Where to Start Watching Doctor Who

I was in a meeting with two co-workers today, planning something super secret for August 23rd (spoilers, sweetie!!), when I was asked the question that Whovians love to hear:

“I’ve never seen Doctor Who.  Where should I start watching?”

I have several answers to that question, and it’s about time I laid them out in detail.

The options boil down to two basic categories:

  1. Start at the very beginning! (A very good place to start!)
  2. Start anywhere.

Start at the beginning

In theory, it makes a ton of sense to start watching Doctor Who at the beginning. But, and here’s where it gets (dare I say it?) timey-wimey: which beginning do you want to pick?

Doctor Who: The Beginning DVD set

Oh, all right. If you must…

You could start at the very, very beginning, with “An Unearthly Child.” But I don’t recommend it. The first episode is great, don’t get me wrong! I love it. However, starting in 1963 will break you long before you get to the new series.

First of all, if you are a completest by nature, the 1960’s will drive you nuts. 97 episodes are missing from the BBC archives, and you’ll feel their effects right away. The fourth story, “Marco Polo,” is missing in its entirety. You can buy an audio CD of the story’s soundtrack with linking narration added to it, you can read the camera scripts, or you can watch a reconstruction made with photos taken of the show as it was broadcast. These options are great for the fanatic, but it doesn’t make for fun casual viewing. In fact, watching every episode from the beginning is not how fans usually watch the show because it’s extremely time consuming. (Watching all of the episodes in order is unusual enough that one fan and his non-fan wife recently completed a total rewatch of the series together–and published a book about the experience.)

Another type of beginning: start when a new actor takes on the role of the Doctor. There are twelve Doctors. Or 13. Maybe 14? ::sigh:: The pedantic part of me will die if I don’t explain (Explaain! Exxxplaaain! ::hush, pedantic inner Dalek::) in a footnote.* Anyway, with twelve Doctors, in theory there are twelve different starting places. In practice, though, we’ve already tossed out starting with the First Doctor. We also have to toss out starting with the beloved Patrick Troughton’s first story, “The Power of the Daleks,” because it is missing. Using this method, you can start watching with any Doctor’s debut story beginning with the Third Doctor’s 1970 debut, “Spearhead from Space.”

You could also start with any companion’s first story. A companion’s beginning is a good jumping on point because you can learn about the Doctor along with the companion. Companions are usually written as our surrogates in the story, asking the questions we are asking as we watch, so this feels like a natural place to begin.

Doctor Who: The Complete First SeriesA fourth beginning point: start with “Rose“, the first episode of the new series from 2005. If you have the time, “Rose” is probably the best place to begin. Why? You will learn who the Doctor is as his new companion Rose does. You will meet all of the Doctor’s enemies and friends in the proper order to understand new Doctor Who. The new series also tells a consistent emotional story in a way that the old series never did. The special effects from 2005 still hold up for the most part, unlike the relatively primitive SFX from the original series. The first series is a good microcosm of new Who. If you hate it by the end of Series One, you can pretty much stop. If you love it, you are all set to understand everything that’s going to come at you for the next 7 series.

Another excellent place to begin (and the one that I recommended today) is Matt Smith’s first story as the Doctor, “The Eleventh Hour.” It’s a good jumping on point because both the Doctor and the companion are new, and it’s a damn good hour of television, too. You’ll only have to watch 3 series of Doctor Who to catch up in time to be ready for the Series 8 premiere on August 23.

Start Anywhere

Starting from the top is a must with most TV series. Doctor Who is a weird exception to this rule. You really don’t need to know much about the show to get it when you first start watching. It helps to know that the Doctor is an alien, and the TARDIS is a time machine shaped like a telephone booth that’s bigger on the inside than the outside. That’s basically the whole thing in a nutshell.

Pyramids of Mars DVD coverSure, there are episodes you probably shouldn’t use as your jumping off point–the second half of a two-parter, the concluding story from Season 23 (“The Ultimate Foe”), or any story from the 1960’s with missing episodes. Apart from those oddball stories, any story is a good place to begin. For example, “Pyramids of Mars” was my first episode, and it’s actually a great place to start. You get the Doctor and Sarah’s backstory right at the beginning of episode one, and you get to see the timey-wimey perils of time travel. It’s smack in the middle of what is widely regarded as a golden age of classic Doctor Who. Everything in the story is pure gravy–the lush BBC costume drama clothing and sets, murderous robotic mummies, lovely model shots and good-quality period video effects. It’s a perfect random starting point.

If all else fails…

If all of these options freak you out and you just can’t decide where to start, here’s my suggestion to you:

Start with “Deep Breath,” premiering August 23 at 8 PM on BBC America. It’s Peter Capaldi’s first episode as the Doctor. You’ll be a little confused at first. Don’t let that worry you. Here’s all you need to know: the Doctor is a slightly nutty alien in a time machine that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. He’ll have at least one human companion. They’ll go on adventures together. The Doctor and the TARDIS. Next stop, everywhere!

Twelve Meets Clara

* You might as well learn this now: there is no such thing as continuity in Doctor Who. People try to shoehorn continuity into this franchise, and it’s just not gonna happen. We can’t even keep our numbering conventions for the Doctor’s regenerations sorted out. Time Lords like the Doctor can regenerate 12 times, so their lives are lived in 13 different bodies. Capaldi’s Doctor will be the Doctor’s 13th body but his 14th life because of plotty plot reasons. Look. It honestly doesn’t matter. Scroll back up! For our purposes here we’re focusing on the twelve actors who were cast as the Doctor in the live action version of the show, so there are TWELVE–12!–Doctors. (Sorry, Peter Cushing and Richard E. Grant fans. I’m leaving out the Dalek movies and “Scream of the Shalka.” I love them all, but those are whole different blog posts!)

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