the blanks of how you get there. There are guest appearances by Richard Nixon, and one of the creepiest new alien races that the Doctor has to face off against. Sorry, can’t give you any specific episodes. I will however, tell you to skip all of season 7 to make up for the abundance of episodes I’m throwing at you.
- Time Heist- Season 8, episode 5. Does the title not sell you on it? It’s a time-travel heist film in just an hour! It’s the first on my list featuring the twelfth Doctor, Peter Capaldi. That’s all you’re getting.
- Flatline- Season 8, episode 9. Honestly, just a really cool Twilight Zone style scifi episode, where the concept is the selling point. Basically, due to dimensional breakdown (like 3D turning into 2D) the Doctor is trapped in his TARDIS, and his newest companion Clara, has to help him get out.
- The Husbands of River Song- Season 9, episode 13. This ends up being a companion piece to The Silence in the Library and The Forest of the Dead, but I can’t tell you anymore, because of “Spoilers!”
- Pilot- Season 10, episode 1. This is an episode which introduces us to another new companion, Bill (Pearl Mackie) and it might be the saddest episode, but character-wise it’s incredible. Bill, a young lesbian woman living in a foster home as a young adult, is just about the saddest and loneliest character the show has.
- Extremis- Season 10, episode 6. This has some amazing work by both Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, as well as Matt Lucas who plays Nardole. Matt Lucas as Nardole plays off as almost a perfect impression of the Doctor, but he’s almost always relegated to manning the TARDIS. I suspect he was cast because he would make an excellent Doctor if it weren’t for all of the physical toll that the role entails (both Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi had to have knee surgery from all of the running.)
With that, you’ll have an idea of what the show is. I do recommend watching in its entirety, but if you’re just looking to get an idea and start off before Jodie Whitaker takes over the role, these are my suggestions.