Last week’s episode of Doctor Who, entitled “Listen,” is rapidly gaining a reputation for being one of the greatest Who episodes of all time. I recently got back into the show after leaving it alone for a couple of years, due to my curiosity about the newest Doctor, Peter Capaldi, and the variety of ways in which he is different from his last few predecessors. Capaldi is older, more mature, less Gen-Y, crankier and more enigmatic than the quirky Matt Smith and impressively likeable David Tennant – qualities which more closely resemble the myriad of classic Doctors who took center stage before the series’ cancellation and subsequent reboot.
In conversation with colleagues about Doctor Who in general, I found the most common reason many of them have not begun watching is that they have no idea where to start. Indeed, fifty years of backlog is a lot to catch up on, if you look at it all as essential viewing. The thing is, Doctor Who doesn’t have to be viewed from its first episode in 1963 all the way up to last week’s brilliant display – truthfully, you can pick it up almost anywhere! For anyone wishing to get into Doctor Who but not quite sure where to start, I would suggest picking a Doctor – any Doctor – and starting from the beginning of their run. Most of the time, you’ll find yourself oriented and invested within an episode or two.
However, with twelve Doctors to choose from, that still leaves you with a bit of choosing to do. Thankfully, the library has a wonderful selection of Doctor Who episodes from every era, old and new – and I’m here to give you a sampler platter of every Doctor, to help you decide where you may want to begin. Here we go!
THE FIRST DOCTOR: WILLIAM HARTNELL
An Unearthly Child
For those wanting the complete package, we may as well start at the very beginning. This is the very first story Doctor Who ever told, about a strange old man with a magic police box and a mysterious girl who calls him Grandfather. You’ll learn about the TARDIS, which is the Doctor’s spaceship and time machine, take a trip back to the Stone Age with a couple of unsuspecting schoolteachers, and learn just a little bit about the Doctor and his past – but only enough to raise ten thousand more questions about who he really is. When looked at through the lens of 1960s TV programming, the episode ends up looking pretty darn impressive.
THE SECOND DOCTOR: PATRICK TROUGHTON
The Ice Warriors
One of the tragic things about the Second Doctor’s years is that many episodes have been destroyed, or otherwise lost to time. However, thanks to the revival of the show and many dedicated fans and producers, we get to experience many of these stories from start to finish anyway, in the form of animated reconstructions of the missing parts. The Ice Warriors is one such example – out of the six parts, episodes two and three have never been found in their original form, and have been recreated using animation and voice acting in order to fill in the gaps of the story arc. Although one can hope that someday, in some dark basement, the lost episodes may be recovered, fans can still experience more of Patrick Troughton’s more hands-on, childlike portrayal of the Doctor through the skillful restoration of animators.
THE THIRD DOCTOR: JON PERTWEE
The Claws of Axos
The Third Doctor’s era was unique in that, instead of being able to zip around time and space at will, the leaders of the Time Lords (the alien race he belongs to) decided to get him under control, broke his TARDIS, and exiled him to Earth. There, he was to work with UNIT, a human-led organization dedicated to the investigation and pacification of alien elements on Earth. He spent much of the series trying (and failing) to fix his TARDIS in his spare time while doing dirty work for UNIT, but catches a break in this story arc due to some unexpected help. Featuring a crazy hive-minded alien and an appearance by the Doctor’s nemesis, the Master, The Claws of Axos is one of the more exciting arcs in the Third Doctor’s four-year run.
THE FOURTH DOCTOR: TOM BAKER
Genesis of the Daleks
Tom Baker, whose seven year run on Doctor Who made him “THE Doctor” for many fans who grew up with the show, is my personal favorite Doctor as well. In direct contrast to the suave and authoritative Doctor before him, Baker’s Doctor is tall and imposing, with popping eyes, a wide-brimmed hat, and a seven-foot-long multicolored scarf to bundle everything up in, and has the intense personality to match. Throughout an episode, he can oscillate between goofy and childlike to harsh and merciless in a heartbeat, and his previous incarnations’ kindness and amiability with humans has turned into more of a detached fascination, as if he were studying them as specimens in a laboratory. There are many, many stories I could choose from the Tom Baker years, and it is only after a heavy amount of thought that I have decided on Genesis of the Daleks as my Tom Baker sample. I ended up choosing this story because it rolls three “most famouses” – the most famous Doctor, the most famous companion, and the most famous monsters – all into one dramatic story, all while establishing a good amount of Doctor Who backstory and lore for the rest of the series to draw on.
THE FIFTH DOCTOR: PETER DAVISON
The Caves of Androzani
Out of all actors who have ever played the Doctor, Peter Davison’s job was the hardest – he had to follow Tom Baker. His early episodes were a little weak as he struggled to find his niche and personality, but by the end, he had a dramatic flair all his own. Davison was far younger than all other Doctors before him, a fact that served him well once he began to take advantage of it. Davison’s Doctor was less of an instigator than any of his predecessors, preferring to react to situations instead of creating them, and tried to include his companions as team members rather than take the smarter-than-thou approach of the four before him. I’ve decided to feature Davison’s personal favorite story arc – The Caves of Androzani – in this post, as it shows the Fifth Doctor at his very best, as well as highlights a key aspect of what makes the Doctor unique – regeneration. This is, in fact, the final story to feature Davison as the Doctor, and the first to feature…
THE SIXTH DOCTOR: COLIN BAKER
The Twin Dilemma
Colin Baker is not a well-remembered Doctor. There are often complications and crises that arise upon a new regeneration, but this one was a doozy, and instilled him with some strange personality quirks and flaws – not strange in the adorable or mysterious way, like Tom Baker or William Hartnell, but strange in the “I can’t stand this man” way that, well, made him really hard to stand. A shameless, egotistical genius, he wore a costume that Baker himself described as “an explosion in a rainbow factory,” and flaunted his way through the next three years with reckless abandon, angering just about everybody he encountered. The Twin Dilemma is the very first of Colin Baker’s episodes, and I chose it because (in my opinion) you can see everything you need to know about Doctor Number Six, and then move right along to something else. Colin Baker is for the completionist or the die-hard Who fan only, and would be my least-recommended spot to pick up the series.
