Doctor Who: Where to begin
The epic tale of a madman with a blue box.
Doctor Who is arguably the best science fiction show ever to be produced by the Kingdom that doth be United. It first appeared on British television screens more than 50 years ago and, although the original run ended in 1989, the popularity and brilliance of the show's entire concept led to a TV movie in 1996 and then a continuation of the series starting in 2005. Having grown up with the classic series, I still remember how excited I was when the BBC announced that they were bringing it back!
As an Englishman in Canada, I find that Doctor Who often ends up in conversation. I've spoken with quite a few people who say that they're interested in watching it, but given how long the show has been running they have absolutely no idea where to begin. And with a string of twelve Doctors, who can blame them?
So consider this a mostly spoiler-free 'Beginners Guide to Doctor Who'. I'll be talking briefly about what the show's about, the difference between the Classic and Modern eras, and my personal recommendation as to where to begin and why.
What is Doctor Who?
I'm going to preface this by saying that it is, quite simply, an absolutely barmy concept. Doctor Who is often described as the tale of a mad man in a blue box who travels throughout all of space and time. He's a mysterious alien, a Time Lord, who's lived for several hundreds of years and has the ability to regenerate into a different person when faced with certain death.
But that concept, that simplicity of the entire show is what's allowed it to continue for so long after its inception in 1963. It is a show where literally anything can happen. One episode may be set in ancient Pompeii right before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, whilst the next may be set on a spaceship in the distant future, saving people from an attack by alien monsters. It's ridiculous, it's fun, it's cheesy in the way that British Sci-Fi often has been, and there's a certain beauty in that.
One of the reasons I love Doctor Who is because of who the Doctor is. There's something to be said about a hero whose weapon of choice is a sonic screwdriver; a tool used for fixing things rather than something capable of causing death or destruction. He looks at violence as a weakness and will only turn to violence himself as an absolute last resort. He's a different kind of hero to the ones that we normally see.
His ability to regenerate also keeps the show fresh. He's the same person, but he has a different face and a different personality. Most shows or movies would either end, be rebooted or, in the case of James Bond, they'd just re-cast the main character with a different actor. But the idea of regeneration is now engrained within the storyline. It's part of it. When you regenerate the Doctor, you regenerate the entire show. That's what makes it so compelling to keep watching and that's why it's continued for several decades. It can be anything, it can be set at any point in time, and the Doctor can change.
I hear it's supposed to be scary?
Sure. If you're six. One preconception people have is that the show is scary, and this has often led to a lot of disappointment for friends of mine - especially those into horror. Doctor Who is a family show, so it has to tread a fine-line. There are aliens and monsters and some episodes can freak people out, but the scare-factor of the monsters is generally kid-friendly terror/horror, and keeps in line with the ridiculous charm of British Sci-Fi.
So when it comes to scary, it's scary in the same way that you would expect from other family shows such as Star Trek or Stargate. But I think that a more accurate way of describing it would be to say that it has its fair share of very intense moments throughout the show. And even for a family show, it will surprise you.
Twelve Doctors is a lot of time to invest in.
It really is, and so it's no wonder it's overwhelming for people to get into it. So the simple and honest is answer is not to invest in all twelve of them unless you really really want to.
For most people, the beginning of the new 2005 series starting with Ninth Doctor is the best place to start. They did a brilliant job at making the show welcoming to new viewers who had never seen a single episode before, and like most things, where better a place to start than at the beginning?
But as we've said, for some it can be quite the investment time-wise. If you have concerns but really want to get a grasp on what Doctor Who is, and want to know if it's worth investing your time in it, then it's universally accepted that it really comes down to one episode; 'Blink'.
Why should I check out 'Blink'?
Blink is a standalone episode towards the end of Season 3 of the 2005 series. It's Doctor Who, through and through, with one exception; It barely features the Doctor himself!
"Barely features the Doctor? And you want me to start with this? Are you nuts?!"
With good reason. Like a lot of shows, they can take a bit of time to develop and get the ball rolling. Some people love beginning with the first season of the 2005 series, especially with the fantastic performance of Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, whilst others found that they prefered the pace of the later seasons after struggling with the first. The great thing about Blink is that it's a story that would work brilliantly as it's own Sci-Fi short, but gives you a great sense of what Doctor Who is like. It follows a group of characters who discover evidence of the Doctor's existence, but they're characters that you've never seen before and will never see again. It's a great way of getting a true taste of the essence of Doctor Who without spoiling the rest of the series.
