If you want to start watching Doctor Who, or if you have tried to watch it but felt lost, or you just didn’t get it even after watching an episode or two, here is the beginner’s guide you didn’t know you needed.
I started on this primer after repeated requests from readers who want to start watching Doctor Who but have no idea where to begin or what it’s about. I asked over at my Facebook page and on Twitter about what I should include and the deluge of detailed information only served to prove exactly the need for this primer.
It also served to show me that I will anger almost every Whovian for leaving out a lot of what they deem as “vital” for a primer (I’m sorry but in my humble opinion, a thorough knowledge of the Rani and the Valeyard isn’t required to begin) or for recommending a certain path to beginning. I’m going to keep this primer to the VERY simple and quick in order to begin and simply trust that folks will get hooked and then become crazy for the details like us. Deal?
It’s no secret to you, dear reader, that I am a big geek about Doctor Who. Everyone has a completely irrational love for something that seems weird to other people but what can I say? No shame in my Who game. And yes, that is a toy Dalek beside my teapot.
And yet confession time: I don’t actually like sci-fi as a a genre. I remain unmoved by everything from Star Wars to Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica. And yet I’m a certifiable kook about this British television show. This only goes to show me the great strength of the show: it’s for everyone. Almost everyone loves something different about the show.
What is Doctor Who?
It’s a BBC television show that premiered in 1963. So yes, there are 50 years worth of history. No wonder you’re overwhelmed at the thought of jumping in. The series is divided into two eras: Classic Who (which ran from 1963 – 1989 when it was cancelled due to poor ratings) and the Reboot (often called NuWho or the New Who) which was re-launched in 2005 and continues to dominate the ratings now. DW used to be considered a cult hit but it’s become very mainstream and accessible in the last few years.
What’s the show actually about?
The show is about the Doctor and his companions and their adventures in time and space, sure, but really at the core, it’s a story about hope and goodness, life and the sacredness of our stories. It’s about doing the right thing, taking a stand, and navigating complex morality in a shifting universe. Doctor Who is funny and terrifying, exciting and interesting, beautiful and heart-breaking. Yes, I said heart-breaking. You’ll see.
It’s clever and well-written, complicated and soulful. One of my favourite things about the show is that almost everything means something, we circle back around to little hints, story lines, easter eggs, and even jokes throughout the entire show. The longer you watch the show, the more you get out of it.
How do I watch it?
You can pick up the DVDs at your local library. It’s also available on Amazon Prime streaming, iTunes, and on Netflix in North America now. Once you catch up on the show to the current season, it’s on BBC in the UK, Space in Canada, and on BBC America in the States (check your local listings).
Do I need to start at the very beginning with Classic Who?
Absolutely not. Once you get into Doctor Who, you might want to go back and watch certain big stories, sure. (Besides the truth is that even if you wanted to start at the beginning, you couldn’t. A lot of early episodes are lost or believed destroyed.)
So no, you don’t have to watch 50 years worth of television to be a fan. I’ve personally gone back and watched a lot of the Third and Fourth Doctors’ tenures but it’s not at all necessary to understanding or appreciating the rebooted series. In fact, most new fans are exclusively coming to the series via the rebooted series.
Who is the Doctor?
His name isn’t Doctor Who. He is just the Doctor. And he is an alien. Yes, an alien. Stay with me, folks. He’s a Time Lord from a planet called Gallifrey. He has two hearts and he looks like a human (he would argue that humans look like time lords since they came first but whatever). He is very old by our standards – right now, our Doctor is about 2,000 years old, give or take.
Not only is he a Time Lord, he’s the Last of the Time Lords. The Time Lords don’t engage with time in a linear fashion: they hold all of time and space at once, they see everything that was and everything that could be. In fact, they were sometimes the guardians of time. The Time Lords fought in the Time War against the Daleks (more on them in a bit) and they were all destroyed. The Doctor carries a tremendous amount of grief and suffering as a result. He’s the last one and the only one. This shapes a lot of his decisions and pathos.
