Not long after our first son was born, we found out that Netflix was doing this little trick called Instant Watch, and that we could do it on our Wii. (In those days you had to send away for a disc that would run in your Wii, instead of a downloadable app.) One of the first shows recommended to me by many friends was the new reboot of Doctor Who, which began its run on the BBC in 2005. I didn’t know what to think of the show at first. It was always right on the edge of being laughably ridiculous, but just grounded enough to still be exciting, scary, and intentionally funny. Three years later, and I would consider myself one of the converted, a genuine fan of not only the new show, but of the classic series as well.
Maybe you know the premise, maybe not. It’s the many adventures of a time-travelling alien called The Doctor. He looks human, but he’s actually a Time Lord, a member of an ancient race. He goes through time and space in the TARDIS, his spaceship/time machine. Along the way he meets aliens, historical figures, and more than a few monsters. He almost always travels with other people as well, and the companions have proven especially important in the newest version of the show. One of the key features of the show is that Time Lords can regenerate into a new body when they are killed. That little feature has allowed the show to change actors when someone quits. The Doctor is currently in his eleventh form, played by Matt Smith. Some other notable Doctors are the fourth version, played by Tom Baker, and the tenth, played by David Tennant.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the series, which started in the UK in 1963. It originally ran for 26 seasons (!) before bowing in 1989. After a non-starter of a TV movie in 1996, it returned in a retooled format in 2005, with a new cast and crew. It’s been running ever since, and thanks to basic cable and streaming services like Netflix, I suspect its popularity is at an all-time high. Any show with over 30 years of televised episodes looks daunting. In its original form, it ran in 25-minute episodes that would then connect together in groups of 4 or 6 to create one “serial,” which is usually how they are viewed today. Since the show’s return, it now plays in 45-minute standalone episodes, which are sometimes paired together in two-parters. I haven’t done a lot of research, but it’s the closest that broadcast TV has come to a comic book series like Batman or Spider-man.
So what’s the chief appeal of Doctor Who? The characters are a big deal. The Doctor changes depending on the actor, but he’s a little like James Bond, in that the core characteristics remain. He’s intelligent, eccentric, and sometimes more than a little pompous. He shows a particular interest in protecting Earth, and in humanity in general. But if you ask me the biggest draw is the format itself, which is really only limited by the imaginations of the writers. While everything in the show boils down to some kind of sci-fi reasoning, the structure can shift wildly from show to show. Sometimes it’ll be a mystery, sometimes a comedy. Some of the most memorable episodes draw heavily from horror and suspense. As is always possible when dealing in time travel, it likes to deal with alternate timelines, changing history, and wacky paradoxes. Usually it’s given just enough explanation to go, and then they fudge the rest, which I’ve always found rather charming. There’s a reckless sense of fun to the best stories, a big “why not?” that frees it from being a drag. If something doesn’t work, it’s usually only temporary.
Maybe you’ve wanted to try Doctor Who for a long time, but you don’t know where to start. I’d recommend starting with the new version of the show, which is much easier for modern audiences to get into. It’s a more familiar format, and the reboot in 2005 does away with all of the muddled continuity and essentially starts from scratch. I would recommend start with what they’ll call Series One, and keep going from there until you run out of episodes. This will take you through the Ninth and Tenth Doctors. A lot of people don’t care for Nine, but I like him well enough, and his run is necessary to set up Ten I think. You can also begin in Series Five, which is where the Eleventh Doctor began, and where the show did a soft reboot after it changed show-runners. As for the classic show, it can be a little harder to find your way. I’ve only seen about 7 or 8 serials, and they are of varying quality. Almost all of my favorites, however, have been with the Fourth Doctor. I loved “City of Death,” “The Ark In Space,” and “Pyramids of Mars.” No doubt a more committed fan of the classic version could guide you better. (Maybe they’ll leave a couple of comments…) The original series can be a little tougher to get into, partially because it’s very easy to find yourself stuck watching a terrible serial, but also because the special effects are often on about the level of a decent play. The best episodes find create ways around it, the worst are outright laughable. A good Google search would probably give you all the insight you need.
But getting into it at all is worth your time. I’ve recently gone on a kick myself, of the excellent recent episodes, the older ones I’ve watched already, and classic serials that I’m seeing for the first time. It’s one of those wonderful bits of nerdery that I look forward to sharing with my boys, because at its best, it’s the greatest TV adventure I’ve ever seen.