A Newbie's Guide to Watching Doctor Who
With a 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 fans is what to watch first.  I think it depends on what (if any) of the 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 navigate better.

Phase I: Haven't seen any at all?

If you're 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 episode are:
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 over, doing a superb job in the role, followed by a great 50th anniversary movie that foreshadows Peter Capaldi (12th) taking the role.

Phase II: Caught up?  Meet Tom Baker!

So you've 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 it, 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), the 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.

Phase 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!

The Memento design

If you're 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?

The Bottom Line

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 the above:


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