[DISCLAIMER: I am not a Doctor Who scholar, just a big fan – but a relatively new one (roughly three years). The below article is intended for people who are intrigued by Doctor Who, but have no idea where to begin, more than for longtime fans of the show. All images are property of BBC Worldwide/BBC America.]
Recently, our fearless Commander-In-Chief — Louis Love — asked me how one goes about getting into Doctor Who. The question is becoming increasingly common as the show’s popularity continues to snowball here in the States. Since I’ve become NTF’s unofficial Whovian in Residence, I get the question around once a week. The show is fifty years old as of last November, and even with a significant gap between the regular production of the original series and its current incarnation, there are literally decades of episodes, and to make the task of catching up even more daunting, to date, there have been twelve actors to play The Doctor. So in a nutshell, As I mentioned in the disclaimer, I was in the same position about three years back. I’d watched a couple episodes, but didn’t really get it, and if “getting” it meant having to go back to the show’s very beginning, I wasn’t interested. It’s one thing to catch up on, for example, The Walking Dead, which is only half way through its fourth season. It’s another thing altogether to get on board with a show that debuted on the day of the Kennedy assassination.
At present, the show is between seasons, but shooting in the UK. In the US, it airs on BBC America – with select episodes available OnDemand as well as on the BBC America website. However, the easiest route to catching up with Doctor Who — especially if you prefer to watch TV programs in order — is through a streaming service like Amazon, Hulu, or Netflix. Hulu appears to have the most comprehensive cache of episodes at 386 – meaning they not only have the current stuff, but many, if not all of the classic episodes as well. Netflix and Amazon have five out of six seasons of the current series – of the two, only Netflix has a small selection of classic episodes.
However, it is not necessary to start with the very first episode from 1963. Much like Star Trek, while people have a soft spot in their hearts for the original series, the more contemporary episodes just have better overall production value. In fact, you don’t even have to start with the first episode of the first season of the current series, which rebooted in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston, who might be most familiar to Fridge Nukers as the Dark Elf, Malekith, in Thor: The Dark World.
It helps to know a Whovian – not necessarily a dyed-in-the-wool fan of many decades (in fact, that could work against you), just somebody who has watched enough know what the show is all about; preferably somebody who can answer questions. Fortunately for me, my friend, Comic Book Resource’s Erik Amaya, took the plunge a few years prior to my interest in the show. So my next suggestion actually comes from him: start with the current series (as opposed to the original series which ran from 1963 to 1989), Season Five, Episode One, The Eleventh Hour. Whether or not it is the “best” episode is a matter of opinion. To me, it represents, in one sitting, the kind of thing you can expect from the rest of the show.
Some may disagree, as Matt Smith (the Eleventh Doctor, whose tenure began with “The Eleventh Hour,” and came to an end this past Christmas) is not their favorite Doctor – th0ugh arguably the most popular actor to inhabit the role. These curmudgeonly sorts are generally concerned with “imprinting,” or the idea that the first Doctor you watch will inevitably be your favorite. Speaking for myself, I don’t find this to be true, and most of the Doctor Who fans I know may have a preference, but being a Whovian is more about devotion to the show [ i.e. the writing and producing] than it is a cult of personality.
Now that I’ve suggested a point of departure, here are a couple basics that will help you acclimate to the world of The Doctor.
Doctor Who, is the name of the show; the character is called simply, “The Doctor.” The Cliff’s Notes summary would be that He the last of a race called Time Lords who lived on the now destroyed planet of Gallifrey, and he spends much of his time protecting the Human Race from a myriad of alien threats. When new Doctor, Peter Capaldi, makes his debut this year, he will be the thirteenth actor step into the role. This is because The Doctor “regenerates” – which basically means that, as a being who is thousands of years old, he achieves this virtual immortality by periodically changing his outward appearance and personality. This is one of the not so secret elements of the show’s enduring success: the show stays fresh by more or less morphing around the actor playing The Doctor.
The blue “phone booth” [actually a British Police Call Box] merchandise you see in stores and at an increasing number of kiosks on the convention circuit is the TARDIS, the Doctor’s sentient time and dimension travelling spaceship. [“TARDIS” actually stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space.] Technically, it should be able to transform to whatever shape would draw the least attention from people in the times and dimensions to which he travels. However, in a characteristically British, and brilliant, stroke of humor, it stays in the shape of a 1960’s Police Box because it is malfunctioning – stuck in the form it which it first appeared. The running gag is, upon first entering the TARDIS, almost everybody inevitably remarks that “it’s bigger on the inside.”
The Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver, another staple of the show’s iconography, is sort of a cosmic All-Tool. It functions as a lock pick; it allows the Doctor to operate any computer system; it provides on-the-spot health diagnoses; and can, as the situation dictates, do just about anything from allowing him to manipulate ATMs to overloading electrical systems for a quick burst explosion. Why not a gun? Traditional “weapons” are generally not of much use to The Doctor, who is dedicated more to exploring the universe and helping people than he is exacting revenge on a “bad guy of the week.” The Doctor has amassed a long list of enemies, and most of them aren’t opposed to using heavy artillery. However, one of the things that sets Doctor Who apart from its scifi brethren is that escaping doom is often the result of problem solving instead of violent conflict. Plus, who said a hero had to tote a gun around to be a hero?