THE SEVENTH DOCTOR: SYLVESTER MCCOY
Poor Sylvester McCoy – fans were so frustrated by his predecessor by the end of his run that there was hardly anything the seventh Doctor could do about it. I’ve chosen Dragonfire as the McCoy sample because it is the introductory story of one of my favorite companions – Ace, the explosives-loving teenage girl who starts off rough but eventually becomes his protege. McCoy’s Doctor is less gregarious, more secretive than Colin Baker, taking more after the second Doctor and his tendency toward manipulation and puppet-mastering to achieve his goals. It’s sad that McCoy didn’t get more of a chance to develop his character, but the ratings for Doctor Who were dismal by this point, and the show was cancelled in his third season.
THE EIGHTH DOCTOR: PAUL MCGANN
Doctor Who: The Movie
If you want to start with Paul McGann, there aren’t many choices – in fact, he has only had one significant appearance onscreen, in the lukewarm-reviewed Doctor Who TV Movie. It’s actually not a bad film, all things considered, and it sets the stage for the Eighth Doctor’s incredible quantity of novellas and audio dramas which were written and produced in the years since the film was considered a failure. These performances are terrific, and in fact what I would truly recommend if you wanted to start getting to know the Eighth Doctor – however, we do not have any of them directly available through WCCLS, so you’ll have to go with the TV movie! It features the return of the Master as a villain and serves as a nice bridge between the campy, technologically dated previous incarnation of Doctor Who and the CGI-rich reboot of 2005.
THE NINTH DOCTOR: CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON
The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances
The choice of Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor was, at first glance, a strange one for a reboot. He had few of the qualities of the strange, often foppish Doctors, often opting to be far more emotionally intense and brooding. However, upon further inspection, it makes a lot of sense, and in fact it set the tone of the show in a few important ways, even after it got more lighthearted once again – his portrayal offered a chance for the audience to connect with a more human Doctor, and for the Doctor himself to establish a strong connection with his companion. The show became less about the Doctor showing everyone else who’s boss and more about his relationships with those around him, a tone which makes more sense within the context of modern television. Eccleston left after just one series, but his twin legacies are his remarkable empathy toward the young and underprivileged, and his powerful hatred of the Daleks, who forced him to sacrifice the entire race of Time Lords in order to save the universe from the Dalek scourge. The Empty Child is the ultimate example of the former: the Doctor’s willingness (and, perhaps, his wish) to sacrifice absolutely everything for the greater good. I would highly recommend Eccleston’s series as a starting point for those just getting into Doctor Who, as it was naturally designed as a reintroduction to its ideas and themes, and the chemistry between the Doctor and his companion Rose is more than brilliant.
THE TENTH DOCTOR: DAVID TENNANT
Silence in the Library
One of the inevitable consequences of making the show more about the relationship between the Doctor and his companions is that, eventually, an actual romantic relationship has to rear its ugly head. This was not made less likely by the casting of David Tennant as the Doctor – a ridiculously sociable, well-adjusted, sexy young man, especially when compared to the off-limits, broody Eccleston. Doctor Number Ten loves people, is highly fashionable according to Gen Y standards, loves technobabble, and flashes his sonic screwdriver around like nobody’s business. A little romance is okay in any show, but after not one, but two companions got themselves romantically entangled with the Doctor and were subsequently burned, fans ended up wishing for a return to the more platonic days of yore. Then came Donna Noble, a feisty temp worker from Chiswick who makes it VERY clear that she has no interest in funny business with the Doctor. Donna’s pushy, bombastic personality perfectly compliments Tennant’s compromising nature, allowing her to push him along when he gets too twisted around to get the job done. Silence in the Library, one of the best episodes in New Who, is also one of the more important episodes in terms of the new series’ long-term continuity, introducing several characters and ideas that only pay off a couple of years down the line.
THE ELEVENTH DOCTOR: MATT SMITH
The Eleventh Hour
After David Tennant, the “People’s Doctor,” finally regenerated, it was up to Matt Smith to provide a different spin on the character without compromising the audience’s ability to relate to him. He did so marvelously, adopting odd habits and clothing items (bowties, anyone?) while still remaining able to connect with his human companions on a high level like Tennant could. I chose The Eleventh Hour because it serves as another excellent starting point for the new viewer: not only does it reintroduce the basic mechanics of Doctor Who to the uneducated, but it lets us learn about the Doctor right alongside him, as he copes with his new regeneration and learns about himself. Add in some excellent acting by Karen Gillan as his new companion (and her cousin, who plays her younger self), and you’ve got a great recipe for excitement as only Doctor Who can deliver.
THE TWELFTH DOCTOR: PETER CAPALDI
Deep Breath (Not yet available on DVD)
I’d rather not say more about Capaldi’s superb Doctor than I’ve already said. Rather, I would encourage you to just jump in here, with the first episode of the latest season, and let him help you figure it out. Deep Breath is an acceptable starting point as any – you’ll learn about the Doctor, his ability to regenerate, the TARDIS and its time travel abilities, and all the other Who-basics that make the show so great. Before you know it, you’ll be watching “Listen” and looking under your bed for the next three weeks. Enjoy!