A Newbie's Guide to
Watching Doctor Who
show that's been on (and off and
on again) for over 50 years, you're naturally going to come in
somewhere in the middle. The question I always get from would-be
is what to watch first. I think it depends on what (if any) of
show you've seen before. Here's what I think is the best approach
and why it works.
Note: I'm putting the
Doctor's "number" next to each actor's name so as to help newbies
Haven't seen any at all?
coming to the series cold, then start with the reboot in 2005.
It's just easier that way. The new series (which was a
continuation of the old series, not a reboot) was designed so that new
viewers could start at the beginning without having to play
catch-up. After all, the function of a companion is to serve as
an every-(wo)man to whom the Doctor explains things in terms all we
humans in the audience can understand. The first episodes of the
new series explain who he is, where he's been, and how he gets around
in time and space.
The only downsides to starting with these
1) Chris Eccleston (9th) is the Doctor,
which IMO is the worst miscast of the series. He's aloof and
obnoxious as the Doctor, both being reflections of the actor himself,
who famously only took the role as a one-off job with no commitment to
the series in any sense. He did not plan to stay with the series
(only contracting for one season, the briefest of any Doctor). He
has rejected the fan community. He brushes past the subject in
interviews. He refused to return for any specials, even with
roles written specifically for him, and so on. The single biggest
mistake in the history of the series was casting this asshole.
2) The past history of the show serves
more as baggage than bolster for the new series until they start using
it properly a few seasons in. Thankfully, the writers find their
footing by the end of the first year. This coincides with
shrugging off the miscast for one of the (to date) three best Doctors,
David Tennant (10th), which likely isn't coincidental.
The new series actually gets increasingly
better over its run. They figure out what the Doctor's role is in
the universe rather than portraying him as a wayward traveler.
Episodes are part of larger stories, with individual arcs stretching
across not only seasons but the entire series.
Even after Tennant's turn, the series
continues to improve. Matt Smith (11th) takes
doing a superb job in the role, followed by a great 50th
anniversary movie that foreshadows Peter Capaldi (12th) taking
Caught up? Meet Tom Baker!
seen all the new stuff. Should you start from the
beginning? Simply put: No. Why not? For so very many
reasons. For one thing, there's a culture shock in jumping back
that far. You are watching a show about a time-traveler. It
is far too dangerous to jump back in time that far on your own.
As a result, the earliest episodes are painful to watch. They're
awkward in every way. There is very little established mythology
at that point for the series to fall back upon, as the episodes from
2005-onward increasingly did.
By all means, you should explore the
series, but jump in at its peak: With Tom Baker (4th) as
the Doctor. After all, he's the best Doctor (according to most
polls) and the best episodes (again, see polls) come from Tom Baker's
era. He also happens to be the longest-serving Doctor (unless you
count someone like Paul McGann (8th)
who only appeared in a made-for-tv
movie and a webisode, but there was 18 years between those).
What makes him and his turn on the show so
great? Well, a lot of things! For example, Baker falls
about in the middle of the age bracket for Doctors, being 40 when he
took the role (the range being 28 to 55, so far, and much younger than
his predecessors). He was old enough to impart gravitas and
wisdom to the character, yet young enough to be a flippant hero.
In fact, as an actor, he developed the character more fully than any
other performer before him (and most after). And though it's too
subjective to measure, I would argue he also had the best, most
interesting assortment of companions as well.
Tom Baker's episodes lead into Peter
Davison's (5th), which are also very good and feel like
continuations of Baker's stories, and Davison is a favorite Doctor of
many fans. The biggest downturn though is when Colin Baker took
the role. The episodes are of poorer quality, and the character
was written/played as blatantly arrogant, which is very
off-putting. (Admittedly, that trait was there from the
beginning, but Davison had completely abandoned it, and Tom Baker
played it for comedy. However, when Colin Baker (6th) attempted
he simply made the Doctor unlikeable.)
Even after Colin Baker was fired, the
series just never recovered, and even though Sylvester McCoy (7th) was
an excellent replacement (bringing back a lot of the traits of earlier
incarnations, especially the humor of Patrick Troughton's (2nd) Doctor),
episodes of very low quality, due primarily to the writing.
The series shook off what few remaining viewers tolerated Collin
Baker's turn, and it was canceled, or put on "hiatus," as the BBC
called it to reduce the ire of fans.