The big news about Time Lords is this: they can regenerate. This means that when the Doctor is fatally injured or aged, his entire body renews and he becomes a completely new man. That is why we say things like “Twelfth Doctor” and “Ninth Doctor.” It’s because there is literally a Ninth Doctor and a Tenth Doctor – all played by different actors. This is part of what makes the show so incredible and fresh – every few years, the actor that plays the Doctor departs the series and we are given a new Doctor complete with a new face and even a new temperament or personality. And as a warning: you will become very attached to the Doctors and grieve over regenerations before quickly loving the new guy just as much. And you’ll also develop an irrational attachment to at least one of the Doctors, henceforth always referring to him as “My Doctor.” Case in point: My Doctor is the Tenth, David Tennant, even though I loved Nine and Eleven, in particular. Jury’s still out on Twelve for me.
We don’t know the Doctor’s “real” name. We only know the name he has chosen for himself, because he sees it as a promise: “Never cruel or cowardly, never give up and never give in.” Because of his chosen identity, he often makes people better – in all ways of understanding that word. We’ve been given hints that he endured great suffering and has lost the people who were dear to him – he’s made references to being a father, for instance, but “not anymore.” He is as shaped by his suffering and his losses and the fact that he outlives everyone who loves him and whom he loves as he is shaped by the wonders he has seen. He’s also brilliant.
The Doctor’s personality changes in small ways throughout the show, but at the core, here’s what you need to know, according to Steven Moffat (who has been the showrunner since 2011):
“When they made this particular hero, they didn’t give him a gun, they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an x-wing fighter, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help. And the didn’t give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat ray, they gave him an extra heart. They gave him two hearts. And that’s an extraordinary thing; there will never come a time when we don’t need a hero like the Doctor.“
What’s with the blue police box?
The blue police box is actually called the TARDIS – that is an acronym that stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. It allows the occupants to travel through both time and space. The story of Doctor begins on Gallifrey when he stole this TARDIS and ran away. The blue police box thing is because the cloaking device – a TARDIS feature that allows it to disguise itself and remain out of notice no matter where it landed – got stuck when it landed in the 1960s Britain. At that time, police boxes were very common and there you go. Now the police box is an iconic part of the show. The TARDIS itself is another dimension. So it’s – wait for it – bigger on the inside. In fact, no one really knows just how big. The TARDIS is also sentient – you’ll begin to see as the show goes along that the TARDIS often has a big role in why the Doctor lands where and when he lands. They have a mutual relationship with one another – and the TARDIS boasts not only a new control room with every Doctor but also a swimming pool, a library, and quite a few sinister corners and secrets as well.
Who is the person who travels with the Doctor?
We call them “companions” and they are all human. In the beginning, they were there for us as the audience to have a liaison – someone to represent us and our questions in the TARDIS. But now they also help to save the Doctor – sometimes from his own self. They serve as his conscience and remind him of his moral duty. They keep him connected to humanity and to his best self.
The Doctor has a real soft spot for Earth, sometimes calling himself our protector or defender. The companions’ relationships with the Doctor are complex – and often their families back on Earth have an even more complex relationship with the Doctor. We often grow as attached to the companions and their families as we do to the Doctor. One strength of the show is the character development of the companions – they grow and change as people. Since the rebooted show, you could argue that the companion is actually the main character. Some companions fall in love with the Doctor, others are best friends, others are just good buddies. It’s clear that the Doctor has certain favourites, too, even as he travels with a wide assortment of folks. I can’t share much more without spoilers.
So is this show all about fighting aliens?