Friends and Fiends
Another Doctor Who trope is that he often travels with a Companion – human characters, mostly contemporary (relatively so) Earthlings, that accompany The Doctor on his adventures through time and space. A big misconception is that the Companion is always a young, attractive woman. And while that isn’t necessarily the case, it’s an assumption not without foundation. Britpop sensation Billie Piper (who later went on to star in Showtime’s Secret Diary of A Call Girl) was the first Companion of the new series, and played opposite both Eccleston and the second Doctor of the new series, David Tennant. More recent Companions, Karen Gillan (who will be seen in the upcoming Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy) and Jenna Coleman (who was in Marvel’s Captain America) don’t do a lot to combat that idea.
This kind of gives the impression that a Companion is not much more than a consistent “damsel in distress” element. However, the real purpose of the Doctor’s Companion is that… well, whoever they are at they time, they are us. They’re the human being in the situation who’s dumbfounded and bewildered at whatever insane things are going on around them; the person who, by virtue of one innocent misstep, starts the action spinning. And looking at the vast history of Doctor Who, Companions have included, yes, plenty of beautiful women – but also several men, and sometimes, couples.
River Song, played by ER‘s Alex Kingston, pops up now and again to complicate the Doctor’s life and help him in the occasional adventure. To make a long story short, she is an intergalactic adventurer, and occasional criminal, and unfortunately for the Doctor, she is also his paramour. Hepburn and Tracy as time travellers. In addition to all the cosmic coincidences keeping them apart, River and The Doctor keep meeting up out of time, leaving them to spend much of their time together calibrating their journals. There is not a lot I can say about the character, as the true joy in it for a fan of the show is unlocking, with The Doctor, exactly who she is.
And then there are The Doctor’s enemies…
As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of self-contained episodes of Doctor Who that aren’t really a part of the ongoing lore. However, when dealing with certain enemies of the Doctor, it’s helpful to know at least a little bit about what makes them a threat to the human race, and the galaxy at large.
First and foremost, there are The Daleks. “The Joker” to the Doctor’s “Batman.” They look like sort of upside down cone-shaped robots with a plunger and a flashlight glued to a dome the top. However, don’t mistake the clunky casing for a cheesy “villain” or a mere robot. The Daleks are a severely mutated race who, in order to protect their fragile forms, have to travel around in virtual tanks. You can recognize them by their signature “nails on a chalkboard” battle cry of “EXTERMINATE!!!” What makes them so dangerous is that, with few exceptions, they want to destroy everything in the universe that isn’t Dalek. So dangerous, in fact, that the current Doctor has been constantly haunted by the notion that, in order to prevent the Daleks from spreading throughout the rest of the universe, he had to destroy his own planet.
Before there was the Borg, there were The Cybermen. The Cybermen are only slightly “better” than the Daleks in intent. They don’t want to destroy everything that isn’t like them – they just want to “overwrite” existence in their own robotic image. So rather than all out genocide, Cybermen prefer to simply turn lifeforms into cyborgs, and obliterate individuality.
The Silence and The Weeping Angels are relatively new(ish), where the Daleks and Cybermen have been commuted over from the original series, and though they’ve been on the Whovian radar for less time, are no less lethal and unsettling. The Silence, for example, look like horrifying versions of “grey aliens,” perhaps ironically, wearing a traditional, generic black suit and tie. They are out to kill The Doctor, and about anybody associated with him, to prevent a point in time where he will bring about their fall by answering the oldest question in the universe. The second you aren’t looking at them, you automatically forget that you ever saw them. They can be right in front of you, ready to suck the life out of you, and you may be able to get away from them – temporarily. However, so much as turn your head to head for a door, or grab a makeshift weapon, and you’ll find yourself wondering why you’re holding the door handle to a pay toilet as a dagger.
The Weeping Angels are similarly mysterious and similarly rely on being out of the average person’s vision. You can remember that they exist, but it really won’t help. They look like any angel statue – something you’d find outside a church in an old city or in a graveyard, until you find one behind you with a huge, gaping maw of jagged teeth. However, they aren’t “God’s Wrath,” but another alien race with ill intentions, and even if you can remember them, it won’t really help. All you have to do is watch them constantly, even to the point where you don’t blink. So much as shut your eyes, and they will eviscerate you. If you’re lucky, they’ll just touch you and send you to random points in the distant past. Sure, you’re alive, but everyone you know and love is yet to be born, perhaps for centuries.
Be Calm and Carry On
Once again, the above is just the tip of a very large iceberg – a [hopefully, spoiler free] way not to feel so lost as you make your way through the world of arguably the most popular television show on the planet. “Be calm and carry on,” is more than just a slogan on a Doctor Who t-shirt. Hopping on board with a 50 year-old television isn’t easy, so think of it as advice for those times when it seems like you’ll never be caught up.