Frankly, I don’t blame you. It’s the longest running science-fiction series in the history of television, having gone on longer than every single Star Trek series put together. It’s featured the writing of Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, and television luminary Steven Moffat (who looked like he was going to corner the market on Hugo awards for a few years there.) It’s smart, witty, fun, inventive, fearlessly silly and gobsmackingly terrifying all at the same time, and generally the best thing since sliced bread. But with a TV show that’s coming close to celebrating its 50th anniversary, where do you start?
Really, the wonderful thing about the series is that there are any number of jumping-on points. The show is not a “Lost”-type experience where you have to pay deep attention to the mythos and every story builds on the story before it. (In fact, it’s almost the opposite; with so many changes to the show’s creative personnel, it was pretty frequent for series writers to have to rely on second- or third-hand descriptions of older stories when they brought back recurring enemies. This is why compiling timelines of Doctor Who is a fan cottage industry.)
But probably the best jumping-on point, right now, is Season One of the new series. The first episode, “Rose”, shows the Doctor from the perspective of someone meeting him for the first time, and gives you a nice initiation into the basic concept of the series (although the best description of the basic concept comes later, in Steven Moffat’s introductory episode “The Eleventh Hour”: “Amy Pond, there’s something you’d better understand about me, because it’s important, and one day your life may depend upon it. I am definitely a madman with a box.”) From there, it’s pretty easy to find yourself moving on to Seasons 2, 3, 4, the 2009 specials, and 5…although honestly, I think that big chunks of 3 and 4 are skippable if you don’t feel like watching everything. (Make sure to watch “Blink”, though. Everyone should watch “Blink”, if for nothing else than to see Carey Mulligan in one of her early TV appearances. She’s gonna be huge.)
But the thing is, as much as I like it, the new series is only the tip of the Doctor Who iceberg. There’s twenty-six seasons and a whopping 286 novels out there, not to mention the comics, audio plays and movies. (The movies are just adaptations of two early TV stories. You can skip them if you want, although it’s neat to see Peter Cushing playing the Doctor.) While you certainly don’t have to see it all…and in fact, you can’t, thanks to the BBC’s short-sighted decision to erase several early stories from their archives…there are a few good places to start in. I’ll list eleven, in honor of the eleven Doctors (although not necessarily featuring them all.) One thing, though. It’s worth noting that the classic series was filmed a long time ago, and usually on a shoestring budget. If you have a low tolerance for terrible special effects, run don’t walk in the other direction.
1. Genesis of the Daleks. The origin of the Daleks (although not their first appearance) and the first appearance of Davros, their mad creator. Also features the most popular (and arguably the best) Doctor, Tom Baker, whose floppy hat and long scarf provide some of the iconic images of the series.
2. An Unearthly Child. The very first episode; it actually holds up pretty well as a piece of drama, although you’ll find yourself wondering exactly who Susan’s grandmother was and why we never hear about the Doctor’s family ever again. This is normal, and part of your initiation into the world of Doctor Who fandom.
3. Spearhead From Space. This story doesn’t actually introduce UNIT, the military organization that helps the Doctor frequently over the course of his travels, but it does introduce the era of the series where they were most prominent (and the era where the Doctor was trapped on Earth.) It also introduces the Autons, occasional recurring enemies of the Doctor.
4. The Deadly Assassin. Likewise, this story doesn’t actually introduce the Master, the Doctor’s arch-nemesis and fellow renegade Time Lord, but it’s easily the best story with the character and introduces his rationale for most of the later era of the series (he’s used up all his regenerations and is trying to find a way to prolong his existence.)
5. The War Games. Basically, it’s the origin story for the Doctor, but it’s also a clever story in its own right. The Doctor seems to materialize in World War One, but at every twist, the story grows in scope until he has no choice but to reveal his past and go to his own people, the Time Lords, for help in restoring order. (Pack a lunch…it’s a ten-parter.)
6. The Chimes of Midnight. This is one of the better stories in the audio spin-off line from Big Finish, and also one of the stories that’s emblematic of the Eighth Doctor’s run in the audios. His impulsive decision to rescue “Edwardian adventuress” Charley from certain death aboard the R-101 has catastrophic consequences to history, and this story is a perfect example. Plus, it’s chillingly clever and a mix of humor and horror that sticks with you for a long time after the story ends. “Edward Grove is alive.”
7. Human Nature. At last, a chance to use links! This classic Doctor Who novel is also available as a free ebook at the BBC’s website, and it’s one of the best things Paul Cornell (who you might have heard of from the Pete Wisdom or Captain Britain comics) has ever written. It was later adapted for TV, but the book is better. Also features one of the stronger appearances of Cornell-created companions Bernice Summerfield, who wound up with her own spin-off series of some thirty novels and a similar number of audio plays. (River Song, from the new series, is basically a slightly-less awesome version of Bernice.)
8. Spare Parts. Another audio play, this one featuring TV’s Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison. It’s also the origin of the Cybermen, who comprise, alongside the Daleks and the Master, the Doctor’s main Rogue’s Gallery. (In general, the Doctor’s Rogue’s Gallery consists of entire species, not individuals. Individual bad guys who fight the Doctor have a tendency to wind up dead.)
9. The Two Doctors. This is one of the more watchable adventures of the Sixth Doctor, but it gives you a pretty good idea of the kinds of excesses and problems that were afflicting the series around then. Colin Baker tries hard, but script editor Eric Saward undercuts everything with his vision of the series, and producer John Nathan-Turner viewed his job more as drumming up publicity for the series than actually making it watchable. Oh, and it’s got the Sontarans in it. See one Sontaran, you’ve seen ’em all (literally, they’re a race of clones.)
10. City of Death. The Doctor Who episode every Doctor Who fan shows to non-Doctor Who fans, this is the one written by Douglas Adams, with Julian Glover as the villain (you know Julian Glover, even if you don’t remember the name; he’s been a villain for James Bond, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Harry Potter) and the cameo by John Cleese. If you can only watch one of the stories on this list, this is probably the one.
11. Remembrance of the Daleks. The last Dalek appearance in the classic series, and probably the best; this features three of the all-time classic headfucks of Doctor Who. The first is the Dalek chasing the Doctor up the flight of stairs for the first time in series history, the second is the appearance of the “Special Weapons Dalek” (which must be seen to be believed), and the third…but that would be telling.
So there you go, a potted guide to Doctor Who! It’s by no means complete, but I hope I’ve given you a good place to start. That’s all for this week…but I did want to beg everyone’s indulgence for a moment, and mention that I’ve started my own T-shirt store on CafePress. Feel free to stop by and see if there’s anything you like!