Nope. The Doctor at his core is very pro-life and peace-driven. If he has an enemy, it’s because they violate those values. He’s curious and intrigued by alien life and has an inherent respect for it. So his main enemies – the Daleks, for instance – are his enemies not because they are alien. Not at all. In fact, his biggest fights with humans have been over their habit of reacting in fear and violence against other life forms and possibilities. Daleks are his enemies because they are filled with hate for anything other than themselves and want to assimilate all the wonder and unique vastness of the universe into one homogenous whole. The Daleks are his historical “great” enemy from the Classic Series, but you’ll see that there are a wide variety of threats and some are downright terrifying while others simply serve to move the story along. Aliens are only one aspect of the show and you’d be surprised how quickly you can jump into believing in the universe. We are just as likely to go back in time with historical figures or events or deal with sinister humans or natural disasters. One of the show’s great strengths is its ability to take very typical objects or completely normal things and twist them just enough to make them scary.
Isn’t it a kids’ show?
Yes and no. It was originally envisioned as a kids’ show. But in the rebooted series, it’s a whole family show that often veers thoroughly and completely into too-scary for younger kids. Even though the tinies ask to watch it, I tell them we’ll talk about it seriously when they’re twelve. We do have to be able to embrace the aspects that are there for kids – some silliness, for instance, and goofiness, particularly in the 2005 season. Which, again, that is something that most Whovians love. We can go from terrified to laughing in one scene. But because there is always a possibility or likelihood that kids are watching, the show never includes overt violence or sex to get the point across – which I love.
Okay, you’ve convinced me. I’ll give it a go. Where should I begin?
There are many ways to begin one’s love affair with the Doctor, but here are the two I’ll recommend.
1. The Jump-Straight-In-and-Go-For-It Method
Begin right in 2005 with Series 1 (in the States, a Series is called a Season), Episode 1 called Rose and just go for it, watching straight through. This is an excellent introduction to the Doctor and it is personally where I began, with the Ninth Doctor, so it’s my favourite.
However, if you can’t handle really cheesy special effects and some silliness, this isn’t your method. In the 2005 reboot, the budget was teeny tiny. So for audiences used to 2014 big budget television, it can be hard to get past that. Personally, I was on the fence with the show because of that stuff – and hello, I’m not a big alien-show person – but I stayed with it. I very nearly gave up early in that 2005 series though – I think it was the farting aliens on Downing Street that made me roll my eyes so hard they nearly fell out of my head – but right around the eighth and ninth episodes (called The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, a perfect mix of love and fear, creepiness and beauty) was when I fell head over heels in love with the show. But not everyone gets there. So here’s the other option:
2. The One-Off Episodes and then a Series Five Start Method
This is the one I recommend for people in particular who have tried to watch Doctor Who once upon a time but simply didn’t get it or like it. It’s also for folks who aren’t sure they really want to commit to a show with a history as deep as DW and just want to get a general idea for the show.
Here’s your plan: Watch an episode called Blink in Series 3. It features the Tenth Doctor and his companion, Martha, but really it’s one of the best early episodes of the rebooted show and will give you a very clear idea of the show and how time travel works. Another episode I like to recommend for “one-off” beginners is The Girl in the Fireplace in Series 2. Then watch Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead from Season 4. This will introduce you to the Tenth Doctor at least and the show itself pretty well.
Then if you’re intrigued and ready to just get going, go to Series 5 and the 11th Doctor. There are two “eras” for the rebooted show and this is the start of a new era – the one with a bigger budget and so its more accessible for new fans. This is the method I used with my husband who simply could NOT get past the cheese of the initial reboot. The budget is bigger, the effects are better, and it’s very good way to start.
I have yet to see anyone do this that did not become a Whovian and then promptly go back to Series 1 Episode 1 and begin at the beginning, fully embracing all of it. Purists, I get it. I hate to think of anyone watching Doctor Who without a deep understanding of the history of the show’s stories and particularly without David Tennant but this is an entry point and they’ll get there, promise.
So that’s it! Go forth and watch Netflix.
YOUR TURN: What would you add or remove from this primer? If someone came to you for a primer and a way-to-start-watching the show, what would you recommend?
And most importantly: why do you love Doctor Who?