All that emerged between then and 2005 was
the made-for-tv movie starring Paul McGann (8th) as
the Doctor. He was great in the role, but the movie is terribly
American or, in plain English: terrible.
III: You've watched the best, now see the rest
It is only
after you've caught up on absolutely everything else that you should
attempt the earliest episodes. There are a lot of factors that
make these difficult viewing:
All that being said, they're all essential
viewing for any Doctor Who fan. Casual viewers can skip these
(although they get better as the series progresses, so even then you
could always grab a latter story), but if you're serious about the
show, don't you dare pretend to be an expert or have a "favorite
Doctor" without having experienced them all!
- Missing episodes. The most
frustrating thing about the run of the first two Doctors is all the
gaps. Episodes were lost (due to BBC penny-pinching), and the
best we have in most cases are reconstructions made from stills.
- Most are in B&W.
Specifically, all of the episodes starring the first two Doctors were
B&W. Even a number of the Pertwee (3rd) episodes
in B&W because the color tapes were missing, and only
inferior-quality back-ups remained.
- Limited special effects.
Obviously these episodes are the weakest from a technical
standpoint. This was in the pre-Star Wars era on a tv series (not
cinema!) produced by the BBC. If you're spoiled by CGI, then
imagine going back to a world prior to the invention of even
motion-tracking computer-controlled cameras.
- The Doctors themselves! The
first three Doctors were the oldest of all until the casting of John
Hurt and Peter Capaldi in 2013. Their resulting characterizations
were sometimes not especially likable, especially that of William
Hartnell (1st), who was portrayed as short-tempered.
- The pacing. The earliest
episodes in particular are painful to watch because they are sometimes
staged awkwardly. One gets the impression that most of the
footage was from the first take. It lacks the highly-polished
feel of any modern series.
- Trapped! Even though Jon
Pertwee's run could never for a second be described as boring, it was a
very different series than the rest in that it uniquely had the Doctor
trapped on Earth in the early '70s. I like these episodes, but
they don't feel very much like "Doctor Who" to me, even though I grew
up watching them in reruns during/between Tom Baker and Peter Davison's
respective runs on the series.
examining this pattern of traveling through history, what you're doing
is basically the Memento design. If you recall Christopher
Nolan's 2000 film, it takes the viewer every backward in time through a
series of jumps. We watch a scene play out, then leap backward
and progress forward until we've caught up to the point where we came
in last time. (Figure A) That's what we're doing
here. You're working your way backward to an increasingly painful
footage, but you're learning how things came to be.
Figure A: Time-traveling through a series
about time-travel. Start with the beginning of the new series (1)
and move forward to the end of the series (to date; though new ones are
made, of course). When you reach that, you jump back to the
middle of the earlier works (2). Again move forward through those
until you are caught up. At that point, jump to the beginning of
the original series (3) and continue through those until you reach the
end of all the material (X).
This is nearly the approach I took to the
series to some extent, at least in recent years. As I said in
part above, I grew up watching Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, and Peter
Davison. Perhaps it was for the best that I simply lost interest
and moved on to other things because I missed out on the entire rest of
the series other than finding one awful episode at the library from
Sylvester McCoy's time on the show. It was apparent why the
series had been canceled at that point.
I caught the 1996 movie, then began
watching the series when it launched in 2005, which is where you might
say I began following the Memento design myself. I've kept up
with the new episodes since they premiered. However, it nagged at
me that I didn't know what happened during the gaps. I made the
time jump prescribed above, and I jumped back to the beginning of Tom
Baker's run. I hadn't seen many of those episodes in 25 years, so
I watched them all the way through and continued right through all the
Doctors to where the original series concluded.
After that I tried watching the Hartnell
episodes from the very beginning, but it was slow-going. After a
half dozen stories, I put that project on hold. A couple years
later I started with the beginning of the Pertwee era so that I was
only making a mini leap backwards. I'm watching those episodes as
of this writing, and the plan is to complete them and jump back to
where I left off with the Hartnell episodes, continuing forward until
I've seen all that are available. That's a lot more
looping-around in the first third, but there's no reason you have to be
so linear. After all, why shouldn't watching Doctor Who be a big ball of
wibbly-wobbly... timey-wimey... stuff?
Less than a month after I put this page together, I ran across this on
Memebase that totally summed it all up much more succinctly than all of