Won't I have missed a lot if I start with the Ninth Doctor?
This is why starting with the Ninth Doctor is great; you don't really need to know much about what's happened before. When the BBC relaunched the show, they were smart to cater to a new audience as well as the existing one. You can start off with the Ninth Doctor without knowing anything about him.
But the Doctor in the new series is a broken man. The Ninth Doctor has emerged from the Time War; a violent battle between the Time Lords and a race of aliens called the Daleks which resulted in everything burning, everyone suffering, and he did the one thing, the only thing he could to stop it. He wiped out every Dalek and every Time Lord; he essentially committed double-genocide. He is now the last of the Time Lords and it has broken him. He is a different Doctor - a darker Doctor to every Doctor that came before him, born out of conflict and wracked with a massive amount of guilt.
And that is why he is the perfect Doctor to start off with.
Edit: Since writing this article, I've had a friend suggest that starting at the beginning of whoever the currently-airing Doctor is would be a good enough starting point for any new viewer. But I would argue that you'd miss out on so much backstory that you wouldn't get the same experience, including missing out on some major plot points that start with one Doctor and end with another, and all the in-jokes woven in-between. If you did want to start later than the Ninth Doctor, then right now the Eleventh would be best as that was when head writer Steven Moffat took over from Russell T. Davies and began a whole new narrative arc. But bear in mind that you wouldn't get as much enjoyment out of the 50th Anniversary episode as you would otherwise.
What's the difference between the old and new series?
It's definietly a lot easier to think of Doctor Who as being split into two parts (or three, if you count the Eighth Doctor's TV movie). There's the classic era, which features Doctors One through Seven, then there's this bit in the middle with the Eighth Doctor, and then the modern era which begins with the Ninth.
The classic era is very much a representation of classic British televised storytelling, For newcomers, the pace is very different to modern television and as a result can admittedly be more challenging for most people to get into.
To put this in perspective; The modern era generally has 12 episodes/stories per season (or "series" as it's often referred to in the UK) plus a feature-length Christmas special. In contrast, the classic era could have anywhere between 3 to 14 episodes per story, and anywhere from 14 to 48 episodes per season (and were generally referred to as "serials").
The Modern Era
As you now know, the Doctor has many faces. He has regenerated a number of times and each time has had a different style of personality. Over the course of the new series, four actors have carried on the legacy of the Doctor; Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and most recently, Peter Capaldi.
The regeneration process is a spectacle in and of itself, and it has always been a huge event when it happens, both in the show and in the real world. So for the sake of not spoiling that experience for you, I'm going to leave it to you to discover the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors for yourself.
An Adventure in Space and Time
If you want to get a good look inside the Classic era of Doctor Who, then the best place to start is actually the magnificently produced 2013 docudrama, An Adventure in Space and Time.
Incredibly well produced, it is the perfect tribute to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. It is a wonderfully intriguing look at what the BBC was like during the early 60s, as well excellently portraying the story behind the birth of the Doctor's iconic ability to regenerate.
The Classic Era
If An Adventure in Space and Time has piqued your interest about the older episodes from the classic era, then you may want to check out the older Doctors. My first Doctor was the Seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy - whom some of you may recognise from the new Hobbit trilogy, where he played the wizard Radagast. But my favourite of the old Doctors has got to be Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor; fun, crazy and brilliantly eccentric - he's easily been the source of inspiration for many a Doctor who has appeared since.
Although I grew up with the classic series of Doctor Who, I'm not as familiar with it as I am with the new series. So I've turned to my good friend and classic 'Who' expert, Chris Herron, for his take on the classic Doctors...
THE FIRST DOCTOR
Played by: William Hartnell.
Profile: The ‘original’, you might say. Often cranky and bad tempered, but also capable of wit and warmth, make up this Doctors egocentric nature.
Best story: The Time Meddler, Season 2, Episodes 36 - 39.
It was one of (if not the) first, First Doctor stories I saw back in 1992. Might not be the best story from the era, but it does have a warm place in my heart. Directed by one of Doctor Who’s greatest directors, Douglas Camfield, who directed a multitude of stories over several era’s of Doctor Who. His serials always hold your attention, even when the story in question might not be Who’s best.
THE SECOND DOCTOR
Played by: Patrick Troughton.
Profile: Often described as a ‘Cosmic Hobo’. Often one step ahead of this enemy, usually by throwing them off guard by acting ‘the fool’. This Doctor at times could be a calculating schemer who would manipulate people for their greater good.
Best story: The War Games, Season 6, Episodes 35 - 44.
This story, like many serials of 6 episodes or longer, suffers from a lot of padding. However, it’s a good romp along the way. Not only does the serial delve deeper into Timelord mythology it has one of the saddest ending’s in series’ history.
THE THIRD DOCTOR
Played by: Jon Pertwee.
Profile: Arrogant with a loathing of authority with a healthy side dish of mild sexism and very much a man of action. He was James Bond and Q rolled into one.
Best story: The Dæmons, Season 8, Episodes 21 - 25.
This story has everything, action and adventure, humour, The Master, UNIT, that chap with the wings. The ‘Pertwee Family’ at it’s best!
THE FOURTH DOCTOR
Played by: Tom Baker.
Profile: The Fourth Doctor is manic and wily, but with a firm sense of morality. He is incredibly irreverent and always tries to diffuse tense situations with a droll comment or the offer of a jelly baby. He routinely greeted people with his broad, toothy, grin and treated them as if they were already friends. Towards the end of his life, the fourth Doctor became far more irascible, moody, and even brooding.
Best story: The Robots of Death, Season 14, Episodes 17 - 20.
Aboard a sandminder, Doctor Who encounters Agatha Christie shenanigans as robots go wild and kill the humans... one by one. Worthy to see the Doctor explain the TARDIS being bigger inside than out and Louise Jameson firmly establishing Leela as a companion.
THE FIFTH DOCTOR
Played by: Peter Davison.
Profile: A very much ‘back to basics’ Doctor. A sensitive incarnation who did not make himself an imposition, preferring to be honest, reserved, and honourable. Often highly conflicted about what choices he could make in a crisis that were truly right.
Best story: The Caves of Androzani, Season 21, Episodes 17 - 20.
The combination of writer Robert Holmes and director Graeme Harper not only makes this the best Fifth Doctor story, but one of Doctor Who’s best stories. Cracking performances from the guest cast!
THE SIXTH DOCTOR
Played by: Colin Baker.
Profile: Like the First Doctor, this Doctor could be moody, self-absorbed, driven, stubborn and unpredictable. Colin Baker brings a very alien persona to this incarnation and in my mind very reminiscent of Peter Capaldi’s incarnation.
Best story: Vengeance on Varos, Season 22, Episodes 3 & 4.
Sort of 1984 meets Doctor Who. The story revolves around a bleak Orwellian society that is dependent on TV. The most sadistic form of entertainment that you can get. Torture. Blindness. Acid baths (let's stop giving ITV ideas!). The whole society is dependant on viewer voting…. Sound familiar?
THE SEVENTH DOCTOR
Played by: Sylvester McCoy
Profile: The Second Doctor Mark II. Sylvester starts out playing the Doctor as a comedic fool. But in 3 short years transforms into a mysterious, cunning and manipulative Doctor. You’re never quite sure what he’s up to.
Best story: Silver Nemesis, Season 25, Episodes 8 - 10.
This is not one of the best stories from the era or from the season to be honest. It is however, one of the stories I remember from it’s original transmission (I was 5). The cliff-hanger to Part 1 has stayed with me over the years and to this day still fills me with excitement and terror!
THE EIGHTH DOCTOR
Played by: Paul McGann.
Profile: The first of the 'romantic' Doctors, he is effortlessly charming and an enthusiastic figure who explores the universe for the sheer love of it, always surviving on the strength of his excellent improvisational skills rather than preparing elaborate plans.
In the 1996 TV movie of Doctor Who, the newly-regenerated Doctor takes on the Master on the turn of the millennium, 31 December 1999.
The movie was originally planned as a backdoor pilot to start an American-run series. Thankfully that never happened, but it did show that there was still renewed interest in Do ctor Who and most likely helped pave the way for the new UK series in 2005.
The Eighth Doctor's adventures continued in a series of BBC audio books, all narrated by the Doctor himself, Paul McGann.
Also of interest to my Canadian friends; the TV movie featuring the Eighth Doctor was filmed in Vancouver, making it the only 'episode' so far to be filmed in Canada.
Doctor Who is available on iTunes, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, DVD and Blu-Ray.